Back to School: Lessons From a Summer at the Farm


Yale Sustainable Food Project

While the weather may indicate otherwise, Wednesday was the first day of fall. At the Yale Farm, we're in that beautiful, brief moment between the summer and fall seasons, when tomatoes hang from the vine but the butternut squash have yet to ripen. Our six Lazarus summer interns, who worked as full-time farmers from May to late August, are now back to their lives as full-time students. But that doesn't mean everything is back to normal— and I'm not just talking about their new muscles. It's telling to take a look at the thoughts they had coming into the internship, compared to their changing attitudes throughout their summer at the Yale Farm.

For instance, there's Patrick. A year ago, he spent his summer interning in financial law at a large corporation. "While it was rewarding," he said, "I found myself wanting something more." He goes on:

I couldn't help but feel that the numbers I watched tick past me on the Bloomberg terminal were, despite the billions of dollars tied up in them, somehow illusory ... I would often take my lunch outside and eat in the highly manicured (and probably covered in more pesticide than you can shake a stick at) corporate gardens. Even this perfunctory contact with nature, however sanitized it was, comforted me. Now, instead of worrying about stock prices and regulatory reform I want to worry about turning the soil and picking a vegetable at exactly the right time.

And Patrick turned out to be a star at turning the soil—both in our compost bins and in forming the tiny soil blocks in which we start many of our seeds:

The Yale Farm is only a little bit messier than corporate America. Today at check-in, for example, Daniel the Farm Manager remarked that I make a mean soil block and said that I should show others my technique. The little squares of earth might evoke an Excel workbook, but the similarities end there. Instead, they are filled with seeds which will hopefully germinate and eventually produce food. As I thought about his remark later in the day, I realized that it meant more than any cash bonus possibly could. I don't know what happened to my database entries or memos at my old job, and I don't really care. I do know, however, that my soil blocks—fashioned tightly and crafted with care— will be a nice home for a baby plant one day soon. That's a bottom line I can get behind.

I also think that many of us can relate to our intern Sam's thoughts as he came into the summer:

My parents never gave too much thought to the food we ate (neither had much time for or interest in cooking), and neither did I until last spring, when a newly converted vegan friend dragged me to see Food, Inc. in theaters. I was shocked, of course, but beyond that I felt paralyzed by an overwhelming feeling of powerlessness. I realized for the first time how distanced I was from the food I was eating and how little control I had (or at that point believed myself to have) over where it came from or how it was grown.

But by the summer's end, he had become a cooking and farming pro (look out for more thoughts from Sam here at The Atlantic throughout the school year!):

Last night, I made a salad out of Lacinato kale, Chioggia beets, Hakurei turnips, kohlrabi, and zucchini. Two months ago, I could have identified exactly one of these vegetables (zucchini), and the only salads I'd ever made involved tearing some iceberg lettuce, maybe (just maybe) cutting up a tomato, and pouring on a bottled dressing. The questions of what we eat and how we eat it have been nagging at me for a while now, but until this internship my answers were mostly dependent on the microwave and a few select aisles of the supermarket. Kohlrabi rarely shows up in Whole Foods, much less the local Stop & Shop, which makes me doubt whether I would have ever discovered it on my own. The supermarket seems to function as a closed loop: its patrons might easily be convinced to visit a farmers' market if someone showed them a kohlrabi, let them taste and hold it, and made them curious enough to seek one out, but the only produce you know when you shop at a supermarket is supermarket produce. It took me weeks of actual farm work, of learning enough about a vegetable to nurse it to harvest and sell it at market, to get me to last night's salad. But now that I'm here, that supermarket produce is going to be a much harder sell.

Patrick and Sam are only two of the summer's six-farmer team: Ali, Ian, Pat, and Yasha could tell similar tales of what they learned about farming and about themselves. Even with class schedules finalized and homework in full swing, they're still describing the summer as "life-changing." As with Sam's initial viewing of Food, Inc., once we become aware of how our food gets to the table, it's impossible to forget. Backing up that awareness with real-life experience, as our interns have done, makes for an even more solid lesson. Who knew that abandoning your books for the farm could make such a difference?