Spoiler Alert 2: As you will learn, most employment laws such as minimum wage and workers’ compensation apply to interns and volunteers. This is the case even though many sustainable farms offer win-win intern and volunteer programs. The interns or volunteers enjoy the time out on the farm, gain skills, and likely enjoy some fresh, healthy farm products. The farmer gets extra help and the joy of working with community members.

Sustainable farm operations are unique from most traditional businesses. You don’t see folks lining up to volunteer at the local gas station to pump gas or at a big box retail store to work the check out lines. Sustainable farms don’t necessarily fit the mold when it comes to employment laws either. Employment laws are designed to protect the disadvantaged, which are generally the folks doing the work as opposed to the employers. Farmworkers in particular have been subjected to poor working conditions, long hours, and low to no pay.

Sustainable farmers still need to be aware of the potential power imbalance— even when shared values and mutual respect are present. Although titles like “volunteer,” “intern,” or “apprentice” convey a positive working environment, the fact that these workers do the work of the farm means employment laws generally apply. Such laws may include obligations to provide minimum wage, workers’ compensation, and contribute payroll taxes—depending on whether state or federal agricultural labor exemptions apply.

Even though the law is uncertain and has potentially harsh implications for most farm intern and volunteer programs, all is not lost. Ultimately, employment laws reflect society’s shared goals of good working environments for all. By complying with the law, the farmer is helping to ensure a positive working environment and viable livelihood for all of the farm’s workers, including volunteers and interns. State and federal enforcement actions can be time consuming, expensive, and can occur over the objections of the worker himself or herself. While keeping the farm’s interns and volunteers happy has its own benefits, it’s not always going to get the farmer out of legal obligations.

Often farmers complain that the law stifles innovation and creativity. It can be limiting to design the farm’s internship and volunteer programs based on what the law says rather than on what’s seemingly best for the community. Think of this as an opportunity. While we must first work with what we have, we can strive together to create a better system—one that better fosters innovation and creativity alongside preserving fairness and sharing power. Changing the law takes time and effort, but it can and does happen if and when enough people get behind it! The first step is understanding the law as it is.