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future farmer of america

Posted: February 16 2011

Thanks, Alisa, for writing this inspiring piece for us!

“Where is the midwife!?!” Erin, a young organic apprentice, jokes as the rolling cackle of a hen sharpens and peaks signaling the arrival of a new egg. I turn and smile at the rusty, little hen tucked in the corner of the tool shed. “Just breath he-he whoooo he-he whoo,” I chime in, and return, laughing, to filling seedling bags with soil.
Six months ago, I was sitting in the office of a small environmental non-profit in Boston, MA discontent with where my career was going, but unsure of what the next step was.  Today I am sitting in Renwick, New Zealand hands full of calluses, a bit sunburnt, covered in dirt, and loving it. My muscles may still be growing, my endurance still building, my knowledge just budding, but I know one thing: I want to be a farmer.
As I’m sure is true of many young farmers these days my path into farming was not a straight one. The short version is this.
I was raised in Seattle, WA and while we were lucky enough to have a local pea patch ten minutes from our house, walking past this little community garden was the closest I got to "farming" in my youth. I went to a very eco-friendly college, and grew up in a "green" part of America, but I really couldn't tell you where I first heard about WWOOFing. Yet sitting in my little downtown Boston office thinking to myself, "You're not happy here anymore. Something has to change." WWOOFing was what popped into my head.  I debated, researched, and struggled with what to do, but the idea of volunteering on an organic farm grew and grew and grew until finally I decided a year of WWOOFing around the world was just what I needed.
I started off in Italy helping on a small dairy farm tucked at the foot of the Swiss Alps. The farm consisted of five jersey cows, two meat cows, 16 goats, a thriving herd of chickens, a couple of friendly barn cats and a feisty pack of farm dogs. If I had to sum up this section of my journey I would call it “Shoveling Shit is Good for the Soul.” My first day mucking out stalls was freeing and thrilling in the oddest of ways.  You see, I was happy, honestly and completely happy cleaning up piles of steaming cow shit. It felt like I was doing the first real work of my life and each time I learned a new trick of the trade or behavior to watch out for I got excited.  “Here, see this hollow spot on her back, this means she’s still hungry. Oh! Her tail is going up, better get out of the way!” and plop another pile hit the floor. During my two months WWOOFing in Italy, I learned what it was to control animals not by force, but by will; what it felt like to be the low man on the totem pole and accept each job as it came. Most importantly of all though, I started to get an inkling of how hard and never ending a farmer’s work can be and how little I understood about the blood, sweat, and time that went into the food I ate.  Every bit of cheese became like gold, and each egg a tiny gift.
When winter finally arrived, the work ran low so I headed to New Zealand and a biodynamic vineyard, complete with large veggie garden, three milking cows, chickens, a pair of goats and two Clydesdales. It was here that I really got to dig my toes in the dirt and reached the turning point from "a bit of fun volunteering" to a serious passion. The turning point was potatoes.
Sean, one of my host and the designated "WWOOFer sitter," cut into the earth with the tip of his hoe pulling up clumps of dirt and sliding them against the potato plants. He worked gloveless and smiling, while I worked gloved and semi-silent fighting the hard, rocky ground with my hoe. “You must be incredibly strong,” I remarked. “It’s all technique,” he smirked, and went on chatting about politics, music and his lady, while I hacked at the earth. After a bit, he stopped, "Turn the hoe at an angle, so you can use the point like this. This is rocky ground, so take brakes when you need to and switch directions often." I struck the earth again and the hoe when a bit farther, pulled a bit easier and I felt a little less inept.
While hand-mounding potatoes is not my favorite job, that night as I ate some roasted potatoes harvested from another patch in the garden,  I wondered why only the religious say thank you before a meal and if I had ever been happier or felt more complete. It was these moments of hard work, laughing at myself, getting dirty, and appreciation that finally convinced me that I want to work the land.
My muscles may still be growing, my endurance still building, my knowledge just budding, but I know one thing: I want to be a farmer.
Alisa Rutherford-Fortunati
Future farmer of America.

red hook, new york


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