Creation of an Organic Vegetable Farm Manager Apprenticeship Program in Wisconsin

eOrganic authors:

Laura Jessee Livingston, Agroecology Graduate Program, University of Wisconsin Madison

Claire Strader, University of Wisconsin Extension and Fair Share CSA Coalition

Julie Dawson, Department of Horticulture, University of Wisconsin Madison


In this article, we describe the creation of an Organic Vegetable Farm Manager Apprenticeship program by Wisconsin stakeholders. We hope to inform interested organizations and individuals about the process of developing an accredited agriculture apprenticeship program with organic vegetable farmers.

Why an Organic Vegetable Apprenticeship Program in Wisconsin?

The principles and practices of farming must be learned as one would learn any other skilled profession: through experience and training by an expert in the field. An increasing number of aspiring farmers do not grow up on farms; a 2017 national survey indicated that 75 percent of farmers under the age of 40 did not grow up on a farm (National Young Farmers Coalition Survey, 2017), leaving a gap in the traditional system of farming knowledge transfer. Similarly, a survey of novice vegetable growers conducted by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection identified the lack of production knowledge as one of the three largest barriers for new farmers (Paine et al., 2015).

Meanwhile, established organic vegetable farmers struggle to find reliable, skilled farm workers (Strochlic et al. 2008; Rosenberg et al. 2002). As farms grow, they must hire more staff and will often develop manager-level positions to share in farm responsibilities and decision making. This organic vegetable apprenticeship program responds to both of these needs by providing accessible, hands-on training for beginning farmers who are then ready to step into managerial roles, often on the farms where they apprenticed, or potentially start a farm of their own.

Program Development

Stakeholder Meeting

The idea for the apprenticeship program was inspired by the success of the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship (DGA), which also began in Wisconsin. In March of 2016, Julie Dawson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison) and Claire Strader of Dane County UW-Extension and FairShare CSA Coalition organized a stakeholder meeting to gather organic farmers, agricultural educators, and representatives from the Department of Workforce Development (DWD) of the State of Wisconsin to discuss the idea. The goal of the first meeting was to gather a diverse group to identify priorities of the farmers and to ensure that an apprenticeship program would meet needs, emphasize strengths, and attract farmers from all backgrounds. Thirteen farmers, eight agricultural educators, and two representatives from DWD attended the stakeholder meeting. All stakeholders stated their commitment to participating in the creation of the apprenticeship program.

Apprenticeship Structure

The apprenticeship structure follows the general structure of apprenticeship programs formed through the Wisconsin Bureau of Apprenticeship Standards (a division of the DWD). On-the-job learning is the most substantial component of any apprenticeship program (90 percent), while classwork makes up a smaller proportion (10 percent). Apprentices are paid an hourly rate for both their on-the-job and classroom training. The DWD labels the classroom experience as Paid-Related Instruction (PRI) and on-farm learning as On-the-Job Training (OJT).

The OJT expectations are detailed in a Job Book. The Job Book serves both as a reference for farmers and apprentices as they work through detailed farming skills and as a checklist to ensure that apprentices develop competency in all required skills. The final Job Book is broken down into a series of Duties, Tasks, and Steps.

The PRI is delivered through the Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS) through courses designed specifically for the apprenticeship. While apprentices are paid by their employers to attend the classes, apprentices are responsible for paying any course fees. Apprentices take four credits at a cost of $158 per credit.

Apprentice and farmer educator pair sign an Apprenticeship Contract at the beginning of the program. The contract contains information on the OJT and PRI and standards of the program. The Apprentice Contract is an agreement between the state of Wisconsin, the apprentice, and the sponsor outlining the training program.


After receiving positive feedback from stakeholders, the DWD offered to facilitate the creation of the apprenticeship curriculum and standards. A process called DACUM: Designing A Curriculum (Norton, 1998) guided this work. The DWD defines DACUM as the foundation for development of education, training and performance improvement interventions, using information gathered from high-performers within an occupation during a focus group process. DWD has facilitated the DACUM process to create registered apprenticeships across many sectors of the economy, averaging 12,000 registered apprentices a year.

