Field Notes: Get On The Tractor And Drive
A few years ago, Donald Trump came out with a TV show called The Apprentice. Robin, always a fan of “reality” TV, watched for the first few seasons. I’m sure you are familiar with the premise. A group of people live together under a microscope and carry out business tasks assigned by The Donald for the opportunity to win the game and eventually work for him. They were judged on their business practices, business decisions and professionalism, though I am certain a good percentage of the boring people were “fired” from the show early leaving the high-strung demanding types to entertain us and irritate him further uping the entertainment value.
#1 Farmer Ellie with the new cast at Suzie's Farm: Anastasia, Elle, Eric, and Chris.
I don’t recall who “won” the show that first season or even if winning the show provided the apprentices with anything more than experience in how to perform on a reality TV show. Regardless, Donald Trump has risen from the ashes several times, which proves to me that he’s got business acumen and gumption or at the very least knows how to wheel-and-deal. And though he considers himself in the same category as the Ascended Masters I might not go that far. But it did prove that people know he’s got some play and they want to play with him to learn the game. Which leads us to our apprentice program.
Remember I was saying that we have hundreds of people asking to volunteer on the farm? Well we’ve also had many people ask if we have an internship program. They recognize farming as a profession, an actual career, and they want to learn how to do it without having to go to UCDavis. So after a few years of farming, and seeing what happened with Barry Logan at La Milpa, we decided to start our apprentice program.
Last Tuesday Suzie’s Farm welcomed Anastasia, Elle, Eric and Chris as our first four interns. This is different than merely employing them. We furnish them the opportunity to learn the front end, the back end and everything in between.
We provide hopefuls a real working experience. I know I’m not the only person out there who was lousy at school. I used school more as a social place. I started the semester strong, read the books, finished my assignments. By the middle of the semester I got bored and stopped attending. Realizing my grade was at stake I picked-up the pace near the finish line and finished about as you might imagine. Sitting in the classroom killed my spirit. I’m more of the learn-by-doing type. You conceive a concept and you try it out. If it works you refine it. If it doesn’t, you try something else. Robin has developed many of our programs in this way. Microgreens, edible flowers - heck all of Suzie’s Farm is a giant school even for us! It’s amazing to think that this July we will celebrate our 2nd birthday at Kiki Town - our 40 acre property that we graduated to from the original 3-acre Suzie’s Farm. In a way Robin and I are also apprentices, learning as we go. I’ve received multiple M.B.A.s - from the Universties of Chantico’s, Sun Grown Organic Distributors and Suzie’s Farm.
That’s the best part. We hardly look at this as a one-way teaching experience. We know we will learn as much from them as they will from us.
Something I often say is, “I want you to have the experience you want to have.” I say that when I hire Marketeers or when I lead tours. I said the same thing to our interns. There are so many things to do at the farm - especially since we want to grow the farm in multiple directions - we feel it will be easy for them to have the experience they want to have. We assist the experience, they contribute to the farm.
Are they interested in fruit farming? We’ve got orchards that need to thrive and fruit. Row crops? Of course we do that. Herbs and their by-products like teas, herb sachets, dried herbs and fresh herbs? Yup, we do that too. Flower fields? We’ve just started down that path. Livestock? The chickens are three weeks old and we want to add goats this summer. Greenhouse work? We’ve got a couple of those. Beekeeping? Yes. Organic certification, paperwork, invoices, farmers markets, CSA Program, wholesale and restaurant sales, compost, tractor work, plugs, transplanting, irrigation, property management, repair and building; that’s just the daily stuff.
Beyond the actual farming is the business side of it. Before the farmer farmed and found someone else to market their products. Not any more. In today’s market the business side includes communication with your clients, accounting and accountability, loans, employees, real estate procurement, insurance, legal structure, scheduling and all the other things it takes to form and run a successful and profitable business.
People forget that part; that the farm is a business the same way Qualcomm or McDonald’s is a business. The goal of the business is the same - to create and serve our customers our finest products and services, to be profitable, and to keep the entity thriving through effective and efficient management, vision and leadership. It ain’t just about the turnips!
Our interns come from diverse backgrounds. They have followed a circuitious route to join us at the farm. They bring their experiences and blend them with our current team to improve and benefit themselves and Suzie’s Farm. I told them, if there is something that you really enjoy doing tell us. We make room for those things. You will enjoy the work if it’s something you enjoy doing. That enjoyment breeds success. Success makes for contentment. Contented workers are the goal.
How else can you learn farming? Really learn it? I don’t know that sitting through classes at UC Davis for four years will actually teach you to farm, though you will earn a Bachelors of Science - a BS right? A BS is important, no doubt, but I don’t know how much practical knowledge you’ll gain. Getting dirty, trying to lay drip lines in the wind, learning how to stake and line tomatoes, puzzling over a failed crop or delighting in a successful one - that’s real farming.
I don’t know that Robin will start to go by The Robin or if Ellie will start to go by The Ellie, but I do know that people want to learn how to play our game. The only way to do that is to get on the tractor and drive.
Lucila de Alejandro is the co-owner and head weed puller of Suzie's Farm, a 70-acre organic farm located near the Tijuana River Estuary, 13 miles outside of downtown San Diego, CA.