5 Things I Learned from a Summer of Volunteering On A Farm

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The thing that fills me the most is growing food. I love to cook but I love it more when I can connect the dirt and the plate. The full cycle is what I love the most. I don’t enjoy grocery shopping but I love shopping a garden or the farm market the most. Looking at what is available and cooking accordingly. It usually involves simple meals with very little fuss and they taste greater than anything you could ever find anywhere else in the world. I love it! So when we knew we were heading back I had a friend suggest taking time to volunteer at a friend’s farm. So I shot Nic from Loma Farm a message last spring about coming and volunteering as much as I could that summer. I knew I didn’t have a ton of time, but I wanted to experience what it means to grow great veggies on their scale. I wanted to see how it all worked and to spend time getting dirty with their team. Last summer, those days were my favorite all season. At such a busy point in our life, it was such a quiet and wonderful experience to weed lettuce in the morning or harvest onions in the August heat. It was hard work too but fulfilling and my gosh did I learn things. I learned the type of things I never thought I might learn and it shifted my concept of eating more than I expected as well.

Many of you have asked for me to share how that experience shifted my concept of eating and what I learned along the way as I have referenced this experience being inspiring and enlightening. So, as we all patiently await the snow to disappear and the warm air to come north finally, I thought I would share some of this with you guys today. As a side note, I don’t suggest everyone has to do this. If you have a strong desire to connect with your food sources I think it is wonderful even to sign up for a CSA and ask if you can tour a farm. Many farms do offer volunteer programs though or will take help during busy seasons in exchange for produce but know you are signing up for real physical work. When I tell you that those few hours I got to spend really changed so much of how I see food, I am very real. So here you go!

Quality Greens (lettuce in particular) takes diligence and hard work:
As a volunteer I did a lot of the work that I would say was grunt work. Totally expected. I would do the same as a business owner with volunteers. They need to use employees to do the specialty things or things that take more knowledge. I get it. This means that many times I would find myself hand weeding VERY long rows of lettuce. I would part through sprouts of salad mix pulling clovers, rye, etc and differentiating the actual lettuce from the weeds. Nic shared how important this is to the flavor because they clip and harvest it means the customer and chefs are only getting the lettuce and not the weeds. We also would replant the lettuce often because the flavor, particularly with arugula, becomes more bitter the more clippings you do of the greens. Little things like this make a huge difference in the quality of what you are eating, and of course there are health and safety regulations and checks like allergen testing that ensure the food that gets to you is safe and clean. Also since greens are so delicate the closer to home you get them the longer they will last. Many farms will give them to you in plastic bags and put air in the bag to keep the greens fresh and protected at home. My fridge in the summer is full of air-filled bags for our greens that are harvested or from the Farmers Market in order to ensure they last as long as possible. Greens take tending to and a lot of care to make sure they are well cared for and since we eat the whole plant they need to be washed properly and packaged well to ensure safe handling practices. Watching the process on a farm I knew the care and intent behind how each bit of lettuce that went on a plate in our community. After that I refuse to buy lettuce unless it is local which means for a period of our year we don’t eat lettuce. Many times we can find kale late in the fall or early winter or if we thought ahead we will eat frozen spinach and kale or drop it into smoothies. That said, after my experience of weeding lettuces and seeing them handled at a small farm I no longer trust mass production of greens. I don’t believe the care has been taken for them or trust the handling of them. And I think the number of recalls is a good indication of this as well.

Farmers know how to cook:
There is no one better to ask how to cook something than a farmer. Since farmers and those who work on farms eat mostly what they are growing you know how best to cook kohlrabi or brussels sprouts at the end of the winter. They will tell you how to get the most life out of them and use every bit of them as well. There is no one that knows food better than a farmer especially ones that supply to a popular farm to table restaurants in your area. Don’t underestimate the knowledge a farmer has on their food.

