Intern Chronicles

The farm sits on a hill an hour northeast of Knoxville. It encompasses sixty acres, but only one and a half are devoted to garden produce—beans, kale, corn, squash, carrots, onions, garlic, basil, et cetera. Another six are pasture for the two cows, three pigs, six sheep, and fifty or so chickens. The rest is woods. The farm is owned by a couple in their mid-thirties who live there with their 4-year-old son and a beagle named Barney. They sell most of their produce through a CSA, and the rest at a weekly farmer’s market, along with meat, eggs, and baked goods. At the moment I’m the only intern.

CSA stands for Community Sponsored Agriculture. For a lump sum, members of a CSA buy a subscription to the farmer’s harvest season. Once a week, each member gets a portion of what the farm produces: a typical share might include three pounds of potatoes, a bunch of carrots, an eggplant, two heads of garlic, and so on, depending on what’s been picked that week. The farmers get payment up front, and don’t have to spend all their time pushing vegetables at markets; the members, barring catastrophe, get a reliable source of fresh, local produce. In the case of my farm, members sign up for a 25-week season, and can buy either a $700 “full share,” meant to feed a family of four, or a $500 “half share,” for an adult couple.

In eastern Tennessee, our “community” (the nearest locale with an interest in, and willingness to pay for, locally grown food) is Knoxville. Twice a week we divide our harvest into full shares and half shares, put them into waxed cardboard boxes, pack them into a trailer with ice, and then drive them to Knoxville to be picked up by the subscribers.

Tuesday morning and all day Friday are devoted to harvesting and dividing up the shares. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays we plant, mulch, weed, till, collect eggs, feed the pigs, and do repairs. We start at 7 on Tuesdays, and leave the farm at the same time on Saturdays to set up our stand before the market opens at 9; the rest of the week we start at 7:30 and finish by 2 or 3.

The farmer and his wife started their operation in the fall of 2007, spending a total of about $40,000 on the land and the house, a tractor, a truck and other equipment, the livestock and seeds, and infrastructure improvements like new fencing, an irrigation system and a greenhouse. They have a number of ongoing costs, including $1,000 each year for farm insurance, $1,100 for taxes, an electric bill for the barn and electric fences that comes out to $20 per month, truck insurance at $300, $40 for a website, and so on—although on a ‘homestead’ farm like theirs, where the owners live on and work the farm, personal costs often overlap with business costs.

Because they had saved enough money to buy the land outright, without mortgage payments, even that first incomplete season at the end of 2007 generated a profit of a few thousand dollars. In 2008, their first full season, they had a net profit of about $20,000. This year they’re netting about $35,000. And they spend very little on groceries.

There are two stereotypical categories of organic farmers: hippies-turned-hillbillies, and hillbillies-turned-hippies. Both are easily found at the Knoxville farmers’ market.

In the hippie-turned-hillbilly category, there are Chip and Daniella. They own a farm called A Harvest of Spirit, in an area arguably even more remote than ours, and each Saturday they set up their tent next to us at the farmers’ market. Chip is about 65, with a bald pate and a stringy white ponytail. He’s owned the farm for at least a decade, but I’ve heard a rumor that he was once a corporate man. Whenever I saw him he was wearing an old t-shirt and camouflage moccasins. He spent much of his time at the market improvising on a didgeridoo, leaving Daniella to run the booth. Daniella is about ten years younger than Chip, grew up in Massachusetts, is extremely fit, and wears her hair in dreadlocks. So does one of the farm’s volunteer workers, a girl in her early twenties. The other volunteer, a guy in his late twenties, lives in a bus on Chip and Daniella’s property. They are all vegetarians. They raise goats and eat a lot of homemade goat cheese. Chip liked to tell me about the time he spends each year at the Sun Dances on the Lakota Indian reservations in South Dakota.

One weekend, the farmer and I went to a gathering at A Harvest of Spirit. Chip led us in a semi-traditional sweat lodge, held in a lodge that he and Daniella had built in a secluded spot on the farm. It was all very pleasant.

