Posts Tagged ‘young farmers’

Vermont Models

This past summer, farming in Pennsylvania, I finally met and worked with people whose lives I could imagine myself living.  My years in New York had been full.  I cooked often, ate well, and was always working for four or five people at once, and going to school.  I imagined I would start my own business – involving farmers and agriculture and getting food into the city – but I looked at cheese shops and butcher shops, ice cream parlors, restaurants, bakeries, coffee shops, specialty stores, taco trucks, you name it.  And I didn’t imagine myself running any one of them.  However much I loved the communities of Brooklyn, however many people I learned from in New York, I never met someone who both worked and lived in a way that I hoped I would.  And so I hadn’t formed any particular vision at all, of how I wanted to live.  I wanted to work with and support the producers of food, and I did, as much as I could.

The reason I was able to imagine myself farming was not because I am somehow built for it, or particularly talented at it, or because I have the means to enter into it easily.  Farming is at the heart of my interests (which, in the broadest terms, are to preserve farmland, to make real food available to more people, and to strengthen local economies and communities).  I loved that I didn’t have to debate whether or not the work was productive or valuable.    But it was in fact the details of the daily work that won me over.  Looking out over the fields in the morning, or seeing the lineup of beets to be washed.  Joining in the rhythm of the boys loading the truck, or quickly frying our best peppers for lunch, or lying in the grass in the evening with a beer.  I noticed moments every day that made me think that working there was beautiful work.  When people visited the farm from the city, I didn’t wish I were them.  I was proud, to be doing exactly what I was doing.

I also began to think more about myself last summer than I had in a long time.  I had spent three or four years thinking about (and acting upon) what was needed for the strength of the food system in my neighborhood, city, region, nation.  Suddenly, on the farm, every piece of work contributed to some very specific note for my own personal future.  If I had a farm this, and if I had a farm that.  If I had a farm, I would want to have goat’s milk, at least for the house. I would not use the turquoise berry baskets.  I would grow heirloom produce.  I would not waste time being indecisive in the field. I would sell locally.  I would grow lots of garlic and onions, and never run out.  I would only use a greenhouse for starting seeds.  I would not grow zucchini.  I would start with a good business plan, and not hire anyone until I could pay them a decent wage. I would wear gloves when picking okra.  My farm would be diverse, but I would be known for something I grew that was especially good.  I had begun to focus on a much smaller picture, and  I had begun to envision my own life, as easily and happily as a little girl.

Maybe that’s just what happens on your first farm.

In November, I moved to Northern Vermont.  The ridiculous climate and small population of this area are challenges for farmers (and people in general).  And Vermont has produced a rather forceful group of men in the Northeast Kingdom who have risen to the challenge of producing food in this state, and not only surviving, but feeding as many people as they possibly can.  Jasper Hill, Pete’s Greens, High Mowing Seeds, Vermont Soy.  Mateo, Andy, Pete, Tom, Andrew, Todd.  They are each intent upon growing their businesses, producing more, distributing farther, making their products ever more accessible to the people of the Northeast.  They think of themselves as catalysts of change in the food system of this region.  I get the impression they do not live for the beautiful moments of their day.  They work as hard as any farmer, all the time, and yet do not seem to gain their satisfaction from any lifestyle they have chosen, but rather gain their energy from the impact they have upon this place.

In a place like Northern Vermont, where selling to large quantities of people means traveling far, it would be hard to even be the (relatively small) size of Eckerton Hill.  You can’t grow that many tomatoes up here and sell them for a profit within five hours.  If you need to drive five hours with your produce, you’re probably losing whatever profit those sales might have brought.  If you only sell within an hour of your farm, you can’t sell much.  The larger but still family-owned, community-supported, responsible farms up here make sense, because they make a large volume of high quality products that they can also afford to distribute.  Jasper Hill sells their cheese locally, and all over the country.  Pete’s Greens delivers to restaurants and his CSA sites within a one-day 12-hour loop, and also has a distributor pick up produce for delivery to Boston and New York.  The community, in general, is overwhelmingly grateful for their efforts.  Look at how they’ve come together since the fire.  I spent hours yesterday stamping personal thank-you notes from Pete for donations from all over the region, which were given to help rebuild his barn.

