Some folks think that farming is for the asocial, with lots of time alone on the tractor. It’s a job for folks who like animals better than people or who just want to grow things and not deal with marketing. But for the small-scale, farm-to-table producer, getting to know the people who intersect your path is an integral part of the process.
It only takes a generation or two to change cultural understanding. 100 years ago, most people were connected with the land in one way or another, whether through agriculture or trade. Today, agriculture is constantly seeking to teach kids “where food comes from,” lamenting the social disconnect between milk in the grocery store and cows in the pasture, chicken tenders and the feathered bird.
You can pour all the money you want into promotional campaigning or school programming, colorful little pamphlets or TV time, but nothing is the same as actually spending time on a farm with a food producer. Skip the rhetoric and illustrations and just get to know your farmers. They have a story of struggle and joy to share, experiences that rebuild our connections with the land.
Building these connections is part of the work every day at Farmstead Creamery. “Where is the farm from here?” “What do you ladies raise?” and “How long have you been farming?” are common starter questions folks have about our farm. Conversations that start with any of these simple questions sometimes stay there and other times delve into the throws of honeybee biology and the plight of CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder) or how Belle the guard donkey protects the sheep in the field.
Each encounter chips away at feeling that food-production has become the other, run by machines and migrant labor. While this is certainly the case in many places, it’s not the story everywhere. Sustainably-minded small farms push back against agribusiness’ alienation of food-growing practices. Here, we still stick seeds in the ground by hand and feed the chickens with a pail of grains you can recognize. It’s a breath of fresh air, a refuge for folks who see the lack of ethics and care for the individual in the mainstream food system.
The draw to reconnect and learn from growers on the frontline of the sustainable food systems initiative is also why we’ve had students from across the country seek to spend time on the farm. Earlier this month, Natalie, a Waldorf high school student from Sacramento, California, came for a five-day intensive internship as part of her senior curriculum. Her brother Elliot had taken our “Sustainable Foodie” class through Northland College and recommended us as a neat experience.
It was early on a sunny Monday morning when Natalie arrived. As always, we start with a hug and “Have you eaten?”
“Well, I had some fruit and yogurt this morning.”
“Oh no, that won’t get you through chores!” and off we go to make our signature multi-grain pancakes with sausages and strong tea.
Appropriately fortified, we jump into the day with the final milking of the sheep for the season; checking the survivor beehive and preparing it for moving into the aquaponics greenhouse; harvesting the tomatoes, broccoli, and cucumbers; pulling out the hay wagon before the impending rain and harvesting all the winter squash (including tromping through old pig pens to discover the interesting hybrids they’d planted); moving all the chicken and duck paddocks, with feeding and watering; and finally making chocolate milk and a yummy dinner of pork chops with one of the squashes and some of the broccoli we’d harvested that day.
By 9:30 pm, Natalie was wiped—but that was just 9:30 for us, with more to do! But she needed time to write in her journal.
“So, my teacher told me not to write about what I did. I’m supposed to be writing about personal growth. But I’m going to start with a list of what I did anyway so I don’t forget! This was an awesome day, and talk about totally amazing food.”
Throughout her time on the farm, Natalie helped make gelato, bake bread, make soup, process sheep’s milk soaps for sale, do chores, make meals, buss tables, work in the aquaponics, help with a Jewish harvest dinner we were hosting, and even run wildly in the snow. Every day brought in some things that were the same and many that were different, which is part of what keeps all of us going in the cyclical journey of agrarian life.
Now back in Sacramento, Natalie will be presenting her internship (along with the rest of the senior class) to the entire school. We both took pictures from the adventure, and I recently uploaded mine to Facebook for easy access for Natalie, though you’re welcome to logon and see them too—snapshots of a brief but intensive stay on our diversified homestead farm. Perhaps someday she’ll be back for a summer internship, building on the connections begun this fall.
But you don’t have to live on the farm to be actively connected. Some folks connect through farm tours, through volunteering, or through engaged conversation. By reading this story, you’re engaging with our farm as well, even if you’ve never stepped onto the property. As much as we may not like to think about it, ignorance is what protects the sins of the mainstream food system. Building connections with responsible small farmers breaks apart that barrier and empowers all of us to make informed food decisions throughout our lives wherever we go.
Who knows where Natalie will take her new experience or how it will impact her life and the people around her. So, far from being a place for the asocial, commonplace encounters on our farm are meaningful moments for building connections with the land, stewardship, and the story of those who live it every day.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com