Internships: a Path to Free Labour, Free Education and Fun

I love having interns around. The flush of new energy and enthusiasm onto the property is always fun. Having been involved with a number of similar programs in the past, I thought I’d share a few things I’ve found valuable along the way.

To make sure everyone has a high quality experience, at Mulloon Creek Natural Farms (home of The Mulloon Institute), we limit our intern numbers to 3 or 4 people. We do this firstly for the intern’s benefit; there are only so many people who can tow the keyline plough or set up tape for the cattle before you have people standing around twiddling their thumbs. From the farm’s perspective, if you run around implementing too much, you can end up with a management nightmare on your hands, and from a social point of view, it means we get to really know the interns well and remain friends, with a keen interest in what they get up to down the track.

Being a commercial enterprise, we’ve made our program cost neutral for the interns. We recognise that the labour benefit to the commercial enterprises offsets the time, effort and cost in housing, feeding, training and providing interesting experiences for the interns.

When we’re talking volunteer labour, that doesn’t mean it’s free. I learnt much of what I know by getting close to those I wanted to learn from and giving all I had. In return, most shared their knowledge and experience, but some didn’t, and they didn’t keep me for long, nor did I recommend anyone else to visit. That’s not what I want here.

What is it that interns are after? It’s pretty obvious: knowledge, experience, and for most, diversity. That means that as well as the day to day work of egg collecting and fencing work, it’s important to mix in plenty of good learning opportunities.

Resident meat-man Danny sharing a thing or two about pig to plate

To keep people happy, you do have to be willing to give a lot. Halfway through our initial program I knew I was on the right track when Adam said, “It’s more like free education than free labour.” Knowing the labour value that we were receiving at the same time, this was evidence of a great win-win situation. To hear Julianne say, “In 2 years of volunteering, this is the first place that wanted to actually teach us something”, was also pleasing to hear (and a bit of a worry at the same time).

The pink dots in the background are a portion of the hundreds of trees Adam had planted

Leaving their mark

When a person puts effort and heart into a project, it sticks around. Take Dave Mattinson who was with us in Spring last year. Dave loves trees…

… and while he was here, he took the reins on a big project in our tableland country where we implemented contoured shelterbelts (to complement the grazing enterprise and provide valuable timber to folks down the track). With the help of the others, he surveyed the tree belt positions, did the ground-prep and then planted thousands of trees.

It’s nice now that every time I see the trees growing well over there I think of Dave and send him the odd photo to keep him in touch.

The fact that from his time here, along with his vast experience from the past, Dave is now setting up a hydration and tree planting design and implementation business is awesome (check out Chain of Ponds Permaculture in the near future if you’re in the Coffs Harbour region).


It’s also inspiring to get to give people experiences they wouldn’t easily come across otherwise.

Take earthworks for example, where Rohan, David and Julianne got to survey a bunch of swales and wetlands….

… and then witness the water lapping at the base of the pegs they had knocked in the first time the system filled. Rohan’s excitement at what could be done for such a reasonable price was very satisfying in itself, coming from a man experienced in bush regeneration.


As well as extra hands around the chooks and cattle, or getting trees in the ground, there are certainly some jobs that arise when it is great to have a couple of extra hands around…

… but like I said before, this must be balanced by interesting and valuable experiences. One example is visiting the farms of pioneers in the region. Dave’s feedback from these visits was that “they are like a holiday” which is the whole point. (Despite the holiday feeling, we always make it worthwhile for the people we’re visiting too by putting in a few good hours of solid work in return for a personal tour with some of the best in their fields.)

The boys chatting with John Priestley, in my opinion one of Australia’s best farmers

And some jobs, it’s just nice to have others around to laugh at the crazy situation you’re in, like emptying barrels of fish waste to make potent liquid fertiliser.

Check out Dave’s face

Julianne, far more composed

And me only just holding it all in

Human bodies

One huge bonus of having interns is the ability to use hand labour. Something which was the backbone of human society for so long seems to have really dropped off the radar in the west, mainly due to cost. That doesn’t mean endless fencing or picking rocks out of the paddock, but rather when you create situations that involve interesting experiences and are in line with people’s values, you can end up getting a lot of things done that you wouldn’t otherwise, especially around land repair.

Here Julianne, David and Rohan (along with some help from my boy Ro
because it was Australia Day) are spending a couple of hours building a small
structure to halt a headwall cut that was about to eat into one of our access tracks.

And the same structure full and working well about a month
later at the tail end of the biggest wet we’ve had in 20 years

Adam, Dave and I in the beginning stages of a log step to halt another headwall cut.

Here’s Julianne collecting reeds for building…

Some beautiful compost. (At this point in time, it’s difficult to collect the reeds with
machinery so it’s great to have a few hands to make light work of it.
Plus it’s pretty fun while the weather is still warm.)

Making it pay, for everyone

As well as the value to the commercial enterprises, other one-off opportunities can be set up as part of an intern program that also pay off for all involved (it’s not a charity after all).

Take this urban design that the last intern group put together.

What you see here is one page of a very comprehensive design report including site analysis, water flows, detailed inserts of specific elements as well as comprehensive planting lists and implementation guidelines. Because the interns were involved, I dropped the price for the client (so they did well). The amount we charged still easily covered the interns costs of living and my time to oversee things (the farm did well), and the interns got to complete a professional design without the pressure of the full responsibility being on their shoulders. Good for all.

Granted, the folk who have come our way have already been exceptional people with plenty of knowledge and drive (the sort we tend to select), but it is still gratifying to know that a high percentage have left the farm with the confidence to set up their own design business, or have realised that armed with a few of the finer details of the specific farming system they have decided on, they now know they could make a go of it (our egos can handle the fact that they reckon, “If those guys can do it then I certainly can!”).

Meanwhile, Mulloon Creek Natural Farms, the land and the people, continues to benefit from the wonderful input we receive.

Our next intern program commences August 12, 2012. You can check out the details of the program here.


Cam Wilson is the land project manager at Mulloon Creek Natural Farms, home of The Mulloon Institute