What It’s Like Working On An Organic Farm

By Eva Moss, Sewanee, The University of the South

My parents had a passion for food, being from the South and Western Samoa, two places with rich culinary traditions. They instilled in me a fascination with what I ate at a very young age. In my adult life, this translated to my being a supporter of the organic movement. Admittedly, I did not actually have a deep grasp of the term’s meaning and implications. I knew I cared about organics; I didn’t know why.

I’ve found this to be the case with many of my peers, who support notions of “healthier,” “chemical free,” “environmentally friendly” and the like, without fully understanding the regulations set by the USDA and the resulting frameworks within which organic farmers operate.

Related: Farm Antibiotic Use: Getting Worse Before It (Maybe) Gets Better

This past September, branding consultancy firm BFG surveyed 300 shoppers with the majority being under the the age of 35. They found that 70 percent were buying organic foods, but only 20 percent could actually define “organic” with confidence. More than half of the respondents qualified as “concerned, but confused,” demonstrating a lack of true knowledge about “organic,” but also, and more importantly, a willingness and sincere desire to support and actively seek out foods they believe to be better for themselves and the environment.

In an effort to broaden both my own knowledge and experience, I took a suggestion from a friend last spring and subscribed to the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms network. WWOOF operates as an educational and cultural exchange program connecting travelers with opportunities to work on farms all around the world in exchange for room and board.

Working on an Organic Farm: How to Get There

I spent hours going through their many pages of farms in locales across the country. The farm bios were compelling, detailing their mission, operations, and tasks for which assistance was needed. Many owners simply seemed eager to have open-natured and hardworking visitors to add to their communities for one, two, three weeks to several months. The photos from each farm absorbed both my attention and imagination for many hours—scenes of coastal and mountain landscapes, vibrant flora, collections of gorgeous produce and value-added goods, smiling faces, and dirty hands. My mind was reeling at the thought of rolling around laughing in the soil as I sat at my desk in my dorm room.

1_0That night I sent inquiries to a handful of farms, and the first response I received came all of 34 minutes later. As fate would have it, that first response came from Sophie Viandier, owner and founder of Pay It Forward Farm, who is now one of my closest friends. Her message was full of excitement for the upcoming growing season and the ensuing projects and plans. After a few days of back and forth correspondence we established three main things:

— We were both extremely excited individuals by nature
— I was coming to her farm in Andover, New Hampshire
— My internship would be geared toward regenerative and sustainable agriculture, which later evolved into an intensive crash course in permaculture

With the reality of the upcoming farm internship, the excitement I felt made me realize that this was truly a step in the right direction. This was something I wanted to do with my life. That “something” wasn’t exactly clear to me yet, but I knew that a farm, dirt, and growing things with other excited young people greatly appealed to me.

Eating Locally, Working with Your Hands

That summer, after receiving a funding grant from my school for the planned internship, I packed my Jeep, said my goodbyes, and hit the road for New Hampshire.

My experience at Pay It Forward Farm was phenomenal. At the risk of being too cliche, there is no other way to put it: it was life changing. For six weeks I lived with a dynamic influx of young people: camp counselors, a timber framer, a poet, a musician, a photographer, a barista, a dancer, a Phish addict, a Selectman of the town, and the man that I’m marrying in just over a year from now. My housemates, my farm family, were dreamers, go-getters, and change-makers—they were absurdly inspiring. Adding to the absurdity were the friends that passed under the wooden “Pay It Forward” sign, who were of that same spectacular caliber: artists, writers, politicians, architects, war veterans, sailors, outdoorsmen, countless farmers, and just all around good-people.

Picture of Pay It Forward volunteers

Pay It Forward volunteers gather around a bonfire. Photograph by Eva Moss

In addition to these characters, I also became better acquainted with different versions of myself. The versions that had been hiding behind the desks, the city walls, and the metro stops. The sides of myself that weren’t afraid to be open, to be weird, to be perfectly content with the realization that the career path that I was gravitating towards was not going to be filled with riches, stability, status, or even be considered a “career” at all. This was OK with me.

