So you may have read my most recent post called “Life Changes.” If you haven’t, you should go read it now because you sort of need that background knowledge to totally appreciate this post.
This post is the Big Announcement about what’s happening in the summer of 2020.
I’m going to spend five months in Virginia.
After that…who knows?
By “Virginia,” I actually mean Polyface Farm, which is run by the Salatin family. You can check out their website here
What the Heck Is Polyface Farm?
I discovered this farm shortly after I immersed myself in the world of homesteading blogs, and read a quote from Joel Salatin on the website of Jill Winger, owner of the Prairie Homestead. She made some comment about how everything Joel Salatin says is quotable, and it peaked my interest. Once I’d Googled him, and read through his website, I was hooked. This guy was doing agriculture right, and doing so on a (small) commercial scale. Plus, Jill Winger was correct – pretty much everything he said seemed to be quotable. I proved this by quoting him extensively to my family and friends, which was probably somewhat annoying. Actually, I still do that on occasion. Whoops.
In a (very abbreviated) nutshell, the farm utilizes managed rotational grazing to maximize land fertility. They also are known for ‘stacking’ different enterprises to simultaneously maximize production and minimize pathogens. For example, they move chickens in the pasture behind cows to ‘sanitize’ the fields (the chickens simultaneously spread the manure and eat the fly larva), and they use pigs to aerate their compost. The farm is also known for their 24-7/365 open-door policy and for Joel Salatin’s worldwide speaking efforts to educate others about sustainable agriculture. You really should check out their website for more information; it’s pretty interesting.
Notably, I found out that he ran internship (now called stewardship) and apprenticeship programs for young people interested in farming. I wanted so badly to apply – after all, farming had been my first dream, when I was 5. But at that point in my life, I would never sign up to leave my (now ex)husband for a five month internship. Besides, I couldn’t really make a career out of farming. I lived in the suburbs. “Farming” was just a child’s dream that I had long ago put aside for more practical things.
But ever since, I’ve followed his blog. It didn’t take long for me to also watch several YouTube videos featuring Polyface and read one of his books – “Everything I Want to Do is Illegal”. About a year ago, I discovered that his daughter-in-law, Sheri, hosts a website connecting farmers with apprentices. Excitedly, I showed my then-fiance-now-ex-husband – some of the internships took married couples! And he hated his job! He just rolled his eyes, and said he didn’t want to farm for money and be poor and tired; he wanted to live “comfortably.” Joking (sort of), I said, “Well, if I wasn’t getting married, I’d totally apply for one of these!” He laughed, said, “You’d better not!” and I put the idea to bed.
But then, you know, he left. And I was left career-less and basically home-less. Interestingly, that also left me with very few obligations or ties to any given place.
(again, you need to read that background post)
How I Got from ‘Divorce’ to ‘Farm Internship’
For my own survival, I quickly secured a random office job, and several potential side gigs. At the time, I was still holding out hope that this entire divorce thing was a giant misunderstanding, and he would … I don’t know … not go through it. Go see a psychologist. Apologize. All of the above.
But although I’d been pretty blind to his BS over the years, I’m not an idiot, and I knew I needed to figure out a viable career for myself. Even if he came back, there was no way in heck that I was going to be financially dependent on him again. Ever.
(after all: fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me)
First Comes a Seed
So, in the time that I wasn’t watching Netflix and generally feeling sad/upset/angry/etc, I was Googling potential jobs, figuring out what was required to get my teaching certificate back, surfing Indeed, getting upset/mad, and angrily slamming my laptop shut. Then I would read about farming or homesteading to make myself feel better. At some point in all of this, I saw that Polyface was taking interns again, now called stewards to better reflect the intent of the program.
At first I snorted dismissively, and wished I had done something like the Polyface Stewardship back in college. You know, back when I was in a position to do random stuff over the summer. Then I (figuratively) kicked myself repeatedly in the face for allowing my entire career to be dependent on my husband and giving up all sorts of opportunities as a result (Read an overview of my career background here. Now multiply the number of opportunities I listed in that post by at least 2. Now join me in the face-kicking).
As I worked through everything, I decided that I was sick and tired of being told what I could and could not do. I’ve never been the type of person to roll over and accept things, and I was mad at myself for having such a gigantic blind spot when it came to Exhusband and his family. I was done accepting things. I wasn’t going to accept working some random, pointless job just because my husband walked out on me. And I certainly wasn’t going to accept that it was somehow too late for me to have meaningful work that I actually cared about.
