Did you know that farms, especially smaller-scale farms, are often in need of help? Most of the time they need volunteers because they can’t afford to hire help, but they will exchange produce for your time.
If you want to learn how to grow your own food, connect with others who want to grow their own food, know what it’s like to be a farmer, or earn free produce, volunteering at a local farm is a great fit for you!
Why Volunteer at a Farm
Oh man, do I have a lot of reasons why you should volunteer at a local farm!
Connect with Like-Minded People and Exchange Gardening Tips
The first day I volunteered at Pure Land Organic, I met the neighbor of the farm. He is a homesteader in the sense that he and his wife grow or raise most of their food, including butchering their own chickens. He gardens year-round and teaches a few classes in the area on gardening through winter.
I pretty much immediately asked him what he thought the best gardening resources were in terms of websites or books. He told me that the best way to fast track your growing is to ask other growers in the area what they are growing. The example he gave was to ask about the specific varieties that are being sold at the farmers’ market since I would be able to see that the produce had been successful in our area.
That summer, I took photos and notes of the different varieties Megan grows at Pure Land Organic Farm because it is located so close to my house. If it can withstand temperatures at the farm, it should be able to withstand temperatures at my house.
An added bonus to this strategy is that it has proven to be a very successful method for quickly getting to know the farmers at the markets as well. Sometimes they have no idea what I mean when I ask what variety the produce is, which can mean that they are just there to sell for the farmer and don’t know the nitty-gritty details on sowing seeds, tending the land and harvesting the bounty. It can also mean that they aren’t a very detailed farmer. I want a farmer who knows their stuff because if the food is well taken care of then it will take good care of me. In other words, if one farmer can’t answer and another can and tells me all about the variety, I’m going to buy from the one who is well-informed.
All of this awesome information was from ONE interaction! There were many conversations I had with another volunteer and the farmers themselves where we shared tips, podcasts, shows, documentaries and more all about gardening and cooking.
Learn How to Harvest Specific Fruits and Vegetables
I learned how to properly harvest all sorts of fruits and vegetables while volunteering at the farm.
- cucumbers: twist and gently pull – if it’s ripe enough it might just fall off after one turn
- okra: cut with pruning shears and definitely with gloves because it will stick and poke you
- tomatoes: carefully pull and/or twist from base – when ripe they fall right off
- peppers: move upwards until it snaps
- melons(sort of): Melons can be tricky. At times it felt like a gamble but the main strategy was to check the color and to look for the closest tendril to the melon to see if it had dried up. You can knock to see if it sounds hollow but this really did nothing to help Megan and I determine its ripeness, so good luck with that trick! 😉
Learn How to Prune Specific Fruits and Vegetables
This was the first year that my husband and I planted blackberries, raspberries, blueberries and strawberries. Pure Land Organic Farm has rows upon rows of blackberry bushes, and they were sweet enough to show me how to prune them.
Everything I read said to prune some of the branches down to the roots and when there are only two branches, you want to be sure you know which one to prune. Megan’s dad was so kind and patient teaching me despite me asking the same question multiple times to be sure I heard right.
Gain More General Gardening Knowledge
There is SO much growing knowledge you can gain by simply observing the produce that is grown on the farm. Here are two examples of knowledge I gained that helped me experience more success in my garden:
- Okra is super tall. Have you seen it? I never had. It was my favorite to harvest because I didn’t have to bend over or squat for thirty minutes. It was just about my height. Of course, I would later learn while growing it in my backyard that it can be even taller if you don’t top it off (prune it by cutting the top off to keep it at one height). Seeing okra in person really helped me know how much space to prepare for in our garden.
- In our area, peppers thrive when they are grown in the shade. I was surprised to learn that Megan used shade cloth for hers because the peppers themselves can burn. What? I had never thought of it before but it turns out it can be true for several veggies in our harsh Texas sun.
