Tracey Fine is a writer and a member of the 2016 Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS) Farm & Garden Apprenticeship. She lives by the motto “You’re never too old, and it’s not too late!”
In the icy hour before dawn I packed my car for a long journey and locked my house behind me for the last time. The “For Sale” sign was barely visible in the predawn gloom. It was January 31, 2015, the day I would start heading west to become a farmer. It would be another 9 months before I would learn about the Center for Agroecology (CASFS) and the apprenticeship at the UCSC Farm & Garden.
Inside my house was a small pile of my belongings, the few I hadn’t sold or given away. The movers would come in a few days and pack them into storage, where they would wait while I found a new life. But, I would be long gone by the time the movers arrived, trying to reach maximum escape velocity from the politics of the south, a place I had lived for 26 years but never called home.
I left early that morning to avoid seeing any of my friends again. The rounds of farewell parties had challenged my resolve over the last weeks. Could I leave these dear friends, my hard-won community? As I headed west toward the North Carolina state line I worked through my arguments for leaving again and came to the same conclusion: leaving was the only thing that made sense anymore, come what may…
Tears of relief flowed as I crossed the state line. After decades of escape fantasies, I was finally westward bound. I would travel the country on old US highways. The years in the south had taken their toll on me. I felt a bit bowed, a little battered, but unbroken. On my dashboard sat a list of the small organic farms and homesteads I had found on the Workaway and HelpX websites. Farmers were expecting me to work for room and board. Each farm on the list would guide me further west. Where and when my journey would end I did not know. Nor did I care. I decided to have faith in the universe. It was all I had left. In my 55th year, I felt far from finished. I followed my farming dreams into the setting sun.
How Did I Get There?
When I arrived in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 1988, it was a typical steamy August day. I had a newly minted master’s degree in botany and the intent to get my PhD at University of North Carolina. But then God laughed and plans changed: I had a daughter and my then-husband began his PhD program instead. Two years later found me the single mother of a 2-year-old, and in dire need of a well-paying job. I found one writing research articles about experimental medicines. My first day on the job was a misery, a misery that would last for the next 20 years. While I spun half-truths for the pharmaceutical industry, my daughter grew up. She recalls her childhood as joyful. Fostering joy through my misery had exhausted me. It was the hardest thing I had ever done.
A native Chicagoan, I hated living with the politics of the south. People joke that some southerners don’t know that the Civil War is over and they lost, but I found this joke not far wrong. Added to this atmosphere was the effect of being surrounded by several top research institutions encircling the renowned Research Triangle Park with its multinational biotech and high tech corporations. It seemed that having an education was not enough; one was often reminded of the importance of a pedigreed education. The effect of these seemingly contradictory realities left me swirling in a perfect storm of -isms, predominantly racism and elitism. Despite my best efforts, it took me 15 years to begin to find real community in North Carolina, and another 5 years to feel firmly established in one. But by then, even community wasn’t enough to hold me in the south.
But First: Mississippi and Louisiana
Contemplating how the politics of place had colored my world for so long, it seemed all too easy to just drive away from it after so many years. But it would be several more weeks before I was truly free of the south. Ironically, to escape North Carolina I had to travel into the belly of the beast. But, in February, that’s where farming happens. My first farm was in Oxford, Mississippi, home of Ole Miss University.
The manager at Yokna Bottoms Farm chuckled lightly at me on my first workday. I reported in my stiff, new overalls and clean, new work boots. I took it in stride. He was a kind man full of interesting farming stories. I spent the next two weeks listening to his stories in the hoop house while we planted seeds of hardy spring crops—broccoli, lettuce, cabbage, kale, and collards. On weekends, I worked in the kitchen garden with the farm owner, an education professor at Ole Miss. We spent hours talking about social justice and food systems while weeding herb beds.
One night, the farm family invited me to join them for a house concert of delta blues in the “back hills of Mississippi.” We drove a circuitous route into a sunset ablaze with deep oranges and pinks, courtesy of the Mississippi River delta, the professor informed. The truck was fragrant with the smell of spicy, boiled “crawdaddies” that we brought for our supper. They taught me how to rip the heads off the cooked critters and find the sweet bite of meat under the hard shell. We danced to the blues through the evening with other locals.
