Washington Takes its New Internship Law For a Spin


The new Small Farm Internship Pilot Project, passed by the Washington state legislature, is a great example of how elected representatives are exploring new ways to help direct-market farmers. The pilot project permits unpaid farm internships and grants the interns workers’ compensation insurance through a simple application process.

What’s the situation?

We’re seeing legislation proposed around the country that makes it easier for direct-market farms to be successful. For example, we need laws that help farms hire and protect good employees. The Washington law is one way to allow farmers to hire unpaid labor and protect the intern. Small farms in two counties were eligible to participate in Washington’s pilot project this summer.

Details, please:

If you’ve been following my series on apprenticeships and internships, you know the contours of federal law. Small farms are exempt from minimum wage. All other farms need to register their program and follow standards if they want to hire apprentices. If a farm wants to hire interns, the program must be only an educational service for the intern. You also know that no state law may be less strict than federal law or grant exceptions where federal law does not. However, states are free to adapt the laws or pass more stringent rules. This gives states the flexibility to address the specific concerns of their citizens. Take for example the state we’re talking about now: Washington does not exempt small farms from paying minimum wage.  

That’s where Washington’s Small Farm Internship Project comes in. The project extends a limited exception to the minimum wage for interns on small farms. However, the exception doesn’t apply to all small farms: It applies to only those farms that offer curriculum-based training qualify. Remember how federal law has all sorts of requirements for educational curricula and registration? Washington captures the same idea, but simplifies the process.

Here’s how the process worked: Any farm wishing to participate in the pilot project applied for a special certificate by filling out a form that asks several questions about the farm’s internship program. The state granted this certificate if the farm had an educational program based on actual curricula, if the farm supervised interns, and if the intern did not displace experienced employees. This simple approach is great for the time-crunched farmer.

The only potential complication with the Washington law is that it defines “small farm” differently than federal law. Under federal law, small farms are those who hire workers for fewer than 500 man-hours of labor in one calendar quarter (or about five employees in a three-month time frame). The Washington law defines small farms as those with less than $250,000 in sales. I know of a couple farms that hire more than 5 employees for the summer and take in less than $250,000 in sales. I admit they might be inefficient, but hey, it happens! That means that the farmer might meet the state exemption without meeting the federal exemption. A good lawyer would advise a farmer-client in such a situation that paying less than minimum wage might be fine by Washington State, but the federal government could still come a-knocking.

Lastly, the Washington law is a pilot project at this stage. The law calls for a report to be prepared about the program’s implementation; it will be exciting to see what happens next. Also, the reason the Washington internship project makes a difference is because the state doesn’t already extend the federal exemption to small farms. In other states that already exempt small farms, this type of law wouldn’t change anything. More creative solutions will be needed as we all continue to talk about the balance between wage rates, farm security, and employee security.

That concludes our chat about farms and minimum wage. However, that’s not the end of the Washington internship project for this blog. A major bonus of the law is that it grants interns state workers’ compensation insurance. I’ll be going over workers’ compensation in my next few postings.

What do you think?

  • Do you know about any other state programs that make farm internships or apprenticeships easier to offer?
  • Now that we’ve finished the minimum wage discussion, do you have any concluding thoughts? Any ideas about what states should do to make labor more affordable for the small farmer?
  • In my opinion, improving farm profitability should be a higher priority than lowering the wage paid to interns. Do you agree or not?   

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