Starting a Farm Internship Program
Starting a Farm Internship Program
Apprentice Paul Lambertson weighing a newborn lamb.

Starting a Farm Internship Program

by Dan Macon of Flying Mule Farm

At one time, aspiring farmers and ranchers learned much of their professions from their parents and grandparents. When the United States was largely agrarian, farming skills were learned almost by osmosis – even if a child’s immediate family didn’t farm, someone (perhaps an uncle or a grandfather) did. Summer vacations were often spent making hay, mending fences, or milking cows – not to mention swimming in the farm pond, fishing in the nearby creek or playing in the hay loft.

As more formal avenues for agricultural education took hold in the twentieth century, American agriculture seemed to lose these informal, experiential learning opportunities. Modern farmers and ranchers, according to the experts, needed formal scientific and business training. Kids who grew up on farms were encouraged to do something less financially and physically demanding – career opportunities were in agri-business, not family-scale farming.

Farming and ranching internships seem to be the twenty-first century’s answer to the need for hands-on, person-to-person education on the art, science and business of sustainable farming and ranching. Well-designed internships can provide interns with basic skills and experiences necessary to make a start in farming as a profession. For established farmers, internships can provide an opportunity to foster and inspire a new generation of producers.

Flying Mule Farm established an internship program five years ago based on interest from interns and on our own desire to ensure that a generation of farmers would follow us into the profession. Our program has evolved over the years, from its origin as a high school independent study project to the Shepherd Apprentice Program that we offer today. We have had some outstanding interns/ apprentices, and we have had some that didn’t work out as well as we’d hoped. Our most successful interns have mostly been young people who have a college or professional degree and who have realized that they wanted to farm after their formal education was concluded. Many of our interns continue to be part of the local farming community.

Any discussion of internships and apprenticeships should include a conversation about the legal aspects of these programs. Internships offered outside of the auspices of a formal educational or job training program are subject to minimum wage and workers’ compensation laws. Internships offered through these formal programs can be unpaid. Farmers and ranchers should seek advice from an employment law expert if they have questions.

Regardless of the legal questions, an internship IS NOT a source of free or cheap labor. An internship program is an exchange: I provide knowledge and experience with my animals and my land in exchange for help with specific activities. I love to teach; I’m convinced that any farmer who offers an internship should share this passion for passing along farming skills and knowledge.

In its current form, Flying Mule Farm’s Shepherd Apprentice Program offers 3-month and 12-month educational programs. Our 3-month programs are focused on specific skills related to the time of year that the apprentice is with us. For example, our January-March program is focused on our pasture-based lambing system. Our April-June program is focused on wool management and marketing. Our 12-month program provides apprentices with a year-long experience in grass-based sheep production.

Because we’re offering a relatively long-term commitment (and expecting the same level of commitment from our apprentices), we’ve developed a simple agreement that we ask every apprentice to sign. This agreement spells out our mutual goals for the program and outlines our expectations for the work environment (these expectations deal largely with safety issues – for our animals and for people). I have found it especially helpful to have our apprentices describe their goals for their time with us – we refer back to these goals during the course of the program. We also insist on a two-week trial period for all of our apprentices. We want to make sure each individual fits well with our family, our farm and our community. We also want to make sure that our apprentices are comfortable before they make a longer-term commitment. In five years, we’ve only had one potential apprentice who was dismissed during the two week trial period.

In addition to the agreement, we have developed a curriculum that our apprentices go through. This curriculum includes basic animal husbandry and land management skills that are necessary for grass-based livestock production – most of which are taught through hands-on work. We also include assigned reading that is specific to the seasonal work that we’re doing, and we offer access to our growing farming library. We schedule regular meetings to talk about the business of farming, sharing specific details about the economics of our own operation. We also work closely with our local cooperative extension advisors and other farmers to round out the experiences of our apprentices. Finally, we ask our interns to attend local or regional agricultural meetings (like our local agricultural commission meetings) as a way for them to engage in the larger farming community (and as a way for established farmers to see the new folks coming into the profession).

Starting a Farm Internship Program
Apprentices Julie House, Alice Woefle-Erskine and Courtney McDonald with their dogs, sitting on our 2010 wool clip.

Each apprentice is expected to identify and complete one on-farm project and one farm community project during the course of their stay with us. For example, Courtney McDonald (see the sidebar) produced a variety of recipes for our lamb (it helped that she was a well-respected local chef). She also organized a meeting with local restaurants and farmers that has led to increased cooperation and marketing opportunities. These projects help our apprentices start and complete something on their own initiative and to participate directly in the life of our local farming community.

