Full Life Farm: A Retrospective of an Ongoing Learning Experiment

It is challenging to summarize the end of the beginning of what has become a lifetime of learning food sustainability. For me, it did not begin in Carrollton, GA at Full Life Farm (http://www.full-life-farm.com); it began in the backyard of my father’s house in the California suburbs where I reluctantly mowed lawns and performed other chores that children never appreciate in the moment. However, I always noticed the very obvious care my Italian farm-raised father put into apricots, plums, peaches, oranges, avocados and a variety of other plants that never seemed to grow in abundance. His small scale grafting sparked what has become my lifelong interest. Full Life Farm allowed me to immerse myself in and reignite this lifelong interest. While it is difficult to summarize months of food sustainability experience into a short essay or even a longer one, there are a few ideas that are important here. Learning has always been important to my growth and I will never really stop. Prior knowledge is valuable and should never be discounted, even in unfamiliar situations. I will always ask questions, even if since childhood that has placed me in a variety of trouble but not with the wise that always encouraged it. I will return to these points as needed throughout the following essay.

Full Life Farm is a sustainable farm. Sustainable signifies that the farm lives and thrives upon what it grows. Anything extra goes for sale to local restaurants and the local farmers’ market. It isn’t a factory farm that uses machinery to plow the land, plant seed, weed, or harvest the food crops. It is a small sustainable farm that relies upon its residents, volunteers, and occasional interns to do all of these things. Frequently sustainable farms are also called intentional communities. From research and what I have learned over the last several months, an intentional community, whether a house with a large garden inside the city limits or outside of the city limits on a small farm, is an enclosed community shared between several individuals (and possibly families). If anyone is interested in a more in-depth explanation of intentional communities (ICs), please consult http://www.ic.org. I began my quest for an IC months before this internship began, and my education will continue long after the formal education of this internship ends when I leave the farm and I leave the country. It began as and always was more than just an internship.

In January, I moved from friends in Austell to a farm a half-mile away from Full Life. While I minimized my life before I arrived, I always seem to assess what I can live without each time I do move, and I have done it several times. Moving to a room, rather than a house forced me to consider and reconsider again. This is difficult for anyone, and it is challenging. But when one considers the things in life that are important, whether they are space, time, family, health, fresh air, and/or material goods, you make priorities for everything that you consider important. I began attendance at school with over six hundred books and over four thousand CDs that I had amassed over years of collecting. Reassessing my lifelong priorities over the last several months, I decided that food sustainability, family, health, and travel were more important than excessive materialism. Minimizing clutter was initially as terrifying as it was liberating. While I rid myself of most of it, I kept a bookcase of less than thirty books, a hard drive and mp3 player to house my music, an electronic tablet to house newly acquired electronic books (because I will always read and learn), record players to play a handful of antique records and a few newer ones, and a comfortable hammock to sleep in.

My first tour and first day on the farm was emotionally challenging as I judged myself on all that I did not know (rather than what I did know and what I would learn) until I realized I was not being judged for my experience. I would be judged for what I did, what I contributed, and what I learned. While there are formal teachers on campus, there are informal teachers that I have encountered in life from my grandparents and my father to others that have entered my life to teach me life lessons. Paul and Terra are similar teachers. They patiently teach food sustainability from the ground up with their hands and with their kind coaching. I think the first time I realized that I was in the hands of patient teachers was when I washed eggs for the first time in early February. While I am a vegan and I do not eat anything that comes from the souls of other beings, Paul and Terra do need help with things that I can help with. Cleaning eggs is one of the exceptions I have made. That first day, I washed all the eggs with my bare hands without a washrag. In retrospect the eggs seemed to be a bit dirtier than they should have been. Later that day, Terra explained the usage of the washrag to clean the dirt and the excrement from the eggs. Water touching the eggs normally permanently stains the eggs and makes them unsuitable for the home market, but water, slightly warm (at least warmer than the eggs) helps to open the pores of the eggs to wash anything that can be washed away. The larger and medium sized eggs are organized by the mixing of colors in each box and sold at market, and the smaller, cracked, and stained eggs are put to the side to sustain Paul, Terra, and their daughter Zinnia.

