INTERN JOURNAL Insights and experiences from organic farms

Lessons in the field
Our intern journalists each learn in his or her own way that it’s not what you know, but what you don’t know, that makes organic farming so interesting.


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. June 20, 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 near Playa Del Carmen, Mexico.

The past couple days have been spent moving rocks, trying to clear the area beside the tree house for a nursery. Jesus and Tonje have convinced themselves there are ceynotes on the property, so what started as a simple clearing mission has turned into a desperate hunt for underground caves with rivers running through them. Now they have a couple holes dug up to their necks. The rest of us are hinting at them to let it go, but to no avail.

We have been sorting our mounds of rocks so that the big ones are set aside to build the composting toilet and the medium size ones are used to fortify and deepen the terraces. You’d think, given how green the jungle is, that anything can grow anywhere, but the soil is shallow and rocky, and the ground is uneven. I have also made at least 50 feet of terrace this week, and my hands are duly scraped and cut.

Our first task this week was turning the compost piles and cutting more brush to start new ones. My wrist hurts like the devil after only a few hours of swinging a machete. But the pile I just turned is ready to go, and tomorrow I’ll use this new soil to deepen the terraced beds. In the dense humidity and heat, it only takes six weeks for a pile of veggies, grass, manure, and Jesus’ “worm juice” fertilizer to turn into beautiful black soil.

Jesus kindly showed me how to sleep in a hammock properly. Apparently the key is to lie crosswise not lengthwise, so nights have been much more comfortable, even if I am perched 20 feet high in an open-air tree house. I’m starting to like swaying in the night breeze.

Patrick Sullivan
Nevada. July 4, 2004

Patrick is a self-described “intern over the traditional age.” 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 what he terms “moral ambiguity” to “a way of life that involves honest work, simple pleasures and well-deserved fulfillment.”

Exhausted from days of hiking, biking and kayaking in the High Sierra, my visiting brother Daniel and I have agreed to take a day of rest this Fourth of July. I suggest to him that we drive out to Silver Springs so I can show him the farm. Daniel, always easygoing, agrees. He even seems genuinely interested in seeing the place that I’m always talking about.

Daniel has never been to the West before this trip. To him the barren mountains and sagebrush flats of Nevada’s interior must seem like another planet compared to the green splendor of Lake Tahoe, though they are only about 30 or 40 miles apart as the crow flies. When we arrive, farm proprietors Ray and Virginia Johnson are not home, and only their hairy behemoth of a dog (appropriately named ‘Bear’) is there to meet us. I hadn’t thought to call ahead. Knowing that the Johnsons won’t mind if I show my brother around the place, I open the front gate and begin to give him the tour.

Despite my weeks of work, when he begins asking questions my lack of knowledge concerning all things agricultural is obvious. I can name barely half of the carefully tended vegetables growing in dozens of neat rows around the farm. Daniel is too good-natured to point out my obvious ignorance, but it bothers me that I have clearly not learned as much as I had hoped.

Ray and Virginia have probably forgotten more about farming than I will ever know. Without them to guide me, I am obviously floundering, even at a task as simple as giving a tour to a family member. Though I now know a great deal more than I did, say, four months ago, it’s obvious that I still have a long way to go.

Michael Rodriguez
Michigan. XXXX, 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 his community.

Research: An evolving (revolving) definition based on personal experience. At one end of the spectrum is the type of efficient science introduced to me in grade school, with the scientific method as the blueprint for success. Orderly agendas and predicted outcomes are the name of the game here. At the other is the blazing white coat of a mad scientist worn by me on my most tormented days of youthful curiosity. Somewhere in between you’ll find the Student Organic Farm.

We are running a CSA farm on a piece of land owned by the university, so naturally there is a good deal of time/labor/funding set aside for research. We are working on establishing data for vegetable production during the winter months—a critical time for farmers in the colder regions. Experiments take place all year round under the thin layers of plastic that simultaneously hold the long-wave radiation in and keep the cold out. Such experiments include geothermal heating of the air and soil and comparisons between different compost recipes and how each influences plant growth. These experiments are thoroughly controlled and carefully observed, falling under the “efficient science” category on the aforementioned spectrum.

The other types of experiments are performed on a much less conspicuous scale, when the agents of design (the professors and graduate students) are at a safe distance on campus behind open books and computer screens (coming up with more experiments no doubt), leaving the farm to the mercy of the students. These “experiments” fall under the bootleg underground category and can be easily identified in the field by the unanimous cry of the student farmer’s mantra: Another Experiment!

Example: “Emily, I ran out of fish emulsion with only seven transplants left to plant.”

“Another Experiment!”

“Um, Michelle, I reversed the planting order of the kale in the second half of bed seven.”

“Another Experiment!”

“So what happens if there aren’t enough cages for these determinate tomatoes in greenhouse one?”

“Another Experiment!”

Rather than think of these small detours as mistakes, I like to think of them as a lesson in organic farming and the ingenuity, flexibility and creativity that all farmers must possess in order to evolve to adapt to variable, often uncontrollable factors such as weather, daylight, soil conditions…and student farmers.

Emily Gallagher
Pennsylvania. July 15, 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.

Not so very long ago, in the beginning of this field season and internship, I was absolutely terrified of driving tractors. I would peel away trembling from the equipment barn in second gear to mow off flat fields at a pace not too much faster than I could have walked behind a push mower. I could not comprehend the boredom everyone promised would come after weeks of mowing. How could I possibly be bored amidst such fear? And yet, those days of second-gear tremors are distant nightmares now. Today, I am driving this Ford tractor with all the confidence of a pre-teen farm kid.

Mowing and weed trimming have made me quite the popular Rodale intern today. Folks are traipsing across fields and approaching me nonchalantly over lunch for my attention. Tomorrow is the Rodale Institute Field Day and that makes me the Mowing Woman of the Day. Everyone seems to have a plot edge that needs straightening or a funky research design that was completely misinterpreted by the last mowing.

Mowing right along, it’s nice to get an intimate look at the research and production plots. I mow off the patches of cover crop trials that never germinated, peeking over the edge and formulating my own hypotheses about the success of field radishes, mixed millet varieties, vetch, and soybeans in suppressing weeds. Gone are the days when I hopped across the field like the Lone Ranger, rearing up the front end of the tractor.

I mow assorted alleys and blocks into organic no-till soybean trials. No more trembling. No more free falls backward in neutral down minor slopes while grinding gears in desperation and reaching my toes for the clutch.

I mow a line past The Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial®, an experiment comparing organic and conventional agronomic crops that has been going on since the days of my suburban childhood. I decide to make this time more intellectually productive and multitask with my French lessons. Est-ce que vous voudriez boire quel-que chose? Oops, hit a flag. Stop multitasking. Past beans, past corn, past wheat, past the vegetable trials we are conducting for a major food label, reminding me I need to buy some groceries this afternoon.

I pass the potatoes and pumpkins subjected to compost tea treatments as I make my way to mowing alleys between corn trials. Ho-hum. Wow! Look at those birds dive-bombing the mowed seeds I am leaving behind!

Mowing meditation...I think that the mowing season will be okay.