Organic Farming 101: Farm Sitting for the Farmer-in-Training

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.

  • Organic Farming
    Rotating Angus cattle with an electric fence system is a skill you can learn as a farm sitter.

  • Organic Farming

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.

Sustainable Agriculture Training: Entering the World of Farm Sitting

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.

Sancho’s Farm School

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.

10/27/2010 11:22:20 PM

Jennifer, I really enjoyed your article - it brought back very fond memories of the wonderful meal you prepared for us this summer while you were on one of your farm sitting ventures. I especially remember the homemade goat milk ice cream with fresh peach compote topping - Yummmm! Les

John Sponsler
10/15/2010 2:55:00 PM

I subscribe to the magazine and really enjoy the articles; I have to chuckle at this one however. I grew up on a beef cattle farm, grew corn and soybeans and baled hay. I would have loved to have one of these aspiring farmers help me in the spring and fall when doctoring 150 head of cows, grouping them, pushing them into the chute, having them kick or step on me, challenge me, and crap all over me (green hershey squirts anyone?), etc. Be there to help muck out stalls and pull calves from 1st calf heifers in the wintertime. Or chase cows out of a cornfield where the corn stands 8' feet tall. Don't get me wrong, I love the country, farming and farmers; we owe them alot. But farming isn't all "clean dirt and fresh air." Especially if you raise livestock!

M Fowler
10/14/2010 10:51:20 AM

I love this article! My first job was at the age of 14 working on an angus farm for the summer. 400+ acres of land with fences to maintain, a pond for fishing, and hay to bale. Not to mention protecting the calves from the wild dogs that would come harass the herd at night & the pretty farmer's daughter. It gave me the experience to assist others with their farming needs as I have gone through life. I encourage anyone/everyone to at least TRY to get out & do something that is personally beneficial & absolutely in touch with the very base things of life. Thank you for bringing back such wonderful memories!

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