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.
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
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