By Mara Lee
On a sunny morning in July, Alicia Jabbar’s tank top is wet with sweat along her spine from the nape of her neck to the small of her back. She climbs onto the horizontal ledges at the bottom of a metal stake next to an ankle-high tomato plant. Jabbar, who’s wearing two ponytails under a baseball cap, has to use all of her body weight to push the stake into the earth. When she’s done with a row, she stands on tiptoes in her running shoes to drop a metal cylinder with two handles on the top of each stake.
Clang. Clang. Clang. Clang. The noise echoes off the trees.
“Twelve more rows,” she says.
“What time is it?” her friend Jessica Stanley calls. She’s busy looping string from a box at her waist around the stakes to support the tomato plants.
“Ten-thirty, and we’re halfway done,” Jabbar, 26, replies. They’ve been working since 7 a.m. and staking for the past two hours. “Sore back?”
Stanley says with a sigh: “There’s no way to avoid it. I try to move my hands in a different way — doesn’t matter. Well, I guess I’ll pound with you.”
Stanley, 26, who’s working in a camisole tank top, lives in an uninsulated barn on the farm and spends more than 50 hours a week weeding, mulching, harvesting and selling at farmers markets.
Just a year ago, she was making $110,000 a year at Cisco Systems in Herndon, often telecommuting from the two-bedroom condo she owns in Georgetown. Now, she makes $7 an hour. She and Jabbar, along with Jabbar’s fiance, Steve Hirschhorn, work for Chip and Susan Planck on Wheatland Vegetable Farms in Loudoun County.
They’re part of a growing pool of young, educated, politically motivated workers drawn to farming. Books such as bestseller “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” in which Michael Pollan championed the local food movement, are sparking interest in sustainable agriculture, or small-scale farms that embrace humane and eco-friendly practices. Such operations are getting a boost from Community Supported Agriculture, a system that lets customers pay in advance for a weekly share of a nearby farm’s crop; the number of members participating in CSAs grew 50 percent between 2007 and 2009. The number of farmers markets in the United States has jumped by almost 13 percent over the last year. Even the White House now has its own organic garden.
Some young workers are looking for a career change; others are in it for a season or just a summer. Their passion for small farms is real — but so is the physically exhausting, often tedious labor that comes with it. And reconciling theideals of local food and farming with the reality of sore backs, sweaty days and low pay isn’t easy.
Chip and Susan Planck have owned their 60-acre spread in western Loudoun County since 1979. Stanley said she and her friends chose Wheatland Farms because they wanted to work for “someone who was profit-driven and making a life of it, doing well.”
In the past few years, Wheatland has had far more inquiries from young people looking to try their hand at farm work. Even without a Web site, Chip was getting three inquiries a week as late as July.
Katherine Adam, agriculture specialist at the National Center for Appropriate Technology, said there were only six sustainable farms on a list for prospective student workers in 1989. Now there are 1,400, with 236 added from January to May. More than 3,000 workers spend their summers or a whole growing season on these farms.
“The whole zeitgeist about this stuff is changing. We couldn’t ask for a better climate for our business,” Chip says. He likes hiring college kids, because over the course of a season they can see the food through from start to finish; they plant the seeds, pick the produce and sell it at the farmers market. He smiles as he flips through a photo album with group pictures of 15 to 20 workers standing in front of a wagon. “It’s almost like hiring yourself.” Chip says fondly, “How could you not enjoy this group of people?”
But he admits they weren’t all good workers. If someone was a bit of a slacker, the rest of the crew had to work around it. Since many recruits have never even gardened before, it takes some time before they become efficient in the field. Despite a greater pool to pick from than ever before, there’s a risk that even the most idealistic worker will become disenchanted once the reality of long hours of hard work sets in.
That retention risk made it difficult for Stanley, Jabbar and Hirschhorn to get hired. “A lot of them didn’t want three people who knew each other,” Jabbar says, because farm owners feared if one left, they all would. “I’m quitting my job and moving across the country! I’m not quitting after two weeks,” she says indignantly.
