Aug 11 2015

Zenger's Broader Focus

After much conversation and anticipation, “Hell Week” had finally arrived for Zenger Farm interns Brad, Brittany, and Aaron. Hell Week is designed to more closely mimic a realistic farming experience for the interns: instead of their normal eight hour days, they work eleven hours, side by side with farmers Sara Cogan and Bryan Allan. Ironically, after weeks of truly hellish temperatures that have left area farmers exhausted and demoralized, the weather abated in time for this intense week, bringing clouds and autumnal mornings.

I visited the farm crew at Furey Field, Zenger Farm’s secondary property located past the Springwater Corridor, down a gravel road and beside a large community garden. In previous conversations, the interns have spoken with fondness about Furey, specifically its separation and the resulting sense of calm that it brings. Unfortunately, this separation combined with those consistently high temperatures led to a potent collection of weeds in the weeks since the farmers had had a chance to dedicate time to the field. I arrived to hip-high weeds and a sea of green – some of it crops, much of it, not.

Facing hours of intense hand-weeding and the realization that certain crops would have to be discarded, the interns exuded a remarkable level of calm and focus. Yes, the corn might have to be pulled, and the cabbage was certainly a lost cause, but, at the halfway point of their internship, Brad, Brittany, and Aaron are now closer to true farmers than farm interns, and as such, they know how to acknowledge mishaps without being felled by them. By understanding the rhythms of farm work, they were grateful for the longer hours, not upset by them.

As Aaron removed irrigation lines, he shared that Hell Week has been “comforting”, elaborating that “having this much time to spend catching back up on projects is pretty awesome, actually. We can pace ourselves.” And when asked what the plan for the day was, Brittany replied, “we’re just going to weed and weed and weed”, adding that when they arrived on Monday, Bryan’s farm task board basically said “today: weed, tomorrow: weed.”

For all the weeding, Brittany still spoke in an upbeat manner, perhaps because she was flanked by an adorable neighborhood cat who couldn’t stop crawling into her lap and nuzzling both of us. “I think we can all agree that these eleven hour days have felt so much easier than the eight hours days, because we’re shoving so much in on the eight hour days, that we have to stop projects in the middle of [the day],” Brittany reflected. “On these eleven hour days, we work more efficiently,” she added.

On that Wednesday, Brad was perhaps the most tired of the three interns, but that has more to do with his sleep schedule than the Hell Week hours. Our entire half hour conversation was spent in a single row of squash. Brad methodically and thoroughly removed each weed with his hands while chatting and laughing, and even took the time to be impressed with the versatility of the weeds and the flexible nature of of some of the plants. “The delicata are climbing the weeds – that’s pretty cool,” he laughed. “There’s hope.”

That morning, the entire group of farmers, including two new summer interns, spaced themselves out in the fields and weeded. Unable to use machinery like a tiller for fear of damaging the crops, the atmosphere was simple and quiet. Everyone pulled and casually chatted, and, as has been the norm on my visits, the farm work seemed fueled by purpose instead of anxiety. This is a learned approach that these three interns have already assimilated, and it will guide them wherever they go next. Methodically moving through tasks is more efficient than panicking or becoming upset.

Since its creation in 2010, Zenger Farm has fielded between 30 to 50 applicants a year to its farm internship program, ultimately selecting three for each year’s seven month internship. In its inaugural year, Sara Cogan taught a group that included Genevieve Flanagan and current assistant farmer, Bryan Allan. After his internship, Bryan had no interest in leaving and seeking out greener pastures at different farms or in other agricultural regions. “I wrote a job description so I could stick on. It was basically to be a second year crew leader because [Sara had to do a lot of juggling of responsibilities]. I proposed having a second pair of eyes and hands,” Bryan told me, sitting across from me in Zenger’s one room schoolhouse, the newly constructed Grange Hall behind me.

The next spring, Bryan began to help Sara manage the farm interns, which included Courtney Leeds and Justin Davidson. “We’ve grown into a great partnership,” Bryan said, adding that “we each have our spheres, just like a married couple.” To my eye, they work exceptionally well – better than many marriages, in fact! They’re unified on the overall vision for Zenger’s program, while developing unique dynamics with the intern crew. Both Sara and Bryan are positive and warm, but in my visits, I’ve quickly picked up on divisions in teaching styles, divisions further reiterated in conversations with Bryan and the Zenger interns.

