The Farmer’s Apprentice


Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), an apprentice does not have to be paid the minimum wage. But an apprenticeship must be registered–and the paperwork is abundant. On the plus side, the FLSA also defines the exact expectations for the farmer and apprentice.  The benefits of being within the law, and of having clear communication, might be worth the tradeoff.

What is the problem?

Farmer Joe has a young farm business. It’s not especially lucrative, but he envisions his farm as providing more than money. The farm provides an experience for his employees as well as for the eater. Sharing the farming lifestyle is what it’s all about: Joe can’t pay his employee much in terms of wages, but he makes up for it with education and patient instruction. If something went wrong, could he still end up in a lawsuit?

Where does the law come in?

An apprentice is exempt from federal minimum wage laws. Here’s the catch: An apprentice program is legally defined. If a farmer’s program doesn’t meet the requirements, it’s not really an apprenticeship. If Farmer Joe doesn’t register his apprenticeship and the employee sued for back wages, that employee might win.

Details, please:

My earlier post introduced the basics of the federal labor laws establishing which operations have to pay minimum wage and overtime. Let me summarize for you: A legally defined “small farm” does not have to pay minimum wage or overtime. If you are a medium-sized farm, you do have to offer minimum wage, but not overtime. All farms are exempt from overtime.

That sums it up, except…. interns and apprentices! For the next few weeks, I’ll write all about legal internship and apprenticeship programs. Today it’s apprentices. I think this structure is well suited to many farm operations, and I think farmers should take a close look at this kind of program.

It’s obvious why this exception exists. Sometimes the best way to learn is simply to do the work. It’s hard to relay the nuances of insect and disease detection, the ripeness of an eggplant, or how to trellis tomatoes without actually doing the job. Plus, these jobs need to be learned under the pressures of mugginess, mosquitoes, and an impending market if the lessons are going to sink in! The law acknowledges this unique aspect of some industries.

I say “some industries” because not just any employer can start an apprenticeship. The federal government has to specifically add the industry to an approved list of apprentice-able jobs–fortunately, the federal has listed farm workers as apprentices. Also, the farmer has to register papers with the federal government. It’s not an apprenticeship unless it’s a registered apprenticeship. After the farmer does the hiring, the apprentice herself must be registered.

A registered apprenticeship program must meet several requirements. First, the apprenticeship program must be in writing and must specify who is the apprentice’s sponsor. The plan must include metrics: Is it a skills-based apprenticeship where the individual graduates upon learning the necessary tasks? Or is it time-based? If the farmer chooses the latter, the apprentice must work at least 2,000 hours in the position, or about one year of work. The farm’s apprentice program must include a written description of processes to be learned and an approximation of the time spent on each module. Not only that, the farm needs to provide “organized, related instruction” for about 144 hours per year, or a little more than 3 weeks. And yes, that does mean classroom-style learning.

But wait, there’s more! After the farmer finishes explaining the program itself, the farmer will have to explain herself. If you are a very young individual with little experience in farming and no educational background, you might have a hard time getting approval. The law requires that the farmer be experienced and attend adult education training of some sort.

As you can see, the requirements of a farm apprenticeship are stiff. Would you like to read more? Make yourself a cup of tea, get comfortable, and follow this link. (If you read it, you might find a small provision requiring you to pay minimum wage. I’ll explain that later.)

Now that you’ve read over my summary of the requirements for an apprenticeship, are you ready to throw up your hands? I don’t blame you, but I’d give it a second thought. Isn’t it a good idea to have an established learning plan anyways? It certainly does clear up expectations. And, if my experience on farms is any guide, unclear expectations are at the root of most problems between farmers and employees.

An apprentice program is like organic certification. Some folks choose not to certify because they know their production methods respect the earth and don’t want anyone else’s approval. But some folks go for certification because they know the record-keeping process and forced attention to detail make them a better grower in the long run. A formal apprenticeship program might make you a better employer over the long run, too.

What do you think?

  • The privilege of paying less than minimum wage comes at a steep cost. Is that the way it should be, or should employee-employer be allowed to negotiate more?
  • Is farming customarily learned on-the-job? Schools offer degrees in agronomy, dairy production, horticulture and more. Should we be sending potential farmers to school, not to the field, anyways?

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