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entry level paid farm hand vs. two months in the permaculture bootcamp

 
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I spent time growing up in rural conditions.  I also spent some time growing up in construction.  From 16 to 20, I was hired by farms and ranches for a variety of work.  

At the same time, i hear a lot of people romanticizing about "get a job on some farm" and I bite my tongue.  I don't need to crush their dream.  

And then people pit the bootcamp against these fantasies.  As if the fantasies are fact.  Which is really confusing.  

This thread is for all of the people that have actual, real-life history working on a farm or ranch.  And getting paid.  Ag work is one of the branches where they don't have to meet minimum wage.  It is true that a lot of people can work in ag and make more than minimum wage, but I think the fantasy folks might still be shocked at how little they earn.  And it is usually seasonal too.

Let's suppose there is a well established farm that is open to hiring a farm hand.  Entry level pay (maybe minimum wage, maybe a little more, maybe a little less).  I am going to express expected skills for day 1.  For comparison, I am going to express what I think a person might be able to do after two months in the permaculture bootcamp.  

If this sounds about right to you, please click on the thumbs up for this post.  


Hand:  entry level paid farm hand, first day

Boot: a person after being in the bootcamp for two months


one full day to fetch firewood from dead standing, cut and stacked

  hand: two cords
  boot: one face cord

drive a rig backwards, with a trailer:

  hand: well done
  boot: needs more practice

one full day - logs put into the ground as fence posts:

  hand: 12
  boot: 4

one full season of gardening:

  hand: 500,000 calories
  boot: 20,000 calories

driving an excavator:

  hand: good
  boot:  needs more practice

driving a tractor:

  hand: pro
  boot: mediocre

drop a tree and limb it:

  hand: 30 minutes
  boot: 2 hours

Can work independently on a project

  hand: all day
  boot: 2 hours


The mission of the permaculture bootcamp is not to get a low paying job on some farm or ranch.  The mission is to build basic skills that many country folk have already built, PLUS add a lot of permaculture skills.  These skills would be the foundation for dozens of possible future paths.  Maybe steward your own property some day.  Maybe guide others.


If this sounds about right to you, please click on the thumbs up for this post.  


 
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That fantasy confuses me a bit too.  If the dream keeps them happy...neat.  Yet I often hear it from people who, in their next breath, would disparage laborers.  
In my little slice of nowhere, it's normal to see children driving/operating the farm equipment.  Having to teach a hand to drive a tractor!?!  Incomprehensible.  Like most low wage, "unskilled" labor, ag work is misunderstood by the general public. And way more complicated than they could believe.
 
pollinator
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Farm work is the most honorable work there is, and that should be clearly translated from employer to employee. If we want more people in agriculture, employers need to lift people up, not grind them down. Workers should feel valued and respected. When I pay entry level farm hands to dig and plant tree seedlings in my nursery, I pay $20/hr, I give them extensive training on every little detail, I let them ask a million questions, and I work alongside them all day so that they build up trust in themselves that they know what they're doing and they're doing it as good as I would do. I don't just want anyone who works for me for a week to be able to go off and start their own tree nursery, I want them to feel empowered and inspired to actually go and do it. What I don't want is for them to be like "Man, digging trees is hard work for crappy pay, I'd rather get a tech job."

That's how it was on my first farm job (age 11) hand moving irrigation pipe and also moving motorized wheel lines on about 100 acres of alfalfa. Before being cut loose on my own, I did the job alongside the farm owner for the first week, even though it was a super basic job that I probably could have done after being shown once. It was two wheel lines and one hand line, each 1 move per day, every day. It took about 1 hour per day to move the three lines and I was paid $10/hr. Paid weekly, summer of 1996. Adjusting for inflation that would be $19.48 per hour in 2023.

Today there are way more job openings than job seekers, but if the balance of the current job market were reversed to say Great Depression era conditions, your expectations as an employer might be more reasonable. Nowadays people job hop all the time and it's pretty widely understood that "minimum wage is for minimum effort."

Tree felling is dangerous work and I would never let an entry level farm hand to do that sort of work, much less on their own and without training. If they did have experience felling trees, I would think they would be much better suited to get a job as faller on a logging crew, as the 2022 mean salary for that is $27.95/hr: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes454021.htm. Or they could just go into the firewood business, as cords of firewood are currently selling for between $200 - $350 per cord on craigslist.

As for driving a tractor / trailer / excavator, I wouldn't let an entry level person anywhere near heavy equipment without extensive training or even accredited certification, both for their sake and the equipment's, like any legit company would do. Otherwise you're setting yourself up for "Well Boss, Jimmy ran over Bobby's leg and put him in the hospital, the excavator's on its side in the ditch, but that's fine because you were only paying Jimmy and Bobby minimum wage."

