Diary of an Organic Farm Apprentice: Meet Your Freshly Sprouted Growers

The average age of the American farmer is 59.3. I’ve been throwing that stat around for a while as a way to justify my descent into what is commonly thought of as one of the most physically and economically difficult career paths.

I know I am breaking my body. I accept that I’ll be working long hours in inclement weather. I understand (sort of), the risks of building my livelihood in harmony with something as unpredictable as nature. But these beautifully dangerous elements are what attract young people to agrarian life and becoming first generation farmers.

The statistic is startling, but I don’t use it to scare people anymore. I use it to inspire them. There is a whole new batch of freshly picked young farmers taking over retiring farmers’ land and land trust leases, managing established farms and even transforming rooftops. If I hear one more person complain about the “laziness” and “entitlement” of Generation Y, I’ll send them straight to a vegetable field on the East End where they’ll likely find heaps of young apprentices crouched over bean bushes, schlepping potato bins and fixing tractors.

I understand (sort of), the risks of building my livelihood in harmony with something as unpredictable as nature.

Many of them are studying sustainability and agriculture. Most of them have advanced degrees in completely unrelated fields. A lot of them aren’t even that young! And all of them are strong, nimble, driven and optimistic.

They won’t accept a future devoid of craftsmanship. They won’t let our food supply slip into the hands of industrial agriculture corporations. And they are redefining social concepts of wealth, sufficiency and sustainability.

Let’s meet a few of the sprouts sowing their futures on the East End who will carry on the mission to ensure tomorrow’s sustainable food supply.

Emily Liss

Emily Liss

Name: Emily Liss
Age: 26
Hometown: Newfane, Vt.
Farm Role: farm apprentice/lead youth ducator
Favorite Vegetable: “Oh, gosh…the first thing that popped into my mind is Brussels sprouts. Roasted brussel sprouts, man.”

How long have you been farming? “I feel like I’ve never really 100 percent been a farmer. My first experience farming was during the summer of 2011. I’ve farmed a handful of times since then. I’ve done a lot more farming this summer than ever before! The first time I farmed was in Germany where I was WWOOfing. Last summer I was also doing farm education summer programs in Massachusetts and sort of filled in the shoulder seasons with farm work.”

How did you end up at Sylvester Manor? “I really wanted to work on another farm that would allow me do both farm education and real farming. Sylvester Manor really gave me the opportunity to create this role.”

What’s your favorite part about farming on the East End? “One awesome thing about Sylvester Manor specifically is that there is such a long agricultural history here that is so visible everywhere you go. As someone to whom history is very important, I think it’s very cool how it’s so obvious that you’re continuing this tradition that has very clearly been here for hundreds of years. The sort of hallmark of that is working in the windmill field, which is named after a windmill built in 1810 that happens to be hanging out in the top of our field. It’s a really cool reminder that we are continuing this age old tradition.”

What do you think of the local farming community on the East End? “What I’ve seen of it is a lot of young people, which is really exciting. Most of them are young, seasonal apprentices. It seems like a great place for young farmers to get their feet wet because there are so many small-scale farms that seek apprentices. It seems like this is a really great place to decide if farming is something that you really want to invest in.”

How do you see farming fitting into your future? “Right now the two things that I am interested in are the idea of working on a living history farm, kind of like Plymouth Plantation or Colonial Williamsburg, that literally recreates life as it was a couple hundred ago. I also find myself more and more excited about the idea of homesteading. I don’t think I could run my own large-scale farm. I mean frankly, it’s a huge amount of labor and that idea is really overwhelming to me, but I love the idea of homesteading and providing food for my family, my immediate community and myself. I think it has to be really small-scale. I want to know everybody who would eat my food. I want to name every animal. I can’t imagine doing anything even half has as large as Sylvester manor!” Giggles.

What’s your least favorite farm chore? “Oh jeez. The one thing I have to say is that I hate rolling up and down the sides of the greenhouse because it makes that horrible squeaky noise! I feel like there are redeeming qualities to everything else. Like planting breaks your back, but it’s really satisfying. And hoeing breaks your hands, but it’s a good excuse to do worksongs. But rolling the sides up and down is just like five minutes of straight pain to my ears!”

What’s your favorite farm chore? “I like watering the greenhouse when I am doing chicken chores because the acoustics in the greenhouse are pretty good and there’s no one around to hear me singing. It’s great! The noise helps keep the fox away, and it’s just very relaxing. And it always smells really good in there.”

