How studying and working on a farm taught me the bigger picture

A woman wearing brown overalls sits next to a giant cow with big horns.
In addition to her studies, Emily Newhall PZ ’24 is living and working on an organic farm this semester. (Courtesy: Lauren Tanel)

If you had told me last fall that a typical day in the spring semester would include beekeeping, cuddling cows and navigating around dozens of peacocks, I wouldn’t have believed you.

After finding out that the spring semester was going to be completely remote, I knew I wanted a drastic change from my first semester of college. So, in December I decided to move to a farm for the spring — without any experience of farmwork. 

If you’ve heard of the organization Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, you may be familiar with the concept of moving to an organic farm for a few weeks (or months) and working in exchange for room and board. The sustainable, slaughter-free dairy farm I live and work on isn’t a study abroad program nor an internship but something altogether unique. 

Since mid-January, I’ve been in a COVID-19 bubble with a group of college students from across the country also enduring virtual semesters. Even though I feel just as physically removed from Claremont now as I did last semester, I’ve been lucky enough to meet 5C students Emily Newhall PZ ’24 and Simone Paradis PZ ’23 on the farm. Because of our shared identity as 5C students, I wanted to hear from both of them and compare our time on the farm so far.

Newhall and I share the struggle of unfamiliarity with the college experience. However, she explained that the lifestyle we have on the farm is as close as she would get to normalcy for the spring. 

“Because I’m around a bunch of other college students, meeting new people, it’s definitely different, but I think it’s the best [situation] I could’ve had this semester,” Newhall said. 

As a sophomore, Paradis has a frame of reference for the true “college experience” and reassured me that there are noticeable overlaps between what she remembers from her first year and what I’ve been noticing for the past few months. 

“Daily life is pretty similar … You study with people, you talk about classes with people — you just kind of go through life with people,” Paradis said. “I think for a lot of [first-years] it does a pretty good job of mirroring what it’s like being away from home.” 

In the past three months, I’ve done so many things I never would have previously associated with my first year of college. I’ve bottled fresh milk, made yogurt and paneer, held a queen bee, eaten honey straight from the comb, held full moon rituals in the woods, gone stargazing in cow pastures and had a hoedown in a barn loft.

Having upwards of 14 hours a week of responsibilities for the farm in addition to my schoolwork was a huge shift for me from last semester. Besides the time management skills I’ve learned, like being more proactive about prioritization, I’ve realized that having a role outside an academic setting feels rewarding and can help motivate me more in school. 

Having shifts in the garden, kitchen and barn interspersed through my week gave me a solid routine, and I knew that if I had a frustrating day of class, I would have a chance for that day to feel productive in a way unrelated to grades.

On the farm, everyone has their role, and there’s no hierarchy of importance. Whether you’re planting tomato seeds, preparing dinner or spreading straw for the cows, you have a significant role that benefits everyone. 

There’s never a dull day on the farm, and chaos can happen bright and early. It’s not uncommon to wake up to a text that says, “Hey, some of the cows got out, so we need some help at the winter barn.” 

A large brown cow stands in the middle of a field of green grass.
In exchange for room and board, visitors work on the farm. (Courtesy: Lauren Tanel)

One of my favorite cows is Bhakti, the resident kooky old lady, who is a notorious escape artist and retired milking cow. She’s 28 years old and still going strong, almost a decade past the average life expectancy of milking cows. Instead of just reading about ethical dairy farming practices and how they can improve the quality and longevity of a cow’s life, I’m seeing it firsthand. 

Recently, the cows were let out to pasture for the first time this spring, and it ended up being a beautiful moment shared by all the students and the farm staff. Witnessing the change to spring chores happen so organically made me appreciate all the hard work we put in during the winter. 

Working on this farm has also made me realize how normal it is for us to be disconnected from agriculture and the food we consume in general. I’ve accepted that going home this summer and grocery shopping again is going to be such a shock because of my new perspective on the conscious consumption of meat and dairy products.

I know that many 5C students are environmentally conscious and interested in sustainability, and studying on a farm is the perfect opportunity to combine those things. Even if committing to a full semester doesn’t seem like your thing, I recommend checking out WWOOF, even just for a two-week trip. 

London Lordos SC ’24 is from Arlington, VA and likes to hammock under the stars. 

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