Bryan laughingly referred to his partnership with Sara as having a “good cop, bad cop” dynamic, before admitting that he’s really not that much of a bad cop. Their different teaching styles match their differing personalities. Bryan mixes directness with goofiness. In our various meetings, I’ve sometimes had a hard time knowing when he’s joking, but a good guess is that there’s at least a little bit of humor in what he’s saying. Several previous interns have called him a taskmaster and even a “hard-ass”. When I interviewed Gareth Stacke, he shared that Bryan “expects a lot and will let you know, in pretty crude terms.” In contrast, Bryan made reference to Sara’s “light tread”, explaining that instead of “hurry up”, it’s “what’s going on and how can I help you go faster?” Sara doesn’t seem to suffer fools or laziness – but then again, Zenger has no interest in bringing on interns who are anything but motivated, personable, and driven.

When you choose a career in agriculture, there will be days of isolation and monotony, of farming alone, instead of together. But while training and working at Zenger, you’re very much farming with each other, as part of a much larger community. “We’ve had interns ask [if they can] bring their iPod, indicating that they’re expecting to spend time on their own, harvesting,” Brian mentioned. “But [that] amount of time is so little. [The interns] are always paired up or we’re all working together as a group.”

Each year, Sara and Bryan sift through the applications, choosing interns based on a complicated equation that mixes their own gut instincts with the interviewee’s spoken desire to become an actual farmer (someone who plans to work in the industry, not merely a homesteader or an amazing backyard gardener). Bryan and Sara look for candidates who toe a fine line of having some experience with growing food – but not too much. They try to imagine the future interactions between the three interns and their two instructors, interactions that will drive the internship forward for seven months, through rain, heat, stress, mistakes, epic harvests, and beers down by the spring. Getting the dynamics correct allows the main purpose of the program – training qualified farmers – to succeed. Without a good makeup of interns, it’d be more challenging to meet this goal.

This year, Brittany, Brad, and Aaron present a fascinating cross section of our country’s potential future farmers. Brittany started at Zenger with the least amount of growing experience of the three, but possesses the the largest amount of idealism. She’s eager and excited, and this quality naturally radiates amongst the crew. Brad is methodical, endlessly curious, quietly funny, and knows how to put his head down and just work, while intuitively knowing when to chat through a more monotonous task.

Aaron is older than Brad and Brittany, and as such, he brings a different element to the crew, including a healthy dose of reality and an awareness of the uphill battle that he’ll face to become a financially viable farmer. He’s already had a wealth of experience in the food system, from marketing to baking to growing a large garden with his wife. But he’s never had experience growing food on a farm scale, so, to Sara and Bryan, he presented as a perfect fit of motivation and familiarity – someone who is open to being guided (“he’s here to learn when he makes a mistake”), while focused on the larger future of growing for more than just his family.

Zenger’s land used to be cultivated by a rotating cast of farmers, including Marc Boucher-Colbert of Noble Rot and Laura Masterson of 47th Avenue Farm. The transition to the Zenger Farm of today – a farm with a bountiful table at Lents Farmers Market, a large CSA, an egg cooperative, and restaurant accounts throughout the city – began in 2008 when Masterson grew food on one half of the property and Sara, previously the youth education coordinator at Zenger, grew crops on the other half, with the help of volunteers, including future intern-turned-manager Bryan.

Sara knew that the only way to successfully farm on the entire property, while connecting the land and vegetables to Zenger’s larger focus on accessibility and food education, was to find more farmers. She created the farm internship program to work in tandem with both of those tenants, assembling an accessible education on how to grow food. While many parts of her 2009 curriculum remain in place six years later, the program has mimicked the traits necessary for successful farming: adaptation, nuance, and awareness. Over the years, Bryan and Sara have tweaked the internship slightly, with changes designed to both entice a broader range of applicants and to more closely mimic the realities of farming. The interns now work at Zenger for eight hour days, instead of six and a half. And each intern now earns a $600 stipend each month, instead of the original $200, thanks to several grants from New Seasons Market and United Natural Foods Inc., Foundation.

