INTERN JOURNAL Insights and experiences from organic farms

The highs and lows of a job well done
Our fearless interns tackle mud ovens in the Mexican heat, weeding an endless no-till pumpkin patch in Pennsylvania, cherry robbers in Nevada, and the demands of leading a double life in Minnesota.


Editor's NOTE
New Farm Introduces "Intern Journal"

In this new biweekly column, interns on farms across the United States and beyond climb out of the trenches to share the details of their day-to-day grind and the lessons learned in the field.

This next generation of farmers offers insights into what motivates them to go against the tide when so many farm families struggle to keep up-and-coming generations interested in farming.

As they will tell you, it’s a combination of love for the land, good food, sharing community, and a sense of purpose that keeps them going.

--NF Editors

Claire MacDonell
Mexico. February 10, 2004

Claire is currently in Guatemala following stints working on organic farms in Mexico and Belize. Next, she’ll be heading to Ecuador, Chile, and Argentina, where she will also be volunteering on organic farms. The following entry reflects her experience on an organic farm in Mexico this past winter.

Jesus finally decided that today was the day we would build the earth oven. A week ago, I had spent a full day scraping the flesh from cactus leaves and leaving it to ferment in a bucket of water. By this point, the stuff smelled horrid. We had a work crew of seven, and started with sifting loads of dirt and sand. Then we culled through a pile of rock, needing ones that had a flat surface to build the frame of the oven. We used junk rock and some mortar for the center.

The next step was creating the mortar, a mixture of dirt, sand, cactus glue and a little bit of cement. It’s a good thing Jose showed up on his lunch break; he’s one the widest, strongest Mexicans I have ever seen. He kept on his back brace, grabbed a shovel, and stirred that mess up like a machine while I added water.

We dragged wheelbarrow loads over to the oven site and started plastering earth and rock together. A couple of us kept plastering while the rest kept pumping out mortar; things slowed down when Jose had to get back to work. By mid-afternoon, we had the base built and left it to dry before putting on the finishing plaster and carving the inside for the actual oven.

We were all covered in dirt and cement, so we jumped in the neighbor’s ceynote, a water-filled cave with a 12-foot ladder heading up through a small hole in the ceiling. There’s no better way to rinse off and cool down. I got the exact recipe for the cactus glue and mortar from Jesus, and I might use it someday, if I’m ever living near cactus and red clay again.

Patrick Sullivan
Nevada. June 19, 2004

Patrick is a self-described "intern over the traditional age" (31; boy do we feel old). An attorney by training, Patrick currently takes one day a week away from his job as a legal aid to volunteer on a CSA in Silver Springs, Nevada. He is contemplating a shift from a career involving “moral ambiguity” to “a way of life that involves honest work, simple pleasures and well-deserved fulfillment.”

It looks like I’m going to have to keep waiting for the cherries that I had been looking forward to so eagerly. Mere handfuls were salvaged and most of those will go to CSA members from local churches. Thus I will not enjoy the payoff I have been hoping for these last few weeks. In my mind’s eye, I imagined myself handing free samples out to friends who had probably been wondering why anyone would bother volunteering to work at a small farm in the hinterlands of Nevada’s Great Basin on their day off. The cherries would have provided tangible evidence of the rewards of such work. My ‘told-you-so’ moment will have to wait.

Ray and Virginia Johnson, the owners and operators of Custom Gardens, planted the lone cherry tree in 2001. The Starkrimson sweet cherry tree bore fruit for the first time this year but suffered unexpected early attacks from birds, and protective netting was apparently put up too late.

Farming is never an easy prospect in this high, cold, dry landscape, and the learning process is never-ending. But the Johnson’s two-acre organic farm is a green island of botanical diversity in an ocean of sagebrush, a farm built on devotion and versatility. When I started volunteering I was amazed at the variety they produced. In a state written off by most as a barren wasteland, they have built a small community-supported farming operation that produces all manner of vegetables, fruits and berries.

Now, after months of work, I see what a labor of love their farm is. Together, we tend tiny irrigated patches, two greenhouses, and even a miniature orchard that includes that lone cherry tree; a tree that we hope will produce a better crop next year, when the birds won’t catch us unawares.

