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
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.
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.
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.
Tuesday, 5 Aug 2003
For a while I’ve had this dream. I imagine a different structure to society: Instead of strip malls and parking lots growing over the land, I would like to see fields and parks and community gardens as gathering places. Instead of weekend lawn care, I fantasize about families working on garden plots in front of their houses, which are roofed with solar panels. I want no more huge cars speeding down multi-lane roads. Instead I dream of narrow paths overhung with trees and worn smooth by bicycle tires. People wave to each other as they pass and the families in their gardens call out greetings and people share and communities evolve …
It’s still just a dream, but while I pedal to and from work I realize that being here I am much closer to this world that I imagine. The roads I ride on are narrow and unpaved, and I wave to people and cars I meet whether I recognize them or not. When I am walking, neighbors stop to offer me a ride. I usually refuse, but I appreciate their friendliness. These roads were built in the days of travel by horse and carriage, so cars pass each other uncomfortably. In 1884, Frederick Law Olmstead visited Shelburne Farms and conceptually developed the farm into spaces of farm, forest, and parkland. With his ideas, the roads were laid out to make best use of the existing land and to highlight scenic vistas. I ride down tree-lined roads, past fields of clover and Queen Anne’s lace, and I startle grazing heifers who look up to watch a strange pedaling creature.
Photo: Shelburne Farms.
The staff of the dairy have been haying these fields all summer. Acres and acres have been mown and rolled into big round bales and stored for winter food for the cows. Shelburne Farms manages a grass-based dairy system, so for a good part of the year the cows are in the pastures. They eat grass and produce milk. The nutrients from what they have eaten are returned to the fields in the form of manure. The cow’s milk is delivered every morning to the Farm Barn, where cheese is made. It is not pasteurized, and the cheese makers use the traditional process of cheddaring in their production. The system is a continuous cycle, working toward sustainability in management of the dairy herd and the land.
I ride past the road to the dairy, waving to the driver of a car coming toward me, and head to my day at the garden. We won’t be harvesting today, but there is plenty of maintenance to do. Since last Friday, Mark and I have been trying to clear an old patch of lettuce. It has been too big to cut for mesclun for a while and now the weeds have grown up over the plants, which have begun to go to seed. We are always a little bit behind, and after we clear this 100-foot-long bed there will be more weeds to pull. I think the fight against weeds will be a never-ending battle. I am a peace-loving person and I’m not sure how I feel about how much we have to fight to keep control of the garden. Weeds are only unwanted plants, and some of the peskiest are the most ingenious. Purslane is a semi-succulent plant that can stay alive for a while after it has been uprooted. The red-rooted pig weed is an edible type of amaranth. The woods around here are full of burdock and stinging nettle. We could eat all of this instead of salad and we wouldn’t have to spend hours weeding and clearing.
But to protect the plants we have chosen to grow there are more battles to be fought. Squirrels are eating our carrots. We caught one this morning, but the other two Havahart traps Mark set were empty. I don’t know if it helps to catch them and take them to another home; I have been told that squirrels can find their way back easily. Mark and I have been discussing more drastic measures to protect our carrots. It seems like we walk a fine line — by practicing organic gardening methods we strive to care for the Earth, but to achieve success in the garden we sometimes have to fight nature. I feel better about these matter-of-fact battles than about all of the destruction of nature that I have caused without knowing it. I don’t know if I deserve the carrots more than the squirrels do, but I know I have worked hard planting, watering, and weeding them. I would rather work to shape and sometimes control the environment of the garden for the purpose of growing food than control the environment and cause destruction by thoughtlessly driving a car. I can’t help but muse and ramble like this when I have so many quiet hours of weeding to think and ponder.
Wednesday, 6 Aug 2003
This week has gone from sticky to steamy, but rain seems imminent.
It’s harvest day again. Plants have been patiently growing for two days and the inn is ready for another delivery. Once the mesclun is cut, I take a big box and fill it with 15 pounds of swiss chard. Cutting takes almost no time since the leaves, with their bright, almost neon stems, are so large. It’s nice to have such a variety of tasks, especially on harvest days. After cutting leaves, I switch gears and make my way down the beet rows searching for red, white, golden, and chioggia beets of the perfect size. The chef likes them about the size of a silver dollar and it’s tricky to get them exactly right. After trimming, washing, and counting the beets by bunches, I move on to another task. In the smaller of our two greenhouses, I pick cucumbers from vines that Susan has trellised from the ground up to the top of the greenhouse. Although we picked all of the perfect-sized European cucumbers on Monday, they grow so quickly that today some of them are almost too big. The inn has ordered only 10 cukes, so we’ll take the rest to the Farm Barn office.