Some of the benefits of our apprenticeship for our farming operation are obvious. Several of our apprentices have become part-time employees on our farm. Their knowledge of the operation and their skills have made them valuable parts of our farming team. Other benefits are perhaps less direct but equally important. Our former apprentices have largely remained active in our local agricultural community. We share work when possible – I help them and vice versa. As I grow older, I am increasingly aware of the need to pass on my experience and knowledge, and our apprenticeship program gives me great satisfaction in this vein.

For our apprentices, there are also direct benefits. Some farming skills require repetition to master. For example, one can learn how to build temporary electric fence at a half-day seminar. One becomes proficient (and efficient) at this work by doing it 200-300 times over the course of a year. A real-world situation (for example, relying on an electric fence to keep our sheep off a county road) makes the lessons of effective fence building much more meaningful!

I believe there are also indirect benefits to our apprentices. Again, I return to the idea of fostering a healthy farming community. New ideas and new faces are needed, and apprentices can serve this role. Another indirect benefit may be learning that the realities (economic and otherwise) of farming are not as attractive as originally thought. While I measure the success of our program in part by the number of apprentices who have gone on to start their own farm businesses, I also measure our success by the number of apprentices who have a greater appreciation of farming but who have decided it’s not a career for them. Lastly, one of my previous interns described the tangible benefits of our program like this:

“By the end of the apprenticeship, you’re in much better shape physically, and you’ll likely end up with a dog and a pick-up.”

There are downsides to an internship or apprenticeship program. Farmers who don’t like teaching will not likely enjoy the extra time spent answering the “why” about a certain activity – in other words, explaining why you’re doing something a certain way often delays the completion of the task. Interns that live on the farm should be a good fit with the rest of the family; an intern that doesn’t respect the family’s privacy and life outside of farming can be a problem. Sometimes interns have priorities that differ from the farms priorities on a certain day, and since an intern is not actually an employee, the farm doesn’t have much leverage in this situation. Finally, sometimes an internship requires the farmer to take his most productive employee (himself) off of a particular task to allow an intern to learn from doing. For example, we ask all of our apprentices to eventually handle one of our farmers’ markets on their own. In most cases, we see a drop in revenue at that market (at least initially), but our apprentices appreciate the learning opportunity this provides.

While some interns learn very quickly, others may never take on a level of responsibility necessary for successful farming. Some folks are satisfied to be professional interns – I think it allows them avoid the accountability and responsibility that come with owning a farm business. Others never understand the difference between finishing the work at hand and the traditional end of the work day. If the last of the sheep aren’t shorn by 5 p.m., we keep working – vastly different than an office environment.

We have marketed our apprenticeship in a variety of ways. We list our program on the ATTRA (Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas) website ( With ATTRA’s loss of federal funding, this listing is no longer free, but it seems to be the most widely read by potential apprentices. We also include information about our apprenticeship on our social media, and the ATTRA listing sends people to our social media for more detailed information. I’ve developed a flyer which I distribute at meetings and in our farmers’ market stall. We’ve also found that our customers are a great source of referrals – several of our best interns were referred to us by folks who purchased our lamb.

We do not offer housing as part of our program, although we will work with apprentices to find local housing (generally with a customer or a fellow farmer). Most of our apprentices, however, have come from the local community, so housing has not been an issue. While the ATTRA listing has been great, it mostly attracts interest from outside of our region. We’ve found that housing is a consideration for most of the potential apprentices that come to us through the ATTRA list.

Looking back at our first five years of offering an internship program, we’ve been pleased with our results. We stay in touch with all of our interns, and in many cases still work with them. I find teaching to be incredibly rewarding; as I grow older, I’m increasingly aware of the need to share my knowledge and experiences. I’m also amazed by how much I’ve learned from our interns – about working with others and about our own farming operation.

Starting a Farm Internship Program
Courtney McDonald and one of her first East Friesian ewes (Cleo).

SIDEBAR: An Ex-Intern’s Perspective

by Courtney McDonald

I began my internship with Flying Mule Farm in February of 2009. Growing up, my family had a small hobby farm – complete with 2 or 3 of every farm animal you can imagine. My chores as a kid included the daily feeding and watering of livestock, as well as milking dairy goats. Later in life I became a professional chef and lived in and worked in big cities across the country, but in the back of my mind I always thought about farming as a career. After several years of working in restaurants I finally applied to become a farm apprentice with Flying Mule Farm – what better way to learn the basics of grass-fed lamb and animal husbandry? And raising food was certainly related to my cooking background.

Being an intern has many benefits to someone with minimal farming experience. You are able to learn by observing, doing, making mistakes and asking questions. Much of this is hands-on experience and is hard to come by in a typical classroom setting. I found that repeating necessary tasks on a daily basis was a wonderful teaching tool. And learning the behaviors of other animals by watching and interacting with them is critical to the success of a future livestock farmer.

