Apprenticing on Farms Across The Country

Finding Farms By Bicycle

We found out in the last blog post that I left my cushy desk job at Howard Stern for the life of a vagabond, bicycling across the country looking for a second career, hopefully in agriculture. It made sense that if I was to base my life around slow food, I should discover it slowly and take my time.

Together, my wife Kate and I traveled 5,500 miles all by pedal power. From New York City to Seattle to San Diego we visited farms and craft breweries across the United States of America. We have dozens of great stories from the road that usually start with “oh man, remember that time we…”. Perhaps those stories will surface in future blog post, but for now I must stay on task.

Today’s post highlights some of our farm experiences from our trip. If pedal power was how we got there, let’s talk really quickly about why we were there in the first place.


Why The Obsession With Sustainably Grown Food?

Before bicycling across the Country I did a lot of bicycling around New York City and the NorthEast U.S. I loved riding road bikes. Spandex clad, bright helmet, goofy carbon fibre shoes, and a beautiful pair of legs (if I may brag). For those few of you in the know I was a Category 4 road racer and rode for an amateur team based out of New York City. road races were fun but I really preferred the fast-paced danger of criterium racing. That’s as far as I’ll go with the cycling jargon.

As part of road riding and the desire to “cat up” to the next category I concentrated not only on my skills as a rider, but on my nutrition. After all, you are what you eat. You wouldn’t put crappy gas with dirt and water in it in a Ferrari.

If my body was a high performance machine, I needed high performance fuel.

At the same time as I looked more in depth at my nutrition I also found Food Inc. and The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Talk about life changers. My combined interest in food paired with the contemporaneous documentaries of our broken food system.

Those two resources are worth checking out if you have not already. They’re unfortunately still valid.

I now had motivation and more information, but I had no experience. No first hand knowledge of how food is produced or why any of this matters. I needed to go find it.


Apprenticing On Farms Across the Country

While I was living in New York City still I began to write. Some one my blog, some in notebooks that would never see the light of day, and some as letters to farmers across the country.

I used the WWOOF website to find farms in the States that I knew we would be bicycling through on our big trip. WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. Farmers post internship spots and people like me can connect and come work on the farm.

I hand wrote about a hundred letters to farms. Of all those I got about 20 back. Only one of the responses was a no, and the rest were interested in what I was trying to do. I put all the “yes” farms on a Google Map that I used for planning the trip and worked them into my route.

I also tried to keep in touch with the farms while we finished prepping for our trip so that they knew we were coming and that we weren’t THAT strange.

Over the year on the road we visited almost every farm that I can heard back from and a whole bunch that we met or discovered along the way. We stayed on livestock farms, vegetable farms, dairy farms, garlic farms, egg farms, and everything in between.

It was a life changing experience that I would do all over again. All it took was the willingness to do something crazy and a whole bunch of hard work. Kind of like farming.


What Type Of Farming Is Right For Me?

When I set out I knew that I wanted to become an heirloom vegetable farmer. That was my direction and my focus. After pending a year on the road and a full season the year after working on a farm I found my love of livestock. The guy who set out to grow heirloom vegetables now raises chickens and pigs. Who’d have thought?

I point this out because there is no one right or wrong path. But there is a path, you just have to find it. There may be dreams that you have now of the perfect situation, but life is going to get in the way. Reality is a real pain in the butt. Money changes, politics change, markets change, and you will change. That one thing that you should hold onto is a willingness to adapt.


Did This Prepare Me To Start Farming?

A year traveling from farm to farm and a full season on one farm as an apprentice and I was still unprepared to be a farmer.

There was still so much left to learn. There’s the whole business side of it, the marketing, the planning, the granular details of production, and the maturity to keep mental and emotional balance. I still had/have a long path ahead of me.

As for the specific lessons I needed to learn, well, that’s what this series is all about. I’ll go over year to year what I wish I had known, the mistakes I made to earn that knowledge, and what I would do differently if I had it to do over again.

Thanks for stopping in and sharing in my story. I’m having a lot of fun putting this together and I hope you enjoy reading and watch it.