Sep 16 2015

Relatable Reality

What does a farming internship prepare you to do? According to Zenger Farm’s Bryan Allan, each year the non-profit farm strives to take three curious interns in the early spring, work closely with them for eight months, and then “graduate” the farmers in the late fall. Allan and Sara Cogan provide the interns with significantly more hand-holding in the first few months of the program than at any other time afterwards. When I checked in with this year’s three interns in late August, Brittany had just started her rotation as the farm’s crew leader, a role that means she’s in charge of the farm day’s schedule while giving directions to her fellow interns – and even Bryan and Sara. Brittany was handling her leadership responsibilities with maturity and grace, a direct result of the hours of experience that separate her from the more wide-eyed newbie intern she was in March.

In many ways, Zenger’s season long farm internship program is a targeted microcosm of the path many 18 year olds embark on each September when they leave home and begin college. Four years (ideally) stand between these young adults and a college degree. Our nation’s youth may carry a rough idea of degree goals or even career aspirations, but opinions, needs, and reality will change constantly throughout the years, and the 18 year old who just started school this year will probably only bear passing resemblance to the 22 year old who graduates in 2019. Numerous experts and opinion writers compose essays on the benefits of a liberal arts education (including this recent one in the New Yorker), debating the merits of targeted career training versus broader topics, and the job prospects of a specific degree (medical administration) vs a general one (Bachelor of Arts, art history major). The conclusion of John Cassidy’s latest piece was this: liberal arts degrees provide benefits that defy direct translation to a specific job.

After four years of liberal arts education, you’re released with certain skills, but leave behind a somewhat protected environment. After eight months at Zenger, you also leave with certain skills, and head into the agricultural world without a farm teacher. In each case, it’s up to the individual to figure out the translations of these skills, standing at the crossroads of reality and personality, while factoring in chance and happenstance, too. Some 2015 college graduates might already be months into their new job, perhaps even a job that’s a direct translation of whatever they studied for four years. Others may have continued onto higher education, and still others are fumbling towards a career choice, working meaningless jobs to pay the bills, or struggling to find any employment at all. The hope is that the fumblers and the unemployed are able to draw upon their education and mentorship, recalling lessons learned and creative ways of thinking that allow them to see their current situation more broadly – and that an opportunity exists to reward this creative application of their skills.

A farming internship like Zenger’s is explicitly designed for future farmers, but as Bryan told me when we talked about the inner workings of the organization’s internship program, a career in agriculture translates into numerous realities. Some of the interns I’ve met are running their own farms, others are learning skills they didn’t learn at Zenger, and still others are working for non-profits. Leigh Brown was a Zenger intern last year, and while she’s not explicitly a farmer or even working directly in agriculture, her current life and future hopes represent Zenger’s agricultural training just as accurately as any of the other former interns, not just because she’s still growing food, but because she’s also assimilated the necessary farming principles of flexibility, resilience, patience, and adaptation into her own life.

Leigh Brown and her five acre property are like that demurely frosted rainbow layer cake that you might see at a child’s birthday party: unassuming at first, but revealing a vibrant multi-colored interior. Leigh lives in Sherwood – the heart of the Willamette Valley’s wine country – on a homestead of sorts. Before the Zenger internship, she and her husband had plans to move from this land to a larger tract, dreaming of starting a teaching farm for veterans. During the internship, those plans shifted as funding fell through, and now, a year later, Leigh and Ron have committed themselves to this expansive property, thoughtfully and thoroughly working on a new iteration of co-careers in agriculture, one that involves brewing beer.

Yet when I first met Leigh a few months ago, she was convincing enough in her downplay of their hard work and the impressive nature of their present life and future plans that I had no idea what I’d see when I visited her, half assuming that I’d encounter a small garden and a few chickens running around, the visit pleasant but not eye-opening. On a sunny mid-August morning, after driving along 99W, I turned briefly onto a side road before immediately heading up a long, steep driveway towards Leigh’s maroon house on the top of a hill. Because of the house’s positioning, it was impossible to see anything except for the driveway and front of the house.

I saw the first layer of the metaphorical rainbow cake when I walked from my parked car in the tight driveway and narrow front stoop towards a large red barn. I took in an expansive patio on my left and heard music piping from outdoor speakers, the entire scene immediately beckoning me to have a seat, perhaps try a homemade beer, and enjoy the outdoors. As I continued towards the back of the property, I viewed a large chicken run to my right, the happy gals pecking away and staring, appearing content and unstressed.

As I walked by the red barn and curved slightly to the right, the second layer of the cake became visible as I saw Leigh in a wide brimmed hat watering a fenced-in garden full of cosmos, sunflowers, eggplant, basil, cucumbers, and tomatoes, the colors and textures stacked upon each other, glinting in the direct morning light. A small fruit orchard stood to the left of these vegetable beds, apples and plums ready to harvest, one tree’s branches brushing against another’s. A mid-August garden is usually a sight to behold, but Leigh’s garden was especially breathtaking in its layout and neatness: it was prettily productive, the plants appearing nurtured instead of battle-tested.

From there, more layers were revealed as Leigh invited me into the renovated house, her eager border collies, Bernie and Roscoe, leading us into a massive cook’s kitchen, complete with a window seat, a wall of cookbook storage, an impressive range, and large skylights that make electricity-hungry lighbublbs uneccessary. Once inside, we peered back outside towards the side yards’ mini-hop farm, the papery green hops blending into their vines, a few squash hanging from an upright trellis nearby.

On reflection, the fact that Leigh’s property revealed itself slowly and then wondrously isn’t a surprise, but rather an appropriate reflection of Leigh, a humble 37 year old woman with layers of experience, surprises, and insight just underneath her matter-of-fact exterior, bound together by a self-declared drive to be busy, physically active, and constantly moving towards whatever’s “next”.

Despite the fact that the neatly tended garden looks like it’s grown by a life-long gardener, Leigh had only attempted sunflowers before their move to this land six years ago, and the initial garden was grown at her husband’s urging. “It was his idea,” Leigh said when we first met. “We started doing things from seed, I look a bunch of classes at the Portland Nursery, read a ton of books”, she continued. Leigh loved growing food, and in that first year grew so much food that they decided to start a small CSA for their excess produce.

Knowing that she “could use more understanding of this process if we wanted to expand,” Leigh became interested in the Zenger internship program. Their dream of expansion involved acquiring a larger property and setting up a training program for veterans, an appropriate direction given Leigh’s interest in agriculture and her husband’s background as a military medical officer. Those plans fell through when investors backed out, and despite what must have been a huge disappointment at the time, she talked unemotionally about the forced change of plans, stating that “it’s fine. We realized we couldn’t afford it on our own.”

Leigh is no stranger to shifts and changes in her career. A professional harpist, Leigh’s other pursuits have always had an agricultural leaning: after quitting graduate school for music, she started culinary school, which then led to an internship at a winery during a grape harvest. Fascinated by most aspects of wine production, she worked at now-shuttered Urban Wineworks for three years, but missing the process of “actually making wine”, Leigh left that job to work seven grape harvests, including one in Africa (the latter fact mentioned only quietly and casually at the end of a sentence).

Leigh told me that she thinks she was chosen as one of the three Zenger interns because she actually owned property and had grander plans to farm. But today, she doesn’t own the large property they’d hope to own, and though she’s large-scale gardening, she’s neither farming nor running a CSA. While the Zenger internship didn’t directly lead to Leigh’s planned career in agriculture, she still integrates the lessons learned there into her daily gardening life, from how she plants starts, to crop rotation and planning. Most importantly, Leigh told me that she felt like a competent and skilled farmer when she left Zenger, admitting that she’s still not “fast” at performing different tasks, but by the end of the internship she had successfully transitioned from her initial intimidation, even learning to embrace the tiller (and always having Bryan’s warning voice in her head when she gets too close to tilling up a plant).

Zenger may not have led to a true farming career, but it did solidify a lifestyle change for Leigh. Whether she explicitly realizes it or not, Leigh now lives the life of a modern American homesteader. In this respect, she’s joined a growing group of people throughout the United States who grow their own food, can and preserve, and eschew “processed” as much as possible. Some of the more well-known homesteading bloggers have carved monetary value out of this do-it-yourself mentality, writing sponsored posts or teaming up with a wider blog network. And publications like Mother Earth News even doll out awards for “Homesteader of the Year”.

Leigh has little in common with these more vocal proponents, where it sometimes seems that a fruit isn’t truly preserved unless it’s blogged about. I’ve met people who begrudgingly preserve because it’s cheaper, or out of moral obligation; you can taste this sense of duty in the resulting jars of jam. But Leigh hasn’t adopted this homesteader lifestyle just for the self-sufficiency and frugality. Instead, this push for self-reliance is the truest way for her to thoroughly connect with her husband, the land, and a broader community.

When I returned home from visiting Leigh’s house and garden, I told my husband a bit about my visit, describing the garden, the career pivots Leigh has made, their house renovations done mostly by the couple, and their plans for the future. He remarked on how inspiring it was to hear examples of people who continue to challenge themselves and constantly look to improve.

When you meet someone like Leigh, whose humility is even more shocking when she stands on their property in front of their gorgeously renovated home, blossoming garden, and loving dogs and chickens, you yourself are inspired to fight through disappointments, to keep moving, and to trust your gut. I didn’t know Leigh before the Zenger internship, but I did spend several hours with post-intern Leigh, and the quiet confidence she projects might as well be the check-mark for a successfully completed internship. As she told me, the internship and subsequent work on their property has made her “realize I can do a lot more than I did before.”

This confidence will carry the couple forward into their next career goal: an eventual farmstead style brewery. Ron has been brewing beer for 15 years, and this year, after acquiring more industrial equipment, he plans to work to create a consistent product and sell beer in kegs. Leigh envisions this process taking three years with plenty of trial and error, culminating in the creation of their own pub, an establishment that will feature produce from their property.

Farming is frequently a process of trial and error, linked together by an endless well of enthusiasm for the process of growing and the understanding that things happen cyclically. Farmers must know when to assess damage and fix the problem, or when to rip a plant out of the ground and move on. Farmers can’t be fixated on their losses – they have to acknowledge what’s not working, but they can’t obsess over it or the season will end with dire consequences. Farming, despite the level of planning and detail that goes into note taking and crop planning, is an intuitive, meditative practice, with “in the moment” decisions made constantly. To be “in the moment” is a popular concept in modern vernacular, but actually living this way remains effusive for most of us. To be a farmer means having no choice with this concept, and as a result, most farmers I meet are kind, humble, and even easy-going, while at the same time, always aware of the bigger picture.

To an outsider, Leigh lives on a large property, with a lovingly tended garden and small-scale hop farm, talking to me inside a dream kitchen complete with massive prep counter, ample sink, and natural light. I could see a photo of their kitchen posted on a design blog, with Leigh in the background, washing freshly harvested zucchini or greens. Maybe she’d still be wearing her cowboy hat, maybe there’d be a smudge of dirt on her cheek. And like you, I’d be drawn to that photo for its aesthetic value, but I might not be curious about the bigger picture, or certainly the hardships that have surrounded this moment in time.

But in order for our dialogue on agriculture and farming to move beyond its strangely parallel fantasy lands of not wanting to know how food is grown combined with a desire to put certain farmers on “dream life” pedestals, we must meet on the firmer ground of reality. Reality doesn’t have to be gloomy – it’s not all flea beetles and sore backs – but it should temper the fantasy conversations around agriculture into a conversation and lifestyle that’s relatable and even achievable for most people.

I view people like Leigh as the perhaps unwitting examples of this middle ground reality. In talking with her, I can see both sides of her life – the joy of gardening, the struggles of multiple moving pieces, the heartbreak of dreams changed. But because she is such a real presence, I witness her joy and struggle simultaneously. This makes her life relatable, and a fitting motivator for anyone else who wants to become more self-sufficient or needs a reminder that a career in a chosen field can have more than one iteration. The end of an internship, school, or a career doesn’t ever mean the end of learning, growing, and changing.