A John Deere Publication
Arm deep inside the cow, Caroline Ferland could feel the calf’s nose was already entering the birth canal.

Arm deep inside the cow, Caroline Ferland could feel the calf’s nose was already entering the birth canal.

Agriculture, Education   February 01, 2021

Hands-on Training

Internships help urban ag students gain practical farm experience.

Arm deep inside the cow, Caroline Ferland could feel the calf’s nose was already entering the birth canal. Everything was progressing normally; it should be born within the hour.

Performing midwife duties, feeding and milking cattle at Elise Cote’s and Jean-Sébastien East’s dairy in Palmarolle, Quebec was not how Ferland thought she’d be spending the summer of 2020. She had lined up a summer internship at a farm in Germany, but COVID-19 changed her plans.

Completing a 14-week farm internship and writing a 30-page research paper on your experience is a mandatory requirement to receive a bachelor’s degree in agriculture at Laval University in Quebec City, Quebec. Pierre-Mathieu Charest, the interim director of the Department of Plant Science says it’s a critical and a valuable part of their education.


Urban background. “About 70 percent of the students enrolling in agriculture at Laval University now come from urban areas,” Charest says. “Most have no idea what’s involved in day-to-day agriculture production. So, all our agriculture students without a farming background must take a paid summer farm internship between their first and second year studies. They take a professional internship with a consulting agronomist office, a bank, or a company like John Deere before graduation too.”

Charest, like Ferland, grew up in the city. But back when he was enrolled in the agriculture program, it didn’t have an internship requirement. He only went to a farm to see field work being done once during his entire four-year degree program.

“Not having any farm experience was a real drawback for my professional development,” Charest says. “It was a big part of why I chose to orient my career toward research.”

Learning how to milk cows, while living with a family she’d just met, was a steep learning curve for Ferland. But by the end of her internship Cote and East trusted her to milk the cows and look after their herd by herself so they could take a four-day vacation.

“We’d like to have an intern every year,” Cote says. “But they’re quite hard to come by. It takes a special kind of person, someone really willing to get out of their comfort zone to come way out here (a 10 hour drive from Quebec City) to work on our farm.”


Cow licking

Cote says farmers hiring interns have to be prepared to put a lot of thought into their training. Instructions have to be given in a clear, structured way to prevent confusion. It meant a lot of extra work for them in the beginning, but their reward for it was a family vacation at the end of the summer.

“We started Caroline off doing the milking for the first two weeks,” Cote says. “Next we had her start caring for the calves and doing routine animal jobs after that. I learned how to do everything on the farm when I was between 12 and 16. So asking someone to learn everything you learned over four years within a week isn’t reasonable.”

“After the first few weeks milking and caring for cows became pretty straight forward,” Ferland says. “Once I became comfortable with the work, it was like having 45 dogs to look after.”

The hardest part for Ferland was being far from home and adjusting to small town life during the pandemic. The experience did change how she sees dairy farmers; she understands her dairy farming friends’ lives a lot more than she used to.

“Everything revolves around the cows; work, vacation, even conversations with friends,” Ferland says. “It’s not work; it’s a way of life. Getting up at 5:30 every day was hard, but overall, my internship convinced me that a career in agriculture was right for me.”

Collage of images of milking and caring for cows

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