2012 Apprenticeships have been filled
Thank you for your interest
Here is a little more in depth information on how Smith Meadows serves to promote sustainable agriculture through our apprenticeship program. Feel free to contact us via email for more information on how the program is structured and when a new position will be available.
Smithfield Farm is an eighth-generation family farm on the Virginia/West Virginia border just outside of Berryville, Virginia. Roughly 500 acres, the farm is entirely pasture-based, and is devoted to growing livestock in a year-round, sustainable, environmentally sensitive manner. Our primary species are cattle, swine, sheep, laying chickens and meat chickens. Although we are not certified organic, our practices adhere very closely to an organic philosophy, and in many ways exceed current conventional organic standards. Emphasis is also placed on animal behavior, handling, birthing and reproduction, as well as processing and marketing.
The farm is our sole source of income; therefore, effective marketing is key to keeping our farm alive. All of our products are direct-marketed to our customers, with many of whom we have developed personal relationships, as well. We sell our produce at farmers’ markets in Takoma Park, MD, Arlington, Del Ray, and Falls Church in VA, and Dupont Circle and Chevy Chase in Washington D.C. We also service a handful of local restaurants and health food stores, and directly from the farm at a small, self-service stand. Local customers come, find what they want, weigh it and calculate the price themselves, and put the money in a tin in the store, and make their own change. It’s nice to live in a community where we are comfortable trusting people with our money!
How to think about our apprenticeships
We hire TWO apprentices each year. We see the program at our farm as an opportunity for people with some interest in farming to learn more about what is involved in producing and selling livestock sustainably.
Unlike many small farms, ours is our sole source of income, with no direct funding from non-profit organizations, educational foundations, or off-the-farm income. So we must consider not only the environmental but also the economic impact of our decisions, since the economic viability of our farm is the key to our short-term survival. Thus, an experience here provides a good picture of how we balance these two worlds, and strive to have a farm that is “sustainable” to the environment and the farm itself.
We seek people with open minds, ready to learn. Preconceived notions about farming often are different from the realities, and what works well when described in a book doesn’t work the same way every time. We encourage everyone to be wholly involved with the farm, and to learn the lessons that we’re constantly learning as our agricultural education continues.
The main question potential apprentices should ask themselves is how well they would thrive working long hours outside in all kinds of weather and conditions. Despite the romantic notions associated with traditional agricultural life, the main features of farming are very practical and even mundane. Everyone involved in small-scale sustainable farming spends many hours with simple, repetitive tasks (for example, depending on the time of year, our chickens might be reliably laying 500 eggs a day, each of which need to be potentially washed, graded, cartoned and refrigerated each and every day). Baling hay, repairing and building fence, feeding and checking livestock and loading trucks are routine, and sometimes must be completed daily for the farm to function. Occasionally, this means working in the rain, the heat, the cold, the wind, or the gnat-filled air, only to do it again the next day. While the work is seldom very strenuous, the hours can be long, and most people new to farming go through a week or two of physical adjustment to the work.
Of course, the same things that make farming difficult make it enjoyable. Working outside is often relaxing and fun, and lends to good conversation. It’s satisfying to raise healthy, flourishing and gently cared for animals, and then meet the appreciative customers who have placed their trust in you as a producer. The romantic notions of country living do come from real experiences. We’ve made a very deliberate decision to farm, and despite its difficulties, we believe it’s worth it.
Another thing you should know before coming is the importance of performing a variety of tasks correctly and efficiently. On our farm, this is crucially important: an entire season of progress can be wiped out by mishandling a steer as it is loaded for slaughter, or by not following proper sanitation procedures when butchering our chickens. In short, we will strive not only to teach you how begin a project, but also how to follow it to completion with the greatest possible efficiency and craftsmanship.
Additionally, we have weekly farmers’ markets stands to run, and restaurant orders to fill. In all of these markets, customers hold us directly responsible for the quality and quantity of products available. There are hundreds of details involved in farming, and each one is important to the smooth operation of the farm. Farmers need to think about and attempt to improve techniques for the simplest of tasks.
Although we respect and encourage original ideas, apprentices will be given plenty of constructive criticism until we are all working to a standard. You should know that criticism is not personal, and that we have no expectations of maximum efficiency as you learn tasks. We do, however, expect apprentices to pay attention to how well they are working, and to try to improve their work over the course of the season. Keep in mind, this is our system we are teaching to you; although we will inevitably learn things together over the course of a season, our program is built to teach you our methods in the best way we know how. We don’t demand that you “love” our system, just that you will respect it, and do your best.
Every farm is unique, so even experience with another farm system may not directly transfer to our farm. There are some specific ways that we, and our apprentices, should always do things (daily morning chores, for example). By the same token, we’re always learning and trying to improve. The perspective, experience and knowledge you bring with you could well improve our farm.
How is an apprenticeship different from a farm-work job?
As you might guess, the most basic and vital education on our farm will come through learning to do the daily tasks of farming efficiently. Apprentices learn whether the work of farming is something they’d like to do for a lifetime, or if one or two seasons of farming are enough. Emphasis is placed on learning real, valuable skills that can translate into a profitable future operation for the apprentice. At a minimum, you will end up being a more aware, knowledgeable citizen and consumer.
We also put the techniques we use into the larger context of our farm and agriculture in America in general. We give thorough introductions of different projects as they unfold. As well as learning about the importance and reasoning behind the daily tasks of our farm, you will learn how we fit the various tasks together. As the season progresses, we will explain the timing of various tasks, and how we prioritize them. The trick is not to get far behind on anything by coming up with a good plan for each day, keeping the whole farm picture in mind. We make every effort to share the week’s tasks ahead of time, so interns can begin to understand the big picture.
In addition to practical farming techniques, we also try to remain fairly transparent with our finances. Part of our teaching involves budgetary planning, investment strategies, and expectations of return on invested capital. Our goal is to give you a realistic glimpse of what to expect if you choose to start your own operation, as well as share successes and failures that we have personally encountered in the past, so you might benefit from our experience.
TWO annual field trips to other area farms, greenhouses, and orchards as part of work time are also included. These visits can be a lot of fun, and we all learn from them. We know many local farms, and hope to visit places that are specifically interesting to members of the group.
Independent projects that contribute to the farm, such as growing a particular crop on a small scale, improving our market displays, building a useful storage structure, or helping to develop or update our website, might also be arranged.