On Wednesdays we bring vegetables there for the farm staff. We have carrots, eggplants, beans, corn, Swiss chard, kale, and zucchini in abundance. I love sharing the food we grow with as many people as possible. It has been challenging to coordinate our plantings with what the new chef at the inn can use, so we often find ourselves with too much. We have been fortunate to have the opportunity to do a monthly harvest for the local food shelf, but right now we still have more vegetables than we know what to do with.
Every task from harvesting to tilling to weeding has its enjoyable moments and its challenges. I love working in the garden, and the end result, an abundance of delicious food, is a great reward. It’s easy to munch on a cucumber or carrot without thinking of where it comes from, but working here gives me a different perspective. Tilling the land, planting the seeds, watering, and weeding all happen repeatedly before we can begin to harvest. It’s almost daunting to think of all the work that goes into the four pounds of beans, 30 bunches of carrots, and 40 pounds of onions, among other things, that we’ll bring to the inn today. And these are only small amounts of food. I wonder if the awareness of this work continues after the food has been delivered. Do the cooks at the inn take note of what we have done to get this to them? Are the guests at the inn aware of how much has happened to the food on their plates that has been so artfully prepared for this moment?
In my own life I have begun to think this way. I take such delight in bringing home fresh produce that I have grown. In the kitchen I continue my work in the garden by making the vegetables into something delicious to eat. When it is on my plate, I take a moment to give thanks and be mindful of all that has gone into the meal. Thanks to the Earth, the worms, the sun, the rain, the laborers whom I may or may not know, and everything that has contributed to the food that will nourish my body so I can continue the cycle.
Photo: Ken Burris, Shelburne Farms.
The inn, also, strives to promote this awareness. Its menu is built around fresh, locally grown food. Besides what the market garden provides, it uses Shelburne Farms cheddar cheese and some meat that is raised on the farm. Beyond this, it orders as much as it can from other local farmers. Those who dine at the inn can read a list of who provided the makings of their feast. As the patrons satiate their palates, the chef gets to use only the freshest food and small farms thrive. Eating food that hasn’t traveled thousands of miles and may have been grown by someone you know is more sustainable and more delicious. The inn is a member of the Vermont Fresh Network, which builds partnerships between farms and restaurants to strengthen local agriculture and communities. It promotes sustainability and deliciousness.
By supporting local farms and bringing an awareness of this to its patrons, the inn takes part in Shelburne Farms’ mission of cultivating a conservation ethic. It also brings in revenue that supports the Farm’s educational programs. Everything is interconnected — my apprenticeship is made possible by the food I am learning to grow.
Thursday, 7 Aug 2003
I can’t say that my job is always unpredictable. It may not sound glamorous or exciting, but there is something to be said for routine. Weeks in the garden have patterns that repeat themselves again and again. It is within the patterns of the daily landscape that I notice the small details and changes. For the past three months, I have ridden the same two-mile route to work and watched the land go from brown and frozen to lush spring green to the muted hues of high summer. Once, early in the morning, I saw a hot air balloon near the mountains to the east. This misty morning I saw a great blue heron flapping its wide wings above me.
So, as part of the routine, Thursday is the day we seed. Every week we plant mesclun. I begin with 600 feet of lettuce mix. I tilled the land on Tuesday so today I rake it smooth and measure where the rows will go. All of our beds are 100 feet long, so I will seed the lettuce in six rows, each about six inches apart. I pour tiny, light, salt-and-pepper-colored seeds into the seeder. I hold the long handle with both hands and push it along next to the string I have put up to make sure my rows are straight. As the small metal wheels turn, seeds are dropped into the little ditch that the seeder has made. The soil falls back over the seeds as I push on. Since this is a weekly routine, I have had many chances to make mistakes and improve over time. At first seeding like this was really hard. Almost all of my endeavors in the garden have begun as challenges, but by repeating these processes over and over, I have learned and improved a lot.
I finish the lettuce and seed Asian and specialty greens, such as minutina, amaranth, kale, mustard, and tatsoi. Since May we have been seeding beans, beets, and carrots every other week. This is our last week of this. We still have more than two months left in the season; this planting won’t be ready until late September or early October. The cycles and routines of the garden involve this sort of forethought — thinking not only of everything that needs to be done today, but also of what will happen weeks, months, and years from now as a result of current decisions. But the present is also important. Only from so many days spent with my hands in the soil can I even begin to know the land.
Photo: Shelburne Farms.
Although thousands of visitors pass through Shelburne Farms every year, it is only steadfast commitment to this one place that can bring about the farm’s mission of cultivating a conservation ethic. Those who are committed to this place, especially the Webb family who began Shelburne Farms and are still an integral part of it, have helped the farm to evolve from a model agricultural estate into a working farm and educational resource. Transforming a beautiful old barn into a hub of activity where children come for field trips and school, bakers make bread, cheese is aged, cows are milked, families learn about planting seeds, and I sit to write this diary entry shows ingenuity, responsibility, and hope for a place. If every family had such a commitment to their land and home, I wonder how our communities would grow.
