• Publishers' Note Fall 2008

    Publishers' Note Fall 2008

    It’s hard not to notice the growth of Vermont farmers’ markets. Seems you turn around and there’s another one starting up. Or how about winter farmers’ markets? They number 14 to date, up from just a handful a year ago. And then there are CSAs of every sort, in which people pay in advance for shares of vegetables, fruit, and meat. Some shares even include canned and baked goods.

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  • Sylvia’s Special Seeds

    Sylvia’s Special Seeds

    I’d heard rumors of what might be growing in Sylvia Davatz’s greenhouse. Wheat from an alpine village. Greens throughout the winter. A tomato that lasts until December. Even peanuts! I wondered: What might be going on at Sylvia’s? Plants like these aren’t normally grown in Vermont.

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  • A Gathering Storm

    A Gathering Storm

    In 1716, while serving as a French missionary near Montreal, Father Joseph Francis Lafitau made a discovery in the journal of a fellow priest serving in China. He read about a plant, Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), that the Chinese cherished for its medicinal value, and he believed he could find this plant or a similar one in the temperate woodlands of southern Canada. He eventually did, and in doing so added a new chapter to the annals of natural resource exploitation that accompanied white settlement in North America.

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  • Growing Up in 4-H

    Growing Up in 4-H

    4-H is a national enrichment program for young people ages 8 to 18. Around the country, local clubs teach specific skills intended to give young people four types of experiences that, organizers believe, contribute to positive youth development: mastery, belonging, independence, and generosity. Developing these skills is what it means to grow up in 4-H.

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  • Set the Table with Celeriac

    Set the Table with Celeriac

    I’m in the second year of my love affair with celeriac and the romance is still aflame. My initial reaction upon “discovering” this vegetable was to think, “Where have you been all my life?” Since then I have introduced my new love to many gardening friends, insisting they take home a couple of six-packs of seedlings in the spring and just have a fling. This year I also donated quite a few plants to the Westminster West School Children’s Garden, which I coordinate, to see if the kids would take to celeriac the way they now respond to kohlrabi—another somewhat “odd” vegetable that we planted together, and that has become one of their favorite raw snacks.

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  • Diary of a Farm Apprentice—Part 2: Summer

    Diary of a Farm Apprentice—Part 2: Summer

    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.

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  • Rutland's Spud Man

    Rutland's Spud Man

    His story is an exception—not the story we usually associate with Vermont farmers around his age, farmers in their 60s and 70s. These farmers grew up during the Depression and World War II, often on their parents’ land, then farmed themselves—dairying, mostly—for 40 or 50 years. And their stories, as everyone in Vermont knows, have often ended at the auction block or in a real estate agent’s office—places where fields and cows must be sold because of brutal economic forces. Or their stories have ended when the farmers have become too tired, or too injured, to keep working.

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  • Three Square—Fall 2008

    Three Square—Fall 2008

    Growing up in Vermont I ate chokecherries, dandelions, venison, and tempura daylilies. I recently returned to live here full time. Since then, I’ve noticed that conversation often turns to food. What’s for dinner? This is the fourth and last installment of a series in which I’ve visited a variety of Vermonters in their homes, peered into their iceboxes, and shared their thoughts about what they eat. Because of the often personal nature of their stories, I’ve chosen to omit their last names.

    “I don’t care much about cooking,” Edith tells me. “I don’t put much stock in it."

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  • Safe Ground

    Safe Ground

    Smokey House Center is not your run-of-the-mill farm by any means. And Natasha was the first to teach me this in no uncertain terms. A fight makes it sound too violent. A confrontation sounds too technical. I’d call it a challenge. My run-in with Natasha was definitely the first big challenge I faced as a crew leader at Smokey House. She was the first kid to test me, the first to stand her ground. I’m pretty sure she didn’t like me at first, and when Natasha doesn’t like you, you better watch out.

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  • Springing Ahead

    Springing Ahead

    Spring Lake Ranch is a farm-based therapeutic community in Cuttingsville, 10 miles from Rutland. Its mission is to help people with mental health and substance abuse issues find value and focus in their lives, primarily through community living and working the land. The work program makes up the core of our daily activities, and is divided into Farm, Gardens, Woods, and Shop. Residents come to the ranch for an average stay of six months, although there are no prescribed limits.

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  • Farmers' Kitchen—Sweet Treasures

    Farmers' Kitchen—Sweet Treasures

    I’ve always had a certain fascination with root vegetables, grown secretly and mysteriously beneath the cool, dark ground. Root crops weather the changes of the growing season in private, developing steadily out of sight all summer. This makes the harvest of these subterranean crops somewhat like the unveiling of a new work of art: the earth is opened with shovels and forks, and hands reach in. The clinging dirt is swept away and the shape and color of the root is finally revealed after months of secret creation.

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  • Last Morsel—In the Garden

    Last Morsel—In the Garden

    Growing food in a garden gives us a close-up look at Life—like being at the New England Aquarium in Boston and pressing up against the glass to watch a giant turtle swim by. In the garden, though, we do more than just stand at the glass. Rather, we work with the web of life, cooperate with nature, collaborate with Mother Earth. Want to know how roots work? Grow food. Want to learn how to keep somebody healthy? Grow food. Want to care if it rains? Grow food.

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  • The Great Vermont Barn Census

    The Great Vermont Barn Census

    If you love barns, or history, or just love roaming around Vermont talking to people, you may enjoy participating in the Vermont Barn Census. Launched in August by the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation and other organizations, the Census invites volunteers to talk with barn owners about their old barns, then enter information about the architecture and past uses into an online database. The idea is to create a descriptive catalogue of Vermont’s estimated 5,000 barns before they succumb to old age, weather, or demolition. Volunteers can work individually, in pairs, or through organized groups, and plenty of information on barn architecture is provided; you don’t have to be an expert to participate.

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Diary of a Farm Apprentice—Part 2: Summer

Caitlin O'Brien

Written By

Caitlin Gildrien

Written on

September 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

About the Author

Caitlin Gildrien

Caitlin Gildrien

Caitlin Gildrien is a writer and graphic designer in the Champlain Valley of Vermont. With her husband and two small children, she also grows several acres of organic vegetables and medicinal herbs on their 200-year-old farmstead.

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Home Stories Issues 2008 Fall 2008 | Issue 6 Diary of a Farm Apprentice—Part 2: Summer