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Yale Farm summer internship gives students a taste for agriculture and more

One month after planting beets on the Yale Farm, Julia Fleming-Dresser ’19 was happy to see that the plants were thriving. On the hot July day that she helped put them in the ground, the beets were so wilted that she didn’t think they’d survive.

It’s a small thing, but knowing that my hands and those of people I know made that happen is pretty special,” says Fleming-Dresser of the beets’ success.

Fleming-Dresser is among the five current undergraduates and one recent Yale College graduate who served as Lazarus Summer Interns at the farm. Now in its 15th year, the internship program gives undergraduate students the opportunity to engage in food and agriculture through direct, hands-on learning at the Yale Farm and in the broader community. The interns receive a stipend for their work, made possible through the George ’67 and Shelly Lazarus Fund for Sustainable Food and Agriculture at Yale.

In addition to cultivating vegetables, fruits, and flowers on the one-acre Yale Farm, the Lazarus Summer Interns learned how to harvest crops and market farm produce at the weekly CitySeed Farmers’ Market in New Haven’s Wooster Square. They also took part in weekly discussions to expand their understanding of topics related to food, agriculture, and the environment. Throughout the summer, they took field trips to farms and other food-related organizations across Connecticut and New England, and gave tours and hosted visits by groups to the Yale Farm. Each intern also undertook an independent summer research project.

The internship is one of the ways that the Yale Sustainable Food Program (YSFP) fulfills its mission to “nurture the next-generation of food-literate leaders,” says Jeremy Oldfield, who manages the Yale Farm and directs the interns over the summer. This year’s six Lazarus Summer Interns included students with no or limited farm experience as well as those who volunteered at the Yale Farm during the academic year or previously had worked on farms elsewhere. Some of the interns were inspired to learn more about agriculture firsthand after taking the seminar “Approaches to Sustainable Food and Agriculture” taught by YSFP director and Yale College lecturer Mark Bomford.

When selecting our interns, we look for a diversity across the board,” explains Oldfield. “The interns study a range of academic disciplines and come from different backgrounds, so they bring their own perspectives and personal histories to bear on questions about food and agriculture. We want students who have a passion and endurance for working outdoors. We also look for students who have an openness towards different perspectives and points of view about some of the entrenched debates going on within the food system, and who are good listeners.”

In addition to Fleming-Dresser, this year’s interns were Adam Houston ’18, Addee Kim ’21, Sophie Lieberman ’21, James Wood ’20, and Sarah Pillard ’21.

Hands in the dirt, daily

Sophie Lieberman shows off her gardening hands after a day of work at Yale Farm.
The interns enjoyed the sense of accomplishment they felt after spending their day at work on the farm. Here, Sophie Lieberman shows off her gardening hands. (Photo credit: Michael Marsland)

For all of the Lazarus Summer Interns, a highlight of the 11-week internship was the daily farm work.

Having a large collection of living things you are tasked with taking care of on a daily basis, and getting to know all the ways that it can respond to your input, is really beautiful,” says Wood.

Wood had no formal farming experience when he applied to be a Lazarus Summer Intern. Through his experience with the Yale Outdoors Club and other activities, he discovered that he enjoyed outdoor learning, particularly in a group setting, and wanted to do that on the farm.

Social interaction was inherent to our workday,” he says. “That was one of the best parts of the internship experience for me. During the school year, it almost feels like a given that I am supposed to measure my accomplishments on an individual or personal basis. But it is not a given: it is a choice of how to live. When we are working on the farm, we are talking as a group, brainstorming how to solve a problem, working together to make sure everyone has bought into the process, and seeing how everyone’s doing. Among all the living things we are tasked with taking care of, the most important is each other.”

Wood and the other interns helped cultivate many of the 40 varieties of vegetables that are grown on the farm, along with flowers, fruits, and herbs.

Lieberman, who volunteered during her first year at some of the open workdays at the farm (where anyone from the Yale or wider community is welcome to help out with the farm work), recalls one particular Saturday in late May when she worked with just one other intern clearing plant beds, prepping the soil, and sowing seeds. The interns’ workdays were Tuesday-Saturday, 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.

It was empowering that Jeremy trusted us early on to take care of the farm for an entire day and do a lot the work that would determine how the farm functioned for the next few weeks,” says Lieberman.

In fact, the interns’ increasing stewardship of the farm over the course of the summer was an integral part of their learning experience, notes Kim.

