Life on the Farm
Accepting an internship on an organic farm involves more than a simple interest in environmentalism. The commitment requires an entire shift in lifestyle. Seven Springs Farm is beautiful, pastoral and I would even say pure, but it is not a luxury resort. We interns do live in trailers and we do use an outhouse surrounded by poison ivy. However, I do not say this to disparage the farm, it is merely included to present a realistic idea of what it is like to live here as an apprentice. This realistic presentation is almost entirely a positive review.
Living in a small trailer is not a bad thing. The small quarters demand a simplification of one’s living arrangements. I am quite comfortable in this situation and am happy to be given such an incentive to live in a minimalist manner. As such a small living area quickly becomes cluttered, it forces me to live efficiently and conserve space as much as possible. It can be a blessing to live with little more than the essentials, but it’s still nice to have a tape player and a good stack of books. The spans of solitude that I am sometimes confronted with necessitate a modest collection of the latter.
A large portion of the time that I am in my trailer is spent cooking. Much of the food that I cook is gathered from the gardens around the farm or collected from the surplus of harvests that we make on the two distribution days we have each week. This is one of the advantages we enjoy living on the farm. Cooking space is tight, but this is in the process of being remedied in the form of an outdoor kitchen we are currently erecting. Eating seasonally, I get all of my greens and vegetables from the farm, as well as a bit of fruit and a loaf of locally baked bread each week. The rest: pasta, rice, peanut butter, etc. buy overpriced from the local health food store. A sacrifice I have been willing to make in order to maintain an almost completely organic diet. Food is a basic need for humans, and here I am constantly aware of my connection to where it originates.
So now I’ve come to the real business here. The work. Well, the work includes a large variety of things continuously going on that extend over every aspect of the farm. We obviously have to plant. With this naturally comes the necessity of watering. We have a special irrigation system here that pumps water up from a large acre pond to a much smaller pond several hundred feet uphill. From there it is pumped to spigots strategically located around the gardens. This system plays an integral role on the farm as it prevents us from being completely at the mercy of the weather.
Weeding is a huge responsibility here because it is one of the primary threats to developing crops and we are trained to be able to identify all kinds of “weeds” that jeopardize the health of the desired plants. Because we do not use herbicides and the weeds are incessantly growing, it remains a large part of the garden work to pull them up, hoe them up and otherwise eradicate them from the growing fields. Mulching is an important process that we often find ourselves doing in order to prevent weeds from ever surfacing, hold moisture and encourage organic activity in the soil. We also must always pay close attention to the progress of gardens and problems that might be developing in them. Often we identify insect pests that are destroying crops and we either have to squish them, spray organic pests controls, or release beneficial insects to control the pest population for us.
Aside from squishing the insects, the methods we use for controlling these problem bugs are carefully monitored and recorded. We learn that it is always best, organic or not, to use as little pesticides as possible, and it is important to keep records to make sure that we are not overusing certain elements. Even though our pesticides are organic, we have to remember that many of them are still poisonous and in the interest of health and conservation, it is best not to use them in excess. In addition, we also spray natural fertilizers every so often to help the plants on their way. Spraying can be a fun activity because we wear the containers that hold whatever were spraying on our backs, and it gives the sensation of being an astronaut or spaceman of some sort doing something futuristic. I think this may just be my take on it though.
A large portion of the revenue here is generated by the organic gardening products retail business. Work in this area of the farm includes writing receipts for customers, transferring products such as kelp and bone meal into smaller quantity bags for resale and restocking the barn from the warehouse up on the hill.