Expectation that someone can work all day independently is something that I do agree with, but I wouldn't expect it on day one because farms are crazy complicated, each farm is unique in where/how things are stored or operated, and if they don't have a ton of questions about every little thing, they should. To me, if a farm hand can meet all those expectations on day one, they by definition aren't entry level, and they should be paid quite a lot more than minimum wage.
 
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I assume the list is for a big farm in commercial farm country. There is a wide range out there.
I spent a summer in the early 2000s as an intern on a flower farm and vegetable csa. I was paid a bit above  minimum wage, though I don’t remember the dollar amount. My tasks included seeding in the greenhouse, direct seeding crops, bed prepping with a broadfork, etc. I was expected to work hard and quickly at the tasks I was shown, but the list at the beginning of this thread in no way reflects my skill set!
That summer is still a delightful memory for me.
 
paul wheaton
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I remember recording a podcast with joseph lofthouse and he said a powerful thing:  he would rather not have help.  For 19 people out of 20, he will get more done in a day without help.  

And then helen atthowe said the same thing.

I kinda think that the bootcamp could be a path to transition from the 19 to the 1.


 
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Everything that Abe said, and Joseph as well. There are days when you wish you had another set of hands (or three) or another set of legs, but it turns out that you really need those for all of about an hour total just to handle the big or awkward tasks. The rest of the time they are in the way, need managing, or (you hope) asking "what's next?". If you treat a worker like a wind-up-toy, and set them on a task unsupervised, they might: not finish, take all morning for a half-hour job, do the wrong thing in the wrong place, break something, hurt themselves, etc... If they actually have skills and experience, then they could do that sort of work, and get paid accordingly. Most of the time you need to work alongside to set the pace, check their work, pass along the knowledge as you do each step so that nothing is left out and can be explained.

 
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I think there is a difference between an entry level farm hand (tenderfoot) and a farm boy. All those things in the list are reasonable to expect from a farm boy. One old farmer will say to another, "I need to put up my firewood this week, but the cows are calving. Can your boy give me a hand?" And so the boy goes over and does the same kind of work that he has been doing for his Dad for years.

But if a tenderfoot drives up to the farm straight from the city? He can start by collecting eggs or bucking hay.

You asked for personal experiences. When I was 14 I picked blueberries for a local farm. 10 cents per pound, four hours a day. I made about $1.40 per day.

My grandpa paid me a quarter an hour to mow his field with a tractor. My Dad sat on the rear fender of the tractor the first time I drove it.
 
pollinator
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Looks pretty close to me. I mean you're dreaming if you think you are going to be paid before you know how to work.

Although, a neighbor asked my son and his friend if they wanted to help on his small farm for a season. They had no experience but they showed up and worked hard for a day and then asked what they were getting paid. I don't remember the number but they went fishing the next day instead, hahaha. Few days later the guy called back and said he would give them $15 plus all they could eat on the clock and a little bags worth of veggies each day. They really do both work like friggin' animals though.
 
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The richness of the bootcamp program is evident in many dimensions, especially when it comes to holistic engagement with a piece of land. It's not just about mastering tasks but understanding the land within a communal and sustainable framework. Throughout my varied job experiences, farm work has undeniably been the most demanding. Even within the realm of organic farms, the work can be physically taxing, repetitive, and for someone with a permaculture mindset, often frustrating. From my perspective, farm work might not always offer the best return on investment in monetary terms. I undertook it primarily to acquire skills, many of which I found I had to adapt or relearn when applying them to my own land.

However, it's essential to remember that the core objective of the bootcamp isn't to groom individuals for low-paying farm jobs. It's about imparting foundational skills that many in the countryside already possess, enriched with a deep dive into permaculture techniques. This foundation paves the way for diverse future endeavors, whether that means stewarding one's own property, guiding others, or even branching out into areas we might not have yet imagined.

Moreover, the reality of country living, particularly farm work, is undeniably challenging. A vast majority of farms stay afloat thanks to subsidies. If one's vision is rooted in manual labor devoid of heavy machinery, or the simplification of nature for a profit be prepared for grueling hours. Many enthusiastic souls step into farm life, captivated by its idyllic charm, only to confront its stern realities later on. In contrast, the bootcamp offers a balanced view of integrating with the land. It doesn't merely provide labor skills but enlightens on sustainable living by understanding the ecosystem's intricate web through hands on experience.

The bootcamp focuses on empowering its participants with this profound knowledge, equipping them with the skills to manifest it, rather than churning out farm laborers.