It’s hard not to like a town with three independent bookstores in its town square. During my stay, I learned that music and literature are revered in Oxford, Mississippi. By the time I left, the hoop house was full of tender seedlings, and I had to admit that I was a little bit in love with that Mississippi farm. The urge to stay and plant those seedlings in the ground pulled at me, but I was expected in Lafayette, Louisiana. I thanked the farm manager and the owner for making me a Mississippi farmer, then headed south.
I wound my way down to Louisiana on the Natchez Trace Parkway, built on an ancient trail once used by Native Americans to track bison. It cuts through a dense forest draped with dreamy Spanish moss. A small spitfire of a woman with a wild head of curly red hair and two yapping terriers met me at the address for LaLa Fare, a cottage food business run out of her home. The former nurse gardens her yard in raised beds and aquaponic beds for her fledgling food business. I arrived ready to help her harvest and create the sweet and savory pies she sells frozen at the local farmers’ market. But first, she insisted, we sat down to chat. By the time our first wine glasses were drained, I knew we’d be great friends. The workweek seemed to fly by in a whirl of laughter. By night, we created flaky pastries like kumquat-fig “newtons” and creamy chicken potpies. By day we played at the dog park, visited friends, shopped at flea markets, and ate fried oyster po-boys. On Saturday, we loaded the truck with a small freezer full of pies and drove them to the farmers’ market, where we sold them from a tent. When our week was over, my host lamented, “But you just got here!” For a second time I was surprised to find myself saddened at the prospect of leaving the south, but east Texas beckoned.
Of Texas and Llamas and Grits
As I passed the out-sized ‘Welcome to Texas’ sign, I muttered to myself, “I guess I’m west now.” I approached Lost Acres Ranch in Milam with some trepidation. Texans were a mystery to me; they were, by all accounts, their own people, and those people included the likes of both Ann Richards and Rick Perry, an incongruous pair if there ever was one. What would the Texans who owned this ranch be like? But, my apprehension dissolved into wonder as I pulled into the driveway and saw dozens of graceful llamas and alpacas drift across the pastures as if walking on air.
The rancher greeted me in Texas rancher style, all grit and gristle. He pushed up the bill of his ball cap and squinted at me as if he were sizing me up for a cattle auction. I wondered if I would be allowed to stay. But his gruff exterior melted away when he introduced me to his animals.
His ran a llama and alpaca refuge, he explained. He traveled across the country to rescue them from people who could no longer care for them. I was surprised that he knew all 40 animals by name. He told me about each one’s personality as we made our way across the pastures. It was clear he was besotted with these creatures. He cooed and patted them like babies. When I asked if the llamas ever spat at him, he seemed offended. He’d never been spat at, he said, and then he showed me how to kiss a llama. When I saw this big, craggy, old rancher kissing his llama on the lips, I knew I’d be okay there.
I lived in the dormitory of a Ham radio contest station that the rancher had built about a quarter mile from the farmhouse. Sometimes the llamas were waiting outside my door in the morning to escort me up to the farmhouse, where the rancher would have coffee waiting for me. “You want some grits?,” he asked the first morning. When I told him I never acquired a taste for grits despite all my years in the south, he said, “Nonsense, no one ever made them right for you is all.” Turned out he was right about that. I loved his grits.
He taught me how to care for the shy, inquisitive animals. I learned how and what to feed them, how to trim their hooves, when they needed shearing, and about the signs of diseases to watch for. We lost one pretty little alpaca to an intestinal parasite while I was there. The rancher was stoic about it, but he couldn’t hide the pain of his loss.
When my stay ended, the old rancher told me to come back anytime. I thought we might both cry, but he turned away quickly and lumbered off toward the barn. I drove slowly down the driveway, taking one last, long look at the beautiful animals. I had learned all their names.
Texas is a big state with endless highways that offer long, unobstructed views and astonishingly fast speed limits. I headed out of east Texas toward Austin on Texas Forest Highways with posted speed limits of 80 mph and not a soul in sight. I got to Austin in no time flat, and received news that the sale of my house in North Carolina was final. To celebrate I bought a fancy pair of genuine cowgirl boots. I went dancing with a handsome cowboy that night; his boots were equally spectacular. I told him that I traded my house for my new boots.
