College Grads Flock to Farms
Maine's organic growers attract more than 200 applicants to work and learn this season.
ALFRED - Just three days into her summer apprenticeship at Wolf Pine Farm, Elizabeth Hartsig, 27, appeared to be adjusting quickly to her first experience as an organic farmhand, despite a sunburn.
Hartsig, who grew up in the Chicago suburbs and has a master's degree in creative writing from Washington University in St. Louis, eagerly demonstrated what to do about the cutworms that have been showing up in the Swiss chard.
"You pick them up and rip them in half," she said.
Pest management is just one of the lessons Hartsig has learned since leaving a teaching job in Atlanta to spend the summer at the 50-acre farm owned by Amy Sprague and her husband, Tom Harms.
Hartsig must work the fields, tend to 80 chickens and help with the couple's 5-year-old and 3-year-old daughters.
Water must be hand-pumped and warmed via a solar panel, and wood for the stove must be split and stacked.
In exchange, Hartsig gets to live rent-free in an off-the-grid cabin with the other two apprentices. She gets four free meals a week, all of the farm's vegetables she can eat, a week's vacation and $700 a month.
Hartsig said she couldn't be happier.
"It is an incredibly beautiful place. I am very pleased to be here," she said.
Hartsig is one of hundreds of people spending the growing season at one of Maine's organic farms.
The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, which links apprentices with farmers, has been flooded with applications, which normally run about 70 a year. This year, 230 people applied for positions at the 85 farms that participate.
Organic farmers around southern Maine said they have seen a big increase in inquiries about farming positions this year, including people who travel the world, stopping off to work for a couple of weeks through the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms network, known as WWOOF.
Rachel Seemar, co-owner with Bethanny Peters of the Wildroot Farm in Kennebunk, said this year's apprentice heard about their horse-powered farm by word of mouth while hiking around Puerto Rico last winter.
Now she is happily residing in the apprentice's quarters - a tent on a raised platform - and learning how to drive workhorses for a $300 monthly stipend.
How much the recession and dreary job market play into the surge of interest is unclear. But for Andrew Marshall, educational programs coordinator at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, the increase in apprenticeship applications reflects an explosion of interest in locally grown food and sustainable agriculture.
The fact that Maine's organic farming association is one of the country's oldest and one of only a few with an organized and staffed apprentice program might be responsible as well.
The apprentices tend to be educated, single adults in their 20s or 30s who have read all of the requisite books, such as Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" or Barbara Kingsolver's "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle," but have little or no hands-on knowledge of food production.
"Frankly, most of the people who are interested don't have much experience with agriculture or even rural living," Marshall said.
Joey Listro, 22, is just a few college credits shy of graduating from the University of Southern Maine. He said his parents back in Connecticut were surprised when he announced his plan to spend his summer working at Rippling Waters Organic Farm in Standish.
"My parents were like, 'Wait a second, you are going to be a farmer? What were those four years of college education for?' " he said.
Organic farmers who take on apprentices rely heavily on them as a source of labor, and also take their responsibilities as teachers seriously.
Seth Kroeck of Crystal Spring Community Farm in Brunswick hands out notebooks with readings on agriculture to the four apprentices he takes on each year to help raise 125 lambs and 11 acres of vegetables for 225 customers who have bought shares of the harvest.
The apprentices have the choice of an apartment with all the amenities or a 1963 camper for their living quarters. They earn $800 a month and a small meal stipend.
"We pay at the top of the scale, but we are very selective," Kroeck said.
This year, the Crystal Spring group includes students or recent graduates from Brown University, St. Lawrence University, the University of New Hampshire and Prescott College.
Kroeck said that with all of that education, the level of discussion is high, which is important to him.
"Because we spend 60 hours a week together," he said.
Sprague, who got her own start in farming as an apprentice, said she has never had any of her helpers drop out, despite the long hours and hard work.
Robin Wiesner, 33, is a Brown graduate who majored in geology. She started her apprenticeship at Wolf Pine Farm on April 1 and said she quickly discovered why people don't leave.
The farm life is intensely satisfying, she said.
Although this is her first experience living outside a city, Wiesner said she relishes the dark and quiet at night. And she discovered that she had a real talent behind the wheel of a tractor.
"I'm in love with this place and this family," she said.