Sarah Bronstein
Envs Internship
5/14/04

Environmental Studies Internship

Ideal Organics Field Assistant

I spent the summer of 2003 working as a field assistant at Ideal Organics, an Organic Farm in Walla Walla , WA . The farm's three-plus acres are operated by Sarah and Adam Sisk. They run a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) business, which in turn is part of a coalition of local food providers offering organic produce, homemade goat cheese, hand-churned butter, organic flowers, fresh baked goods, locally roasted coffee and natural bath products.

My internship was simultaneously experiential and service oriented. I received training in organic farming techniques, and had the opportunity to learn from the Sisks, from customers, and from other partners in the CSA cooperative. The lifestyle of organic farming is unique in that you are intimately aware of growing seasons, daylight shifts, and weather trends. One of my objectives was to embrace this understanding, to eat only food whose source I could easily trace, to rise and sleep with the sun, and to plant and eat according to weather and season. At the same time, however, I provided a service to the Sisks at no cost to them. Beyond my own education in farming, I wished to aid this small commercial organization with much-needed manual labor. Ideal Organics also needed office help to organize records for organic certification.

 

What I learned

In order to accurately describe the duties of my internship, I feel I must first dispel some assumptions made about most academic internships. Usually, as I was asked to do in my proposal, there is a separation of “educational” and “clerical” work, the value judgment being that one learns more in an “educational” experience than in a more process-oriented job. Some of my time this summer was devoted to such academic activities as writing the weekly newsletter, or reading and helping to complete the USDA organic certification forms. And these were indeed valuable, educational experiences. A much larger proportion of my time, however, was devoted to what was defined on the internship application as “clerical” work, such as weeding, making deliveries, processing food for pickup, spraying natural pesticides, and harvesting. I would argue that only way to truly understand the seasonal cycle of farming is to be involved in the rudimentary basics, i.e. the grunt work. Truly holistic farm management involves an intimate relationship with plants that requires many hours of hard work and careful observation. Farming requires an ability to apply this holistic vision of ecosystems, climate, pests, soil types and plant preferences to daily life through the often repetitive, always dirty, daily grind. I began to feel how the rhythm of weeding, harvesting, planting and watering related to the larger picture of growing seasons, weather and consumer demand.

A good local farmer understands her market, a task that involves talking to the customers in the community to find out what they want and to educate them about the nature of the food they eat. I was involved in all of these different tasks, and in some cases I was solely responsible for them. For example, I operated the booth at the farmers market alone twice over the summer. I would rise at 4am to harvest all of the highly perishable items such as lettuce, spinach, basil, corn and swiss chard. Then I brought all my goods to the market and sold them fresh to customers.

Dealing with customers was itself a learning experience, both for myself and for the buyers. The task often required a great deal of patience, open-mindedness and willingness to learn on both fronts. My interactions ranged from demystifying pesto for confused cooks, to explaining why casualties to insects raise the prices of organic produce, to trying to figure out what you do with swiss chard (come now, what don't you do with it?). Time and time again I was amazed at the extent of people's separation from their food, to the point that they didn't know when different crops were in season, or they had never seen a food in its unprocessed state. Also, the variety of foods is often a shock to conventional shoppers. Mainstream grocers have streamlined their produce sections to such an extent that consumers have some to expect fruits and vegetables to be a specific, but uniform, size, shape and color. I took great pleasure in showing customers the wide range of heirloom tomatoes we carried; brown tomatoes, yellow tomatoes, pink tomatoes, all with different flavors. I too learned a lot about different varieties of food. One day I spent an hour on the phone with a seed company listening to a farmer lament about the tragic fate of the carrot, which modern society has come to eat like sweet candy. Few people grow and appreciate the bigger, sturdier storage varieties. I bought five different varieties of carrot that day.

My internship culminated in a weeklong stint of running the farm myself. I harvested and delivered orders for restaurants, ran the booth at the farmers market on Saturday, and watered, weeded and harvested the fields as necessary daily. The week was, for me, an insight into one of the biggest downfalls of the company, namely the impossibility of doing it alone. Sarah has already begun to suffer from arthritis. Lifting the hand lines twice a week could lead to back trouble. Until recently, because of her low income she had no health insurance. The work she does is exhausting, and although she does it well, it does not seem to be sustainable. Now that she is raising a child, this concern is infinitely magnified. But hiring someone is more than she can afford with her current income. In order to hire a field hand, Ideal Organics has to grow. In order to grow, Ideal Organics needs a field hand. This conundrum is common for CSA's such as Sarah's. I spoke to another organic farmer about the problem, and he told me that the best way to mitigate it was through what he called “extras.” Food that was not sold fresh could be canned, pickled, and dried. These pre-made items sell for much higher prices than the raw materials.

 

Fatal Flaws

Towards the summer's end, as I began to understand the challenges that Ideal Organics faced, I wrote a list of “Fatal Flaws,” along with my thoughts on potential solutions. They read as follows:

1. Get a Computer. It's useful for emailing customers and rounding up volunteers, as well as keeping track of accounts, yields, etc for certification. Sarah had a computer sitting uninstalled in her basement all summer long. At the end of the summer, a week or two before the end of my internship, she finally found someone to set it up.

2. Hand-line Irrigation: As opposed to a wheel line (which, like the computer, sat broken and unused at the side of the field all summer), hand lines have to be disassembled, moved by hand, and then reassembled twice a week. The task requires two people, and takes an hour and a half of precious time. I encouraged Sarah to invest in either enough handlines that she wouldn't have to move them, or a wheel line that works. My thoughts are that, although she fears debt more than death, she'll be saving herself future chiropractor bills.

3. Hired hand: Although I still think that this is a good idea, I also have begun to realize how expensive it would be and how hard it is to manage someone else. I think, in lieu of a hired hand, Sarah could be more effective at using the members of her CSA as volunteer workers. Historically, the original intent of the CSA was to support organic farmers not only with seasonal down payments, but also with physical labor and time. In the time that I was with Ideal Organics, Sarah and Adam never actively organized any volunteer days.

4. Growth: Sometimes organic CSA'a are opposed to growth, simply because of the mindset that “small is beautiful,” in the words of E. F. Schumacher. But if Sarah wanted to get a little more local attention, I think an article in the UB, an ad, or flyers in a few shop windows and on tack boards would spread her name around beyond its current circles of recognition.

 

Reflections

Although I was definitely drawn to the idea of growing things before the summer began, my time at Ideal Organics has made me a die-hard plant fanatic. Although I may not end up running my own farm, I definitely plan to work on an organic farm again in the future. I found the work satisfying and healthy, both in terms of physical activity, exposure to the outdoors and diet.

Students interested in this internship should prepare themselves for a summer focused around the complete and amazing process that is food: planting, growing, and harvesting it, selling it to people, writing about it, and cooking and consuming it. Ideal Organics provides an excellent perspective not only on how agriculture affects the biological community, but also how food affects the human community.