by Catherine Monahon
This summer, Catherine is working at an organic farm. Studying and working in nature as well as her previous work experience with organic and fair-trade businesses have made the environment one of her primary interests. She has grown up in a household that eats organic, recycles or composts everything from egg shells to nail clippings, and values fair-trade products. As a junior at Connecticut College with an inter-disciplinary major of American Studies, her academic focus has touched upon environmental issues within U.S. politics, NGOs, cultural movements, and marketing trends. Today's article highlights her recent farm experience.
Looking to learn about your local community, produce, or economy? You can find all three at any local farm. From WWOOFers (individuals taking advantage of World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) to volunteers to the farmers themselves, each farm undoubtedly has a tightly-knit, complex family of workers behind it who not only know everything about your food from root to tip, but also constantly deal with the trials of operating a small business. When I visited Ryder Farm, an organic CSA just outside of Connecticut, I was not expecting to see any of this. I had set my hopes on simply working outside, learning a little farming, and getting out of the house.
I expected to spend the day hunched over in a field, and prepared myself for mindless physical labor by hydrating, locating my sneakers, and putting on my game face. I told myself that as a volunteer, I would probably be shunted to grunt work, and I wouldn’t want the other workers to think I was not capable. The night before I attempted a few push-ups that, in retrospect, could have gone worse.
But my day at the farm was anything but mindless grunt work. Though I did sweat quite a bit, I spent the day marveling at the layout of the farm, the structure of the worker’s day, the flexibility of those in charge, and the general work ethic of commitment and respect among the farmers. Anyone starting a small business, or trying to maintain one, could learn a lot from working on a farm.
Each worker has a task, and every task is important. For instance, potting marigolds for several hours might seem trivial compared to fixing and operating a tractor, but both tasks serve important purposes – those endless trays of 6 inch pots are carted to the farm stand, which earns important revenue for the farm. The level of accountability is high, as each person is always moving, working, and checking in with their mentors. If something goes undone, whoever notices does it promptly and the mistake is discussed later. And just like a small business each staff member is crucial, and the mixture of personality, talent and experience within each individual makes the farm a wonderful place to work, volunteer or play.
Not only was I immediately included in the planting, transplanting, and potting, I was welcomed into the community as well. When we stopped for lunch, my thoughts were on a sandwich stowed (and probably baking) in the glove box of my car. “What? No, no we feed you – our lunch is very good.” Fuad, one of the farm managers, tells me. By the end of my second day, Fuad is offering me a share of veggies for my work!
Lunch that day was fantastic, and will set the bar for all my lunches after it. Most of the food had been growing in the sun half an hour beforehand. Plates were scraped clean. A farmer sees food differently. I felt myself changing too, and suddenly I was not eating because I was hungry, or because there was more food available. I was tasting what we had been working on earlier that day, swallowing strength to get me through the following hours, enjoying each bite and joining the group effort of showering Mary, the cook, with deserved compliments. I learned that eating is a process with a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning, we harvest our food and help prepare it. The middle, we are serving and socializing (and eating). The end, we clear up and lounge, bellies full, and drink water in the shade.
Post-lunch, I am seeing each plant I pot, transplant, or water as more than a tiny sprout. After watching Casey, a farm intern, transplant even the tiniest of plants, taking care to keep its root under soil and stalk unbent, I stopped measuring the task by what I saw of it. Instead, I see the limp specimen growing lush with flowers to be sold at the farm stand, or bearing fat red tomatoes to nourish a family. Who am I to cast it aside in favor of a larger sprout?
In addition to producing life-altering lunches, organic farming is rising as a lucrative yet challenging business. Gauging the customer demand of a crop against the cost of maintaining the crop organically is a tricky feat. This interview between journalist Makenna Goodman and Vermont farmer Richard Wiswall reveals the challenges of organic farming and the compromises and considerations necessary. Profiting from a business that takes it cues from a higher power (a.k.a., Mother Nature/Global Warming) takes guts, passion, and meticulous attention to detail.
For instance, today at my second day on the farm, we spent the entire morning (mornings last much longer when you are a farmer…) weeding around the greenhouse, clearing out year old clutter, and re-shelving hundreds of plastic pots. A farm inspector was due at the farm at 3 p.m. But, spring-cleaning for a farmer is not something one can just drop everything and do. While we cleaned, sun leeched moisture from the flowers at the farm stand, the crops in the fields, and veggies ready and ripe lay unpicked in the field. But each person had such a specific agenda. These non-inspector related tasks were handled with ease, with each person covering their base.
There are many ways to contribute to and get involved in local agribusiness. Several Connecticut farms take on “WWOOFers,” people who receive boarding and meals in exchange for a hard days work. This is a great program for travelers, summer vacations, or sabbaticals. Click here to learn more about WWOOFing in Connecticut. If you aren’t looking for a place to work, eat, and live, volunteering and getting to know local farmers on a self-scheduled basis is also an enriching experience. Check out farms, orchards, and other agribusinesses near you! If you cannot donate your time, you can still visit farm stands or buy a full or half share at a CSA. Some farms have a pick-your-own-produce program, host festivals, or arrange other events that are fun for the whole family. Looking to start up your own organic farm? Interested in learning about it or contributing to the cause? CT Farm Bureau’s website offers some more information.
After what was supposed to be a one-day experiment to see just how out of shape and oblivious I am, I got hooked on farming. I’ve met an inspiring group of people and gotten a glimpse at something I definitely want to be a part of. My volunteer experience showed me (and is showing me – I wake up at 5:30 tomorrow for the harvest) not only to appreciate my food, but also to wonder about those who make it, and respect farmers as both reputable business owners and passionate minds.
I encourage you to explore farms in the area and learn about the creative agricultural communities that are thriving right in our backyard.
Image courtesy of the University of Wyoming Agroecology Program.