During the DACUM process, high-performers within an occupation are referred to as subject-matter experts. The subject-matter experts for the development of this apprenticeship program were 12 organic vegetable farmers in Wisconsin. All sold to fresh markets, including Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), farmers’ markets, restaurants and local groceries.

A trained facilitator guided the subject-matter experts in unpacking the essential tasks of their profession at the DACUM 1 meeting. Each farmer wrote up to 10 common daily tasks on post-it notes and placed them on the wall. Farmers then organized the post-it notes into “common buckets.” Those groupings of common activities were discussed and overarching “Duties” were identified. Activities such as the ones on each post-it note were organized into “Tasks.”

The facilitators were unfamiliar with the daily responsibilities and jargon of organic vegetable farming. Farmers were forced to explain terms that would be obvious to someone working in their field. Explaining daily farm tasks at a basic level helped farmers identify learning objectives for the apprenticeship program and begin to think as farmer-educators. During DACUM 1, and throughout the rest of the process, decision-making was done through discussion and consensus. The goal was for the final apprenticeship program to represent the experiences and knowledge of organic farmers.

Validation Survey

The Duties and Tasks outlined by the subject-matter experts at DACUM 1 were sent to organic vegetable farmers, extension agents, and agricultural non-profits around Wisconsin for feedback in the form of an online validation survey. The survey allowed stakeholders to mark the frequency, importance, and criticality of each Task; these three values were used to determine the overall importance of the Duties and Tasks. Results of the survey also allowed us to identify information that subject-matter experts may have overlooked.


The validation survey results informed subject-matter experts as they reviewed and finalized the Duties and Tasks during DACUM 2. With the help of the facilitators subject-matter experts they then divided each task into three categories: best learned in a classroom, best learned on-farm, or best learned in both settings. These categories would distinguish tasks that would be laid out in the Job Book and the tasks that would be covered by the in-class curriculum.

Next, farmers discussed which of three apprenticeship types would best suit this new program. The three types are competency, hours-based, or a hybrid model. After some debate, the farmers settled on the competency model. A competency model requires farmer-educators to observe and assess the apprentice’s mastery of Tasks in the Job Book. By basing program requirements on mastering competencies rather than time spent in program, farmer-instructors could be more flexible with the time necessary to complete the apprenticeship. Subject-matter experts agreed on an estimated program length of two farm seasons or 1.5 years. However, if an experienced apprentice demonstrates mastery of tasks within one season, their completion certificate could be awarded after completing required classroom training. There is no statewide maximum for time to complete the apprenticeship program.

Working Groups

After the program basics were decided, stakeholders divided into two working groups. Since the working group sessions would need to take place over the summer when the farmers were out in the field and unable to meet in person, we worked to complete a Job Book draft with extensive input and feedback from farmers. Julie Dawson of UW-Madison and Valerie Dantoin, from WTCS, worked with farmers and other educators to create the course curriculum.

The Duties and Tasks finalized during DACUM 2 were the beginnings of the Job Book. Next, the DWD required a list of Steps detailing each Task. We created draft Steps and gathered detailed input on those steps from the farmers. Our goal was to note both consensus and disagreement on specific steps in order to seed the draft Job Book discussion at the final approval meeting of the farmers and DWD in November.

Dawson, Dantoin, and two farmers worked to develop the course curriculum, which would make up about 10 percent of the apprenticeship program. The DWD requires that every apprenticeship program must have a minimum of 144 hours of paid related instruction per year. Based on the estimated length of the program, a 114 hour-minimum was required for training in the classroom for the organic vegetable apprenticeship program. The Wisconsin Institute of Technical Colleges (WITC) agreed to create new courses specific to the organic agriculture apprenticeship program and provide space for the apprenticeship program with short courses offered in the winter. Short courses would allow condensed time commitment of the apprentices. Additionally, the courses would be shaped around the content needs of the apprenticeship program; apprentices would not have to work around existing coursework or availability of classes.

