A Model Farmer: Fashion to Farming

I once heard that humans seek out natural environments because nature is not in resistance to itself. Having finally accepted the truth that my father is gone, I am surrendering my resistance as well.
03/23/2012 10:47 am ET Updated May 23, 2012

Not exactly Green Acres, but I recently left my job as a plus-size fashion model and my coveted one-bedroom apartment in New York City for Newton, Mass. to intern on a non-profit CSA farm. Two weeks have passed since I moved most of my things into storage and unpacked a small remainder into a bedroom of the 125-year-old farmhouse, in all appearances a picturesque B&B. My yoga clothes made the farm cut; my Manolos didn't. Leaving wasn't easy -- the irony of going away parties is that they make going away sadder -- but it wasn't difficult. My excitement far outweighed any reservations. When other models commented (in wonder and horror) on the hardship, the dirt, the long hours, the financial down-step, the extremity of the transition, I thought: Yes! Exactly.

Raised in rural Wisconsin, my cherished childhood memories are of gardening with my father, climbing into rabbit cages, swimming with baby ducks in a kiddie pool, milking goats and checking for eggs in cool mornings under warm, brooding hens. Equally valuable were chores like hauling hay, shoveling out the horse pen, or passing tools to my father as he fought diligently with various engines. The small log cabin had an even smaller upstairs addition. It was heated by one huge enameled cast-iron Sears & Roebuck wood stove that baked unevenly and over which our clothes hung to dry in the winter. There were sleigh rides with bells on the harness and homemade hot cocoa.

Boiling down maple syrup, canning, and oiling leather: Basically, I grew up in the late 1800s. Today my parents would be hip, taking part in something like "sustainable subsistence agriculture" or "homesteading." But then we were just poor. We had commodity cheese and peanut butter, powdered milk, and copious amounts of cornmeal.

When my father died in late 2010 of a sudden heart attack, my driving ambition for material wealth and social status fell in pieces around me. Security, I had irrevocably learned, was an illusion. While I packed away his tools for wood, leather or machine and their resulting products, one impulse filled me: If I can't take it with me, then I want to leave behind things I made, not bought. A giving instead of a getting. My great grandfather's hand-forged bolt threader and horse shoes were in the basement. Two prior generations of sewing materials lay in a basket, and baking utensils were in the cupboards. Some distilled genetic programming seemed to awaken: an inheritance of competency, practicality, and productivity.

Returning to New York after the funeral, my prior life felt like a dried out husk, strange and unrecognizable. Last July, I visited my friends Megan Talley and Joshua Faller on Newton Community Farm and fell in love. This was what I was looking for. Eventually, by mutual enthusiasm, a position as intern was established for this year. I had already been writing from my point of view in the fashion industry about sustainable lifestyles, diet, and women's health and media representation here for The Huffington Post. But many of my childhood peers are involved directly in a new agricultural movement and economy gaining momentum, and I wanted to be a part of it. Like a homecoming.

These first weeks have started slowly, as the farm awakens with the season and I've gone from feeling an "interloper" to "resident." We have seeded onions, beets, swiss chard, leeks and parsley in the greenhouse on tables equipped with heat mats and insulated by a low-framed tunnel of plastic sheeting. I was ecstatically proud when my beets and chard were the first to break ground, as if they reflected well on me personally, while also being enthralled by the simple process of life sprouting from almost nothing into green. We mowed and mulched the medicinal flower beds. We cleaned out the barn.

I've learned such terms as "dibbler" (a grid-like device of wood and screws for indenting each cell of the seedling packs with a hole for the seeds), "fishing" (when the seedlings are fertilized just before transplanting to the ground by an organic compound of leftover fish parts), and "hardening off" (when the seedlings are tempered to the outside climate for a few days before transplanting). I've adjusted to the waking cycle of the sun, rising easily at daybreak and becoming absurdly groggy with twilight. The intermittent seasonal cold has matched my impulse to hibernate, and the quiet has emptied my mind. My body feels incredibly relieved and in some kind of essential unity with the coming and going of the days, the sun, and the warming of seasons.

I have yet to truly miss the city. I do have twinges of longing for the pedestrian conveniences of the neighborhood, the 24-hour deli and its cooler of Ben & Jerry's and the restaurants. I also have twinges when I remember the traffic, the rush hour commute on the train, drunk couples fighting at the bus stop under my bedroom window and the greasy 24-hour diner junk food. I miss my people, but I don't miss all the other people.

Perhaps I'm not closer to life in general -- New York City is as lively as it gets -- but closer to an essential process of life. I once heard that humans seek out natural environments because nature is not in resistance to itself. Having finally accepted the truth that my father is gone, I am surrendering my resistance as well.

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