In the hillbilly-turned-hippy category are the Melvin brothers, who run the booth at the farmers’ market for Melvin Family Farm. The farm consists of Mr. and Mrs. Melvin and their thirteen children. The brothers wear matching green button-down shirts with their names embroidered above the breast pocket, while green caps that read MELVIN FAMILY FARMS crown their twin buzz-cuts. Neither of them looked older than 20, but they are the oldest children still living on the farm. These guys are not vegetarians. They raise hogs and hunt deer, which they process themselves each winter, storing the meat and tanning the hides.

The family has been farming the same area of southeastern Tennessee for generations, and they use traditional methods. They would often come to our booth to chat, and when the farmer would mention this or that piece of equipment and say, “You could buy it for X dollars,” one of the brothers would say, “Well sir, you can make it yourself pretty easy.” He would then describe in great detail how to build the item in question. Recently, after years of driving around to five different markets each week in order to sell their produce, the Melvins decided to start a CSA at their farm, figuring it was a simpler, more reliable way to make money. At the market they would come to our booth in shifts, one brother and then the other, and ask all sorts of questions about our operation. They always addressed the farmer and me as “sir.”

The couple that owns the farm I work on doesn’t fit either category. They grew up and spent most of their lives in the suburban sprawl of southern Florida. In the evenings she likes to watch the Cooking Channel and So You Think You Can Dance; he likes to watch The Daily Show and UFC fights. She cooks elaborate Italian dishes for dinner; he drinks beers made by microbreweries or Belgian monasteries. Before taking up farming, he ran his own real estate business and she was a corporate HR manager.

Today we were weeding, something we do not do as often as you might expect, when the farmer asked me if I had read a book called The One-Straw Revolution. I said no. He told me that most of his previous interns had arrived at the farm clutching a copy of the book. Its author was a Japanese farmer named Masanobu Fukuoka, who through three decades’ worth of experimentation developed a system of farming free of tilling, weeding, fertilizing, or any kind of machinery. After giving up a career in agricultural research and produce inspection soon after the end of World War II, Fukuoka moved back to the farm on the island of Shikoku where he was born, to begin his experimental farm. His “no-till” method eventually created some of the most fertile land in Japan. But Fukuoka remained virtually unknown outside of his own country until the publication of The One-Straw Revolution, an exposition of his techniques and philosophy, in 1975. Three years later an English translation was published in America by Rodale Press. Fukuoka, not above cultivating an image of sage Oriental obscurity, acquired a mystical status within America’s burgeoning organic and back-to-the-earth movements. Then, strangely, The One-Straw Revolution went out of print. The farmer read the book himself a few years ago, when he began working on other people’s organic farms.

“So I’m the only intern who’s never heard of this book?” I asked.

“Yep,” he said. “Everybody else is like, ‘Let’s create a no-till method and start a one-straw revolution!'”

“And what do you say?”

“I tell them they can do it on their own farm.”

After we had finished work for the day I looked up Fukuoka. Here’s a pretty illustrative excerpt from a 1982 interview with Mother Earth News:

Interviewer: But there are many kinds of clover that could be used, aren’t there?

Fukuoka: Ah, you see? That’s exactly what I mean. That’s your reason speaking! Don’t question so much. If I suggest white clover, use white clover. If I suggest red clover, then use red clover. Over the years I’ve tried vetch, alfalfa, lupine, trefoil, and many kinds of clover … and I reached the conclusion that for natural no-till rotation of grains and vegetables, and as a ground cover in the orchard, white clover is best.

Fukuoka died in August 2008, at the age of 95. The New York Review of Books republished The One-Straw Revolution in June as part of its ‘Classics’ series.

Last night, one of our neighbors, an east Tennessee old-timer, paid us a visit after dinner. He and the farmer and I took a walk over by the pig run.

