A farm intern learns to love the interaction between soil and people.
I was a stranger here when I arrived for an apprenticeship at Amagansett’s Amber Waves Farm. After one phone call and a Skype conversation, I committed to a full season of farm work under the guidance of my farmers and mentors, Katie Baldwin and Amanda Merrow. I understood I was assigned a job with a set of fascinating and practical tasks, but my growing skill set was quickly surpassed by what I learned about my sense of place.
The details I learned at Amber Waves—seeding, transplanting, fertilizing, cultivating, harvesting and all the projects that fill our long days—are transferable because they can be put to use on all arable land. Yet attentive farmers will quickly let you know they’ve never seen the same season twice, and no two plots present the same challenges. Even here on the East End, if you hop over the train tracks to Quail Hill, Balsam or Sunset Beach farms, you’ll find a different set of soil complexities and systems. But what does not change is an intimacy of place that occurs while developing a set of abilities and observational sensitivities that tie us to the land. To merely know that blossom-end rot occurs in plants in the nightshade family when they are short on calcium or have been watered inconsistently is, admittedly, a dry piece of information until you recognize it in your own field and become a nutritionist for your plants and soil. Our soil is the foundation of everything we do, and as we are only as healthy as our food, our food is only as healthy as our soil.
Having hand weeded and flame weeded, hoed and wheel hoed, disked and dibbled, planted and transplanted and finally harvested, I have just begun to understand how the life of the soil affects the livelihood of a place.
The other side of our work is interacting with the community through farm tours, our community-supported agriculture program and farmers markets, where we proudly provide good food and educate people about what they eat. Explaining the role of pollinators, plant families and, unbelievably, the seasons to children and many adults who have never wandered through a farm field or met a field-ripened tomato is gratifying.
A farm tour quickly engages people with their food, their bodies and their environment. Saskia Madlener of Balsam Farms has noted that community members who pay attention to their food are among the most committed to their community.
That said, I find it especially healthy that our challenges are rarely if ever with other people. Our obstacles primarily include weather, weeds and pests. A round of greens never germinated due to a lack of rain, nearly all our beets and carrots were lost to weeds, and half our white wheat and every dry bean we attempted to grow were enjoyed by very determined deer before we could harvest. I think this is, in many ways, what unites East End farmers. Some farms are nonprofits and others businesses of varying methods and scale, but the camaraderie occurs. Jess Engle was the only apprentice working with Sunset Beach Farm this season; her position had the potential to be isolating, but her experience was the opposite. She says she felt like a “part of a farm family…and part of a community passionate about food and farming out here on the East End.”
By farming, I share a practice of living vividly. I witness a field’s moods, weaknesses and sensitivities as well as my own and those of fellow farmers. It’s a lifestyle that doesn’t end at the close of the day; it ends when I stop being able to work. I feel the capabilities of my body and witness the products of my thinking more potently than I have experienced in any other work. When I wake, my muscles are stiff and unconvinced by the sunrise; my body shakes out the fatigue and forgets the pains because, in work of such consequence, our aches are irrelevant. By evening those muscles begin to slow again, deny their strength and assert their need to rest. How wonderful a body can understand the rising and falling of day and night as the weather does with the seasons.
Most farming apprentices I know on the East End intend to continue farming and hope to have their own farms someday. The others, who will go on to other jobs, say their relationship with food and the seasons has been irreversibly enhanced. Just today, as Katie and I walked out of the field after a couple hours of tomato harvesting, we noticed hundreds of monarch butterflies eating from our 200-foot bed of torch sunflowers—and pollinating in exchange. With a little research, we learned those incredibly delicate creatures were on their 2,500-mile migration to Mexico; we were just witnessing a snack along the way.
To watch something so small but so grand and remember we get to take part in it is endlessly humbling. With only four people and five acres, we feed ourselves, grow for 70 farm members, two farmers markets and several restaurants each week, as well as fostering a space hospitable to insects, birds, microbial life, foxes, rabbits and, accidentally, deer. Our participation takes care of the land and enables all of that living; what a marvelous and overwhelming responsibility that is. •
Emma Leavens completed her first farming season in 2012 as an apprentice at Amber Waves Farm in Amagansett, New York. She grew up in northeast Missouri and moved here from Olympia, Washington, were she graduated from the Evergreen State College. She will be remaining with Amber Waves Farm for the 2013 farm season.