Late Summer at Quail Hill Farm: A Chat With Its Young Farmers

A Year in the Life of a Farm

When I first visited Quail Hill Farm in late March, the new batch of farm apprentices had only recently arrived. Farm work is typically a one-season contract, so young farmers move around a lot, working on new farms every year. I've always been curious: who are these young farmers who've signed up for a 5-8 month contract working on a CSA farm? How did they come to farming? Do they have time to eat what they grow? What do they think about city folk like me coming out to ask them a bunch of questions? Meet Barrie, Rachel, Kate, Sean, and Calvin.

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Name: Barrie Cohen
Age: 24
Originally from: Manhattan
At Quail Hill since: April 2012. This is her first full-season farming experience.

Why farming?
It was just always something that was so exciting and different from the way that I grew up. It's really nice to go from being in the city to being in this wide, open spaces. It's also really exciting to see where your food comes from and how it grows and all the work that goes into it.

What's the most surprising thing you've learned about farming?
It's a lot of work, and I think that people don't understand what goes into it, how to maintain a plant and to keep it going, and how much weather really affects what's going on. I feel like I look at rain in a whole different way now. Something like tomatoes - people eat them and they don't understand how sensitive of a plant they are. So, that's really interesting. [But] I still think it's pretty romantic. It's beautiful to be surrounded by all this healthy food and this healthy lifestyle.

What's your favorite crop?
The husk cherries just came up... it's something I've never eaten before. They're really delicious.

Do you cook?
We'll get out and that's pretty much all I have energy for at the end of the day. It's really nice to use what you've produced. I just tried my first experience in canning. It was exciting. I didn't realize the process that went into it to sterilize the jar, and everything cooked down a lot more than I thought it would.

What's next for you after this farming season?
I think I'm going to move into the city for the winter and hopefully find a job that has to do with local food there. I'd really like to move West and find a farm in either Oregon, or Seattle, or California, and see what it's like over there... I think that farming gives you the ability to travel and see different places in a whole different way.

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Name: Rachel Klepner
Age: 23
Originally from: Upper West Side, Manhattan
At Quail Hill since: Since February 2012

Why farming?
I grew up in the city and knew nothing about farming. [Then] I went to [a small liberal arts] school in Indiana which is like a whole other world... There was a student run farm that part of the college owns... I lived and worked there for two years. They gave us a small amount of money to grow whatever we wanted, and growing in Indiana is a whole new thing. There's a lot of corn, a lot of soy beans, but really, the soil - there's so much nutrients in the soil that stuff just grows. You don't really have to do that much work, and stuff will just grow. The Midwest - you know stuff gets farmed there, but really, it's good land for farming. Anyway, and I just loved it.

There's a lot of romanticism now around farming. What do you think about that?
I think it's really strange. Here at Quail Hill there are a lot of tourists. It's, like, weird, because people want to ask you questions but they know you're working and they don't want to impose, but they're also very interested. This is like their field trip to the zoo! I'm not saying that in a patronizing way.

What's the most surprising thing you've learned about farming?
This might not be so interesting to those who aren't farm-savvy, but [the fact that] every land you farm on is different, especially when you're moving from place to place. Like, learning about this soil: it's been potato land for so long and we have such a large problem with potato beetles. Things like that you can only learn by actually farming in that place. There's no way to get that knowledge without doing it.

Do you cook?
That's a good question! The funniest thing is that all farmers have appreciation for great food, and I think every farmer is more picky than most consumers. They know what it tastes like, they know what it tastes like at different times of the season. We're the most picky and we have very specific tastes about it. But the time we have... I mean, I've cooked so little, so, so little. It's, like, having a huge plate of food and you can't eat it! It's a huge irony and a huge joke. But we all know that, and we have to preserve for the future. We will have down time eventually and we do want to partake in it...It's a little sad to be, like, I've had cherry to,atoes for this long and I still haven't made a tomato pie. Will I get to? I don't know!

What's your favorite crop?
Honestly, and maybe this is just because I haven't had it yet and I haven't had to pick two acres worth of it, but I think I'm really excited for sweet potatoes. I've never grown them before. But they are such a long process, because there's also a curing process for them. They don't sweeten up until the nights get colder [in October]. So you really have to be patient.

What's the best part about farming?
I think [doing different things everyday] is the best part about farming, and the thing I like the most about it. You get to do a million different things everyday. I mean, there are some tasks like hanging garlic that we did for three days straight. But for the most part, you're doing so many different things. I'd really like to work with animals again. Livestock is a really integral part of this process, and it's really nice to have a more live aspect that you can interact with.