Suddenly, in the company of these men of the Northeast Kingdom, it seems indulgent, even silly, to choose to farm on a small scale because of the lifestyle it implies.  The idea of farming for the sake of it being “beautiful work” seems ridiculous.  You run a high risk of losing a business that can’t afford (or doesn’t want) to distribute it’s own products outside of an hour’s radius, unless you can afford to lose money, or you have found some small niche group of people to whom you can ship your product for a high enough price (probably in New York City).  Even if you’re bringing back old traditions, preserving farmland, producing a beautiful product, and you are a person who loves their every day….your farm is not much of a model for a regional food system, since it’s not doing much for the local economy, nor is it feeding as many people as it potentially could.

That’s the opinion I’m gaining in Vermont.

Yet.  If someone is inspired to farm, particularly a young person, whatever their reasons, should they not pursue it, no matter the model that suits their idea of a lifestyle?  If something about the reality of the small-scale farm is what makes them tick, than they should find a model that works, and farm where that makes sense.  If they want to grow and collaborate and have an impact on the region, than perhaps they should choose a community like that of the Northeast Kingdom.  Now is a time when many young people who have a choice – about where to live, and what work to do –  are deciding to farm.  And if we’re smart about it, we’ll each contribute to a stronger system, of diverse models, and distinct goals.  The personalities of old farmers and the intentions of the new will characterize the food system in the regions where we live.  As it has here.  We may not all agree on the value of what we are each doing, but we will be part of the same movement, regardless.  And maybe, we will have created the lives we envision now.

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By Now, A Nest

At the end of the day of the pig roast, on a Sunday in mid-October, a few of the last remaining folks settled by the bonfire with glasses of whiskey, a few loaves of fresh bread brought from the city, and a brick of butter we’d pressed down the street.  Four cooks from a restaurant in Manhattan had just arrived, after most of the guests had left, and they seemed happy enough to sit outdoors by the fire for an hour or two, before hitting the road again in the dark.  One of the restaurant boys said he was thinking about working on a farm.  He was twenty-two years old, and figured if he wanted to try farming, he didn’t want to waste the time in his life when he could do it.  He was curious what it was like to work at Eckerton Hill.

I felt like a first-year girl talking to a prospective student.  I told him I had no regrets about coming to work at Eckerton.  I told him why this farm had made sense for me in the beginning: I didn’t have a car or a license, but I had a friend on the farm who would teach me to drive, and who would share the use of his car.  I hadn’t wanted to leave the Union Square scene behind altogether.  It would be easy to visit New York, and easy for friends from the city to visit.  I knew I would be proud to sell Tim’s tomatoes, and I was interested to see how restaurants placed their orders, how Tim and Wayne decided what to sell wholesale and retail, what went to distributors or restaurants, and how much was sold on the stand.  I knew Tim would pay a reasonable wage.  And I was attracted to the dynamic between the people who sold at the market, when I shopped there for The Spotted Pig and The Breslin.  Our conversations every market morning made me wish I worked with them.

Trying to explain now why Eckerton Hill may or may not be a good place for someone else to work was more difficult.  I can trust describing what it has been like for me, what it was like this year, with these people, and this weather, at this time in my life.  Everything could be different next time around.  This year there was very little rain, record heat, the most tomatoes ever, and three people in the farmhouse who did things together.  There was too much dishwashing, a solid dose of drinking, not enough writing, and not very much time by myself.  The walls in the house are thin, and the refrigerator is always packed to the gills and dripping with pickled jalapeno juice, meat jizz, and moldy lemons.  The sink in the bathroom is basically caked with soil sometimes, Tim spends time writing and brooding in the living room, and occasionally shouts out to us in our beds on Sunday morning.  Nothing is open in town on Sundays except the 24-hour major grocery store.  Sometimes everybody we know in town seems like a stoner, and sometimes I drive away from the house just to drive.  I couldn’t stand picking summer squash, I wish we sold produce to the local community, and I’m helplessly annoyed that we don’t have a good way to sell greens at the market without them wilting in the sun.  The fly strips in the house are disgusting.  The freezer releases an avalanche every time it’s opened.

But by now I say all of this fondly.

