The summer before senior year in college is anxiety ridden. Questions like "What am I doing with my life?," or the more common, less dramatic "Where can I get an internship?" cloud a student's head as thoughts of the real world take over. However, I was fortunate to find and love an unlikely job: Working at an organic farm.
After an internship with a vegetarian and environmental magazine in California fell through, my prospects looked like I'd be returning to my small town, hopeless and lacking a job in my field. Self-doubt and thoughts of failure circulated through my head (self-deprecation is central to how I function). I was forced to reevaluate what was important to me and what I wanted to pursue. I saw work as something that was meant to be thought-provoking, productive, that would allow me to make some sort of money, and, most important, an activity that would give me a chance to enjoy my summer before my last year as an undergrad. Last but not least, as a vegan of nearly four years, I wanted to be around people who enjoyed eating and preparing good food and could participate in environmental, political and ethical discussions just as much as me.
In my town of Roxbury, Connecticut, there's not much there: a post office, a market, a gas station, a small restaurant, municipal buildings, a town park and thousands of acres of land preserves. It has a mix of people from the working class to affluent lawyers, actors, authors and professionals to city dwellers or "weekenders" seeking refuge in the rolling hills of Litchfield County (The word "quaint" comes to mind.). While I love my town and all of its natural beauty, as I have been raised there my whole life, there wasn't much of a job market. To put it into greater perspective and prove the rural nature of my town, we lack traffic lights.
As I scrambled to find some sort of employment during the last few weeks of my junior year, I realized I overlooked one of Roxbury's thriving occupations, though diminishing elsewhere: Farming. One such farm, Riverbank Farm, is a 55-acre property, owned by Laura McKinney and David Blyn, that prides itself on organic fruits, vegetables and prepared foods to sell to numerous farmers' markets and local health food stores. After a brief but enlightening phone call with Laura, I found myself on the farm in the middle of May, unprepared for how much of this experience would both reaffirm and reshape my beliefs in the local food movement and how unaware Americans are of what they eat and how they define about progress and efficiency.
The organic stigma
Friday, May 16. 7:30 a.m. My first day on the farm. It was pouring rain, and I was dressed in a hooded sweatshirt, jeans and old hiking boots. After having only met David a few days before in an interview and informal tour of the farm, he handed a knife to me and look toward the spinach and lettuce fields. Standing bent over from the knees and back, David held back the deep greenery of the spinach and slashed the base of the plant coming up from the dark, brown soil, expecting me to do the same. I realized at that moment, well, two things: (1) I'd be extremely sore the next day and (2) the romanticized views of nature, wilderness and farming I held, influenced by de Crevecoeur, Emerson and Thoreau, would be tested by hard, backbreaking labor.
Often times organic and local food and ingredients means expensive. I admit that when I first started to buy food at farmers' markets near Fairfield and the Gold Coast, I had sticker shock. Beyond the organic certification process and the absence of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and other harmful chemicals, there are other, less obvious reasons why organic is more expensive than those goods without the label. Realizing what happens beyond the farmers' market is crucial in understanding the process and longevity of small, organic farms.
Since Riverbank sells to markets all over Connecticut, including those in New Milford, Darien, Westport, New Canaan, New Milford, Greenwich and New Haven, harvest days remain the most important at the farm. These were the days we would go out in the field and fill buckets and bins up with the freshest, straight from the ground, vine and stem foods. Tuesdays,Wednesdays, Thursdays and certainly Fridays were filled with kneeling and standing in the dew-dropped rows of peppery arugula, fragrant herbs, various varieties of head lettuce, kale, swiss chard, eggplant, cucumbers, summer squash and various other beautiful vegetables.
Doesn't sound too bad to look at the brilliant colors of the vegetables, does it? While harvest days were an opportunity to first eat with your eyes, the less fun but necessary jobs come to mind. Since Riverbank and other organic farms avoid using mechanized equipment when possible, it remains necessary to do things by hand. People, not machines, have an integral role on the farm. Hand-weeding was a must to rid crops of pesky weeds, and through the process of running your fingers through the rows of newly transplanted carrots, kale and other plants, you certainly made a strong connection to each individual vegetable in the endless fields.
