Voice your support for SB 5123 – Establish a farm internship program in WA

IMG_0671SB 5123, to establish a farm internship program in Washington State, was introduced in 2013. It had wide support. The program was even funded in the final 2013 budget, but because of various factors, it was never given a final floor vote. IT HAS BEEN REINTRODUCED in 2014. It’s a positive step towards revitalizing our local food economy. It deserves your support and action to pass in 2014!

I drafted most of the following message during last year’s struggle to pass the law, but it’s all still relevant.

Voice your support TODAY for SB 5123, establishing a farm internship program. This bill will help grow new farmers from the ground up.

Please! Call your WA State Senators and Representatives to voice your support for this bill.

Find Your Legislator. Use this link to get the contact info for your WA State Representative:

Just about everything you might want to know about this bill, including a link to the bill’s wording and even a place to comment to legislators on it is here:


SB 5123 was introduced in the 2013 Washington Legislature to set up a pilot program to allow small farms in sixteen WA counties to take on interns, paid or unpaid, who would perform farm work, benefit from a structured educational program administered by the farmer and receive Workers’ Compensation coverage.

The small farm economy in Washington is experiencing growth and with that comes a higher demand for trained farmworkers, many of whom will go on to become farm managers and farm owners. The internship pilot program that would be established by SB 5123 would improve on-the-job training for beginning farmers and farmworkers by requiring that the farms provide an educational component for farm interns. The educational component requirement is relatively simple for the small farm to comply with. The bill proposes that each participating small farm “provides a curriculum of learning modules and supervised participation in farm work activities designed to teach farm interns about farming practices and farm enterprises … [that is] is based on the bona fide curriculum of an educational or vocational institution; and … is reasonably designed to provide the intern with vocational knowledge and skills about farming practices and enterprises.” Such curricula are readily available on-line and can be modified by each farm to fit its circumstances. The bill calls for farm organizations and agencies such as WSU Extension, Tilth Producers of Washington, the Farm Bureau and others to offer assistance to participating small farms in fulfilling this and other aspects of their farm internship offerings.

More Info:

The bill is similar to a pilot program that had been in existence in Skagit and San Juan counties during 2010 and 2011 but has since expired. The new version would revive the pilot program and extend it to King, Whatcom, Kitsap, Pierce, Jefferson, Spokane, Yakima, Chelan, Grant, Island, Snohomish, Kittitas, Lincoln, and Thurston counties. An attempt was made in the 2012 legislative session to extend the pilot program to these counties and received strong support in the legislature but died in committee.

An official assessment of the first pilot project was submitted to the legislature in 2011. Although participation in the program was low (six farms participating, nine interns enrolled), the report concluded “Both the farms and interns are reporting high levels of satisfaction with this project. Their desire is to continue providing internships that are “sanctioned” instead of questionably legal [“flying under the radar”]. The farms and interns especially value the availability of worker’s compensation for interns available through the FIP project. Farmers have reported that the quantity and quality of the educational component of their internships has increased as a result of participating in the project. All of the enrolled farmers said that they would recommend the program to other farmers. Interns have reported high praise for the educational component of their internships.”

Traditionally, many small farms have relied on “informal employment” of interns or apprentices. Whether such arrangements are legal or not depends on the interpretation of unpaid internship criteria published by the WA Department of Labor & Industries (L& I) and are based on the U. S. Department of Labor Fair Labor Standards Act (http://www.lni.wa.gov/WorkplaceRights/files/UnpaidInternshipsFactSheet.pdf). As the number of jobs on small farms grows, the potential for a farm to run afoul of labor laws increases. A farm’s viability comes under threat if it becomes embroiled in costly and time-consuming compliance and enforcement disputes with L& I. A small farm lacks sustainability if it allows risky employment practices and unnecessary exposure to legal entanglements to weaken its “economic viability”, which is one of the pillars of “sustainable agriculture,”  Another pillar of sustainable agriculture is “social responsibility.” One of the reasons that gave rise to a social responsibility aspect in sustainable agriculture was the long history of worker exploitation in agriculture. While it is true that many informal employment arrangements on small farms are on friendly terms, there doesn’t exist the protection that legal workers enjoy in terms of on-the-job injuries or financial security.  An intern on a small farm is not allowed to remain an intern indefinitely; that not only violates the tenant that unpaid interns cannot displace wage-earning workers (L & I criteria), but it disrespects decades of hard-fought, worker-led struggles to impose minimum wage protections upon labor exploiters of the past. Minimum wage laws exist to protect the rights of workers to receive fair compensation.

