The recent resurgence in gardening, canning, butchering and home-brewing has given rise to another rustic, do-it-yourself pursuit: Taking a hiatus from one's real life to go work for a season on an organic farm.
It sounds so rustic and appealing-abandoning the cubicle to go "work the land;" laboring in the great outdoors where there's no overbearing boss or tedious water cooler chat to corrode your soul. Nothing but a season of hearty manual labor and loads of exercise, subsisting on farm fresh fruits and veggies while learning more about eco-friendly farming practices than you ever thought possible. And you get really, really tan.
It's a lovely dream….but what's really involved?
To find out, I asked my friend Susan Guida, who, along with her husband Brendan Perry, own and operate Stone House Farm in Goshen, Virginia where they grow organic vegetables, specializing in salad greens, which they sell at finer restaurants across the region.
"You have to be willing to squat five hours a day," says Susan. "Our interns can expect to spend at least half of every day hunched over in the dirt harvesting and weeding."
Which might not sound so bad…if you've been attending Body Pump classes at YMCA.
So how else do you know if you have what it takes to survive a season on the farm? Susan came up with a few key questions to ask yourself before embarking on such an adventure:
Number one: How do you feel about poop?
Because you will probably have to shovel it at some point.
"We had one intern who told me he couldn't shovel out the chicken coop without a respirator," she says. "I looked at him like, a what? You're on a farm-no respirators here."
So first things first, you have to be willing to suspend urban sensibilities. You won't find any respirators, homing devices, Segways, under eye cream or massage tables on the farm. You might not even have access to a modern toilet at times and have to be willing to make do with an out-house or the woods. And by the way, chicken poop is a valuable commodity in the country. It's key for nourishing and replenishing the soil. So cleaning out the chicken house isn't busy work-it's mandatory. Especially for the interns.
Second important question: What's the hardest job you've ever had?
"One guy answered ‘Starbucks,' which should have been our tip-off," says Susan, who usually hires two interns per season. "But we were so desperate, we ended up hiring him anyway. He turned out to be dead weight."
Which is not to suggest you have to have worked on a chain gang to survive farming, but potential employees (seasoned farmers) are looking to see if applicants have the mental and physical stamina to push through the pain and drudgery of working in 90 degree heat with one's ass up in the air for hours at a time-which whipping up lattes typically does not engender.
Important question number three: Can you change the oil?
Stuff always breaks down on the farm and you, not Triple A, have to know how to fix it.
Number four: Do you like vegetables?
"I'll never forget the time I whipped up this huge meal of freshly harvested vegetables-eggplant, tomatoes, cucumbers, beans-for everyone after a hard day of work, and one of the interns told me she hated vegetables. I was like, ‘then what are you doing working on a vegetable farm?'"
Because there was no passion or interest in the underlying product, that intern lasted, oh, about a week.
And finally, the single most important question to ask yourself: WHY do you want to farm?
"If an applicant says, ‘Because it sounds fun,' or, ‘Cause my other job sucks,' we've learned through trial and error they won't last," she says. "Farming is too hard to be considered romantic, it's too tedious to be fun. But if they say, ‘Because I want to make a living from it,' or ‘because farming is my passion,' we know they have a shot."
(By the way, Susan and Brendan's current interns are a former marine and his equally tough wife who hope to run their own organic farm one day. They're working out great.)
To prepare for a season of farming, Susan recommends reading Eliot Coleman (www.fourseasonfarm.com), and making a point of getting your legs in shape for a season of squatting. She's not kidding about the squatting thing. Think lunges, squats, more lunges, climbing a couple of mountains.