INTERN JOURNAL Insights and experiences from organic farms

Reflections on service
Bruised bodies and apples, a thorny predicament, motorcycle mayhem, and back-to-back highs and lows prove that there’s still much to learn and experience, even as the season winds down.

Posted October 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 Fall.

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

Seasons change and our schedules with them. In spring we used to begin harvesting flowers, or some another activity, at 7:30 a.m. In summer, we used to begin at 6:30 a.m. Now, in fall, we start at 9 a.m. At least I have a little bit more time to sleep.

Wednesday, Mark and Mike (the owners of the farm), Cara (another intern), and I went to Fayetteville to the performance of Pilobolus, a dance concert at Walton Art Center. This performance was very beautiful, like nothing I had ever seen before.

Saturday, we celebrated Mike’s birthday with a potluck party in the evening. Some neighbors came with special dishes that were so delicious.

The Saturday before that was the Blue Bikes and Barbecue Festival in Fayetteville. There were a lot of Harley Davidson motorcycles and a lot of noise with them. I didn’t like this too much because on the farm I only listen to creekers, dogs and birds—not loud motorcycles. On the other hand, that is only my point of view.

This last Saturday was very cold in the morning so that I had to wear two jackets. Other people only wore T-shirt and shorts and that, for me, was strange. But they are accustomed to this kind of weather. On this day we skipped our afternoon siestas because it was supposed to freeze that night. So we returned fast to the farm to cover dahlias, peppers and zinnias with fabric to try to protect them from the frost.

I really enjoy working on this farm.

My farm assignments for the past two weeks:

  • Go to the Farmers’ Market in Fayetteville.
  • Harvest basil, celosia (‘Flamingo feather’—dark pink and plump), lisianthus, zinnias, statice, blue ageratum, gladiolus, tuberoses, sunflower, pepper, turnips, collard, arugula, bok choi and carrots.
  • Pull out all tomatoes but ‘Sun Gold’ cherry (we still have some to pick up), marigold and basil. This section was planted with strawberry and bachelor’s button. We had to cover the strawberries with a long piece of fabric because deer come in the night to eat them.
  • Pull out lisianthus and celosia.
  • Mulch paths.
  • Plant dahlias in the greenhouse.
  • Clean garlic to braid.
  • Weed zinnias’ paths, spinach and carrots.
  • Sow nigella and larkspur.
  • Water dahlias.
  • Make bouquets.

Claire MacDonell
Rio Negro, Ecuador (Finca Jardin Ecologico). October 2, 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.

When Sanatana asked me to prune the rose bushes, it occurred to me that we came from two different places about farming. Having never pruned a rosebush in my life, I asked him how he wanted it done. He told me to make it look round and pretty. With shears in my hands and hands on my hips, I told him I though they looked fine as they were. He said make them look “cuidado,” which means cared for, as he walked away to tend to other tasks.

Frustrated, I stared at the half-dead bush in front of me, and realized that I never tried to make anything look pretty or cared for while farming before. Generally, I try to make things useful, productive and sustainable. Aesthetics fall well behind these other priorities.

In the end, I trimmed up the dead branches and there wasn’t much bush left anyway. But the subject of manicured gardens continued to harass me. I thought, if a bush is growing the way it wants to, who am I to interfere for the sole purpose of subjective beauty? And what does something that is “cared for” look like anyway? Can’t it be left alone, yet simply protected?

But the point is I’m here to learn, and one of the goals of this place is to draw people so they, too, will too decide to learn, to protect and to appreciate. And right now that means making things look pretty and comfortable for the general public, be it the walking paths lined with orchids, the cleanly raked lawns and paths, or the neat rose bushes.

I can live with this…and learn, too.

Patrick Sullivan
Nevada. September 26, 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.”

Today I had one of the more disappointing moments I’ve experienced since starting out as a volunteer farmer, followed almost immediately by one of the most gratifying.

Last week this region was struck by an early-season frost, and our farm was hit particularly hard. The melon patch, which had been having a banner year, was completely killed off. So were all our varieties of squash. The one vulnerable crop that did manage to survive was the tomato, but ironically tomatoes have been so numerous that we wouldn’t have cared to lose them at this point. As a result, much of the morning was spent uprooting melon vines, loading them into a cart and carrying them off to disposal. And when we were finished with that unhappy task, we went right into the corn patch (a miserable failure this year) and repeated the process. Even though there was no choice, it felt downright depressing to discard so many plants, many of them so recently green and thriving.

The morning took a turn for the better, however, when I got the chance at last to harvest the Interlaken grapes. The frost that did so much damage in other areas of the farm also raised the sugar content of the grapes to acceptable levels. What bliss, to stand in the hot sun nipping bunch after bunch of ripe fruit straight from the vine. I’ve enjoyed a modest amount of success as a lawyer, but nothing I’ve ever accomplished professionally felt as satisfying as filling basin after basin with plump grapes. In the sharp light of autumn, searching through the unkempt foliage like an overeager child peeking under the tree on Christmas morning, the only thought in my mind was “This is it. This is how I want to spend my days.”

Emily Gallagher
Pennsylvania. October 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.

Bees and ladders and dropping apples, oh my! Hornets and black rot and falling tractors, oh my! Apple orchards are beautiful places to face the deepest of fears.

Teresa and I have matching harvest wounds. A black eye here, a fat lip there, a little poison ivy on our knee caps, and some branch scratches for good measure. Nothing too rough and painful. A squishy rotten apple in the face for laughs. Just enough wear and tear for some proud harvest comraderie. We are apple intern sisters.

Sure, adventurous Soil Health interns and noble New Farm photographers have made guest appearances. But it was Teresa who threw the falling ladder back under my dangling legs early in the season. “It’s okay,” she reassured me, “you’re still alive.” It was Teresa who came running to my rescue when the Deutz-Allis 6260F descended backward down the orchard hill until the wagon jackknifed to a stop. “It’s okay,” she laughed, “you’re still alive.” And we have lived through the lives of these apples from flower to fruit.

The harvest began late summer with the unnamed variety 828. I barreled through the branches with brute force. Next came the Liberty. I scraped layers of topsoil off the orchard hill trying to forklift 20-bushel apple bins. 75413, 75414, Golden Delicious, etc. Teresa moved through the orchard with ease. 75441. I started growing a little embarrassed by my shaky ladder legs and spontaneous shrieking on tractors. And then came the bees.

Bees buried their little bee bodies inside the 75441 with just their little bee-hinds sticking out for warning. I yelped a curse and brushed off a sting. Teresa was full of questions. Did it hurt? Was my hand swelling? How many bees were there? Are there more? Where are they NOW? “It’s okay,” I teased, “I’m still alive.”

Yesterday, we bundled for the cold and plucked the last apples from the orchard. Coop-27, Coop-29, and Coop-31. Teresa survived the season without a sting. I can still stand on both legs. The apple intern sisters are now packing their bags and preparing to part ways this week. Between Kentucky and Minnesota, we will always share our harvest scars.