“Where’s the third one?” asked the old-timer. The farmer’s little boy had named the three pigs Larry, Moe, and Curly.

“Well, you know how you always said you can’t make a pig sick?” said the farmer. “I found a way.”

Normally, no matter what you give pigs, they’ll eat it and be fine—vegetables, fruit, bread, chips, raw meat, cooked meat, fish, eggs, cheese. As the farmer put it, they eat a lot like us. But about a week ago we noticed the smallest pig, Curly, wouldn’t eat. Soon we could see the bones in his haunches. He spent most of his time lying on the ground, panting. The farmer tried to revive him, feeding him Gatorade and milk, separating him from the other pigs—who normally bullied him away from the food—but nothing worked. The farmer debated whether to call a vet. We couldn’t let the pig die, because then we wouldn’t be able to kill him. But a visit from a vet would cost more than the farmer paid for Curly last fall. He decided that Curly would have to determine his own fate. On Friday morning I found him dead, lying halfway down a ditch in the pig run. It was pouring rain. We tossed his body in the woods for the bugs and vultures.

“How’d you make him sick?” the old-timer asked the farmer.

“One day I caught a catfish. After I cleaned it I threw everything in the pig run. The other two pigs didn’t touch the stuff, but Curly ate it right up. And you know how catfish have those barbs on their head? Well, he ate that too, and I bet it injured his stomach. He just stopped eating.”

“That’s too bad,” said the old-timer.

“Yeah,” said the farmer. “Especially since I’m taking the other two to the butcher this week.”

In the early mornings a thick fog smothers the farm. The fog hadn’t yet retreated back into the hills today when the farmer and I were harvesting kale. Something bellowed in the distance.

“Hear that?” said the farmer. “Donkey. They use that sound in horror movies. Terrifies city folk.”

I had heard a scary donkey once before, on a Scott Walker album, but decided not to mention it.

The other evening the old-timer came over with his wife. He brought a present for the farmer’s four-year-old son:

It was a grinning action figure in a farmer’s jeans and cap—Dan, the “Answer Plot Man”! The package reads: “He fears no acre or field. / He is able to merge top genetics and leading technologies into a single seed. / He is a friend to growers and a foe to rootworms, aphids and all others who would dare hinder your yield. / He’s DAN—the “Answer PlotTM Man”—your friendly CROPLAN® GENETICS seed specialist, and he’s here to help …”

The next day, the farmer and I couldn’t decide whether the neighbor had intended the gift as a joke. Little farmers-to-be are supposed to play with Dan and grow up with an affection for genetically modified crops and artificial pesticides. It’s made by a company called Monsanto, one of the world’s biggest biotech companies.

Monsanto produced Agent Orange in the ’60s, and was a major manufacturer of DDT, the synthetic pesticide attacked in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. “Roundup,” advertised on the toy box, is the world’s best-selling herbicide and is produced by Monsanto. Several studies have linked Roundup to a host of diseases in humans and animals. Because it’s such a strong herbicide, Monsanto had to produce its own, genetically altered crop varieties that could tolerate Roundup—hence the “Roundup Ready” corn and soybean signs in the toy.

For our old-timer neighbor, and most farmers in our area, herbicides like Roundup are standard tools of cultivation. The old-timer shakes his head when he sees the farmer hoeing the little weeds in our beds of greens, and he chuckles when he sees all the worms in our ears of corn. Hoes and worms remind him of the backbreaking labor and meager harvests of his childhood. To him, organic farming looks somewhat absurd, akin to people choosing to live in mud huts and dress in burlap. I don’t think the toy was intended to indoctrinate the farmer’s four-year-old into the wonders of genetically modified crops; it was more a gentle jab at our “primitive” methods. Every generation has a different idea of progress. For the old-timer, it’s GMO crops. For us, it’s worms in every ear of corn.