She’d worked as a business analyst for Williams-Sonoma in San Francisco, earning $80,000 a year. But she felt she was just marking time until she discovered what she really wanted to do with her life. Stanley felt the same way. “I was making a ridiculous amount of money and not working very hard, to be honest.”
It was during a 2008 vacation that the college friends started to talk more seriously about how to escape. They wanted outdoor jobs, and their feelings about the politics of food — such as their belief that industrial farming is headed for collapse, and is a culprit behind obesity and global warming — drew them to farming. But it’s more than that. Jabbar says its appeal is “a simplicity of life.” Joined by Hirschhorn, they decided to learn how to grow food so that they could launch their own farm in 2010.
Jabbar, Stanley and Hirschhorn keep a blog, iheartnature.com, that documents their experience at Wheatland. In her first week, Jabbar wrote: “The first few days were rough and I was addicted to taking Tylenol in the morning, afternoon, and night — most of you know I hate taking medicine so that in itself is a lot for me.” She said on the seventh day, after six hours of staking tomatoes, she was chanting in her head: “You can do this, you can do this, you can do this.”
The trio and their fellow workers live together in a converted barn on the farm and cook together in a cabin-kitchen. They get to know other workers from neighboring farms and swap stories. It’s a tightknit community, although Stanley, Jabbar and Hirschhorn’s background of corporate jobs sets them somewhat apart.
“I feel I don’t have a lot in common with them. Nobody I know is even considering going into the jobs they were in. Seemingly to me, they have a much more extravagant lifestyle,” says co-worker David Giusti, a 23-year-old graduate of Oberlin College with a curly ponytail and beard bleached blond by the sun. This is his third summer at Wheatland, and he has spent time studying sustainable agriculture in Vermont in between. Next year, he plans to rent land from the Plancks and farm for himself.
Stanley says that some customers raised an eyebrow when she wore her engagement ring to the farmers market. Women would see the glittering diamond and say, “You’re a farmer?”
Jabbar, Stanley and Hirschhorn spend their off-the-clock hours refining their business plan to get their own farm started — investigating land prices, considering financing options. The hundreds of thousands in equity Stanley has in her Georgetown condo will help, but they’re realistic about the risk involved. In the middle of the summer, they imagine buying at the end of the year, but by late August, renting is sounding better.
“We think it might be good to test the waters to make sure we really love it,” Stanley says. “If it turns out this isn’t for us, great, we haven’t put a huge investment in it.”
While Stanley, Jabbar and Hirschhorn are gearing up to attempt a future in farming, others are just in it for an alternative summer experience or a working vacation. But for Dave Kane, 27, a season on Upper Marlboro’s Clagett Farm is about starting over.
Earlier this year, he quit his sous-chef job in Florida, where he’d stayed after graduating college. “Florida’s just not really a fun place. Well, it can be, it can be too fun,” he says. His social circle — mostly other restaurant workers — included a lot of heavy partiers. “I need to be done with that, put that behind me. Quit drinking, make a new start.” Looking for a way out, he moved home to Calvert County to live with his parents.
In March, he went to Clagett to try some of the tasks and interview with the farm’s managers. Once his hour-long tryout was over, Kane was free to go. But he stayed — the job wasn’t done yet, he told them. They decided right then to hire him. He even worked for a month without pay until the farm could pay him $9 an hour.
The fields are familiar territory for Kane. His father had run a University of Maryland livestock research farm in Carroll County. They moved away when Kane was just 7, but those early years of dad picking him up from soccer practice on horseback made a deep impression.
“I had a cowboy for a dad. It just made me want to be one. When you’re that young as a kid, you think that’s what a man’s supposed to be,” Kane says. He chuckles at his own romanticism — after all, his father ended up working with databases at the National Archives.
When he’s in the fields, Kane is as silent as the Marlboro Man. A Stetson hat shades his eyes. A tooled leather belt, clasped with a large metal belt buckle decorated with a steer, holds up his 32-inch-waist Levi’s. He’s back into that size after losing 30 pounds in three months from the manual labor.
