INTERN JOURNAL Insights and experiences from organic farms

Apprentice in the Rye
Our interns from near and far (and farming near and far) glad-handle grain and coffee beans, learn the language of plants and humans, and accommodate work schedules to the shifting seasons.

Posted September 14, 2004

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

Diana Oleas Chavez
Arkansas. Reflections on August.

Diana is a visiting intern from Ecuador, working this summer at Dripping Springs Gardens, an intensive market garden nestled in the Ozark Mountains 60 miles east of Fayetteville, Arkansas, as part of the MESA program (Multinational Exchange for Sustainable Agriculture). For more information on MESA, visit

This is another month that I have enjoyed here. Of course we have had a lot of work--this month we started to harvest blueberries. Mark’s friend Colin and a Mexican family helped harvest the blueberries. The Mexican family works a lot; they can pick 74 gallons in one day!

Cara, another intern, and I had homework from Mark [Dripping Springs Gardens partner Mark Cain]: to write descriptions of flowers. We were able to learn a lot in this way.

My sleeping quarters are in the barn. I like it a lot. My room does not have walls, but it is beautiful. I am studying for TOEFL [Test of English as a Foreign Language] so I spend my time in the evening reading. The book was a present from a friend who is from France.

After market on Saturday, I went to the movies. I saw Shrek 2 and Harry Potter. We are going to have a party tomorrow to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the farm. And, in one more week, Cara, two neighbors and I will go canoeing.

My farm assignments this month:

  • Go to the market—we now do four markets on Tuesday, Thursday morning and afternoon, and Saturday (but I only go on Saturday).
  • Picking strawberries.
  • Harvesting of bachelor buttons (we had blue and pink; they are very beautiful), sweet Williams, daisy, nigella, onion, shiitake, candy sweet onion, sugar snap pea (I ate these in salads; they are delicious), lilies (they are amazing), carnation, yarrow, basil, lettuce (this month we had lettuce mix salad, romaine, butter and red), dahlias, sunflowers, zinnias, snapdragon, garlic, calendula and dianthus.
  • Transplanting sweet potatoes (two beds), celosia, lettuce, cucumbers, sunflowers and dahlias.
  • Making cages for tomatoes.
  • Weeding lettuce, statice, carrots, beets and garlic.
  • Sowing cucumbers.
  • Grading blueberries and strawberries.
  • Cleaning onion beds (more than five beds), blueberries (this was hard work because they have a lot; there are 35 large rows).
  • Making bouquets.
  • Study zinnias (we have a lot of zinnias).
  • Painting the floor in the new barn (this is a big job).
  • Tying stargazers [lilies] and garlic.
  • Washing a lot of buckets.
  • Opening and closing the greenhouse and irrigating the plants.

Claire MacDonell
Finca Llurihauna, Ecuador. September 8, 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.

Jose arrived last night about 9 p.m., but we were all in bed. In the morning, I finally met the man who owns this farm. He has a great vision for the property, but needs to live in the city, as his job has him traveling across the country organizing organic farmers. It was refreshing to converse, even in my broken Spanish, about the state of Ecuadorian politics and farming.

The morning's task was to pick 2,000 mandarin oranges. Jose would be taking them—along with previously harvested bananas, pineapples, and papayas—back to the city for sale. With five of us it was only a few hours of work, and I had a great time watching the more athletic ones hang from branches trying to grab that last far-flung, beautifully ripe orange. They were counted, sorted, and bagged by lunch.

In celebration of having company, we roasted coffee beans over an open fire in the afternoon. We had picked the beans a few weeks ago, removed the skins in a grinder, cleaned them in water, then let them dry in the sun for eight days. Next, we needed to grind off the second skin, but then we were left with a pile of crumpled skins and beans. So we took a handful at a time and lightly blew away the dried skins until we had clean, dry white coffee beans. After a half hour over the fire, the beans were ready for a final grinding and a pot of hot water. It's too bad I don't like coffee. Despite this, it was great to have a bit of company from the outside world and a little party to go along with it.

Jose left a few hours ago, and tomorrow we will be back to normal.

Patrick Sullivan
Nevada. September 5, 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.”

As if on cue, a cold snap hit our region as the month of September arrived. The wind now has a bite that it did not have just a few days ago. It is still summer, of course, and the cool nights are something of an aberration; the high temperature today will probably top degrees. But autumn is definitely on its way.

When I arrive just after 7 a.m., I do not find farm owners Ray and Virginia Johnson already at work as I usually do. Instead they are just getting a start on the day, waiting for the rising sun to warm the world enough to make working outside a little more bearable. Soon enough, just as expected, the temperature jumps. After removing most of the marigolds that have begun to take over the strawberry patch, my primary job on this day is picking tomatoes. This has been a glorious year for fruit, and the tomatoes are no exception. I tell Ray that by the time I’m finished picking one row I’ll be able to start over, since more fruit will have ripened by then. He deadpans, “That’s not funny,” but the twinkle in his eye bellies the remark.

Not everything has worked out perfectly this year. We’ve given up saying that the corn is a few weeks behind and admitted that we simply aren’t going to get any this year. I spend the early afternoon hacking down cornstalks. In the end, their only use will be to decorate the farm’s front fence. But that’s the way things go at this farm. We celebrate the successes we have, try to learn from what doesn’t work, and always make sure to salvage whatever can be salvaged from our failures.

Emily Gallagher
Pennsylvania. September 8, 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.

Mark bit into a grain of rye and decided that the moisture level was 16.3 percent. Sure enough, he was only off by a margin of a tenth of a percent when we tested the wagon of rye with a moisture meter. Based on the molded 2003 seed, the Rodale farm "Powers That Be" decided that interns would shovel the rye from one side of the wagon to the other until we reached a moisture level closer to 14 percent.

Monday we shoveled rye to the front of the wagon. Tuesday we shoveled rye to the back of the wagon. Wednesday we shoveled rye to the front of the wagon. This continued for a couple of weeks. I began enjoying the predictability of my first 30 minutes at The Rodale Institute each morning. Then my shoveling buddy traveled home to Minnesota to take her rightful seat as maid of honor in a wedding. The rye moisture lingered and fluctuated. 15.3 percent, 15.2 percent, 15.2 percent, 15.1 percent (I rejoiced!), 15.3 percent…My shoveling buddy returned and our rye energies started fading. The sun appeared and the moisture began dropping for a week. Then I traveled to New York to visit my graduate school advisor. 15.2 percent, 15.2 percent, 15.3 percent, Aghhhh! The rainy days keep filling this Pennsylvania air with moisture.

Upon my return, the Rodale "Mucky Mucks" (I say that lovingly) finally decided to bag the rye. We uncovered an ancient grain cleaner and hauled it to the base of the wagon. A little trap hole opens, the wagon tilts by hydraulics, and out pours the grain. The guys pulled out their levels and adjusted the ancient box just right by kicking a few piles of barn dirt under the edges (with precision). Clean rye shook to the left, and dirty thistle and chaff shook to the right.

My shoveling buddy and I emptied buckets, filled rice sacks, and tied Miller’s knots with all the grace of Lucy and Ethel in that old cookie factory episode. Two days later, you can almost see our progress in the rye level of the wagon. Our shoveling days are behind us now!