University of Maryland Extension

Employees and volunteers

Neith Little, Extension Agent, Urban Agriculture

Urban Ag home | Table of contents

A farmer has certain responsibilities towards anyone working on their farm, which are legally defined by local, state, and federal labor laws.

It is important to understand that there are important legal differences between employees and volunteers. Additionally, for profit businesses are not supposed to accept volunteer labor, and even not-for-profit farms may run into legal trouble with volunteers and unpaid interns.

But wait, you say, farms host volunteers all the time! Some farms offer “sweat-equity” CSA shares which discount the share price in exchange for volunteer work on the farm. Other farms offer unpaid “internships” or “apprenticeships,” occasionally providing lodging and food to these interns. And, famously, the WOOF program matches voluntourists with organic farms around the world.

However, labor laws, like the minimum wage and workers compensation rules, generally do apply to farm interns and volunteers. There are good reasons why we have labor laws. They are meant to protect workers from exploitation, abuse, and unsafe working conditions.

You might have the best of intentions towards people working on your farm. But good intentions are not enough. Whether your farm is organized as a for-profit or not-for-profit, failing to understand and comply with labor laws exposes your farm to legal and financial risk.

If your farm has employees, volunteers, interns, apprentices, or anyone who works in exchange for food or lodging, you should learn more about labor laws and consider how to manage your farm’s responsibilities and risks. Conversely, if you are a farm worker, it’s also a good idea to learn more about your rights under labor laws. Even if your farm has no paid employees, it’s worth learning more about labor laws.

Here are three references that will help you learn more:

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