New Mexico and Arizona: Into the Mountains
My planned blast across Texas to Roswell, New Mexico was curtailed by an ice storm the next day. I white-knuckled along the highway for 12 hours, sliding clear off the road once. An eccentric giant of a woman greeted me in Roswell. Her tiny cabin was filled to the brim with European work exchangers, camped out at all angles across the floor. Her several acres of hardscrabble land awaited a garden and barely supported a small menagerie of animals, including llamas, goats, chickens, and ducks.
The best part of the Roswell homestead was taking the llamas for their afternoon walk. This, the homesteader insisted, would socialize them. I wondered what my Texas rancher would say about that. I’m not entirely sure whether the llamas became more social, but we sure had fun walking them along the road to the astonishment of passersby who stopped to gawk at us. After cooking dinner together, evenings were filled with raucous card games that my new European friends taught me.
The drive west out of Roswell had me nervous. A prairie state gal, I had little experience driving in mountains. I was heading up to Taos; at the southern end of the Rockies, it sits at 7000 feet. Another homesteader was waiting for help with her new egg business, gardens, and outbuildings. The mountains loomed in the distance and soon I started the climb. Awe replaced fear as the mountains came into sharp view, all glittering white snowcaps with flanks of evergreen. Just outside of Taos, a violent gash appeared in the valley beneath me, stretching for miles. A sign said it was the Rio Grande Gorge. Like a mini Grand Canyon, it ran through Taos. How had I never heard of this wondrous thing?
The homesteader’s land faced the Taos Mountains. Every morning, I watched the sun rise over the mountains from my bedroom window. Bent to my task in her gardens, I would often startle upon rising, stunned anew at their grandeur. Mountains no longer scared me, I realized one day; I had learned to love them.
In our off-hours, the homesteader and I hiked the Rio Grande Gorge, soaked in the natural hot springs along its banks, visited art galleries, and listened to live music at the many venues in town. Taos was a grand place! When it was time for me to leave, the homesteader invited me to return, and I vowed I would.
Gleeson is a mile-high town in the southeast corner of Arizona. My map called it a ghost town. But the 30-acre Ocotillo Ranch and Farm was full of life, especially the two women who owned it. Though they were new to farming, what they lacked in experience, they made up for in enthusiasm and ingenuity. They built their house and all their outbuildings and fences. Their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project was in its second season and growing in members. The farmers taught me what they knew about high-desert farming. They had traditional row crops with fabric covers to ward-off the grasshoppers and birds that had decimated their previous season’s crops, and were just starting an aquaponic system with tilapia when I arrived. But, best of all, their dairy goat had just had babies.
I lived in a mouse-infested RV on the farm during my 2-week stay. In the mornings, I could hear the baby goats crying to be released from the shed that
protected them from predators. My first task each day was to bottle feed them. What joy! The farmers called working with the kids “goat therapy,” because they were such sweet, adorable, joyful creatures. I learned how to milk their mother and make cheeses, like mozzarella, queso blanca, feta, and chèvre. The farmers also taught me how to run a CSA.
On to California: Farming in the Gold Country
The broken-heartedness I felt as I left my new friends was familiar now. I had felt the same at each stop along my journey. But it was time to head for the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in California, where a well-established family farm awaited. This farm was serious. No other farm had vetted me so thoroughly before agreeing to let me work for them. I had learned much along my journey, but it only served to underscore how much about farming I still had to learn. I felt lucky for this opportunity to learn from a seasoned farmer.
Calaveras County, California is called Gold Country, not for the rolling hills of wild oats that glow golden under the summer sun, but because it was the site of the California gold rush. Metzger’s Farm and Winery is nestled in golden hills punctuated by statuesque black oak trees. The family has been farming their 10 acres of mixed fruit and vegetables for over 30 years.
The farmer buzzed up on his ATV and greeted me with a dazzling smile that topped his long white beard; incongruous Harry Potter-style glasses perched on his nose. I was the first work-exchanger to ever work the farm, but the farmer was turning 70 that year and needed help. Neither of us knew what to expect. The farm manager, another North Carolina escapee, whose house on the farm I would share, presented me with a bouquet of fragrant flowers upon my arrival. These two men would teach me a lot about farming and community. We would become great friends, although we did not know that then.
