Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Curriculum for Learning to Farm (Part 1)

Interviewing apprentice/volunteer hopefuls--and then working with them--is always a learning experience: I learn more about how much I knew when I started out "knowing nothing about farming".

SOME--by no means all--of the learning I had under my belt when I started this farm includes:

--When I was a toddler, I was read field guides instead of children's books for bedtime stories, thereby learning to identify a vast number of birds, insects, etc. before I could read. At 3, I spotted my first Tufted Titmouse, referencing it by name before any adult could see it.

--When I could read, I poured over Mom's biology text books (Animals without Backbones, Between Pacific Tides, Botany, Mammalogy, etc.) and other scholarly tomes, including the Yearbook of Agriculture volume on Animal Diseases (a special favorite because it had a chapter on HORSES--I was a horse nut from about age 1 when we lived across the street from a horse, whom I visited frequently on my own, to my mother's dismay). Then the History of Techonology series (Oxford University publications) was the foundation of most of our school social studies reports, encouraging us to delve into by-gone eras for relevent bits of cleverness using simple materials. I built a functioning bow drill out of sticks, lumber scraps, string, and a flattened nail that I sharpened by rubbing it on the concrete sidewalk.

--Dad was a physics professor, so we got long, detailed explanations on How Things Worked from an early age. And demonstrations. A favorite childhood bathtub toy was a submarine soldered from a tin can. You blew air into it, or sucked air out, through a piece of plastic tubing, and it rose and sank.

--Even children's books purchased for us were educational. "Look At A Flower" detailed the vast variety of plant reproductive organs in simple, scientifically correct language and lovely accurate drawings.

--We didn't watch much else, but we watched every Jacques Cousteau and National Geographic special that was on TV.

--We spent a lot of time outdoors--gardening, hiking, camping, etc. Birdwatching and nature observation was as natural as breathing. Parents narrated and explained everything with scholarly accuracy and frequent consultation with to the reference books.

--Camping included living in tents for up to a month every summer, on an island in Canada with no running water and no electricity. We took only what would fit in our small sailboat, so I learned to live very, very simply and also that such living was fun, relaxing and easy (Mom probably has a different memory of those times). We fished (and I became proficient at cleaning fish by age 9 or 10) and foraged for some of our food. Mmmm...Mom cooking blueberry pancakes cooked on an open fire that I'd built myself, after picking the blueberries from the rocks behind the tent! Oooooh, Dad figuring out how to bolt shut the ice chest with padlocks and suspend it from the rafters of the picnic shelter to try tokeep the racoons out of it. EWWWWWW Mom using Solarcaine ("kills sunburn pain") to sterilize the racoon saliva on the outside of the ice chest.... Thus I learned resourcefulness....

And I had all that stuffed into my thinking cap by the time I got to junior high school.


--Jr. high biology dissections were a breeze after cleaning fish as a kid, so instead of being grossed out I was intrigued to learn more of the words to go with familiar parts. Butchering chickens 30 years later was no sweat at all, just a little more complicated.

--Need a topic for speech class? Ask Dad! Preparing a presentation on the dynamics of water currents in ponds as they warm and cool gave a lasting understanding of why life is possible on earth thanks to the fact that water expands as it changes phases. Understanding the dynamics of a stock tank when the deicer malfunctions--same thing.

--When my daughter was born, we wanted to do a home birth...very radical at that time. I studied the physiology of childbirth in some detail, plus studied nutrition intensely, with a focus on protein balancing (Diet for A Small Planet). Later, I was able to quiz out of a 3-hour college coarse on nutrition by sitting down and acing all the tests in one sitting. 25 years later, slogging through the details of balancing sheep diets was time-consuming but familiar. And I had a pretty good general background for being a sheep midwife, though it was still pretty stressful at first when things went wrong with a ewe. Things seem very different when you are in charge, instead of just a bystander.

--As the eldest child, I was the one who most frequently helped Dad with building and repair projects when he needed someone to fetch something or hold the other end of the board. I learned a lot about tools--their names, how to use them, how not to use them--by watching and listening. Later, I put my excellent "go-fer" skills learned as a child to good use, hanging out with carpenter friends and assisting on job sites during a time of unemployment. A great way to learn about construction tricks--from the pros. I did the same thing with a mechanic friend, and did most of my own mechanic work with my first 4 or 5 vehicles (until fuel injection and electronic ignition rendered crucial aspects of my understanding--and tool collection--obsolete).