Logan Morrow

Logan Morrow

Name: Logan Morrow
Age: 24
Hometown: Chicago, Ill.
Farm Role: full season farm apprentice
Favorite Vegetable: “Does it have to be a vegetable? Can it be a tomato?”

How long have you been farming?  “This would be my second year I guess! I worked on a 1,000-acre farm in the hills of Tuscany last summer for five months. I mostly worked with the animals, but I also helped in the garden, vineyards, butchering and with salumi production.”

What drew you to the East End? “I had never been to the East End before, or the northeast in general. I figured, what a great opportunity to live in a historical house, out on an island, off of beautiful Long Island.”

What’s your favorite part about farming on the East End? “I think being able to connect our labor with the tight knit community. I love being able to talk with people about what we’re doing and see them enjoy our hard work.”

What do you think of the local farming community on the East End? “I think it’s great! I think the East End has a really great young farming community, which also makes the farming itself more enjoyable. I love seeing lots of young interns like ourselves submersing themselves in the community that is the East End.”

How do you see farming fitting into your future? “At this point I’d like to do another specialized apprenticeship, more so with greenhouse or indoor growing and transition to urban farming, serving mostly underserved communities and youth. I’d like to be able to provide them with fresh fruits and vegetables and help aid in eradicating food deserts. I don’t know where yet, but maybe Chicago or New Orleans. Really anywhere that has a great opportunity for me to establish myself in the farming community and start out in a less saturated market is ideal.”

What’s your least favorite farm chore? “Definitely beading remay*.” Laughs

What’s your favorite farm chore? “Working the market. I love interacting with the community and connecting my experiences with food — from growing it to cooking it — with people who are interested in learning new ways to prepare the veggies and learn about how they’re grown. I love being able to teach another person about something I’ve learned while here on the farm.”

Maggie Higby and her beet.

Maggie Higby and her beet.

Name: Maggie Higby
Age: 25
Hometown: Salem, N.Y.
Farm Role: full season farm apprentice
Favorite Vegetable: “Cucumbers. Well they’re technically a fruit, but I count them as a vegetable.”

How long have you been farming? I started farming when I was a junior in high school, when I was 16. Now I’m 25. So, nine years, on and off.” Laughs. “I’ve never had more fulfilling work than on a farm.”

How did you end up on the East End? “I was working at a dairy farm in Vermont and my boyfriend was looking for full-time work managing a vegetable operation. He found Sylvester Manor, applied for the position and when they invited him to come down he asked if it would be plausible for me to come with him. When they found out that I was also a farmer they asked if I would consider applying for the apprenticeship as well.”

What’s your favorite part about farming on the East End? “I think my favorite part so far has been the combination of good fresh vegetables, with fresh fish and seafood. That’s something I’ve never had. All the other farms I worked on were inland and not near the coast at all. Being able to combine those two things and be responsible about it by consuming foods that are produced sustainably is really awesome.”

What do you think of the local farming community on the East End? “I think there’s a good network of farms around here, which I’ve found other places too, like in the Hudson Valley and pockets of Vermont. The East End has definitely developed that, which I think is really cool. I don’t know any farmers that know how to do everything by themselves. They are constantly calling their farmer friends and asking questions and I can see that happens here on the East end.”

How do you see farming fitting into your future? “I’m unsure of whether or not it will be my full time profession. I think producing my own food is going to be something I strive to do for my whole life. I think it’s a life project to try and know how to feed myself and the people I love in a way that stewards both them and the earth. I think that awareness is going to be inextricably linked to whatever I do in the future. For a while I was thinking about becoming politically involved and being an advocate for farmers. Farmers do so much that they don’t have time to fight for themselves in Washington and places where it’s important to get policy passed so that they can do the things they do so well. It’s something I’m interested in and I’m not sure whether or not I’ll pursue it, but it’s definitely connected to knowing how to farm.”

What’s your least favorite farm chore? Laughs. “I really hate pulling plastic mulch off of old cucurbit beds on a hot day cause it smells really bad and it’s really dirty. It’s really bad. It’s so bad. The plastic gets stuck and you’re just covered in rotting cucumbers and melons.”

What’s your favorite farm chore? “Harvesting. I love harvesting.”

Read all of the entries in Cristina’s diary.

*What is remay, you ask, and how do you “bead” it?

Remay, or floating row cover, is a lightweight fabric material that comes in different grades of thickness and is used to mitigate pest damage, control pollination, and protect against frost. Installing it involves pulling it over metal ribs spaced along the veggie bed, and shoveling a thin line or “bead” of soil along its edge to hold it down and prevent pests from entering.

Here’s a pic.