April – September
My name is Anne, and I have been apprenticing here at Seven Springs Farm since April of this year. As I write this essay, the farm is at the peak of the vegetable production season. Soon, we will see our summer crops pass, and will begin turning to our fall crops and anticipating the first frost. It is a little early to be looking back, but that is my task.
I came to Seven Springs Farm because I needed to change my life. It was not an easy coming.
Since childhood I have had a dream of being a gardener. As a child, I read backwards and forwards a Time-Life series of books on gardening that sat on my parents’ bookshelf. I can still remember many of the pictures, especially the flowers: climbing roses overtaking a fence, diagrams of how to dig up your rose bushes and bury them in the ground to overwinter in harsh climates, etc.
When I was in sixth or seventh grade, I started my own garden on a rocky, clay-filled patch of soil next to my parents’ driveway. I had purple coneflowers that did wonderfully, snapdragons and petunias (planted at my mother’s recommendation, and which I hated pinching back—their stickiness, and then what to do with the wilted pinchings?), and one pink oriental poppy, which I could not resist buying based on the beautiful picture. Its one bloom was short-lived, as advertised.
Later we moved into a house in the woods, and I had to leave my sunny garden behind. I entered high school, and did not start another garden.
When I was in twenty years old and in college, I took a job one summer on an organic family farm in western Massachusetts. The name of the farm was Peace Valley Farm, and the farmer who owned it was Bill Stinson. It was a dream job, one of those summers when you drop into yourself unexpectedly, and find a perfect fit. Bill was not a farmer who was sophisticated in technique, but he was fast and efficient in everything that he did. It was a good season with plenty of water and sunshine. The crops were a success. The rhythms of the farm suited me well, I bonded with Bill and his family, and when I finally left there in the fall, I put a seed in the back of my head—a dream of farming for ‘someday.’
After graduating from college, I lived in my hometown of Roanoke (about an hour from Seven Springs Farm), working in nonprofit administration for two years. As an educated young woman, I was immediately successful in my career. I bought a house and settled in. I planted a small garden in my backyard, but I was busy and preoccupied, and it got neglected. Vaguely in the back of my mind I sometimes remembered that there was a “someday” when I might get to farming.
In January of this year, I decided that someday needed to come sooner rather than later, and that I was going to have to go out and get it. I felt like my life was a blur of working, scarfing down meals, driving home and catching some sleep, and working again. Work had devolved into trading labor for money. I spent all the money on the necessities of life that I didn’t have time to create for myself. I bought most of my meals at restaurants—no time to cook. Bought lots of gasoline because I was always shuttling myself from here to there. Paid someone to clean my house. In the evenings, I spent money distracting myself from a consuming job. I increasingly did not want to go home and face a neglected house and yard, which represented to me more work and responsibility for which I didn’t have the energy.
I did some soul searching to figure out what I should do. I knew that I was sucked into a cycle, and I didn’t want a small solution. I didn’t want to get a “better” job, which for me meant more money but the same darned life. I didn’t want to read a magazine article about balance. I didn’t want to hear anyone else tell me about the importance of making time for myself. I didn’t want to take a yoga class once a week, or stretch for 15 minutes each day. I wanted to break out of the cycle in a big way. I wanted to change my life. All of it.
I took a week off from work with the intent of searching for a job. On the first day, I sat down at my computer. Not sure where to start, I fell back on instinct. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could work on an organic farm again? I looked up the Seven Springs Farm website, and a few days later I visited the farm. I never looked any further.
Once I set my sights on apprenticing at Seven Springs, there were still hurdles to go. I gave notice at my job, moved out of my house, and put all of my things in storage. At the same time, I ended a long-term relationship with a partner that I loved dearly. By the time I arrived at Seven Springs in April, I was ready for simple living. I wanted it as simple as I could get it.
It was simple, especially the first two or three months. It rained most of April. It was also cold. Many days I would come to work in rain gear, and spend the day huddled with Polly and Ann Shrader, another farm employee, in the greenhouse with the heat on. We started seedlings for all the crops we would grow that spring and summer. Slowly, we filled up all the tables in the greenhouse, and then the available floor space. Eventually we moved the hardiest crops outside and began planting.
