Green String interns carrying green principles worldwide
Early this year, 25-year-old Bethany Boyer-Rechlin of Massachusetts was accepted into the Peace Corps as an agricultural worker in East Africa and began searching for a program that would teach her sustainable agriculture and practical skills.
“I did extensive research,” she said, “and I only found one farm program with an intensive hands-on portion that also offered classroom teaching about other aspects of farming.”
That program was the internship at Green String Institute, from which Boyer-Rechlin will graduate on May 31.
“I’m definitely happy with my decision,” she said. “Bob showed us how to do things, and then encouraged us to jump in and do them. Sometimes it seemed overwhelming, but I was always able to do it. When I get to Africa, I’ll have to learn new things, but I’m not worried.”
That’s what Bob Cannard likes to hear.
“I want people to leave the program with enough knowledge about farming that they’ll have confidence to initiate their own activity,” he said, “whether it’s gardening and feeding themselves or doing something on a greater scale such as becoming a local food producer.”
Cannard, a champion of Northern California’s sustainable food movement since 1976, and Sonoma Valley vintner Fred Cline are responsible for Green String’s innovative internship programs.
They combined forces in 2000 to found the Green String Institute and its physical embodiment, Petaluma’s Green String Farm, and accepted the first group of interns in 2009.
The full-immersion program draws up to 15 interns for three-month sessions from across the United States and Canada. Participants have ranged in age from 18 to 60, though most are in their early 20s. They live on the farm and cannot hold outside jobs during the program.
“Interns wake with the sun, eat a hearty breakfast and plunge in,” said Misja Nuyttens, who coordinates the internship program.
Interns have practical lessons most weekday afternoons covering everything from beekeeping to soil science. They spend the rest of their time learning in a hands-on way.
They help with the harvest, care for egg-laying chicks and other animals, weed and hoe, assist in the store, replace irrigation, build compost, prune trees and construct things in the wood shop.
“There is always something that needs to be looked after on a farm,” said Nuyttens. “And they learn how to do much of it. Bob’s goal is to instill confidence in the students, teach them enough to get them started.”
Jason McCobb of Boca Raton, Fla., was a member of the first class and has gone on to become a food producer in his hometown.
“I was amazed by the fabulous community you guys have back there,” he said by telephone. “Growing crops year round, evening farmers’ markets, sustainability. I wanted that for Florida, and I’ve been using different components of what I learned at Green String ever since.”
Returning home, McCobb started Farmer Jay Pure Organics on five acres. He sells produce to restaurants and at the evening farmers’ market, which he also started.
“It was the first of its kind here,” said McCobb, 37. “I based it on those wonderful Tuesday evening markets in Sonoma.”
He passes on the things he learned at Green String by sponsoring an informal internship at his farm, holding adult workshops and through Farmer Jay’s Junior Sprouts gardening classes for kids from pre-K through middle school.
Some Green String interns, like 25-year-old Tom Herzog, stay on for a full year as “graduates.” Herzog will leave Green String at the end of May to start a farm in Santa Cruz, distributing crops through his own CSA.
“Before I came here I had no clue about growing food,” Herzog says. “I was getting a degree in electrical engineering, but I felt that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I love growing things. It’s really a joy to see something come from nothing, and then it’s on your dinner plate.
“I’ve learned from Bob that I can make a living on a small farm. You don’t really need that much land to succeed.”
Cannard and Cline had three major goals when they started Green String — improving the land by nurturing soil health and increasing ecosystem diversity, providing local residents with healthy food at affordable prices and spreading knowledge of sustainable farming.
The first two goals are accomplished at Cline’s vineyards and the 140-acre Green String Farm, where 50-60 acres are cultivated throughout the year. Farming methods include natural process agricultural practices such as cover crops, compost and compost teas, crushed volcanic rock supplements and crop diversity. No fertilizers, pesticides or artificial chemicals are used.
Green String crops run the gamut from apples to zucchini, with stops along the alphabet for just about every fruit and vegetable that springs to mind (and some that don’t, like sunchokes or kohlrabi). This bounty is sold fresh from the fields at an on-site farm store that is open seven days a week.
The third goal, spreading knowledge, is accomplished with the ambitious internship program that has in three years gained national stature. The message is spread intern by intern, without a break between sessions. The day one group graduates and leaves the farm, a new group arrives.
And the very next morning, the newcomers rise with the sun, eat a hearty breakfast and plunge in.
The Green String Farm store, located at 3571 Old Adobe Road in Petaluma, is open 7 days a week (closed on major holidays). Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. from spring through fall, and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. in winter.