I grew up in the suburbs. I went camping a lot as a kid and we had a garden for many years, but it wasn’t until after I graduated college that I decided my next step was to be apply for a farming internship.
I had heard about World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) before and ordered a U.S. directory from their website. WWOOF connects folks looking to live and work on farms with farmers throughout the world. Most farms offer room and board, some farms offer a stipend or wage. Workers stay for a couple weeks or a whole season.
I was looking for a farming internship in the middle of the winter–the right time for farmers to pay attention to anything other than farming. I contacted a few farms in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia, but ultimately decided to post an inquiry on the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) website. I received a handful of responses from farmers searching for helpers, including one from Jen Montgomery at Blackberry Meadows Farm in Natrona Heights, PA.
Blackberry Meadows is an 85-acre organic farm not far from Pittsburgh and 2009 was the first year completely under new management/ownership of a group of Slippery Rock University graduates. For my farming internship I worked the whole season (April to November) and lived in the basement “apartment” of the farm house. I lived there for free, ate the best food on the daily, learned all new skills, made great friends, and got connected to the local sustainability movement in Pittsburgh. I wasn’t making any money directly, but my basic needs were taken care of, and living on a farm removed me from most pressures to spend money.
Some weeks I worked more hours, some less. The work is physically hard, sometimes it is highly challenging mentally, as the frustrations brought on by bugs, weeds and weather are tough to get over. But I got to work outside, which in my opinion is lovely even when the weather is bad. The work varied every day–always something new to seed, or plant, or harvest, or prepare for the next round of growing. And as someone interested in communities, sustainability, food security, and the environment, I was able to see what it’s like on the ground (in the dirt) in the whole “green movement”. I have a completely new appreciation for farmers, for the land, for the weather and for animals. I had been some variation of vegetarian for 10 years, and yet I helped our poultry farmer-friends process (a.k.a kill and gut) chickens. I wonder how many people would still eat meat if they had to raise, kill and process an animal for every ham sandwich. Having such a direct connection to food is a luxury not many of us have, being isolated in suburbs or cities and equating food with sterile supermarkets and impersonal global companies.
I would do another farming internship for sure. I am still friends with Jen and the folks at Blackberry Meadows. I get such a strong feeling of appreciation from them for the work that I did. The connections I made there have led to nearly every other job I’ve taken in Pittsburgh since 2009. Occasionally I still get the chance to volunteer for them. My whole relationship to food and land and work is different. I encourage you, if you haven’t considered it already, to try a farming internship, live somewhere new, live small, live simply and take the time to figure out what comes next.
Blackberry Meadows Farm http://blackberrymeadows.wordpress.com/