With the recent cool and rainy weather, it is clear that fall is upon us. While we are still harvesting several summer crops out of the fields, many of the winter crops are going up on the to-do list, and with the end of our apprenticeship approaching in October, this week for me has been one of reflection. With the end in site, it thus seems appropriate to begin looking back on the skills learned thus far, folding them deeper into memory and preparing the mind for the end of this adventure. Perhaps it’s not unlike the way a farmer reflects on the growing year, prepares the fields for the coming winter, and takes time to make notes on what has transpired. This in mind, I’ve pulled a list together for this week’s post, on what skills I think it takes to be a farm apprentice. I know there are a lot of people out there who are thinking of becoming farmers in the face of issues of food security and the great mass exodus that we are seeing in the realm of large-scale agriculture. Without the benefit family wisdom to be passed down through the generations, many of these new farmers are roughing it out there in the fields like we’ve been this year. My hope is that this list will at least provide you with one perspective as you head out into the brave and new (more like reinvigorated) world of growing food.
What It Takes to Be a Farm Apprentice:
(or rather, what I think can make or break your apprentice experience)
Focus and organization I have put together because to me, they feed into each other. I have seen first hand, how distracting a working farm can be. For you not to become distracted would require a shut down of all senses, as there is literally always something to do on a farm. Without focus for example, it is easy to be weeding basil and be so distracted by tomato plants at the perfect growing stage for their first pruning, that without even a thought, you find yourself methodically pulling off root suckers before you realize what has happened. Focus is what keeps you on task, and allows you to bang out all those necessary tasks that seem like they run right off the edge of your to-do list. Organization, is the to-do list that keeps you from running right off the edge of your sanity when you begin to get the feeling you can never keep up with everything that can be accomplished. They are a necessary pairing of skills, and even at a farm as small as Zenger, it has become very apparent why we spend a significant amount of time creating, prioritizing, and checking in with our to-do lists. Without them, we spend too much time fumbling over what to do next, and too little time enjoying the feeling of satisfaction with every check in the box.
Perhaps it is dangerous to recommend speed as a skill set to a new farmer. We all know what happens when you teach an eager new driver where the gas pedal is, and we don’t want anyone getting hurt on their first day at the farm. But that aside, speed is still something we all strive for, whether we are new or well seasoned by experience. Watching Sara rip through a bed of [fill in the blank], thinning and weeding in the rage of dirt and ravaged foliage, continues to leave me with that apparent sense that I am just not fast enough. Granted, it feels instinctive to take your time at first and learn the difference between what is weed and what is friend, but I am still learning that unintended casualties are a natural part of the weeding process. Unless you have the pleasure of working land that is either weed-free or has been managed for undesirable plants in the past, you will spend a lot of time at this task, and the faster you are, the more you can get done. It’s not easy, but it is simple.
Flexibility is made better by organization, which is why it appears farther down the list. As farmers, we must be flexible from day to day, hour to hour. There are innumerable variables at stake in the production of fresh organic food. We have discovered many of those variables, some with delight and many with dismay. Weather, pests, mechanical failures, leaks, and many other unintended happenings should not only be expected, but planned for as much as possible. As an apprentice, you may not bear the burden of making these things right, but you will certainly learn to make the best of any situation and to have as many back-up plans as you can think of in case things go south. Because they will go south, and you will freak out. Sometimes you will have to tough it out, and other times you can simply pick yourself up and re-direct your energy elsewhere.
This may not seem like a necessary skill, but it will once you become familiar with all the aches and pains that come with hours of back-breaking work done in the outdoors. We are fortunate to have lots of fancy tools in our barn, but by far the most important tool we have is our bodies. As a farmer, you should plan to become very aware of your limits. You will have to push against many of these, but getting to know the way your body responds to hard work, will help you find the best way to take care of your most valuable tool. Of course, restful sleep and lots of good food is a good start. Working at an organic farm usually makes that second part easy and enjoyable. But also be aware of your mental needs and your immune system. Sick days and “burnouts” are time lost and won’t be acceptable when you someday commit to a full time farming gig. Take care of yourself and listen to your body. Done well, it will allow you to gain the strength and agility you’ll need to keep up will all that you’ll be learning.
An Open Mind:
This last one’s a quick one, but simply said, keep an open mind. Even if you come into a farming apprenticeship with some growing experience, prepare to do the unexpected. Organic food production, though not a new idea, has suffered from years of lost knowledge about the best ways to care for plants and soil (while still yielding enough to pay the bills). As such, there are still a lot of debates over best practices and preferred responses to plant and pest problems. As a farm apprentice, it’s understandable that you’ll be gaining a lot of new knowledge and experience, but do not forget to keep an open mind beyond what you hear told to you. Make connections in the field between what you do and what results from that action. Take lots of mental notes, and sneak in some zone-out time to let it all sink in. You will realize a lot of important things during your experience, and you should prepare your mind for those things from the very beginning. Realize too, that every growing year is different, which is why you’ll need to stay flexible when it comes to applying what you’ve learned in the future.
So that makes five, a nice non-even number. But I know there are many more to add to this list, which is why there is a comment section! If you have any personal advice you’d like to pass on to the Zenger apprentices this year, or to other someday farmers coming across this blog, please feel free to leave a comment below and keep the wisdom flowing.
Read Full Post »