Fast forward to today when I buried a hen. It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t as difficult as it could have been. In high school, I never dissected any animals because of my squeamishness and decided against medical school for the same reason. Yes, I am a vegan, but I felt that the body of the soul that once inhabited that hen deserved to be buried. When I approached Paul to let him know that there was a dead animal in the yard, he politely acknowledged my concern and already knew about it. When he offered the job burying the hen (for farm safety and cleanliness purposes), I decided in my head that I would decline that responsibility. Instead, my heart answered yes to bury the nameless hen that had died overnight without explanation.   Prepared with a shovel, Tonglen mediation, and a few words of blessing, I dug a shallow grave near the side of the compost pile and covered her with dirt and compost and sent what energy may have been lingering on her way.

I must explain here that I have been a vegan for over two years. Given that running a farm (and working on a farm) is a sustainable lifestyle choice, my vegan lifestyle is extremely pertinent to what I have learned and what I have encountered here. I was obviously a vegan before I moved here, but I didn’t connect one particular aspect of my vegan choices as viscerally as I have over the course of the last several months.   The animals I live with and encounter where I live and at Full Life Farm are living and breathing souls with feelings, with hurt, and with pain just like you and I. The animals also communicate, but I have not yet mastered animal communication to understand the specifics of their speech. My point here is that they are not just animal flesh. I am a solitary vegan in this environment. It doesn’t help matters when I encounter animal flesh in plates and pots it seems cannibalistic to be in the kitchen rather than buried in the ground. I have promised to speak little of this and I have kept that promise where I am rooming but it has helped me to freely discuss the topic with Paul and Terra. While we disagree on most things involving the animals, we do agree that animals should not suffer. For each of us it is a matter of degree. After my experience here, I have a great deal of respect for both of my teachers. However, it does not alter my decision to find a vegetarian or vegan IC for my next residential move. That will be an important condition for a community that wants my contributions.

Earlier on the day I washed eggs for the first time, while Paul, Paul the WWOOFer (http://www.wwoof.net/welcome-to-wwoof/), and I were raising the frame for a temporary shelter, I didn’t realize how sensitive the frame was. I leaned a little too far over and this somewhat large structure almost tipped over after all of the work that had been put into it since early morning. Fortunately, it didn’t fall over and it served as another lesson to always practice the mindfulness that I must learn to implement as I live and breathe my Buddhism practice and as Paul gently reminds me as I walk through the raised beds to harvest the food crops without destroying the other crops in the vicinity. We placed the supports where they were needed and the lumber shelter is still standing, protecting the lumber for the house from the elements.

It is challenging to assess the overall progress I have made and what I have learned except as an assessment of reflections that happened weekly since I began. I began knowing very little and recently realized in retrospect that I was less unfamiliar with certain tasks than I was uncertain of the knowledge that I already had. Still, there were a few tasks I needed to learn to function as a contributing “member” of the farm. When construction of the lumber shelter began, I wielded a hammer for the first time in what seemed decades, possibly since childhood or in my former life as a film production assistant. In a manner of speaking, I was out of shape, though very healthy, and I knew it. I have since incorporated more protein into my diet and a pull-up bar and a set of stretch bands to my morning exercises.

Throughout the last several months, I have planted seeds, bulbs, mushroom spores, and tubers, transplanted seedlings into pots, and harvested leafy greens, onions, and numerous other seasonal food crops. I have done it in the cold and in weather that hasn’t been as cold. And while the cold could have been worse, I came close to asking to leave for the day when it felt unbearable. I never left. I realized that if I did leave, I would be the only one that left and the work would still need to be done. So I stayed. However, I still don’t like the cold. When I settle into an IC after a search with a partner to raise a family, it will be in a much warmer climate, though I will have to endure the cold again on another farm in the near future.

To tie all of this together and to put a little perspective on it all, I began this internship working at Full Life Farm in January of this year. I will continue working on the farm until I leave the area. There is still much to learn, especially on the house site now that the weather has begun to turn warmer, and I will have much to contribute. That isn’t a lot of time but learning begins by placing one foot in front of the other and beginning a journey. A few short years ago, I decided I could not tolerate the food that passes for bread in my local stores and bakeries. This was the beginning of my journey in food sustainability. I had little baking knowledge and no bread baking experience. And still I decided to do it because I knew I could make something better. I certainly had no experience converting yeasted bread recipes to sourdough starter. Now I have four years experience baking bread. Working at Full Life Farm has given me the foundation I need to begin understanding food sustainability on a small working farm in a very similar way that Paul and Terra began interning on other farms before they started this one. When I leave I will take the knowledge that I have acquired here and apply it as I evolve and learn new life skills contributing, working, and teaching on another farm.

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