|Student's Love of Food Leads to 'Learning Experience' Down on the Farm
September 02, 2010
By Jenn Burns ‘12
(For more reports on students' summer activities, visit the Summer Stories blog.)
| Jenn Burns in a non-farm environment.
The baby broilers are screaming for food. I climb into their temporary nursery and 500 white puffballs attack my boots, making it challenging to move to their feeding dishes.
Again I ask myself, "Why am I here?"
I could have a flashy job in New York City or be a sophisticated intern on The Hill. I learn about my Davidson friends' adventures in Beirut, at Cambridge, and in the south of France when my phone catches the weak signal.
I am sharing soil with 1,500 birds, 30 cows, and 70 sheep. I am alone - and really, really dirty.
It all began because my passion is food. In fact, I created an environmental studies major that includes every food-related class at Davidson. I am a vat of worthless food knowledge. Did you know carrots weren't originally orange? Rather, they were bred to be orange hundreds of years ago. I also know the location and open hours of every farmers' market in the city, and almost every restaurant in town.
Yet, until this summer I had never produced an ounce of food. Not even a backyard tomato plant or bit of basil.
Adam Moody changed that. Adam owns and operates three full-service butcher shops in the suburbs of Indianapolis, my hometown. He also has a farm. He isn't an organic farmer, though. He simply believes in sustainability, both environmental and economic. As his employee Michael O'Donnell explains, "You gotta take care of the land. It's as easy as that."
A farm is a full-circle operation. Feed grows, which nourishes the animals, who provide income for the farmer to start the cycle anew. The Moodys grow corn, soybeans, and spelt for their animals. They don't take the easy way and put their livestock on concrete. That might make more money faster, but it degrades the health of animals and humans and isn't environmentally sustainable. Instead, their cows walk and eat in the pasture.
"You must show people that it can be done, that it is possible to run an economically and environmentally sustainable operation," says Adam Moody.
During my first trip to his butcher shop at the beginning of summer vacation, I asked some detailed questions about the meats. Soon enough, Adam was asking me questions. Not 10 minutes later he offered me a home on his farm, because, he said, "If you want to do anything in the food world, you must know where your food comes from."
He agreed to pay my room and board. All I had to do was work. Maybe it was the effect of the Vicodin following a recent surgery, but I said "Yes!"
Two weeks later I was an hour out of town at the intersection of corn and soybeans. I was immediately put to work.
The day began at 7 a.m. Or 6 a.m. to beat the heat if we needed to pull weeds. This farm did not kill weeds with Roundup. We pulled them by hand from rows and rows of beans. It was hard on the back, but a nice way to get to know Adam's son Isaac, who managed on-farm operations, and Michael, a mechanical engineer pursuing a doctorate in sustainable-energy technologies who believes the only truly sustainable option is to change conventional farming techniques.
|Photo by Jenn Burns of a jungle of corn on the farm.
The farm was a different world. Luckily, I was used to living in a dorm room, so my "shack," as it was lovingly called, was fine, albeit a bit hot and muggy. AC would have been appreciated on days when the heat index hit 115 degrees.
The day wasn't over until the work was done. And unfortunately, farm life includes an infinite amount of work. Luckily, though, it always gets dark...eventually.
We had iPhone technology for communication and access to the internet, but were always at the mercy of nature.
Everything depended on how wet or dry the ground was.
Some things on the farm were more stereotypical than I could have imagined, such as watching the sun set over the fields from my hand-built wooden porch while eating eggs I gathered just a few hours before.
Only a fraction of my day was spent working with the animals, but they were the most fun. My favorite cow loved to lie in the shade with all four legs pointed straight out to the side. The eight cows that lived not more than 10 feet from my shack mooed every time I went outside. Checking the pastures for holes in the fences, I walked as the point of a flying V formation, with the entire flock of chickens following me.
I could hardly have been less qualified for the job. I had never before used a ratchet or a socket, and didn't even know the difference between them.
My lack of experience was evident when Isaac and Michael kindly let me "help" in things they were doing. Michael asked jokingly, "Fixing a combine is a part of the liberal arts education, right?" Wrong. But I organized, read the manual aloud, cleaned chains, and pumped the brakes while they changed the fluid below.
|Jenn Burns photo of her living quarters and outhouse.
I worked hard at the task of the moment-collecting eggs, grinding feed, harvesting hay or moving hen houses to new pasture. Believe it or not, slaughtering chickens had been a part of my freshman-year writing class, but slaughtering 100 birds that I had watched grow was a bit more challenging.
I finally concluded that I am honestly not meant for farm life. Not only was I lacking the skills, but I made some cultural faux pas as well. I brought up the World Cup games, thinking that it would be a great way to bond with the boys. But it turns out no one has cable TV. I wanted badly to belong, but it was obvious I was inherently different - right down to my pink Sperry rain boots.
As with most things, looking back it seems that things weren't so bad, even with the trouble. I enjoyed spending the day outside with Isaac and Michael. As we worked, we talked about which super powers we would choose (Isaac chose the ability to learn anything), and Michael helped me brainstorm ideas for my thesis (the most interesting was the feasibility of sustainable farming on a medium-to-large scale). I found the guys thought-provoking, while my friends back home just seem to talk about each other.
I learned the importance of going to the outhouse for the last time before dark, and I almost miss the calluses on my fingers from lifting buckets.
Life there wasn't bad -it was simply different, with a capital D. I learned more at the farm than I could have from reading any book or seeing any movie. Isaac never went to college, yet he is an accomplished mechanic, electrician, carpenter, veterinarian, and more.
Many people think grass-fed beef and organic products are astronomically expensive. But knowing now the labor and time that goes into the products, I'd say those prices are a steal.
It is unbelievable how much more I now value my food. If more people spent time on a sustainable farm, farmers would be ranked with the doctors and professors of our society. They are invaluable contributors to our well-being by improving the environment and offering us precious nutrition. Can you imagine life without food?
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,800 students located 20 minutes north of Charlotte in Davidson, N.C. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently regarded as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. Through The Davidson Trust, the college became the first liberal arts institution in the nation to replace loans with grants in all financial aid packages, giving all students the opportunity to graduate debt-free. Davidson competes in NCAA athletics at the Division I level, and a longstanding Honor Code is central to student life at the college.