Part of creating a revitalized, sustainable local food system, besides improving training for farmers and farmworkers, is increasing their security and stability by regularizing un-paid internships – a tradition that dates back ages. Senate Bill 5123 is an experimental step in that direction. Let’s urge the legislature to pass this bill so that we can assess its workability.


Below, criticisms of the bill are paraphrased and responded to:

Criticisms: Interns should be employees, and they should be paid. Anybody can learn how to pick carrots or beets in ten minutes; after that it is NOT an educational experience.  It is unpaid labor. If a farm relies on unpaid labor to survive, then it is not a sustainable operation.

My Response:

The bill does not prohibit interns from being paid, that is left up to each farm to work out, but farms would not bound by minimum wage laws in regards to farm interns. The Interns would sign an agreement with the farm that establishes compensation, if any. Payment can be made in the form of stipends, room and board, combination of same, etc. Even if the intern is un-paid, the bill makes sure it is not simply free labor. The internship will need to be an educational experience based upon an approved curriculum. The intern will be receiving value in exchange for the time put in on the farm and the farmer will incur cost in fulfilling the educational and reporting obligations of the program as well as paying Workers’ Compensation insurance premiums to the state. If anyone would like to see an example of the type of curriculum that this pilot program would be expecting from its farmer participants, I invite you to take a look at an example from the Cultivating Success program at the following link (please take careful note of the licensing agreement):

An important thing that should be understood about SB 5123 is that the bill proposes a temporary pilot program that expires at the end of 2017. It is an experiment. It does not set up a permanent program. What it does do is modify and extend a very limited, earlier experiment that was reported by program participants– by both producers and, it is important to point out, the interns themselves– to have been beneficial. If the outcomes of this larger scale experiment were to be as positive as the first pilot program (the current bill calls for another detailed study of the pilot program to be conducted by L & I), then the citizens of Washington State could have a further discussion as to whether the program should be made permanent through subsequent legislation. I believe the pilot program should be afforded an opportunity to be tried with full recognition of the concerns that have been voiced.

While there is room for a farm to develop its own curriculum (approval of which would be required by L & I) and that curriculum could be of a more limited scope than the example given, it is important to note that the bill calls for the curriculum to encompass “learning modules and supervised participation in farm work activities designed to teach farm interns about farming practices and farm enterprises; … [that is] is based on the bona fide curriculum of an educational or vocational institution; and … is reasonably designed to provide the intern with vocational knowledge and skills about farming practices and enterprises.”

Any small farmer would take offense at the notion that “anybody can learn how to pick carrots or beets in ten minutes; after that it is NOT an educational experience.” First of all, to pick carrots and beets well takes far longer than ten minutes to teach (if the farmer has quality standards s/he wishes to maintain). Furthermore, providing a way for small farms to get un-paid menial labor is not the intent of the bill and a farm doing so would be in violation of the law. The intent is that the interns learn the full context within which the farm produces those carrots and beets– How are the varieties chosen? From what sources are the seeds procured? What are the planting dates? How do you manage succession planting or inter-planting schemes? What are the fertility requirements? How is the seed bed prepared? What equipment is used to plant the seed? How is it maintained? How is the irrigation managed? Where do the crops fit into the crop rotation plan? How are weeds and insect pests managed? What considerations must be taken into account to produce certified organic carrots and beets? How do you handle the crops post-harvest to ensure quality and food safety? What determines how and where the produce is marketed? These questions illustrate a tiny fraction of what farmers must know and practice to be successful. This knowledge is what is intended to be imparted to the interns who would participate in this pilot program if passed. There are few places where someone interested in learning the art of small-scale farming can absorb the full context of this knowledge reservoir like they can by working on a farm side-by-side with a farmer mentor. The intent of the bill is to foster the professional development of a new generation of farmers to supply the paid labor force for a growing sector of Washington’s economy, namely, the small farm.

It’s true that “if a farm relies on unpaid labor to survive, then it is not a sustainable operation.” This bill envisions a regulatory environment in which the hosting of interns, paid (with the possibility of that pay being less than minimum wage yet with Workers’ Compensation insurance paid by the farm) or unpaid, can become a regularized option for small farms. Passage would not encourage or condone any farm “relying” on unpaid labor.

Please contact your state legislators to support SB 5123, the Farm Internship Pilot Program.

