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67 Merchants Row
Rutland, VT, 05701
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(802) 417-1528

Rutland Area Farm and Food Link (RAFFL) promotes local food knowledge, production and market opportunities for farmers and community members throughout our region.

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Farm Labor in VT

Phil Gurley

By Garland Mason

This summer I am excited to help implement a Rutland County based program for C.R.A.F.T. – the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training. The program consists of a series of on-farm workshops for local farm apprentices. The group gets together two or three times per month to gain new skills and to serve as a peer support network for one another. In Rutland County, the C.R.A.F.T. program is sponsored by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont and is administered by Scout Proft of Someday Farm in East Dorset.

We held our first meeting on a drizzly evening last month and I was pleasantly surprised when fifteen weatherworn but bright-eyed aspiring young farmers showed up from Rutland County farms ready to learn and get to know one another. These farm apprentices work tirelessly at our local farms in exchange for room and board – and sometimes a small stipend – but primarily in exchange for agricultural education that can’t be gained through classroom learning.

For their host farms, these apprentices fill an invaluable role by providing consistent and dedicated labor throughout the growing season. Finding hardworking and committed labor has long been a hang-up for the agriculture industry due to a shift in our country’s overall expectations about work. Farming is grueling work – with long days outside in any kind of weather. Work can be redundant and at the same time incredibly mentally and physically challenging. Complicating the matter, small or beginning farms often cannot afford to pay wages that are competitive with less labor intensive jobs.

Farms take varied approaches to the issue of labor. Many larger farms outside of Rutland County, as well as a few local farms, work through the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Worker program. H-2A is a federal program that allows a farmer to apply for workers from other countries to come work on their farm on a seasonal and temporary basis. In Vermont, most workers who come on an H-2A visa are from Jamaica. They usually can be found working in apple orchards and larger vegetable farms. These workers come only for the summer and head home for the winter when the work is finished. This type of arrangement works well for larger farms but many smaller farms, like the majority of the farms that populate Rutland County, don’t use H-2A due to the high cost and complicated regulations.

H-2A doesn’t work for dairy farms either. Many dairy farms desperately need hired help and willing workers can be hard to come by. Because dairying is year-round, H2-A workers aren’t legally able to find work on dairy farms. Instead, dairy farms often rely on the large network of immigrant farmworkers, most of whom come from Mexico, many of whom are not here legally.

For beginning small farmers, offering apprenticeships is often the best solution. Apprenticeships can also offer substantial benefits to both parties. Farmers get the help they need and apprentices get an education they could not have obtained anywhere else.

However, increased enforcement of labor regulations has recently made farm apprenticeships a bit trickier. This is where the creation of a collaborative formal apprenticeship comes in and the C.R.A.F.T. program is definitely a step in the right direction. What we desperately need is a legal apprenticeship program in order to help small and beginning farmers to continue to meet their labor demands while simultaneously training the next generation of new farmers. No farmer I know wants to step out of the bounds of the law in order to operate their farm.

A large number of the new small farmers in our area got their start as apprentices on other farms and are excited for the opportunity to give back. Many farmers want to provide mentorship and educational opportunities for aspiring farmers on their own farms.  Training and cultivating the next crop of farmers is critical to the long-term outlook for agriculture in Vermont.  We are glad to be part of the solution.

For some good reads on farm labor check out these two Civil Eats blog entries:

“The Farm Intern Conundrum”

“Apprentice or Intern? The Terms Behind The Titles”

Garland Mason works for the Rutland Area Farm and Food Link, heading up the New Farmer Initiative and Farm to School and Institution activities. She lives and farms in West Tinmouth.

Originally published in the Rutland Herald.