Unpaid work: A way in for new farmers or a barrier to positive change?

  • 11.10.2023
  • article
  • Labour and Livelihoods
  • People
  • Rose Brookfield

Unpaid internships and volunteer positions are often positioned as a positive means of helping first generation farmers to gain vital knowledge and skills. But are they also upholding elitism and stifling diversity within farming? Here, Rose Brookfield, reflects on her own volunteer experiences in the food and farming industry to cast a light on the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to unpaid work.

The exchange of free labour in return for farming skills via internships, traineeships, apprenticeships and other kinds of informal ‘training’ placements is advertised as an easy way for inexperienced industry entrants to enter the farming sphere. These opportunities can be invaluable experiences for new entrant farmers to learn necessary skills and become part of farming communities. The danger, however, is that aspiring farmers who haven’t got enough financial security to work unpaid often can’t take advantage of these opportunities and, because volunteer trainees are unpaid, they have no employment rights, which too often results in exploitation and abuse.

Over the last two years I have worked my way through different parts of the food and farming industry. Sometimes this work was paid but most of the time, due to my urban background and zero farm experience, it was on an unpaid internship or voluntary placement. In the chef world ‘staging’ is a common practice, a way for a young chef to earn his or her stripes. It is, or at least it used to be, part and parcel of learning; in the words of chef and author, Anthony Bourdain, the “principles of stoicism in the face of humiliation, injury, (and) fatigue”, in other words, becoming a professional chef. You were tossed to the bottom of the pecking order where you sweated, silently took verbal abuse, did all the worst jobs, and learned by looking. The same misery, alas, still exists in farming. Most well-established industrial and non-industrial farms offer unpaid apprenticeship programmes where you can sweat your way into the mysteries of farming in return for a bed, and if you’re lucky, food.

Aged 22, I arrived at a UK farm for a six-week unpaid internship. The plan was simple; in exchange for my free labour, I would learn how to become a natural farmer. My accommodation was a rat-frequented trailer with no plumbing or heating. If I took any of the food that I was helping to grow, it would be considered stealing. At the end of those six weeks, although I was not deterred from continuing my farming journey, I felt like I had been exploited, bullied and utilised as a commodity.

Small-scale regenerative agriculture without chemical input or expensive fossil-fuel reliant machines is better for the planet, and produces healthier, more nutrient dense food. But here’s regenerative farming’s problematic ‘secret’: it requires so much human labour and time that to pay those labourers a decent wage would mean charging more for our food than most people are willing to pay. Of course, this situation would likely change if industrial farming was called to account in accordance with the principles of ‘true cost accounting’, but, at present, the seldom-spoken truth is that many regenerative farms rely on unpaid labour to survive.

My interest in farming was piqued by that buzzword: regenerative. The idea that we could mitigate climate change, restore biodiversity, revivify our soils and fix a broken, unequal food system was truly inspiring. Farming regeneratively felt like joining a revolutionary movement. I knew that to become a successful grower required years of experience, of which, as a young person born and raised in London, I had none. The next best option, therefore, was undertaking unpaid internships to learn the necessary skills that would enable me not just to become a farmer but make a living at farming.

Volunteering with organisations such as WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) can be a fantastic way to gain new skills and become a part of inclusive and diverse communities. One such positive experience was during my time at Black Barn Farm, a small-scale family run permaculture farm in New South Wales, Australia. Co-founded by first-generation farmers, Jade Miles and Charlie Showers, Black Barn Farm has opened its doors to volunteers from across the globe for the past eight years. In this exchange of knowledge-for-labour, volunteers are housed next door to the family home and become, for the duration of their stay, a part of the family.

Jade said of her experience managing volunteers, ‘‘As custodial beings who are capable of using head, hands and heart in equal measure, farming is an undervalued but highly skilled vocation that requires grit, gumption, creativity and patience. Passing on the knowledge for a farming life is dictated by the seasons and can only move at the speed of trust. Trust in your land, in the weather and in your intuition. This can’t be learned by reading alone. Every landscape differs, every farming sector differs, and every community culture differs, so getting in the paddock, rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty is a visceral way to learn by doing and embed knowledge via repetition.”

During my time at Black Barn Farm, I learnt invaluable skills and was fortunate to have access to Jade and Charlie’s well-stocked library as well as their close-knit connections to farms across Australia. The most valuable lesson I learnt from my time there was their attitude of generosity, respect and trust that they applied both to their role as land stewards and community members.

While volunteering at GROW, a farm attached to the Totteridge Academy in High Barnet, I interviewed co-director Sarah Alun Jones for the podcast, @farmingforthefuture, a platform which aims to explore alternative routes into farming for first-generation farmers or curious farming enthusiasts. During our conversation, Sarah empathised the lack of awareness in the farming industry that farming traineeships are only viable for privileged people and, thus, how these schemes fail to diversify the sector.

GROW introduced a six-month paid traineeship aimed at encouraging people who might never have considered growing as a career choice. Sarah reflected on GROW’s beginnings that, “Our student population is really diverse – it’s a normal state school with a mixed cohort of kids. We didn’t feel like our staff reflected that and we weren’t comfortable with it, but we came across an institutional problem whereby if you need a grower with four years of experience…then there isn’t a big pot of people. Trying to find people who reflect our kids was even more difficult. We decided the way to do something about that was to introduce a paid traineeship that was targeted at young people facing barriers in the farming sector. It’s not specifically about one type of disadvantage over another…it’s trying to address that there are different types of disadvantages.”

Organisations like GROW introduce young people to farming as a vital part of their education and, in doing so, pave the way for a future in which food is truly recognised for the part it plays in all our lives. Our access to good, nutritious food determines our quality of life and the communities which will encircle us as we age. The foundations of an equal food system lie in an education system that doesn’t treat food as a mere commodity but as a sustainable and attractive career path for young people.

If we want the future of our planet to improve then we need to fix our broken food system and, thus, change the way we produce our food. After the initial promise of modern chemical agriculture in the form of increased yields and reduced physical labour, we are now, a little over a century later, paying the exorbitant price of that efficiency. Our soils are degraded, our food lacks nutrition and the supposed answer to our problem – regenerative farming – relies on human beings returning to the land to work incredibly hard, but our society is not prepared to pay them a fair wage to do it.

For regenerative farming to work, we need to regenerate our communities and that means looking after our growers, it means paying for the true cost of our food and ensuring that nobody along the supply chain is being exploited. The future of our food system is reliant on young people becoming engaged with and participating in farming, and feeling that it is a space in which they are welcomed and supported. Without access to land, skills and capital, those young people won’t be able to make that better future happen. If we want to diversify the farming sector, we need to pay young farmers, regardless of their experience, to learn to farm. We need to ensure entry level jobs receive structural support that does not leave anyone open to exploitation and we need to make sure that planet-friendly farming is accessible, community driven and open to all.

For more information on the matters discussed, you can visit the GLAA and FarmWell website (UK). If you are affected by any of these issues, you can call the Modern Slavery Helpline on 0800 0121 700 for advice.


All photos courtesy of Rose Brookfield.

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