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Advice for Developing a Permaculture Internship Program

Timber-frame raisings have become an annual intern group experience

There is no better way to gain hands on experience in permaculture than by spending time on an established (or establishing) site and learning what the work entails day-in and day-out. Interning on a site should provide an equal exchange of one’s labor for the opportunity to gain knowledge and skills. This is a risk mitigation strategy: it allows interns to develop their goals and interests before making a large financial investment for their own site. As a farmer or site director, one has the opportunity to leverage affordable labor in exchange for knowledge and often room and board as well.

Two recent articles here on Permaculture News have done an excellent job of exploring this topic already, they can be found here and here. I would like to continue this conversation by sharing our experiences over the last 13 years of running a highly successful internship program at Rancho Mastatal in Costa Rica. For a quick overview of the Ranch see a previous article here.

What are you offering? Who are you looking for?

Creating time and space for trips to one of the nearby
swimming holes keeps everyone in high spirits

Understanding the answer to these two questions is paramount for a successful program. What are your goals in hosting interns? To receive affordable labor, to empower younger generations, to spread the word of permaculture, to live in community? Once you understand your goal, you can begin finding individuals who match with what you offer.

There are many different programs out there, some of which are a full work-trade, some provide a bed but you have to harvest or purchase your own food, others charge money (this is how Rancho Mastatal operates). Each of these set ups and all the possibilities in between will create different expectations for incoming interns.

If you are going to charge money for the experience, then you will be expected to provide a much higher level of lodging, food, and learning opportunities. You should be prepared to teach, and must have the expertise to back it up. Also, remember that the more you charge the younger and less skilled your pool to draw from will become.

Interns want to get dirty working, and there are no shortage of activities to accomplish this.
Cob construction is a popular building technique amongst our intern crews.

Much of the work to create a successful program comes down to clarity of expectations and good consistent communication. A simple tool we have used when first communicating with prospective interns is explaining what our project is and what it is not. Some examples:

  • We are an education center, which means we are in the hospitality industry as well. Interns play an essential role in this.
  • We are not a yoga or meditation center. While we encourage and support these activities they do not fall under our mission and we don’t make organizational time for them.
  • We are not a Spanish school. There are ample opportunities in our community to practice Spanish, but interns will have to be particularly focused if this is one of their goals.

Making clear statements like this on your website or online profile will quickly separate out individuals looking for something different.

What expectations do you have?

Most of our interns thrive on the camaraderie built during group work parties

Managing expectations should be done from the moment you first communicate with a prospective intern. Your website, email or phone correspondence, facebook page, etc. are all opportunities to display what really occurs at your site. Don’t over promise and under deliver. You don’t have to do it all; just be clear about what projects will occur, what daily life is like, what teaching/training you will provide, and what type of work commitment you expect.

Consider asking individuals to commit for longer periods of time. Our program began with a minimum one week stay for volunteers. This became a minimum of two weeks, and then we began a three month internship, which quickly became a six month internship, and just this year we fielded applications for a year-long apprenticeship. At first we were worried that the longer commitment would exclude many applicants, but so far that hasn’t been the case. We had 65 applicants (and counting) for our 2015 program. The more time interns spend on-site, the more capable they become. It will be worth your time to provide excellent training up-front, knowing you will gain the benefits of a quality intern for the following few months. This is a win-win.

Also consider incorporating a simple application form on your website. Ask about the individual’s work ethic, their experience living in community, and what they hope to take away from their time at your site. Talk to people ahead of time. If you can, spend 20 minutes on the phone or Skype with the best candidates. It doesn’t take long to quickly feel out someone and determine if they are a good fit or not. This past year we took the time to interview 35 candidates (for 5 positions), many of them multiple times. This is a large investment of our time, but when considering we plan on living a year of our lives with these individuals, it pays off.

A few other pointers:

  • Look for couples. Couples are already in a relationship, meaning if they can get along with one person they can probably get along with the community.
  • Have interns all arrive at the same time. If you have a one month minimum commitment for example, always set the first of the month (or whenever works best for you) as the date you expect interns to arrive. This makes training more consistent and less of a burden.

What do interns need for room and board?

A quiet, clean, and semi-private personal space goes a long way toward making sure
everyone feels balanced amidst the intensity of communal living.