The spring was predictably novel, an exhilarating break from the city.  And the summer felt like one blazing rush of adrenaline.  But arriving at the fall has made me want to stay.  It is the best of progressions: from the cold water washing lettuces in the spring, to the sweaty circus act of the summer, to the relaxed remnants of work in fall’s flannel plaid shirts, with a view of the muted or bright colors of the trees and hills.  Now we stop and smell fallen leaves and stacked up wood, where once we knew only humidity, heat and the sweet smell of rotting tomatoes.  The wind blows off our hats that two months ago kept our necks from burning.  The warmth of the goat at my side is welcome in the chilly near-frost mornings, so much so that it’s hard to remember feeling the sweat start to drip down my neck, milking at five am in July.  We wake up later now.  Caroline has joined us.  We are cooking dinners again.  Roasted sweet potatoes and sautéed brussel sprouts with bacon, curried goat with scotch bonnets, kale salads with aged cheddar, grilled fish with aji limon peppers, pasta with chard and sprouts, sweet potato hash with bacon in the morning, lentils with aji dulce peppers, turkey chili with habañeros, three bean soup with grenadas.  Goat’s milk makes for a mean hot chocolate, and the walk-in is stacked with gallons of cider.  The work is light, the crew is smaller, Tim is more relaxed.  And we are starting to have lives again, to talk about shows in Philadelphia, gallery openings in Bethlehem, and museums we’d like to visit.  I don’t fall asleep every time I start reading.  It seems that this farm is a wonderful place to live and work.  So I continued to try to explain.

You do not learn how to farm in a year.  And you may not learn much at all working for a decent wage, on land that is cultivated for a profit and not for education.  I never strung the tomatoes because other people were faster, I rode the tractor once just to drive it, from the field to the shed, and I never managed the restaurant orders.  I wasn’t here when we seeded most of the tomatoes, and the craze of irrigation this near-drought summer taught me primarily that water is a stress-inducing element.  We only made three kinds of cheese all summer, and I do not know if the goats were happy in their fenced-off space.  I don’t know what blight looks like because we never got it, and I still couldn’t tell you many of the names of our tomatoes and peppers.

I learned some things.  I learned that I do like to work outside full-time, that sunny days are worth the rainy ones.  I learned that I like feeling physically exhausted from productive work every night, rather than running in the same circle every morning; that I can work in humid heat; that I can pick tomatoes for a twelve-hour stretch without feeling miserable at all; that I can live in a small town and not go crazy for the city; that I can play pool and drink Yuenglings in a fluorescent-lit basement bar in Kutztown and not yearn for the backyard, speakeasy styles of Brooklyn.  I learned that I can be a passenger on the ride into the city at 3:30am, work the market all day, stay awake for the ride home, and still have energy that night.  I learned that I can work and live with a bunch of boys and still love them.  I learned to drive.  I learned what this lifestyle is like – the life of a farmhand at this particular farm – and it made me want to do it again, to try a different one, to perpetuate the way I have felt here instead of the way I felt working in the city.

So I will continue to farm for now.  In Vermont this next season, on a very different farm, in a very different climate, for different reasons than the reasons I came here.  And I guess I think if any farm can lead someone to do that, if any farm can teach a young person to think about farming more, even farming for themselves, then for sure, it is worth working there.  Find your own place, for your own reasons.  But the next generation of farmers has to put boots on somewhere.

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Working More, Writing Less

Four of the workers on this farm, if not more, tend to write. We’ve each written blogs, essays, books, or articles, wanting to somehow document the stories we live and witness. None of us have been writing much in the past few months, and we talk in the field and round the table about how we wish we could have. Our boss wants to be writing in part because he’s driven mad, by all the people writing about farming who aren’t farmers, all the articles in the New York Times that are wrong, and all the Michael Pollan apostles who don’t even seek the truth. Our manager will tell you how it took an hour to upload his last video, and it was only thirty seconds long! Though he manages to bang out a blogpost and put up photos more regularly than the rest of us. In response to appeals for material for our pseudo website Farm Story, one fellow intern has taken to saying that he’s not sure we have a story at all. For god’s sake, we pick tomatoes all day. I have written more than I have published on this site, but only very specifically about my work and the people here, small notes and reminders for myself, more than paragraphs for others to read. Accustomed to writing essays based on topics I’ve read about in books, or issues I’ve talked about in class, or events too big to be personal, I’ve found it inevitable on the farm to dwell on my immediate community’s conversations and habits, the small-picture details that together, multiplied, form the larger image I’m used to focusing upon.