Plunging your hands into tubs of 30 degree water at 8 a.m. was a usual chore as fellow farm workers brought their crops to the wash station to remove the grit and the occasional spider from leaves, stalks and the torso of vegetables. My pants and shoes were often soaked as large green bins were filled with bathed carrots and greens, lifted to let the excess water drain and divided into the coolers for the next market.
During the early months of potato season in July and August, the tuber was extracted through the ground in a lengthy, but nonetheless satisfying process (It was my favorite job at the farm). A pitchfork loosened the roots' grip on the potatoes in the ground, and we would uncover the soil to find yellow, purple and rose colored potatoes in a range of sizes ready to be sorted.
Tomatoes, the cash crop of Riverbank and the prize of most farmers' market goers, took hours on end to harvest. Imagine seeing hews of reds, oranges and yellows pouring from the vines, while also weaving through the rows, making sure to pick out the ripe fruits. A single red bucket of tomatoes weighed upwards of 20 pounds, which would then need to be carried out to the end of the rows to be picked up, placed on a truck and sorted for market. In my last few weeks at the farm, some days would involve just picking and sorting boxes of tomatoes.
Harvesting plants in the Alliaceae family, including onions, garlic, shallots and leeks, was among the most labor intensive. After the plants were picked, sorted and dried in the barn, a group of workers and I would sit outside, trim off the beard-like roots, stalks and other less desirable elements of the aromatic veggies.
To put it simply: Every vegetable and fruit has a backstory. Hardworking and conscientious individuals select your food, enduring hours of intense and efficient labor to provide you with the best product possible.
On Saturday mornings, I went with my friends and fellow farmhands Kate and Nicole, along with Laura and her two children, to the New Milford market. After the truck was unloaded, the tents set up and the produce was out for consumption, customers began to arrive. Beyond the incredible vegetables, the farmers' market was and remains a chance to interact with people of all different income levels and backgrounds, something you may not otherwise do in a regular supermarket.
It was not unusual for customers to ask us or other market participants for recipes for a certain vegetable or how to preserve or can them for the winter months. Over the months I spent at the market, a sense of customer loyalty was evident, as people came week after week to stock up on produce and, ultimately, to support local farming and the Slow Food movement.
Farmers' markets are, in a sense, a microcosm for the way in which our society needs to shift: A place where people talk to and respect their neighbors, where community-based business is supported, where health consciousness is established and where quality over quantity is at the forefront.
Working at a farm was not so far-fetched for me after all. I was, and currently am, a practicing vegan, or one who chooses to avoid eating, wearing or using animal products and by-products. Also, I was raised by my parents to be an active supporter of local food and farmers. The inextricable link among food, politics, economy, environmentalism and farming was something that was always fascinated me and continues after Riverbank. Plus, who wouldn't love getting fresh, organic food for free?
In addition to Dave and Laura, I worked with other amazingly dedicated apprentices, workers and aspiring farmers at the farm. While it is cliche, performing such manual labor did force you to become fast friends and teammates (or one of the crew, as it was commonly referred) with the other workers. As if working nine hour days was not enough time to spend with someone, after work we would share recipes, cook together and enjoy good conversation with one another over incredible meals with the food we helped to grow. I am fortunate enough to call these highly skilled, diverse and intelligent people my friends.
Looking back, my experience on the farm was far more valuable than an office job in San Francisco. It provided with ample reflection time on what I want to pursue and explore in the future, and how food is truly at the crux of human needs.
I may have bruises on body, my limbs may be sore and I may still have dirt embedded in my nails and fingers, but I would encourage all people to get in touch with their food roots, literally, by either working on a farm, join a food co-op or begin visiting farmers' markets to support local food and to truly understand product origins.