The farmer and his wife have decided that this will be their last season here. The farm has been very successful, more so than they could have hoped, and they love the land and the work. The farmer has told me that this is what he always wanted to do. But living out in the hills got to them sooner than they expected. Their son doesn’t have anyone his age to play with. Their closest family members are two states away. To see a movie, buy a book, or have a beer in a bar they have to drive to Knoxville.

First to go were the two pigs. More of a disappointment was the departure of the black cow—the cuter of the two—who followed me around whenever I went into the cow pasture. The farmer sold about forty of the nicer-looking White Leghorn chickens to a local, and kept the nine oldest hens. With fewer hens to worry about, we tried letting them out of the run, but then we left the farm for a few hours and came back to find a grizzled chicken corpse by the back porch. Barney, the beagle who can’t even keep raccoons out of the garden, was in the midst of stripping the feathers off a second hen when we caught him. After that we gave up on the idea of free-range chickens.

Since I arrived at the farm, the wife had been looking for a job closer to relatives, and last week she was offered a position at a company in Florida. She and the son took off just a few days ago. For their last dinner on the farm we grilled a big leg of lamb that no one had bought at the market—$60 worth of meat.

“You guys are going to starve once I’m gone,” said the farmer’s wife. She seemed more concerned about how the farmer and I would cook and clean for ourselves than she was about selling the farm or starting her new job.

“We’ll just make a lot of hummus,” said the farmer.

“And drink beer,” I said. “We’ll be all right.”

This past spring, right after I decided to work on an organic farm for the summer, the New York Times ran an article about people doing just that. It made several references to liberal arts students and “bohemian cachet” and was full of sentences like this: “They come armed with little more than soft hands and dog-eared copies of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which takes a dim view of industrial agriculture.”

Articles about new trends in agriculture popped up like weeds all summer. The Times ran profiles of urban farmers in New York and Milwaukee; the Milwaukee farmer predicted that “because of high unemployment and the recent food scares, 10 million people will plant gardens for the first time this year.” TIME ran articles about urban livestock and the problems with industrial agriculture, which argued that “the shaky economy has more people wanting to be self-sufficient.” NPR did a feature about CSFs—community-sponsored fisheries based on the CSA model. Almost all of these pieces included the word “cachet.”

Having your own food sources, or cutting out the middlemen between farmer and consumer, can be economical—but it sometimes felt like the media’s link between the financial and food crises was more opportunistic than constructive. And ultimately I have to wonder if this enthusiasm for sustainable food will wither once people feel less apprehensive about their economic futures.

This morning we found a rattlesnake in the toilet tent (which neither of us ever use) and the farmer killed it with a stick. He cut off the head and I put the body in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. When we were done with the morning work the farmer gutted and skinned the snake, and we grilled it for lunch. It was a bit chewy—somewhere in the vicinity of frogs’ legs or a not-very-fresh white fish. This was the first wild game I’d had since I got to the farm. The farmer and I tried fishing one day in the small pond here, but were unsuccessful.

I’ve noticed some subtle changes in the farmer’s appearance over the past couple weeks. He had always worn a whimsically large sombrero-style straw hat to shade himself while we worked, and was aware of the comic effect—it made him look like that tiny, trigger-happy Looney Tunes cowboy character. But at some point he attached a string of motley turkey feathers to the back of the hat, and since then his appearance has taken on a more shamanistic aspect. This roughly coincided with him reading a book that takes as its premise the idea that civilization emerged when humans discovered psychedelic mushrooms. He seems to have given up shaving. Right now he’s in the back yard curing the snakeskin, I think with the hope of making it into a belt or a hat band. I haven’t decided whether to be concerned about all this.

I left the farm in early September, so I don’t know how the farmer fared as he completed the season alone on his land. Owning his own farm had been his dream job, although he told me he had always been realistic about how long it might last. Maybe it’s appropriate that he was the only one there during the final months. When I spoke to him last, just before Thanksgiving, he had been back in South Florida for a few weeks and was still readjusting to suburban life. A community garden project was starting up in his town, and he thought that he might get involved, but not professionally.

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