By Dorothy Neagle
Sometimes the best jobs, the most life-changing opportunities, start with an embarrassment or a mistake. The story of S’ra DeSantis, co-director of the UVM Farmer Training Program, reminds us that, no matter how much you think you have to learn, the important part is willingness to do so. In fact, her endless motivation to learn about farming is part of what makes her a better educator today.
When did you know that you wanted to work in food?
I am not sure this is the moment I fell in love with farming, but it was the moment that I decided that I was committed to farming. The first year that I farmed at Riverberry Farm in Fairfax, Vermont, the farmer, David Marchant, handed me a flat to be transplanted. I asked him, “You transplant grass?” He frowned and replied, “Those are onions.” From that moment on, when my face turned a crimson red, I wanted to prove to him and myself that I could learn this peculiar business of farming. It has since been a rewarding learning experience ever since.
How did you get your current good food job?
After 15 years of co-managing a collective organic vegetable farm I made the bittersweet decision to leave the farm to search for a job that was slightly less taxing on my body and where the income would not be dictated by the potential of flooding. One week after I informed my co-workers that I was leaving the farm the job opening at the Farmer Training Program was announced. It is the perfect job for me—combining two of my deepest passions—organic vegetable production and hands-on education.
How did your previous work or life experience prepare you for a good food job?
I have co-owned a farm, taught at the University of Vermont in the Environmental Studies Program, worked for several agricultural non-profits and earned my Master’s of Science in Plant and Soil Science. All of these experiences helped prepare me to be a teacher in the Farmer Training Program. Every day I still learn from my colleagues and students. Teaching is a two-way street. Everyone has valuable information to share.
What was the greatest obstacle you had to overcome in pursuing your Good Food Job dream?
The greatest obstacle to continue farming has been my health. Farming can be incredibly stressful on your body. I have been farming for over 20 years. It took me a decade of farming in pain and my back going out to finally make the decision to prioritize my health. Since that day I stretch every day and exercise 2-3 times a week. Many people outside the farming world think that farming is the equivalent to getting a workout but in reality you move in the same awkward movements day after day. I have built ergonomics into our curriculum at the Farmer Training Program so my students can avoid the mistake I made.
Name one positive thing that a former employer taught you that you continue to appreciate?
When I was a co-owner of a collective farm, I learned one of the most important tools of farming from another collective member. He insisted that we do a farm walk EVERY week to assess and prioritize what needed to be done on the farm. I thought this was very tedious at the beginning. It can be really difficult to go on that farm walk when you already know that all your winter squash needs to be harvested before the squirrels devour it and the crabgrass is taller than the carrots. But I eventually realized how important it is to take the time to assess new pests and diseases, to determine all the crops that need to be harvested and weeded and it provides time to really learn the intricacies of your farm and the soil. I also think it is important to allow employees to go on these farm walks sometimes if not all the time, so you can train them how to think in a whole farm mentality and not strictly task based. Farm walks with your employees will prove to be an asset quickly, since it will allow them to take on more responsibility.
What can you identify as the greatest opportunities in food right now?
This is a difficult question. There are so many amazing opportunities but I think dearest to my heart at the moment is providing fresh fruit and vegetables to kids, especially children who may not have access to this at home. Vermont is at the forefront of this movement with the Farm to School Program. Currently 83 percent of schools in Vermont participate in the Farm to School Program. Not only are the schools providing local agricultural products to the students but many of them include agricultural education with field trips to farms, school gardens, and cooking classes. These kiddos are our future farmers, that is pretty exciting!
If you could be compensated for your work with something other than money, what would it be?
If I could not be compensated for my work with money, I would be happy to be paid with lots of local pasture-raised animal products (especially bacon) and lots of kale and brussels sprouts.
-This post was first published on GoodFoodJobs.com and was reposted with permission.