The internship program has matured in ways not easily captured in a spreadsheet. Each time Zenger “graduates” a class of interns, those interns disseminate to various farms or communities, proudly talking about their time at Zenger, and more practically, showing their new co-workers and bosses exactly how well Sara and Bryan trained them. This dissemination of past interns broadens Zenger’s reach within the agricultural community, and the lead farmers work diligently to connect their new interns to this larger network. Zenger also works to connect with outside educational opportunities that could enrich their interns’ experience. For example, when the Rogue Farm Corps expanded into Portland this year, Zenger paid for three classes for the interns to attend, specifically classes on animals that Zenger doesn’t raise, like goats, cows, and pigs.

Last year, Zenger added a partial-season summer internship to the program. This addition has allowed interns that didn’t get accepted into the full season program to still benefit, as well as reaching people whose schedules or finances don’t allow for working seven months on a $600 stipend, including students and those who must work a full-time job.

The stipend remains a tiny thorn in Sara and Bryan’s mutual side. In the future, they hope to offer minimum wage to their farm interns. Every career sector must face the legalities of intern compensation, or risk lawsuits. This is as common in the editorial and fashion industry as it is in agriculture. In recent years, several Oregon farms have faced lawsuits from former interns, a fact that incentivized local farm Sauvie Island Organics to end their apprenticeship program several years ago (ironically, Sara actually trained to be a farmer in that program).

Ultimately, the focus of a farm internship program must be on the education and collaboration of the interns, not the farm’s own production quotas; farm interns must be seen as more than cheap, expendable farm labor. When Sara and Bryan crop-plan for the season, they plan like any farmer would: which variety to grow, how many, how did it grow last year. But they have to plan their planting schedule while remembering that they farm for an educational non-profit.

“Profitably is one of the many factors we look at when deciding what to grow,” Bryan explained. If they were just aiming to maximize profit, they’d just grow parsley, Bryan half-joked. And if they didn’t care about giving visitors and farm interns a well-rounded agricultural experience, they wouldn’t grow crops like corn, which isn’t profitable on a small-scale. But “we’re not willing to give up sweet corn: our CSA members want it, people want to see it being grown, our interns need education about it,” Bryan succinctly summarized.

The closest cousin I can find to Zenger’s in-depth, supportive, and realistic learning model is Whidbey Island’s Green Bank Farm. There, however, participants have to pay tuition to attend, which nimbly sidesteps the legalities of how much to pay and when, but – not to take away from the program, which seems amazingly supportive and educational – certainly must limit their audience of interested farmers.

A farm season, especially an internship farm season, is like a long, hilly road – there’s a significant uphill climb at the beginning, as interns learn basic skills of sowing, transplanting, tilling, and amending, and as their bodies get used to the rigors of physical labor. All three interns have chatted with me about general physical exhaustion, and random sore body parts, including the fact that they all feel trimmer and more muscular since they began. Zenger’s program clusters a lot of “classroom” learning in those first two transition months when Sara and Bryan teach around forty hours worth of informative classes on soil science, crop planning, and farm financials.

At the beginning of the internship, the farmers share goals for the farm and internship program with the three interns. These internship goals are broken down into “body” and “mind”. They want interns to leave Zenger with good techniques, as well as speed and endurance to perform what’s required of them. Simultaneously, interns need to understand the biology of a farm, how to organize a farm season, and the importance of marketing.

“We’re really mindful of goals,” Bryan explained. How do the goals of the farm and farm operation fit within the internship program, and within the interns’ own goals? Challenging the interns to work faster during Hell Week, for example, relates not just to the farm’s own needs, but to the interns’ future development. “There are many reasons Brad, Brittany, and Aaron should go faster,” Bryan elaborated. “One is that going slower cuts into farm profitability. You can’t get as much work done. Another is so that they can learn the skill of going faster, so when they go out on their own, they have wider profit margins because they’re so efficient and fast.” He concluded, “We’re training [them] to be super fast and efficient because we want them to succeed in the future.”

