Diary of a Farm Apprentice—Part 2: Summer
Written onSeptember 01 , 2008
Editor's note: On any given day, numerous apprentices can be found working on Vermont’s farms, learning the skills that will make them the next generation of Vermont farmers. In the second installment of her series, aspiring farmer Caitlin O’Brien shares her experiences as a summer apprentice at High Ledge Farm, an organic vegetable farm in Woodbury.
The season started out dry at High Ledge. In early June, we watered the upper field by dragging a hose down each row of lettuce and beans, delivering water from a tank filled from the pond. We were making rain, you could say, playing God.
Then the real rain came. Then the rain kept coming. And after two weeks, we were feeling very mortal. We lost a whole bed of lettuce to rot, and then another. Everything in the greenhouse stalled and some plants started to mold. The newly planted carrots either washed away or silted in, were replanted, then got washed away again. With the fields too wet to work in, the hoes sat in the barn and the weeds began to outpace the crops.
Still, each week we set out early on Tuesday and Friday mornings to harvest for the Montpelier farmers’ market and our 25-member CSA. First we brought in beets, then chard, then peas, then green beans. Every week the pile of vegetables in the cooler grew. The spinach phased out, then the radishes, but we added basil, cilantro, and dill. We grew six-inch-tall pea shoots in bushy trays in the greenhouse and ate them by the handful. In mid-July, we came into tomatoes, cucumbers, and new potatoes.
As part of our payment as apprentices, my partner Jeremy and I receive a CSA share each week, but we also tend to eat all the seconds—the broken, bug-nibbled, funny-colored, or otherwise not-fit-for-sale vegetables—because we can’t stand to throw away food, especially when we know exactly how much work went into raising it. As a result, we end up eating a tremendous amount of vegetables. During the course of a recent harvest day, for instance, I consumed seven carrots, one cucumber, about two pounds of snap peas and one cup of shelled, four or five stems of basil, two tomatoes, three scallions, a handful of green beans, four big potatoes, and half of a bunch of kale.
According to the USDA, I’m supposed to aim for three cups of vegetables per day. Although I’m falling short of my recommended two cups of fruit (unless you count tomatoes), I figure I’ve at least doubled, maybe tripled the federal veggie intake guidelines. In blueberry season, however, that fruit thing is taken care of.
As the summer passes, I find myself growing into a farmer’s life, and a farmer’s body. I’ve gotten stronger these past months—I can now carry the big bags of potting soil that in May I had to drag down to the greenhouse. Little calluses form ridges beneath the skin of my fingers and on my palms. Lines of dirt have been etched into the creases of skin on the edges of my feet, and no amount of scrubbing removes them. At the end of the day, I eat and eat and then sleep hard.
I’m learning, too. I’ve got a handle on which size beans are too small and which are too big, how to prune and trellis a tomato plant, and how often to plant lettuce in order to have a guaranteed amount every week. I can drive the tractor, and even till in a straight line. More importantly, I’m learning about my own strengths and weaknesses—how I like to have a structure for the day, how totally useless I am unless I eat a big breakfast, how much the weather affects my mood.
I’m also realizing I need some quiet time at the beginning and end of the day to recharge. Our apprenticeship has set hours, and our day almost always ends at five. That certainly isn’t normal for a farmer’s life, though; I sometimes see Paul, the owner of High Ledge, chugging up the hill on his tractor while I’m still eating breakfast, and often he’ll head back into the field after we’ve gone home for the day.
This summer is the time for Jeremy and I to consider what we want our farming lives to look like, and if we don’t really want to be farmers, this is the time to find out.
There are days when I do not want to be a farmer: the first sunny day after three weeks of rain, when I’m hoeing until I can barely move my arms; the muggy, 95-degree day when horseflies cloud my head while mosquitoes chase my ankles; the harvest day when it pours rain and we’re soaked to the bone and shivering; the day thunder moves closer and closer until we bolt for the truck; the day when we lose the planting of fall carrots for the second time, and the day when we lose the third. There are times when I think fondly of the summer I spent filing in a stuffy, windowless office.
But then the day comes when, at the market, a five-year-old boy stuffs an entire bunch of cilantro in his mouth while his mother has her back turned, buying lettuce. He grins at me as he chews, face and hands smeared with green. Later a CSA member pulls me aside to offer his thanks for the food, and to specifically praise the chard and our hard work.
And days come when we get a perfect half-inch of rain overnight, then a cool morning followed by a beautiful sunny afternoon, and I’m standing in a field overlooking the woods and pond, listening to the bees humming happily in their hive and admiring the peas clambering over their trellises. Days come when I am full of good food and good exhaustion, when dinner is made of only what was in the field that morning, when we’re sitting around a campfire in the evening with the fireflies bright over the pond and the sunset settling behind the trees. Days come when I wonder why not everyone wants a farmer’s life. What do they have that could compare to this?
Photo courtesy of Caitlin O'Brien