For people looking for agriculture training in organic farming and what it’s really like to live a self-supporting rural lifestyle, farm sitting offers a version of hands-on farm school and a great way to gain real-life experience.
Rotating Angus cattle with an electric fence system is a skill you can learn as a farm sitter.
I’m not sure how it happened, or whether I can pinpoint an exact moment when it became clear to me that I wanted to labor in organic farming for the rest of my life. There was definitely a foreshadowing series of events: the initial ping on my first-ever sealed jar of pickled beets in my grandparents’ kitchen, walking through pasture illuminated by glittering fireflies with a belly full from a true farm dinner, the frothy milk mustache on my upper lip from the fresh goat’s milk I had yanked and squeezed out into the stainless steel milk pail, my first potato treasure hunt when my roommates and I dug our harvest with our fingers from the rich, loose soil in our garden. However it came to be, the truth of the matter is I have caught the farm-girl bug, and what started as a few sniffles has turned into a full-on cold sweat fever.
Ever since I started working on an organic vegetable farm four years ago, I have slowly been accumulating bits and pieces of sustainable agriculture education by throwing in a hand on my friends’ farms. I’ve milked goats, cows and sheep; made yogurt, butter and cheeses; fed chickens, pigs and cattle; planted, weeded and harvested an untold number of fruits and vegetables before cooking, canning, freezing or drying them. Despite living in the city, I have found ways to bring the country world into my home and lifestyle.
My biggest hurdle before achieving the farming dream is definitely land acquisition. This summer, as a way to side-step that roadblock, earn some extra cash and spend time really living and working in the country (albeit on other people’s farms), I entered into the world of the farm sitter as my own version of farm school. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I imagined it would be like a vacation into the life I would someday have for myself, complete with the firefly pastures, good food and cuddly animals.
What I did not expect were all the extra little tricks that come with rural living: daily milking and feeding chores, emergency animal care and the occasional totally random mishap — a hay bale catching on fire after being struck by an errant bolt of lightning, for example (yes, this really happened). Needless to say, I definitely had the hands-on, down and dirty experiences of life on the farm — the beauties of life and growth balanced by the sadness of death and passing.
For the aspiring young farmer, experiencing the daily responsibilities, nuances and activities that come with tending crops, raising livestock and general upkeep by standing in for a farmer who needs a vacation is the best agriculture education I can imagine for getting ready to start organic farming on your own. Especially for the suburban-raised, like myself, who spent their youth frolicking through the mall instead of fields and tending the remote control instead of chickens, taking a little taste is the best way to find out what you still need to learn before striking out solo. To prove my point, I’ll share a few of my firsthand (learning) experiences that helped me better understand the life I was striving for and that, despite the calamitous nature of many of these tales, only solidified my own moo-studded, slop-bucket-carrying, compost-pile-turning dreams.
I have always thought of farms as intense hubbubs of life — plants blooming and fruiting, bees pollinating, fish swimming and birds singing. The part that no one ever tells you about is how that life is part of a great cycle, and the more lives centered together means more deaths, too. I have been around animal slaughtering before, but it was the unexpected, accidental deaths that really taught me how responsible farmers are for the lives of their animals.
While staying at one farm, my list of responsibilities included feeding and brushing their 22-year-old pony, Sancho. First of all, I didn’t even know ponies became old ponies, much less hardly anything about their general maintenance and care needs. But, for just a few days, what could happen? I found out the third and final day of my stay, when I awoke to find Sancho’s gate knocked entirely off its hinges and the horse pasture completely empty of his shaggy figure (he had long, curly fur that made him look more like a minibuffalo than a horse). I didn’t have to look far to find the escapee — he was just a few hundred feet away in the barn, his face buried in the big, silver garbage bin that held his food. I stood nervously in the doorway, hesitating at the prospect of my first close-up experience maneuvering such a large animal. (My mental reassurances that little girls get ponies as presents didn’t do much to alleviate my worries of getting a hoof to the face.) I grabbed his food pail, snuck into the bin beside him and pretended to fill the pail while quickly replacing the lid on the bin. Using the pail as a lure, I managed to bring him back to his proper place, safe and sound. I wagged my finger at him, told him “No no, Sancho,” secured his gate more tightly and went off to finish going about my day. The word “founder” was not yet in my vocabulary, so the words “pony death” didn’t cross my mind until I got a call from Sancho’s owners later that night.
