Part I: My Experience Working in Agriculture
By Davis Clark
Editor’s note: This piece, part one in a two-part piece from Master’s of Environmental Management student Davis Clark, is the first in our Agricultural Perspective Series highlighting student experiences working in agriculture in and around the Gunnison Valley.
My first real experience with agriculture didn’t come until the summer between my junior and senior years of college, in the summer of 2018. That summer I cut my teeth, so to speak, on a whole new field of interest for me, (pun intended). I was the resident intern and farm
Flowers and basil thriving in the late-season, 2018.
I lived in an old wooden barn, dating back over 150 years, with no running water, oven, stove, or Wi-Fi. I could see through the panels in the wall and lived among the mice, barn cats, occasional snakes, and possums that also called the barn home. I fell in love with the bucolic Appalachian farm scenery and rustic lifestyle. The work was hard, the days were long, and I was happier than I had ever been. I ate so many farm fresh organic vegetables, was outside all day, got to work in the dirt, and saw the literal fruits of my labor thrive as the season went on.
I worked on my first farm from May to August, and although I was exhausted by the end of the summer, I was hooked. I had learned so much, and realized there was so much more to learn. I wanted to explore more of this world: the world of agriculture.
That fall, in an effort to continue exploring this new interest in agriculture, I applied to the Peace Corps. I wanted to get out into the “real world” after graduating college; not corporate America, not a low-wage job, but somewhere far away from the standard American life and our perception of the “real world”. I submitted a general application to anywhere in Africa within the environmental and agricultural sectors and waited to see what the universe had in store for me.
After much anticipation and waiting, I eventually heard back with an offer to be an Urban Agriculture Extension Agent (UAg) in Senegal. I was beyond ecstatic. After my interview, the decision couldn’t be more clear, so I accepted the offer. It all seemed so surreal, I felt so under-qualified, but what I lacked in experience I made up for with excitement and enthusiasm. I was ready to take my next step to becoming an agriculturalist.
I left for Senegal in September 2019, wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, with little to no idea what was in store for me. Soon after arriving in Senegal, I was transferred to a Sustainable Agriculture Extension Agent (SusAg), who focuses more on rural areas and field work, versus gardens and urban areas, as a UAg.
After three months of Pre-Service Training (PST) at the Peace Corps training center in Theis, I was officially sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV). Then I was sent off to the village where I would spend the next two years living and working alongside Senegalese farmers. I was placed in a small remote village in the southern region of Kedougou, not far from the Guinea boarder.
I spent my days integrating into the community by practicing the local language of Pulafuuta, helping out the local Master Farmer water and tend to his garden, planning training events for local farmers, and getting to know the families of the village. The Master Farmer program is a partnership between Peace Corps and USAID that provides funding, training, and equipment to selected farmers throughout communities in Senegal.
Not every Peace Corps volunteer is located near a Master Farmer, but I was and it was a great way to dive into the community and work of Senegalese farmers. My Master Farmer became my best friend while I was there; he’s one of the nicest, most generous and hardest working individuals I’ve ever met and taught me so much.
In February I went back to Theis for more technical training in the sustainable agriculture skills and techniques we were expected to share with the farmers in our villages. Soon after returning home to my village, the notification was sent out to all PCVs around the world that we were being evacuated due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
I was heartbroken. Everything I had worked towards, my new home, life, friends, it was all coming to an abrupt, and ugly end. I had only spent about three months in my site, and six months total in Senegal but it was the most fulfilling, challenging, inspiring, and gratifying work I had ever done. To say the least, I was devastated.
My experience as a PCV, although brief, only deepened my interest for sustainable agriculture. The opportunity to learn and work in a totally different environment, culture, and landscape was an incredibly valuable experience for me and provided a deeper perspective into some of the challenges agriculturalists around the world face. My experience as a PCV continues to inspire my curiosity and pursuit of sustainable solutions in agriculture.
Local farmers learning about bed prepping and amending soil.
After the evacuation, I went back home to North Carolina for a few months. The world was in distress, and I had no idea what to do with my life. All I knew is I couldn’t stay at home, I had to leave. I wanted to travel and I wanted to get back to farming. So in June 2020, I left home and began my journey with WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) on two farms, one in North Carolina and one in Virginia.
I only spent about two weeks at each farm and wasn’t thrilled with either of my experiences. With the active coronavirus, it was a weird time to be staying in a stranger’s house, and both farms were more of a hobby farm, with small gardens. It was not a production or profit-motivated operation, and it left me with predominantly small, seemingly purposeless tasks. It wasn’t anywhere near the fulfillment I felt in the Peace Corps, or the excitement of that first summer of farming.
The farm in the Shenandoah Valley, VA
I left the farm in Virginia, and spent the next four months traveling the Eastern seaboard, hiking, exploring and living out of my truck with another evacuated PCV from Senegal. We traveled to the northern tip of Maine, and then turned around and drove all the way to Southern Florida where we spent two months working on Paradise Farms, south of Miami, near the Everglades.
