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Summer interns learn life lessons on the farm

Jul 29, 2015

Wild flowers on the farm.
Credit Joan Donaldson

One evening, while my husband and I were talking with a young couple who manage a Community Supported Agriculture business, we wandered onto the topic of summer interns. Because of the couple’s urban location, their CSA drew workers from the local college who were eager to build raised beds and weed beets.

My friend Stacy was amazed at how many of the students never held a summer job. They asked if they would be stiff and sore every morning.

My husband John and I joked about how we still felt every muscle after a day of grading and packing several tons of blueberries, but the four of us also ruminated on how interns can restore our wonder and dedication to organic methods as we watch them experience farm life.

A couple of years ago, the small farmer guru Joel Salatin wrote an article about how farms thrive when multiple generations work the land. Because less than one percent of the American population was employed in agrarian pursuits, he urged farmers to welcome interns so that young people would embrace agriculture.

For many years, John and I had nurtured numerous apprentices from as far away as Japan and the Netherlands, until we adopted our sons and concentrated on raising them. While pondering Salatin’s thoughts, a friend from Ann Arbor called and asked if we would hire her daughter, Lisa, and her best friend, Rebecca, who were finishing their freshman years in college. I looked at John, and he nodded his head.  

“Yes, when will they arrive?” I answered.

On a June day, the duo rolled up in a white Subaru Outback stuffed with sleeping bags, a box of books, a guitar case, and a jumble of clothes. Dreadlocks dangled around Rebecca’s shoulders, as she stretched out her hand and introduced herself; I hugged blond-haired, diminutive Lisa whom I had known since she was ten. After showing the young women the old white farmhouse where they would live, and talking a bit about our farm’s routine, we left them to settle in.

The next day heat waves shimmered off the hay field as John drove the baler while Lisa and Rebecca stacked hay bales onto the low wagon with a high rack rising from the far end. Hay chaff coated their arms, clogged their throats and sifted into their boots. Wide sombreros shaded their faces from the ninety degree sun.

“Like your hats,” I said, and then poured everyone a round of lemonade as we paused in the shade of the hay barn.

“How’s it going? Do you want to share supper with us? We could take you swimming this evening.”

“Oh, thanks, but we’ll cook something,” Lisa said. Sweat plastered her red t-shirt and jeans to her slim body.

“We’re fine.” Rebecca wiped her mouth on the neck of her t-shirt. “Really.”

Organic blueberry farm near Lake Michigan.
Credit Joan Donaldson

A few weeks later, the girls would reveal that they had been so exhausted that they had collapsed and slept for a couple of hours before hitting Lake Michigan’s beach. Over the next two months their hands developed calluses as they weeded young blueberry bushes, thinned peaches, and hoed the garden. But we also found them perched in sweet cherry trees, red juice dribbling from the corners of their mouths or wandering along a farm lane, plucking blackberries.

Meanwhile, a pyramid of empty, vegetarian refried bean cans grew on their kitchen counter.

“What are you two giggling about?” I asked one morning as we taped together boxes to hold blueberries.

“How many tacos we plan to eat for lunch,” Rebecca said. “And for dinner, she ate nine yesterday,” Lisa said, and we all laughed.

By the end of what John and I dubbed Pleasant Hill Summer Boot Camp, Lisa and Rebecca not only had stronger muscles, but they had developed an inner strength that helped them tackle arduous jobs. They understood that when a crop needed to be harvested, the farmer had to ignore the heat and humidity and focus on the satisfaction of a barn stuffed with hay bales or boxes of frozen blueberries waiting to be purchased.

After the girls departed, John and I moped around, grieving our taco-eating duo that had added a certain spice to our summer and rejuvenated our passion for farming. A couple of weeks later, Lisa sent me an email.

“I haven’t eaten a decent blueberry since leaving the farm. Miss you guys.”

“Miss you too,” I wrote, and then returned to posting an advertisement for next summer’s interns on an organic farming webpage.