So you think you want to farm?

by Jessie K on April 8, 2010

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The recent resurgence in gardening, canning, butchering and home-brewing has given rise to another rustic, do-it-yourself pursuit: Taking a hiatus from one’s real life to go work for a season on an organic farm.

It sounds so rustic and appealing—abandoning the cubicle to go “work the land;” laboring in the great outdoors where there’s no overbearing boss or tedious water cooler chat to corrode your soul.  Nothing but a season of hearty manual labor and loads of exercise, subsisting on farm fresh fruits and veggies while learning more about eco-friendly farming practices than you ever thought possible. And you get really, really tan.

It’s a lovely dream….but what’s really involved?

To find out, I asked my friend Susan Guida, who, along with her husband Brendan Perry, own and operate Stone House Farm in Goshen, Virginia where they grow organic vegetables, specializing in salad greens, which they sell at finer restaurants across the region.

“You have to be willing to squat five hours a day,” says Susan.  “Our interns can expect to spend at least half of every day hunched over in the dirt harvesting and weeding.”

Which might not sound so bad…if you’ve been attending Body Pump classes at YMCA.

So how else do you know if you have what it takes to survive a season on the farm? Susan came up with a few key questions to ask yourself before embarking on such an adventure:

Number one: How do you feel about poop?

Because you will probably have to shovel it at some point.

“We had one intern who told me he couldn’t shovel out the chicken coop without a respirator,” she says. “I looked at him like, a what? You’re on a farm—no respirators here.”

So first things first, you have to be willing to suspend urban sensibilities. You won’t find any respirators, homing devices, Segways, under eye cream or massage tables on the farm. You might not even have access to a modern toilet at times and have to be willing to make do with an out-house or the woods.  And by the way, chicken poop is a valuable commodity in the country. It’s key for nourishing and replenishing the soil. So cleaning out the chicken house isn’t busy work—it’s mandatory. Especially for the interns.

Second important question:  What’s the hardest job you’ve ever had?

“One guy answered ‘Starbucks,’ which should have been our tip-off,” says Susan, who usually hires two interns per season. “But we were so desperate, we ended up hiring him anyway. He turned out to be dead weight.”

Which is not to suggest you have to have worked on a chain gang to survive farming, but potential employees (seasoned farmers) are looking to see if applicants have the mental and physical stamina to push through the pain and drudgery of working in 90 degree heat with one’s ass up in the air for hours at a time—which whipping up lattes typically does not engender.

Important question number three: Can you change the oil?

Stuff always breaks down on the farm and you, not Triple A, have to know how to fix it.

Number four: Do you like vegetables?

“I’ll never forget the time I whipped up this huge meal of freshly harvested vegetables—eggplant, tomatoes, cucumbers, beans—for everyone after a hard day of work, and one of the interns told me she hated vegetables. I was like, ‘then what are you doing working on a vegetable farm?’”

Because there was no passion or interest in the underlying product, that intern lasted, oh, about a week.

And finally, the single most important question to ask yourself: WHY do you want to farm?

“If an applicant says, ‘Because it sounds fun,’ or, ‘Cause my other job sucks,’ we’ve learned through trial and error they won’t last,” she says. “Farming is too hard to be considered romantic, it’s too tedious to be fun. But if they say, ‘Because I want to make a living from it,’ or ‘because farming is my passion,’ we know they have a shot.”

(By the way, Susan and Brendan’s current interns are a former marine and his equally tough wife who hope to run their own organic farm one day. They’re working out great.)

To prepare for a season of farming, Susan recommends reading Eliot Coleman (www.fourseasonfarm.com), and making a point of getting your legs in shape for a season of squatting. She’s not kidding about the squatting thing.  Think lunges, squats, more lunges, climbing a couple of mountains.

To find out more about seasonal farming opportunities, check out ATTRA, Backdoor Jobs and MOFGA.

 

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Talia April 9, 2010 at 7:38 am

It sounds great to me. I know I’m a city girl who sits at a desk all day… but those days where i spent 8 hours in the yard digging to 4′ below grade to get out the dreaded japanese knotweed… i was exhausted, in pain, miserable, but felt so content too: and enjoyed the best beer i’d ever tasted on the stoop those evenings!

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Jessie K April 10, 2010 at 6:24 am

Talia: I agree. Farming can be a very rewarding way to live….after you’ve finished work for the day. Ha ha!

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Meredith April 9, 2010 at 10:06 am

That sounds wonderful……
I used to have the desk job thing and now I’m a stay at home mom. I love it but I will tell you that I would trade a kidney to have even a weekend to spend squatting and weeding. Babies are not conducive to field work. Maybe not all babies, but mine is a little high maintenance.
Working in the veggies is great therapy.

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Meredith April 9, 2010 at 10:08 am

PS – If that is a current, pregnant photo of you, I will be depressed for the rest of the month.

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Jessie K April 10, 2010 at 6:22 am

Meredith: No cause for depression. It’s an old photo. My inner thighs chafe quite sufficiently when I walk.

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Stacy April 12, 2010 at 11:56 am

While I agree that there is a certain pastoral romanticism attached to the often back-breaking hard work of farming, I’m confused about the respirator. Haven’t farmers and other workers tied a bandana or handkerchief over their mouth? Isn’t that a type of respirator? That’s like saying you’re not allowed to wear sunscreen when working outdoors for a long day or you can’t wear a hard hat in a construction zone.

Not wanting to get designer boots dirty or some such would have been a more illustrative example to me. Not allowing a respirator seems honestly unfair to anyone, urban or not.

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Jessie K April 12, 2010 at 4:29 pm

Hi Stacy: I’m pretty sure Susan would more than welcome a respirator….if the intern had brought one. It’s not something most farmers stock.

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Katelyn Henderson October 5, 2010 at 5:41 am

organic farms could actually save us from carcinogens and toxins’”.

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Glass Shelving  October 20, 2010 at 7:38 am

organic farms will be the trend of the future coz we don’t like artificial stuffs inside our body-,”

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