By Mark Dattilio

Six a.m., the alarm goes off. It’s still dark. I left the windows open last night and the loft is filled with a cool breeze and the sounds of waking birds and beasts. I turn on NPR, the only news channel that comes in on the radio, and start brewing a cup of local dark roast. As the coffee starts to drip, I begin heating up a bowl of oatmeal. Oats, flax seed, cinnamon, walnuts, apples, all local…except the walnuts and cinnamon. I check some sports scores on ESPN mobile app, throw my dishes in the sink and jump into the car for my fifteen minute commute to Even Star Organic Farm in Lexington Park, MD. And so begins the day of a young farm hand and an aspiring new farmer.

View from JL Green’s farmhouse where Mark Dattilio will be an apprentice.

If you would have told me in the fall of 2007, during my first semester of college, that I would be working on an organic vegetable farm and soon would be heading to an apprenticeship in Virginia to learn grass based rotational livestock farming, I would have told you to lay off the ganja. My world was consumed with classes, sports, late night video game binges and weekends full of merriment and debauchery. I ate whole large pizzas with a blink of any eye, coupled with an order of wings and a large can of red bull.

With a semester abroad in Italy as the spark and my reading of Michael Pollans’ “Omnivores Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food” as the fuel, I was consumed by a zealous affirmation in the local food movement (see pilgrimage to polyface blog). During my senior year of college I began part time employment at Even Star Farm, host of one of Maryland’s largest CSAs . This opportunity served as a great introduction into local food and farming being that farm owner Bret Grosghal, had been a chef for some 18 years and now was providing produce for some of the best restaurants in the DC Metro area.

I was given an introduction into the work required for a farm to stay viable and although it was hard, long work I instantly felt the physical and mental gratification of farm life. I especially enjoyed returning to campus dirty, sweaty and with the satisfaction of knowing that I had probably done more work in a 7 hour shift than most of my fellow students would do all week.

After graduation I opted to stay in Southern Maryland and continue to work at Even Star, partly because I wanted to pursue farming as a profession and partly because I had no other jobs lined up and I wasn’t ready to move back into my parent’s house. Over the next nine months working full time at the farm, I felt I learned more applicable knowledge to sustain my own existence than I had in 22 years of living. And the knowledge I attained during this time could never have been attained in any classroom or from my own home. Since I had no background in farming, the only way I could learn the ins and outs of daily farm life was to pursue a job in the field. But there is only so much a 9-5 (or more accurately a 7-3) job can teach you. I needed full immersion in farm life and there was a whole other side of the local food movement that I had yet to explore. Meat.

Joel Salatin (on left) giving a tour of Polyface Farm

In reading Michael Pollans’ books, I was introduced to the colorful character Joel Salatin. Salatin was portrayed as the man on the front line of the fight for local food. His Polyface Farm was epitomized as a beacon for the sustainable local food system. His parents bought the farm in the 1960s as a piece of land beaten down and scrapped for all its worth. And so began the process of healing using carefully managed rotational grazing of cattle, chickens and pigs. Joel viewed the land not as a mechanical machine using the academically found magic fuel of NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium). Rather he took the approach that the land is made up of biological processes which needs a myriad of different macro and micro nutrients to function at the highest photosynthetic level possible.

After touring Polyface early in the summer, I realized that this needs to be my next step to achieve my goal of owning and operating my own farm. But with the notoriety Polyface and Joel have received from Pollans’ books and from his own publications like “Everything I Want to do is Illegal” and “Folks, This Ain’t Normal”, his internship and apprenticeship programs have become rather competitive.

JL Green Farm

Enter JL Green Farm. JL Green is owned and operated by Jordan and Laura Green, a young couple living in Edinburg, VA. Jordan was an apprentice at Polyface for two years before enlisting in the Marine Corp serving four years as an F-18 mechanic. After being discharged he and his wife began searching for land to farm. After family support and the addition of businesses partners, JL Green now leases over 800 acres using the same grass based rotational grazing technique pioneered by Polyface. He markets his 100% grass fed beef and lamb, pastured chicken and duck eggs, pastured broiler chicken and turkey and forested pork through an on-farm store, DC based buying club and farmers markets in the DC and Virginia area.

Goats at JL Green Farm

I applied for JL Green’s apprenticeship program and received in reply an invitation to “try-out” for the position. After four days of dawn to dusk work moving and feeding livestock, washing eggs, chopping wood and working markets, I returned home tired but thrilled at the possibility of learning a system of farming which not only is economically viable but beneficial to the health of consumers, the land, the local economy and least of all, myself. A couple of days later I received an email inviting me to be an apprentice for one year. 

I start the first week in November with free accommodations and food coupled with a small stipend. I chose to take the apprenticeship path rather than a formal education because in my unique situation, with no background in farming, I need experience, experience, experience. Theoretical knowledge is all well and good but you need to have the ability to apply what you learn on a daily basis so that you retain it to memory. Also I felt it would be beneficial to learn from a young farmer who is succeeding in the challenging world of farming and do so without owning any land. He started with the same problems I’ll face and is making his way in the local food movement. And I’m not the only one choosing to do apprenticeships. Some of the most avid enthusiasts of farming today come from a non-farming background. They face the same lack of experience and knowledge as I do and apprenticeships offer that perfect combination of experience and learning which is needed to start and prosper in the farming world.

I’ll leave you with a quote I found while studying for a test in my Roman history class in college. It comes from Cicero, a lawyer, a statesman and who is considered one of the greatest Roman orators and composers of prose. Whenever I start to question myself and the path I’m pursuing, I think of this quote and hopefully it will have the same inspirational effect on others as it has in me.
“For all gainful professions, nothing is better, nothing is more pleasing, nothing more delightful, nothing more becomes a well-bred man, than agriculture.”