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
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
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,
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.
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
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.