We Need to be Able to Make a Living Producing Food from Home Kitchens

Anders Zorn - Brödbaket - 1889 - Oil on Canvas - Wikimedia Commons

Anders Zorn – Brödbaket – 1889 – Oil on Canvas – Wikimedia Commons

I follow a Facebook page that is maintained by one of the lead advocates who was able to get the Washington Cottage Food Law (CFL) passed seveal years ago. The Cottage Food Law provides for people to produce a very limited selection of foods in an inspected home kitchen for sale to the public. The text of the law can be viewed HERE. This is a concept I wholeheartedly support namely, the ability of people to produce food at home on a small-scale for sale to the public with limited, if any, regulation and licensing. However, I’m only a tepid supporter of the Washington State cottage food law. The law does not do much to help farmers. It’s primarily geared to home baking operations and I consider its gross annual sales maximum of $15,000 to be ridiculously low.

A recent post to the Washington Cottage Food Facebook page stated “Good news everyone. The WSDA has moved forward on increasing the Gross Sales limitation for the CFL. There will be a public hearing on 1/16 @ 10am. Since the WSDA is involved in it this time, this revision should go through without any problem.” The WSDA is proposing to increase the gross sales limitation for the Cottage Food Law (CFL) from $15,000 annually to $25,000. I am disappointed that WSDA is considering only a $10,000 increase in the annual sales cap. The income cap needs to be such that income potential from a home kitchen is more than a tiny supplemental income. A small, home business is doing well if it can net 15% – 20% of its gross. A cap of $25,000 limits it to generating an annual pocket income of $3750 – $5000 on average. For some, that is a significant chunk of change, and I don’t want to minimize that, but it should not be the cap. Instead, a formula, not a set number, whereby a home-based sole proprietor can have the option to achieve an annual salary that is above the federal poverty line, should instead be enacted. See the table “United States Department of Health and Human Services figures for poverty in 2013.” in this Wikipedia article.

A cap of even $25,000 tells me the state is not serious about creating opportunities for people to make a living from their homes in these times of very high unemployment. Furthermore, there are many compelling reasons why the state should encourage people’s ability to make a living from home. It’s better for family cohesiveness; it allows young children to stay home with parents which is preferable to farming kids out to daycare; it cuts down on traffic, gas consumption and pollution. The list goes on. Politicians and bureaucrats who think allowing someone to take home only a small amount of money from a home-based food enterprise are not living in the real world and seem not to care about those of us who are. Why don’t they want people to make real money? That’s not to say that at some point of scale a successful business should make the transition to the world of commercial-scale regulation and facilities, but come on, let a family make a reasonable living before forcing them either out of business and into the “workforce” or forcing them to scale up to meet commercial licensing requirements which they may never have the means to do. For WSDA to propose raising the annual gross sales cap for cottage food producers from $15,000 to $25,000 translates into giving them a raise in “take-home-pay” of roughly $1500 – $2000 per year, but it still only allows them a maximum yearly salary of $3750 – $5000. Working quarter time at a home business such as this, it pencils out to a wage that barely meets Washington’s minimum wage. If more time is spent by a home businessperson, it drops below minimum wage. In these times of poor employment prospects, the state should propose a formula whereby producing cottage food is an employment opportunity, not a hobby with benefits.

I believe we should demand a cottage food law that allows someone to make a living from their home kitchen, not a pittance. Contact your Washington State legislators if you agree with me about this.

And while we’re on the subject, as I mentioned, the law does not do much to help farmers who would benefit immensely by being able to perform more value-added processing of their farm produce in their farmhouse kitchens, as was Washington State law until only very recently. Yes, it’s true a farmer producing fruit, and perhaps even vegetables, could benefit if s/he can incorporate that produce into the very limited number of food items that are allowed under the Cottage Food Law. But this is important: If we want to make a difference for farmers in WA and increase our ability to generate income from our trade, we need to model a Washington law on the Oregon Farm Direct Bill. Here’s an Oregon Department of Agriculture website that does a good job spelling out what it allows.

Take special note of “Attachment A & B” in the Oregon law. Note that there are some categories for which there is no sales limit, including, and this is very important, dried fruits and veggies. As I understand it in WA, only herbs dried for tea can be processed and sold without a Washington State Food Processor license (and all the expensive facilities requirements that goes along with that). Being able to dry fruits, vegetables and culinary herbs without expensive facilities and a Washington Food Producer’s license would not only open up vast revenue generating potential for WA farmers and gardeners alike, it would cut down on food waste, it could improve the wintertime diets of many.

