It started with an email.
I sent a proposal to one Ms. Sarah Sohn to come intern at Side By Side Farms/CSA in Freeland, MD. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the world of semi-hippie farming establishments, Side By Side is a permaculture farm. They are Certified Naturally Grown and they supply to the cafe that I work at with Miss Williamson. It’s run by a pair of amazing, and sort of crazy women and an increasingly crazy farm manager. The truth is that none of them actually run the farm, it’s run by a little dog named Ruby, who is an absolute slave driver.
When I first arrived on the farm on a chilly, early March morning to talk with Sarah, I wasn’t sure if I was at the right place. There was no sign, there was nothing designating the place as a farm aside from the set of hoop houses that seemed rather barren for a farm. After a few minutes of checking my phone to make sure that the address was correct, I got out of the car and walked up the hill along a gravel truck path towards the upper greenhouse which I later learned was affectionately dubbed the “upper hoop house”. A little while later, I encountered the farm manager, Sarah. She showed me around the farm, told me some of the grander plans she had for the place and then ended the brief “interview” with the question of, “So are you interested in doing this? When can you start working?” I later learned this was because I showed up on time, sober and clothed.
Planting beets with Sarah Sohn (back) and Lisa Augustyniak (front).
Sarah Sohn. Weed torcher.
A month later, I started my internship with Side By Side Farms. I thought about keeping a proper journal, or perhaps a blog, but I felt like it had already been done. So I opened up my phone and downloaded Instagram in order to keep a photo journal. I already had a fancy Nikon DSLR, but I didn’t want to use it for this. No, if I was going to document an internship at a Certified Naturally Grown, Permaculture/semi-hippie farm, it was going to be with tools that anyone could get.
There’s something about photographing with a DSLR that’s fantastic. You have clarity, you have better quality, you have control and options and precision. I chose to forgo my DSLR for documenting my internship. I wanted it to be approachable, so that every aspect of it could be done by anyone. Almost everyone has smartphones or devices with access to Instagram these days and the majority of them have cameras. There’s something about the idea that everyone is on the same playing field, that everyone has the ability to be a fantastic photographer that appealed to me. I still took photos with my DSLR while I was at the farm, but my journal would only be iPhone photos because it was a quiet message that anyone could do what I was about to do.
My first day started around 6 in the morning. By that point in my life, I was already a fairly early riser (by college student standards, 7 in the morning is early), but it was a bit early even for me. The sun was just starting to rise above the trees in my yard and the neighbor’s solar controlled driveway lights were still on. I showered and ate and drove to the farm, the brisk air blowing through the cabin of my green 2004 Toyota Camry. When I got there, the first thing Sarah had on the agenda was covering crops. You see, when it’s cold the plants you’ve just started, the tiny green sprouts, need a bit of help. If it gets too cold then they need to be covered, lest the frost kill them. So off we went, throwing plastic covering over the tops of the plants in long rows to keep the frost off of them and hopefully, preserve them so we could have an early harvest.
It started at 6.
Much of the summer went like that. I would wake up early, go to the farm, we would plant seeds or transplant new plants, weed or water, cover and uncover. There was a rhythm to it, a sort of off kilter routine that changed daily. It was fun, it felt like an endless struggle with nature, but one where we could eventually mold the landscape to fit our needs. We didn’t use much machinery, one tractor for tilling and a pickup truck. Everything else we did by hand. It was difficult and laborious, but incredibly rewarding. There were days where I would drink close to two gallons of water and still feel dehydrated towards the end of the day, but if was always worth it in the end. I got a share of the produce, a small amount of money (enough to pay for my petrol over the summer) and always a free lunch made with whatever we had lying around the farm.
The Truck. This was the vehicle I learned to drive stick shift on.
We did most everything by hand, though there was a tractor. One of the farm residents, Finch created this as a model of the tractor we had.
Those were some of the most enjoyable meals I’ve ever created and eaten. They were absolutely delicious and about as fresh as you can get, most of the time having been picked a mere hour before consumption. There were fresh eggs, honey from the bees on the farm and always loads of produce. There were times where there were so many of a particular vegetable that I would be sent home with close to $50 in produce, simply so it didn’t go to waste. Those meals were amazing and I got to cook and consume them with people that, to this day, I believe are the most interesting and enjoyable people I have worked with. I heard stories and met people that, had I not participated in those lunches, I never would have heard. It sounds strange to say, but I met a man while I was working there and I listened to his stories every time he came. The second time I ate lunch with him, I decided that he was the man I wanted to be like when I grew old.
Freshly picked and washed beets.
What I expected and what actually happened, were completely different things. I expected to come and learn. I expected to learn techniques and the best varieties and how to run an organic, small scale farm. What I learned was that those aren’t the things that matter the most.
I learned that if you want to run a farm, you learn a lot of those things on the fly. I learned that it was relationships that mattered the most. That sitting on the porch of the farmhouse taught me more than hours in the field did (and that’s saying something, because I learned a lot in the field). That hours in the field gave me the best relationship with my local farmer I could ever get. That the relationship with restaurants and your CSA members determine what the best varieties are. That running a “farm” can just be a fancy way of saying you have a profitable, over-sized garden. And I learned that I don’t want to have a farm. I want to have a relationship with my local farmers, one that’s profitable for both of us and for the environment. I want relationships with restaurant owners that support local farmers. I want to support people that care about people. That’s the most important thing my internship taught me.
Though, Sarah, if you’re reading this, yes, I do have a printed copy of that planting schedule in my “garden” folder and Elliot Coleman says, “Hello”
Lettuce. Available as an iPhone cover!