Environmental Sustainability Student Blogger Study USA

Farm Chores

Sara pets a goat friend.

Each term, one participant from each HECUA program takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Sara de Sobrino (she/her) is HECUA’s student blogger for Environmental Sustainability fall 2020. She is student at University of Minnesota- Twin Cities, majoring in Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, minoring in Sustainability Studies. Read on for her next post!

The first snowfall of the season found me while I was in the hemp field at Lily Springs Farm, felling hemp stalks with a giant pair of pruning loppers. There is always something magical about the first snowfall, but being out at Lily Springs as an intern is that mix of dreamy and visceral that makes the experience even more special.

Unfortunately, a snowfall makes everything wet in addition to magical and that’s not ideal for a CBD hemp harvest. One of the most important lessons that I’ve learned as part of my internship is how to stay warm and dry while doing farm chores in the cold. My instinct is to rush through the work and discomfort, but Elle (farm manager) is teaching me that care for my body and the land should occur in tandem. I’ve learned how to layer my clothing for warmth and drink hot tea for circulation, and that spending the extra time warming up by a fire or taking a snack break gives me the mindset and physical capacity to care for the plants and animals of the farm with the same loving intentionality that I’ve shown to myself. That first unexpected snowfall may have left my feet miserably frozen under soggy hiking boots, but I’ve since made the invaluable investments of a cheap pair of secondhand rain boots and a perspective that makes my labor sustainable rather than draining.

fellow intern Claire hauling a tarp to fill with harvested hemp stalks; remaining hemp visible in background while foreground has been entirely cleared. Photo credit, Sara de Sobrino.
Fellow intern Claire hauling a tarp to fill with harvested hemp stalks; remaining hemp visible in background while foreground has been entirely cleared. Photo credit, Sara de Sobrino.

On that snowy mid-October day, we were doing the third and final harvest of the hemp stalks. The plants were harvested in three stages: first the crowns at the top of the plant, then the middle, and finally the entire stalk was chopped off. This staggering was to encourage the plant to produce more cannabinoids in its lower flowers after the potent tops had been removed. Once the stalks were cut, we hauled them onto massive tarps and drove them to a neighbor’s barn where we hoisted them up into the loft using a precarious pulley system and affixed the stalks to long panels of orange snow fencing to hang and dry.

A field full of hemp and a blue sign which reads "industrial hemp field, no THC."
Industrial Hemp field at Lily Springs Farm. Photo credit, Rachel Svanoe Moynihan.

That surprise snowfall wasn’t too conducive to drying out a quarter acre’s worth of hemp biomass, but fortunately the surprise warm spell of early November gave the plants the blast of heat necessary to ensure a successful dry. Now, we’re busy shucking countless hemp stems to remove the medicinal flowers and buds to send them to be processed into CBD oil. Shucking is a monotonous task, but it’s good for socializing with your fellow farm workers and for perfuming you with that notorious hemp scent.

I have a designated pile on the floor near my laundry basket where I throw my dirty farm outfits when I get back from Lily Springs so that they can’t contaminate my other clothes. Sticky, fragrant hemp resin, pine needles, crushed buckthorn berries, goat hairs, errant clumps of soil — that pile is a better diary of my farm labor than my actual internship work log. When I put on a dirty farm shirt this morning, I got hit with a whiff of hemp and pine that transported me back to my sunny last day of hemp shucking and forest clearing. There will be plenty of both of those tasks in my future.

Last week at Lily Springs was the much-awaited arrival of the loggers for the thinning of the pine woodlands. Decades ago at Lily Springs, someone planted red pine trees in a dense monoculture all over parts of the property, destroying a natural oak savannah for the promise of future timber revenue. The pines grew, excluded a vibrant understory through shade, and eventually became susceptible to insect damage. By now, it is past time for them to be cut down. We’ve been busy shaping the woodlands in their absence by hauling the fallen pine boughs to be burned, removing unwanted buckthorn and prickly ash with pruning saws, and seeding the disturbed pathways with clover and grasses. It can feel futile to treat a forest like a garden when the scale is so much larger, and there’s so much more work to be done. But it’s immensely satisfying to watch your labor transform a scraggly hillside piled with brush into a hospitable forest floor.

Through my academic background in ecology, I’ve spent weeks clambering through overgrown forests trying to survey the community and quantify its health. I’m no stranger to having my clothes torn by brambles or my hat snatched by a drooping branch, but the work I’m doing at Lily Springs is different. When I look at a forest now, the ecologist in me can identify that it’s unhealthy and needs disturbance and assisted regeneration. But it’s the capacity that I’ve built as an intern at Lily Springs that makes me itch for a pruning saw and a shady seed mix.

Sara pets a goat friend.
Sara and a goat friend at the end of the snowy hemp harvest day. Photo credit, Claire Cambray.

It’s empowering to know that I have the ability to do the work that I see set before me, that I can help the forests become healthy and help myself to do the same. We’ve now fully prepared the medicinal herb garden for winter and it sits under a deep bed of straw, waiting dormant until spring. Earlier in the year, we harvested herbs to be dried in the barn—the scraggly roots of the marsh mallow plant and the fuzzy leaves of mullein, both used as cough remedies—and pruned back the woody stems of the perennials and pulled out many of the annuals. I know some of them will return in the spring, sprouting up through the soil to offer us their medicinal gifts. Even on our final day of work in the medicine garden while covering the plants with straw, I was able to reach my mitten-clad hand underneath the snow to uncover a few fresh green sprouts of lemon balm, still fragrant and bright.    

Finally, no matter what we do at Lily Springs it’s always a good day if it ends on a goat note. The goats on the farm live in a spacious paddock where they’re minded by Aldo, their livestock guardian dog who is faithful to his duty but wary of humans. I will know I’ve truly made it at the farm if Aldo stops barking at me when I near the goat paddock. Goat chores—done first thing in the morning and then last thing in the afternoon—consist of bringing the goats fresh water, hay, and a scoop of sweet feed. The goats won’t pay attention to anything else if there’s sweet feed out, but in its absence they’re happy to settle for a vigorous head scratch or a back rub. Spending time with these clever and affectionate coworkers can hardly be considered a chore. 

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