Dantoin, who is also an organic farmer, bridged the agricultural and educational world to create the course curriculum structure. The working group organized an outline of three courses based on the PRI material identified during DACUM 2. Dantoin, Dawson and the working group grouped related tasks into three courses that were feasible for both the apprentices and WTCS. The first course focuses on organic systems, planning rotations, fertility, and field management includes both online and in-person components. Course two is entirely in-person and focuses on production, including greenhouse management and food safety with a significant hands-on component. The last course covers business management and marketing and will be taught online. Courses will be taught by an instructor that has the knowledge of someone that has graduated from the program and could take on their own apprentices. For the first few years, the course will be taught by an experienced organic vegetable grower that has been hired by WTCS as an instructor. In the future, successful former apprentices could become the course instructors.

Final Approval

In December 2017 stakeholders met for approval of the Job Book and the course curriculum developed by working groups. First, farmers discussed the minimum qualifications for applicants and farmer-instructors of the apprenticeship program. Minimum qualifications for applicants would be 18 years of age or more; a high school diploma, GED, or equivalent; a valid government-issued photo ID; and physical ability to perform tasks. These are also the WI statewide requirements for apprenticeship programs.

For the farmer-instructors, subject-matter experts agreed that farmers would require a current, valid organic certification from an accredited organization. All farmers agreed that the farm where an apprentice is employed needs to have been in business for at least one year, which is the maximum allowed by the DWD. Subject-matter experts indicated a desire to set higher standards for farmer-educators. This was a topic of intense discussion that will likely be resolved by moving to an organizational sponsor for the program such as for the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship program which sets higher standards for farmer-instructors. Farmers debated on how many crops a farmer educator must have to take part in the apprenticeship program, could a farmer growing a few organic vegetable crops for wholesale markets host an apprentice? Subject-matter experts decided there would be no crop minimum for farmer-instructors and no direct marketing related task requirements, as long as the farmer-instructor was able to train apprentices in all required parts of the Job Book. As apprentices are able to evaluate the farm they will be working for before signing the Apprenticeship Contract, they will know the farm’s crop mix and marketing strategies, so this allows the program to be flexible for apprentices that might want to learn on a more specialized organic vegetable farm. All the farmers participating were fairly diversified but wanted to ensure the program would be appealing to a range of farm types.

The DWD requires that apprentices work a minimum of thirty-two hours a week while in active apprenticeship status. As employees, apprentices are paid an hourly wage. Farmer-instructors can choose what they pay apprentices individually, but the DWD also requires that apprentices earn at least sixty percent of what a journey worker, or skilled organic vegetable farm manager, makes on average over the entire course of the apprenticeship program. Journeyworker wage may be different on different farms, thus the wage progression may be different as well. For example, an organic vegetable farm manager could earn $13.50 an hour, working up to that wage over the course of the apprenticeship from $8.00 an hour. This example is based off a 2015 from a FairShare CSA Coalition survey of organic farm manager wages in Wisconsin. Increases in wages can be linked to proficiency in competencies and/or length of time in program or other relevant metrics.

In order to account for differing seasonal work cycles, the Apprentice Contract can pause and move into “unassigned status” when work is not available and resume “active status” when it is. An unassignment of an apprentice is a temporary interruption of the apprenticeship program, normally for more than 30 days. Unassigned status is used for the purpose of stopping the time counting toward the apprenticeship and starting it again without the need for the apprentice to go through the application process. The unassigned status should not last longer than a year. Alternatively, if farmers wish to employ apprentices year-round, the apprentices would be able to work part-time in winter while taking classes. Apprentices can also transfer between apprenticeship programs and within an apprenticeship program. This transfer must be based on an agreement between the apprentice and the affected apprenticeship committees and farmer educator. A transferred apprentice must be evaluated and given full credit for previous experience.

