City to city, concrete to concrete, moving so much landed me next to a single, long stretch of asphalt, the only one for miles. Except for driveways, but that sounds less poetic. I was in a hubbub of trees, tall ones, with lots of leaves that did pretty things with color because it was Fall and the Berkshires. About a mile and a half of road, covered via bicycle, was all the ground I needed to travel in a day assuming there was no trip into town for vital supplies. Mostly chocolate squares. My body won’t tolerate caffeine, and what with 5am wake-ups and manual labor filled days, those things pushed me through some heavy hours. Also you make friends faster when everyone knows chocolate lives in your pocket.
There were fourteen of us – thirteen after someone decided to leave halfway through. It seemed to be the right decision for her, though the half-time mark was when the rest of us started to really gel. Naively, I had showed up thinking that everyone who signed up for three months of living in the woods and working on a farm had the same general expectation from and motivation for communal living. Needless to say much learning of lessons happened. I can now attest to it firsthand: sharing is caring.
When kids would come visit the farm – human children, not goat children, though we had those too – there would always be a handful having little epiphanies. Apparently it is not common knowledge to every middle-schooler that vegetables and meat originate from beyond the walls of the super market. I was quite content to spend my days in the field, munching on rogue vegetables. Maybe not rogue. Maybe growing neatly in the row where it was planted, but let’s not get sidetracked with petty details. Seeing a child, even a mouthy tween, eat their first fistful of mustard greens straight from the ground is even more satisfying that doing it yourself. And just to make it absolutely clear, because sometimes grown-ups get confused too, food does not come from the supermarket. It comes from the soil, grows with sweaty, intense work, and takes time and energy to grow.
The beauty of food is that it can be preserved. Vegetables can be pickled and dairy becomes cheese. For two and a half months I reveled in the process of feeding goats, milking them (until I developed carpal tunnel – indeed, I’m that special), helping the dairy manager turn it into cheese and then package it for our CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). Being part of the process from beginning to end made me feel I had earned the right to partake of an animal product, something I had questioned for years as a vegetarian who just couldn’t make the jump to veganism.
Two weeks before our time on the farm ended, Winter high-fived Fall on its way out and settled in. The thing with goats is, they have to be fed in winter. The lady goats produce milk, which, through yogurt and cheese, brings in enough money to fund their winter food supply. Milk only comes with kids, though, half of which are inevitably male each season.
We kept the boys in a pasture down the road up until the frost stopped melting in daytime and they could no longer feed off their surroundings. After thirteen years as a vegetarian, I did not want to attend the slaughter but I felt I owed it to my boys to see them out. It was an intense day that all of us shared, both together and in solitude. I left after the third goat was gone, feeling like I had experienced what I needed to and any more would be overdoing it. Realizing that this was also part of the cheese I had been so excited to make, though, led me to two weeks as a vegan so I could extract myself from the cycle in order to examine it. I haven’t made chevre since.
Food brings people together. Not just at the dinner table, though that’s fun too. Sharing the growing, nurturing, and harvesting of food as well as the cooking and eating created and solidified relationships in my life unlike any other. Summer camp in overdrive, without all the mess that tags along with puberty. Even though I participated in a structured (at least for hippies) three-month fellowship with a focus on intentional living, even stints on a regular farm offer connections and life experience that I’m sure would make for a great novel once you get around to it. Below are a few resources for anyone contemplating getting their hands dirty (oh hush, just get a nail brush, they have soap on farms):
WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities On Organic Farms) – This organization partners volunteers with farms who need them. It’s a work exchange: labor = food and housing. You can get placement on every continent except Antarctica (no, there are no farms in Antarctica). This is also a great way to get some traveling into your life, especially since the heart of the growing season is in summer!
CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) – Many organic farms offer CSA memberships to local families. Purchasing a membership at the beginning of the season helps to pay for the resources needed to grow the food, and once the veggies start coming in, you get a weekly bin full of freshly harvested dinner-to-be. If you want to spend some time farming but don’t want to venture too far from home, look up your local CSAs (or even just ask the folks selling at your local farmer’s market) and see if they’re looking for help!
Farming Fellowships – You may want to hop onto Google to find one that suits you, since the only one I really know about is the one I did myself. It’s a Jewish fellowship called Adamah based in Northwest Connecticut, and while it is not restricted to only Jewish participants, it does have a spiritual slant in the direction of the Tribe. They also have a new urban farming outpost in Berkeley, which incorporates community volunteering too (it’s called Urban Adamah).