Upon their return home, they were surprised to find the pony lying down, unwilling to get up. After sharing the day’s events, and learning that a horse’s digestive system will become blocked up if overfed — a potentially fatal condition known as colic — the vet was called in. Unfortunately, Sancho did not recover from his overnight gorging session. In his last hours, however, he did try to free himself through the gate again, presumably looking to find a snack.
Another farm where I stayed is a small grass-fed-cattle operation; the farmer frequently moves his six head of cattle with electric fencing between pastures of native grasses. My biggest duties involved daily checking the charger was still working properly and that the cattle were still enclosed, and then doling out their daily ration of mineral salts.
There was one move of the cattle from one pasture to another, a day that involved turning off the charger — eek! — then walking the fence of the new pasture and attaching all the wires together to ensure the lines would be “hot” once I moved the herd in. After preparing the new space, I once again found myself face to face with not one, but six large animals, all staring me down as I sheepishly brandished a twig and attempted my best cowgirl “giddyap!” It only took a few seconds for me to see they saw through that act, so I took a deep breath and clapped and hollered and — gulp — walked slowly towards them. To my relief, they all turned and walked right into their new home, and I penned them in to the happy sounds of bovine teeth crunching and munching on fresh, young grass shoots. (I even grabbed hold of the electric wire to be sure I had grounded the fence correctly, and now that I know you can use a piece of grass in place of your bare hand, I highly recommend the latter testing method.
Coming back out after a nice afternoon rainstorm to check on the cows — oh, so proud of myself for a job well done — I noticed a trail of smoke from the farthest pasture. A bolt of lightning had, apparently, struck a hay bale, leaving it smoldering in the field. Panicked, a friend and I hauled a few bucket loads of water out, which I don’t think made any difference, and ripped and stomped at the smoky bale until we were totally wiped out. Despite raining most of the night, the hay bale was still smoldering the next morning, so the local fire department sent out a squad that ripped the bale apart and raked it down. “Keep an eye on it, and it should burn itself out in a few days.” A few days? Don’t you realize this isn’t my house?! It did go out in a few days, but the farmer informed me he had never had such an odd occurrence on his farm in his 20-plus years of experience and who knows how many thunderstorms. Lucky me.
Many more exciting events happened over the days I spent working in various country homes, including releasing a goat’s collar from the chain-link fence he had tried to reach through to get one good piece of grass on the other side, catching a new pup with a freshly killed chicken in his mouth, and even burying a llama at my friend’s small dairy farm.
Every day also had its beautiful moments — the sunrises over verdant fields, the roosters crowing their good morning, the arugula sprouts pushing bravely out of the loamy soil, runs down empty country roads between pastures full of wildflowers, watching the storm clouds move in with a trusty dog, Ellie, warming my feet. Despite all the (mis)adventures, I never once wished I was doing something else — really and truly — and now feel even more dedicated and prepared for my own rural life on the land. Once I read a book about equestrian gastronomy, that is.
I got started in a simple enough way: I started talking to different farmers at the farmers market, volunteered with a friend on an organic farm and just never stopped showing up. When they — or their farm-owning friends and neighbors — go out of town, I often get a phone call asking for a helping hand. One of the best parts of the farmers market is the personal interaction you can have with the person who produced your food, and if you ask around, I have no doubt you can find someone who needs an extra volunteer to help out. For an organized farm apprenticeship, you can also become a “woofer” — check out World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.
Jennifer Kongs is the Managing Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. When she’s not working at the magazine, she’s likely working in her garden, on the local running trails or in her kitchen instead. You can find Jennifer on Twitter or Google+.
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