NEW FARMER JOURNAL: North Country School, Lake Placid NY

Old school
Our intern in the Adirondacks compares higher education with the practical lessons of working on a farm.

By Laura Rickard

Editor’s note: Laura Rickard’s Intern Journal will now appear with New Farmer Journals.

Farmer-At-A-Glance

Laura Rickard 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.

March, 2005. When I was 5, I wanted to be an archaeologist and a hairdresser. I thank my mother for encouraging me to follow these lofty, if not likely career goals, at least for a few years or so. (I can recall a certain pro-feminist bedtime story we used to read together, starring the likes of Margaret Thatcher and a high-ranking female diplomat in India. My mother is an attorney.) Truth be told, I never made it past the French braid, and I didn’t even take any anthropology classes in college; however, I still hold my first idea of being a “real person” with a “real job” in the “real world” close at heart. It is this dissonant merging of the artistic and the practical that still guides me at 23.

For all readers hoping for the next installment of life on the farm, please forgive this momentary tangent. I’m just finishing up a luxurious two-and-a-half weeks of vacation. As introspective as I may be while hand-weeding and bleaching compost buckets on the farm, there is something about physical distance that seems to nurture self-reflection. I tucked myself into airplanes and trains—even the passenger seat of my friend Molly’s Civic hybrid—to shuttle further from the land of ice and snow and closer to a little warmth and clarity. And during the moments of lounging on the beach and driving through Pennsylvania farmland that comprised my spring break, I managed to string together a few thoughts on my experience in Lake Placid so far.

I now know how to drive in “winter conditions.” I’ve navigated Cascade Pass (elevation: 2,200 ft.) more than 180 times in my station wagon—often straight through waves of white powder and streams of sleet and hail—squealing the antilock brakes to avoid clipping a statue-like buck staring down my headlights. I’m comfortable removing the organs from a freshly-slaughtered rooster. I can explain why sap flows in spring, and what “Adirondack” means. I look forward to barn chores. I wake up at 6 a.m., even on my days off, and have trouble dressing myself in anything other than the stained, shredded work pants I’ve owned since high school. But for all the progress and the growth I’ve experienced since mid-August, I am, without a doubt, still figuring things out. For further illustration, here is a recent conversation I had with my boss, John:

(Scene: A station wagon, heading south on I-87 towards Albany, approximately 8 .a.m. Laura flips between radio stations, intent on catching the end of All Things Considered. John and Laura speak about higher education.)

Laura: …So I just don’t know where I’m headed. Some days I’m certain I want to enroll in an agriculture program. Others, I’m sure I’m cut out for law school…

John: Looking back, do you think you could have learned what you did in the past 16+ years of schooling in a shorter amount of time?

Laura: Hmmmm. I don’t know. I guess there are a handful of core skills I gained in the past several years.

John: Such as…?

Laura: Well, I would say that I know how to listen, and to communicate my thoughts and opinions to others….in writing and in speech. And I’ve learned how to be successful in school and how to advance to more school…if that could be considered a skill.

John: Interesting. Take this exit.

This internship, so far, has been an interesting and satisfying mix of practical knowledge and artistry. My tasks—and roles—at North Country School run the gamut, so that one day I’m peering up at the belly of a tractor learning about wheel adjustments in the morning, and drafting a grant proposal in the afternoon. The moments as humbling as scrubbing 200 pounds of potatoes have slipped in line beside the sometimes revolutionary fervor my job inspires in me. (Case in point: During the November elections, I told the headmaster here that I felt I was making a statement against the political status quo just by coming to work.) I spent hours scouring over the Johnny’s catalog to find the right aesthetics for our 435-foot-long flowerbed. Call me an idealist, or even a perfectionist, but at least I like my job.

As I think forward to the next five months, I promise to keep both my mother’s doting inspiration and John’s probing questions in mind. These days, I wish a few of my mother’s pep talks had taken place in my dad’s workshop, as now I struggle with basic carpentry projects and working with power tools. (I somehow grew up practicing a plethora of competitive sports and playing the cello and trumpet, but never once used a ratchet.) In my home in the Connecticut River Valley, I dreamed about hairstyles and Egyptian mummies, but knew very little about the tobacco farming right outside my door.

I see now that being a farmer requires more than a fancy degree, or even a family farm; the modern farmer has an artist’s eye, a biologist’s understanding, an incredible work ethic, a businessperson’s savvy, and boatload of practical expertise. I hope the next five months will make these job requirements seem (at least a little) less daunting.