Jeremy oversees us in the beginning, but he slowly gives us the reins, which is really amazing. I felt that by the end of our internship, we could manage this land by ourselves. That’s the meaning of sustainability. Jeremy has created a system where, if he were to leave, he could be confident we could carry this land into the future, not only manage and tend it, but teach other people what he’s taught us.”

A special highlight for the interns was the introduction of a Native growing technique called “Three Sisters” (in which corn, beans, and squash are planted in close proximity to each other). This project, according to Oldfield, was inspired by the growing number of Native students at Yale who have visited or worked at the farm. In late spring, the interns took part in a planting ceremony led by Liz Charlebois, a member of the Abenaki tribe who brought her heritage seeds for planting, along with Kapi’olani Laronal, assistant director of the Native American Culture Center (NACC), and School of Forestry & Environmental Studies student Noah Schlager, who is of Poarch Creek and Cherokee descent.

It was such an amazing opportunity to start the summer off by honoring the land and acknowledging that the farm is in Quinnipiac Territory,” says Kim. The seeds from the Three Sisters plants will now be saved for the next growing season.

Houston, who volunteered on the farm for three years and managed Sunday workdays during the school year, said his work there gave him a deep appreciation of the farm’s beauty. 

Adam Houston tending to farm plants in mid-August.
Adam Houston tending to farm plants in mid-August. (Photo credit: Michael Marsland)

I will miss it so much,” says the Yale alumnus, who after completing the internship began work for a landscape architecture firm in New York. “Every time I’m at the farm, especially if it’s around 5 or 6 p.m. as the sun is setting, the light comes in over the hill and makes the whole farm appear golden. It’s been like a little paradise. I feel happy to have been able to spend time here.”

Explorations beyond the field

The Lazarus Summer Interns participated in more than a half dozen field trips to learn about the practices of other farms or food systems in the area. These included trips to Common Ground High School, an environmental charter school in New Haven with an urban farm and educational garden; Thimble Island Oyster Company/GreenWave in Branford, one of the first sustainable underwater farms in the United States; Massaro Community Farm, a nonprofit, organic-certified farm in Woodbridge, Connecticut; the Farm School, a working farm and educational center in Athol, Massachusetts; Smokedown Farm, a hop yard in Sharon, Connecticut owned by Yale faculty member Dr. James Shepherd; the Yale-Myers Forest; and Hawthorne Valley Farm, a 900-acre biodynamic farm in Ghent, New York.

For Kim, learning about ocean farming from shellfish and seaweed farmer Bren Smith, owner of the Thimble Island Oyster Company and GreenWave, was especially illuminating. Smith and his team also took the interns clamming in Long Island Sound.

It was amazing to see a whole realm of agriculture that I hadn’t considered before to be farming, and it totally is,” says Kim of Smith’s enterprise. “This trip broke down the definition of farming. It’s super inspiring to know that ocean farming is one solution to the problems that we are facing in terms of food insecurity and the future of food production, especially considering global climate change. We look forward to new approaches in farming and with sea farming and kelp production, for example, we can tackle some big issues of our time.”

Pillard, who worked on a family-owned organic vegetable farm for four summers before coming to Yale, was especially excited to visit the Farm School, which boasts an adult learn-to-farm program as well as summer camps and other learning opportunities for children.

It was really cool to see another farming operation that is like the Yale Farm in that it cares about education as well as production,” Pillard says. “We took this trip early in the summer, and we worked on the farm but also got to go swimming and make s’mores and spend the night. It was a fun way for the interns to get to know each other.”

The trip to Hawthorne Farm was suggested by Kim, who had worked at its creamery last summer, and was planned entirely by the interns, who visited the farm on what would normally be a day off.

Hawthorne Farm is doing a lot for food access — donating the leftovers from its mobile market, for example. It’s an example of people who are excited about food and who put that excitement into action by making a big difference in people’s lives,” says Houston.

The field trips are a way for our interns to not just see the work within the fence line of the Yale Farm,” says Oldfield. “We want them to get the granular view of the Yale Farm but also zoom out into the Google Earth view.”

Oldfield adds that students learn through these trips that there is no one method for farming and no one definition of sustainable agriculture, for that matter.

We don’t want our students to leave saying they know what sustainable agriculture looks like across all contexts,” he explains. “We want them asking questions about how other growers, food producers, food policy writers, and different members of the food production system are dealing with the principles of agriculture within their own specific contexts.”