Spring lasted into July. The longest the rain let up was maybe a week at a stretch. Good sunny days were scarce, and the temperature remained unseasonably cool. We planted many crops in the rain and the mud. Although spring greens and radishes came in, the spring broccoli and many of the summer crops were stressed and stunted by pounding rain, which packed the soil down and compacted their roots. Only in August were we able to pull off a good crop of tomatoes and cucumbers. The fall crops look like they will flourish. Most were planted later in the season, avoiding the most excessive rain. Now the weather seems to have turned golden, and these new crops look good.
Although the growing season has been a weaker one, the learning experience here at Seven Springs has been valuable for me. Simple farm living has been an antidote to my city life. The tactile, physical work has been rewarding and enlightening. I have gained much technical farming knowledge and many new homesteading skills. Equally valuable, the farm itself with its very simple and alternative way of life has stimulated me to think about how I want to live. I have honed my focus on what I want to do, the life that I want, and how I can get there. Below is a brief description of my major areas of growth during this apprenticeship.
Organic Gardening: My gardening knowledge has increased substantially in the areas of biological pest controls, organic fertilizers and soil supplements. Ron and Polly are a wealth of knowledge in this area. They have an overall strategy and ethic for approaching pest problems and soil and plant fertility. From them I have learned how to use many complimentary techniques simultaneously.
Greenhouse Work: Before I came to Seven Springs, I had not been exposed to greenhouse work. After working with Polly and Ron to start seedlings for most of the crops on the farm, I know skills for basic greenhouse management for a small farm. These skills include creating a potting soil from compost, starting different types of seeds successfully, keeping the greenhouse at an appropriate temperature and moisture level, keeping different types of plants at appropriate heat levels, and preventing problems with the seedlings such as insect infestations and excessive moisture.
Equipment: Before I came to Seven Springs, I had never mowed a lawn. Now I can operate a variety of small machines for maintenance and farming, including a lawn mower, a weed whacker, and several small tractors. I have also used the larger tractors and driven the backhoe and the dump truck. This area of improvement, although seemingly minor, is very important to me. Girls and women are hard pressed to find an opportunity to learn to use these machines, and generally must depend on others to have that knowledge. In my eyes, my new knowledge of equipment is empowering.
General Farm Maintenance: Although it would be impossible to master all of the related skills related to general farm maintenance during a short apprenticeship, I have gotten a good general sense of what is involved. Much of this knowledge has come from observing and assisting Ron in maintaining the infrastructure of the farm. Areas to which he has exposed me include equipment and vehicle maintenance; fencing maintenance; creating and maintaining irrigation systems, erosion and drainage systems, and road and trail systems; pruning and orchard maintenance, landscaping; pond maintenance; some small building projects; and last but definitely not least, growing, harvesting, baling and storing a large hay crop.
Compost: I have learned basic procedures for making compost, including building the pile, using biodynamic preparations and mineral supplements, good ratios of animal manure and plant matter, appropriate moisture and temperature for the pile, and how to turn it. I have participated in making piles, observed raw piles transform into finished compost, and have used the finished compost for potting soil and directly in the gardens.
Alternative Power Systems and Building Materials: I have learned about alternative power systems and building materials on this and neighboring farms, and have been exposed to books and people who are engaged with these alternatives. Some examples: Several of the buildings on this farm are powered with solar panels and run on DC rather than AC current. This farm and many others utilize well water as the drinking water source on the farm. On this farm we also catch and utilize rain water for non-drinking purposes. A neighbor has a well that is powered by a solar pump, and is building a straw bale house. Another neighbor developed a spring on his property this year for drinking water. Several of the buildings on this farm have been built or sided using locust logs timbered on this property, and milled locally. Firewood gathering and log splitting is a major fall activity here, and all of the houses on the farm use woodstoves for heat in the winter. Seeing this efficient use of resources is inspiring. They are also cheaper!
