Cymen Vig

Software Craftsman

What is an apprenticeship?

As a child I spent my summers working on a farm. Friends of my family had two dairy farms in Wisconsin: a smaller biodynamic farm (the first in the USA) and a larger rotational grazing (New Zealand-style) farm owned by one of the daughter’s of the original farm and her husband. I had the chance to witness first hand how the apprenticeship model worked. I’m going to try to summarize what I saw in an accessible way in order to discuss apprenticeship again in a later post.

The beginning

At first the farmer can’t trust that the apprentice has enough experience to handle the full operation of the farm. So the new apprentice works closely with the farmer for several months and gradually the apprentice is trusted with more responsibility. There is a huge benefit to both sides: the apprentice gains knowledge and as the farmer begins to trust the apprentice the workload for the farmer goes down. Dairy farming is very labor intensive. The farm I worked on relied on having apprentices in order to have a decent quality of life. So there was a high value to this model for both sides.

The middle

During the middle phase of the apprenticeship the farmer can trust the apprentice to do most of the work on the farm. There may be one or two things that they haven’t quite mastered but if the farmer was suddenly called away for a morning the apprentice would be able to stand in and get things done. The apprentice now spends more time working alone and again as experience is gained typically trust deepens.

The end

Towards the end the farmer can trust the apprentice with the day to day operation of the farm. Some annual things are not part of the apprenticeship but if things are going well, the farmer can now leave the apprentice to manage the farm for a couple of weeks while they go on vacation. This is a huge amount of trust and the apprentice experiences a huge amount of pressure. They are now responsible for the whole farm. If the farm has 100 cows that is basically $150,000 worth of cattle. The apprentice needs to carefully observe the cows to ensure that the vet is called in the case of sickness and they also need to operate the farm as the farmer did on almost the same schedule (cows are very used to schedules – they expect to be fed and milked at roughly the same time every day and production suffers if the schedule gets too far off).

What is an apprentice?

It is someone that you personally have worked with day after day and gotten to know well enough to develop sufficient trust that you would place your livelihood in their hands. They do not yet have the knowledge that comes with the experience of being a farmer year after year. But they do know what you do well enough to be able to stand in for you. They know your cattle, they know your milking system, they know how to operate your machinery, and a whole lot more. The way they gained this knowledge is working with you on the same task. They way they perfected this knowledge is by repeating the task and receiving feedback. They also know your personal philosophy which helps them understand why you do certain things.

What can do wrong?

From either side:

  • Personality conflicts

  • Difficulty forming trust

  • Communication issues

As an apprentice:

  • The farmer may work in a style that is in conflict with that of the apprentice. For example, the farmer may prefer to rush at the last minute to get things done while the apprentice prefers to work at a slower but more steadier pace. The tension here can cause a lot of conflict.

  • The farmer may have expectations of the apprentice that do not match the apprentice. An example of that is expecting the apprentice to have more experience than they do.

As a farmer:

  • Trust with the apprentice may develop slower than desired. It is hard handing over responsibility in all areas.

  • Methods used by more experienced apprentices may be different than those used by the farmer.

  • Unclear expectations may be put upon the apprentice. For example, if the farmer trusts the apprentice to manage the farm for couple weeks while they are gone on vacation they may also leave a list of things to be done if there is time. The apprentice may feel they need to accomplish most of the list yet there are going to be things that come up while operating the farm that are unexpected. That combined with the stress of having the whole operation on their shoulders means there is precious little time in the day for any extra work besides getting the essential chores finished.


A key part of apprenticeship is formal training. The apprentice values this formal training because they can build upon it to become a craftsman (in this case, a farmer). The craftsman values having an apprentice because it is beneficial in the long term in the form of reduced workload. Between the two the experience of sharing knowledge and having to question it in order to teach it has continual value. The world changes. Agriculture has experience this lately in the form of genetically modified seeds and using growth hormones in cows to increase milk production. Less controversially, farming has changed dramatically with modern machinery. With the apprenticeship model the craftsman is faced more deliberately with change. I would argue they also can react to this change more effectively because there is the benefit of both the craftsman and the apprentices questioning the best approach.