University of Minnesota Agriculture student Ruth Burke is spending this summer interning at a CSA farm called Cramer Organics of Delano, MN. Throughout the growing season, she’ll share weekly updates about the experience with readers of the Heavy Table.
Part 1: “Jump and Figure It Out on the Way Down”
“I’m working at an Organic CSA.”
“You mean like a farm?”
“But you don’t have any experience with that.”
“I will after this summer.”
I’ve always been a “jump and figure it out on the way down” sort of person, so my choice to intern at an organic farm this summer did not come as a surprise to many of my closer friends and family. I firmly believe that the best way to learn something is to throw yourself into it and get your hands dirty (literally, in this case). Over the past few years, I have slowly been preparing myself to take over my family’s small farm in Iowa. Food production is simply the next step. Next summer will be focused on animal production. And at some point: basic machinery and carpentry skills (both of which I woefully lack).
Beyond my personal goal of continuing my family farm however, I have another, larger, and significantly more important goal: I hope to become a steward and educator in the sustainable agriculture movement. How did this dream come about? I’ll tell you:
Born in Long Beach, I’m a Californian at heart. I actually grew up in a few states, including Iowa and Minnesota. I did most of my schooling in Minnesota, and I graduated from Osseo Sr. High School. Upon graduation, I was burnt out and not ready for college.
So, I did what every confused, burnt out, and desperate-for-direction graduate does: I joined the military (specifically, the Marines). I was stationed in California, and while serving, I attended a few college classes. One of them was a geology class, and I knew then and there that my future would involve natural science. After my discharge, I headed back to Minnesota to attend college, filled with drive, determination, and (yes, even the cliché) discipline. I spent my first couple of college years at North Hennepin Community College, taking basic science courses and attempting to flesh out my career goals.
It didn’t take long for me to discover that I enjoyed working with plants, and at the suggestion of my research advisor, I decided to head into agriculture at the University of Minnesota. After my first agronomy class, I was hooked. Then all I needed to do was learn how to farm (not an easy task, I assure you).
Most of my fellow students were raised on farms, so things like tractors, rotations, and cover crops are familiar to them. Although my family has several farms in Iowa, my uncle farms them all and the rest of the family moved into various cities years ago.
Therefore, apart from the occasional holiday spent down on the farm, my experience with farming was limited. And, truthfully, this isn’t a skill that you can just “pick up” if you were raised in the city.
So, last summer, I jumped. I got a job working in the wheat labs at the U of M, and I experienced first hand the dirty, messy, hard work of growing, harvesting, and processing wheat. And although I’m still picking chaff out of some of my shirts and socks, I enjoyed the work and I found true satisfaction in what I did.
A year (and several courses, workshops, and volunteer experiences) later, I now know a great deal more about farming, and the kind I want to do. Even more importantly, I discovered a passion for responsible land stewardship.
You can’t learn about agronomy nowadays without also learning about our country’s soil degradation and water pollution issues. I’d like to not only take over my family farm, as I mentioned, but I’d also like to become an educator of sorts on sustainable agriculture.
My first step for both goals will be interning at a small organic CSA called Cramer Organics in Delano, MN. The owners are focused on sustainable practices and have made it their goal to educate their interns on such topics as composting, cover crops, rotation patterns, integrated pest and weed management, and proper post-harvest storage and safety (stuff that every good farm kid already knows, right?)
They routinely tap into and take advantage of research reported from the University of Minnesota on sustainable agriculture practices and new organic methods. The farm is also hoping to participate in research this summer through the NCR-SARE Farmer Rancher Grant Program that studies various weed-suppressing mulches.
I’m looking forward to becoming an integral part of their operation this summer as I intern from mid-May until late September. Each week, I’ll share a journal of thoughts, concerns, and descriptions of the positives and negatives that come with operating a small organic farm.
Expect to see topics ranging from current political tensions in the organic farm community to lighthearted stories about my experiences throughout the summer. I’ll try to keep a balance of serious discussion, humorous tales, and frustrating problems as they come about this season. By the end of the summer, I expect to have learned a great deal about local food from the ground up, and hopefully my readers will too!
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