Whitman students drawn to community farms for summer work

Elise Otto

Sara McCune, like many Whitman students, thoroughly enjoyed her intro to environmental studies course. Yet a field trip to a sustainable farm sparked her interest beyond the classroom; while riding on a seeder she realized she wanted to spend her summer working at an organic farm.
Whitman students drawn to community farms for summer work | Photo by Ellie Klein
McCune, a sophomore cross-country runner, began looking for opportunities around her hometown of Corvallis, Ore., and found a job as a “packing shed assistant” on a farm called Gathering Together.

“As important as being involved is, it would have been frustrating. Progress isn’t obvious, but working on the farm, being involved in the process, it’s instant gratification,” said McCune.

McCune’s experience isn’t altogether unusual in a college such as Whitman. Several students have worked on a variety of community and organic oriented farms. Regardless of the type of farm, there are several common allures of organic farming. “I wanted to do a job that was physically strenuous,” said McCune. “It’s a thing you can do that makes a visible difference.”

Like McCune, Kevin Van Meter got the idea of working on a farm from the classroom, this time in a politics course. He found work through the Whitman Internship Fund on one of two organic farms around Walla Walla. “On a small farm, everyone does everything,” said Van Meter. He did do everything, from weeding, transplanting, to fertilizing and dealing with the ever-present insects. “Squash Bugs had to be put in soapy water to kill them,” said Van Meter. This kept them from giving off a scent that would attract even more bugs.

Bugs aren’t the only pests that agriculturists have to deal with. “All our goats and sheep got eaten by the mountain lions,” said Peter Gurche, who spent several summers working on a farm in Northern California. “But they didn’t eat the llamas because they spit.”

Chickens and goats were also raised without issue on the farm where Kyle Byrd-Fisher worked, an urban farm in Goleta, located near Santa Barbara. The farm, a non-profit, took up four city blocks and sold most of its produce through the fruit stand where Byrd-Fisher was employed.

Several of the farms provided community beyond that which naturally comes with hard work. “Only women worked in the Barn,” said McCune, “so it was basically one huge counseling session all day every day.” Community on farm is often centered on food. McCune’s farm contained a restaurant where all the workers were served lunch three days a week, and snacks, such as hot pastries. Byrd-Fisher had a similar experience. There were cooking classes and dinners, one where an older goat was killed and roasted for the farm community.

Van Meter envisions such food-centered community. “Uses so many technological fixes such as big corporate farms do, it doesn’t seem like you have the same relationship with the land.” Van Meter sees organic as “the lifestyle, food that is grown by myself or people in my community, working with nature and not wasting food.”
Such a relationship can be more than a political statement. McCune spoke of a coworker who had worked while pregnant on a potato farm that used pesticides. “When her son was born, a large part of his bowel was missing from the pesticides,” she said.

Organic farms provide an opportunity to understand that which Americans infamously ignore. “You don’t know what (being an environmentalist) means until you actually get your hands dirty,” said Byrd-Fisher. “It’s more fun and interesting than any policy work.”

Gurche agrees, “Doing something like (organic farming) is the only way to really support the environmental movement.”