So…what did I WANT to do?
Then Comes Some Sun and Water
As I repeatedly went through career options, I kept coming back to the idea that, above all else, I wanted to grow stuff. Plants, animals, mushrooms – whatever. Really, that’s what I had wanted before Exhusband left, back when we planned on homesteading together. It’s also what I’d wanted when I grew basil in my college dorm room and told people I wanted to move to the country so people couldn’t get mad at me for growing tomatoes in my front yard. If I had to put it in ‘job’ terms, I wanted to work on a farm. Or – preferably – have my own farm. I didn’t want debt, but I wanted a chunk of land, a garden, and the ability to raise and sell food. It was insane, and I didn’t really think it was possible, but that was the dream. So what could I do to make that happen someday, or at least some variation of it?
After all, if you don’t try, you can’t succeed. And I reealllly had nothing to lose.
Like, literally. I literally had nothing to lose.
A reasonable goal was to work a random job for two years, go back to school to recertify as a teacher, and teach out in the country. Then I could afford a vegetable garden on the side. Maybe some chickens. Someday, maybe even a cow. And pigs and goats and sheep and bunnies and…no, no, just a garden, to start. Maybe some chickens…
That’s what I told my friends and family I was going to do, and it wasn’t a bad plan, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that there had to be more I could do than sit around and wait for two years, then retake classes I already took. At the very minimum, there had to be something I could do besides sit around for two years. Shoot, if I could figure out how to have a farm, I could teach people about food production! How cool would that be?
(Seriously though – combining teaching and agriculture would be the epitome of awesome. If anybody feels like handing me a billion dollars, I’m gonna do that. Just sayin’).
And Then Come a Sprout
Indulging myself, I read Joel Salatin’s book You Can Farm…and I got really excited. I could see how my area had a need for a pastured poultry operation, and I could see myself doing the work. And this guy said it was possible, if I worked hard and learned stuff! I have a good track record of working hard and learning stuff.
Hey, you know how to learn stuff? By being an intern/steward at his farm.
And so, in a welcome burst of hope and enthusiasm following months of feeling generally terrible, I came home from work and applied for the stewardship. But, trying to be realistic and avoid crushing disappointment, I told myself that they would never accept me. To start, I was almost 25 – well over what I considered ‘normal internship age’ – and was very transparent in my application about what had happened in my life. I’m a good writer, and was reasonably eloquent on the open-ended application…but I still felt like I was basically saying: “Hi, I’m Jessica. I’ve always wanted to be a farmer for no discernible reason, I have absolutely no agricultural experience, two worthless and unrelated degrees plus an expired teaching certificate, and a husband who recently left me. But I do read about farming on the internet a lot. Please accept me into your program.”
I mean really, it just sounds pathetic. Besides, why should they believe that I actually want to farm, and wasn’t just saying that because I didn’t have a lot of options? Why shouldn’t they assume something is inherently wrong with me, given that my husband literally walked out of my life? Why should they believe that all of my job-hopping has been the result of my commitment (to my no-longer-existent family), and not a sign that I can’t follow through on things?
Occasionally, I daydreamed about getting the internship and learning how to be a chicken farmer, but I didn’t really think it was a possibility. I shoved it to the back of my mind, and focused on selling my house back in the suburbs. I also kept working on other plans to get where I wanted to go, and started thinking about the possibility of trying a market garden side gig once I got a piece of property. Or chickens. Maybe I could try a tiny chicken operation on my own and eventually make something happen, even without the stewardship. Of course, the stewardship would make a chicken side-business way easier, since it would significantly shorten the learning curve, but that didn’t mean it was necessarily required. I read a few entrepreneur books and found the whole concept highly intimidating…but also really appealing. There was also the possibility of finding local farms that I could work – or even volunteer – on.
Basically, I was in tentative brainstorming mode.
Finally, Some Fruit
Then, there was this super ordinary night where I made dinner, pet my cats, vacuumed, and read a book for a little while. When it was about bedtime, I went over to plug my phone in, per usual. I had an email notification, so I clicked on it. And there it was: “Polyface Farms” in bold type as the sender. A spike of surprise shot through me, followed by hope, followed by consternation at my own hope. I mentally prepared myself for a form letter saying “thanks for applying, we don’t want you, bye.”