While both farm work and the bootcamp hold their unique value, it's pivotal to juxtapose the hands-on demands of farming against the expansive knowledge spectrum the bootcamp offers. For those who've endured the rigors of farm work, the distinction between the two is palpably clear. Those considering either path should introspect on their goals and what each journey truly offers.
 
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paul wheaton wrote:I remember recording a podcast with joseph lofthouse and he said a powerful thing:  he would rather not have help.  For 19 people out of 20, he will get more done in a day without help.  

And then helen atthowe said the same thing.





I am with Joseph and Helen.  

I work alone and prefer to be by myself.

When I am doing something I have to invent the system and figure out how to build it.  I can't also explain it and direct someone.  It is a real skill to be able to communicate and do all the things with driving people.


I have visited some other communities and farms, Wheaton Labs is the only community type place I have visited, that I could live at.



As a free spirit entrepreneur, I could rent an acre at Wheaton Labs and build my dream home.  I can have water out of a spigot.  I can set up a solar system.  I can have animals and gardens.    I could be completely self sufficient in a year or two.  

If I have money I can pay my way,  If I don't have money I can work in the boot camp and build my place in my off time.

I can get help from the wonderful people you have there.  Your shop is full of tools.

You have skills events every summer.  

   I enjoy all the dear and beautiful folks you have there.  



If someone really does want to get out, you are the door.
 
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I've grown up around farms & logging, done about every task at least once. I'm by no means a professional farm hand, though having done many of the tasks I know the difference.

That's why I've chosen the sepp to boot route, to get a feel for what I'd be getting myself into instead of going straight into woofing type ag work.

When it comes to the wage thing I think most people feel the healthier lifestyle makes up for the wage, especially when farms offer free growies. I can almost guarantee if I spent the same amount of time doing laborious ag work as I have doing desk work my health would be far better. I've heard studies show that just sitting for long hours shaves quite a lot of time off your life and I don't doubt that for a second. Maybe someday the government will subsidize farm worker wages rather than monoculture corn and that kind of work will be more appealing than a desk job.


I just wish there were more boot-type programs in every state/climate across the US that offer the same variety and benefits. Hopefully, people (boots or others) will emulate the boot camp model on their lands.
 
Lina Joana
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paul wheaton wrote:I remember recording a podcast with joseph lofthouse and he said a powerful thing:  he would rather not have help.  For 19 people out of 20, he will get more done in a day without help.  

And then helen atthowe said the same thing.

I kinda think that the bootcamp could be a path to transition from the 19 to the 1.




It’s funny how different my experience has been.
I have had 3 experiences with having help, and all has been good. The first was volunteer, a couple who just wanted to get outside on nice days. They were lovely, and pushed things forward nicely. The second was a “handyman” type I paid $20/hr to. He did more skilled jobs, though I avoid giving him a chainsaw since I don’t have liability insurance. The last was a high school age guy I paid $15/hr to. Also did great. Of course, that isn’t full time: I can’t afford more than a few hrs a week even with my day job.
For me the key is that Hellen and possibly Joseph have replaced most of the petroleum AND the people with skill and brilliance. I am not there, and there is lots of low skill labor to do. In a way, if I have the cash, paying someone to help is easier because I don’t have to make it interesting for them. I just give them a fork and barrow and point to the mulch pile.
 
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I don't have a clue about the comparison but it was interesting reading.
 
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"A big part of why people get disillusioned with homesteading is that they start day 1 with a list of 100 things to do, then finish the day cranky and sore with 1/2 of one thing done." Was it you who said that, Paul?

We've had poor success with paid workers on our property. The amount of time and instruction it took for them to do even simple tasks was a losing proposition for us. There's a strong lad who comes over once a week on worktrade to help with mindless muscle tasks, that's all that's needed.
Did my time in the Bootcamp. Heck of a ride, but I'd rather stay a tradesman than be a farmer any day, lol!
 
Abe Coley
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If people are further interested in broader topics of farming as a career or occupation, I highly recommend the works of George Henderson.

Here's a pertinent bit from his 1960 book The Farming Manual: A Guide to Farm Work:

"First, to select potential workers. You set a simple, straightforward task well within the capacity of the unskilled individual; and then you go away for some unspecified time; on your return, in the split second that your eye picks up the worker, notice if he is actually working. Do this three times; and if on each occasion the person was productively engaged, you have probably first-class material on which to work. Twice out of three times, a possible; once a doubtful; and if never working, quite useless. I was told this many years ago by a very experienced and observant farmer. I thought it rather hard to be judged by three split seconds in perhaps eight hours, but I have found it a very sure indication in having over a hundred people serving a trial period; and also in testing it out on my neighbours' employees, and deciding in my own mind whether the farmer will retain them or not, presuming he will judge by other standards, and in any case will be quite uninfluenced by me in any way, the final result is the same, but it almost invariably takes him longer to find out. "

Three of George Henderson's books are available for free at https://soilandhealth.org/. Lots of high quality practical information about many facets of the actual job of farming.
 
