INTERN JOURNAL Insights and experiences from organic farms

ENTRY 14
Post-harvest trauma
Whether dealing with lettuce or chickens, our intern journalists discover many lessons in that critical step between growing the produce (or raising the bird) and delivering it to the dinner plate.

Posted February 22, 2005

Editor's NOTE
New Farm Introduces "Intern Journal"

In this 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

Laura Rickard
Lake Placid, New York. February.

Laura Rickard, our newest intern journalist, recently graduated from Brown University with a degree in environmental studies. She is currently in the middle of a 12-month farm/garden internship at North Country School/Camp Treetops in Lake Placid, New York. For more information on North Country School, visit http://nct.org.

When Steve first caught the cockerel mounting the hen, he nearly tipped over a tower of egg baskets. The coupling was quick and precise. Had he been bending down to re-hang the water bucket, he might have missed the show entirely. But instead, Steve, a seventh grader from Korea, stared intently at the rooster, which had adroitly dug its toenails into the hen’s back and was clinging on for dear life. Poor Steve considered the couple’s amorous death grip. “They’re making … doing … making … SEX!,” he exclaimed, both shocked and smug at the same time, as only middle school children seem to be. And how could I argue?

“Try to find a way to connect the subject to sex,” advises my boss, John, on teaching farm and garden-related lessons to our students. I’m still contemplating the sexual innuendo I could extrapolate from the compost pile (it does generate a lot of heat…), but in the barnyard, the parallels are more obvious. In this area, perhaps, our school veers wildly from mainstream. (Case in point: our sixth graders recently informed the entire school about the process of llama gelding during a lunch-time announcement.) So instead of expecting children to turn a blind eye to a rooster’s daily duties, we turn these inescapable truths into lessons. Steve is no stranger to the drama-turned-curriculum that is our brood of chickens. He and his fellow classmates participated in the annual North Country School chicken harvest in October, an event in which the entire community takes part. With striking maturity and composure, the students helped in each stage of the laborious process—from rising before 5 a.m. to catch the roosting birds, to washing each carcass. Todd directed the plastic-wrapped gutting table; his ninth-grade students hovered around the birds, plucking out goopy piles of organs as part of their biology lab.

Four months later, the formerly-fuzzy chicks—the October babies—are now full-grown and the henhouse is overrun with cockerels. It seems we overlooked a few males in our autumn slaughter. (Interestingly, determining the sex of young chickens can be as difficult as remembering the birthdays of your entire extended family.) Steve and the other children now complain about the “mean” (in other words “libido-driven”) chickens, and Liz, my fellow intern, tells me to make time in my schedule for a rooster harvest on Wednesday. I acquiesce and put off the seed order for another day. (John and I are still in negotiations about the makeup of the annual flowerbed, anyway.)

We begin just after breakfast. John hurries off to the maintenance shop to pick up a sharp hatchet while I gather the blue plastic tarp, vinyl gloves, and cutting boards. Liz meets us at the outdoor cabana, roosters in tow. We don aprons, plastic raingear and boots. The chickens squawk and caw in muffled tones from underneath the towels draped over their cages. The tension is palpable. Roles are determined: Liz and I will hold the birds and shuttle each carcass to the plucking station. John will wield the ax. It begins to sleet.

I don’t feel much of anything until I hold the first dead bird, warm ribbons of blood running down my rain pants and collecting in oblong splotches on my yellow rubber boots. As I grip its body to my shin, the headless rooster writhes and twitches. We dunk the bodies in boiling water, hang the birds by their feet, and begin the plucking. Somehow I can handle my hands and forearms coated in chicken innards, but it’s the smell of singed feathers—a scent reminiscent of wet dog and charred meat—that turns my stomach. For all my college friends tucked away in offices or library carrels, I can’t begin to offer an analogous experience. John was right to ask how I felt about killing poultry before offering me this job.

The whole process is over in a few hours, leaving us with six plucked, washed birds that our kitchen staff transforms into a substantial pot of soup. After lunch, I find a red and gold-lettered card that Curtis has stuck in my mailbox, its delicate Chinese characters wishing me a happy lunar new year. As chance would have it, we’ve timed our slaughter impeccably: the first day of the Year of the Rooster! Curtis reassures me that we have neither offended a culture nor damned ourselves to a year of bad luck. Besides, I reason, in just a few short months we’ll be far too busy raising a greenhouse full of seedlings and a new brood of chicks to notice.


Diana Oleas Chavez
California. February.

Diana is a visiting intern from Ecuador, who recently relocated to an organic farm in Vista, California after working the summer at Dripping Springs Gardens in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. Diana is a participant in the MESA (Multinational Exchange for Sustainable Agriculture) program. For more information on MESA, visit www.mesaprogram.org.

These days I have learned a very big lesson about lettuce post-harvest. I harvested it the day before delivery but I didn’t wash and I didn’t cover the lettuce boxes with plastic either. So the next day when I was trying to wash them, some were so dehydrated that I had to take them to the compost pile. This, unfortunately, happened on a day that we had a lot of orders, so we had to short at least one restaurant. It was a very helpful lesson about post-harvest handling that I will never forget.

Now that I have been here for almost three months, I have found that marketing is a very important tool, especially if the farm just sells to restaurants and a few families and doesn’t participate in farmers' markets. because if one doesn’t advertise one’s products, one can loose some money. I am glad we always have two deliveries on Tuesday and Friday; on Fridays this place is crazy and we are always in a hurry because we have a lot of orders—like 40 bunches of carrots, 7 bins of three-pound lettuces, 20 bunches of beets, and more.

When I talked about differences between my new farm here in Vista, California, and my last farm in Arkansas, I forgot to talk about one very important difference: the irrigation system. In Arkansas they use water from the creek, and for this it is necessary to use a pump. Here we use city water, which comes partly from the Colorado River and partly from north of California. Also, in order to attach the drip tape to the pipe here, we insert a spaghetti pipe into the main pipe and into the drip tape; then we just tie a wire around the drip tape. But I have found in it a big disadvantage because, if the wire is not tied very secure, water can drip from it and eventually the seeds or seedlings won’t get enough water. In contrast in Arkansas, they use a connector between the main pipe and the drip tape, and one is able to close or open each one individually.

In January, I went to a Chinese supermarket in China Town in Los Angeles, here I found a lot of dried products from meat to vegetables and also sea horses (but I am still wondering what they use them for). I found many different kinds of tea too, and some of them are very expensive ($38 a pound) but Chinese people buy and use these because they know it helps to clean their system.

These were my farm assignments for this month:

  • Take string and logs out for tomato trellises
  • Pull old tomato plants out
  • Weed lettuce beds
  • Harvest lettuce, parsley, cilantro, collards, kale, mint, chives, oregano, sorrel, thyme, radishes, carrots, beets, bok choi and mei qing choi
  • Dump weeds in compost
  • Replace drip tape
  • Prepare soil mix for sowing tomato seeds with peat moss, biodynamic compost and dried fertilizer mix
  • Clean paths
  • Repair drip tape
  • Sow ‘Big Beef’ tomatoes