Michael Rodriguez
Michigan. June 22, 2004

photo by Lynn Rhodes

Michael is an environmental science major at Michigan State University in East Lansing. He also works as an intern at MSU’s student-run organic farm, home to a CSA that operates an incredible 48 weeks. Michael says he sees organic farming as a tangible way to make a positive difference in the community.

There are these classy amber lampposts outfitted all over the historic part of campus. In the colder months, they reflect the thin layer of frost that forms on the pavement just after dusk, sparkling, reminding me that I am about to trade the warm confines of Agriculture Hall for a wind that will bite at my skin the entire bike ride home. Lucky for my skinny bones, it is June; yesterday was the longest day of the year, and the only thing that shimmers are the bits of broken glass strewn about the parking lot.

Finished reading some long-overdue email messages about relevant things going on in my life outside the farm. Pushed through the double doors, only to be greeted by the familiar amber-lit area on campus, where most of my classes are held. Thinking about what it would be like to roll out of bed and ease into the field.

No carpool.

When the day is done, to only have a short distance to the place where supper is prepared and shared among those who had a hand in its conception.

No traffic.

To live on the farm without this slight disconnect. I thought the fragmented feeling would be alleviated when the distraction of classes and homework was ushered out with the end of the semester. Then I can really get down, I figured. Open myself up the blinding “wahoo!” moments as well as the subtle intricacies farm life has to offer; establish a connection with the food and the earth.

Yes! The FOOD and the EARTH! But as I enter the month of fireworks, the only thing that seems to be missing is the farm itself.

Emily Gallagher
Pennsylvania. June 30, 2004

Emily is interning right here on The Rodale Institute Experimental Farm in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. She graduated from the University of Kentuky in 1999 and joined us after returning from two years in Kolda, Senegal with the Peace Corps. Emily also works two to three days a week at County Line Orchard--an area fruit farm.

Even Rodale-ians dread Monday morning staff meetings. The Farm Operations crew predictably shuffled into work early and threw around their weekly grumbles about Mondays and too-short weekends before sitting down to a routine of giddiness and bonding time. Despite it being Monday, these folks' devotion to this organic farm shines through. We chat about the week, pat one another on the back, and generally figure out which way to march after the meeting.

My "corners" were assigned this week to the apple orchards, research pumpkins, and an interminable field of production pumpkins. The corners are my little Farm Operations Intern window into what happens on The Rodale Institute research farm. I dashed off to the orchards with a fellow intern before anyone could suggest that hoeing pumpkins is best done in the morning. We were equipped with all the necessary wires, clippers, Cooperative Extension pest guides and other accoutrements necessary for scouting out apple maggots.

A New Hampshire couple walking the self-guided farm tour discovered two sticky interns climbing all over apple branches and scrambling in and out of EZ-Go carts. We were perfecting our imperfect design of red semi-circles wired to yellow cardboard smeared with Tangle Foot. We shared some insights about organic farming before mutually agreeing that there were, in fact, no apple maggots among the irritated flies buzzing in the glue.

Nearing the end their three-mile hike, the same couple happened on us again while we were hand-seeding grass around black weed cloth. We briefly described the research evaluating the potential of compost tea to control pumpkin and potato diseases. (At our third encounter, our new fans were convinced that Farm Operations Interns manage the entire 333-acre farm.)

And then, after lunch…Monday…slowed…down. A team of seven had begun hoeing the weeds within the rows of no-till, no-end-in-sight pumpkins the previous Friday. We solved all the riddles known between us and named all the state capitals (excluding West Virginia) before people began feigning other obligations. All our chatter was spent. This Monday, the two of us shared nothing but skepticism. Skepticism about no-till. Skepticism about the technique. Skepticism about the equipment. Skepticism about the real effects of weed pressure. Skepticism that there was indeed an end to the pumpkin patch seeded in flattened hairy vetch.

Just when I began questioning the sanity of driving from my beloved Bluegrass state to an internship in Pennsylvania Dutch country, Monday was over. We skipped off to our personal community garden plots under the orchard hill with renewed energy reminiscent of that Monday morning farm intern zeal.