For a farmer exploring the idea of an internship or apprenticeship program I think there are a few important things to consider. It was nice to break up the everyday work with other activities. I found Flying Mule Farm’s “intern project” quite a motivating way to be more involved in the farm. It was a way to incorporate my own ideas into the larger umbrella of the farm, and allowed me to use my existing skills in a new way – both for a discussion among local restaurants/ farmers and creating recipes using Flying Mule Farm products. For the farmer, I would imagine that this could be a way to recognize the strengths of your interns that you may not have thought about previously.

I think a list of expectations by both farmer and intern are important to keep everyone on track during the internship. Just as a mission statement is important when starting a new business, a reasonable set of expectations and goals is great to refer to so that all parties feel their time was well spent. An outline of seasonal tasks and important dates would be helpful for a new intern so that they have a rough idea of what to expect, even if timing is subject to change.

There are specific times that I look back on as exceptionally valuable, learning-wise. One was a day very early on when I had to process (dock and castrate) 10 lambs that were born on the same day – unexpectedly and without supervision. I admit I was nervous, but by the 10th lamb I felt like a pro! Another time I had to contain a group of sheep and goats that had escaped from their paddock and scattered over several acres. I was on foot and it took me a couple of hours, but I worked through the frustration and got the job done. Being forced to think quickly and on my own worked out well in both cases. It’s important to remember that every experience is something to learn from, and that some of the most stressful or unpleasant jobs will end up being those that hold the most value later on (I have since gotten a border collie…and a truck!).

I would also suggest keeping a journal – even if it’s only a few sentences describing each day. I admit that though I started out with good intentions, I quickly gave up writing much down. I truly regret that decision. Even something as simple as a calendar with vaccinations dates and lambing information would be helpful to me today.

With the encouragement of Flying Mule Farm and the local farming community, I have decided my farming future is in a sheep dairy in Placer County. As of today I have four East Freisian dairy ewes and one crossbred dairy ewe who will be lambing this spring. For the past few years I’ve been hand-milking one or two ewes, but next year the real work begins. I am slowly building my own dairy flock using the principles of grass-based livestock learned during my internship with Flying Mule Farm. My goal one day is to be milking 24 ewes, making my own aged cheeses, and eventually grade A milk products as well. I hope to inspire my young daughter to follow me into farming…or at least to carry an appreciation for it with her through life!

Flying Mule Farm Shepherd Apprenticeship Program

the particulars – a working model

Flying Mule Farm’s Shepherd Apprenticeship Program offers an exceptional hands-on learning experience in all aspects of grass-based sheep production. Whether you are an experienced shepherd or exploring sustainable sheep production as a possible business enterprise, our Shepherd Apprentice Program will provide you with the skills, tools and experience you need to make an informed decision about grass-based sheep production.

About Flying Mule Farm: Dan and Samia Macon have raised sheep for 20 years. In 2001, the Macon Family established Flying Mule Farm, a small, diversified operation that produces grass-fed meat, sustainable forest products and pastured poultry. We are in the process of expanding our operation to include 500 ewes, and we also manage meat goats and beef cows in our operation. Recently, we have added a very small dairy sheep enterprise.

The Flying Mule Farm Shepherd Apprenticeship: Our apprenticeship program is divided into four quarters. Applicants have the option of apprenticing for any one or as many as four quarters. Each quarter includes hands-on experience in animal husbandry, pasture management, marketing and business management. In addition, specific practices (like pasture lambing, irrigation management and contract grazing) are season- specific.

Curriculum: In addition to hands-on experience in our sheep operation, we expect our apprentices to read extensively about grass-based livestock production, sustainable agriculture and direct marketing. We are active participants in our local agricultural community, and we encourage our apprentices to participate along with us. We also design season-specific projects for each apprentice to help them gain confidence and experience in self-directed activities. We use herding and guardian dogs extensively, and you’ll have the opportunity to learn about stockmanship and sheep dogs from nationally-recognized experts.

  • First Quarter (January – March) – LAMBING Hands-on experience includes ewe management, electric fencing, pasture lambing systems, temporary shelter construction, lamb processing and marketing, and business management.
  • Second Quarter (April – June) – SHEARING/ WEANING Experience includes lamb management, shearing preparation, skirting fleeces, wool marketing, weaning and lamb management, lamb processing and marketing, and business management. Late lambing and spring breeding also occur during this quarter.
  • Third Quarter (July – September) – IRRIGATION MANAGEMENT, WOOL MARKETING AND TARGETED GRAZING Experience includes hands-on pasture irrigation management, soils management and conservation, contract and targeted grazing, grass finishing of lambs, lamb processing and marketing, and business management.
  • Fourth Quarter (October – December) – BREEDING MANAGEMENT AND TARGETED GRAZING Experience includes breeding preparation and management, ram selection and management, fall lambing, targeted grazing, lamb processing and marketing, and business management.

