Summer internships are going organic
College student interest in farms reaches a high
NEW YORK - Erin Axelrod, who graduated from Barnard College last week with an urban studies degree, will not be fighting over the bathroom with her five roommates on the Upper West Side of Manhattan this summer. Instead she will be living in a tent, using an outdoor composting toilet, and harvesting vegetables on an organic farm near Petaluma, Calif.
As the sole intern at a boutique dairy in upstate New York, Gina Runfola, an English and creative writing student, has traded poetry books for sheep.
And Jamie Katz, an English major at Kenyon College in Ohio, is planting peach trees at Holly Tree Farm in Virginia.
These three are part of a new wave of liberal arts students who are heading to farms as interns this summer, in search of both work, even if it might pay next to nothing, and social change.
They come armed with little more than soft hands and dog-eared copies of Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma," which takes a dim view of industrial agriculture.
A few hope to run their own farms. Others plan to work on changing government food policy. Some are just looking for a break from the rigors of academia. But whatever the reason, the interest in summer farm work among college students has never been as high, according to dozens of farmers, university professors, and people who coordinate agricultural apprenticeships.
Andrew Marshall, who began organizing apprenticeships for the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association in 2003, used to see an average of 75 applications a year. This season, he has fielded more than 200, with more coming in every day.
Katherine L. Adam, who runs the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, financed by the Department of Agriculture, said 1,400 farms sought interns this year, almost triple the number two years ago. The number of small farms, which attract the new agrarians and can use the cheap, enthusiastic help, has grown sharply since 2003, according to the department.
Of course, employing people who know a lot about food systems but nothing about farming can be as much a headache as a help. Manure spreaders get broken, carrot shoots get pulled instead of weeds, and people sleep in. It is not all hayrides and flowers for the apprentices, either. Adam gets complaints from interns who say the amenities are not good enough or the farmers work them too hard.
Still, during a recession, a summer on the farm provides respite from grim job hunts and as much bohemian cachet as backpacking through Europe. But for many students, farm life is a way to act on the growing enthusiasm for locally raised food and the increased concern over food safety and the environmental impact of agriculture.
Some students say food is the political movement of their time. "I no longer wish I was born in the '60s," said Katz, who discovered farming as an outgrowth of his interest in environmental issues. But food policy is much more personal than deforestation or global warming. "Everyone eats, and everyone has a vested interest in this," he said.
The new rush from campus to country is not among conventional agricultural students from land-grant schools. Many of those still seek internships on large-scale farms or with companies like Monsanto, although interest in studying conventional agriculture has been in decline for at least a decade, said John P. Reganold, a soil science professor at Washington State University. To counter that, Washington State in 2006 became the first university to offer an organic farming degree, he said.
About a third of the new agrarians will receive college credit, he and other professors estimated. The rest have to be satisfied with room, board, and a stipend that can be as little as $25 a week and as much as $300 a week or more at larger farms.
At 3-Corner Field Farm in Shushan, N.Y., Karen Weinberg hires one intern to help her raise lambs and make sheep's milk cheese.
She picked Runfola, who had already worked for her selling cheese at the Greenmarket in Union Square in New York.
Runfola, who grew up on the Jersey Shore and has never even gone camping, will plot her next move from a small trailer parked near the Internet connection in the main farmhouse.
"Working on the farm really doesn't pay that much, so it's not helping me economically," said Runfola, who has left New York University and plans to attend a less expensive college. "But it's free room and board while I figure out my next move."