By Cameron Young | Photos by James Chung
We are surrounded by dirt, but most of us don’t give it a second thought. Chelsea Romanchuk, on the other hand, is enamoured with the processes that go on within the soil. Romanchuk, a junior biology major, reflects fondly upon the time she spent helping her grandparents with their garden as child.
“Nature, in general, has always fascinated me,” Romanchuk says. “That life can come from a single seed.”
Romanchuk worked over the summer at a farm in New Jersey and wanted to bring her love of nature back to JMU. She is now interning at Avalon Acres, owned by Lorinda Palin and Solly Walker. Romanchuk is not the only student who is getting her hands dirty in the fields. Romanchuk and 14 other students are in ISAT 473: Local agriculture and farm internships. The internship fully immerses the student into life of a farmer. It provides insightful first-hand knowledge of the labor of love that is required to grow food.
The course is led by professors Jennifer Coffman and Wayne Teel, who created it out of an overwhelming interest from students to work on and learn from small-scale, diversified local farms. During the semester, students combine classroom meetings and assignments with a minimum of five hours a week on their assigned farm, which results in more than 110 hours of farm time during the semester.
Although Romanchuk has only been working at the farm for about a month, she has already developed a deep relationship with the farmers at Avalon Acres.
“It already feels like they understand me better than my parents ever have,” Romanchuk says.
Romanchuk and Palin get along so well because of their shared love of soil. Avalon Acres focuses on growing vegetables and herbs through organic practices. Romanchuk was also impressed that the farm even had a biochar kiln. This tool helps with reducing the farm’s overall carbon footprint. This among other practices allows Romanchuk to confidently describe Avalon Acres methodology as beyond organic.
This all begins and ends with compost in preparation for the next season. Avalon among other participating farms strive to create a truly sustainable ecosystem from the ground up. They hold a firmly held belief that farming is a reflection of the care and effort that the farmer puts forth into his fields.
The ideology of beyond organic was echoed by John Picklap, a 2013 alumnus, who directed the documentary “The Farm Course,” which interviewed present students in this course. Picklap noticed that among the students he interviewed, they completed the course with a fresh, holistic view of the earth and farming. He found that, especially on a farm, everything is interconnected. Nothing in a farm grows in a vacuum, the plants and animals are in constant interaction with their environment.
“On a small farm, everything is a cycle,” Picklap says.
A part of this cycle is death. The decomposition allows for new growth to occur which is why learning how to create a proper compost is critical to a farm’s success. At Avalon Acres, they are as obsessive as Romanchuk with understanding the intricacies of nourishing the soil with compost.
Students are assigned to a farm that aligns with their interests. Successfully pairing students to farms is Coffman and Teel’s goal.
“Even if you have no interest farming, it is a really good way to learn about our environment,” Coffman says.
While farming, students are exposed to the intimate connection between humans and our environment.
Jake Cochran, a 2012 alumnus, worked as an EMT prior to participating in this course while pursuing a degree in health sciences. Now Cochran works full time at Wildside Farms but at the time he described himself as becoming increasingly frustrated.
“I was just not finding the answers I was looking for,” Cochran says.
Cochran noticed during his time as an EMT that the majority of issues plaguing patients can be attributed to preventable causes. During his internship while in ISAT 473 at Wildside Farms, Cochran began noticing the direct impact that farming has on our health.
“We are impacted by the things we put into our bodies,” Cochran says. “And not only that, but our personal economies that include our interactions with people.”
Farming not only fortifies our bond with nature but it also strengthens communities as a whole. There must be something said about the knowing exactly who grew your food and how. To echo Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”:
“We need to shake the hand that feeds us.”
Without a basic understanding of farming, the disconnection between food production and most consumers is staggering. In this internship, students return to our roots as a civilization, so to speak.
“The fact is we should all at least know how food is grown,” Picklap says. “It’s a knowledge that has unfortunately been lost.”
“[It is] an incredibly tangible way to realize the problems we have with waste, pollution and health,” Picklap says.
Yet, no matter how much planning famers do, there are factors that are out of their control. Taylor Evans, a 2013 graduate with a degree in biology, describes a lesson he learned during his two semesters interning that he needed to expect the best but plan for the worst.
“There is an awesome disappointment when things are out of your control,” Evans says.
This past summer was especially challenging for Evans because it was there was an above average rainfall. This was completely out of Evans’ control and it led to his tomato crops contracting a disease called blight.
Blight renders the crops unsellable by causing rapid decay. Instead of viewing the loss of the harvest as a loss in revenue and responding by using synthetic fungicides to prevent a future occurrence, he accepted that these sort of occurrences are a part of his profession and, in the future, will adjust to the variations of weather and crop threats by planting more and different varieties of crops.
Students learn these invaluable lessons during their time interning at the farm. This internship not only provides a skill set specific to farming but also to their lives in general.
Although not every student graduates and decides to work on a farm, but many do find that their future does indeed lie on a farm.
“Eventually I’d like to own a large chunk of land I can live off of,” Romanchuk says. “This has been my dream for a while now.”
Cochran and his friend Jeff Gorman, another 2012 graduate of the internship, are now managing Wildside farms.
“It is a really fulfilling thing to do,” Cochran says.
Farming to the students and farm owners is more than skill or a pastime.
“It turns into your life,” Evans says.