Classroom sessions, culinary treats, and CitySeed

Taking breaks from farm labor for weekly three-hour discussions about a range of topics related to food, agriculture, and the environment — including food access and food justice — was a meaningful part of the internship experience, says Pillard. Each week one or two interns would select a reading from the YSFP’s extensive collection of articles and essays, and the six interns would join in a conversation about what they had read.

It was lovely to come together in this intimate setting, and to know each other really well, which is different than the usual academic experience,” Pillard says. “We had a sense of responsibility to each other to stay on top of the readings and to be engaged, and I am grateful for that. It felt like everyone really wanted to be there.”

The students also attended guest talks by experts on topics ranging from managing soil fertility to CitySeed’s SNAP Double Value Incentive Program.

One thing I discovered from our discussions and readings is that the real work of food justice is the hard day-to-day work of making connections to people and talking to them about what their needs are,” says Houston. He adds that he especially appreciated a talk by Alex Bryan, former director of agriculture at the Greater Lansing Food Bank and current manager of the University of Michigan’s Sustainable Food Program, who launched a community garden program in that city. His talk, Houston says, illustrated that making healthier food more accessible to urban populations doesn’t have to be a complicated affair.

It was really inspiring for me to hear that something that seems so simple — giving people garden space and support — can be the most effective solution,” says Houston.

Fleming-Dresser, who applied to be a Lazarus Summer Intern in part because of her love of food and cooking, said she was grateful for the weekly culinary literacy courses taught by Jacqueline Munno, the YSFP’s programs manager for professional experience. With Munno, the interns made pasta and pizza from scratch, among other recipes, and they also learned how to make Chinese dumplings from Lazarus Fellow Erwin Li.

Taking turns selling Yale Farm produce at the CitySeed Farmer’s Market — along with weekend volunteer workdays at the farm — allowed the interns the opportunity to engage regularly with members of the wider New Haven community.

Sarah Pillard, Julia Fleming-Dresser, and Sophie Lieberman package picked tomatoes at the farm.
Sarah Pillard, Julia Fleming-Dresser, and Sophie Lieberman package picked tomatoes at the farm. (Photo credit: Michael Marsland)

Everyone always looked forward to the weeks they worked at the farmer’s market,” says Fleming-Dresser. “The market had to close one week because of a thunderstorm, and I was sorry to miss it. Working at the market gave me a deep appreciation for the pressures many farmers face. If we miss a market, it's too bad, but it doesn’t threaten our existence as it would if selling produce was our only source of income.”

Planting seeds of their own

The interns were free to explore a topic of their own choosing for their independent summer research project. Houston — an ecology and evolutionary biology major whose volunteer projects during the school year on the Yale Farm have included building a chicken coop, woodshed, and a compost bin — chose to create a guide to the weeds found at the Yale Farm. Kim, who hasn’t yet chosen a major, made a documentary film that explores how the food system might look if women from all different rungs of the food and agricultural system were making the decisions, featuring interviews with migrant workers, farm owners and operators, and landowners, among others.

Fleming-Dresser, who is majoring in history, explored how a particular county in Louisiana that was once home to many farmers of color became densely clustered by chemical waste and Superfund sites. Wood, an ethnicity, race & migration major, wrote a computer program that visualizes U.S. Department of Agriculture census as colorful maps. Lieberman, who is considering a major in environmental studies, compared CitySeed’s efforts to double food stamp values with similar efforts underway at New York City farmers’ markets.

While Pillard is still undecided about her major, she is deeply interested in criminal justice, and chose to focus her research on job opportunities in the food industry for people who have been formerly incarcerated.

Doing this internship has introduced me to so many different options for studying food and agriculture — or to potential careers centered around food and agriculture  — beyond traditional things like farming,” says Pillard. “That’s been really cool for me to see.”

Toward the end of August, the Lazarus Summer Interns ended their daily time together by sharing their research projects and hosting their friends and family members at the farm, where they treated their guests to a meal they cooked using crops they grew together. Very often at the end of their farm days, the interns gathered in each other’s homes for shared meals and socializing — a testament, they say, to how close they became over the summer.

I made friendships here that I think will last a long time, especially because we are all united by an interest in food,” says Houston. “There is a new generation of farmers, food scientists, cooks, and people who are going to run food-access programs blooming across the country. It’s cool to be a part of that and to know that 20 years from now, I’ll probably call one of the people I worked with this summer and see that they are doing something amazing — helping change the way people eat food or grow food or get food in America.”

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Susan Gonzalez: susan.gonzalez@yale.edu,