Down on the farm
More students opting to take on farming opportunities in summer, as career choices
Students in the Organic Farming Certificate Program Lauren Bonney, left, and Joanna Lehrman, talk while rinsing aphids from the leaves of a fresh batch of tot soy. The soy plants pictured are among the first greens harvested from the field this season.
Growing up in metro Detroit, Adam Montri, outreach coordinator for the MSU Student Organic Farm, didn’t consider farming to be a career choice. “I definitely grew up in the suburbs and thought of agriculture as something you did on the weekend or after school or that kind of thing,” he said.
While a student at MSU, Montri spent time working at the Student Organic Farm, which eventually led him to earn a master’s degree in horticulture from Penn State University. Now, Montri, who graduated from MSU in 2001, owns his own organic farm in Bath, Mich.
He’s one of a growing number of people who have or are pursuing agricultural education through internships on organic farms.
Ethan Schaffer, one of the creators of Organic Volunteers and the corresponding Web site Growfood.org, which has more than 20,000 members, said there has been an increased interest in internships and volunteer opportunities on organic farms. Web site membership has increased from 300 to 600 new members per month in 2009, he said.
“Our membership has doubled since the recession, and we’ve done no extra advertising or marketing,” Schaffer said.
MSU Student Organic Farm employee Ben Vanos picks spinach and tosses it into a bucket. The spinach later will be rinsed and boxed before either being taken to the stand on Farm Lane where the farm sells vegetables or it will go to a Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, member. CSA members pay for a share of the farm, and in return receive a weekly box of the organic vegetables.
Students are encouraged to garner experiences outside of MSU if they want to pursue organic farming, said Jeremy Moghtader, an academic specialist in the MSU Department of Horticulture and instructor on the Student Organic Farm. He’s spent five years at the farm.
“There’s a lot of students that will spend their first intensive summer on a farm here at the Student Organic Farm,” he said. “Usually, after they’ve done that, we recommend that instead of doing a second summer here that they go and do one on another farm, just to get that breadth and diversity of experience.”
Although students are eager for the experience, farmers are just as eager for the help, Moghtader said.
“There is a waiting list of farms seeking interns from MSU,” he said. “There’s a lot of farms that are interested both because they’re interested in training the next generation of farmers and because … they need workers.”
Kate Long, 31, graduated from MSU with an English degree but is interning at Needle-Lane Farms in Tipton, Mich. Long worked for the Student Organic Farm as part of the Organic Farming Certificate Program and said she learned a lot of the basics at MSU. She’s looking to gain more experience so she can start her own farm next year.
“I’ve learned a lot of (the) administrative part, like the marketing and prices to sell at and how to hire crew,” she said.
Jane Bush, owner of AppleSchram Organic Orchard in Charlotte, said she hires many interns from MSU, but also has hired international interns from locations such as Scotland.
“We find a value in teaching,” Bush said. “In teaching, there is always learning to be done.”
Organic farming is part of a personal philosophy for Ginette Golembiewski, a horticulture junior, works on the Student Organic Farm in order to fulfill an internship requirement.
“I think that humans need to find a way to live in balance with our resources, we need to find a way to be sustainable,” she said.
After being diagnosed with lymphatic cancer at 15, Schaffer said he began to draw parallels between healthy eating and living. Delving into how food is produced led him to his passion for organic farming, which has taken him around the world.
“When I went to New Zealand and started working on the farms there, I realized that there was another way, that there was a different way to do agriculture that’s healthier, more sustainable,” he said.
After the experience, Schaffer looked for a way to connect prospective organic farmers with interns, volunteers and employees. This paved the way for Organic Volunteers and his Web site. Organic Volunteers gains an average of 3,500 members every year and represents 1,500 host farms throughout all 50 states and Latin America.
“Our core mission is to train a new generation of organic farmers, but at the same time, provide (a) life-changing experience,” Schaffer said.
According to the National Gardening Association, 7 million more Americans will grow food in their households in 2009, a 19 percent increase since 2008.
“The people that are getting into this right now, they’re choosing to become farmers or to get in anywhere in the sustainable agriculture food sector,” Schaffer said.
Though Golembiewski has gained practical knowledge about organic agriculture during her internship, she said she has seen several sides of the industry.
“(I’m) learning a lot about the process of anything, how to work hard, how to do things quickly, teamwork, community building; it’s just amazing,” she said.
Overall, the organic farming experience is about connecting the consumer with their food source, Long said.
“If you buy small-scale organic, you know the person it’s coming from. You go to the farm and see it,” she said. “You can get your hands dirty and help volunteer.
“It’s a different sense of community than you would ever get if you went with the grocery store.”