Anna Hewitt is an apprentice in the market garden at Shelburne Farms, a sustainable farm and nonprofit environmental education center in Vermont.

Monday, 4 Aug 2003

SHELBURNE, Vt.

I’m up early on a Monday morning. The sky is just beginning to get light when my alarm goes off. Today is a harvest day and the beginning of my week in the garden. I usually see the sun coming up over the Green Mountains as I pedal my bike sleepily to work, but the past few weeks have been rainy and the sky is covered with clouds again this morning. The early mornings are times of quiet solitude, though I don’t usually see many people in my daily routine. The market garden is a secluded two-acre plot that provides produce for the Inn at Shelburne Farms. We have a unique partnership with the inn: We provide the kitchen with the fresh vegetables they request and this allows an apprentice, like me, to gain a wide range of experience in organic vegetable production throughout the season.

How does her garden grow?

Photo: Shelburne Farms.

Harvest days always start with cutting lettuce and other greens for mesclun. The eight or 10 pounds of salad mix, along with all of the other produce we harvest today, will be delivered to the inn this afternoon. I move down the rows, cutting lettuce and filling my bucket with tiny leaves in bright shades of green and darker speckles of red. Mark, my coworker, who was an apprentice last year, arrives and joins me in harvesting. We talk about our weekends and the tasks for the day. We work under the guidance of Susan Miskell, who is the master gardener, but she is away this week so we have to remind each other to water the greenhouses and the new mesclun plantings and take care of the other tasks that she usually does. It sometimes feels like a stretch for the two of us to tend to everything in the garden, but for the past month we have been lucky enough to have a couple of volunteers who help with harvesting, weeding, and anything else they can.

Harvesting has become a routine since the inn opened in mid-May and will continue until it closes in October. I always get excited when it’s time to harvest something new. It’s funny to think back to the excitement of pulling up the first turnips and radishes of the season. Now they are mundane, and sometimes ugly in the old patches. Even after a month, I still enjoy digging potatoes. I pull out the plant and fork the earth around it and find large lumpy potatoes with purple skin! Or red, or white — it’s like an Easter egg hunt. Digging them by hand is hard work, but I always want to pull just one more plant to see what I will find.

Today we will begin picking sweet corn. I was amazed to learn more about the corn plants. I am a fledgling farmer with very little scientific background, and I still have much to learn about all of the plants we grow. I can appreciate their beauty, their taste, and the work that goes into growing them, but I am only beginning to understand the plants themselves. Each piece of corn silk corresponds to a potential kernel on an ear. Each silk must be pollinated for the kernel to grow. The plant has ingenious leaves that create funnels to catch the pollen that falls from the tassels and make sure that it gets to the silk so the kernels can grow into seeds, or in this case dinner.

The Breeding Barn in Shelburne Farms’ early days.

Photo: Shelburne Farms.

Once we have harvested everything, Mark and I will deliver it to the inn, which is only a mile or so from the garden, but it seems like a different world. The inn was built as the home of Dr. William Seward and Lila Vanderbilt Webb. They created Shelburne Farms in 1886 by purchasing existing farmland along the shores of Lake Champlain. They eventually had about 3,000 acres and sought to create a model farm. In addition to the Shelburne House, they also built the large and turreted Farm Barn, a Dairy Barn, Coach Barn, and the massive Breeding Barn where Dr. Webb once hoped to breed the perfect Hackney horse. In recent years, the remaining 1,400 acres have come to house a nonprofit organization for agricultural and environmental education. Field trips, summer camps, and visitors throughout the year can learn about farm animals, cheese making, and the working dairy, and they can explore the fields and woods on the property.

With small farms across the country rapidly disappearing, few people have connections to agriculture or an understanding of its importance to all of our lives. When field-trip or summer-camp groups visit the garden, they help us with small projects and have a chance to see the way food is grown. By going through the steps of planting broccoli in the late spring or harvesting garlic, as a group did a few weeks ago, they get to experience a small part of farming firsthand. I hope that these experiences are the seeds that will grow into a greater consciousness of and reverence for food and farms. These seeds will need to be cared for and nourished after the initial visit, and Shelburne Farms is working toward doing so with programs on the farm for families and with outreach to local schools.

My part seems small in all of this, but someone has to be doing it. I feel so privileged to spend my days in the sun and rain with the soil and plants and weeds. It is rare that I spend this much time by a computer or share my day with more than three or four people, but I welcome this opportunity to do so.