More than a shortage of time, and more than a tendency to fall asleep at the keys, the nature of the work here has affected my inclination to write like I have for the past few years.  Agriculturalists, writers, poets, and philosophers have for centuries described work on farms as honest, simple, repetitive, peaceful. To live with the politics of food distribution, the intricacy of soil health and irrigation, the seasonal changes in produce and weather, and the pace governed by perishability and volume is enough to teach anyone the inaccuracy of these descriptors for work on a productive small farm. Yet a certain aspect of the past three months’ work on this farm reminds me of something that Jefferson and Berry might have appreciated.

For someone who aims to strengthen local food systems, and who has a choice in how to do so, the farmhand’s work is physical, tangible, and straightforward. We do not work on the farm towards media attention, product improvement, policy change, nor business growth. These goals may be the reason for initiating a particular farm model – one that preserves heirloom seeds, respects the regional ecology, contributes to social justice, or one that can be replicated to preserve more farmland.  But the model is decided by the owner.  As a worker, the main action taken is the choice to farm. The farmhand’s daily work is nuts and bolts, dawn till dusk: tend plants, harvest food, and get it to people.  We can be thoughtful, but we do not debate the value of taking the fruit off the vine, or filling the pint boxes with cherry tomatoes, or packing the truck the night before market. We can be light-hearted and conversational, we can laugh or be silent, we keep our hands working and our bodies moving.  By working here we are preserving farmland, and providing people with nutritious food, but that reality is the backdrop.  We’ve chosen to farm, and our politics and principles are somewhat hidden in the unwritten contract.

If I were to return to the city this winter, to work for a non-profit or a small business, and to participate again in the projects and campaigns and email lists related to strengthening the regional food system, I know that my time on this farm would inform my perspective on what they are trying to achieve.  I would find a way to pitch what I have learned about heirlooms and immigrants, farming and markets, and use it for some good cause.  But for now, my work here has been cleanly straightforward and unassuming. The work feels healthy, I am proud of our produce, the camaraderie of working in the fields is priceless, and when I write about life here, I think about the details.  I’ve found myself noticing more, analyzing less.  I’ve written how the crew reminds me of a circus troupe, because of our various hats and heights and accents, and because of the bow-legged, lanky, determined, or jaunty ways in which we each walk out to the field. I’ve written how our exhaustion at the end of the day gives one guy the energy to bounce around boxing, another to lie on the grass and smoke, another to retreat to their room to stretch, another to sit by the tree with a beer. I’ve written about the way lunch-time hits our kitchen like a tornado every time, leaving the sink full of dishes, the table full of crumbs and used plastic bags, and the stove covered with two or three cast-iron pans greasy with fat and leftover onions.  I think about the way we hang our fresh chevre from a hook in my old table-top that used to attach to the wall in my apartment in Brooklyn.  The way the Mexican women and I have to hop up high to sit on the wagon as we ride out of the field, while the gringo boys slide on easy.  The way the Mexican music in the packing shed pulses through my head in the afternoons, redeemed only by the subtle dancing of a fifty-year-old native of Michoacan, standing five foot tall, packing tomatoes.  The way we all form a line when passing the boxes onto the truck, passing only as much as the weakest can hold.  The way the conversations rotate predictably now between girls, an old VW bus, bands, the weather, weed, old stories, Philly, Brooklyn, and plans for the winter.

In the winter, inevitably, this work and this community will come into some sort of perspective. I will have opinions to voice and praises to sing and nostalgic stretches of research and recollection. Articles on 20-somethings and Farm Internships will continue to box my ideas into the emerging stereotype of a self-obsessed, wandering, college-educated, barefoot lover of kale. And I will have my defense. For now, while there are tomatoes to be picked, and boxes to be packed, a market to be manned, and a goat to be milked, the small picture is dominant. The hook and the hats and the full kitchen sink.  For now, this life seems steady with the rhythm of physical, straightforward work.

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Taking Up Toolbelts

This article is cross-posted on Civil Eats, a site that explores the connections between the food system and the environment, the politics of consumer choices, and the actions we can take to change the way we think about food everyday.

There are few moments more powerful and thrilling for a young person than those in which we learn a skill that we want to and will use for the rest of our lives.  Or those first days when we truly realistically consider our futures – just our next five years, if not more – and realize (or think very much) that we know what it is that will make us happy.  Or that last second we have before feeling we are in that future, that brief moment of conviction that we have never in our lives been less prepared nor more determined.

