Diary of a Farm Apprentice—Part 1: Spring
Written onJune 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 this four-part series, aspiring farmer Caitlin O’Brien shares her experiences as a summer apprentice. She begins with a bit of background on how she got to this place.
I want to be a farmer. It is 5:30 in the morning, and the rooster, who lives very close to my window, is crowing before dawn. I find it useful to remind myself: I want to be a farmer.
Later today—my third day as an apprentice on a vegetable farm in East Calais—
I will be planting onions in the field, putting the finishing touches on a new greenhouse, and planting a round of greens: lettuce, kale, collards, chard, and cabbage. Yesterday I planted big, leggy tomatoes into one greenhouse and transplanted celeriac and herbs into bigger containers. Tomorrow I’ll be moving chicken fencing, doing more transplanting, and writing labels for all the plants to be sold as seedlings. The first farmers’ market took place last week, and the season is up and running.
I want to be a farmer.
I’ve wanted to be a farmer for about five years now. For a while I thought I wanted to be a high-powered advertising executive, and I even spent two years at school for graphic design. After two years, however, I decided that high-powered executivity would not suit me; in fact, I became quite certain it would kill me. I dropped out of design school and spent a year traveling and working for minimum wage. Somehow in the midst of all that waitressing, an idea was bubbling: I wanted to be a farmer.
Actually, the first inklings of the idea surfaced while I was still in design school in Philadelphia. I remember standing in the grocery store in March, looking at all the lettuce and strawberries and realizing they were exactly the same as those I’d seen along California’s central coast, where I grew up. There, all the lettuce fields stretch literally as far as the eye can see, and strawberries are available, as the marketing says, “13 months a year.” Standing in that Philadelphia grocery store, I realized that those lettuce heads and strawberries did not just resemble the ones from California—they were from California. That summer, I drove through the Pennsylvania countryside, past acres of new developments and broken-down farms, and I began to really think about this country’s food system.
At that point, I’d been a vegetarian for several years, and I knew well the horror story that is modern meat production. What hadn’t occurred to me was that the philosophy that created feedlots—economies of scale, a monomaniacal focus on the bottom line, a general disregard for the value of life—ruled vegetable farming as well, and with similar consequences. I started paying more attention to all my food choices, not just the ones around meat.
While I was traveling and waitressing after design school, I decided to study agroecology at Prescott College in Arizona. In my second year, I took a massive set of summer classes that made up the bulk of the agroecology degree. The other students and I worked at Wolfberry, Prescott’s educational farm, and drove a crowded 12-passenger van all over the country looking at examples of sustainable agriculture. I think we were in Kansas when it hit me: I wanted to be a farmer.
How does one become a farmer? Despite growing up in the heart of California’s agricultural melee, I had no history of farming in my family, and certainly no family farm. My agroecology degree was all well and good—I can tell you the biochemical processes behind photosynthesis and nitrogen fixation, and the relative water usage of half a dozen irrigation options—but at Prescott I worked on an educational farm. At the end of the season, we dug up all the bean plants and incinerated them to study the effects of our intercropping experiments. Not exactly training for professional farming. I still didn’t even know how to drive a tractor.
After Prescott, I spent a few more years waitressing back home in California, gardening in my backyard, and lusting over parcels of land that I looked up for sale online. I thought about that advertising company I had figured I’d be running by now. I stalled.
But happily, at Prescott I’d started dating a man who shared my interest in food, plants, and working outside. He was living in Vermont, where he’d grown up, and eventually he convinced me to join him there. He’d decided he wanted to be a farmer, too. Even better, he had the drive to figure out how to make it happen. I followed him and arrived in Vermont in late 2006.
First, Jeremy and I really had to commit to the idea. No more romantic wouldn’t-it-be-nice-to-live-on-the-land rhetoric: if we wanted to be farmers, we’d better be prepared for miserable rain, sunburns, nettles, and roosters crowing before the sun even shines. We signed ourselves up for Growing Places, an agricultural business planning class offered by the University of Vermont Extension. Through that class, we crafted a mission statement and a Five-Year Plan.
Year One we spent mostly figuring out the Plan. Now we are in Year Two: the year of skill-building, experience-gaining, and getting married (not necessarily in order of importance). Our plan for next year includes writing a proper business plan, producing most of our own food (on leased land or land that we own), and selling something that we grow to somebody. At the end of five years, we hope to be making half our income from our farming enterprise. Having a clear set of goals in place has helped us tremendously; we can look at a decision from the viewpoint of whether or not it brings us closer to our objective, and we’ve found that many otherwise difficult questions resolve themselves fairly quickly when viewed that way.
Last January, with our goals in mind, we decided we needed some concrete farming experience. While I do have that degree in agriculture, I got it in Arizona, which means I know a whole lot about irrigation and not so much about, say, frost protection. Jeremy has had gardens here in Vermont since he was a kid, but a garden isn’t quite a farm. So this year we went in search of an apprenticeship, and we started working on a small educational farm near Montpelier on April 1.
There are a lot of farms in Vermont, and many of them run apprenticeship programs. We sought out ours on the website of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT), which is an incredible resource. Other options include the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Services (ATTRA) and the Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF) program. With NOFA, farmers fill out a form providing information about their focus, management style, marketing strategies, and how much they’ll pay an apprentice; apprentices fill out a form that details their past experiences, useful skills, and what they’re looking for in a farm. Each group can then contact the other. The available farms in Vermont range from one-acre homesteads to dairy operations to 20-acre vegetable farms, and they ask for anywhere from 15 to 60 hours a week. Many offer room and board (or a CSA share, or free access to seconds, or at least all the zucchini you can eat) in addition to a usually modest stipend. For would-be apprentices, figuring out which farm will provide the best match for your circumstances and goals is a delightful and tricky business.
We spent two months at the farm near Montpelier, learning the basics of livestock care and planting a lot of seeds. As the vegetable season took off, however, we decided we wanted to experience a for-profit farm, not just an educational one. High Ledge Farm, in Woodbury, is a three-acre family farm that grows all the standard vegetables, with a focus on “the basics”: pantry staples like potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, and beets. We will be here for the rest of the summer, and we hope to learn as much as we possibly can before we strike out on our own next season.
We aren’t entirely sure what kind of farm we want to run—we hope that the apprenticeship will give us some insight into that—but we have some guidelines, based largely on the aspects of farming that appealed to us from the beginning. For instance, we like working outside, so we want to farm in a way that maximizes that. And while we don’t oppose the judicious use of machinery and fossil fuels, we want to have our hands in the dirt. That means running a small-scale farm, on the order of one to five acres.
We also know that we want to have chickens because we eat a whole lot of eggs. Whether we’ll have a rooster, I don’t know. If we do have one, though, he’ll live far from our window.
Photo courtesy of Caitlin O'Brien