>Farming Apprenticeships (part two): The Verdict

>Note: This post is a continuation of last month’s, in which I gave an overview of farming apprenticeship programs and something of an explanation for their sudden popularity. This segment attempts to summarize my own experience as an apprentice for those considering doing it, parents of young people threatening to do it, and those otherwise interested.

… Do I now aspire to possess my own ten acres, a cow and a pile of debt? Will the dirt ever come out from under my fingernails?

I’ve been trying, but I can’t seem to develop an objective analysis of the apprenticeship program that defined my life for six months. It would be like sending your parents a report card for their performance during your childhood. Looking back over the journals I kept while working with the Collins, I see rants, reflections, stories about the people I met and many, many attempts to describe the beauty and wonder of the place I found myself living. My formal goal in undertaking the apprenticeship was to learn about what it takes to sustain a small farm; the day-to-day tasks as well as the personal commitment involved. Informally, I was really trying to see if I was up for it, if all my romantic ideas around farming held up to the reality of the job itself.

I worked hard to keep maintain my lofty ideas about farming over the months I spent living and working with the Collins. As they will be the first to admit, Bob and Ann are a bit worn out by the whole job. Granted, things are better than when they were dairy farmers, waking up at 4 AM to milk cows that eventually started costing them more per year than they earned. Still, most visitors to the farm become overwhelmed simply by being told what goes on here. It’s a lot of work, and by the end of the apprenticeship, I understood why most long-time farmers don’t share the bright-eyed enthusiasm of young wannabes. It’s hard, often thankless work. But I also learned why they’re still there, doing it. The energetic, gung-ho attitude may not be immediately visible, but their passion for the lifestyle they chose is still there lying just beneath the surface. Just as some city kids wouldn’t touch a manure shovel with a ten-foot pole, Bob and Ann would last about three minutes in an office. The animals under their care, the river that skirts their property, the 69 acres that they call home are as much a part of them as their hair or skin.

After a few weeks at Collins Farm, I started to feel this way a bit, too – attached to the place in a way that made me wonder, when it came down to it, whether I would actually be able to leave. Maybe it’s the seductive beauty of Vancouver Island or the fact that every day was a chance to play outside. Sure, there were some long hours spent bent over pulling weeds and picking vegetables, but since most of those activities were new to me, they took a while to get dull and repetitive. In between, I gorged myself on blackberries and strawberries, climbed trees to pick apples, wandered the woods aimlessly to find mushrooms (or to walk the goats), and shoveled around piles of dirt and manure under the guise of creating compost. Honestly, sometimes I couldn’t believe I was being paid, however meagerly, for that level of enjoyment.

Second to finding out that work didn’t have to be a miserable activity, the most valuable aspect of being a farm apprentice turned out to be the mentoring relationships that I was able to develop with Bob, Ann and people like Andrea, Connie and Crystal who were a near-daily presence during the summer months. Without a lesson plan, a schedule or any sort of formal discussion, they managed to impart a ton of valuable information on how to grow food and turn it into a semblance of a livelihood: the economics of homemade pie and hungry tourists, the “joys of backyard cheese making,” how to pick a perfectly ripe strawberry and catch a pig on the run.

Farming apprenticeships are criticized for being a product of privilege; an option only available to those who can afford to work for little or no pay for an entire summer. One commenter on the New York Times article mentioned in the previous post calls such positions “a time-honored tradition for children of the wealthy” to fill the summer months. It’s an interesting point. Although my mom quit supporting me as soon as I graduated, the fact that I had no student loans to pay off allowed me complete freedom in choosing the route I would take next. I assessed my personal and financial needs, looked at the state of the world and, deciding it needs more farmers, jumped into the apprenticeship program with both feet. Did I feel privileged? Absolutely. I lived in a place that people from all over the world pay through the nose to visit, ate almost exclusively organic, home-cooked, local food, and learned how to feed myself and come a few steps closer to self-sufficiency. Those non-monetary forms of payment added up to be more than any “real” job could have provided me with, especially just coming out of college in a major recession. Meanwhile, many of my fellow graduates languished in their parents’ basements, looking for nonexistent jobs and wondering if they should go back for a Master’s in business administration. I came away with skills that I’m finding a new job market for – in managing community gardens and CSA programs, helping restaurants and stores source food locally, or assisting small farms in going organic.

My last few days at the Collins’ place were difficult. It didn’t seem fair that I was leaving; the Christmas season was just upon us and there was so much to do. I went through the motions anyway, and Ann and Bob made sure I got to do everything one last time – go for a ride on Jesse the big Belgian mare, eat all my favorite foods, see all of our friends from around the community at a fantastic Thanksgiving Day potluck. The day before I left turned out to be the first sunny day we’d had in weeks (after record rainfall all November), and Mount Arrowsmith, the towering face of granite that greeted me nearly every morning for two seasons, appeared dusted with snow just as it’d been when I first arrived in June.

Before I left, Ann and Bob gave me a painting of that mountain, gorgeously rendered in watercolor by an artist friend of theirs. I put it carefully in the back window of my fully stuffed car. Then I got in the car with it and drove down the driveway, watching the two of them growing smaller in my rearview mirror. They were the ones I hated to leave the most. They weren’t simply friends to me or even surrogate parents. Our relationship was more similar to that of close accomplices. Although the Collins are the ones responsible for creating what is now a diverse farm that feeds the close-knit community around it, I felt like that season – the second one that they had grown for the local market – had been a milestone. The worldwide craze around eating locally and knowing where food comes from had started to hit our little valley, and real progress began to be made toward making the entire island more self-sufficient. I’d come to experience some of the joy of working on the land and with people who understood the value of that, for the guiltlessness of laboring for ideas that I believe in completely. At Collins Farm I think I glimpsed an outcome that was greater than the whole, something right in a world that usually seems wrong. 

As far as my own desire to become a farmer, well, as much as I hate making long-term plans about my future, it’s definitely tempting. But first, I need a few more seasons’ experience under my belt and a small mountain of cash – it’s as difficult to get into farming as it is to get out, it seems. Now that winter’s set in, I’m simply biding my time (and honing my couch surfing skills) until I can once again turn my efforts toward the worthwhile goal of feeding people.

That dirt under my nails? Long gone. My itch to put it back there? Stronger than ever.

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