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Learning How to Organic Farm

“Apparently, you don’t know how to do lettuce!” the owner of The Farm roared at me as I was dipping a head of lettuce in a washing tub. He had a touch of fire in his eyes, as he snatched the head of lettuce from my hand and showed me the proper way to dip [...]

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“Apparently, you don’t know how to do lettuce!” the owner of The Farm roared at me as I was dipping a head of lettuce in a washing tub. He had a touch of fire in his eyes, as he snatched the head of lettuce from my hand and showed me the proper way to dip it in water.

Apparently, I don’t know how to do lettuce.

My only thought was of  putting out the fire that erupted around me. I tried to quickly stutter through the instructions that I was given for washing lettuce, just to find that the circumstance had changed: lettuce that is intended for sale to restaurants are prepped differently than lettuce for retail stores.

I had thrown away disjointed leaves of lettuce that were perfectly salable to restaurants . . . though my training was previous geared towards prepping lettuce for retail stores.

Like this, I received a lesson in the deep specifics of organic farming. I previously thought I knew how to do lettuce, but now I know I do.

Organic farming is perhaps too complex a practice to learn through instruction, rather, exposure and error are the true teaching methods.

Farming is a practice that takes particulars to an exponential level. There is an order to everything, tasks that at first appear benignly simple latter prove complex, and a high degree of focus is needed to make sure every task is completed in the proper order, with the right tools, and performed exactly how it should performed in the face of regularly shifting circumstance.

Farming is a ritual: experience, exposure, and time is the only way to learn its ebbs and flows, beats, rhythms, and songs.

Though this learning does not come without its growing pains — “Apparently, you don’t know how to do lettuce!”

Fields on an organic farm

Fields on an organic farm

“Organic farming is more farmer intensive,” answered the owner of The Farm when I inquired about the differences between organic and conventional small scale farming.

I could never have expected organic farming to be as intensive as it has shown itself to be. It was my impression that I was signing onto the farm as an extra hand, in a context where I could learn whatever I could about organic farming, and then stick it into my belt to take with me as another skill that I can ply on the Road.

I did not then realize that the growing pains of a farm rookie would last for months . . .

Everything on an organic farm is intensive: there is a certain way to cut the lettuce greens, certain techniques for picking the mustard greens, cutting broccoli, planting anything, watering seedlings, harvesting squash, feeding the animals — do the baby turkeys get feed with grain that is supplemented with 15 or 10 percent protein? — and, yes, a very particular way of washing the dirt off of heads of lettuce.

Many of these tasks appear simple. El Salvadoreno showed me how to cut lettuce greens my first day on The Farm. He showed me how to do it over and over again.

“Yeah, dude, you are just cutting lettuce,” I thought to myself as I cut another bunch of greens incorrectly. There is no “just cutting lettuce” about any aspect of organic farming.

Though I am learning. After my 12th lesson, I have finally learned how to cut the mixed lettuce greens. Apparently, I need to cut these small lettuce sprouts around a quarter inch up from the place where the stem becomes leaves, just take the full grown leaves, and allow the small, stub like leaves to fall to the earth. If I make my cut a few millimeters too low, the plant will die; if I make my cut a few millimeters too high, then they will not regrow properly. To watch this procedure done in practice is to observe something that appears on the surface to be basely simple, though in actuality microscopically complicated.

“Es un poco complicado,” summed up El Salvadoreno as he laughed at my confusion over such a simple seeming task.

“Organic farming is more farmer intensive.”

Organic farming is not overtly complicated in its base tasks, but in the particulars of the techniques needed to complete these tasks. It has forced me to open my eyes, and really observe all aspects of actions that I take. I cannot see what I am doing through the lens of simple action symbols like: “cutting lettuce,” “setting up an electric fence,” or “washing radishes,” but I must see each action for the unique step by step movements of its process.

I must view the farming tasks as they are done rather than how I think they are done.

Ram on the organic farm

Ram on the organic farm

It is this shear attention to every detail that makes this brand of farming extremely interesting:

“Organic farming is a philosophy,” the farm owner spoke to me one day while searching for a simple way to express the substance of this method of farming.

Hardly anything on the farm is thrown away. Unsalable vegetables are given as feed to the chickens, the chicken poop is used to fertilize the vegetables; the goats eat the grass from the fallow fields, then their bones, innards, and heads go into the compost, and the compost is put back into the field. Even the paper towels that the farmer uses in his home are dried out and reused.

Everything on an organic farm is a cycle, and every element is intended to stay inside of this cycle for as long as possible — spinning in a round of life and death that is as continuous as possible. Even the attention that the farm workers must pay to their tasks are a part of this cycle: each nuance of energy that a worker expends goes into producing as high a quality of vegetable as possible, and these vegetables go into the farm worker to make more energy to complete each task with as high a level of attention as possible . . .

“Organic farming is farmer intensive.”

Vagabond Journey on Organic Farming


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Filed under: Farming

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3715 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

3 comments… add one

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  • Bob L August 2, 2009, 8:13 pm

    *LIFE* is perhaps too complex a practice to learn through instruction, rather, exposure and error are the true teaching methods.

    I am glad you are learning new things, and teaching us in the process.

    Bob L

    Link Reply
    • admin August 3, 2009, 2:39 pm

      Thank you, Bob,

      I suppose everything is pretty much a microcosm of itself. This job on the farm is a good metaphor for life in general.



      Link Reply
  • detoxdietlady October 3, 2009, 5:29 am

    every food that we eat should come from Organic Farming. i really get scared about those toxins coming from chemical fertilizers and chemical pesticides. I only eat foods which are certified that they are organically grown

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