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Food Justice and The Face of Ecological Farm Interns in Ontario

in Current Issue/Fall 2017/Organic Community

Charles Z Levkoe and Michael Ekers

Originally published by Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario in “Ecological Farming in Ontario”. This is part 3 of a 4 part series on research into unpaid farm labour. While the research was conducted with farms in Ontario, much of the findings likely carry over to BC.

This article is the third in a series that describes the increasing numbers of non-waged interns working on ecological farms across Ontario. As farmers welcome those seeking seasonal farm experiences as a way to share knowledge and skills and to meet labour demands, our research has been exploring the broader implications of these trends. In this article, we look at who exactly is being trained to farm through ecological farm internships and the potential impact on the future of food and farming.

Opportunities for non-waged internships are typically promoted on environmental-related websites and passed on through word-of-mouth. Despite being openly available, there is an extremely narrow demographic of individuals who take on these positions. Likely unsurprising to most farmers, the vast majority of non-waged interns in Ontario are young, white women (and some men) that come from relatively educated and affluent backgrounds. As one farmer exclaimed, “White, middle-class, female, educated, suburban, that was almost all of our interns. Out of the 21 interns we have had, I think we only had four men over the last three years.” The only major exception is interns working on urban farms who are almost exclusively young people of colour with diverse and sometimes poor economic backgrounds.

This demographic trend raises questions about who is being trained as the next generation of ecological farmers. When asked why so many non-waged interns were white, one farmer responded, “Well, have you seen the society I live in? It’s predominately white and these are the people who have the opportunity to be able to leave their home and not work.” Taking four to eight months away from paid employment and living in a rural community can be extremely isolating and demands a high level of economic and cultural privilege. Reflecting on the potential discomfort of being a person of colour working on a rural farm, an urban intern commented, “In many places, you would be the only person of colour amongst the army of white people.”

The apparent exclusivity of internships correlates with observations of food movements more broadly. For example, commentators have observed that many promising alternative food initiatives such as purchasing organic food boxes, shopping at farmers’ markets, and participating in community supported agriculture projects tend to be dominated by white people. Our study has suggested that many of the social characteristics of consumer-based food movements are being reproduced on farms through internship programs.

This highlights the barriers to entry and the subsequent education, training and other privileges that are part of the experience. Further, the limits to participation may hinder opportunities for building a more inclusive ecological farming sector that has the potential to impact the broader food system. Much like non-agricultural internships, structural inequalities ensure that the few jobs available go to those who can afford to work without a wage. This means that only specific groups of people are able to build strategic relationships and gain experience towards a particular career path, in this case farming. Many farm operators acknowledged this reality; for example, one farmer lamented, “Not paying interns limits the demographic of people who are able to work on organic farms and learn the trade.” The concern here is that ecological farm internships may be promoting a particular kind of farmer, further limiting the diversity of alternative food movements more broadly. Recognizing this problem, a farmer commented, “I’m not saying the farmers are racist and not selecting people of colour to be interns . . . It’s racism in its latent form, where people are just not comfortable going there.” The point highlighted here is that questions of race and farming are not as much about intentions, but about the effects and who is being trained to farm (or not) and in the places that training happens.

The industrial food system has a deep history of systemically mistreating people based on their ethnicity and ‘race’. In respect to agriculture, commentators argue that we tend to romanticize an agrarian narrative specific to white communities while ignoring the contributions and struggles of people of colour in food production. In North America, people of colour own less farmland, operate disproportionately fewer farms, and make less income from farm work. The solution is not simply to encourage young people of colour to move to rural communities to work as farm interns. As one urban farmer suggested: “It is not enough to just bring people of colour onto farms without recognizing the history and current situation of slavery and sharecropping.” These comments from an urban farmer suggest that addressing the exclusivity of ecological farm internship programs must begin with a conversation that acknowledges ways that the Canadian agricultural system has been established and maintained on the backs of unpaid and low waged racialized and gendered labour.

While there are no immediate solutions, farmers and interns had many suggestions of ways to tackle these challenges. First and foremost, it was suggested that farmers looking to train interns and engage more deeply with issues of labour justice should consider offering paid internship opportunities. This would ensure that a wider diversity of people interested in agriculture as a career path could participate in ecological farm training experiences and that labour is valued. People of colour aspiring to farm are highly likely to find themselves working and learning on urban farms so it is crucial that urban-based programs be as substantive as some of the ‘opportunities’ available outside of cities.

Training people from diverse backgrounds through paid internships not only expands the pool of new farmers, but also brings new ideas into the ecological agricultural sector and opens marketing opportunities to new populations. Finally, farmers suggested building partnerships with agricultural and food movement organizations that are tackling issues of social justice such as Black Creek Farm, FoodShare, Afri-Can Food Basket, and FarmStart. Through networks, ecological farmers can be part of robust social movements that address the structural problems of the dominant food system and society more broadly.

If you would like more information on this research project, to comment on these issues or contact us, please visit our website: foodandlabour.ca.


Dr. Michael Ekers is an Assistant Professor in Human Geography at the University of Toronto Scarborough. His work mobilizes social and political theory and political economic approaches to understand the making of different environments and the cultures of labour in environmental spaces.

Dr. Charles Levkoe is the Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Food Systems and an Assistant Professor in Health Sciences at Lakehead University. He has been involved in food sovereignty work for over 15 years in both the community and academic sectors. His ongoing community-based research focuses on the opportunities for building more socially just and ecologically sustainable food systems through collaboration and social mobilization.

