From Cubicle to Farmer's Field

By Sara Lipka

Photo by Alexis Arieff


Deadlines make me daydream of farming. I've been a reporter in Washington, D.C., for several years, and I enjoy it, but last winter I looked out the window a lot. I imagined August heat and standing in rows of corn stalks under hazy blue silhouetted hills.

Sure, I had some predictable motives, like pastoral idealism and Michael Pollan. I'd become fascinated by the local food movement, and I was trying to eat seasonally from the Dupont Circle farmers market. Beyond that lurked cubicle ennui--and my ancestors. I kept envisioning a kerchiefed matriarch and wondering how to explain to her what I'd done that day. When there was no way she'd understand, I felt sad. And if she found out that younger generations had lost the ability to work the land? Oy.

But it wasn't all whimsy. I'd worked on a produce farm in Massachusetts in 1997, between high school and college. I stooped to pick strawberries, lugged baskets of green beans, and snuck breaks in the walk-in cooler. During semesters in South America, I harvested coffee and coca and tended turkeys. Missing all that, I took a couple of weeks in December to groom herb beds on a small terrace farm in the British Virgin Islands. Tough gig.

My parents freaked out. They wrung their hands over the economic crisis and my potential homelessness and starvation. At least, I pointed out, I'd know how to grow food.

Then, walking to work one morning, I stopped. I stood on the sidewalk and thought, "I am going to a building where I'll sit until it gets dark." The idea wasn't depressing, just absurd. It reminded me of a friend who looked forward to changing his office's water cooler, which he called relatively primordial.

I decided to talk to Emily, a seller at my farmers' market. When she said she needed one more person this season, it was hard not to feel fatalistic. The next Saturday at 7:30 a.m., I biked in the rain to borrow a friend's car. I drove 70 miles west to The Farm at Sunnyside, in Washington, Virginia.

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Photo by George S. Lipka

Emily and I strolled through the hoop houses and the foggy 420 acres: orchards, brambles, tilled fields, ponds, and pasture. Later that week, she offered me room, board, and a monthly stipend for the summer and fall. I sat, thought, sought a lot of advice, ate Sunnyside kale, and decided I had to do it.

My parents freaked out. They wrung their hands over the economic crisis and my potential homelessness and starvation. At least, I pointed out, I'd know how to grow food. When I told them I might be able to get my job back in October (no guarantee), I got a package of sun-protective clothing from L.L. Bean.

So I'm becoming a farmer, sort of. I took a bunch of chard out of the fridge the other day and wondered if, on the farm, I'd pick some for a few days and store it, or pluck it from the plant every time. Extreme local food! I could set a place in the field and eat right there.

If the real August heat makes me daydream of air conditioning and shift dresses, then shucks. I'll still learn how to grow a decent artichoke.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/06/from-cubicle-to-farmers-field/16770/