Maintenance is another part of the job that is of continual importance. This involves most of the machine work like mowing tall grass, weed eating certain areas or using the chain saw to clear larger trees selectively of course. Tractor work also falls under this category I think, but the interns are not really a part of this. It is an indispensable resource, but it requires a bit more training and practice than it is worth teaching in one summer. This presents the idea that on a modern farm of our scale, it is not really feasible to operate without certain articles of machinery. Even in the ideal world of organic farming, some bit of industrial technology is almost impossible to do without. Composting is yet another part of farming that is regularly on our minds. Most of our organic waste goes into the compost piles on the farm. It is interesting to note the cycle of the food that we contribute to by returning organic matter to the earth. We occasionally have to actually build a compost pile out of layers of manure/decomposed organic matter and hay along with added kelp and rock minerals. This is an interesting process that was done with the aid of the backhoe and us farmers all oddly enough wearing sandals and pitch forking manure into a flat surface. We use the finished compost for the gardens as well as potting soil in the greenhouse. In the greenhouse we start many of our crops from seed and later on transplant them into the fields.
The foundation of our farming is based around the program that we are essential members of, community supported agriculture. The farm is also economically based on this program of selling shares of food to local people with an interest in buying fresh, organic, locally grown vegetables. This program is one of the most important aspects of the farm for me. It is here that the relation of the farm to real people becomes clear. This is where it is easy to understand that farming is not some abstract concept that is carried out far from the reach of the average person. Two times a week, Tuesdays and Saturdays, we have members who have committed themselves to working a certain amount of hours for a price reduction on their shares come to the farm to help with the distribution of food. These days always include harvesting, and then allocating the harvest into the different shares for the surrounding towns by way of weighing and dividing the vegetables into equal parts. Much of the work is done inside the barn where all the scales and bags are kept. It is always interesting to meet the people who come out to work and converse with them to understand the different kinds of people who are drawn to organic food and why they have such an attraction. It’s also nice just to meet and work with new people, since for the better part of the week we are confined to the company of only three or four fellow farmers.
I think I’ve managed to cover most of the things we do here. We’re required to work forty-two hours a week and receive a small stipend for each month that we work here to help cover food costs. The exchange here I think is a fair one as the experience and skills that I have gained here are invaluable. I have realized through observing the connection of nature to the farm that although we try to control elements on the farm we are not isolated from the world. We are a part of nature, and the deer, insects, rain, and “weeds” constantly remind us that we are a part of a much larger system than that presented on the farm. Nature doesn’t stop where we’ve tilled the earth into bare soil. It continues and surrounds us and is us. This idea has contributed affirm to my belief that the delicate balance that keeps the earth healthy and beautiful must be sustained by responsible farming practices, and sustainable forms of development in general. I have a greater appreciation for food now that I know firsthand the work that goes into producing it. I have gained a stronger sense of self-reliance from living in a tiny trailer on my own and have seen the way to truly live efficiently both through my own experience and from the glowing example that Ron and Polly have provided me with.
The ability to grow my own food is something that I will most definitely benefit from in the future and the techniques that I have learned her e will supply me with new ideas that I can bring to any farm I work on. I cannot forget the physical strength and endurance that this kind of work promotes either. I also should have mentioned earlier that this farm would not be nearly the same without the two cats, Lily and Pumpkin, and the most lovable dog, Gretchen. The pond we have here is also good for more than irrigation. It is a convenient place to bathe, and I often wonder on hot days whether it was dug here for swimming or watering plants. The plant and wildlife identification skills that I have picked up along the way are quite valuable, especially the ability to identify edible plants (I’d rather not consider the wildlife edible, even though the dog and cats on this farm seem to revel in the idea). I can now operate heavy machinery and got to brush up on my manual transmission driving. There were even a couple of times when I was given the opportunity to herd an escaped cow back into the fenced in pasture. I’ll never forget those times when I had to face down that cow that I’ve dubbed Frisky because of her friskiness. She was a damn fast runner and could make razor sharp turns at top speed to avoid being corralled. She even had me on the run a couple times, when I got a little too frisky with her. The electric fence we installed to deter deer from the broccoli garden was another of my greatest challenges. Keeping in mind that I in no way represent the views and opinions of Seven Springs Farm, I would have to recommend touching the electric fence at least once so that you too can experience what the deer are so cruelly tricked into experiencing. The shock is completely temporary, but it gives one an idea of what is possible to endure, and in a sense creates a bond between you and the deer.