This was the best WWOOFing experience I have had. Paradise Farms is a starfruit, avocado, and longan orchard with tons of other exotic fruit trees such as jackfruit, papaya, bananas, sapodilla, black sapote, guava, coconuts, and more. There was also a 1.5 acre plot for vegetables, where we grew a wide variety of salad greens, tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, carrots, and more.
It was my first experience working on an orchard, and I got the opportunity to learn a lot about orchard management and pruning. There were four other WWOOFers there, which created a great community of farm hands eager to learn, excited to work, and grateful for the experience. We truly were living in paradise, eating fresh avocados and starfruit every day.
We left Paradise Farms in mid-December. I went home for the holidays, and my partner went to Costa Rica to work at a biological research station. Fast forward to April 2021, after four months of living out of my truck on the road, traveling through National Parks and spending our days exploring the Southwest, my partner and I headed to Gunnison. I was planning to start the Master’s in Environmental Management (MEM) degree at WCU in June so we came to Gunnison to look for housing. After a fruitless hunt, my partner and I decided to split ways. I was craving farm life again and she wanted to head to warmer weather.
So, I headed north to Paradise, Montana where I spent two weeks WWOOFing on a lavender farm at the confluence of the Flathead and Clark Fork rivers. It was surely a different flavor of Paradise, a bit more rough around the edges, certainly colder, but it led me to believe that Paradise is everywhere, and if you don’t see it, it might be that you’re not looking hard enough. It was healing to be back on a rural farm, working in the dirt, planting trees, and living out in the elements.
During my time at the farm in Paradise, MT, I applied for an opportunity to be an AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers In Service to America) for Coldharbour Institute and the Center for Cold Climate Food Security. This seemed like a great way to get involved in food systems and agriculture in Gunnison, once I went back to start my Master’s.
After leaving the lavender farm, I went to Idaho to work on a ranch for a couple of weeks. I had never worked on a ranch before so it was a totally new experience for me. I learned about a whole new side of agriculture to me. I had only worked on crop-based farms, so seeing an operation focused on cattle and pigs, with sheep, goats, horse, chickens and ducks was a valuable experience.
The farmers were extremely knowledgeable about holistic management and regenerative agriculture, and taught me as much as they could about grazing management, soil health, the grass life-cycle, the benefits of grazers and other animals on the landscape, and so much more.
They were practicing a style of holistic management that involves intensive grazing on small paddocks, or pastures, for short periods of time then moving the cattle off for long periods of time to give the land time to rest and regenerate. This style of range management requires more effort and labor since it requires moving electric fence nearly every day, but it emulates native grazers on the landscape and is much better for the soil health, vegetation, and biodiversity of the pastures.
Mid-May came around before I knew it and it was time for me to head back south to Colorado to start graduate school. I was sad to leave, but jazzed that I would be moving to Gunnison to dive more into the world of regenerative agriculture.
That was eight months ago, and I have been continuing my education in the field of agriculture as well as pursuing future opportunities. As the AmeriCorps VISTA for Coldharbour Institute and the Center for Cold Climate Food Security, I have gotten the opportunity to volunteer with Mountain Roots, Gunnison Gardens, and Western’s Organics Guild to learn more about regenerative agriculture and grazing practices.
We are so lucky to have so many knowledgeable and hard-working agriculturalists in this valley. Mountain Roots Food Project alone has so many incredible programs for food security, food assistance, and distribution of quality organic produce, eggs, and chicken. Sue Wyman with Gunnison Gardens provides educational internship evenings every Tuesday throughout the growing season for anyone to attend for free and learn more about organic agriculture.
The Organics Guild (OG) on Western’s campus provides a space for students to learn about gardening, composting, and organic agriculture. In the Fall of 2021 I became a Graduate Mentor for OG and will be assisting the program throughout the 2022 growing season. I was also fortunate enough to attend the Western Colorado Food and Farm Forum in January where farmers and ranchers from Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho came to speak about regenerative agriculture.
One more exciting thing I’ve been involved with as a part of my VISTA position is designing and starting a Community Food Systems internship. This new internship is with Gunnison Gardens and the Food Pantry for undergraduate students to gain hands-on experience in the production, distribution, and food assistance phases of our local food system.
This first semester is a pilot to see how it goes, we currently have two student interns who are eager and excited to be involved with the food system here in Gunnison. It’s been a great opportunity to learn from the experienced and established resources here in Gunnison and find new ways to get students and local organizations involved together.
Although I got a late start to farming, since I didn’t grow up on a farm and wasn’t born into a farming or ranching family, I have scurried to get as much experience as I could across a diverse spectrum of agricultural perspectives. Nearly all of my work has been on small-scale, organic farms, and I am looking to expand my experience into larger, industry-scale agriculture, where I can help implement and encourage more beneficial agricultural practices that promote soil health while decreasing the reliance on synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and soil-eroding machinery.