Lina Joana
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Abe Coley wrote:If people are further interested in broader topics of farming as a career or occupation, I highly recommend the works of George Henderson.

Here's a pertinent bit from his 1960 book The Farming Manual: A Guide to Farm Work.



That sounds like a more realistic picture of what would be expected of a first day farmhand. The ability to work hard at an unskilled task, and the ability to learn quickly.

For one thing, how would a farm hand learn to drive a rig with a trailer, etc? If s/he grew up on a farm, then he will probably be working with his family, not working minimum wage somewhere else. Generally farm work is not like fashion or hollywood, where unpaid internships just to get training are a thing. So a farm would have to offer some on the job training.
I grew up in rural (though not big farm) country, and the farmers I knew struggled to get any help, much less day 1 skilled folks. It is hard work for not a ton of money, and most folks don’t find it rewarding.
I don’t think that claiming the boot camp is training - the equivalent of an unpaid internship- for the career of “farmhand” rings true. As an armchair expert in the bootcamp, it sounds more equivalent paying to board and ride a horse vs. working as a stablehand. A boarder pays for the fun of riding and caring for the horse without the obligation- it isn’t training for the stablehand position. If you want to be a stablehand, yeah knowing how to ride would be a big plus, but if you will spend a full day shoveling horse shit without slacking off, that is good enough.
A certain type of person will enjoy doing hard outdoor work and learning new skills. They are willing to “pay” (getting to Montana, meeting their living expenses) for the chance to do so at their own pace, without the obligation to do work they dislike because they agreed to get a paycheck.

 
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I think hosts/employers need to be realistic about how alluring what they are offering is, as compared to what else is out there for people to learn and experience. Sites like WorkAway and HelpX often offer room and board for 5 hours/day 5 days/week in beautiful settings, where the volunteers gain experience and skills in areas that interest them. On top of that, they get a cultural exchange, as many are often from out of state or from abroad, and the host families take time to engage them in their lives and communities.

The majority of ag workers in the US are minorities and foreign nationals who come in to work in horrific conditions, oftentimes at great risk to their health and wellbeing. United Farm Workers (https://ufw.org) fight for the rights of those farm workers, who aren't paid either minimum wage or overtime, often with backbreaking, long hours in the summer, and little work in winter. Personally, that isn't a system I want to either support or emulate when I invite people to join me, and I do think that Ag workers should get minimum wage, or job training for a future they want, but I also take a lot of responsibility for helping them gain knowledge in exchange for their hours.

I do host volunteers, but it is with the understanding that aside from room and board, they are gaining skills that they are directly interested in. Before they arrive, they let me know why they want to come to my place, based on my profile and what projects I am currently working on. Also, what skills or work ethics they currently have, and what they hope to gain by being here. I take time to show them how to do things, put it in context of permaculture, ecology, policies and food forest gardening, to name a few.
Doesn't matter if it's digging ditches or roofing, it's all done for a reason of building more resilient systems, and I explain not only how to do it, but why and how it fits into the long term goals.

I've also seen and experienced hosts who make people do repetitive, menial chores day after day, not adding to their knowledge or skills, and not giving any context of why those chores must be done, basically treating them as expendable, and showing little respect for the time and effort the workers are putting in. I try to be a different kind of host, and that has given me a lot of return helpers, who not only come back themselves, but bring their partners, their parents, their friends and so on... it's important to me to build community and to help the people who pass through realize their potential and their dreams, and if there's a clear shared goal to achieve, most often the people coming to your place will put in the extra effort to help you make it come true.
However, they really do need to be gaining the skills I've offered to teach them, or I feel I would just be using them for cheap labor.

Of course, it does take time to train someone. I always have tasks to be done most anyone can do, such as mowing the lawn, raking the grass, making wood chips, crushing sea shells, picking slugs, stacking bricks, painting, sweeping the bigger buildings, carrying water and so on. I let the people who come here know what we're currently working on, what we're trying to achieve short and long term, what projects I need help with, and what they can fall back on doing whenever they're not sure what to do. That way, they own a little project, and feel they can contribute even when not doing the bigger things.
Then there are the projects I teach them to do, and this is where my preparation and planning come in - I put lots of time and effort in, and I also gain a lot from those who come to help by setting things up this way. While I do still get the occasional dud, I've become much better at nipping those in the bud through a thorough interview process, and most of our volunteers have a great time, contribute, learn, and want to come back again. And when they do, they bring the knowledge they gained, and understanding of the place with them.

To me, that is success.
 
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