Ag Career Audition

Internships Help Students Explore Possibilities

Shelby Schmitt, an animal science major at Purdue University, worked with sows and piglets as an intern for Legan Livestock and Grain, in Coatesville, Indiana. (DTN/The Progressive Farmer photo by Des Keller)

The owners of Legan Livestock and Grain produce tens of thousands of weaned piglets annually from their 3,000-sow operation in west-central Indiana, near Coatesville. In addition, they've also prepared a handful of college students with real-world experience through internships on their farm.

"This is in alignment with our core value of relationships," said Beth Tharp, who runs Legan Livestock and Grain Inc. with her husband, Nick, and her parents, Mark and Phyllis Legan. "We want to help expose farming to young people who have a passion for agriculture and will be future decision-makers."

One recent intern to explore career possibilities at Legan Livestock and Grain was Shelby Schmitt, an Anderson, Indiana, native and a senior majoring in animal science at Purdue University. She spent last summer working with sows and piglets while living in an apartment on-site in the house that serves as the operation's offices.

"I had no clue as to how any of this works," said Schmitt, referring to the hog business, in particular, and farming, in general. She is a city girl who had no agriculture experience whatsoever prior to college. "I always knew that I wanted to work with animals, but I had no idea how big a community and industry this is."

MEETING A NEED

Schmitt is undoubtedly one of many -- there are no solid statistics -- students who work as interns on farms every year. The experience can help determine a career direction and gain the skills to find a job. The Legan and Tharp families are happy to do their part.

Schmitt's stint at Legan Livestock and Grain was actually her second livestock-related internship. During the summer of 2015, she worked for Crawfordsville-based AMVC, a full-service swine-management and production service. That first internship helped prompt her change from an animal behavior major to animal production.

Still, Schmitt had no idea what an actual workday at Legan Livestock would look like. "My first day on the job, they had me feed and water sows, process piglets and clean manure from the backs of the sows' farrowing crates," she said. "The typical day would start with a morning meeting discussing what to expect for the day."

Schmitt was learning on the fly. "I had questions like, 'Why do we need to give piglets iron shots?' and 'How much do we feed sows and gilts and how frequently?'" she said. She loved the experience and hopes to possibly work as a manager at a farrowing operation.

"My internships have solidified my continuing interest with livestock management," Schmitt said.

LONG-TERM BENEFITS

Even though the Tharps and Legans have hosted college interns over several years, they have yet to have any students return to work for the operation full-time. But they can live with that. "We want to give them a foundation to understand what it's like on the agriculture side," Beth Tharp said.

"Last year's summer intern," Nick Tharp said, "went to a small school in pre-vet, so she learned a lot about pigs here. That experience gave her a better understanding of production agriculture, particularly swine production, that she can take with her as she becomes an influencer in the industry down the road."

The Tharps know the demand for internships is great. Initially, the operation advertised for interns at Ohio State University, Iowa State University, Purdue University and an area community college. The candidates were impressive. "We probably had 15 quality applicants for one spot," Nick Tharp said. "We could have chosen any of them."

Depending on the specifics of the internship and the students' class program and degree requirements, they may or may not get academic credit for the experience. In the case of Legan Livestock, all the interns earn an hourly wage. The Tharps declined to specify the exact wage as they compete with several manufacturing plants in the region for employees. Their farm has 12 full-time employees.

CAREER PATH

At any given time, there may be 200 internships (and nearly 6,000 full-time jobs) listed at www.agcareers.com, a private agricultural job listing website. "In 2015, we had 1,800 internships posted -- that was a 17% increase over the previous year," said Ashley Collins, AgCareers education and marketing manager. "We don't know how many of those are on-farm production-based positions."

Certainly, the bulk of internships listed at agcareers.com are varied: a title examiner with AgStar Financial Services in Mankato, Minnesota, pork procurement for Tyson Foods in Logansport, Indiana, or vegetable research and development analytics for Monsanto in Woodland, California.

Colleges and universities are usually more than willing to help the process of advertising and finding an intern, Legan's Nick Tharp explained.

"From our experience, the biggest thing is to have the right contact at each school to assist with posting it [internship]," he said. "College credit is dependent on the school. It is on the student to coordinate that piece. Some schools have evaluation forms for us to complete during the course of the internship."

TIME-CONSUMING EFFORT

The time needed to train and manage an intern is a major hurdle for farm businesses, explained Whitney Fisher, human resource specialist with Illinois-based management consulting company FamilyFarms Group.

"You have to spend a lot of time with an intern and give feedback to those employees," she said. "Many don't have time to dedicate to the effort." A number of operations in the 80-member FamilyFarms Group have used interns, but that number is still well under half.

On the plus side, the major benefit of having interns is that they are "very motivated workers," Fisher said. "These are students who are looking for the next challenge, and they want to prove they can do a good job for you," she added.

Since the management of an intern can be daunting to a sole operation, FamilyFarms Group plans to establish an intern program. Its offices will help coordinate and guide the effort.

While the benefits of an internship to the intern are pretty easy to identify, the host operation can also be rewarded beyond having additional labor. One intern at Legan Livestock and Grain, for example, helped conduct research on the use of a particular pharmaceutical.

"We were looking at using this product but wanted more information as to how and when we used it," Nick Tharp said. Working with professors at the university, the intern conducted trials with the medication, collected the data and even presented a research poster at school and at the farm. "It was a kind of mini-thesis," Tharp said.

"The research gave us good data to consider, how we might best use the product in our operation," he added. The student also earned three credit hours for the internship and the research. That's a win-win for everyone.

INTERNSHIP GUIDELINES:

There are several factors to consider with internships, but the basics include:

-- Establish a time frame for the internship -- a start and an end date.

-- Define the role of the internship along with projects on which an intern will work.

-- Determine the level of student you want as an intern -- junior or senior, or any age college student.

-- Determine the expected outcomes. What should be accomplished or learned during the period?

-- Define the manager's responsibilities. It's generally best if the intern has one "boss" to answer to.

(ES/AG)