When I arrived at Rippling Waters Organic Farm in Standish around 8 am last Wednesday, several young women in their 20s were clustered around their farm manager, Julee. They were going over the morning’s tasks, which involved weeding Field D, removing juicy, leaf-devouring caterpillars from tomato plants, harvesting chard, and bagging produce for a Portland food pantry.
“Who wants to do hornworms?” Julee asked, referencing the caterpillars. This is not a particularly popular chore, it seems. I said I’d do it.
So began one of my days volunteering at a local farm, a surprisingly easy gig to set up, and one that increasing numbers of young people, both in New England and nationwide, are pursuing with varying intensity (see further down, “Levels of Commitment”).
Many of this generation’s locavores have read the requisite Michael Pollan tomes, developed relationships with their favorite farmers’ market vendors, and maybe even taught themselves some elementary food-preservation techniques — to keep yummy veggies year-round rather than having to buy produce out of season from some far-off place. What comes next, in the quest for sustainable-food street cred?
For some, it’s working on a farm, planting seeds, cultivating what grows, and pulling ripe produce straight from the ground. How better for this generation’s sustainable-food junkies to put their pitchforks where their principles are, than to actually learn (by doing) on small organic farms?
Of course, we recognize that not everyone who’s interested in sustainable agriculture is willing to don overalls for the long haul, or to buy a farm and become a full-time farmer. That’s why we’re sharing this well-buried secret: With just a few hours, you can go beyond the agri-tourism of picking berries or apples for personal gustatory enjoyment, and actually learn something about the land. Organic farms are so chronically understaffed that there’s always room for an extra set of hands, especially during these late-summer weeks, when harvesting is at its peak. In most cases, all it takes is a phone call and some free time to set up a volunteer gig. (To that end, we’ve included the names and contact info for some New England farms that welcome volunteers.)
Though you might go home with a few surplus tidbits, the bulk of the food a volunteer harvests ends up in someone else’s belly. But the increased understanding, however superficial, of what it takes to put that food on our plates? That stays in the harvester’s brain with as much tenacity as the dirt under her fingernails.
It's hard work, yes, and you'll get tired, sweaty, and — if you're any good — covered in mud, but you'll end the day feeling self-sufficient and fulfilled in a way you haven't been in some time.
Plus you’ll learn a thing or two, such as:
1) Sometimes farming is like a treasure hunt.
On at least three separate occasions over the last few weeks, I’ve squealed and declared, “I found one!” either aloud or in my head. The first time was when I moved aside the prickly, tentacled arms of a low-to-the-ground cucumber plant to discover a large, plump cucumber, ripe to be cut from its stem. The second time was when I found my first hornworm (see the next item). And when I dug for potatoes, the sensation of unearthing buried treasure was relived each time I found a spud. Afterward, if a potato or cucumber landed on my plate, it brought to mind that same feeling of special appreciation.
2) Hornworms are huge.
The Manduca quinquemaculata, a/k/a the tomato hornworm, looks like a mystical creature plucked from the set of Pan’s Labyrinth. These bright green caterpillars — which turn into sizeable moths post-metamorphosis — feed on the stems and leaves of tomato (and eggplant and pepper) plants; in organic gardens, the most effective way of removing them is by hand, gripping their pleasingly plump bodies and gently peeling their suctioned feet off the plant. At Rippling Waters Farm, where you’ll recall I was briefly engaged in hornworm removal, the caterpillars are collected in a large plastic bucket and then unceremoniously fed to Julee’s chickens.
3) Other times farming is like showering.
Remember how it rained and rained for about three weeks straight this summer? Well, one of those days was the one I worked at Pleasant Valley Acres, a small operation in Cumberland. As it began to drizzle, I cut cucumbers and lugged buckets of them from the field to the house. As it rained harder, I moved into the greenhouse to weed, but my periodic trips to dump said weeds into the compost heap resulted in severe soakage. By the end of the day, it was as though I’d taken a (muddy) shower — completely shod, of course. Farming waits for no weather, you’ll learn.