CSA Concept and Operation: I have learned about the CSA concept and its origin and history. I have read books from the Seven Springs library on this concept, and I have heard Polly, Ron and Mark speak extensively to CSA sharers, tour groups and classes about the concept and the development of this CSA. I have also given farm tours and have explained to many people the workings of the CSA. I have helped bring in and divide up the harvest on every distribution day, and have helped Polly and Mark to make decisions and plans about harvesting and distribution. I have recently been responsible for running the Tuesday distribution, including managing volunteer helpers and record keeping. In times when Polly has been out of town on a distribution day, I have helped to plan and execute the harvest independently. Through the CSA, I have also met many wonderful and interesting members, and have had a chance to work side by side with them, and sometimes their children, families, neighbors and friends who have come along for the ride. What a treat it has been to hear about how so many different people have come to be involved with local organic agriculture!
Budgeting: A major theme of my Seven Springs experience has been how to survive on a $100/month stipend. I have learned much more about money management than I expected from this apprenticeship. The monetary pressure has been more intense for me than for some other apprentices past because I carry a house mortgage and fixed expenses such as health and car insurance, among others. For the first time in my life I have a strict written and categorized budget. I use cash for all of my living expenses such as food, gasoline, etc., and I record and categorize every purchase I make. I have simplified and honed my fixed expenses as much as possible. Ron has worked with me to tighten my budget and save money on various insurance expenses. I have also done part-time work off the farm in order to have a higher cash flow. Although financial pressures have at times been a stressor and a distraction to me, through this experience I have become much clearer about how much money I want to earn and how I want to use it, and I have learned how to be disciplined about day-to-day money management. Overall I have gained significantly more focus and direction in the area of my personal finances.
Exposure to Different People and Lifestyles: One of the most valuable parts of my experience at Seven Springs has been getting to know an interesting alternative community in Floyd County. It has been refreshing and educational to find people nearby who have managed to make different life choices. I have met people in Floyd county who have chosen to live without electricity or running water. Many live off grid and some plow their fields with horses, trying to reduce as much as possible their use of fossil fuels. Others have chosen to live in intentional communities (aka communes), or to return to the large family structure that was traditionally part of farming in this country. I have met many who have made a choice to trade off some income for quality of life. I have watched carefully how everyone deals with hard issues like sickness, health insurance, and old age. Although I haven’t learned all the answers to these types of life questions, it’s nice to see that there are many options.
Confidence, Direction and Resources: Perhaps some of the most valuable results of my experience at Seven Springs are that now I have the confidence to pursue organic farming as a career, and I have many resources to turn to for knowledge and help. I have realized that I can make the leap into this career area without first knowing everything there is to know about it. I know enough to get started, and after all, you can only gain experience by getting out there and doing it. I have also gained direction. I have more knowledge about the life that I want to live, and how to get there. I know that after this experience, I will not be drifting along with somebody else’s program. I have my own program now. I am grateful to have met many farmers and others to whom I can turn for help. I fully intend to buy organic gardening products from Seven Springs, and to consult Polly and Ron in the future when I run into gardening problems that puzzle me. In addition, when I venture into farming I intend to work with Mark Schoenbeck, the soil scientist on staff at Seven Springs who is a valuable resource for interpreting soil tests and consulting to small farmers on soil and other issues. I have met other farmers in the Floyd area that I will likely consult with for season extension tips, general gardening advice, and marketing assistance.
When I leave Seven Springs this fall and return to my hometown of Roanoke, my goal is to establish a small market garden for the 2004 season using a friend’s large backyard. I plan to use the organic practices that I have learned here, as well as some practices learned in my previous farming experiences. Although I plan to grow all the vegetables that I, my friends and family can eat, for my market farming endeavor I plan to focus on selling cut flowers. (Flowers have been a lifelong love for me. Some of my favorite experiences at Seven Springs have been working with Ron in his flower gardens, and making flower bouquets that I have sold locally.)
I hope to market the flowers at local farmers’ markets, health food and other high end grocery stores, and possibly even through the Seven Springs CSA. I am also planning to do some research on traveling weekly to high-dollar, larger farmers’ markets in Washington DC.
I am hoping to start my flower business as a part-time endeavor, and will be returning to the nonprofit career that I left in a part-time capacity. This will lend me income stability and balance. This fall and winter I intend to write a business plan, do extensive market research, create a budget, and plan my garden.
I am, to say the least, happy and excited about the future and grateful to have had this experience at Seven Springs. It was the big change that I was looking for.