Checking out the local scene

I took the opportunity to see a showing of Vanishing of the Bees in Ottawa a couple of weeks ago with hopes that I’d meet some local beekeepers. In addition to meeting Brent Halsall, a commercial beekeeper from the Ontario Beekeepers Association I was lucky enough to be at the same table as Carolyn from Riverglen who was heading to a beehive construction workshop that weekend. Although the workshop was full, she has plans to share the experience so hopefully I’ll be building my own hives soon.

The internship begins

This summer I’ll be spending six months of my life as an intern on a small organic farm just north of Ottawa, Canada. But what exactly is a farming internship and how do you find one?

While searching for work in the land of the maple leaf, prior to my arrival with a working holiday visa in March, I came across the GoodWork Canada site where green jobs across the country are advertised. Quite a few organic farms use the site to find interns for the summer growing season, often posting details in the winter during December/January with a request for those interested to send a CV and introduction letter.

Generally interns work full time in return for accommodation and food, often with a small stipend to help cover general expenses, giving them an opportunity to gain specific practical agricultural experience while small scale organic farms gain labour without needing to worry about cash flow for full-time wages. It seems that the number of small scale organic farms in Canada is increasing, at least in the area around Ottawa, and internships have been an integral part of this process giving those considering a switch to farming a chance to test it out before committing to a career change.

Being an intern can be a fulfilling and rewarding experience but there are many things to take into account when considering whether an internship is for you and where you might like to apply.

  • Location – Is the farm located in a remote area? What type of activities can you do during downtime in the area?
  • Work – What type of work will you be doing and how many days a week will you be expected to work?
  • Transport –  Do you need your own car, is there a bike you can use or easy access to public transport?
  • Accommodation – What type of accommodation is provided?
  • Salary – Is there a stipend and how much is it?
  • Equipment – Will you need any particular equipment such as wet weather gear?
  • Goals – What do you want from the internship experience? If there are particular areas you want to learn more about, such as beekeeping, animal husbandry, crop planning, or biodynamics, it can help you decide what type of farm you’re looking for.

Farmers also take a risk on interns who might not stay the full season, may not be a good fit with the farm or simply aren’t that serious about the hard work. For those interested there’s an interesting article on some of the issues farms in the USA face in relation to internships from Civil Eats; thankfully, the situation for Canadian farmers doesn’t seem to be as fraught with as many pitfalls as their southern neighbours. Some good advice for farmers and prospective interns alike can be found here.

Internships don’t seem to be that common in Australia although I do know that many organic farms work with volunteers through WWOOF and HelpX. It would be interesting to know whether labour costs are one of the main barriers to small scale organic farms starting in Australia and whether an intern program would help alleviate that somewhat.

My experience:

I researched internships for a couple of weeks and, after looking up many different locations on google maps and visiting farm websites, got in touch with two in Quebec, not far from Ottawa. Chelsea Gardens had a place left and after an interview via skype I became their second intern. I work 5 days a week, am provided with accommodation down the road from the farm with the farm managers,  have my own bike to ride and receive a stipend of $100 per week. It’s hard work but regular hours (8-5) and so far, after three weeks, although a little sore I’m  enjoying the experience.