Young workers see farm chores in a new light

Farming is hard work, but enthusiasm can make it a joy.

Twenty years ago, my husband John and I routinely hosted summer apprentices on our organic farm. The workers were typically college students only a few years younger than ourselves. They either lived with us or in our guest cottage complete with pitcher pump, outhouse, and kerosene lamps.

The last time we mentored interns, we accepted five people, and by the end of the harvest season, John and I were exhausted from the challenge of teaching and living with so many diverse personalities.

And as if to help close the door on that section of our life, that winter we adopted two children (brothers) and began a new adventure in nurturing.

This spring, a friend wrote that her daughter and her daughter's close friend, both college freshmen, wanted to work on an organic farm during the summer. She asked if I knew of any farms where the girls could work, live, learn, and perhaps even manage to squeeze in a part-time job.

John and I discussed whether we should leap back into the world of mentoring youth who were slightly younger than our now-grown sons who live in other states.

We both knew that mentoring required time and energy. Yet we had read an article in a sustainable agriculture newspaper about the need to cultivate and to encourage youth to enter the field of organic agriculture.

Perhaps this summer was the appropriate season to welcome these young women into our lives.

So that they could live in their own space, we scrubbed and painted the inside of a rental house owned by John's family.

Lydia and Rachel arrived in early June with work boots, wide-brimmed hats, and a joie de vivre. Despite 90-degree heat, they dove into farm life, hoeing raspberries, thinning peaches, and weeding blueberry plants.

A local slow-foods restaurant hired them for the weekend shift, which allowed them to meet a diverse group of customers.

Soon after the apprentices arrived, our hay was ready to bale, but only one of our male friends was available to help with the job, and I had an appointment that had to be kept. The local supply of teenage boys had suddenly vanished, which left only Lydia and Rachel.

"Well, they are energetic and strong," I said.

"And good workers," John said. "Let's see what they think."

When I arrived home, I drove out to the hayfield with a jug of lemonade and a camera. Swallows darted around the field, snatching insects as they flew up from the windrows. The scent of alfalfa permeated the dry air, and the stubble crackled under my feet. The baler chugged and spat out grassy rectangles onto the hay wagon. The girls hauled the bales to John, who stacked them into a green wall. When the gang halted at the barn, I handed out lemonade.

Dressed in T-shirts, overalls, and straw hats, Lydia and Rachel reminded me of a verse that Shirley Temple sang in the movie "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm": "If I had one wish to make / This is the wish I would choose / I'd want an old straw hat / A suit of overalls / And a worn out pair of shoes."

"How are you doing?" I asked the girls.

"Having fun," Rachel said.

"Want to come to dinner?" I asked.

"Thanks, but we're jumping into Lake Michigan as soon as we're done," Lydia answered.

I rumbled home along the farm roads, pondering these sturdy young women who might look like Shirley Temple, but exhibited a spirit closer to the grit of Laura Ingalls Wilder. In the novel, "The Long Winter," when the neighbors couldn't help Pa with his hay, Laura volunteered to assist him. Her feet trampled the dried grass into the wagon, and because of her enthusiasm, Pa harvested surplus hay.

Like Laura, our two apprentices had discovered a new inner strength that encouraged them throughout the hot and dusty task that provided food for our goats.

Over the following weeks, John and I observed that same perseverance as they learned to milk goats and picked blueberries under a scorching sun.

They told us that every morning they awoke thankful to be on the farm and eager to experience the new day.

And their childlike wonder has been infectious. Their youthful vigor and joy remind us to appreciate the swelling muskmelons and the peaches ripening in the orchard.

The writer of that farming article failed to mention what interns would offer the farmer, but Laura Ingalls Wilder understood this give and take between generations. She showed how Laura's cheerful presence quickened Pa's pace and lightened the workload.

John felt like Pa recently when he found Lydia and Rachel perched on top of his blueberry shaker. They had both squeezed onto the driver's seat and pretended to steer it.

The size of a one-car garage, the giant machine would soon roll toward the bushes, its vibrating rods tickling off the blueberries onto conveyor belts that would send them into plastic boxes.

"We can't wait to work up here!" the girls shouted.

And neither can we.

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