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Learning more than how to farm

Farming taught me to finish a job. When I didn’t, things died.

Sibongile Sithe ’11 spent her senior year as a Yale Farm manager. She is currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford and is working on her first novel.

I suppose I should begin by saying that I came to farming by accident—that I missed a phone call, and found myself not in a New York editorial suite, but again in New Haven, this time, however, elbow-deep in dirt, working as a horticultural intern at Yale’s Marsh Botanical Garden. It was the summer before my senior year. I was an English major. I had never grown anything in my life.

Miraculously, I survived the summer, and as my last first-day-of-school approached, the manager of the Yale Farm, Daniel MacPhee, who I’d met at a handful of food-related events, asked if I would apply to be a student farm manager.

I told him, “All I know is what I’ve learned the past three months.”

He said, “You’ll be fine.”

I already had a job waiting for me at the development office. I said yes without meaning to.

 

That year, we learned to deal. Our team walked around the farm on Fridays at noon and Daniel asked us what we saw, asked what we would do about it. We answered; he said, “Go for it.” One day we crushed aphids between our fingers for hours, and still there were more. Later, when he taught us how to use the backpack sprayer filled with soapy water, he said, “And this is why sane people don’t grow Brussels sprouts for market.” Which we hadn’t considered as an option. In the spring he said, “We need a new cold-storage system. Can you do some research?” And when we came back with options, he said, “Build it.” And the CoolBot was born.

We learned how to transplant soil blocks of beets, just 20 minutes before a swarm of volunteers arrived and we had to teach them. We learned to work without supervision. We made mistakes (growing peanuts and Thai chilies, which aren’t grown in the northeastern United States for a reason; renumbering the fields—utter chaos). We learned to manage our triple-booked schedules and general anxiety. Daniel said, “Call if you need me.” Sometimes we did—too often in the early hours before market, or in the late hours of midterms—and he came, but mostly we learned to figure it out. And that, I like to think, was his larger goal. 

We learned how to grow vegetables—how to water on grey days, how to dry beans, how to pin down the endless reams of row cover—but he also taught us to be broader thinkers, more creative problem solvers, to make decisions with only the information we had on hand. I think he understood our empirical little hearts, our need for tests and proof and solid data, and tried to prepare us for the fact that life, agriculturally and otherwise, would not be organized neatly or clearly charted. That it would show up like a hard freeze in May—whether we were ready or not. I turned down the hedge fund job, the publishing job, decided to be a farmer.

 

For the next three years, I spent most of my days alone in somebody else’s field: hauling water, checking fence line, clipping pastures. I managed a school garden on K Street, dug an orchard by hand on a Missouri hillside during one of the hottest summers on record, learned to drop start a chainsaw on a wooded ridgetop in Massachusetts. I got a $100,000 tractor stuck in a wet field in Maine, and found an excavator to get it out. The Fairfield sheriff called while I was filing receipts and said my cows were in the road, blocking traffic.

I got help I didn’t deserve: biologists, extension agents, vets, and—the most helpful—neighbors: people with the kind of knowledge that comes from six years of milking without a day off, that comes from five generations on the same piece of land. I saw herculean feats of generosity, ingenuity, and thrift. I saw families struggle to hang on in a world with slim margins, when there were margins at all; a world where a few hours’ rain can make or break a tomato harvest (and, too often, the week’s profits). I worked weekends. I had it easy, and still it was hard. I wrote at night, mostly, but even in the winter when the dark came early and stayed late, it was never the kind of time I wanted, the kind where making a living, keeping things living, didn’t pull on me. The whole time, Daniel talked me off ledges. He reminded me of the truth in the clichés: the road is long, nothing is written, the world you desire can be won, and I could always take that banking job or live in a Winnebago.

When I moved to New York to join a start-up as a produce buyer, thinking I might get more out of my days if I wasn’t worried all night about coyotes, I tried not to think of myself as a quitter. When I applied to Stanford, I acknowledged that, on the surface, having spent the majority of my post-collegiate life ankle-deep in piglets and knee-deep in winter rye might not endear me to the cause of an intensive writing fellowship. But I told them that more than anything, farming taught me to finish a job, and as well as I could manage, because when I didn’t, things died. I told them it accustomed me to disappointment too, because sometimes things died even when I did the job perfectly.

I tell people that I came to farming by accident, but I stayed on purpose; partially because I loved it, and partially because someone told me—and taught me how to tell myself—“You’ll be fine.” I left on purpose, too; grateful, tired, fine.  

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