by Nelson Harvey—
I am a 25-year-old college graduate with a degree from a fairly prestigious eastern university, and I pull weeds for a living. At first blush, you might think I’m overqualified, and after four hours of weeding the squash beds, when the stiffness begins to set in, that’s what I start to believe, too. In fact, nothing in college prepared me for this. My only credentials are the past two summers, spent learning by doing: planting, thinning, trellising, fertilizing, tilling, harvesting, washing, packing and, of course, weeding.
I am a farm intern, and to me, the only thing more remarkable than the fact that I have spent much of the past three summers happily stooping over vegetable rows (I am 6’4’’) is that I am not alone. Across the country, college students and graduates like myself, many with little or no farming background, have been flocking to small farms in droves, shacking up in old farmhouses, trailers and tents, and working for free or for peanuts, all in exchange for a little instruction in the fine art of running a farm.
“It’s almost like a third education after college,” said Kelly Coffman, 30, a second-year apprentice at Rain Crow Farm in Paonia, CO. Coffman studied at Prescott College in Arizona and Naropa University in Boulder, CO, and worked in the California state park system and as a kindergarten teacher, before deciding to work on farms. “When you have [a liberal arts] education, you get to a point where you realize wait, I need to have a more basic fundamental education about being human. Food, water, shelter…these things are important,” she said.
Although their numbers are hard to pin down, odds are that if you’re reading this, you probably know someone who has followed such a path. John English, website manager for the National Agriculture Information Service farm internship bulletin board, a job clearinghouse, said through a spokesperson that postings there have jumped by around 500 per year for the last 5 years, as more small farms spring up and seek the cheap and eager labor that interns provide. “If you talk to any really good farmer they’ll tell you that they’ve had a doubling and tripling of their applicant pool over the last few years,” said Severine Von Tscharner Fleming, an upstate New York farmer, activist and the director of the new film The Greenhorns, which profiles young farmers across the country and explores their motivations. In 2009, Fleming helped found the National Young Farmers Coalition, an advocacy group for those whose taste of farm life has enticed them to take up farming as a profession.
Farming is relentless: it saddles you with endless chores, pins you in one place, and works you to the bone. For much of the 20th century, most Americans tried to escape such a life by fleeing to the city, all of which begs the obvious question: Why would we want to go back to the farm?
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Nelson Harvey is a print and radio journalist whose reporting on environmental and political issues has been published in a wide range of newspapers, magazines, and websites, including The American Prospect, Alternet, Greenopia.com, The Wild Green Yonder, the Heritage Radio Network, and Farmstory.org. He currently lives in northern Vermont.
Used by permission from the author.