Diary of an Organic Farm Apprentice: Meditations on a Morning Field Walk

farm field

No amount of exercise could have prepared me for the physical exertion that slapped me in the face (or my whole body), upon starting my farm apprenticeship. As the old work song “Hal-an-Tow” goes “We were up long before the day-o to welcome in the summer, to welcome in the May-o!” We rise early to race the sun and its lethargic grip. Sore and excited, we greet the morning and prepare to hustle. Everyday starts with a list.

To an inexperienced apprentice such as myself, the daily tasks of farming are overwhelming. I have to prune here, water there, sow these, thin that; it’s easy to feel confused and lose sight of the big picture.

Luckily Kurt Ericksen, our vegetable grower here at Sylvester Manor Educational Farm, not only teaches us the physical tasks of farming, but also how to plan and prioritize based on the daily needs of the plants, soil and market. Ericksen has spent time growing at Stone Barns Center for Agriculture and with Eliot Coleman. Needless to say, his instruction is readily devoured.

This weekend I rolled into the field around 8:00 a.m., as hazy as the gentle fog. The beds were blanketed in the optimistic lull of a morning bird song.

Plants grow unpredictably and there is always much to do. We try to stay one step ahead of the summer rush. One way is to take observational field walks. Taking the time to slow down and walk the field is as important as running from task to task during crunch time. Yes the seedlings must get in the ground before becoming leggy, the alliums must be cultivated promptly, and we must forever remain efficient. But we must also gain a sense of order and break down immediate, short-term, and long term to-dos.

Kurt doesn’t necessarily talk to our plants (loud enough for me to hear him at least). But he does spend a lot of time with them and makes it a point that we apprentices also share non-laborious moments with the field. The farm walk is a time to take a step back from the daily tasks at hand and see the farm as a whole. We have a moment to assess at a restful pace.

This weekend I rolled into the field around 8:00 a.m., as hazy as the gentle fog. The beds were blanketed in the optimistic lull of a morning bird song. I walked the rows, assessing newly transplanted kale for pests, disease, weeds, and new growth. My only peaceful companion was the lazy morning dew.

lettuce plants

The mindful observation inherent in a field walk draws the farmer closer to the symphony of growing. I am listening rather than doing. Tuned in without the tempo of my fellow crew, I could truly hear the rhythms of the naked morning. I hear the honesty of a fresh spring day’s intention: eager, like a forager honeybee preparing for her first flight. A lone farmer in the field at the onset of morning is as intimate as sugar snap peas nestled in a pod.

Would I normally notice the delicate cotyledon of freshly sprouted beans? Or would I have time to brainstorm a more efficient system for shuffling around the sprinkler system? Would I be able to peacefully craft a list for Monday morning? Would I notice the peculiar pattern of those pesky flea beetles?

Yes, farmers must move quickly and efficiently. But a breezy weekend field walk reminds me why I came to Sylvester Manor. A farmer is a steward of the soil, their soul as embedded in the dirt as taproots. Farm walks are a good reminder. They’re a perk of our work, equal parts productive and spiritually fulfilling.

Read more entries in Cristina’s diary