A Laois-based company that organises work experience for students from western Europe with host families has a limited number of openings for what it describes as “forward-thinking” farmers willing to pass on their knowledge in a welcoming setting.

Managing director of Equipeople, Caroline Lane, works with 89 agricultural colleges and vocational schools throughout western Europe, including France and Denmark, in placing students in this country, mainly on dairy farms.

The minimum length of stay is four weeks, but some students stay here for up to a year, depending on their school or college’s work experience requirements.

The company, which works from Portarlington, started in 1995 and has been bringing students to this country since 2003. About 800 students are placed annually, with farmers applying directly to take part, having heard about the initiative, equipeopleworkexperience, through word of mouth.

“By coming over to Ireland and living as part of a family, the students improve their English as well as getting practical experience.

“Their living environment will have been checked out in advance, and they are here to learn. We have criteria that sets out that it has to be a learning experience – the students can’t be considered free labour,” Lane said.

They have to go home better farmers than they came. It’s very much a situation where the farmer commits time and effort to the passing on of their knowledge.

Hosts sign training agreements, and are given pointers on areas that can be covered – such as nutrition and grass-feeding – which would be new to many western European students who are more used to seeing livestock kept indoors, said Lane.

“We are not expecting farmers to be lecturers, just to share their store of knowledge in a protected environment, where they would be happy to have their son or daughter,” she said.

Host families must be prepared to complete paperwork, provide Bord Bia certification and ensure that their insurance cover is adequate.

Difficulties can and do arise, Lane said. “That’s what we are here for – we will step in and provide advice to the host, as it could be a cultural issue, or we may move the student to another family. We brief the students a lot in advance and we monitor the placements. We had about 16 teachers over recently looking at what we do and seeing how it could be of benefit to their students.”

However, in general, hosting experiences work out extremely well, according to Lane.

Irish people are very welcoming to people from other countries, and it can also be a learning experience for the farmers. It is also company for them to have someone to chat with.

The work experience programme runs throughout the year, with the summer the peak period. “We have approximately 110 Austrian students from the Austrian Young Farmers’ Association here every year between June and September, and we have won awards for the success of that partnership,” said Lane. “At the moment, we have a lot of Danish students.”

Over the years the circumstances of host families may change, and result in them being unsuitable for continuing to be part of the programme, but some hosts remain involved over long periods, Lane said. In some cases, the students have gained full-time work with their host farmers.