Sustainable Forestry Option: We also offer an option for our apprentices to learn about our sustainable forestry enterprise. We are helping to manage a local tree farm to increase forest health, reduce wildfire threat, and adapt to climate change. We produce firewood, peeled poles and custom-milled lumber.

Terms of Apprenticeship: During this apprenticeship we will provide you with semi-formal instruction, a one-of-a-kind reading list including materials from our own extensive library, and handson experience in all aspects of sheep husbandry and marketing. You will compensate us with your labor on the farm.

Housing: We will assist you in finding local housing. Since our operation exists on both owned and leased land, you must have a vehicle and a valid driver’s license.

Expectations and Schedule: Hours of work in exchange for teaching will be arranged to suit both of our schedules, and will vary based on the season. For this to be a positive experience, you should:

  • Have a strong desire to learn the business of grass-based sheep production and marketing;
  • Enjoy working with animals; and
  • Be very strong, healthy, physically fit, and love working outdoors.

For our part, we will do our best to make your Flying Mule Farm experience:

  • Fun;
  • Challenging;
  • Rewarding; and
  • Highly educational

You will leave our Apprenticeship Program with the skills and knowledge necessary to start your own grass- based livestock business or to expand your existing enterprise.

For more information:

Flying Mule Farm Shepherd Apprenticeship Curriculum

I. Animal Husbandry

  • Preventative care – vaccinations
  • Medical care – common diseases/conditions and treatments
  • Internal and external parasites
  • Nutrition and Body Condition Scoring
  • Foot care
  • Giving injections safely
  • Genetics
  • Breeding management
  • Lambing
  • Livestock Water


  • Handbook for Raising Small Numbers of Sheep (University of California)
  • Flying Mule Farm Sheep Management Guidelines
  • Choosing the Right Sheep (Dan Macon)


  • Demonstrate ability to safely give injections
  • Demonstrate ability to trim feet

II. Pasture management and Nutritional Supplement

  • Basic soils information
  • Plant growth
  • Nutrient, energy and water cycles
  • Fencing
  • Annual rangelands
  • Irrigated pasture
  • Grass finishing
  • Forage Quantity and Quality throughout the year


  • Principles of Controlled Grazing (Roger Ingram)
  • Pasture Ecology (Roger Ingram)
  • More Sheep, More Grass, More Money (Peter Schroedter)
  • All Flesh is Grass (Gene Logsdon)


  • Manage intern flock

III. Stockmanship and Grazing Behavior

  • Low-stress handling techniques
  • Handling facilities
  • Using stock dogs
  • Role of animal behavior in a grazing system


  • Belief and the Will to do It (Roger Ingram and Bud Williams)
  • The Farmer’s Dog (John Holmes)
  • Stockmanship (Steve Cote)
  • Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men (Donald McCaig)
  • Behave Website


  • Move sheep to new paddock without use of herding dogs
  • Move sheep through corrals

IV. Predator protection

  • Guardian dogs
  • Llamas
  • Donkeys


  • USDA publication on guard dogs

V. Wool management

  • Shearing management
  • Shearing techniques
  • Wool marketing


  • Wool Away! (Godfrey Bowen)
  • Making More Money from Sheep website – wool module


  • Assist in annual shearing
  • Demonstrate ability to skirt and pack fleeces

VI. Lamb processing

  • Regulations
  • Cuts of lamb and their uses
  • Economics
  • Other products
  • Pelts
  • Mutton
  • Pet food
  • Fresh mutton
  • Sausage
  • Reading
  • Research cuts of lamb on the web


  • Processing and marketing pelts

VII. Marketing

  • Farmers’ markets
  • Restaurants
  • Buyer’s clubs and CSA’s
  • Retail
  • Wholesale
  • Live animal marketing


  • Marketing Strategies for Small-Scale Ranchers (powerpoint)


  • Processing and marketing pelts

VIII. Contract Grazing

  • Setting goals for vegetation management
  • Estimating cost and time
  • Liability issues
  • Public relations


  • Sheep can’t read and other tales (Dan Macon)


  • Prepare a grazing contract estimate, including all expenses (guard dog, stock water, labor to set up fence and keep moving it, mineral, etc.)

IX. Business management

  • Business planning
  • Record keeping
  • Financial records


  • Pre-reading for UCCE business planning course


  • Do an enterprise analysis