Friday, November 18, 2011

Visiting Farms 101

Hello again, dear blog. The last three weeks have been a whirlwind. I spent two weeks in Washington DC, drove up to Boston for an extended weekend, and have been in Perryville, Maryland for the last two days, where I attended the awards ceremony and graduation for NCCC's Class XVII. There were lots of friends to see, unending beers to drink, many miles to drive, countless Fresh Air interviews to keep me company on the road, and far too few hours spent sleeping. It was, in short, amazing.

It hasn't all been partying hard with old friends, though. Last week, I visited three farms in the DC area to interview for apprenticeships next year.

See, here's the thing: I can only work through the end of July, since I should be starting grad school in late August, pending my acceptance. That makes finding a farm job a little awkward, to say the least. No one wants a worker who will leave right when the harvest is ready. So as I started my search, I kept that in mind. In the end, I had interviews with three farms: Clear Spring Creamery in Clear Spring, Maryland; Whitmore Farm in Emmitsburg, Maryland; and Waterpenny Farm in Sperryville, Virginia.

Clear Spring Creamery is a small family operation run by Mark and Clare Siebert. They have about forty milk cows, which are a mixture of Jersey and Holstein. They took me for a tour around the farm, which has been in Mark's family for more than a century. Housing is a camper with a full bed, a bathroom and shower, and a kitchen (although the stove doesn't work). Meals can be on your own or with the family (they have two kids, 10 and 13).

The day is about half farm work and half in the creamery, pasteurizing, bottling, and making cheese and yogurt. I got to try some of their milk, cheese and yogurt, and all of it was quite delicious. Interns get two full days off, usually Sunday and Monday.

The farm itself is quite nice, but the surrounding area doesn't have a whole lot. There is hiking nearby - the Appalachian Trail is about twenty-five miles away, for example. And DC is just a two hour drive.

Overall, I liked Mark and Clare a ton. They were incredibly personable, and answered my rapid-fire questions without batting an eye. They get 100% of their income from the farm, and I think I would get an in-depth look into not only the business of running a small farm, but also the ins and outs of working with government agencies and all the accompanying bureaucratic shenanigans. They also attend three farmers markets, so I would get more experience in that aspect of farm work.

Whitmore Farm focuses on animal husbandry, and has a very diverse operation with chickens (layers and broilers), rabbits, pigs, sheep and goats. Almost all their livestock are heritage breeds, including fainting goats. Sadly, I didn't get to see them. (YouTube them if you haven't already.) One really cool thing about this farm is that they do their own breeding, rather than buying chicks or stockers from an outside source. They also do a little bit of vegetable production.

The housing was a beautiful old home that Will and Ken, the owners, restored a few years ago. Interns get their own rooms and share a bathroom. The area is pretty rural, but being Maryland, you don't have to drive too far to find something.

Ken works full time off-farm, however, which makes me a little leery, since I specifically want to learn more about the business of making a farm profitable. Additionally, Will described their meat products to me as "boutique" and quite high priced. The question of how to price organic products is something I think a lot about, and while I think there is definitely a place for products like this, it's not what I'd like to focus on. I see my farm jobs as much or more about educating myself as being employed, and I believe firmly that organic food can and should be affordable for the majority of people out there.

Additionally, Will told me that they might stop doing their only farmers market and switch to entirely wholesale to high end restaurants next year. While the farm, the housing and the people were all very nice and while Ken and Will are running their farm in a very sound and ecologically friendly way, I don't think this is the farm for me. It's just too different from the food system I want to learn about and work in.

Waterpenny Farm happens to be just half an hour up the road from Brightwood Vineyard and Farm, where I worked this past year, and is run by a couple by the names of Eric and Rachel. They specialize in vegetable production, and get 100% of their income from farmers markets, CSA shares, and on-farm sales. They're also very open about the financial aspect of their farm, and I know I could get an excellent education about the business of running a farm and running it well.

Housing is a house that I would share with the other five interns, complete with kitchen and two bathrooms. I would only get one and a half days off, and they probably wouldn't be back-to-back, which would be problematic for visits to DC. Also, my leaving at the end of July would be more problematic for this farm than the other two, since they're entirely vegetable production and late summer is their busiest time.

Other than the farm itself, which is great, one thing I love about Waterpenny is the surrounding area. Sperryville is a fantastic little artistic community pretty much entirely comprised of local businesses - not a chain in sight. Also, Shenandoah National Park is just a few minutes' drive away. Unfortunately, however, I do not get a lick of phone service there, which - not gonna lie - would be a little difficult for me.

So. What does all this mean? All three farms would be a good experience, and I'm especially drawn to Clear Spring Creamery and Waterpenny Farm. I can expect to hear back from them in January, pretty much across the board. In the meantime, I'll keep my eyes and ears open for other farms where I can apply.

In the meantime, I'll be heading back to Indiana next week for the holidays, applying to grad school, and cooking my little tushie off. Expect lots of pictures of baked goods in the upcoming weeks.

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