Chucking the classroom for the carrot patch
A CSA intern grows both vegetables and herself

By Jannie M. Dresser
Posted May 11, 2007

At 27, Allison Badertscher has found herself. In compost. In breaking through the soil and seeding. In gently lifting the watermelon vines to find one more oval jade jewel. For the second time in less than a year, this former Berkeley, California, resident has signed on for an internship on an organic farm.

Petite yet strong, clear-skinned and bright-eyed, Badertscher (pronounced Ba-der-sher) seems something of a throwback to her great-grandparents’ generation. Didn’t they work hard to get off the farm? “I’m just doing what I’m doing,” she says, noting that the difficult work and muscle-building labor that farming demands provide a deep and indescribable satisfaction.

Badertscher grew up in the Shenandoah Valley, in Lexington, Virginia. Both parents were college librarians, and she spent many days on campuses and going for hikes on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Her German and Scots-Irish ancestors were settlers and farmers in the Appalachian Mountains, and she remembers apple-picking days at her grandparents’ Tennessee orchard when she was a child. Although Lexington is a college town, it was surrounded by fields, farms and forest. From her room, she remembers fondly “watching cows on the horizon.”

Like many young people, Badertscher left home to attend an urban college, this one in New Brunswick, New Jersey, “the most densely populated town, in the most densely populated county.” She studied art and education and became a certified Montessori pre-school teacher. Yet, she still had an itch to travel; in 2003, she and a friend drove out to California, a place she had always dreamed of visiting. Perhaps someone told her about the “farms in Berkeley” (an advertising tagline of a dairy company headquartered in the university town).

Teaching and changing

She settled for three years in the San Francisco area because of the lively artistic and intellectual environment she found there. She was always on the lookout for ways to include nature and environmental awareness into her work with kids. This led to attending a panel discussion of food-system all-stars that featured Michael Pollan, author of the bestselling book Omnivore’s Dilemma (Penguin, 2006) as well as poet and agricultural activist Wendell Berry; Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation (Houghton Mifflin, 2001); Vandana Shiva, an Indian agricultural activist; and Carlo Petrini, who helped launch the “slow-food” movement.

She says the event changed the direction of her life. Before long, she had sold her car and was using her bike for transportation; she began to examine and change her eating and shopping habits. Most of all, she wanted to learn how and where her food was grown.

Through her research, Badertscher discovered the community-supported agriculture (CSA) movement, which led to her first internship last summer at the Hill and Hollow Farm near Edmonton, Kentucky, a two-hour drive from Louisville. The 150-acre certified-organic farm was founded five years ago by Robin and Paul Vernon, who met while working as interns on other organic farms. This spring, Badertscher committed to a second internship at Hawthorne Valley Farm, a 400-acre Biodynamic farm and dairy in New York’s Hudson Valley, north of New York City.

Both Hill and Hollow and Hawthorne Valley farm are part of the network of CSAs which bring farmers and consumers face-to-face all over the country in the pursuit of organically grown, neighbor-friendly food.

At Hill and Hollow, Badertscher gave five, sometimes six, nine-hour days of labor in exchange for a room that lacked electricity and running water; her meals, shared with the farm couple, their two children, and one or two other interns, were comprised of vegetables and fruits she had helped grow.

After hours of hand-weeding, cultivating, mulching, hauling manure, spreading compost, and harvesting every Friday (fruit every day during midsummer), Badertscher still hadn’t had enough of farm life. At night, instead of crawling into a canopy bed piled high with billowy comforters, she tucked herself into a sleeping bag spread out on an overlook where fireflies buzzed and where her work in the garden just below faced her as she fell asleep.

CSA basics

CSAs absolutely depend on city-dwellers who subscribe to the farms or become “members” through a dues-paying program. When harsh eastern storms keep the ground snow-covered well into spring, or when western droughts limit water supply, the subscription system is a godsend. What the urbanites get are boxes stuffed with seasonal vegetables and fruits. Beyond that, city-dwellers (many only one or two generations “off the farm”) are able to stay emotionally and spiritually connected to natural cycles through their relationships with CSA farmers and their staff members.

En route to her New York internship, Badertscher attended the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group conference, where she rubbed elbows with former colleagues from Hill and Hollow. She exchanged information with interns, organic farmers and others interested in sustainable agriculture. An estimated 1,700 CSA farms now exist in the United States. Most rely on resilient subscribers as well as youthful interns and community volunteers.

Hawthorne Valley Farm in Ghent, New York, practices Biodynamic agriculture based on the theories of Rudolf Steiner, founder of the Waldorf School movement. Created through a land trust, Hawthorne Valley is a not-for-profit farm that supports a dairy, green market, a store and the CSA internship program. Like many other CSAs, the line between intentional community and business can be a little hazy, yet it is precisely their communal aspect that draws many participants to the movement. Badertscher takes pleasure in linking her labor not only to the final “product” and its distribution, but also to the family and community relationships created by the CSA structure.

"The charm and eagerness of young interns and enthusiastic volunteers seems very much a part of the economic viability of CSAs and translates to high customer satisfaction."

The charm and eagerness of young interns and enthusiastic volunteers seems very much a part of the economic viability of CSAs and translates to high customer satisfaction. Every week, farmers and their families deliver their products to nearby cities. On weekly visits to Nashville, Badertscher recalls meeting “people who thrive on urban life brought together with those who equally thrive on the farm or in rural communities.” As these groups mingled, it seemed clear to her that all were a willing part of an extended community as they shared news about their respective lives and watched one another’s children grow up. Snapshots of kids away at college and family outings are as eagerly exchanged as purple cabbages and kale.

To Badertscher, gardening is a fine art where complex problems must be solved and the joy of creation is intimately experienced. In addition to her agricultural work, she enjoys making art and completing craft projects, but if given a choice she says she “would rather be a farmer than an artist.”

Badertshcer’s ambition reflects a value system that seems to contradict so much of what we hear about a self-indulgent or nihilistic younger generation. She hopes to find a longer-term position on a farm or become part of a farming- and-arts cooperative, whether it is one she joins or creates herself. “I want to give to others, not just sustain myself,” she says.