Posted February 16, 2006: The stars and
planets must have been aligned in my favor on the November
morning I received the impromptu phone interview.
I’d been up late waiting tables, as most of us mid-twenty
year olds in between educational and professional endeavors
find themselves doing these days. I groggily answered the
interview questions for the farm management position with
one and two syllable words. I tried to focus, though, in my
head (and my naiveté), I thought I wanted a challenging,
exciting policy position on the threshold of positive change.
Not farming. Or so I thought.
I had just finished my master's degree in environmental law.
I wanted to give myself some foundation in sustainable agriculture
and food related issues. So along with a good friend (turned
business partner) I started a small CSA and market garden
outside of Columbus, Ohio, two years before I started graduate
school. We called our little truck patch Silver Tale Farm.
It turned out to be a great learning experience: emotionally
and physically crippling at times, beautifully rewarding at
other times. In the end, it proved all together too much for
two 22 year-olds who needed more on a Friday night than sitting
around peeling onions for next day’s market.
Seeking a worthy position
We either thought we had gotten what we needed out of that
adventure, or that it was time to move on to the next thing,
or if we didn’t move on soon, we’d strangle each
other. I know that for myself, the romantic veneer of farming
had worn off. And very truthfully, the heart issue was that,
as Wendell Berry pointedly addressed in the November 2005
Smithsonian, I was a young person that so wrongfully thought
“I’m too good for this kind of work.”
If we nourish ourselves as well as
the land and continue to work with the ever-present forces
of nature, there are no “limits” to what we
At Silver Tale Farm, I had learned to struggle with the season
and curse machinery and rejoice in the fact that you had gotten
what you needed to get done before you had to hunt for the
flashlight. I knew what it was like to have your happiness
and livelihood teeter on the edge due to undependable and
unpredictable weather patterns.
In graduate school, I learned about NEPA and the Clean Water
Act and the ins and outs of land use law. And so NOW, I applied
along the East Coast for positions that combined all of those
experiences together and that I thought would be dynamic and
engaging and thrilling. It was odd that I had even applied
for this farm management position. I had cross-referenced
the non-profit farm organization three times while job-hunting
and researching farm programs for my neighbor who had disabilities.
I suppose I kept that coincidence locked away in my consciousness
because I kept right on answering those interview questions.
Perhaps I heard something that morning that wasn’t
clear to me then. Apparently my responses were enough to merit
an in-person interview. Could I come to the farm? Three hour
drive…great…yes….I’ll be there.
Seized by farming enthusiasm
I wanted the job as soon as I got there. As I was greeted
by a wonderful group of staff and growers on a cold November
morning, all of the farming enthusiasm I had long forgotten
resurfaced ten-fold. The job seemed challenging, rewarding,
engaging, and thrilling…pretty much encompassing all
of the qualities I was expecting to find elsewhere. It was
a farm management position that came with great depth and
demanded much more than I probably realized at the time.
I prayed that I had made an impression that would end in
an offer. I forgot all about those dreamy policy jobs with
the pretty suits and heels, I wanted my Carharts and wellies.
When my phone rang a few hours later, I wanted to pick up
the receiver and scream “YES!” before I had any
idea who it was that was that was even calling me. Fortunately,
it was Red Wiggler and it was an offer and I took the job
One of the greatest lessons I have learned throughout this
entire experience was clear to me that day though I wouldn’t
have known it then. To act on intuition with complete abandon
is sometimes, in and of itself, an accomplishment in this
muffled world. It’s recognizing the sheer magic, power,
and significance of something so deep within calling out and
saying, “This is it,” I can still feel the breath
catch in my throat.
Such is my fate at Red Wiggler.
A community farm outside of Washington, D.C., Red Wiggler
Community Farm (www.redwiggler.org)
exists to create meaningful employment for adults with developmental
disabilities. Just as an earthworm creates fertile ground
in its place, our farm creates fertile ground to nourish a
healthy and inclusive community. We grow and sell vegetables,
flowers, and herbs to a 72-member CSA, sell to local restaurants,
host a number of summer youth programs, and donate hundreds
of pounds of food each summer to area food banks. All of this
is accomplished by focusing on the abilities of our staff,
volunteers, and seven-person crew with developmental disabilities,
Possibilities change with seasons
At Red Wiggler, as on any farm, the sequence of seasons
provides a clear beginning and end for tasks, enables an enormous
sense of accomplishment, and creates a ripe environment for
Here’s an example of how we split job responsibilities:
During planting season, for instance, bulbs (including garlic,
shallots, onions, etc.), potatoes, and winter and summer squash
are planted by the growers. They are larger and easier to
handle. The farm manager is responsible for the smaller seeded
crops (salad mix, chard, beets, spinach, etc.) although there
are instances when a grower might be interested in helping
out with those chores and we give it a whirl.
