At this time last year, I was your typical mid-20′s girl living in New York City. I seemingly had it all— a nice apartment in a good neighborhood with my boyfriend, a steady, if not tedious, job in mid-town Manhattan, and the ability to visit my family and old friends in my hometown in Maryland whenever I wanted.
The reality, though, was that I was restless and bored. The daily routine that some people might have envied drove me crazy, and I started looking for any excuse to leave the city. I had recently been driving my family and boyfriend crazy with my new found obsession of trying to eat healthier and shop at farmer’s markets and organic stores, and I pored over food labels and read as many books as I could find on food and health. Finally, I decided that it was time to start doing something more productive with my life. Instead of shopping at the markets and buying other people’s homegrown food, I wanted to be involved with the actual process of growing and selling food.
So I packed up everything I owned in New York City, quit my job, broke up with my boyfriend, and moved to Cornville, Maine to work on an organic farm for six months.
I had no idea what I was doing in the beginning. My parents are avid gardeners and home growers, but I spent a good portion of my adult life traveling the world and moving around as much as possible, so my knowledge of farming was very limited. One of the first words of advice that was given to me on the farm was that, “what we do is not rocket science.”
The other apprentice and I soon fell into a routine during the spring months. Since we were only given a small weekly stipend for our work, part of our compensation was that we got to live on the farm with the owners, and took all of our meals with them. Our days started at 7:00am with chores, which were quite easy in the early months, since the chickens and sheep weren’t yet in the fields grazing on pasture. Although there was a lot to do in the first couple months to get ready for the summer, wet rainy days kept us out of the gardens and field for longer than expected.
Before long, the easy days of spring faded away, and I have to admit I was not quite ready at first for what the summer would bring. The sheep-there were approximately nine or ten of them- had just had their lambs, and in between caring for them, we had to move them to new pasture daily. The chickens and chicks- there were about 350-400 total – had to be fed and given water twice daily, and moved about once a week to new pasture as well. As soon as the field dried out, we started planting, and there were days when I didn’t think the darkness that only night can bring would come soon enough. It didn’t take long for me to realize that work on a farm doesn’t stop at 6:00pm, and that sometimes you don’t realize just how strong you actually are until you have no other choice.
Since one of the owners worked off the farm and the other had a new baby to care for, the other apprentice and I spent most of our days working side by side with each other, having been given a list of tasks to complete each morning at breakfast. With it just being the two of us (him with prior farm experience and me without), we sometimes butted heads about how things should be done, and as with all relationships, we often drove each other crazy. One of my most vivid memories of the farm happened in the middle of the summer. After a long, hot days work in the field, my work partner decided we should go above and beyond what was expected of us, and I soon found myself lugging bales of hay into the barn. In reality, it probably took us about an hour, but at the time, I was so exhausted, thirsty, and annoyed that it felt like it would never end. After a 10-11 hour day, I finally dragged my overtired, sweaty, hay-covered body into the shower, gingerly wiping away the dirt and grime that lay caked on my scratched arms.
To be very honest, there were periods of time throughout the summer when I felt like I would break down. Not only from the physical work, but also from the emotional stress of throwing myself head first into the farm. I had one and a half days off a week, but I don’t own a car, so I spent literally 90 percent of my time at the farm. Four of us, plus a one year-old baby, lived communally together, sharing the kitchen and one bathroom. My bedroom became my solace, the only place where I could escape from everything and just read a book, which usually resulted in me falling asleep with the book on my chest.
Throughout the summer though, there were moments of great clarity when I realized there was nothing else I’d rather be doing. These came at odd and random times, sometimes when I was on my hands and knees weeding the big field, other times when we spent whole days harvesting the produce that I helped plant from the very beginning. I can still remember the day when I realized that I knew how to move a large group of sheep on my own, and the day when the owners came back with four cute pigs in the bed of their truck, a nice addition to the variety of animals on the farm.
The highlight for me, though, was the Wednesday and Saturday farmer’s market held in downtown Skowhegan. My work partner and I took turns at the market, although if I had it my way, I would have gladly gone every week. The market was a good way to get off the farm for a bit and enjoy a change of scenery, but it also meant a lot to me for other reasons. It didn’t take long for me to recognize the good that was going on in this tight-knit community that I was suddenly a part of, and it felt very rewarding to finally be on the other side of the cash register. Everything we sold came directly from the farm, and I could literally trace every vegetable back to its origin. Knowing that I was one of the people that planted, weeded, cared for, and harvested each piece of produce was a powerful feeling, and one that I had not experienced before. On top of this, it was the people who made my market days meaningful. Because it was a small town, I got to know the locals very quickly, many by name, and seeing them throughout the summer was a ritual that I never grew bored of.
Besides the market, what kept me sane throughout the hardest months were when my family and friends visited. It gave me a great sense of pride to drive them around the farm in the golf cart, showing off the crops and animals that I came to love over the last six months. Once the summer started winding down, I knew I’d be able to make it through the rest of the season. Before my eyes, the gardens and field changed dramatically, and each day new crops were dying out and vegetables were harvested for the last time.
Fall came quickly, and I couldn’t help but feel a bit relieved when the days started getting shorter and the workload lighter. By this point, my work partner and I had made peace with each other, and learned to rely on each other when things got hard or annoying. Knowing that we had made it through the busiest time of the season, we embraced the changing weather and new daily tasks, which ranged from planting fall crops in the greenhouses to cleaning up the farm and getting the animals ready for a cold Maine winter.
Just as quickly as the season started, it suddenly was time for me to say goodbye. My last day was spent doing my final round of chores, harvesting what was left of our fall crops for the market, and finally, running our stand for the last time. If I had to think of a word to describe my last day, it would have to be bittersweet. Due to the hurricane that was ravaging the Northeast, the owners of the farm were stuck in Florida on vacation, which ironically enough, they hadn’t been on in years. As I drove away from the farm for the last time, I realized that an ending without closure is harder than a normal goodbye.
Now that my 6 months are over and I have moved on, I can truly say that this experience has been memorable, frustrating, exhausting, and the most rewarding thing I have done in a long time. I now understand the hard work and tireless commitment that it takes to run and work on a farm, and the next time I’m at a farmer’s market, in whatever country it may be, I’ll be sure to give an extra thanks to the people on the other side of the cash register.