What's next for you after this farming season?
I think I'm going to move into the city for a little while... but I really would like to go out West. I've never been out there. I've heard very good things about Portland and near Seattle. I'm also really interested in this one farm that's right outside San Francisco.

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Name: Sean Frazier
Age: 22
Originally from: Montauk, Long Island
At Quail Hill since: Early June 2012. This is his first season on a real farm.

Why farming?
I grew up playing around this farm. My parents were members when I was a kid. [But] I started doing it just for community service for high school, and I really liked it. I'd always been into doing outdoor work. I mostly did landscaping and lawn mowing in high school, but in college [at Princeton studying Physics], I did the exact opposite, really theoretical stuff all the time... I just needed something where I felt like I could see the impact of my work more, and I wanted to be outside, which is one of the main things... I guess I just fell in love with how much you can grow in a small space, and how beautiful it can be, and just being outside everyday and just learning so much while you're working. You don't even have to search for it. It's just right in front of you all the time.

How does the idea of farming differ from the reality of farming?
When I was at school all my friends [who were looking for really competitive jobs] would say "Oh, I wish I could do that," or something. And I know what they're saying; they like the idea of it. But, you can do it! You're smart enough, if you're in decent shape, you can do it. People just don't really mean it when they say that at all. They don't want the whole package. They only want part of it. It's, like, "Oh, I work in an office, you work outside, that sounds nice." But you sweat, you lift heavy stuff all day, you're dirty, you get paid much less than them. I mean, you can eat as much as you want, so that's not really a problem. But I think it's really romanticized. There's great stuff about it, but I think a lot of people wouldn't like it maybe as much as they think they would. Or, it's not that they might not like it, but they're not willing to make $7.25 an hour, and work and sweat all day. That's what it is. They probably would like it if they gave it a chance.

What's the most surprising thing you've learned about farming?
I don't know if this counts as surprising, but something I'm constantly amazed about: how much grows per square foot. The bounty is constantly surprising. It's almost stressful because we can't harvest everything! It's easier to plant than to harvest. We plant a ton and we don't get to it all, and it bothers me all the time that there's stuff rotting in the field. I think that's just the nature of it, and you have to let it go. But it's always surprising to me when it's, like, thousands of ripe tomatoes that we are not going to have time to pick, and people would eat. And we're a small farm. It's just amazing how easy it would be to feed everyone if there was proper distribution and politics weren't involved.

What's your favorite crop?
I love sweet potoates in the fall.

What's next for you after this farming season?
I think I'm going to farm one more year. In the winter I was thinking of going to work on a boat, just to see what their life is like. {But I have a friend in Maui who has sailing charters] so I might do that and surf in Maui. My other plan would be to see what it's like living in Manhattan in winter, but I think I might do Maui first and maybe Manhattan another winter.

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Name: Kate Rowe
Originally from: Outside Chicago
At Quail Hill since: March 2012. This is her first summer at Quail Hill, but her 7th year in farming.

Why farming?
I got my BFA in photography and then I went and got my MFA in historic preservation... When I needed to move back home, [working at an organic CSA farm] was the first job I got It was really close to where I grew up, near Elgin. I just loved it - the really, really hard physical labor that we were doing. That winter I took a business course at Angelic Organics, which runs a CSA learning center. They run a program called "Farm Beginnings" where you can learn the business side of opening your own farm. By the following spring [my friend and I] were running our own farm called Farm Girl Organics on 5-acres of leased land north of Chicago. We did that just for one season.

Would you like to run your own farm again?
I would love to, if I found the right person to start a farm with again. It's really hard work, and it's hard to find the right temperament in another person. You love them so much, but 24 hours a day is intense - really early hours, really long long days. That summer [in Chicago] we had 17 inches of rain in August, and then the mosquitos hatched. So, it was a really intense year. But we learned so much, and I've never been in better shape in my life because we did everything by hand.

