INTERN JOURNAL Insights and experiences from organic farms

Mysteries solved, sort of
Our interns learn building steps in Belize takes less paperwork but more legwork; that one hot, humid Saturday is not the same as the next; and there is most definitely a difference between research and production potatoes even if they look (and smell) identical.


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
Hidden Falls Farm, Dangriga, Belize. August 1, 2004

Claire is in Ecuador following stints working on organic farms in Belize, Mexico and Guatemala. Next, she’ll be heading to Chile, and Argentina, where she will also be volunteering on organic farms.

It’s about a 60-foot drop down the hillside cliff to the pool at the bottom of the falls, where I take my daily bath and relax in cold water away from the sticky heat of this jungle farm. When Mike decided that he wanted to put in a set of stairs leading down to the falls, I asked if I could be Harry’s apprentice (Harry is our resident master carpenter). Harry agreed to take me under his wing for the week.

In the end, that meant I put in the cement platforms on which the stairs rested. First task was to drag, lug, and carry filled sandbags from the bottom of the waterfall pool about halfway up the steep, steep (did I say “steep”?) hillside. Then, with a mattock and shovel, we dug into the side of the hill to make a spot for a level platform, which needed to be heavily reinforced because most of the hillside consisted of loose rock and shale. We mixed the cement at the bottom of the waterfall, being as careful as possible not to send any of it pouring downstream like the large environmental hazard that is was, then hauled buckets up the cliff to the platform site. My sandbags became steps, since by this point most of the original path had been cleared or had slid away on its own.

In the meantime, Harry constructed the stairs, which took a long time since the right nails, brackets, and other small bits of metal aren’t always easy to find in rural Belize. After about four days, the cement was set, the stairs were ready, and we put everything in place. I even got to use the nail gun! It made all the scrambling, scratches and bruises worth it to see the finished task.

Patrick Sullivan
Nevada. July 31, 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.”

I’ve long believed that there’s a doctoral thesis out there just waiting to be written on the retail behavior patterns of shoppers. Some invisible cue always seems to cause them to move in packs. Last Saturday there were cars waiting outside our gate before we opened, and visitors kept us busy all morning. Today (another Saturday), we had only two or three people stop in all morning. I can’t help but wonder why this is so, since I can discern no difference between the two days; both are sunny and hot, typical of July in Nevada. But because of the position of the stars, or the phase of the moon, or who knows what else, the large crowds from last week are simply not showing up today.

Most of the morning is spent picking green beans. The beans are currently at their most prolific, and frequent culling only encourages higher production. I can’t help but marvel at what a super-efficient source of sustenance Nature can be, especially when one comes to understand how to work with her on her own terms. The entire farm is reaching the peak of productivity. This week the first of the corn arrived, and the melon patch is erupting with new growth.

There is, however, one problem: Tiny, unidentified beetles, which had been attacking some of our fruit trees, have moved into the strawberries. The little pests have ruined their fair share of our produce, and as yet we don’t know how to combat them. That’s the other thing about Nature—she always seems to give with one hand and take away with the other. Monday I’m going to have to take a sample bug to the State Department of Agriculture’s entomologist in Reno. Hopefully, he can identify them and tell us how to fight them.

Emily Gallagher
Pennsylvania. August 4, 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.

Wanna’ know the difference between a research potato and a production potato? I know the real harvest scoop. They can make their speculations and potato criticisms across department lines, but from the interns’ perspective, it’s like comparing apples to oranges, or, more to the point, like comparing shovels to a potato digger attached to an International 584 tractor.

Some Friday past, I began swapping a workday with one Training and Research Intern so that we could both broaden our Rodale experiences. Not long into this experiment of trading places, I partook of the post-late-blight potato harvest. I may have teased the crew about waiting for an Operations Intern to do the hard labor, but I was secretly looking forward to a day of picking Training and Research brains about Rodale research.

“Blue flags are compost tea treatments, orange flags are nutrients, and white flags are no-spray. The buffers are 4 feet and the data plots are 8 feet. Tape measure is in the truck. Flags are over there. Just measure out 4 feet and 12 feet and flag it for digging.” Right. Got it. I wandered aimlessly into an incomprehensible sea of flags. I turned on my heels and put on my best professional voice. “Huh?!”

The entire Research crew spent the rest of that Friday shoveling potatoes from the four-foot buffers that lay between the more important eight-foot rows where data would be collected. We were essentially plucking the ground of every non-data potato before the mechanized potato digger would come rolling indiscriminately across the three experimental treatments. These treatments compared compost tea applications to that of a no-spray control and a spray containing the very same nutrients used in brewing compost tea (minus the compost). I can say that preliminary digging showed that the funk of rotten compost tea-treated potatoes was just as funky and gooey as that of the potatoes sprayed with only kelp, humic acid, and fish hydrolysate.

The following Wednesday, traded back into my Operations Intern roll, I harvested production potatoes with two other folks. There were no flags. No shovels. The potato digger rolled across the rows and dug deep into the soil, sent the potatoes over a rolling- shaking contraption, and laid them neatly on top of the soil. We fell to our hands and knees and scooped potatoes from the earth. We learned to operate the two-row potato digger and the International 584. We scooped, stacked, and transported potatoes without any regard for their exact locations within the rows or for how their growing conditions differed from any neighboring potatoes. Plain and simple.

And that is the real difference between a research potato and a production potato.