The farm had been busy for 3 months before I arrived in early June. Seedlings were ready to be planted; tomatoes awaited the support of cages; potatoes, onions, and garlic wanted liberation from the soil; and apple trees creaked under the weight of too much fruit. They put me to work straightaway. I learned how to shape beds with an Italian hoe, a short-handled hoe with a heavy, cast iron head; how to thin apple trees from atop a 10’ orchard ladder; and how to harvest potatoes, onions and garlic, and set them out to dry.
When the on-site market opened, I helped manage it. Over the summer, I would get to know customers by name, and learn their life stories while they perused our produce and sipped wine at the tasting bar. They came for the produce and stayed for the farmer’s colorful stories. Each market day, a local historian would drop by before we opened, wanting the first crack at our fresh eggs. He read to us from the humorous history book he’d written about the town while we set out the produce displays.
Each month we hosted a farm-to-fork dinner. These became so popular that we had to cap attendance at 100 people. Events required exhausting days of cooking, setting up tables in the farm yard under the oaks, making flower arrangements, and hauling wine to the tasting bar. But when the band started playing, and the party lights began to glow under the oak canopy after the sunset lost its blaze, and people feasted on food made with our fresh produce, my exhaustion gave way to a deep pride at what our happy crew had accomplished.
We fell into a comfortable rhythm of planting, and weeding, harvesting, and marketing. But soon the work demanded more hands. Other work-exchangers began to arrive from across the US and around the world. The quiet farmhouse I had been sharing with the manager became a buzz of activity. Our international crew hailed from Turkey, France, Germany, and Spain. Mealtimes became a mélange of ethnic cuisines—crepes and späztle and frittata sat on tables alongside tacos and potato salad. We often dined under the huge oaks and watched the sunset, always spectacular as it lit up the Sacramento River delta to our northwest. Across the yard at the farm family’s house, we were often invited for dinner. We’d drink wines from their vineyard, enjoy the bounty of our harvest, and play lawn games until deep dark.
If someone had told me that my happiest summer would occur in my 55th year, I would have fretted less the passing of time. Those of us who were fortunate enough to cycle through Metzger’s farm that summer all used the same world to describe it: Magical. And Farmer Metz, as he likes to be called, is a great, jovial magician of a farmer.
The spring month I was scheduled to work on the farm turned into the entire summer and then into the fall. As the oak leaves began to fall and swirl, I left to hike in Utah, on my way to winter in Taos. I cried so hard when I left that I couldn’t drive. This was a different level of broken heartedness than I had become accustomed to. I was leaving home. And I didn’t know if I could ever go back.
What Next? Becoming a CASFS Farm & Garden Apprentice
For 9 months I had been traveling across the nation. I had found joy and community and unexpected generosity everywhere I landed, things I had long hungered for in my southern life. I went in search of an answer to “Can I farm?” and answered it with a resounding “Yes!”. But could I be a farmer? That, I still did not know. Although I had learned so much, I did not presume to call myself Farmer. Hiking the red rocks of Utah, I felt lost, not knowing where to aim my next steps in life’s journey.
One night, while distractedly flipping through an e-zine, an article about a university program in Santa Cruz caught my eye. Students were learning about organic farming and living in tent cabins on campus. I sat bolt upright. “This is it! This is what I need to do next!” I thought. Then, I can call myself Farmer. Sending a silent plea to the universe, I checked the CASFS website to see if I had missed the application deadline for 2016. I had exactly 7 days
And now I am here. In the morning, I head out of my tent cabin nestled under the cedars, and gaze over the fields of young crops in neat rows, the blue bay and the mountains just beyond them. I still can’t believe I am here. I am feeling more like a farmer every day.
Once upon a time, about a year and a half ago, in a land thousands of miles away, I owned a lovely home filled with beautiful things and worked hard at a job that paid very well and made me miserable every day. Now, I work harder than I have ever worked, and for no money. I own no property and very few things. I have lived among strangers who quickly became friends. And I have never been happier. What comes next I do not know. And I am okay with that.