Writer, lecturer, and farmer Joel Salatin has been a hero of mine for many years, as both mentor and inspiration. He calls himself a “Christian libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic farmer.” I can really get behind that. I own a number of his books.
This was a post to Joel’s blog on 17 Aug 2020 (3 days ago) that takes a look at some of his own potential shortcomings, methods, and style to see how they might improve their farm’s apprentice/intern program. There are some good lessons here in both management and leadership, and some of them spoke to me personally.
The last two years we’ve struggled with our apprentice/intern program. In fact, last summer for the first time in 20 years we had no interns (5 months) who wanted to stay for the one-year apprentice program. We’ve been doing this for about 25 years, so to have that disinterest was disheartening. In fact, we considered abandoning the program.
But instead, we spent the winter hunkered in planning and brainstorming sessions, looking at the weaknesses, developing new materials and refining the program. We changed the name from intern to steward to better reflect our sense of the theme. We created a value sheet so everyone would know what we think the program is worth.
We created two-way report cards. Every two weeks they get one from the leadership team and the leadership team gets one from them. One thing we’ve learned is that principles of team building in businesses are at warp speed here. These young people live together, work together, and eat together. That means all the relational and expectation issues surrounding a normal work place that occur over a decade happen here in a couple of months.
This acceleration means that if you miss something, or if you don’t get something right, you almost don’t have time to fix it. And even if you fix it, nobody has time to forget what wasn’t right. That means things compound, for good or ill, much faster than in a normal work environment where people spend lots of their day apart. Here, we’re together all day and all night.
We created a personal skill check list in order to let the stewards know what we expected them to learn and how many times they would be doing certain things. We also created a clear list of things stewards would NOT learn compared to the one-year apprenticeship. We developed a mission statement that accentuated the toe-dipping aspects of the stewardship program. We did not promise they’d come out master farmers, but only that they would know if this was something they wanted to pursue. That may seem like a small difference, but it’s huge because it changes perceptions. Perceptions are reality.
Last week we went through our application/selection process for next year’s apprentices and we were overjoyed — yes, even to the point of tears — that 8 of the 11 stewards wanted to stay on for the year-long apprenticeship. That made for an incredibly tough selection process and in the end we did something unprecedented: we took 4 of the 8. We’ve never taken more than 3.
The point I’m making in this post is that rather than blaming young people (they aren’t like they used to be) or just getting frustrated or depressed or quitting, we looked deeply within ourselves in a “how can we communicate and serve better” spirit. Wow. The change was not the young aspiring farmers; it was us. We invested in the time and self-examination necessary to refine and define the program and sure enough, it paid off. I remember well taking a college course in which the professor asked the question: “If the students haven’t learned, has the teacher taught?” And so in this case, we had to ask the question “if the program isn’t working, whose fault is it?” It’s ours, the leadership. Don’t blame the kids.
So our hearts are full. Our refining investment and all those planning and cogitating meetings over the winter paid off. What a game changer when we look in the mirror and realize our problem is us, not them.
Have you had a breakthrough that really occurred because you fixed procedures and didn’t blame somebody else?
— Joel Salatin, Polyface Farms
Joel Salatin brings a unique eclecticism to the food/farm discussion. In love with the land, dubious of government, quintessential entrepreneur but distrustful of anything that diminishes the commons, his perspective brings depth and breadth to the table. The idea behind this blog is to offer snippets of goings-on and just enough commentary to connect the dots.