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WA Tries Growing a New Crop: Farmers

PHOTO: It can be a tough row to hoe for new and beginning farmers, but the state is working to assist them with outreach opportunities, like this poultry workshop in Whatcom County and an expanded Farm Internship Program. Photo courtesy Washington State Dept. of Agriculture.
PHOTO: It can be a tough row to hoe for new and beginning farmers, but the state is working to assist them with outreach opportunities, like this poultry workshop in Whatcom County and an expanded Farm Internship Program. Photo courtesy Washington State Dept. of Agriculture.
July 7, 2014

OLYMPIA, Wash. - The state of Washington is looking for a few good farmers, willing to also be good teachers.

After a successful pilot program in two counties, Washington's Farm Internship Project expands in July to 16 counties.

Patrice Barrentine, education and outreach coordinator with the Washington State Department of Agriculture, said the program is the first of its kind in the nation.

The average age of a Washington farmer is almost 59. And Barrentine noted there are 34,000 farms across the state that will eventually need a new generation of owners and workers.

"The majority of them are small farms," said Barrentine. "In the last few years, we've had a lot of interest, but this expands those opportunities one step further – which means we're going to preserve a way of life, the countryside, and the quality of life we have in Washington."

The internships last one year. The project is open to farms with annual sales of less than $250,000, and they can have up to three interns at a time.

Having interns on a farm comes with specific responsibilities. The state waives minimum-wage laws, but requires the farm to have workers' compensation so interns have basic protections if they're injured.

The farmer also has to create a curriculum and expectations for interns.

Tisa Soeteber, agricultural employment standards specialist at the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, said the Farm Internship Project is about more than getting 'free' workers.

"Oftentimes, having an internship is more time-consuming for the farmer than having employees," said Soeteber. "A worker who's employed to work at a production level is very different from an intern."

Soeteber added that her department knows of many informal learning arrangements at farms. The internship project ensures that farms meet the state's internship guidelines, and that the people who spend their time as interns have a quality learning experience.

Farmers can learn more about the program from the Washington Farm Bureau, or the Department of Labor and Industries.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA