I met Zenger Farm's new interns on a cloudy Wednesday morning, a day when the cool air felt refreshing and hopeful, buffered by a warm breeze and punctuated by noises around the property: tilling of the planting fields, chattering children on a school trip, and construction on Zenger’s soon-to-open Grange. The farmers had already worked part of a morning, a combination of animal chores and seeding. In between our conversations, they, along with farmers Bryan Allan and Sara Cogan, alternated between tilling and spreading fertilizer. Though they had just begun their second week at Zenger, the three interns already seemed fairly at ease with the property and the ever-changing rhythms of the workday. Here are excerpts from our opening conversations.
When I first introduced myself to the group of interns, Aaron seemed to be listening intently to my motivations and curiosity, asking a few questions but mostly just absorbing. When I sat down for our first conversation, I understood why. As a former journalism major, and someone who professes to always say “no” if he’s asked for an interview (like a tv personality on the street), he’s weary of ulterior motivations and how stories are spun. After living in Eugene for 14 years, Aaron moved to Portland four years ago. He’s worked numerous jobs, from barista, to bakery manager, to a position in music technology: jobs to which he dedicated enough time to become skilled. He and his wife keep a garden in their NE Portland home, and he’s interested in learning how to increase production with the hopes of eventually starting a farm of his own. Aaron is opinionated and friendly; he brought a healthy dose of well-educated realism to his answers.
Why did you apply to this internship?
I spent the last two and a half years working in music licensing and technology. That was kind of my first desk job. The money was awesome. The environment was awesome. The job was really boring.... Do you know Groundwork Organics? This is my fourth or fifth year doing markets with them. My staple is Lake Oswego. I cover a lot at PSU and Shemanski. [So,] duel desk job and doing markets. Before I moved here, I ran a vegan organic cafe in Eugene – I was a bakery manager there. I’ve been involved with good food systems [for a long time] and so being at Groundworks for awhile really [hooked] me – you’re fully immersed in the season with the farmers. And yeah, over time, it became a dichotomy of “I’m here at my desk, developing bad posture”, and on the weekends I’m stoked to [sell seasonal food].
Tell me about being bakery manager?
[I worked for] two and a half years at a cafe called The Wandering Goat: the best coffee in Eugene 5-6 years in a row. A lot better than a lot of coffee shops here.
Did you ever work in journalism?
I applied to a bunch of places [out of college] and then had to get a job. I was a barista in college, then baking, record stores, then Japan, then came back and worked in Nevada Conservation Corps, and then baker-manager [at the Wandering Goat]. I started out as a barista. Then, the head-baker was leaving and I just jumped in.
Besides working with Groundworks, did you have any experience with agriculture or farming before applying to this internship?
Not on this scale, which is why I wanted to do this. I’ve been looking for and wanting to work on a plot this size, for the last couple years. [It’s] big enough to do something with, but small enough that you can see the end of it. When I came out and interviewed, I thought this is a great introduction to learning how to move up on the chain.
So, why do you think you got this internship?
My personality?! [laughs] I write a lot, writing and music, I think I was able to present well: I sounded like I knew what I was talking about. I’ve run a bakery, music technology, taught in Japan. I’ve done a bunch of stuff. Everything I’ve been involved in, I’ve seen it through.
Brittany greeted me with a wide smile, exuding energy and interest in everything she did: how she listened to Bryan and Sara, how she answered my questions. Two weeks into the internship, she was rapidly soaking up everything she could on the farm, while also hoping Portland would start to feel more like home soon. She moved to Portland from the Bay Area for this internship, and is still adjusting to life here. “I’m waiting for my honeymoon to come,” she admitted. “I haven’t had the time or capacity to get to know [the city].” At the least, Brittany has found a roommate who understands her day-to-day life and her agricultural motivations – fellow intern Brad. An admitted idealist, in recent years Brittany has scaled her idealistic leanings from epic thoughts like “I’m going to abolish Monsanto” to understanding that change can come from everywhere, no matter how the scale.
Why did you move to Portland? How did you hear about Zenger?
I [was] getting fed up with myself with how unmotivated I was and how much passion was still in me but I was just not doing anything with it. So I’m thinking: I’m losing my apartment in San Francisco in a week, I have no boyfriend, I have no career – I have jobs, but no career. Why don’t I just move to Portalnd? But I’m not just going to move to Portland for [just] anything. This is the new chapter – 2015. Gotta get my momentum going. I did a quick little internet search – the first thing that popped up was the Zenger Farm internship. [I] looked it over, read through the whole thing, read about the farm. [I was like], oh my gosh, this is exactly what I’ve been looking for; this is exactly what I want to do. The farm, the set-up, the educational component really interests me, and just the basic farming knowledge.
What was the internet search that brought you to Zenger’s website?
I knew I wanted to be involved with a food justice organization. There are a lot in the Bay Area, [but] none of them really connected with me. [Those organizations] had more of the educational component which I was interested in, but I really wanted to gain my skills as a farmer first before I jump into the more administrative side of access to good food. So I’m young and agile enough, I figure I should get dirty while I’m young and [have to] bend over 20 times a day!
Did you have any experience with farming or gardening before applying to Zenger?
Not really. Last summer was my first time attempting to have my own mini garden. I lived at home for awhile in Marin County and the weather there is perfect. Every time I move back home, I bring my plethora of orchids with me. It’s the perfect place to grow food. There’s a lot of open space in Marin, a lot of small farms. I grew up around farms. Holstein cows. I attempted a potted garden last year. They ended up doing pretty well. That was my first attempt. I grew up with my dad having a mini garden in the back.
What is one of the biggest challenges facing equitable food movements in the United States?
Food subsidies are really challenging – how flooded the market is with corn, for example. Our government isn’t putting money into smaller farms [or] programs that are supporting education, as much as they are with major corporations. Our land is being used to grow food for cattle, chickens, pigs, but we’re a really hungry country. People don’t know that Americans are hungry. There are hungry people 10 blocks away from here.
Brad comes across as unassuming and gentle, but behind his affable personality is a wealth of knowledge and an intrinsic desire to learn more and effect positive, meaningful change in the food world. Originally from Ohio, Brad moved to the Pacific NW a year and a half ago, originally to complete his degree in environmental science but ultimately to hone his true calling: growing food and learning about permaculture. Before this Zenger internship, he worked for a business in Vancouver, Washington that grew food in people’s yards. Our opening conversation wasn’t as long as with the other two interns, but I still received a well-rounded picture of his motivations and interests.
Tell me about your experience with agriculture and background with food?
I was in the military, so the first semester I went to school after I got out, my writing professor [had us] watch Food Inc. That was the beginning. Then I started paying more attention. Learning more about different difficulties we were having within the agricultural system. I started growing food, I did gardens, and then I think it was [the] winter after that, I built a 6 x 8 greenhouse in my mom’s garage.
I grew peppers, tomatoes, spinach, kale. I tried cucumbers, that didn’t work. I was trying to practice. I was working full time, going to school full time, and maintaining this garden. I enjoy having a lot of projects going on at the same time, being involved, learning as much as I can. I was doing that through the winter and had a great success rate, and that summer  I WWOOFed in California. I loved it.
Are there writers that you consistently read or make reference to?
Lately it’s been Rudolf Steiner. I’ve been reading a lot of his lectures. Right now I’m reading one on bees. What he’s saying 80 years ago, and the results that are going to come – now we’re seeing the results of what he’s talking about. I relate to what he’s saying a lot now.
I try to read, but I don’t have internet where I live. I’ve been reading more on better practices than the issues because it just depresses me. I can only read so much and then I’d rather try to find how I can improve my skill set and then take it into the field and demonstrate that we’re not in need of these large, unsustainable inputs.
What was your relationship to food before Food Inc?
I thought I was eating healthy; I thought Subway was healthy! I think I had just quit eating McDonalds and fast food right before I saw that. Learning about other businesses like Subway – I haven’t eaten fast food in a long time. [I remember the] Daily Show with Jon Stewart; he was talking about how they’re finding yoga mat chemicals in the bread. I was like thank goodness, I don’t have to do yoga, it’s just instilled in me!
Before that I wasn’t paying as much attention as I thought I was. I thought I was eating healthy. It was during that transition, 2011-2012, I had this dream when I was back home that I was going through my grocery store. The shelves were empty. The only things I could see on the shelf were natural foods, no preservatives and chemicals. I thought that was a really opening experience. I really want to know. It’s kinda hard because sometimes ignorance is bliss.
How do you want to use this internship [in a future career]?
I really want to go to other countries and help their agriculture get going – so we’re not exporting our [food] as much. I’d like to help [other countries] develop more sustainable practices. I would like to help educate. And bettering the food system which is [already] in place.