Telling the story of my time at Side by Side Farm is not an easy thing to do. I know. I’ve tried.
But I’ll try again.
I was an intern at Side by Side Farm in Freeland, Maryland during the summer after my first year of college. Sometime during the winter I got it into my head that I was going to work at a farm – why I do not know. I had limited experience with agriculture, limited experience with gardening, actually. Yet I started searching for farms near my house, and it came down to two possibilities. Then one: Side by Side. I emailed the head farmer, asking if he had any intern positions available and quickly got a reply.
Devin was in charge of the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) part of the farm then. I emailed him in February and visited the farm in mid-March. If I remember correctly he was wearing a fertilizer backpack full of fish emulsion when I met him. We shook hands, he took off the backpack and we went for a tour of the farm. He showed me the “downstairs” greenhouse (Side by Side is composed of a large hill and a small valley), the mushroom mycelium germination area, where the garlic had been last year, where the garlic was going to be this year, where the chickens were, the upstairs greenhouse, etc. Then at one point he turned to me and said:
“You know, farming is really [insert more colorful adjective here] hard work.”
I didn’t hear Devin swear very often, but when he did he seemed to me that he used that word because no other was strong enough. I couldn’t have known so at the time – not from personal experience – but in this case he was right.
Devin had been at Side by Side for three years. This was – unbeknownst to me – destine to be his last season there. He was six years older than me. He was the first farmer I got to know personally.
When I left “the farm” (as it quickly became known to family and circle of friends) with a dozen pastel colored eggs – a gift from Devin – and my head bursting with ideas. A few days later, after much reflection, I emailed Devin: If you’ll have me, I would like intern this summer. We started to organize which days I would be at the farm. He asked if I am a morning person. I am.
Harvesting garlic in July.
Packing the weekly shares.
One of the donkeys.
Devin in the greenhouse.
Sunflower in early August.
Milo the cat.
Devin running the rototiller.
Watch out for Ruby.
At the Farmers’ Market
The Spring House.
My first day at the farm, in May, it was raining. Pouring. Devin lived a short drive away and I arrived before him. I huddled in the greenhouse, listening to the chickens and guinea fowl chattering. Devin arrived several minutes later with a mug of coffee and a strong dose enthusiasm. We set to work clearing out the downstairs greenhouse and preparing the ground. Soon after, we planted ginger roots there.
Two days later, we transplanted tomatoes in one of the upstairs fields. I marveled at all the varieties: pineapple, purple cherokee, green zebra, creme burlee. Before then, I didn’t know that plants species had names of their own, personalities of their own. In between the tomatoes we put in lettuce, peppers and borage flower (for pest control).
By the end of the week, I had weeded, planted, started seeds, started mushrooms, let chickens out in the morning, helped herd escaped donkeys back into their pasture, run a wheel hoe, been shown how to identify weeds, weeded, put out signs for the local farmers’ market and cooked in the farm’s kitchen. I had bug bites down my back, rosy spots of sunburn on my face and arms, and dirt caked under my fingernails. A few more weeks and I would have poison ivy on all of limbs.
I could not have been more thrilled.
And there is no other way to put this: I felt alive.
All summer it was usually just Devin and I in the fields. Sometimes Jean too – she was the lady who owned Side by Side – or various people who came to lend a hand. And there was the resident wonder-dog: Ruby. (She is about the size of a large house cat and could kill a groundhog twice her weight. She is darling.)
When I arrived in the morning, I had to search for Devin. Usually he was in the upstairs fields, and I would join him at whatever he was going. Sometimes he had a list of tasks, sometimes not. There were few noises except for the clucking of chickens, guinea fowl, turkeys and ducks – maybe also a radio set to classical music. Until someone starting running a tractor or a rototiller, that is.
At the end of the day, I left by backing my car up the narrow, gravely path to the main road (it took much trouble to turn around in the driveway). Arriving at my house, I left my red, dirt caked wellies by the door…and my socks, which were dirt stained in no time.
The first harvest amazed me.
We picked sugar snap peas, carrots, kale, beet greens, radishes, cilantro and spinach; all of it for a restaurant (owned by my cousin) in town.
And then we made lunch for ourselves. Devin scrambled a few eggs, produced by the farm’s chickens, with the vegetables we had gathered. I remember chopping cilantro on the butcher’s block counter and brushing it into the skillet with the eggs. (The smell of cilantro still reminds me of Devin and Side by Side.) We warmed tortillas, spread goat cheese (from the farm down the road) on them and topped it all with the egg and veg scramble.
Side by Side is where my taste buds began to be educated. Devin talked jokingly of a “vegetable appreciation school,” and I think – unknowingly – that he was the head teacher of it and I was a student. Nothing tastes so fantastic as things eaten three seconds after they have been picked. Working at Side by Side, I learned that carrots eaten straight from the ground are an entirely different vegetable than the orange things one buys in a grocery store. Eating cherry tomatoes off the vine as the sun comes up can be like a religious experience. There are few things as beautiful as the bounty a farm can produce.
The “upstrairs” fields.
Devin said we were doing “real” farming the day we planted the fall brassicas (broccoli and cauliflower) and lettuce.
Aside from the garlic harvest in July, that may have been my most intense day at the farm. That was the day I ran the rototiller for the first time, preparing a bed that had been let lie fallow for two years.
This was July. The temperature climbed near to a hundred but we kept going. There were times when I thought I was going to have to ask Devin if I could go home – or could we at least take a break?
We chatted as we worked, our conversation flagging as the sun blazed hotter. Then, sometime around noon, dragonflies came out en masse. For the next thirty minutes there were swarms of them, their iridescent wings winking in the light. I know I ached after that day, and I know my cold bath felt wonderful. But what I remember most about the day we planted the brassicas is Devin running the rototiller, the smell of the gasoline, the smell of moist earth, and a thousand shining dragonflies flittering through the air.
One month later, almost to the day, Devin and I harvested everything from that field. It was raining heavily. Devin wore both a rain jacket and a trash bag. I went home soaked through.
The last day I worked at Side by Side, Devin picked a cantaloupe and sliced it in the back of Jean’s truck.
He probably used the same knife he used to harvest kale and basil. That cantaloupe was not the finest melon I’ve ever eaten, but I ate it thirty seconds after it was detached from the vine, in the morning sun, on a farm, with the farmer who grew it. There was undoubtedly dirt on my slice. It was marvelous.
My last day was a harvest day, my favorite day at the farm. Devin and I picked kale, basil, eggplant, sweet peppers, and okra. There was already a quantity of tomatoes ready. I wrote up the chalkboard sign and made a bouquet of zinnias for the spring house. “Mission accomplished,” Devin said. “You have completed a farm internship.” When I left, I carried with me a feast: my final share of vegetables, freshly cut mushrooms, goat cheese and eggs.
Fruits of the first harvest.
Side by Side left me two legacies. Three maybe. Or more. Maybe it left me so many I can’t keep track.
To this day I am not sure why I wanted to be on a farm as badly as I did. Ostensibly, my answer is that I wanted to see where my food came from. That was the beginning – and I haven’t yet seen the end of it. I won’t any time soon. Side by Side set the course for much of what I am doing now; for how I shop, how I cook, what I eat, the classes I take and the projects I pursue. It laid the groundwork. That is why going back to the farm – as I do now and then – is a little like going home.
So I cannot give Devin and everyone at Side by Side a large enough “thank you.”
Here’s to the vegetable literacy school. Here’s to rutabagas, radishes, beets and cilantro.
If you’d like to read more about my time at Side by Side, you can read the blog I kept during my internship.