--As a young adult, I took an evening course in home wiring, and helped rewire several homes that I lived in through the years.

--Later, in my early 30's, I learned a lot about commercial vegetable production (more than I really wanted to know, actually) indirectly through research that I did when I worked for an environmental consulting firm. Through that job, I took related college courses: Insecticide Properties and Laws, Vegetable Crop Production, Greenhouse Management. I attended a graduate-level seminar on The Beneficial Effect of Vegetation on Contaminated Soils (how could I pass up a title like that?).

--I had friends who had sheep, and I spent every spare minute at their place helping out with the most disgusting and mundane work (sink after sink of washing two-week-old dirty dishes, for example) just so I could watch what they were doing, and asking a million questions. I took charge of their small farm for an entire month, while working a full-time job and going to school, for no reward other than the opportunity to feel what it felt like (and the privilege of being hoodwinked by a half-wild turkey, Ellie...).

And THEN I got my own farm. And felt like I knew abosolutely nothing.

Ironically, that was about the time, 20 years after my first college class, I earned a BS in Human Resource Management from Friends University, with memorable course work in Business Ethics, Problem Solving, Group Dynamics, Time Management, and Statistics, completing the program requirements with an in-depth research project on Life/Work Management.

FINALLY I started studying farming in earnest. Book after book on sheep health, nutrition, care, etc. Picking the brains of my mentors. Helping them on their farms whenever possible.

And I worked off the farm part time.

--At Water's Edge (a water garden store) I delved deeper into the nuances of pond ecology, and applied it to managing stock tanks at home. I also learned the names of a million plumbing parts, and how they all went together. And got over my prudery at calling them "male" and "female" in polite company. I learned about portable water pumps and how they break. And I had a marvelous opportunity to observe a small, efficiently run business in action.

--At Howard Pine's Greenhouse and Garden Center, I learned by massive repetition how to prick out seedlings and grow transplants. I learned the nuances of local growing conditions and calendar from folks who'd been growing in the neighborhood for generations.

--At Bowser Meat Processing, I learned a lot about processing meat, but most importantly I learned what "sharp" meant, in regards to cutting implements.

Now, I've been farming for a solid 12 years. There is still far more that I don't know, than I know. There are huge gaps in my knowledge and experience of which I am acutely aware. But, I do have a thing or two to teach. And I love teaching others these things I enjoy so much, and find so fascinating.

But in teaching what I know, I become ever more aware of how much others don't know, and how unaware they are of their lack of knowledge.

Anatomy, physiology, nutrition, life cycles--for plants and for animals. The names of weeds, trees, birds, bugs, tools, materials, etc. The manner of using basic tools, let along specialty ones. Or our bodies.

How to sharpen things. Or mend things. Or tie knots (childhood sailing adventures serve me well here). Or use gravity. Or hear things. Or figure things out.

Plumbing. Wiring. Carpentry. Internal combustion engines.

These are all so essential to farming.

And yet notice--I have said not one thing about how to plant a seed, or pick a vegetable. Yet that is all some folks think they need to learn in order to farm. And they think that I can teach them in a year, four hours a week. And they think they should be paid for their time! It's especially baffling when kids with expensive college degrees come to me wanting to learn, but expect to not pay tuition; and think they can set their own class schedule, changing it at a whim; and don't want to read any books or take any tests.

Farming is not a kindergarten class. It is post-doctorate level work. If you are coming to me to learn, esp. to be paid, you should expect to work as hard intellectually as if you were in grad school. Think of it as a GTA sort of thing...getting paid a pittance to work unbelievably hard at someone else's beck and call, and have to attend classes at inconvenient times and keep up with your studies and write papers on top of all that, and do a research project. And come to it with a sound foundation in the basics (as outlined above) or do remedial studies before getting the job.

I don't mind doing the remedial classes for those that need them. Honest. I actually enjoy working with beginners. But please, folks, understand that there is a LOT to learn BEFORE you can really learn to farm...and be prepared to work at it.

I hope by the end of the year the farm will be able to pay someone to work with me on the farm. But that person will need to come to the farm with a good foundation in most of these areas, or will need to spend a full year as a full-time volunteer to catch up in key areas of learning.

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