My first question for all of the various and current Zenger interns I’ve met is a simple one: how did you hear about the program? Most have given vague answers about internet sleuthing, while a few heard about the program from friends or simply because they already lived in Portland and were interested in food and farming.

I imagine most of them arrived at Zenger’s page by following the same internet path most curious or beginning farmers must follow. When I looked around the vast internet, pretending to be a new farmer, I was actually overwhelmed by all of the databases and links to sift through. One can only make sense of all of the information by staying focused and flexible – key skills any farmer must have, anyway.

If I were to advise, I’d first suggest making a list of what kind of internship you want. Are you seeking an internship with many other interns? Or an internship that might translate into an on-farm job? Do you want to focus primarily on animals? do you want to learn how to hand cultivate or how to use a tractor? What kind of stipend are you looking for? Go into these databases with important details, which will naturally translate into a more focused search. Visit both ATTRA and the Young Farmers Coalition.

ATTRA houses a database of sustainable farming internships and apprenticeships across North America. It’s here that you can browse based on location or style of farm, and where farms list their requirements for an intern. Clicking on Oregon yielded ten pages of results. ATTRA also has a wealth of information for farmers who might have just completed an internship program, including farm business planning and marketing, and understanding Organic Pricing and Costs of Production. They also call out specific farm internship training models, including The California Farm Academy, a model that has similarities to Zenger Farm.

The Young Farmers Coalition has built itself into a partial advocacy, partial farmer support network, and the website is full of detailed publications on how to find farmland and the “Vegetable Grower’s Guide to Organic Certification”. Their resources page is exhaustive: like on ATTRA, you can search for training opportunities across the United States (or even internationally). But additionally, you can look for land and jobs via regional listings and the databases that they link to – a boon to freshly ”graduated’ interns throughout the United States. Out West, they link to Salem-based Friends of Family Farmers’ iFarm, a thriving land-farmer connection service that’s connected at least two farmers I’ve previously interviewed with land. Just as important as land, the coalition’s website goes into great detail on credit sources, lenders, crowd-funding, and an exhaustive list of loans. The Young Farmers Coalition really is one stop shopping for all farmers, new, young, and curious.

Six years in, the Zenger farm internship finds itself right where it wants to be. It continues to attract a flurry of interest and applications, and Sara and Bryan have consistently chosen crews that truly click. Drew Herman told me that he’s best friends with Jen Tobener, a co-intern in 2013. And, back in April, Gareth mentioned that he’ll attend Drew’s wedding this winter. Justin Moran spoke rapturously about the crew rapport and how it’s a dynamic he’s carried with him at his current job.

As Zenger continues to send trained interns into the world, most of them seem to stay in Oregon, working in agriculture, either as farmers or by integrating food into their own nonprofit work. One former intern, Serena Becker, doesn’t currently work as a farmer, but she returned to her job as program coordinator at Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center with a wealth of connections to non-profits and farmers, connections that she’s passed along to Opal Creek’s food service director. “One thing I was able to do after leaving Zenger and coming back to Opal Creek was build a partnership to buy vegetables from Zenger Farm to serve at our kitchen at Opal Creek. We do that in the summer months,” she told me on the phone, adding that she picks up the Zenger vegetables when she drives from Portland to the Opal Creek Wilderness.

There are many stressors and barriers to seeking a career in agriculture, including acquiring land, financing an operation, and even debilitating isolation. Though Zenger doesn’t directly help with financing or land acquisition, the non-profit provides interns broader connections and exposure to Portland and Oregon agriculture; it’s through connections like these that land is acquired and businesses are financed. It’s this camaraderie and resulting connection to broader food systems that will enable these Zenger interns to pursue agriculture as a career. By creating a harmonious group of farmers who farm as a part of greater community network, Zenger ensures that farmers aren’t isolated in their pursuit.

When Brad, Brittany, and Aaron leave, they’ll have Zenger’s name on their “resume” and a pocket full of connections for next steps, backed by support from Bryan and Sara, and all of the hard-earned lessons from their internship – a collection of resources which will empower their farming careers now, and throughout the future.