Squaring the Circle? Education, Work, and Farm Internships

in Organic Community/Summer 2017

Michael Ekers and Charles Levkoe

Originally published by Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario in Ecological Farming in Ontario, Volume 37, Issue 2. This is part 2 of a 4 part series on research into unpaid farm labour. While the research was conducted with farms in Ontario, much of the findings likely carry over to BC.

Are agricultural internships and volunteer positions strictly about addressing farms’ labour needs or are they a new model of farmer education and social movement building that is taking place beyond the confines of urban centres and post-secondary institutions?

On the one hand, there is no doubt that forms of non-traditional labour are about work. There are many cases in which interns are working upwards of 60 hours a week on farms performing the labour that would normally be associated with a paid employee. On the other hand, farm interns often receive a tremendous amount of hands-on experiential education in everything from organic growing methods and farm finances to marketing produce and farm lifestyles (such as homesteading and rural living). Many, but not all, walk away from internships feeling invigorated and connected to a vibrant food movement.

Can the circle, that is, education and social movement building, be squared with the reality that internships are often work, and, at times, underpaid (or even unpaid) work? This has been a key question we have been examining through conversations with interns and farmers connected to the issue.

In our first article, we noted the relatively meager gross revenues of many farms that work with interns and volunteers in Ontario, but this is a trend that stretches across Canada and beyond. Cheap food policies, ever escalating land costs and labour intensive forms of farming make alternative food production a difficult economic proposition. As readers will know, a tremendous amount of work goes into planning, planting, growing, weeding and harvesting organic food and several people we spoke with suggested that interns and volunteers have become a replacement for the work that chemicals typically perform on conventional farms.

Financially precarious farm businesses are meeting their intensive on-farm labour demands through the non-waged work of interns and volunteers.

A farmer, who also works for a non-profit organization linking potential interns and farm hosts, suggested that internships are primarily about labour: “One thing that is common to all of the farms [using interns], if they are being honest, whatever they’re motivations are, they’re solving a labour challenge on their farms.” From this perspective, financially precarious farm businesses are meeting their intensive on-farm labour demands through the non-waged work of interns and volunteers.

While the question of labour clearly matters in the arrangements established between farmers and interns, the issue cannot be reduced to such a simply economic rationale. The benefits of an internship frequently far exceed monetary considerations and this is what contributes to the vibrancy of the experience for many workers and hosts, but not all. One farmer explained “The intern system is a really good one, and I think one that has value for both the farmer and the intern. Does the accommodation, good healthy food from the soil and the learning experience not have value too? What price can be put on fostering friendships and community? Intern and apprentice programs go far beyond what the intern provides to the farm.” Similarly, another farmer lauded the same benefits while stressing that “a paid position would be less likely to be a vehicle for change.” There is no doubt that internships defined by mutuality and reciprocity are a form of movement building and provide a valuable form of education, but does paying a wage necessarily detract from these facets of farm internships?

In many cases, our observations and our discussions with interns and farmers suggested that the most substantive internships were the ones that most closely paralleled what would be traditionally associated with work. When an internship looked like work, and felt like work for the interns, but was coupled with careful instruction, many non-waged farm workers reported receiving a robust education. When the internships were less structured and when the work was not overly demanding, such arrangements appeared to be more of an ‘experience’ rather than a nuanced and embodied form of education and work. This creates several interesting contradictions that are worth reflecting on.

Interestingly, many farmers stated their farm operations became more viable at a financial and functional level when they started to pay their interns and/or made the decision to hire paid workers.

Several farmers suggested that the relationship between education and work is a zero sum game in which dedicating more time to education means less work is accomplished. This, in turn, justifies the lack of pay because the benefits are non-monetary in substance. However, this is not necessarily the case if the internships that closely parallel farm work are the ones delivering a substantive and quality education to the interns. But this scenario also raises a thorny issue as farm owners and operators are open to the critique that ‘if it looks like work, it should be paid like work’. Nevertheless, some farmers have responded, “we don’t even pay ourselves, how can we pay our interns?” In contrast, others explained that “internships are inter-generationally unjust” and “that everyone should make a living wage”.

Interestingly, many farmers stated their farm operations became more viable at a financial and functional level when they started to pay their interns and/or made the decision to hire paid workers. Furthermore, they told us that expectations were clearer between interns and farm operators, workers were more productive and the farmers reported spending far less time re-training each new group of interns and volunteers while also mediating on-farm social dynamics.

These reflections leave several lingering questions. First, were the farms that transitioned away from interns able to achieve this because of their earlier reliance on non-waged workers? Second, have organic and agroecological farms that have moved towards paid workers been able to maintain their ‘alternative’ character, that is, community orientations and the commitment to social movement building?

In our next installment we will look more deeply into the social identity of ecological farm interns and the ways that this may have broader impact on the future of the food movement. If you would like more information on the project, to comment on these issues or contact us please visit our website: foodandlabour.ca.


Dr. Michael Ekers is an Assistant Professor in Human Geography at the University of Toronto Scarborough. His work mobilizes social and political theory and political economic approaches to understand the making of different environments and the cultures of labour in environmental spaces.

Dr. Charles Levkoe is the Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Food Systems and an Assistant Professor in Health Sciences at Lakehead University. He has been involved in food sovereignty work for over 15 years in both the community and academic sectors. His ongoing community-based research focuses on the opportunities for building more socially just and ecologically sustainable food systems through collaboration and social mobilization.

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