February 2007
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Farm Internships Win-Win

 
  Whit Able, foreground, an intern at Red Root Farms at Banks, and Gary Weil, owner of the Community Support Agriculture farm, were busy bunching onions to include in the boxes for their CSA customers. The boxes included cabbage, Japanese turnips, broccoli, spinach, lettuce and collards.
Apprenticeship Program Promotes Farm Life

By Jaine Treadwell

Apprenticeships have been around for ages, but not many of them are offered here in South Alabama. Not many except at Red Root Herb and Vegetable Farm in rural Pike County.

For Gary Weil, owner of Red Root Farm, apprenticeships or internships are a win-win situation.

"I can get ‘affordable’ farm workers and they can get the knowledge and experience of hands-on farm work," Weil said. "We all benefit."

Over the past several years, Weil has offered internships to a score of young men who have farming in their blood or loose screws in their heads. "Internships work very well on the farm," he said. "You get young people who are interested in farming. They want to pursue a career in farming so they strive to do a better job and they work hard in an effort to produce a good crop and to learn all that they can because what they learn will benefit them when they are out on their own."
 
Red meat radishes that look like tie-dyed shirts are a popular item at Red Root Farm. Gary Weil, farm owner, said the radishes have a taste that is almost sweet and add color and flavor to any salad.  
The internships also benefit the farmer. "I can’t do all of the work by myself and I really can’t afford to hire help," Weil said. "And, if I could, there is a real lack of folks who want to do this kind of work."

"This kind of work" is not work that many people want to do. Farmers make up less than two percent of the nation’s population and only a small percentage of those are young farmers. So, what’s the attraction of a few young men and women to the farm internships?

"I guess they are like me, they just love farming," Weil said. "This is the best life there is. At least to me it is." And, undoubtedly it is to about 20 young men and women who have found their way to Red Root Herb and Vegetable Farm to work and learn more about organic farming and Community Supported Agriculture.

"Of those who have done internships here, three of them have gone on to their own farming operations," Weil said. "One is in Massachusetts, one in Kentucky and the other is in Comer. When Whit (Abel) and Sam (Combs) complete their internships in about a month, they plan to farm together in the Atlanta area."

Abel and Combs have been interning at Red Root Farm for about six months. Abel, who is from the Atlanta area, said the experience that he has gained will be invaluable as he begins farming on his own.

But his experiences have not been limited to South Alabama. He has done internships all across the country. "I interned in Colorado where I worked at fruit orchards that had 32 different varieties of fruits," he said. "I also worked on an organic farm in California where they grew tomatoes and cucumbers and many other kinds of vegetables. When you work on farms in different areas of the country you learn about different varieties of fruits and vegetables and different methods of farming. It’s good experience and will help me to one day become self-sufficient on the farm."

 
  Kelly Johnson was busy washing Japanese turnips to include in boxes to be delivered, fresh from the farm, to CSA customers in Pike and surrounding counties. Seeds for Japanese turnips are $10 an ounce, putting them in the “gourmet” vegetable group.
Abel didn’t grow up on a farm and he can’t really explain the origin of his interest in farming. "I just wanted to know where my food came from," he said. "And, I like the idea of being able to take care of myself. That’s real freedom when you know that you can be self-sufficient if the time comes."

Abel said it was not too many years ago that people were self-sufficient. They grew the food they needed. As individuals, they were self-sufficient but they were also a part of a collective community that was in itself self-sufficient.

"There might come a time when we will have to be self-sufficient again," he said. "And, few people would have any idea what to do or how to do."

At Red Root Farm, Abel is learning how to farm on small plots of land yet produce large quantities of different types of vegetables.

"What I would like to do when I complete my internship here is go back to Atlanta and open a community garden," he said. "I like the concept of a community garden. They are beneficial in many ways but especially in that people have an opportunity to learn how to garden and to grow their own food."

 
Gary Weil is up to his chin in cover crops. Weil, owner and operator of Red Root Herb and Vegetable Farm at Banks in Pike County, purchases the seeds for his cover crops at Goshen Farmers Co-op. Weil said that cover crops such as oats and winter peas are “our fertility.”  
Abel explained that community gardens are becoming increasingly popular in different areas of the United States, especially in California and the Northeast. "In large cities, there is no land for farming or even for small garden plots," he said. "So, community gardens are the only opportunities people have to try their hands at farming."

A community garden is a large area of city land that is divided into plots, maybe 20x20 feet. Each ‘gardener’ is allotted a plot. An implement shed is centrally located and gardeners can check out the garden tools they need to farm their plot.

"The community gardens allow people to learn about gardening as they manage their own plots and grow their own food," Abel said. "There is a huge community garden in Birmingham – Jones Valley Farm – and it is working really well."

Weil and Abel both believe that the interest in community gardens will continue to grow in cities around the country and that will be good for those who choose farming as their careers and for the general population as well.

"Here in rural south Alabama, most people have a good idea about where their food comes from, many of them have home gardens and farming is still a big part of our economy," Weil said. However, the masses probably have little or no knowledge of what it takes to put food on their tables.

As more people become involved in community gardens and more people become "customers" of Community Support Agriculture farms, the more they will know and the more they will appreciate those who put their hands to the plow in an effort to keep America growing.

By offering internships at his Red Root Farm, Weil said he is making an investment in the future of farming in the United States. "These interns go out and work on farms with the intention of someday owning a CSA farm or managing a community garden," he said. "Some of them go right into farming."

When young farmers go to the fields and organically grown products can be offered at affordable prices, the future of farming is secured and everyone benefits.

Jaine Treadwell is a freelance writer from Brundidge.