Whiffletree Farm’s internship program economically and effectively prepares aspiring farmers to achieve their dreams.
By Jesse Straight
In this issue of the Piedmont Virginian, you have read articles on all kinds of things about the farm-to-table movement, local food and the Piedmont farms on which the food is produced. But if the agricultural lifestyle is calling you, how do you actually become a successful farmer? I’d like to explore this with a special focus given to our internship program at Whiffletree Farm, where we sustainably raise and sell eggs, turkey, chicken, pork, and beef.
I was born and raised in Fauquier, but not to a farming family or on one of the county’s beautiful farms — just next to one. That farm was an escape for my friends and me, a place for us to ride our bikes, climb trees, sled, hunt squirrel, fish, build forts, and generally explore. I was a normal suburban kid who did not know anything about farming, but loved being and working outside. When I graduated from Fauquier High School in 2000, I was thinking about a variety of vocations, but farming was not on that list. So I graduated from UVA having studied religion and the pre-med sciences, married Liz, got a job with Charlottesville’s Habitat for Humanity, and read a book, A World Lost, by Wendell Berry.
To make a long story short, the Wendell Berry novel got me going in the farming direction, and I kept pursuing it — reading more, visiting farmers, making forays into my own farming enterprises. All of this led me to Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm, an inspiring farmer and businessman in Staunton, Virginia. I wanted to take the leap and intern at Polyface, but I couldn’t with a wife and baby. So I had to make my fumbling way with books, by trial and error, and some day trips to Polyface. In April 2009 we moved back to Warrenton to be in my beloved hometown near my family and old friends, and to start our farm business. We were happy to return to Warrenton, and could not have imagined all of the ways in which we would be so well befriended and cared for here. Our family, our old and new friends, our customers, our farming friends, our church — we could not have anticipated how much generosity and good will we have received. Fauquier County is a special place, for farming and for living and raising a family.
With lots of help and with lots of mistakes along the way, I am very grateful to say that we are now full-time farmers. Though we may live modestly by some others’ standards, by my standards we live like kings. Walking through the rolling, lush pastures on a sunny spring day with 80 dozen eggs in tow, I’ll look to my kids and say, “Look, kids, we are rich!” We are proud to raise food that is healthy for our land, our animals, and our customers. I love our work and life, and want to help others get the boost I could not, which is why we started our internship program.
Since people without any farming experience seldom have occasion to gain experience at a relatively high volume farm, our program is invaluable in preparing aspiring farmers to be able to begin their own sustainable farming enterprise. By “sustainable farming enterprise” I mean one that is healthy for the land, animals, consumers, and — this is key here — also pays the farmer a sustainable living. To achieve this goal our interns have to learn all the field work and all the business work. The field work is natural to learn for an attentive, hard-working intern as we are totally immersed in moving, feeding, watering, and sheltering the animals. The business education is what distinguishes our internship. We have two two-hour meetings each week in which we sit down and go through everything it takes to make a farm business run. To develop this curriculum, all I had to do was think about what I wish I knew when we started — to answer the question “what does someone need to know and do to be able to run a sustainable farm business beyond the care of the animals and land?” We cover sourcing materials, building and maintaining infrastructure, record keeping and accounting, marketing, customer service, laws and liability, nutrition, and more.
Interning is wonderful for many reasons, but most importantly because the intern can get incredible exposure, experience, and education with little risk. Formal education is expensive — think about college or the percentage of Fauquier county’s budget spent on the school system. Education usually means a large investment of time and money, sometimes resulting in student loans that can take years to pay off. Our internship is four months long, and unlike in formal education, interns receive room, board, and a stipend. This means interns can learn the work and business without going into debt or sacrificing their own capital making avoidable mistakes. They can learn from my previous mistakes, for which I have certainly paid. How much time and money have I wasted chasing pigs in the woods, scrambling to save chickens and turkeys in midnight downpours, chronically losing poultry to predators, and missing business opportunities right in front of me?
Our internship program means that the intern can take years off his or her learning curve while keeping thousands of dollars worth of mistakes safely in their bank account. The graduated intern more quickly achieves the goal of a viable, sustainable farming enterprise.
Of course it is certainly possible to become a farmer the way I did it — fumbling along with books and mistakes — but if your stage of life allows for it, interning makes so much more sense. Here is to Fauquier county’s fields full of happy, healthy animals…and farmers!