See a Snapshot of What It’s Like to Be a Real Farmer
Farming isn’t an easy job. If you are considering starting a small farm this will give you a better understanding of what it’s really like to be out in the fields. I think more and more these days farming is getting romanticized, and while there are definitely aspects that are (the calm and quiet of being out in the field first thing in the morning, the picturesque setting, going home knowing you provided highly nutritious food for your family) it is hard work.
You may experience harsh weather conditions, various insects and animals that could be unkind to you (I got chiggers numerous times while volunteering and it was NOT fun), lots of bending and squatting and you know there will be more obstacles if it’s your own farm one day.
All this to say, I have absolutely loved my experience volunteering. I also think it’s important for everyone to experience the work that goes into growing food. Garlic, for example, grows from October to June or July. That is a lot of time and effort from the farmer, and the experience will make you appreciate the growers and your food more.
Earn Free Produce
When I volunteered at the larger-scale farm, I was able to take home an entire CSA box after my six hours of volunteering. This produce lasted my husband and I a few weeks and we were able to freeze some of it for later as well.
When I volunteered at the smaller-scale farm, I took home produce each day I volunteered, regardless of how long I was able to stay. Megan would tell me to fill up my bag each time. In the beginning, I asked her to fill it up because I didn’t want to take too much and I wanted her to feel like it was a fair exchange. That helped me to know how much to take in the future.
Once I was growing more food, I took less of hers home because I believed part of the exchange was the knowledge I was gaining. One time, I was even able to bring her and her father sugar pie pumpkins because it was something I was growing at home that she wasn’t growing at the farm.
Regardless of where you volunteer, you will most likely get free produce in exchange for your time.
Okay, not 100% free. It is, like I mentioned earlier, in exchange for your time. However, here is something to keep in mind: all farmers are going to harvest FIRST TIME IN THE MORNING. This is when the fruits and vegetables are the less stressed and, therefore, the most delicious!
So, this could still work really well for lots of folks such as…
- teachers in the summer (that’s how I started!)
- stay at home moms that have someone who can watch the kids for a few early hours in the morning. For example, if you are staying home with the kids and your husband doesn’t have to be at work until 9 a.m., you can still go volunteer your time to harvest and get home before he leaves for work. This is especially a bonus in the hot, hot, we’re talking HOT in Texas, summer months.
- part-time workers
- remote or freelance workers who have flexible hours
- anyone with flexible scheduling at work
How to Volunteer at a Local Farm
Here are several great places to look to find local farms:
Seek out an Edible Communities Publications magazine for your area, if applicable. You can read these for free online or find them at most “foodie” places around your town (restaurants that have been featured in the publication, farmers’ market, farm stands, etc.)
Fill in your location and search for farms or events and farmers’ markets where you could potentially meet farmers in your area.
Head to the farmers’ market and ask around to see if anyone needs help!
Search Google with the keyword “farm” and your location. If farm websites come up, look to see if they have volunteer information on their site or contact them to ask if they need help.
How can you decide on one farm if you have lots of options? The decision may not be an easy one if you are in a large city or a really awesome foodie town like Portland, Oregon or Austin, Texas. First and foremost, find a farm that aligns with YOUR food values. If you only want to eat organic, only volunteer at an organic farm because that’s the produce you will most likely get in exchange for your time.
I have volunteered at a very large, well-known farm in my area, and I have volunteered at a small father-daughter farm that was fairly new.
Both experiences were great but in very different ways. When I volunteered at the larger farm, I never met the farmer. I worked with several other volunteers who were interested in food, health and gardening, so the conversation was still fabulous but it wasn’t nearly as educational as the conversations I had with Megan, the farmer on the smaller farm.
When I volunteered at the smaller, father-daughter farm, I was able to ask Megan specific questions about the farm’s irrigation system, how often they water, how they feed the soil, how they select their crops, which varieties they grow and on and on.
Having those conversations and actually interacting with the land and produce was one of the BEST resources for me as I was learning to grow my own food.