Farming isn’t Predictable and it is Stressful:
These days I think we fantasize in some way about a life of farming and a small farm stand of veggies on the side of the road. The truth is it is beautiful and fulfilling work, but it endless and not always predictable. The work involved is tiring physically, mentally, and many times fiscally. You have to be a scientist, a cultivator, a manager, a business owner, and a marketer all at once. Then you have to try to convince the public that buying your food is better than the mass market from large grocery stores. I had no idea the amount of stress involved in a farmers life till watching even a small amount of what happens in one morning I would be out there every other week or so. The fight for grants and doing things to top quality for a restaurant. It takes years of learning, experience, and a deep passion of doing it right at the same time. Then sometimes it still goes against your best laid plans. In one night an unexpected frost could take a crop or the deer could have run off with veggies they haven’t before. At the same time your peas may be ready earlier than they were the year before or the potatoes need another week. There are always new things available and ready for harvesting and making it all happen at the high harvest times of the year can mean working before the sunrises and even after it sets. Managing it all in a way that also makes profit isn’t easy either, but this is where your CSA members are helpful as they receive a box of what is available that week and then the rest will go to market or to restaurants. It is sometimes more abundant than you expected and sometimes far less so. This can create a lot of stress on farmers at times and this is why it is extremely important to focus on supporting our farmers and eating with what they have available to them. Accepting along with them what is available allows us to support them, eat with the seasons they are in, and will provide us the greatest quality food. This is another reason we moved to buying as much as possible (especially in spring, summer, and fall) from stores like our local co-op, farmers market, or other smaller stores that support local food sales. I realize the importance of supporting our farmers more than ever.

A Quality Farm is the Best Thing for a Community:
Working alongside so many of the employees at the farm and getting to know Nic and Sarah the owners who protect them with an insurance and the service of the best local workmen compensation attorney, I know what a farm growing their food with the highest quality in mind does for a community. We are lucky to live in an area where even with intense winter months we grow more than enough to sustain our community if need be. We have amazing services set up to place local food on tables all over our town and counties around us. It is really amazing the more I have experienced it and realized it isn’t everywhere. We are lucky to say the least, but it is more than that. Farmers do so much for our community and when they do it with the care of the land and soil in mind they can actually rebuild soil and land allow places for bees to safely live, and holistically heal people through quality nutrient dense food. They have high-quality equipment such as Mini Excavators, trucks, tractors, grinders, conveyor belt lacing systems, for cultivating, harvesting or transporting crops or other agricultural products. They buy most of their agricultural equipment from a marketplace in Texas. Great farms are essential to a healthy community and they only exist when we support them. Those who would like to transport crops to and from the farm may apply for intermodal trucking jobs.

It takes a lot of hands and most of them love what they do:
There were days I came to volunteer that every single one of us would have a bucket and would be hand picking sugar snap peas by hand. Each one being inspected for quality and left on the vine if they didn’t meet the criteria for picking. There were more than 6 of us just wandering the rows hunting for just the right ones. There were then another whole crew doing the cleaning and storage of the goods for the market or CSA’s to be picked up the next day. Pre Owned Farming Equipment was also spread out the farm for people who need to use it and help kickstart the processes. The number of people it took certain days was pretty intense. When you think about this in terms of costs of veggies you now see why quality local farms that are hiring local people end up costing you more than mass produced veggies in greenhouses or farms in other countries with cheaper labor. The other thing was I realized each of the people working with me could have another job and maybe make a little more, but they really loved working there. They loved the veggies so much and cared for them so deeply. I think a few times we talked about them being cute. The veggies I doubt ever felt as if they ever were not loved or tended to with care, which is another whole mentality, but I believe this important to quality food. Just like people, veggies love knowing they are appreciated…there is literal research about this. So I saw first hand how the people handling the food coming from a local farm really do create amazing harvests, but it takes hands and a lot of them to get the best veggies on the plate at our dinner table. I had such a deep value of what I had brought home each week and wanted to use it economically and respectfully. You will never appreciate your food more than when you see the people who are actually caring and tending to it that are also active members in your community.

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