The Young Farmers Conference last weekend, at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, ran the participants on a marathon of such moments.  There were the inspiring speeches and the valuable networking one expects at a conference, and the beautiful meals one expects at Stone Barns, but mainly it was a time to take notes, to ask questions, to observe, and to listen.  Not only were we inspired, we were productive.

We learned how to begin doing many things: raising chickens, breeding swine, growing vegetables in a greenhouse.  We were told how to find land, how to write a business plan for a farm, how to dress up our products so they sell well at market.  Many of us who came to this conference were not farmers.  And most of us have so much to learn about farming that we might have seemed comical to the more experienced.   But the presenters – the farmers, growers, breeders, foresters – brought their skills down to our level, to square one, and shared an immense amount of knowledge in hardly eight hours of workshops.

2796812832_8bc2f155fbFour-Season Growing.  Jack taught us how to calculate the finances of a greenhouse, to know the value of each square foot of soil.  He described the family rotations – six families, each including several varieties of plants – and the number of days it takes for arugula to grow in summer versus winter.  He taught us how he uses the row covers, from what material, at what time of day.  He told us what the temperature should be for certain levels of productivity, what sort of heaters he uses, and how their release of CO2 at dawn catalyzes photosynthesis in that brief, coldest, last moment of the night.  He told us exactly how much money he’d spent on propane, using box heaters vs. air heaters.  He told us how long to wait for the first cut of greens, the babies, and for the second cut, a profitable premium product.  He told us of the compost system and the prop house, the soil and the seeds.  He told us how surely one keeps loyal customers with a 365-day growing season.

147693691_cbxzr-sBeginning Poultry.  Craig told us what to look for in a hatchery, what to expect in the box when the chicks arrive at the post office, not to go grocery shopping and forget that our box of chicks is in the back of our car.  He taught us how to set up the brooding pen, how the chicks slip on newspaper, how to build the space to keep out rats and raccoons.  He told us what to consider when buying meat chickens (taste, consumer demand, growth-time, cost of production), and showed us the advantages of certain pens, fences, and pastures.  He was clear about why he would choose one bird or feed or pen or another, often simply explaining his personal preference.  “I use the term Animal Husbandry intentionally,” he said, “because this IS a marriage, of sorts.  You really have to like your animals – how they look, and act, and treat you.  You have to get to know them, and like living with them.”

2644169534_b7e4b09c4c Slaughterhouse Initiative.  Judy explained her position at the head of Glynwood Center, a conference center and working farm that has identified a problem in the lack of slaughterhouses in and around Putnam County.  She presented the mobile slaughterhouse project, and spoke of the bureaucracy such a project faces, the services it would provide, and the demonstrable demand for these services she has found among her community.  The conversation jockeyed from urban farmer to historian to farmer-educator to friend-of-a-butcher; from accusations of bureaucratic pandering to business plan proposals, from reminders of top-hat butchers in early American markets to a polemic on the seismic shift in mentality that must take place before slaughterhouses and butcher shops are ever expected to produce anything of high quality.  We learned that we have a lot to learn about meat.

My general expectations for the conference were that it would confirm my dislike of the wealthy nature of Stone Barns, that I would meet few true farmers and more farmer wannabes (like myself), and that it would be like most conferences, where energy is high, productivity is low, and the conversations between workshops are the most valuable part of the experience.  Those conversations were valuable, but so were the workshops, and so was the energy, and so was the adjustment of my view of Stone Barns.  However the farm-restaurant handles it’s finances, the people who run the farm are full of a knowledge that young people need, and at least for two days, were wonderfully willing and able to teach it.

I remember first meeting The Greenhorns’ Severine, in Berkeley this Spring, when she (was figuring out how I might be useful to her, and) rather bluntly asked what I knew how to do.  I sheepishly said I could write decently, and I could organize people and run meetings.  She interrupted me within seconds: You have to treat your life like a toolbelt!  Start filling it up with tools!  You have to learn how to do things!  Two days at a conference might not count for much, but for many of us, it was a time to first touch the tools we wish to acquire, and a joyous early step towards making our lives full.

Download the full list of conference workshops and presenters.

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