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Legislature looking at expanding farm internship program

By Racquel Muncy, Skagit Valley Herald
Published: March 17, 2023, 7:35am

MOUNT VERNON — For more than a decade, small farms in select counties throughout the state have participated in the state Department of Labor and Industries Farm Internship Pilot Project.

What was initially a one-year pilot project in 2010 was expanded by the Legislature in 2014 to include a formal curriculum for interns and ensure the farms pay for workers’ compensation protections.

Farms in select counties throughout the state, including Skagit, with annual sales of less that $250,000 a year can apply to take part in the project, which exempts farms from minimum wage requirements.

“The goals of this project were to enable interns to safely work on small farms while learning about farming practices and obtaining hands-on experience, and to address a growing need to train the next generation of farmers,” a 2019 legislative report from Labor and Industries said.

The project is guaranteed to run through the end of 2025, but may soon become permanent.

Substitute Senate Bill 5156, which is being considered by the Legislature, would not only make the project permanent, but open it up to all counties in the state.

The bill was passed by the Senate in January and is scheduled to be heard Friday by the House’s Labor and Workplace Standards Committee.

Diane Szukovathy, co-owner of Jello Mold Farm in Mount Vernon, took part in the project from 2015 to 2019.

Although she has not taken part in the project in recent years, she said she enjoyed participating in the project.

She had extra help on her flower farm at times when labor was needed most, and the interns got on-farm educations while being covered by workers’ compensation protections in case of on-job injuries.

“I have a real passion for teaching in the flower industry,” Szukovathy said. “They were very quality experiences that were lasting.”

Szukovathy said several of her interns continued in the flower industry, including a few who have started their own flower farms.

Forest Farmstead in Rockport participated in the project when it first began and rejoined in 2021.

The project has served Forest Farmstead owner Terrance Meyer well.

“I wanted my interns to be covered (by workers’ compensation). I didn’t want that liability,” he said. “It’s a no-brainer as far as cost.”

Meyer said he usually has between one and three interns during the summer. This year, he said he will again look for interns.

Forest Farmstead primarily produces products such as beverage bitters, syrups and charcoal.

Meyer said Forest Farmstead is the only certified organic forest in the state. This can give a unique experience for the interns, while Meyer gets help with labor costs during the busiest part of the year.

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“Farming is sort of unique with there being unpaid internships … but for me, I couldn’t afford to pay them,” he said. “Smaller, sustainable agriculture is already very labor intensive.”

Meyer said he thinks the Department of Labor and Industries runs the program well, including helping with all the paperwork.

“Some programs look easy on paper, but then are not,” he said. “The bureaucracy part has been easy.”

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