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.


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