Community Philosphy Blog and Library

Why We Farm: I Could Be the Next Norman Rockwell…

Neysa working 2

A year and a half ago, my husband Travis and I decided we wanted to be organic farmers. Neither of us had a background in agriculture. In fact, I was probably about as disconnected from physical labor as you can get — I was pursuing my PhD. This weekly series will take you through Travis’ and my journey to own and operate our own organic farm. From a farm internship in a tiny New York town, to management positions at the largest CSA farm in the southern United States, and now our current project of running a one-acre farm in Austin, Texas, our experience has been filled with wild successes, sharp disappointments, and self-discovery. I hope our story can provide others with ideas and resources for their own farming projects–urban or rural, big or small, hobby or professional. I also hope it can shine some light on the new organic movement surging in urban spaces and among America’s young people. To me, our collective attempt to reconnect with food is a testament to the ability of youth to create, even in difficult times.

We turned off highway 6 into a neighborhood nestled among equestrian farms.  Next to the road and a dirt driveway, we saw a wooden sign, painted on it the words Ryder Farm, 1795.  Travis turned in and parked his hand-me-down Volvo in front of the historic farmhouse where, only a few months ago, we had accepted Betsey Ryder’s offer to intern on her farm for the summer of 2009.  Now it was May 1st, and our six months living and working on Ryder Farm had officially begun.

Travis and I got out of the car and took in the scenery. Gorgeous, blossoming trees surrounded us. Dots of wild and perennial flowers.  A greenhouse with a New York Farm Bureau sticker stuck to one side of the entrance.  An empty farmstand, waiting for the first fruits of the season.  Leaning against it, another wooden sign, this one shaped like a tomato and painted red, with the words “Farm Fresh” written in white.  I wish I could paint, I thought. Living here, I could be the next Norman Rockwell.



In the distance was one of Ryder Farm’s vegetable fields. Travis pointed, “Look, there’s people working.” And sure enough, there was a woman, perhaps close to my age, with long braided red hair and a big hat, crouched next to a fair-haired man.  For some reason, I found their presence exciting.  I realized it was my first time seeing farm work actually being done.  Travis and I watched them for a moment, kneeling down, moving slowly through the field.  I had no idea what they were doing.
Looking for Betsey, the two of us poked our heads into the farmhouse.  It seemed to be empty.  We called her name.  No answer.  “Well, let’s go ask the people in the field,” I said, and began marching over to them. There was a fence around the field twenty feet tall and clearly electrified. Not knowing if it was on or not, I stopped about ten feet away and called to the two farm workers, “HELLO! I’m Neysa and this is Travis! Is Betsey around?”

The girl with the red braids looked up from her work. “I’m not sure. Who are you?”

“We’re starting here today as interns!  We just drove in from Boston!  Do you know where Betsey is?” I tried again.

“Well Betsey didn’t say anything to me about that.” The girl just looked at us.

Travis and I glanced at each other.

“Do you know her cell phone number?” Travis asked.

“…Why?” came the response.

Why?!? I thought. But I said, “Do you have it so we can call her?”

The woman with the braids asked the blonde man, who to this point had been silent, if he knew Betsey’s number. He gave us the first three numbers, then said, “the rest is something like 68…42”

“Okay thank you!” Travis was hesitantly dialing the numbers as the blonde man rattled them off, and we began to walk back to the farmhouse.

“That was kinda weird,” I said to Travis as the phone was ringing.  But when Betsey answered, excited and welcoming, the tone of the day completely changed.  “Oh I’m so sorry I couldn’t be there to greet you today! I had to go into the City at the last minute,” she explained.  “I began cleaning out your guest house. Please make yourselves at home.  We’re really happy you’re here!  We have so much work!  I’ll be back later tonight and we can get you situated. Sorry again.”

This was one of my first encounters with Betsey, and over the summer she never stopped being so pleasant.  Travis and I went to our guesthouse, which was perfectly adequate for us, and started organizing our belongings.  The door was split so that you could open the top and bottom halves independently, and the view outside was breathtaking.  About an hour into our organizing spree, Travis became giddy.  He started frolicking in the grass and saying something about getting married on the spot.

As evening fell, I was starting to feel a little homesick and wondered if anyone was around the farmhouse, so I walked over, while Travis stayed and read. The same man from earlier in the day was there, slicing up a box of organic pears to be dehydrated. He was with a different woman, though. I introduced myself, found out their names were Josh and Autumn, and they invited me to help. I immediately felt better.

An hour or so later as I headed back to the guesthouse, the air was warm and everything was quiet.  I could feel a sort of stalled energy, like the farm was just waking up, readying itself for a busy season in New York.  I felt the same way.

The next morning was Saturday, but Travis and I hoped there would be some work to do.  Around 8am, we walked into the greenhouse with the New York Farm Bureau sticker and found Betsey watering her plants, wearing overalls and pink rain boots.  “Hellloooooo,” she smiled.  “Have you guys ever watered a greenhouse before?”

“No,” I said.

“Well, I worked in Target’s garden department…” Travis offered.

“Well then!” Betsey began, “The most important thing to remember is even watering.  Go slow and make sure you’re getting each plant.  You have to be methodical about it, otherwise you’re sure to miss little plants around the edges or in the back.  Here, you try.”  She handed Travis the hose.  I watched as Travis watered one side of the greenhouse, then he handed the hose to me and I watered the other side.

Betsey asked if we’d like to help plant kale, broccoli, and cauliflower for a few hours.  We said of course, so we began moving flats of transplants out from the greenhouse and onto some garden carts to take to the field.  “We need someone to pop and someone to plant.  Neysa, do you want to pop?”

I didn’t know what that meant. “Sure!” I said.

What that meant was using a butter knife to “pop” the transplants out of their little cells, making it easier for whoever is planting to get the plants out, with less chance of damage to the transplant.

We planted over 200 transplants in a few hours, trading off between popping and planting.  At one point I looked over at Travis as he scooched down the rows on his knees, placing tiny plants gently in the dirt.  I could see his eagerness.  Quite a change from the drudgery he felt in Boston, I noticed.  I so hoped that this move would be good for us.

Josh and Autumn appeared and planted with us, working and making conversation.  The two of them seemed very nice.  Josh especially seemed like good people–hardworking, straightforward, lighthearted.  There was no sign of the girl with the braids from the day before.  At about noon, we finished, watered the transplants at Betsey’s direction, and had the rest of the weekend to relax, explore, and wait for our first week of farm work.

Neysa is currently farming an acre of organic vegetables in Austin, Texas. For updates on her farm, visit www.dissertationtodirt.com or follow her on twitter @farmerneysa. View last week’s post here

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