The growers' responsibilities also include laying mulch,
placing and replacing hoops and Remay® fabric in the fields,
hilling potatoes, weeding, weed-whacking, building deer fences,
pounding tomato stakes, taking out tomato stakes, prepping
the hoop houses, and seeding. Not to mention the thrice-weekly
harvest, the twice-weekly CSA preparation, and the bagging
and labeling of vegetables for five months a year. And I’m
quite certain that I’m forgetting a thousand little
things that keep this place running.
We all share the responsibility, it all gets done, and we
are able to produce food for the hundreds of people who depend
on us to grow their vegetables, flowers, and herbs. Our growers
are hard workers. This farm would not exist without them.
Sure, we have our challenges. Any person who knows a thing
or two about growing food will tell you that a garden of any
kind is not complete without its challenges.
I knew something about large-scale gardening when I arrived
at Red Wiggler, but I knew nothing about working with people
with developmental disabilities. What I do know now is that
it works, that it is magical, and that I feel genuinely rewarded
by this interaction of soil, and plants, and people. To dig
the first potato, to taste the sweetness of the first sugar
snap, to sell the first tomato of the season….isn’t
that why all of us garden folks do what we do? That magic
is only compounded by the addition of seven people who labored
to produce those season “firsts,” who recognize
this awesome work, and who might have questioned at one point
or another if they would ever find a job that fit their interests
and abilities and they would enjoy. A question all of us have
“Limit” is a word that stifles
I’ve learned that “limit” is only a word
that stifles very real possibility. This is, perhaps, the
grandest lesson I know. I have found that sincere, honest,
hard work dissipates any notion of “limit.” If
we nourish ourselves as well as the land and continue to work
with the ever-present forces of nature, there are no “limits”
to what we can do. We can. Red Wiggler is a beautiful thing
because there were and are people who believe beyond average
To know that this work produces pure,
nutritious food, and that the cycle is connected to a
vision and a theory and a practice on a much larger scale
is a blessing and a privilege.
I’ve managed to transition from chronic impatience
to mysterious patience. I’ve mustered faith in myself,
in the fields, and in the changing seasons. Somehow, it all
gets done. Somehow this beautiful thing unfolds each morning.
This farm has unlocked all of those things that make me feel
better as a person: faith, patience, compassion, confidence,
humor. Things that I have been conditioned to believe have
little value in today’s working world. Things that I
would have never found locked away in an office somewhere.
It feels right to touch the earth and manage the food it
produces and understand fully the importance of managing our
land responsibly and attentively. To feel the physical fatigue
of having planted, weeded, and harvested is to know work that
is real and meaningful. To know that this work produces pure,
nutritious food, and that the cycle is connected to a vision
and a theory and a practice on a much larger scale is a blessing
and a privilege. To know that your day-to-day routine is one
that contributes to cleaner water, cleaner food, and cleaner
soil is invaluable. To be dirty and tired and sore at the
end of the day and to know that it serves a purpose, there
is a reason, and it is good, is extraordinary.
This is how I rationalize my master’s degree, and the
loans I have accrued to pay for it. In many unique ways, I
am continuing my education and expanding on that vision to
be better equipped to understand policy and law from the ground
up. I don’t know if I’ll ever put this knowledge
to use in a practical way. Somehow, I don’t think I
will. And that’s OK with me now. It just took me a while
to realize what value there truly is in growing good food.
Children and young adults aren’t encouraged enough to
pursue these things. We’re taught that we’re too
good for these things. What a thought!
In a little while, I will go back into the fields for another
season. I have placed my seed orders and I’m preparing
the grow room. We rearranged our management program of our
expanding CSA to allow for more grower-customer interaction,
in order to develop the connections between vegetables and
people—and people and people--further. It’s so
important, and it’s so amazing. Some say your second
season is actually harder because you anticipate its being
easier. I feel like I am going to find truth in that.
I’m looking forward to the rhythm of the spring and
summer seasons-watching the fields transform from their barren
winter appearance into something fertile and green and alive.
And watching the rhythm of the people who work those fields,
and who eat from those fields, and who appreciate the beauty
of what those fields represent.