A South Bay college student gets schooled on a rural Ohio farm

A South Bay college student gets schooled on a rural Ohio farm

What the muck?

When this college senior and Manhattan Beach native trades his board shorts for overalls on a remote Ohio farm, he gets more of an education than he could possibly imagine.

 

Written & photographed by Jack Zellweger

I’m about to get my degree from Kenyon College, where I have to complete a defense of my physics final project to graduate—a tangle of equations and data. Physics is hard, really hard. But it hasn’t been the only challenge I’ve faced in my four years here at Kenyon.

This May it will have been five years since I graduated from Vistamar High School in El Segundo, where in order to get my diploma I was also required to complete a senior project. I chose to volunteer at a commune and farm in a remote corner of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon.

Getting off the bus and stepping onto a farm was a profound—almost religious—experience. I found novelty in everything I saw. The way the fog hugged the mountains. How earthy green covered almost everything. Even the clean air felt fresh and new to me.

I remember my first days in those mountains well, planting onions in the Cascades—a first for me. I was admittedly a bad farmhand. I spilled a bucket of curds all over the floor. I wasn’t familiar with the importance of “mucking.”

And who was Michael Pollan, anyway? The farmers were frustrated, and they never let me forget where I came from … that very much chicken poop-free Manhattan Beach in California.

One day I was clearly annoyed that dirt kept getting in my shoes while planting. Angela, the local farmer, said, “Why don’t you just take them off?” And I did.

The dark, cold, grainy earth filled the spaces between my toes, popping out and covering the tops of my feet with every step on this grey, rainy morning. Earth like this was foreign to my city-worn feet, and at first the sensation was repulsive.

But I soon longed for that feeling between my toes. Looking back, it became a distinctive feeling that I can’t get anywhere else but in a field. Despite my ineptitude, I was hooked.

I had just tasted the free and open Oregonian air. The thought of hopping right back into a desk chair scared me. I decided to defer my acceptance to Kenyon College, get a job at a local restaurant and quickly start saving money so I could travel.

After several months working jobs at Tin Roof Bistro and Mucho Mexican, I was building fences in Switzerland and milking cows in Spain. I found that it didn’t matter where I was, as long as my feet were tucked away in soil. That year ended, but my love of farming had just begun.

Soon I found myself at the gates of Kenyon College—one freshman among many. Lots of homework, lots of reading. I was back in academia again. Clean floors and desk chairs everywhere. It was college as expected.

Don’t get me wrong—it was a good life, but I was missing that soil between my toes. It wasn’t long before I found the Kenyon Farm. Looking back over my four years at Kenyon, it’s clear to me there was a huge gap between what I know now and what I knew then.

Yeah, I’ve taken quantum mechanics since, but in retrospect quantum knowledge wasn’t an important deficit of mine. I was lacking something far more important when I went to college. The Kenyon Farm filled that void and taught me some of the most valuable lessons of my four years here.

When I showed up at The Farm in early fall 2013, my suburban origins shined so brightly they were impossible to hide. I had been transplanted from a beautiful, suburban beach community—known for its high-priced homes and easy lifestyle—to the middle of rural Ohio. I wasn’t hiding anything.

Remembering those first days as a Kenyon Farm volunteer feels like watching water spill. Surrounded by students who’d been doing farm work day in and day out for years, I found that my couple of months of working at farms around the world didn’t prepare me for real farm life.

I got a lot of side-eye in those early days. I’d never had to dig a 6-foot trench or wrangle a goat back into its pen. I had to improvise every chore I was assigned. I used my body in ways I never had during those first days as a Kenyon Farm volunteer, and the other farmers knew it was all Greek to me.

One cold February evening, the farmers asked us volunteers to muck the frozen chicken coop—scraping layers of droppings that had been there for months. “Gross,” I said to myself as I ducked my head in. A pungent, organic odor was so thick in the air, I could almost see it.

I glanced over at my companion in this endeavor—a farmhand of many years. He’d done this a thousand times, and I pretended that I had too. He nodded. I dug in, cracking the first layer of grime on the floor of the coop.

Ammonia filled the air, and a sharp pain overcame my eyes and throat. I coughed, but he didn’t flinch. I stepped outside and looked over the Kenyon Farm and again remembered where I come from: the very much chicken poop-free Manhattan Beach, California.

Despite my obvious inexperience, I eventually made some of my best friends at the farm. Six student farmers lived there year-round in a big, white, clapboard house—taking care of 200+ animals. It takes work, and the farmers are required to get up at the crack of dawn to do morning chores. The animals’ lives depend on it.

Every day brings something different. Arriving there, I’d find so many things to do—from building shelters and planting crops to cleaning coops and harvesting honey. After work was done for the day, we’d drag our tired frames into the warm house and have dinner family-style, crack open a few beers and maybe have a fire later on.

The farmhouse, isolated and relatively unsupervised by the college, is full of artwork plastered on the walls, spirits roaming, free and open. The students there are a colorful mix of eccentrics, scholars and recluses, and it feels like living in a poem reminiscent of the Beat era.

There’s nothing better than sitting out on a cold fall night around a fire, glimmering lights of the main Kenyon campus and the rest of the students on the horizon. We’ve discovered the magic of country life and solitude, something surprisingly absent on Kenyon’s main campus—given its remoteness. But Kenyon’s main campus is full of students with their own stories of self-discovery; the Kenyon Farm just happens to be where mine unfolded.

I was never allowed to forget where I came from, but I got better at hard physical work. And beyond that, I got better at thinking for myself and taking responsibility where it was needed. The years following those first days at the farm brought me experience wrangling both goats and new volunteers, not unlike myself when I first arrived.

I came to Kenyon a young, privileged suburban kid, and working on the farm has been an opportunity to fill the holes that my upbringing left out.