Just two months ago, undergraduate student Nathan George’s experience in agriculture was virtually nonexistent. The most applicable skills he had were gained while helping his dad around the yard at their Pennsylvania home.
But since the start of summer, he’s spent nearly every day tending to the Case Western Reserve University Farm in Hunting Valley, gaining valuable insights into growing fresh produce—and his newly found career path.
George arrived at CWRU last fall undecided on a major and future career, but his experiences on campus gave him direction. In a SAGES course with Narcisz Fejes, lecturer in the Department of English, called “The Ethics and Politics of Eating,” George explored the connection between economics and the U.S. agricultural industry. The course offered perspective on how access to nutritious food plays into social oppression—a topic George cares deeply about addressing. Heading into his second year next month, George hopes to declare majors in economics and environmental studies.
We spoke with George to learn more about what it’s like to work at the farm and how it plays into his career goals.
1. What do you do at the farm?
I do a host of tasks concerning food production and preparation. We seed-up (plant seeds in pots) and transplant grown plants into the ground fairly routinely. We harvest and wash ripe produce, including lettuce, radishes, collards, potatoes, beans, broccoli, blueberries … and more. We care for our crops by weeding, mulching and covering them with netting to protect from pests.
We grow mushroom spores in our cellar and forage for wild mushrooms in the forested areas across the property.
We also spend time string trimming and mowing the grounds to ensure the farm looks pretty. We’ve even learned how to operate machinery.
Some days are slower and more educationally focused; on these days we might hike through the woods and learn to identify invasive species or hear a presentation on sustainable farming.
2. What is an average day at the farm like?
Typically, we student workers arrive at the “head house” on the upper portion of the property at 8 a.m. and, after equipping our boots and harvesting tools, drive down to Valley Ridge Farm (the lower portion of the property) to begin harvesting.
We will spend a couple hours collecting in crates whichever crops we need. While we work, most of our harvested produce is stored in our “cold room” to maintain freshness.
Around 10 or 11 a.m., we return to the head house with our produce and begin handwashing it. We often play music while we work to pass time because the washing process can be lengthy.
Around 12:30 p.m., we finish washing, labeling and packaging produce and take a half-hour lunch break.
From 1 to 3 p.m., we may knock off a bunch of smaller tasks—weeding, washing our vehicles, trellising and pruning in our high tunnels, etc.
By the end of the day, I am usually tired but gratified with all I have achieved alongside my coworkers. We student workers are free to leave after 3 p.m., but our supervisors Jonas, Bernadette, Sarah and Ryan often devote their afternoons and evenings to working the farm.
3. Has there been anything surprising you’ve discovered while working there?
I was surprised by just how manageable growing food can be for beginners. I originally felt I would struggle to learn the basics given my limited experience. In reality, the degree of difficulty is more closely tied to the scale and methodology of food production than the degree of farming experience.
After working for only a month, I felt I could build and maintain my own garden with moderate success. In fact, by mid-June, we student workers began growing our own crops on individually designated land plots. I am preparing to grow pole beans, sweet potatoes and basil.
4. How does your work at the farm relate to your career aspirations?
I want to make a career of growing healthy, affordable food. Surrounding University Circle there is a concerning lack of nutritious and fairly priced produce. I believe fresh food is a right, not a privilege, and I want to provide it for those who cannot easily access it.
The experience I gain this summer (and ideally next summer, as I plan to return) will enable me to grow my own produce and teach others to do the same. I hope that, one day, the Ohio communities most severely oppressed by corporate agriculture can secure “food sovereignty,” the host of political and economic freedoms associated with local control over food production and distribution.
5. What are you most looking forward to about the fall semester?
I am most looking forward to exploring the Cleveland area. I spent most of last fall focusing on my classes, and, as a result, I seldom left campus.
This fall I plan to take advantage of my free RTA pass to eat at some new restaurants, catch some movies at the Cedar Lee Theatre, and embark on new adventures downtown.