As future registered dietitians and avid nutrition students, us RD2Be’s are always looking for new avenues to gain experience, especially when it comes to volunteer hours. We help out at local food banks, homeless shelters, hospitals, food service establishments, senior citizens homes, and the list goes on. However, one volunteer opportunity that I have NOT seen many RD2Be’s get involved in is one that always seemed pretty obvious to me- local farming.
I mean, it makes sense. Farming is where our food originates. If you RD2Be’s are anything like me, you are a HUGE foodie. So why not get back to our roots, and experience where food truly comes from? I think working on a farm is something that gets overlooked by nutrition students (from what I’ve seen). I believe volunteering on a local farm is one experience that every future dietitian should take part in, for a variety of different reasons that I will go over in this article.
Before going into details, I first wanted to give you all some background about my experience working on a farm and why I wanted to write this post in the first place. It started out years ago, where one of my first jobs was at a local apple orchard. This was when I truly fell in love with nutrition, food, and fresh produce. From there, I went on to other jobs, but still always held onto my love for health and farm-to-table food. It only made sense that I began my journey through nutrition school and becoming a registered dietitian. One Saturday morning I decided to attend a local Grower’s Fare in my area, and I ended up meeting one of the most incredible families who owned a local organic farm about 20 minutes from my house. Fast forward to four years later, and I have spent every summer on the farm since.
Not to sound dramatic, but working on a farm has truly changed my life. It is an experience that is hard to put into words. The amount of joy and life you get from working with fresh produce, being outside in the sun, moving your body in functional ways, and learning all about different varieties of fruit and vegetables, it is truly unmatched. I have learned more about food from working on a farm, than in any of my nutrition classes so far (not trying to be negative, just trying to make a point!). Another amazing perk of working on an organic farm is getting to eat the produce. My farmer will give me freshly harvested produce at the end of every shift, and eating the local produce has impacted my health for the better.
Now that you’ve heard my story – I want to get more into the reasons why RD2Be’s should volunteer at their local farm.
1. Learn about a variety of different vegetables
I touched on this topic a little bit in my introduction, but I wanted to go more in depth because I think this is a very important point. Working on a farm has taught me a lot about different types of vegetables. While on the farm, I will plant various seeds and harvest numerous types of produce. I learned about vegetables that I had never even heard of before, such as kohlrabi, leeks, green garlic, and a ton more. Working on the farm has taught me about the different nutrient levels of certain varieties of vegetables and also about the flavor profiles. All tomatoes are not the same, and that is true for almost all vegetables. Helping out on your local farm will help teach you about a wide variety of vegetables, which I think is knowledge that us RD2Be’s can then pass on to our future clients or even families.
2. Support and network within your community
One of the best parts about working on a local farm is knowing that you are supporting your local farmers. They often have their own back stories about how they got into farming and have impacted their community. Small town farming was how everything started, and I truly believe we should be supporting our community farmers as much as we can. I have grown to love and care for my farmer and his family, and I genuinely want to help them grow nutritious produce to share with others. It also is a great way to meet other health nuts in your community. Often people who get produce from local farmers are people who are interested in health, nutrition and wellness. This can be a great way to meet like-minded individuals, and even gain new opportunities than you wouldn’t have had before.
3. Get easy access to local produce
Helping out on a farm is a great way to get access to fresh, organic produce. I take home produce with me every time I leave the farm. It is always harvested that day, which ensures maximum nutrient density and makes the vegetables last a lot longer. As someone who is into boosting their own health, I love the idea of getting to eat fresh ingredients straight from the ground. Many farmers have work shares where you can work a few hours a week in exchange for “free” produce. If you are interested in this, look up “CSA’s” in your area (CSA stands for community supported agriculture). This is what I choose to partake in because I love getting the produce at the end of my shifts to take home.
4. Challenge and enhance your recipe cultivation skills
Another perk of working on a farm and learning about new vegetables, is being able to use these vegetables in your own cooking. After you take home your delicious vegetables, you then can have fun with creating innovative recipes using them. As RD2Be’s, I think it is a great way for us to practice creating recipes and learning how to use unique vegetables in our meals. I am always tweaking recipes to add in what is currently in season, and it allows me to get outside of my comfort zone with food. You can even talk to the farmer about creating recipes and sharing them with other people who get produce from their farm. This is a great way to get your name out there as a dietitian, and support healthy eating in your community.
5. Learn the benefits of eating local produce
One thing that my farmer stresses to us workers all the time is that eating local produce has many health and environmental benefits compared to produce bought at the grocery store. For one, you know exactly where your food is coming from and what is being used on the plants themselves. Secondly, as I said earlier, you are getting the plants right after they are harvested, which ensures maximum nutrient-density. You are also lowering your carbon footprint by not buying vegetables from the grocery store as frequently, where they have been transported from other states, countries and even continents. These vegetables tend to sit in trucks and boats for weeks before entering your fridge. With locally farmed produce, you are cutting that whole middle-man out of the equation. A quote from an article I read about local food states, “The nutritional quality of fruits and vegetables is highest right after harvest and then declines with time (Edwards-Jones 2010; Favell 1998)”.
6. Gain knowledge about growing your own garden
Working on a farm has not only taught me about the nutrient contents of certain plants, but also about how to grow them. It is an extremely hands-on experience that gives you tools you can then take to your own garden. Since working on a farm four years ago, I have started my own small home garden and it is thriving. I can attest that this is due to the time I have spent working closely with the farmer and learning sustainable,organic methods that work. The amount of skills I have learned on the farm is greater than I would have ever expected. Farming might come across as straightforward and easy at first, but you will soon grow to learn how complicated it actually is. This is why learning from someone experienced can be beneficial when wanting to apply the knowledge to your own life, such as your own farm one day. You might even be able to get a good deal on seeds and transplants for your garden from your farmer, like I did!
7. Relieve stress through grounding and being outside
Another benefit from working on a farm that I never would have imagined is the amount of stress it relieves. I am someone who is very Type A (I think many dietitians and RD2Be’s are) and I tend to get anxious and stressed easily. Whenever I go out to the farm for the morning, I swear all my worries go away. The feeling of being out in the sun, in the fresh air, with the plants around you and the dirt beneath your feet. There really isn’t a better feeling. I have seen studies in the past on the benefits of grounding and being out in nature, and to be able to reap those benefits while volunteering for your future is a game-changer in my opinion! While I do love being at my local food bank or hospital, it is nice to be able to get outside and help in other ways when you need some variety in your experience. Another benefit is that farming can be a great functional workout. From walking back and forth pulling weeds, to hauling pots full of compost, it gets your body moving in the ways it was meant to.
What I really wanted everyone to get from this article is this- just try it. Get in contact with a local farm and reach out to them. I promise you, farming is a hard task and they most likely need all the help they can get. I wanted to point out all of the amazing benefits I have personally experienced from working on a farm, and I hope it encourages you all to try it out. And in case that wasn’t enough, I am going to do a rapid-fire round of why we should support local farms in our communities, backed by studies or surveys:
- Households with a member who works at a community farm eat 1.5 times the amount of fruits and vegetables has households who do not
- Locally sourced food travels fewer miles between destinations
- CSA’s generate non-economic benefits to their communities
- Nutritional quality of fruits and vegetables declines with time after harvest
- Level of farm sales correlates with lower rates of mortality and obesity
- Consumers gain more from buying CSA produce over grocery store produce due to non-monetary benefits
I hope this article helped you gain some perspective on the importance of local farms and why, as the future dietitians of our generation, it is our job to experience and pass along these insights to others.
Research-Based Support and Extension Outreach for Local Food Systems: