Will work for food: agricultural interns, apprentices, volunteers, and the agrarian question

Agriculture and Human Values 33 (3):705-720 (2016)


Recently, growing numbers of interns, apprentices, and volunteers are being recruited to work seasonally on ecologically oriented and organic farms across the global north. To date, there has been very little research examining these emergent forms of non-waged work. In this paper, we analyze the relationships between non-waged agricultural work and the economic circumstances of small- to medium-size farms and the non-economic ambitions of farm operators. We do so through a quantitative and qualitative analysis of farmers’ responses to two surveys we conducted of farmers using non-waged workers in Ontario, Canada. We situate our analysis within debates on the agrarian question, which we contend requires an account for both the economic and non-economic dimensions of new forms of non-waged work on farms. We suggest that many ecologically oriented farm operators are struggling financially and report low gross on-farm revenues and personal incomes. We argue that in addition to relying on off-farm incomes and self-exploitation, many farms are managing to persist in a challenging economic climate through their use of intern, apprentice, and volunteer labor. However, we also suggest that the growth of non-waged work on farms is not simply being driven by economic processes but also a series of non-economic relationships focused on non-institutional farmer training, the pursuit of sustainability, and social movement building. We suggest, the “economic” and “non-economic” dimensions of internships, apprenticeships, and forms of volunteerism sit uneasily alongside of one another, generating questions about the politics, ethics, and sustainability of non-waged work and ecological farming.

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