This is relatively simple. Interns aren’t expecting to stay in the Ritz, but meeting a few basic needs will go a long way. This is what we have learned keeps people happy:

  • Good food — it doesn’t have to be fancy, but there should be plenty. We rely on large quantities of the staples (rice, beans, corn, yuca, plantain) and great condiments on the side (pickles, fermented beverages, hot sauce, etc).
  • A good mattress — if you are providing a bed to sleep on, invest in a decent mattress. There is little more comforting then returning from a long day of work and falling down into a nice bed.
  • Privacy — this becomes more and more important the longer interns are staying. This doesn’t mean a private room or cabin for everyone, but the space to change clothes, read a book, or just decompress in quiet. Everyone needs personal space.

How to organize your work days?

Six days a week we take 20 minutes to organize the days schedule. This morning meeting
allows new folks to jump into the work day where they are most needed.

There can be a lot going on in a single day at Ranch Mastatal. We often compare it to a beehive (on the good days) as everyone darts around the farm. There might be a group studying Wilderness First Aid, a tour from the National University of Costa Rica, a cob stomping party, and a trip to help a neighbor harvest beans — all on the same day. This doesn’t even account for individual projects, cooking and cleaning, and general farm tours. Needless to say it can be busy. So how do we keep our core group of 10 to 15 working together effectively?

First and foremost we stay relentlessly organized. We do this in many forms but primarily through daily work meetings and a weekend community check-in. These certainly take time, but given the size and complexity of our project it allows everyone to fill their day, jump in when needed, and in general feel like a positive contributing member of the farm.

The schedule will always be changing, but stick with it as much as possible. New interns to the site want structure. They want to know when to show up and how they can be most helpful. Consistency in planning will help make this happen.

Using their down time to explore the nearby region; most of our intern groups hire a local
guide and hike to the peak of La Cangreja National Park.

As for the work itself, use the following principles to create productive and fun days:

  • Diversity — mix it up with some mindless manual labor and some skilled learning opportunities. If the work is going to include a lot of repetitive physical labor, say pouring a cement foundation, make sure to incorporate music or word games to keep people going.
  • Creative problem solving — find a balance between what the farm needs and what interns want to learn. For example, we often have interns interested in developing a medicinal plant garden, but they don’t understand the year-in and year-out maintenance of a project of this scale. So we ask them to dig deeper and figure out what they really want to practice. Is it propagating plants, gardening, processing herbs and tinctures, medicine/healing, or a dozen other subjects? Most often we can find a way to incorporate the root of their desire into an existing farm need.
  • Accelerate succession — hold their hands a bit early on. Provide excellent training up-front in the basic farm maintenance tasks. Ask yourself what do we have to do every single day to keep your site running? The sooner interns can take over these tasks, the sooner they will feel independent and empowered. For us, this means training how to cook on our rocket stoves, harvest garden salads, sharpen and use basic farm tools, service our methane biodigestor, and chop firewood. We spend the first few days of the internship on only these tasks and emphasize over and over again their importance.
  • Use biological resources — rely on the interns to fill much of their time. Don’t micromanage their time. They need space to socialize, explore the region/neighborhood/forest, and create their own experiences, especially outside of the work day. Let them organize this individually or as a group.
  • Each element should have many functions — evenly distribute chores, in particular cooking and cleaning, amongst everyone. You want multi-talented interns and no intern wants to be stuck cooking lunch alone every single day. It is common for interns comfortable in the kitchen to spend all day there and quickly burn themselves out. Make sure everyone is provided training and consequently participates in the essential functions of the site.

Harvest the yield

Very little brings a group together like a weekend field trip, which for us takes the form of a
beach trip. The chance to forget work for a few days and interact in a different scope
creates great group energy.

As you can see, a successful internship program requires a significant amount of time and energy. Knowing your goals, managing expectations, providing good room and board, consistent communication, and creating an organized work day is the up-front workload you will need to put in to harvest the yield of a functioning, fun, and productive intern crew. The world needs more individuals building the hard skills associated with permaculture design and land regeneration. These individuals need a place to practice and prepare themselves. A quality internship program can do just this.

For folks interested in learning more about the Rancho Mastatal Apprenticeship in Sustainable Living program, the language we use, our application process and more, please check out our website here.

One Comment

  1. Excellent, informative, well-thought-out article! Thank you for the time, organization, and excellent pictures. This article takes some of the fear out of the thought hosting. Glad you shared your experience and wisdom.

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