The mission of Shelburne Farms is not just to educate children and their families about the environment and agriculture in general or even to just show them what it is like on one specific farm. In demonstrating stewardship of this land, the farm inspires others to do the same in the places they love. I hope that visitors find wonder and delight in the natural environment of this place and take that back to their own homes. Education programs serve to illuminate the details just beneath the beauty that is so easily seen everywhere. Shelburne Farms has collaborated with the University of Vermont to bring the PLACE program (Place-Based Landscape Analysis and Community Education) to local communities. This combination of lectures and field trips teaches citizens about the natural and cultural history of their towns.
I am thrilled to have the opportunity to get to know this place through daily activity and other exploration. I must confess, though, that after my apprenticeship ends, I will be moving on. While I don’t want to think about that yet, I do think about what it is like to belong to a place and to be fully anchored and invested in it. My work in the garden and the time I have spent in this place have taught me the importance of a connection to a place and I know that in the future I will make this commitment.
Today I’ll end with a quote from Aldo Leopold that highlights the mission of Shelburne Farms: “We abuse the land because we regard it as a commodity. When we see the land as a community to which we belong we may begin to use it with love and respect. That land is a community is a basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.”
Friday, 8 Aug 2003
I have made it to the end of the week, almost. Every week goes by fast here, but I am definitely more tired during Friday’s harvest than I was on Monday. Today is my big challenge: Both Mark and Susan are away, so I’m running the show, so to speak. There’s nothing really out of the ordinary to do, but it will be a long day.
Happily, I’m not totally alone. Marie, a volunteer, and Susannah, Susan’s daughter, are here to help. The inn wants 12 pounds of mesclun, so cutting and washing greens takes up the first part of the morning. When Marie arrives, Susannah and I join her in picking beans. I pick the small green haricots vert until I reach the spot where Susannah started; then I take my tray and move ahead of Marie. We leap-frog down the row, but even with teamwork it still takes awhile to pick all of them.
It feels good to work as a team to accomplish tasks. In a garden of this size we don’t need a big crew, but every person makes such a difference. Since our garden is relatively small, we often divide tasks to get more done. Some jobs don’t require more than one person, but other times I find myself reluctant to ask for help (even when I am carrying seven things and dropping all of them). There is great value in simply doing the work and learning from that. But I have also learned a lot from working with other people, including things I wouldn’t have thought of myself. Not only are two heads better than one, but four arms for rolling out round hay bales, or six hands for picking beans, are definitely better than what I could do alone.
Its great to have volunteers who are so willing to help with anything. By now, Marie and Susannah can pretty much do any of the harvesting. Since I am an apprentice here, I sometimes feel uncertain about teaching them. It’s fun, though, to share what I do know and to engage them in the process of growing food and caring for plants and the land. Sometimes I feel bad about leaving them to pull a patch of weeds, but having them here has helped us accomplish so much. Shelburne Farms has volunteers who give tours, do chores in the farmyard, and help with education programs. It’s just another great way to learn and be involved in this place and to help keep it running.
We are harvesting lots of onions today — sweet onions with bright white flesh and light green stems called Super Star; big, round onions called Mars; and long, oval-shaped onions called red tropea. All of these, along with the leeks we pulled, must be washed and have their tops and roots cut off. At noon, I load up the back of our little blue pickup truck and deliver trays full of beets and beans, small bags of turnips, radishes, and cress, and big bags of greens to the inn. After lunch, we harvest sweet corn, cucumbers, and zucchini in numbers greater than the kitchen can handle. I’ll eat some for dinner and find someone to take the rest. At the last minute, I cut two pounds of basil and deliver everything else.
Once the buckets and washtub are cleaned, the fence is on, and the water is off, my week is over. I always have a funny feeling leaving the garden on Friday. We had a great week and got a lot of old plantings cleared; amazingly, it seems like we are caught up. Most farmers, though, don’t have the luxury of leaving their crops for the weekend.
This has been a unique opportunity to share some of my thoughts and daily life at Shelburne Farms, and I’m glad to have had the chance to do so. I don’t usually spend this much time in the office and it has added an element of exhaustion to the week. I like to write, but I prefer to be out there in the sun and rain doing the work, learning, and loving it. Sometimes this feels like such a small pursuit, I wonder what else I could do for the good of the world. I have to think that the small pursuits matter: working in a garden, waving to your neighbor, knowing the person who grows your food, falling in love with a place and protecting it and sharing it and teaching others to do the same.