There's a lot of romanticism now around farming. What do you think about that?
The interest I love, but you're right about city people who haven't really experienced the incredibly hard work that it is - the long hours, you're out in all weather conditions no matter what. It's not tiptoeing through the flower patch, which a lot of people think it is. I got a lot of comments like that when I sold at the market in Chicago, which I thought was really funny - comments like "Oh, it must be so nice to be at the farm, so relaxing." It is funny that people still have that view of the family farm, that it's so calm and serne. They've never been on a farm if they think that! There are times on a farm that are magic, like when you get up before the sun in the summer to go milk, for example. It's still totally dark out, 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning. The birds are starting to wake up and you're walking, in darkness, to go out to the pasture to get the cows to bring them in. There's dew, mist rising. It is amazing. You can't replace the visual of that, and how it feels. [But those moments] are few and far between.

What's the hardest part about farming?
Honestly, you wouldnt' expect [finding the right mix of people] to be the hardest part of farming, but I honestly think it is - the right mix of people who can work together in a really tough environment, that really want to do physical labor 12 hours a day. Not everyone wants to do that. Especially with the resurgance and all the young farmers. I think if they haven't done any other physical jobs before, they don't know what they're getting themselves into, and I think it's a rude awakening, unfortunately, for some people. But other people, it really excites them and they feed off that energy and they really go for it, and they don't just do it because it's the cool fad. As an old man said to me at an event a couple weeks ago, "[We at Quail Hill] have made farming sexy" and I was really creeped out.

Do you cook?
There's no time during the season to cook. You're lucky if you get a break to eat lunch, let alone [to cook] at dinner. You're so tired. I'll eat anything raw that I don't actually have to cook or turn anything on, especially in the heat of the summer. I have a tiny little cottage. It's that, a glass of wine, and bed.

What's your favorite crop?
Right now during the heat and business of the summer, my go-to is always a caprese salad. I could eat it every night, with our huge fresh beautiful heirloom tomatoes. It's amazing when everything on the plate you've grown, touched, and nurtured, and you're eating it and it's nourishing you. It's a great feeling to have. [Also], a warm beet salad, just with a champagne vinaigrette and dill. So fabulous. I could eat that every day.

What's next for you after this farming season?
That is a good question. I would love to stay here, and hopefully we're going to work it out to have my position be a full-time, year-round position.

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Name: Calvin Kyrkosta
Age: 25
Originally from: Sea Cliff, NY
At Quail Hill since: March 2012. This is his first summer at Quail Hill, but his fifth year farming.

Why farming?
I've been farming for about five years, since I was a junior in college. I got into farming because on my spring break, my mom was, like, 'You're not allowed to live at home, you better get a job.' [I didn't know what to do so] she said, 'Well, you really love food, so maybe you should go grow some food.' So I moved to Minnesota and started growing food, and I've been doing it ever since.

There's a lot of romanticism now around farming. What do you think about that?
I think an interest in [farming] is better than nothing. I've only been doing this since 2007. A that point nobody farmed, and now you have a lot of people doing. So, the interest has piqued. I think organic food and well-grown local food is going to take over. The industry is going to do what the people want, and the more people know about it, the more they want the good stuff, the industry will turn around in terms of food if people want it that way. I mean, you have to pay a premium for it, but then you don't have to pay for healthcare afterwards, right?

What's the most surprising thing you've learned about farming?
I used to work on a beef cattle farm, so I'll talk more about meat production, but it's really not as bad as people think. I mean, it is really bad out in certain areas, like USDA choice stuff. But, is the slaughtering of chickens, and sheep, and pigs, and cows - is it such a horrible process? I think it's like a natural beauty thing. We're at the top of the food chain, and if you take care of your animals, they'll take care of you in terms of giving you sustanance. The same thing with vegetables. If you nurture the soil, the soil will give back to you. That's pretty much the most surprising thing I learned about farming. It's not just growing food; it's about working with the environment to help yourself.

Are you a cook?
I got into farming because of cooking. When I first started farming, I had no idea of the process. It's a 7-day week job. It depends on the markets you go to, but you have to do it every day. Food goes bad.

What's your favorite crop?
There's no better month of the year than August with tomatoes. There's just such a small window where you can get really, really good tomatoes, the way they're supposed to taste.. But I also love eggplant, I love peppers. I can't live without kale. Husk cherries are my new favorite thing this year. I like everything. My love for food is why I farm.

What's next for you when the farming season ends?
My girlfriend owns an Italian restaurant in NYC, which I will be bartending and waiting at [in the winter]. Farming is what I'll be doing with my life, it just depends on where. I don't really know. It changes season to season.

Thank you Barrie, Rachel, Kate, Sean, and Calvin!

(Images: Cambria Bold)

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A Year in the Life of a Farm

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