Ashlee George: Agroecology Education Farm Internship

Like most students at North Carolina State University, I ate the majority of my meals freshman year in Fountain Dining Hall. Right when you walk in, they have a giant chalkboard that displays the farms that the food comes from. I always saw “Agroecology Education Farm – Raleigh, NC” written on the board, but never thought too much about this. It wasn’t until I was sitting in my Agroecology class at the start of my junior year and a flyer was passed around that was advertising that the farm was hiring, that I realized that I could play a part in growing the food that I was eating.

My first day at the farm I met with my boss, Alison, and she gave me a tour of the facilities. It was late summer, going into fall, so the peppers lit the fields up with their fiery beauty. There were bees and birds flying around, flashing their beauty in the sky. Lemon basil and wildflowers filled the air with their sweet perfumes. The second hoop house was filled to the brim with Sungold tomatoes and ripening cucumbers. An abundance of butternut squash were stacked up in the first hoop house, waiting to cure so that their sweetness would develop.

There isn’t such a thing as an average work day on the farm, because there is always something different to do. Some tasks are performed more often than others, such as weeding and harvesting. But other tasks vary based on the day. Some days, I would assist my coworkers in their individual projects. The orchard and the rain garden were examples of these. In the orchard, I would help move compost into the rows to prepare them for the trees. I also helped install the fence around the orchard. In the rain garden, I helped shovel clay out so that the water from the hoop houses could collect. Some days I also got to use the tractor, and other machinery. These days were some of my favorites. There was something extremely freeing about driving a big blue 1970’s tractor.

Occasionally, we would also have field trips and volunteer groups come and visit the farm. In the fall, a group from Garner High School would join us every Friday. I would help a group of students explore a different aspect of the agroecosystem. I showed them how to take soil samples, and told them about the importance of crop rotation. When we had volunteer groups, I would give them a tour of the farm and help provide instruction on what we were going to be doing.

As the warm weather left, the landscape of the farm changed as well. We switched the sweet, but delicate, tomatoes and cucumbers out for hardy greens and carrots. The last harvest of the peppers was collected and the remaining organic matter was returned to the soil. Cover crops soon covered the fields, so that the soil could rest during the duration of the winter.

Work in the hoop houses continued, as the weeds will stop for no one. Weeding between the carrots was especially important, because as a root vegetable, their growth can be seriously impaired by the roots of weeds. During the winter, the second hoop house was also seeing change as we switched the flat bed design out for raised beds. This was a multistep process that involved moving clay, and then adding tons (literal tons) of compost to the newly formed beds. This design helps improve the water flow, and makes working in the beds more ergonomic.

When it was too cold to work at the farm, I worked from campus in the office. Office work included designing my own project, helping pick out crops for the spring season, and helping tend to the seedlings that would soon be transplanted at the farm. For my personal project, I designed a raised, spiral bed that will show the evolutionary tree of the mustard family of plants. Construction of this will begin in the summer. I helped pick the crops for the spring season based on what Fountain Dining Hall asked for. This included beans, beets, and tomatoes. We also planted spinach and carrots for them. I helped calculate how many trays of beets we needed to start in the greenhouse before moving into the hoop house, based on their cropping density, available pace, and the quantity requested. The beans and tomatoes were picked based on what Fountain requested, and the adaptability of different varieties to the North Carolina climate. I also helped pick companion plants for the tomatoes. I decided on basil, because it provides a natural pest defense against aphids because of its scent. Tomatoes and basil are also just a wonderful culinary pair. Once all the crops were picked and ordered, I assisted one of the full-time interns in creating signs for each of the crops. The signs included fun facts about the crop, and how they can be used in the kitchen.

I have learned an unbelievable amount at my internship at the farm. No amount of time in a classroom would have been able to teach me the hands-on skills I have learned in my time on the farm. I learned how to drive a tractor, transplant crops, and rig up an electric fence. I seeded cover-crops, I harvested produce, I flipped compost. These are all skills and topics that I had learned about in my classes, but that cannot compare to having done them in person. Every day on the farm was a new lesson, I left feeling more confident in my agricultural skills and education each shift. My knowledge and experience that I gained at my internship will allow me to excel in my educational and professional career after graduation. I plan to continue my education through graduate school, and study sustainable agriculture. I then hope to enter a field where I can help mitigate food insecurity through sustainable agricultural practices, and production methods that will allow healthy, local food to be affordable and accessible.