On-Farm Apprenticeships: Labor Identities and Sociocultural Reproduction within Alternative Agrifood Movements

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Virginia Tech

On-farm apprenticeships are gaining momentum as an important strategy for beginning farmer training. They are also a space for identity work and rehearsal of alternative agrifood movement practice (AAMs; MacAuley and Niewolny, 2016; Pilgeram, 2011). AAMs embody and recursively construct values of biophysical sustainability, food quality, egalitarianism, and agrarianism (Constance, Renard, and Rivera-Ferre; 2014). However, AAMs have been critiqued for disproportionately representing upper- to middle-class white cultural norms (Allen, 2004; Guthman, 2008a; Slocum, 2007), for romanticized agrarian ideology (Carlisle, 2013), and for mechanisms reproductive of neoliberalism, which buttresses the dominant agrifood system (Guthman, 2008b). These AAM discourse elements are expressed in on-farm apprenticeships. On-farm apprenticeships are variably understood as beginning farmer training (Hamilton, 2011), as inexpensive farm labor (MacAuley and Niewolny, 2016; Pilgeram, 2011), and as sites of tension between economic and non-economic attributes (Ekers, Levkoe, Walker, and Dale, 2016). I illuminate these dynamics within on-farm apprenticeships through the complementary theoretical lenses of cultural historical activity theory (Engeström, 1999), cognitive praxis (Eyerman and Jamison, 1991), and cultural identity theory (Hall, 1996). I employ critical ethnographic case study methodology to explore issues of power, social reproduction, and equity. I conducted 53 days of participant observation, worked alongside 19 apprentices on six farms for 37 days, conducted interviews (n=25), and completed a document analysis (n=407). I observed white spaces and class-based work values re/produced, mediated by AAM discourse. Furthermore, I observed three distinct objectives within the activity system: beginning farmer training, inexpensive labor for farms, and an authentic farm lifestyle experience. In contrast to the first two, this third objective, the authentic lifestyle, resists market-based logics. Instead, logics that did govern behavior include membership in a movement; an ascetic bent; the valorization of farmers and the authentic farm lifestyle; alignment with clean, healthy, and dirty parts of the job; and communitarianism. These logics point towards the creation of a third type of nonmarket/quasimarket space (Gibson-Graham, Cameron, and Healy, 2013). I describe several considerations for on-farm apprenticeship to lead to greater equity, reproduction of viable small farm labor models, and stabilized and legitimate nonmarket understandings of what makes on-farm apprenticeship function.

Beginning Farmer, Apprenticeship, Farmworker, Farm Labor, Social Justice