Last year, after over a decade in Brooklyn, I moved to California to be part of the legendary apprenticeship program at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at UC Santa Cruz. I was one of 39 apprentices, who ranged in age from 22 to 68.
Each year a similar group arrives from all over the world for a full-time, six-month intensive in the hows and whys of organic farming and its place in the larger food system. Collectively, we ran the 100-member CSA and a biweekly market stand on a farm overlooking the ocean.
When I arrived, I brought with me four Meyer lemons, the thing I’d been most proud to have grown. I’d literally spent years coaxing the golden perfumed fruits from a potted tree in my Park Slope apartment. I felt like some kind of Renaissance-era ambassador, with an earnest desire to bring the wonders of my tabletop orangerie to a foreign land. Upon arrival, I was instantly humbled by an entire row of Meyer lemon trees, branches bending under the weight of their own fruit, lining the path to my new tent cabin home.
When I first got here, I felt beset by this kind of largesse. I was unprepared for the transition from a “junior one-bedroom apartment” (a uniquely New York appellation) into living more or less outdoors with a community of 50 other people.
I was overwhelmed by orchards of things that I had never seen attached to a plant before—avocados, kiwis, persimmons. I’d get caught squatting in the field like an animal, furtively stuffing arugula or peas into my mouth, as if they were somehow going to run off before dinner. I canned with a fury that could only be described as apocalyptic (I am, and almost everyone I know is, still working through that batch of green tomato chutney). In Brooklyn, the ringtone on my mobile phone had been a recording of a redwing blackbird, a sweet reminder of a meadow near my childhood home. Now that I had moved next door to a six-acre field, with an enormous flock of resident redwings, I had the harried, distinctly anti-pastoral feeling that my phone was constantly ringing.
We learned a lot from our managers and each other in the farm and garden. We learned a lot from each other in the kitchen, too. Once a month we’d wake at 5:00 in the morning to work in the kitchen, rather than the field. We prepared breakfast, lunch and dinner for a hungry tribe of a hundred strong arms and dirty hands—all on a budget of about $1 per meal per person. There were a lot of lentils. There was a lot of quinoa. There was also a walk-in refrigerator shoulder-deep in produce that practically gleamed, picked from our fields and served hours, even minutes, later.
I fell in love with this farm, as many do, and I stayed on an extra year to teach here.
This season, we are blessed with three apprentices transitioning out of work as professional chefs. I’m writing this in August, a time of typical California Central Coast magic, when we have both summer and fall crops coming on. We fry up tiny padrón peppers and slice into Summer Crest peaches, then pile up early apples and pears for roasting together if the fog rolls in early and the night feels chilly. These are good days in the kitchen.
I work hard and a lot. I wake up every morning to a view of the ocean through an orchard. I still live and work with 50 people. Sometimes I miss sitting alone quietly in my apartment, eating alone in a restaurant without waitstaff shooting me uncalled-for consoling looks, not having to smile automatically at anyone with whom I make eye contact, and having secrets. Mostly, that life seems savage and a little distant. A steady stream of New Yorkers flows through this program, bringing with them just the right amounts of cynicism and Gorilla Coffee.
This winter I’m returning east, and I know that once I get there I’ll be reconciled with New York in time. I predict a lot of soup. For the moment, I’m helping to coordinate harvest for our market stand and trying to keep up with the beans. A regular who goes by the name of “Vegan Star” has been buying over $100 of our blueberries weekly, because, he tells me, our fruit is “high vibration.” I’m not sure exactly what this means, but I think he might be right.
Go west, young woman. After ten years in Brooklyn, Saskia Cornes went west to apprentice at an organic farm overlooking the Pacific.
Photo credit:Saskia Cornes and Carole Topalian.