“Food is not rational. Food is culture, habit, craving and identity.” – Jonathan Safran Foer

Our days were never uneventful. There were always projects, meetings, and things to be done. In the gardens, we planted, watered, weeded, and harvested. We taught kids about where their food comes from, and watched them as they planted seeds in the soil. We met with other farmers in the area and supported them at farmers markets, work parties, and provided emotional support during slaughterings. I helped Sophie with community events, and attended local policy and permaculture meetings. I engaged with the New Hampshire Permaculture Meet Up as they planned their annual gathering, and learned from Todd Workman, who is in the process of revitalizing Franklin, New Hampshire’s poorest city, into a permaculture center.

When the sun set and the days were done, our family gathered to cook together and sit round the kitchen table or the old wooden electric spool outside, laughing off the trials of the day and toasting to the successes. We cooked for each other, sharing favorite recipes and stories. We held parties with our farming friends, where any and all we ran into were invited and offered whatever food and drinks we had. We spent our nights under the stars talking, sometimes about heady epistemological ideas and hopes for the future, and other times about joys and frustrations from the day. We laughed a lot, sometimes we cried, I think once or twice there was some yelling, but man, we just lived.

During these weeks my existence was materially simple yet spiritually rich, and I felt much happiness as a result. What resonated most was that the nourishment of my body, and by extension my soul, mainly came from less than 50 miles away. We ate salads, radishes, beans and herbs from the gardens we managed. Our eggs were fresh every morning from our four chickens. We baked our own bread. Mountains of kale, basil, chard, beets, and garlic came from our farming friends. Rich New Hampshire maple syrup flowed from a friend’s sugar shack five miles down the road. Raw milk came from the next town over. Insanely delicious French pastries were baked by a friend basically next door. The hay and goat manure used in our gardens were local. Almost every step along the way, from planting, to harvesting, to purchasing and consuming, we knew the face of that member of our local food system. This was the ideal.

Tackling the Challenges of Farming

The not-so-ideal was that we were a group of young farmers and workers facing a mountain of practical problems. There were the hardships of financing projects, inadequate compensation in time and money, dependency on weather in determining the day’s market success (or lack thereof), and finding ways to constantly harness the necessary energy each day while oftentimes lacking the necessary support—economic, social and political. Though we were well nourished, strong, and highly productive, living this life took a toll on some.

I met Meghan Young, a young farmer and recent graduate of the University of New Hampshire majoring in microbiology, during the slaughtering of two of her pigs. She is the founder of Garlic Hill Farm, and after a long winter and several feeding sessions per day, emotions were running high. She told me that she would be putting her farm on hold after the summer growing season because it was just too hard. She was too young, she was broke, and she was mainly alone. She blew her back out twice last season alone, leaving her unable to work, and struggled with chronic lyme disease. Sunstroke was a big issue for her, especially during the summer season. Hydration and protective gear are key, she warned. To live this life, you have to be very careful to protect yourself.

Picture of Eva Moss working on a community garden

Author Eva Moss continues to plant food at a local community garden. Photograph by Eva Moss

The Rewards of Working on a Farm

If done carefully, though, this life can be rewarding. Sophie began her permaculture farm in the hopes that it would serve as Andover’s first community center for regenerative agriculture, and she has far surpassed this goal. Meghan began her farm with the mission of providing local and sustainable food to her community, and though temporarily on hold, she certainly accomplished this goal during its year of operation, at the cost of both her wallet and health.

Related: Organic Foods Are Tastier and Healthier, Study Finds

This experience showed me just how hard life is for those who strive to supply our communities with alternatives to the dominant industrial food system. My farming friends—my family—may waste less, flush less, wash less, and do many other things outside the norm, but the social benefits, visible progress, and tight knit community is what keeps it going. It’s what inspired Sophie, Meghan, myself, and many others to pursue this life. Though I am not planning on becoming a farmer, as I enter into my last semester of college I look forward to pursuing paths in food policy and justice, to advocate for the economic, social, and political support of my friends—our friends. The friends who rise at 5 a.m. to harvest the fresh produce we enjoy at farmers markets, the friends who nourish the soil as well as our bodies, and the friends who are willing to take a hit financially and physically to ensure that local, organic and sustainable food remains an option.

Looking back on my experience now, I smile. I smile because I now know many of the farmers in my own local food system, because I’ve since met many other food activists who understand their battles, and I smile because I am still flushing less, spending less, wasting less, and living so much more.

Eva Moss is a senior studying Anthropology at Sewanee, The University of the South.

This story is from our Planet Forward Campus Voices program—an opportunity for students to celebrate and explore our complex relationship with what we eat and where our food comes from.