But then it said “Congratulations! You’ve passed the first big hurdle in your quest to becoming a 2020 Polyface team member.”
The email went on to explain that phase 2 of the application process involved a two day visit with Polyface, where I would work on the farm and meet the Salatin family. Transportation was up to me, but food and lodging would be provided. I was to arrive the evening before my first work day – the time was up to me – and could leave anytime after my second work day, either in the evening or the following morning. There was a two week range of dates that I could choose from, but I should note that the family didn’t work on Sundays. After the check-out, they would choose their group of 2020 stewards.
I read the email at least 6 times, then I called my friend Jen, knowing she’d still be awake and might be the only person on the planet who wouldn’t think I was insane for applying to a farming internship.
First, I excitedly told her about getting invited to a farm that I’d always wanted to see, meet people I never thought I would meet, and be in the running to learn to do something I’d always wanted to do. But then my analytical brain started narrowing down the logistics.
“But how will I go down there for two days?” I asked her. “I don’t have any vacation time at work! And my car might break down because it’s been doing that lately. And it’s 9 and a half hours away! That’s a lot of gas, and gas isn’t cheap, and I don’t have money. And what if I actually get the internship? I mean, I probably won’t, but what if I do? I can’t just LEAVE for five months! What about my cats? And all of my stuff?”
“You HAVE to go,” she said. “You’ll regret it if you don’t.”
That was true, and it was the reason I’d called Jen, specifically. “That’s why I called you,” I admitted. “I knew you’d tell me to go because you’re, you know, pursuing crazy dreams of your own.”
“You mean music therapy school with disaster relief is crazy?”
“Yes. Completely insane. Also, props to you for doing it.”
“You have to go. You love this kind of stuff. Like, you REALLY love this kind of stuff. If you do get it, and I think you have a chance; somebody will take your animals. We have a lot of friends who have cats. And I know a lot of other people who have or want cats. And you’ll find a place to put your stuff. I’ve left home twice, for months at a time! It’s not easy, but you find a way to do it.”
“You’re right.” I paused. “Besides, forget about the possibility of actually getting the internship for a second. Just going down to the check-out will be an amazing opportunity. I’ll get to meet one of my literal heroes, and his family, and see the farm that is the model of my ideal sustainable farm. I’ll see how everything comes together and I’m sure I’ll learn things, even in just two days.”
“Exactly. You have to do it.”
Don’t Say No to Fruit. It’s Good for You
When I hung up the phone, my blood was racing. I went outside and breathed in the cool night air, staring out over the large field behind my sister’s house – the place I’m temporarily calling ‘home’. This was a crazy idea. And yet, I’d said no to crazy ideas my entire life. I’d always played it safe, and put the needs and desires of other people ahead of my own. Granted, I thrived on serving other people, but after everything that had happened, I was more than ready to do something for MY dreams.
Not only that, but really, what did I have to lose? Let’s say I went to Virginia, came back, and decided that I actually hated farming and wanted to sit in an air conditioned office for the rest of my life (LOL, yeah right). Or maybe I’d decide that I liked farming, but was completely unable to work on a farm for some reason – I couldn’t find a position, or couldn’t afford to run my own business, or got kidnapped by pirates, or climate change made the world explode, or whatever.
Well, guess what? Then I’d be in the exact same position I was in right now – no house, no spouse, a very small nest egg from selling my house, and a job I didn’t like (because I was sure I could find a random job again – when you’re willing to do pretty much any kind of work, finding a job isn’t really that hard. Well, it’d be pretty hard if I was kidnapped or if the world exploded but, y’know, you can’t safeguard against everything).
But, exploding world scenario aside, I’d have a cool experience under my belt.
On the other hand, if this went well, maybe I could have a career I’d always dreamed of. Or a side-career.
So really, why not?
Of course, I reminded myself, I had only been invited to Phase 2 of the application process. There was no guarantee that I’d get the stewardship. In fact, there was a pretty good chance that I wouldn’t – I was sure that there would be plenty of people who had more experience with farming that I did.
But this was a good place to start. And if I didn’t get it…well, there were other farmers. There were other learning opportunities. There were other places.
I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I knew I wasn’t going to sit behind a desk and let life happen to me. I was, at the very least, going to try to make a life that I actually wanted.
So I was going to Virginia for two days. Guess that meant I’d have to call in sick and set up some cat-sitting.
To be continued…