Growing to Learn
A Farmer’s Daughter’s Journey to Organic Farming
Story and Photography by Terra Ash Bruxvoort
Growing up on a conventional farm in Iowa, I remember craving sweet corn on many hot Iowa summer nights. After once asking my dad if I could go out to the field and pick an ear of corn for dinner, he said, “No, that corn isn’t for people.” Even at the tender age of 8, I recall feeling shocked that I couldn’t eat the food my own father grew. This is what farming meant?
In spite of, or maybe because of, my lack of homegrown meals, I have always been intrigued by organic farms. The idea of having a garden fascinated me. I wanted to be able to go out to my field, harvest my own food and enjoy the bounty—something my father wasn’t able to do. By the time I reached college, I was having full-on daydreams about owning my own farm, and while I loved the idea, the journey to making it a reality seemed daunting.
I felt like I needed to work on an organic farm before I could commit to farming, and throughout college I often considered applying for the Women, Food and Agriculture Network’s mentorship program. But, it was never the “right” time. However, after working in the conservation sector for two years post-college, it became the “right” time. I quit my job, applied and was assigned to work with the founder of the organization, Denise O’Brien, at Rolling Acres Farm in Atlantic, Iowa. For two months I worked nearly every day weeding, harvesting, planting and selling organic produce.
Every day working with Denise had a teachable moment. The first week on the farm was absolutely miserable as I misunderstood her instructions and harvested green (unripe) tomatoes. I never thought I would be able to get past that blunder. How could I, a so-called farm girl, do something so ridiculous? However, as Denise and I worked side-by-side she was never afraid to show me her mistakes, and through that sharing and many other on-farm experiences, I improved my critical thinking skills and became a faster learner.
One farmer I talked to at the farmers market in Atlantic told me, “Everyone thinks they know how to grow food, but very few people actually do.” Even though I was overwhelmed by starting to farm, I honestly thought growing food was a much simpler process than it actually is. How hard can it be to put a seed in the ground and grow something you can eat? Turns out it is actually very complex, which is why having a mentor like Denise share her experiences was priceless.
When I began talking with my parents about growing organic food in college, they didn’t take me seriously. Their mindset changed when I gave them a tour of Rolling Acres. They were in awe of the entire process. A couple of weeks after my parents visited, my dad phoned and asked me where I saw this going. I told him about my plan to spend the next year or two working on other people’s farms before moving back to my hometown to start my own organic farm.
He shared his concerns. “I wish every day that I could do something like your mom,” he said. “I wish I could go to an office every day and earn a paycheck every week. I can’t do that. I can’t tell you how many nights I’ve laid awake worrying about money. And here you have the skills to earn a reliable income, and you’re choosing something so much harder.” “I understand that, Dad,” I said, and I know the path I am choosing is the harder path.
As I write this I’m living in Vina, California, working on a farm for the winter. Every day is full of uncertainty, and I work many more hours than I did before to earn the same amount of money, but at the end of the day this work makes me happier. I never wanted a job, I wanted a life, and that is what I feel I’ve found in farming. Who knows, in five years I might throw in the towel and say this wasn’t the life for me, but knowing that I tried will make it all worthwhile.
Terra Ash Bruxvoort is a freelance writer and farmer-in-training. She writes about her experiences at TheNomadicFarmer.com, and her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Modern Farmer, Precision Ag Magazine and Seedstock. She grew up in Mitchellville, Iowa.