By Casey Monahan '14
Last fall, I took the semester off to travel around the west coast of the U.S. and work on some organic farms. It was an awesome learning experience and, among other things, my bus-taking skills improved dramatically!
I started out exploring Seattle for a few days. I had never been a tourist by myself before, but it was great to be able to see the awesome (and sometimes very touristy) parts of the city without having to accommodate anyone else's hunger or tired feet. However, I found it could be nerve-racking to deal with public transportation on my own. Perhaps the most entertaining part of the first few days was noticing the differences between New York (the giant metropolis close to where I grew up) and Seattle. People were a lot more approachable in Seattle. At one point I texted the following to the friend I was staying with, "Either people in this city are friendlier than out East, or I look really good today."
After many bus rides, the first farm that I went to was River Farm in Deming, WA, lovingly referred to as "Almost-Canada." River Farm was an intentional community of about 20 people taking steps toward self-sufficient living, farming to feed their families rather than for commercial benefit.
One of the most interesting points of my trip was a conversation I had with Doug, one of the men who lived there. As we were digging for potatoes, he told me all about his younger life when he was travelling around Canada and Europe avoiding the draft and studying with Buckminster Fuller. When I was on the farm he was working as a lawyer with the local Native American reservation. It struck me as odd that someone who was so clearly passionate about preserving the environment (and who had studied with a very innovative environmental scientist) was not working in a sustainable field. I asked him if felt like it was his duty to work as an environmentalist, as he had when he was younger, but he said that the duty he felt was to the Native Americans. That was probably the most thought-provoking conversation I have ever had, and it has made me much more aware of social problems that exist here in the United States.
Me and my best friend Sadie
The next place I went was Island's End Farm in Cathlamet, WA. It was on a tiny island in the middle of the Columbia River (the river that separates Washington and Oregon). There I became the king of string beans. That was a much different experience than River Farm, as Island's End was owned by an older couple who became the equivalent of my cool aunt and uncle. I loved hanging out with their dog and three cats; some of the most fun I had there was taking Mikey, the dog, to the beach and watching him run around all the driftwood and cattails. At Island's End I acquired the valuable skill of rooster-wrangling, picking up roosters by the feet when they escaped from their grazing area, which would definitely come in handy at the next farm! My computer skills also came in handy: I installed Dropbox for my hosts and it blew their minds.
Mikey loves the beach!
The last farm I went to was McDonald Ranch in Santa Rosa, CA. It was less of a farm and more of a home for animals who had been abandoned. The ranch had horses, ponies, goats, ducks, and chickens. I spent most of my time with the goats. They are actually very interesting animals, all with their own distinct personalities. That farm was probably the most demanding physically, and I found it quite satisfying to wake up at 6 am and start the day off by hauling some hay bales.
There were a bunch of workers there so we would take turns cooking huge lunches and playing pool during our mid-day break. A lot of people who worked there were from different countries, and it was exciting to hear about the cultures in Belgium, Israel and other countries. There was one guy that I befriended who was from the Canary Islands, where he grew up speaking Spanish, so I created a farm vocabulary list for him, complete with little sketches of shovels and buckets.
Once January came along, it was quite the culture shock to come back to Olin and go back to being sedentary for most of the day. It was also odd to be in a place where everything and everyone is familiar, but I was excited for classes to start again. The whole trip made me more excited to pursue a career in sustainability. A lot of people ask if I intend to be a farmer when I grow up, but I think I'd rather work to encourage sustainability on a larger scale.
And who knows? Maybe someday I'll retire and start a goat farm.