Diary of a Farm Apprentice—Part 3: Fall
Written onDecember 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 third and last installment of her series, aspiring farmer Caitlin Gildrien shares her experiences as a summer apprentice at High Ledge Farm, an organic vegetable farm in Woodbury.
Eating is not only, as Wendell Berry put it, an agricultural act. It is an emotional and social one—an act of community. During my months as a farming apprentice, I found that some of the most surprising and powerful benefits of farming can be found in the relationships that are formed: with the land, with customers, with fellow farmers, and with the wider community. I experienced all these relationships firsthand during the past spring and summer. As a result, my apprenticeship taught me human lessons, as well as agricultural ones.
The greatest challenges my then-fiancé Jeremy and I faced last summer had nothing to do with the long, hot days or the bugs or the stubborn weeds. Rather, as we farmed together for the first time, we struggled in our relationships—both with each other and with our farmer-mentor, Paul, his wife Kate, and their two children.
The primary difference between our apprenticeship and the other jobs I’ve had was that we lived on the farm, in close association with our “boss” and his family. On the one hand, the commute couldn’t be beat. On the other, we had very little space to ourselves—we were living in the kind of camper that usually rests in the bed of a pickup truck, one that had been set up behind the greenhouses, just a few dozen yards from the main house and barn.
Early in the season, Jeremy and I both worked on the farm full time, which meant that we spent literally 24 hours a day together. Although we do get on quite well (we got married in October, after all), we both enjoy solitude and prefer to have some time alone during the day. We soon found ourselves growing short on patience and generosity. As the days grew hotter and longer, it became increasingly important for us to find time for ourselves individually. We did this by taking on different farm jobs or working in different parts of the field, or by spending some time apart on our days off.
After our second month on the farm, Jeremy began a professional brewing course, and we split the work week between us: I worked Monday, Thursday, and Friday, while Jeremy worked Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday. (On Fridays we harvested for the Saturday farmers’ market and it required all of us—Jeremy, Paul, Kate, and myself—to get everything done in time.) Once we had whole days apart, our relationship became more comfortable, even spacious in a way; having taken care of ourselves, we had the emotional room to better care for each other.
The relationship with our farm family, though wonderful on the whole, also presented some challenges. We found clear communication to be key—a few misunderstandings made for some tense moments in the beginning. As Paul filled the roles of supervisor, landlord, and (due to the remote, rural location of the farm) our primary social contact, our relationship with him was especially complex. However, we quickly learned to read each others’ moods, tolerate each others’ quirks. We filled long stretches of quiet work with conversation, and the conversations covered nearly all topics possible: religion, politics, family, love, fear, food. All that talking, paired with Paul and Kate’s openness and generosity, caused the four of us to become close quite quickly.
Openness and generosity played a role in the farm’s business side, as well. High Ledge has been at the Capital City Farmers’ Market for eight seasons, and Montpelier has a very loyal customer base. As a result, Paul knew almost every customer who approached the booth; at the first market, I was impressed by the care he took to greet each person, inquire about his or her winter, and answer questions. Paul has an incredible capacity to remember each of his customers, and could therefore inquire in August about the condition of a tomato plant he’d sold them in May, or continue a conversation that he’d started the previous week.
People came to the market, in part, because of their relationships with vendors there. Paul came for the same reason, and I did, too. Saturdays were officially a day off for us interns, but Jeremy and I usually spent at least an hour or two behind the booth each week, chatting with customers and restocking the display. I liked learning to recognize folks who came back week after week: the kid who loved carrots, the fellow who always bought just a few beans at a time, the pregnant ladies who as a matter of policy received a free bunch of folic-rich kale. Having regulars had always been my favorite part of waitressing, and I found that the pleasure carried over quite thoroughly.
Even more satisfying than the market relationships were our CSA relationships. We had 25 Community-Supported Agriculture members, who had purchased shares early in the season and then came each Tuesday to pick up their vegetables. After a full day of harvesting and preparing the shares, we’d spend Tuesday afternoons in the barn, drinking beer and hanging out with the members as they arrived. Not all CSAs are social affairs, but what better way to spend an afternoon than with neighbors, friends, and the people who feed you? It provided Jeremy and me a chance to relax and recharge, and to receive some positive feedback about our hard work. Having someone tell me that the carrots in their hand are the best they’ve ever had made it all seem worthwhile—and reminded me to enjoy those carrots, too!
Even now, after the end of the season, I feel connected to all those people and to that land. Paul, Kate, and the kids came to our wedding in October—they even gifted us with much of the food we served there. We certainly plan to visit them in the future, and I’m reassured that we will have a mentor and a source of advice as we embark on our own farming enterprise.
Jeremy and I have moved a lot these past few years, and we’re ready to get settled. Although we don’t yet know where we’ll be living, or what our farm will look like, I look forward to creating our own network of relationships with the land we will work and the people whose food we will produce. I wanted to be a farmer because I love food and I love being outside; now I realize it’s because I love people, too. Farming is, after all, a community act.
Photo of Jeremy and Caitlin courtesy of Caitlin Gildrien