Intern Labor - August 17, 2012

"We arranged to work 30 hours a week between us for a room and a share of the harvest"

This is a weekly blog about the author’s experiences as an intern on a farm in Alcalde, New Mexico.

On Thursday and Friday mornings, I pick kale for market. It’s one of the less strenuous skills I’ve added to my resume, so I’m able to wear Baby Shae in the rebozo to give Melina a break. For the first hour, he faces inward, sleeping, but, eventually, he squirms his little head out and demands to participate, so I flip him around. He “helps” by ripping off kale leaves and stuffing them into his mouth. The other day, he tried to help his mom cook and burned a couple of his little fingers on a cast iron pan. We wrapped his hand in gauze and duct tape in the shape of a little boxing glove. We call it his BAM! fist.

Shae’s attempts to bear some of the load have me thinking about labor practices at small farms. Websites like and the WWOF network connect farms with workers, usually trading labor for food and/or a place to stay. And I witnessed the possibilities of community when we went to Gemini Farms up in Las Trampas, for instance, and worked with a crew of volunteers to clear the garlic fields. We ate lunch together, swapping stories of successes and failures. Likewise, while Melina and I were gone on vacation, Mer-Girl hosted a “weeding party,” which entailed many of the same volunteers pulling weeds all day in exchange for and the camaraderie and a feast.

Melina and I were looking for such a community when we found Mer-Girl on Grow Food. We arranged to work 30 hours a week between us for a room and a share of the harvest, and Farmer Ron deemed me his intern. Now, I’ve interned before at newspapers and magazines, and I get the drill. You do some of the dirty work in exchange for experience and knowledge, but the key, I learned over the last few months, is that you’re learning—you are a student, not a professional. I wish I had understood this better as an editor, because maybe then I wouldn’t have been so annoyed with interns for being less efficient and less commonsensical than me; nor would I have instructed them just to “feel out” certain tasks, only to find myself grumbling later about their inadequacies as I redid their work. But now, I know how it feels to be on the receiving end.

I did, however, understand that I couldn’t hold down my job without interns. With the state of journalism in flux, to put it mildly, interns have become essential laborers, taking on administrative duties formerly ushered by paid staff, who frankly did a better job because they were paid. And I’d begun to question this use of intern labor when I read an Ethicist column in The New York Times that really made me think about the position of an intern. “An internship has to exist for the exclusive benefit of the intern,” interim Ethicist Ariel Kaminer writes. “It can’t help the employer in any way; in fact, it’s a bonus if it actually impedes the employer’s operations.

To repeat: interns are students; not volunteers. Both work, but neither make for reliable labor. Take, for instance, the subsequent attempts to host a weeding party at the farm. No one would commit, and some invitees actually said they couldn’t come to work, but they’d come for the barbeque. But the brunt of the uncertain exchange doesn’t lie solely with volunteers and laborers. Labor has also been devalued by the advent of agri-tourism (think: City Slickers but on a farm instead of a ranch). Some farms actually request daily and weekly fees for the privilege of living and working there, and when volunteers work for a meal alone, laborers don’t have much chance finding work. These practices don’t make for sustainable agricultural—or enduring media, for that matter—whether you look at it from the worker’s side or the owner’s side.

Farms and newspapers need labor that they can’t afford, so owners/editors end up taking on too much work, while laborers/interns take what they can get in terms of compensation because there appears to be so little to get. An integrative community seems the most sustainable for everyone, but as Christopher at Freshies of New Mexico pointed out, a long-term situation only works if all parties have a stake. In fact, he was talking specifically about his experience looking for an “intentional community” and discovering that unless everyone who lives on the property has some equity in it, the community becomes a dictatorship.

I’d been thinking about these things, as I indicated in my last blog post, for a few weeks, when Farmer Ron approached me on Monday to say that he’d like to “call it a season” at Labor Day Weekend, meaning he’d like us to move out at that time. I asked why he wanted to conclude our contract three months early, and he said that we’d learned all we could from each other. When I asked if the change had something to do with us recently reducing our hours from 46 a week to the agreed upon 30, he said that it was just a feeling. He appreciated everything Melina and I had accomplished on the farm and the efforts she and I had made with the baby, but that we weren’t a good fit for the farm. “You’re a writer,” he said. I wish that I had thought to ask him if he was upset about my last blog post. I admitted that Melina and I had also felt the relationship dwindling, so we’d just go ahead and pack up. By the end of the day, we had moved in with her mom in Taos. 

The irony is that I’m beginning to feel like I’m finally getting it. On Friday, I harvest kale with Shae’s help, mow the south orchard and weed four rows of trellises over the time I would have spent doing one at the beginning of the season. It’s OK. I’m disappointed, but I was let go from my first newspaper job, too. My publisher hired an associate who replaced me with interns, after forcing my editor to account for my value in word count rather than quality. And that setback didn’t stop me from becoming an award-winning writer and editor.

Post-script: Though I will no longer be interning at Mer-Girl, this blog will continue as I visit area farms to tell their stories.