On a sunny day in early July, Kane leads a group of suburban Maryland teenagers. In addition to producing enough fruit and vegetables to feed 400 people all summer and fall, Clagett, which is supported by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, also has a mission to educate about organic farming, so it hosts tours throughout the season.
Kane speaks to the teens volunteering on a camp field trip only when he has to. He takes off his work gloves, shakes a plant to get a potato bug to show them, and says, “They all need to die,” before pinching it between his fingers. “Ohh!” the girls cry.
He pushes a wheel hoe through the dirt and weeds, and dirt makes little clouds ankle high. Only the muscles in his forearms — and the fact that when the teens use the hoe, the dirt barely stirs — betray the effort. Every once in a while, a sarcastic sense of humor peeks out. “There’s so much space that could be turned into soccer fields,” says one boy of the 200-acre farm.
“Or Wal-Marts, or parking lots, or an airport. That’d be cool,” Kane replies.
“They told me that was part of the job, wrangling school groups,” he says later. “It’s not my favorite.”
He prefers a solitary stint in a field, just thinking. “You can get into a work meditation mode, where you kind of clean your mind, if you’re doing something kind of simple and repetitive,” he explains. He thinks about “where I’m going, where I’ve been.” He falls silent, clenching his jaw as he decides how much he wants to reveal. “I had some situations with a live-in girlfriend in Florida. Think I need to let go, but it’s hard to let go.”
Being busy helps. In addition to working five days a week at Clagett, he works full time as a $12-an-hour line cook at Sam’s on the Waterfront restaurant in Annapolis. He helps create specials and amuse bouches, such as a shot-glass amount of heirloom tomato gazpacho with avocado creme fraiche. He spent months looking for an apartment but had trouble finding a place in Annapolis that fit his $650-a-month budget. It was discouraging, but Kane considered moving out of his parents’ house a critical part of moving on. “Once I’m out, I’ll feel completely whole. Just like I’m an adult again. I’m only dependent on myself,” he explained. By the end of September, he’d finally found a place with a roommate, and now he’s preparing to move.
Kane has no plans to be a full-time farmer in the long term. But the farming experience has given him a greater appreciation for the food he cooks. After seeing all the hard work that goes into creating a tomato or a cucumber, “I really try to make vegetables a feature of the dish. Not just something to put on the plate to fill up space.” He’s hoping for a promotion at the restaurant. But he won’t leave the farm completely behind — he’ll volunteer there over the winter and might come back part time next season.
When the harvest peaks in late summer, the workload gets more intense at Wheatland, where Jabbar, Stanley and Hirschhorn are picking vegetables seven days a week. As the nights turn cold in the fall, the trio puts plastic up around the barn where they sleep, remembering how they took it down in the spring. “It kind of feels like a full circle,” Jabbar says.
Stanley goes to Colorado to visit her fiance at the end of August. She looks into a land rental there, but it isn’t a good fit. Her parents still wonder if she knows what she’s getting into. Her mother works on the farm with them for a weekend in September. There are a lot of things you could do that are related to this, Stanley recalls her mother saying: “This is really hard work!”
But the physical labor is normal for Stanley now — on her rare days off (one every other week), she misses it.
She, Jabbar and Hirschhorn are still moving to Colorado in December. But their hopes of getting their own farm running by next season have dimmed. To start producing in the spring, they’d need to be tilling now or planting a cover crop. So 2010 will be a year of looking for a property, buying tractors, preparing the land — and, they hope, finding jobs on organic farms in the Boulder area in the meantime.
“It’s definitely a bitter pill to swallow,” Jabbar says, but she recognizes that more experience will be helpful before launching a business.
Despite that, they’re still committed to their path. They went to see “Food, Inc.,” a documentary critical of industrial agriculture, and Jabbar says she came out with renewed confidence about her future in farming. “Dude, I’m totally doing what I want to be doing,” she says. “I’ve never felt so enthusiastic about how I spend my hours in a day as when I got out of that theater.”
Mara Lee is a Washington journalist. She can be reached at [email protected]