Evaluation and Future Plans

The organic farm manager apprenticeship program was reviewed and approved by the Bureau of Apprenticeship Standards on June 1st, 2018. Strader with UW-Extension and the FairShareCSA Coalition and Dawson with UW-Madison will provide educational support to the farmer instructors and the apprentices. Initially, farmer-instructors and apprentices are being paired by farmers selecting current employees who wish to further their agricultural knowledge in a formalized way. In the future, participants will also be recruited online and through listservs. The DWD will pursue federal recognition for the apprenticeship, which would make it available to other states.

Supported participants in the apprenticeship program will graduate with the skills and knowledge to enter a career in organic vegetable farm management. Apprentice and farmer evaluations will be used to improve the program and make in-course corrections as needed. All partners will assess learning outcomes and effectiveness of learning after first season in summative evaluations, revise the learning design by incorporating feedback from assessment and re-deploy. The program will continue to evolve with farmer and apprentice needs.

We will conduct bi-monthly phone calls to apprentices and farmers from May 2018 until April 2019 to ensure that each is satisfied with the match and the apprenticeship program. In addition, will collect evaluations of the apprenticeship program and compile feedback to improve the following season of apprenticeship enrollment. Future records will include the number of apprentices that graduate the program and continue a career in sustainable agriculture.

The Dairy Grazers Apprenticeship Program received funding to support educating the educators in their apprenticeship program. Support staff are hoping to receive funding to establish a similar teacher training capstone workshop that will focus on practical skills development for farmer educators. This workshop would not be a basic overview of instructional methods but would instead focus on specific skill sets that farmers identify as difficult to teach or learn.

The end product of this process: a formal apprenticeship program, registered with state and potentially federal departments of labor, gives structure and support to on-farm training and related instruction in organic vegetable farm management. States that have apprenticeship standards bureaus can use the Organic Vegetable Farm Manager template for the state to adopt with modifications as needed. States that do not run their own apprenticeship programs can only adopt the template as is.

Sustainability & Support

Every registered apprenticeship program has “sponsors” who are responsible for the overall operation of the program. A sponsor can be an individual businesses, a consortium of businesses, or third-party organizations. The program sponsors may require additional qualifications (beyond the set minimums) to apply for the program, may set the wage minimum of the program, and can shape the program over time. The default for the DWD is for individual employers to be the sponsors for the program with support from DWD staff. Regional officers of the Bureau of Apprenticeship Standards will support apprentices and farmer-educators in finding matches through the completion of the certificate.

This apprenticeship will be sponsored by individual farms in 2018. We are also working with the FairShare CSA Coalition as a third-party sponsor for 2019. As a third-party sponsor, FairShare would be able to help match farmers and apprentices, facilitate paperwork, and provide ongoing support for all program participants. In the final approval meeting, the farmers agreed that they would like to require at least five years of experience for potential farmer-instructors. The most the DWD can screen for is one year in business. Because FairShare already has a robust farmer-vetting process, the greater experience requirement could be added and would lend greater credibility to the program. FairShare will also be able to collaborate with additional organizations such as UW-Extension, UW-Madison, the Midwest Organic Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) and others to provide outreach and support for the apprenticeship overall.


Development of the apprenticeship program emphasized participation and ownership by experienced organic farmers from Wisconsin. Farmers are the best source of information regarding their occupation; their participation generates strong support and buy-in. The farmers who shaped the apprenticeship program and curriculum were experts in diversified organic agriculture. For the successful development of the apprenticeship program, farmers’ opinions need to be heard and reflected in the final product. We hope that the job book and curriculum developed through this process will be useful to other states. They are available on the apprenticeship website at However, we recommend working with local farmers to ensure the apprenticeship program reflects the field of organic agriculture in your region.

References and Citations

Additional Resources



Published November 27, 2018

This is an eOrganic article and was reviewed for compliance with National Organic Program regulations by members of the eOrganic community. Always check with your organic certification agency before adopting new practices or using new materials. For more information, refer to eOrganic's articles on organic certification.