Though I would support raising the gross sales limit for the cottage food law, as well as having an achievable and streamlined method for adding new foods to the allowed foods list, I suggest that a better approach for Washington farmers would be to agitate for a WA version of the Oregon Farm Direct law that’s not tied to the Cottage Food law. There is not time to enact such a measure in the current legislative session, but I think if we worked very hard in 2014, we might be able to do it for 2015.

Welcome to the Chrysalis Farm Blog


Taken by daughter in 2006

Taken by daughter in 2006

My name is Chrys Ostrander. Welcome to my new blog. Back in October, 2013, I returned here to my 4-acre homestead and micro-permaculture farm after being gone for four years (see the “About page” for details). It’s a bit tumbledown right now, but the Chinook we are experiencing today (otherwise known as a January thaw) is reminding me that soon I’ll need to pull away from the computer, which is situated only a couple of feet from my warm woodstove (and the tool of my trade right now as a freelance web designer). Soon I’ll be busy with spring cleaning and getting the grounds and out-buildings ready for what I hope will be a fun and productive growing season. My intention with this blog is to document my own progress in that regard as well as to gather and disseminate ( a good word for a farmer to use) useful and thought-provoking information about our growing food revolution. To me it seems that if we are to have a viable revolution in this country (and I do believe it is imperative that we do), the local, sustainable, organic, slow, permaculture, non-GMO, non-industrial, small-scale food movement is a prime vehicle for bringing about deep, radical and lasting change. I hope my blog will become one of many small tributaries that are feeding into the larger river of progressive change that we see happening globally (despite all the horrendous and bloody back-sliding we are also witnessing on this troubled, tiny planet). Some day soon, this river will become a torrent of whitewater blasting away at the rocky impediments of heartless capitalism, eco-cide, oppression, inequality, racism, misogyny, warfare, child abuse, corporatism and oligarchy so that when the waters finally recede, a landscape is revealed which will be dotted with gardens and communities of loving people creating a future for their children that is bright and hopeful, green, abundant and peaceful.

So much to do.

I’m launching this blog on a day when later I’ll be headed into Spokane to meet with forward-looking folks to talk about how to better develop small-scale, decentralized urban agriculture in the Spokane region. Two days ago I sat in on another meeting of folks working on forming a Food Policy Council for the Spokane region. The day before yesterday, the Governor of the State of Maine (where I lived in the late ’70’s) signed into law the nation’s second statewide GMO labeling law. Maine is also the place where in the past couple of years small-scale farmers and their allies in their local communities have been at the vanguard of defiant food producers and eaters around the country who are pushing back at corporate-sponsored food regulations that cripple the ability of small-scale food producers to feed their local communities, their neighbors and each other. They have passed local ordinances declaring that federal and state regulations designed to make cost prohibitive the engagement in commerce of small, local, safety-minded food producers, do not apply to local producers who are feeding their local communities. We are taking back our right as human beings to feed each other– a right that predates by centuries even the establishment of centralized government. A right that is becoming known as Food Sovereignty.

I am seeing dramatic growth locally in this true food movement. I’ve watched the Spokane area (where much of my organizing efforts and produce marketing has been focused) evolve from one in the early ’90’s where customers at my produce stand (at Spokane’s only farmers market at the time) had never seen red leaf lettuce to one where small farms and community gardens are proliferating, farmers markets are popping up in more and more neighborhoods, organizations like Project Hope, the Vinegar Flats Community Garden, Spokane Permaculture, the Spokane Edible Tree Project are engaging the community in sustainable, small-scale food production and making fresh, healthy, local, non-corporate food available to Spokane residents of all incomes.

My plan is to use this blog to chronicle this evolution as it happens on this piece of ground where I live, in my immediate community, in my watershed and in my bio-region. I also hope to utilize my new email distribution list to augment the blog (please sign up if you want, it’s to the right in the sidebar or below in the footer). I have grown increasingly frustrated with Facebook as a tool for social change since it has lost its way morally, gone to bed with the NSA and filters content to the point that I cannot be certain I am reaching even a fragment of the hundreds of folks I am Facebook friends with.

So this is my first foray. This website will keep developing (already the Resources page is out-dated, having been imported from my old thefutureisorganic.net website). Please let me know if you find it beneficial.