INTERN JOURNAL Insights and experiences from organic farms

Discovery zone
From finding hidden treasures inside a bed of weeds, to a real lesson in trust, to creating a fruit display by recycling boxes, our interns learn that observation, innovation and persistence are critical components of farming.


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
Alchemiste, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala
July 26, 2004

Claire is 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.

With the rains come the weeds. Buelo, the Spanish word for what could be a cousin to basil, is the main culprit in these gardens. With deep red roots and an invasive personality, buelo has taken complete terrain control of the gardens, which have been left untended for too long. On the flip side, it is the staying force in erosion control on the hillside beds.

I was prepared to mindlessly hoe the morning away when Tina informed me that there were intentional plantings hiding—or being smothered—beneath the buelo (a short family could also be smothered in the buelo). Instead, I found chamomile, tomatoes, garbanzo beans, avocado, and some good Gautemalan cooking herbs all hiding in the beds. The avocado isn’t more than 6-inches high, with smooth, long and pointed pale green leaves. Growing up in the Great White North there was a scarcity of avocado trees, and it fascinates me to see tropical fruits and veggies in their beginning stages.

Besides the tropical baby veggies, this is the first farm I have worked on that is a combination of organic gardens, community projects and vegetarian restaurant. “The Alchemiste” is about a 15-minute walk from the center of Xela, and I can watch the city bustle through its daily routine while I weed. It’s a great combination to be on a farm and still have easy access to the comforts of city life. It takes me a few weeks before I go a little loco on an isolated farm that makes the rare trip to town with lots of planning and the usual physical discomfort of bouncing in the back of a pickup truck (with 20 or so neighbors).

No, I’ll take my mobility, internet cafes, and yoga classes any day.

Patrick Sullivan
Nevada. July 24, 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.”

Much as I love this work, it isn’t always poetic. Some days you just have to get done the rather mundane things that need to get done, even if they don’t directly have anything to do with farming. But then again, I’m discovering more and more that farmers have to be good at many, many disciplines outside of just making things grow.

Today, for example, I’m putting together cardboard boxes for peaches. This involves cutting larger boxes into sections and taping them together to form open-topped containers that hold and display six or eight pieces of fruit. An observer might think this an odd sort of activity for a grown man, more appropriate for kindergarteners perhaps. But I don’t mind. True, my little peach boxes aren’t going to save the world all by themselves, but if creating a slightly better presentation makes a more favorable impression on just one or two customers, then that’s going to help the farm. That’s really what it’s all about—you do whatever it is you need to do to make things work.

Garrison Keillor made this point in a wonderful piece quoted elsewhere on this website. Farmers, says Mr. Keillor, are the last competent people. “If the pump goes out, he’s gotta know how to get the water started, and he’s gotta know how to fix his heat…A farmer’s a veterinarian and a plumber and an electrician. He’s gotta know about electrical motors and diesel and engineering—every kind of thing. He’s gotta know mechanics. He’s gotta know about hydraulics. He’s gotta know how to handle all kinds of tools.”

And, if I may, he can’t be above pulling out the scissors and tape and spending an hour making peach boxes.

It might help sell a few more peaches.

Emily Gallagher
Pennsylvania. July 27, 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.

You should have seen the look on Don’s face when I nearly rolled backward over a full career of work! I finally rattled his steady calm. He was standing upright in the bucket of the front-loader with an array of supplies while I nervously transported him around the apple orchard. Starting and stopping. Starting and stopping. I secured the front-loader with the foot while Don drove a stake into the ground. I navigated the machine backward down the slope to the next flag. Stop. Don drove another stake and hung three pheromone lures. I let my entire body weight come off the brake and clutch. I left the gearshift in first to fight the force of gravity. And then I think I remember screaming and crunching into apple branches just before I noticed that look on Don’s face.

The problem with trying to organically manage the Rodale Institute apple orchards may be blamed on their design history. Both orchards have wide buffers spanning up to forty feet between small demonstration blocks of various cultivars. The orchards were designed with scientific data collection in mind.

This spring we hung pheromone tags to disrupt the mating of codling moths and oriental fruit moths throughout both orchards. And yet, they came and did their dirty deeds. Researchers from Penn State University visited the Rodale Institute this spring and confirmed Don’s suspicions that the buffer strips were too wide and the solid blocks of trees too small to fool eager apple pests. So, Don got creative.

Three hundred rebar rods arrived last week. A small hook was welded at the end of each piece of rebar to hang pheromone tags. We spent hours marching around the orchards with tape measures and colorful flags, marking the ground for the faux apple trees. Don climbed in the bucket of the front-loader adorned with dozens of rebar stakes and carrying three buckets of pheromone tags. I never quite figured out the whole plan until I was behind the wheel and raising the trusting Don into the air to gain height over the rebar while he pounded away.

I still cannot decide if that look on Don’s face was fear for himself, the apple tree, or the intern. It passed instantly when he gained composure and jumped swiftly out of the bucket. I slipped my foot off the clutch as he pressed his foot down. I wiggled out of the seat and stood to the right until he could slide in and stomp on the brake. I gratefully dove into the apple tree branches to watch Don maneuver the front-loader back to flat ground. I started moving toward the bucket, assuming that I had been demoted to driving stakes. Don beat me to the front and waved me back to my seat. “We’ll skip that one for now.”