INTERN JOURNAL Insights and experiences from organic farms

New Turf
One intern packs her bags for graduate school while another makes the trek from an organic farm in Arkansas to a completely different operation in California.

Posted January 7, 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

Diana Oleas Chavez
California. December.

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

It’s wonderful how the things change when you are a trainee, because you experiment with different weather, vegetation, and relationship with people. For example, in Arkansas I used to see lots of maple trees, pine trees, cedar trees and oaks, and here in California I see lots of palms trees. Another thing is that here I notice lots of avocado, citrus and persimmons trees when I go to San Diego. In contrast, in Arkansas, I saw lots of chicken factories when I used to go to Fayetteville. Also, Arkansas is a little bit flat and California has some hills…and you can see snow on some on them.

The farms are also different. Burnquist Organic Farm sells their products to restaurants and two or three families. They don’t go to the farmer’s market because they deliver their produce (this means I no longer go to market). That is very sad for me, but I am learning about restaurant marketing. We harvest baby head lettuce for the restaurants; after sowing lettuce seeds they are ready in about one month.

Two more differences about my two farms are that at Burnquist Organic Farm we use micro-tunnels for everything that we sow and in Dripping Springs Garden we transplanted everything. Another difference is about mulching; here we don’t use straw on paths or beds, maybe because we don’t have too many problems with weeds.

There are more differences between my two farms; I am looking for them so that the next time I write I will have found more.

On the other hand, I see that working with a person who doesn’t speak English but understands a little bit can be difficult. Here at this new farm I am working with a Chinese woman. It was so difficult for me my first two weeks, but now the things are going better; at least we found a kind of communication between us.

These were my farm assignments for these two weeks:

  • Repair drip tape (some of them had many holes).
  • Sow lettuce, arugula, Swiss chard, beets and carrots.
  • Harvest lettuce, thyme, oregano, sorrel, sage, marjoram, kale, collards, cilantro and parsley.
  • Weed parsley and beet beds.
  • Wash and pack lettuce (instead of packing them in plastic bags as in Dripping Springs Garden, I use boxes for that now).
  • Prepare beds with drip tape.
  • Rake and raise beds.
  • Fertilize beds with manure before tilling.

These last two weeks were very different from each other. The first was really cold and then it rained. Now it is sunny enough that you get really tired working outside. I am happy to be here.

Emily Gallagher
Pennsylvania. December 2004.

After interning for the summer and part of the fall right here on The Rodale Institute in Kutztown, Pa., Emily has traveled to Spring Grove, Pa., to work with low-input greenhouse guru Steve Moore. (For more on Steve Moore, click here.) Now she says goodbye to Pennsylvania, and to the Intern Journal project, as she heads of to grad school at Cornell. We will miss her wry wit and keen powers of observation.

Steve stopped mid-sentence, jaw still open from an unfinished thought, and stared at the weathervane overlooking Greenhouse 1 (GH1). Every still moment in those windy November days caught him staring at that weathervane. He wanted to change the aging, discolored plastic this year. We moved through Steve’s fall “To-Do” list one windy day after another, sensing his growing concern that he might miss a window of unseasonable warm stillness. Seasoned Apprentice Elaine explained to me that a tense Steve Moore is much like the rest of us on our best days.

Finally, the perfect calm came. We did an abbreviated harvest for Sonnewald Natural Foods and quickly trotted back to GH1. I glanced at an orchard ladder leaning against the east side of GH1 and my mind briefly revisited my summer anxiety in Rodale’s apple orchards. I casually mentioned my fear of heights to Apprentice Elaine to secure a ground position in the unwiggling and rewiggling of GH1.

The first layer of plastic was ready to unroll, positioned between stacked cinderblocks like a spool of thread. We unwiggled the wiggle wire that secured the old plastic in metal tracts. Steve called in the Sonnewald reinforcements. Bulk bin guys, packaged food gals, and information desk gurus alike joined the GH1 work crew. We tugged the discolored plastic off easily to the north side, revealing the tender veggies to the unseasonably warm and still November morning. I perceived that Steve was keeping a watchful eye on the weathervane.

Elaine was coaxed into position atop a ladder on the east apex with Steve opposite her on the west apex. Heave ho! The Sonnewald gang grabbed the corners of the plastic while Elaine guided it up and over her head. Overtaken by plastic, I lost track of all the female voices directing operations. Elaine pulled up her hood, assumed a body sled diving pose, and let the plastic slide over her new Carhart. I envied her ability to find her own groove, ignoring the spectators instructing her to do more of a butterfly stroke. Steve’s wife, Carol, was elected to check our selvage with the eyes of a seamstress while we quickly wiggled one wiggle wire in each corner. The next plastic spool appeared on a wheelbarrow out of nowhere and was quickly directed between the cinder blocks by the chorus of women. We heave hoed a second breath; the chorus sang out again, Carol evened our selvage, and Steve thanked the Sonnewald crew. Whew!

Steve, Elaine, and I quietly rewiggled the new plastic back into the tracts. We could feel Steve relaxing every minute that he forgot to look at the weathervane. Things went back naturally to their laid-back efficient pace.

I said my good-byes to Steve, Elaine, Carol, and Sonnewald just before Thanksgiving. I thanked them for teaching me an entire growing season of knowledge in one unseasonably warm November. Biointensive growing systems are quite knowledge intensive, but the short rotations at Sonnewald pushed me quickly along the learning curve. (I know that they have already harvested and replanted beds that I helped plant on my last day of work!) Steve, in turn, thanked me by offering me work if I should happen to flunk out of my graduate program at Cornell. Chuckle, chuckle.

Shopping this December in Ithaca is like experiencing reverse culture shock after a season of growing food at The Rodale Institute, County Line Orchards, and Sonnewald Natural Foods. I am reading signs and labels to find local producers and unrefined foods, asking employees for Hernandez sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts, disappointed in Honeycrisp apples that don’t resemble my memories. Conversations are varied in this place, not all revolving around seeds, soils, and the politics of agriculture. Cold days bring warm daydreams of organic interning, mowing between research plots, picking luscious peaches, and double digging under the bright warmth of fresh plastic in GH1.