Help a Farmer and Help Yourself: On-Farm Volunteering to Learn Organic Production Basics

Reader Contribution by Kurt Jacobson
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When I moved to Maryland from Colorado, I suspected the vegetable growing possibilities would be great. The weather and growing season were significantly better for tomatoes, peppers, okra and more. All that was needed was some time, effort, and a whole lot of education.

I had some experience as a child planting and growing a small 10-by-10-foot garden in the outskirts of Denver, Colorado. Most of that was under the watchful eye of my father and grandfather and the lessons learned were mostly forgotten over the years.

I also had the pleasure of helping my roommate in Alaska grow peas, broccoli, cabbage, and potatoes in the 1990s. These cold-weather crops did well, as long as the moose didn’t get into the garden. The problem was most of that experience wasn’t useful in my new territory.

Time for a Real Garden

The first year and a half, we lived in a rental town home until a suitable house could be found. Once it was found, we moved and I started planning for a real garden. I would soon be growing veggies in three raised beds purchased from an online garden company, plus I had two Earthbox® planters I brought over from the back deck of the town home.

I ordered a truckload of topsoil, instead of using the local red dirt-clay soil on our land. I killed the grass by covering it with newspaper for a couple of weeks, installed the raised bed frames and shoved, by hand, a whole lot of dirt through my homemade sifter into my raised beds. I mixed store-bought compost into the soil and had some beautiful soil when the time came to plant. Now what was missing was an education.

Being a learn-as-you-go kind of guy, I didn’t do much research, but I did have the local university extension service, called Grow-It-Eat-It, to help with questions and I had a bunch. Back then, I didn’t know a good bug from a bad bug, and half the time, I didn’t know if those cute little green sprouts coming up were weeds or the seeds I planted.

It turned out that an amazing quantity and variety of tiny seeds hitchhiked with the load of dirt I ordered and I pulled a lot of weeds in the first couple of months. That first year of growing veggies and herbs in my raised beds and Earthbox® planters saw mostly good results. I was thrilled to be growing so much of my own produce, but I was just scratching the surface.

Consider Being a Volunteer

Over the next three years, my learning was growing in leaps and bounds. One of the biggest reasons for my jump in learning was being accepted as a volunteer at a local organic farm, Wilbur’s Farm in Kingsville, Maryland, just fifteen minutes from my home. I had been buying some produce items from them and after getting to know Bill and Melissa that run Wilbur’s, I asked if I could volunteer.

I had selfish motives of picking their brains so I could grow veggies as well as they did. The farm took all their time and they were happy to have me play in their dirt. I’d help with picking, planting, and my favorite task was getting out my machete and weed whacking the old fashion way. There is nothing like taking out frustrations on a row of four foot tall weeds with a large blade in hand.

After my first year, they even let me plant a row of heirloom Strawberry Popcorn seed. No way did I have enough room at my home with its small back yard so it was quite a gift to be able to use some of their land.

This will be my third year volunteering at Wilbur’s Farm, and I highly recommend this method of education if you want to learn more about growing your own veggies. If you are picky about purity and sustainability like me, look for a farm using no chemicals for pest management and fertilizing. Most of you will have a small organic farm, or no-spry farm within driving distance that would be happy for some extra help.

Quite often, as a reward you will go home with some great produce you just picked. And maybe they will let you grow something on their land if you don’t have the space at home? As long as you provide cheerful, useful help you will probably get more out of the experience than you give. This is knowledge that will last a lifetime and help you become more independent.

There is nothing like growing your own veggies and canning the excess. A good place to start your search is your local farmer’s market. Ask one of the veggie farmers if you can come out and help on their farm and see where it goes from there. All it takes is a couple hours every week or two to learn the basics. Then you, too, can join the ranks of backyard farmers.

You will be amazed at the quality of your own home grown produce. The produce at your local grocery store can’t compete with just-picked, home grown goodness! With a good crop you might even have enough to start canning so you can enjoy the fruits of your labor throughout the year. Buy some seeds, or nursery stock  and get started soon. You will be glad you did.

Kurt Jacobsonhas been a chef for 40 years and, after being schooled in the U.S. Coast Guard, he trained in many restaurants under both kind and maniac chefs. Kurt is starting his fourth year of container and raised-bed organic gardening and is volunteering at Wilbur’s Farm in Kingsville, Maryland, to learn real organic gardening. Find him online atFast and Furious Cookand Taste of Travel 2, and read all of Kurt’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS postshere.

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