It’s 7:30 a.m., and the farm crew is in full swing, picking peppers. Keith Neijstrom carefully plucks ripe peppers and places them in his bucket. It’s a far cry from his life a year ago, working as an Industrial Hygenist at a corporate environmental consulting firm in Syracuse, NY. It was a good job, but after seven years, he was ready to take a chance and try a new career. An apprenticeship was the natural way to give farming a try and to gain the knowledge needed to decide whether it is the next step for him.
Of all our apprentices, Keith stands out for how deeply he engages with the education offered. The day-to-day practice of farming is a rich learning experience; Keith takes this farther by documenting farming techniques and projects with photos and notes. He also reads agricultural books and bulletins in his spare time, and is a dedicated participant in the CRAFT (Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training) program; Simple Gifts is one of 17 farms that offer apprenticeships and take turns hosting farm tours and educational programs each season. He has experienced several apprenticeships – mainly while in college at the Rochester Institute of Technology – and he feels that the experience at Simple Gifts Farm has more general applications than others.
Overall, learning vegetable growing techniques is the most valuable thing he’s learned, says Keith. He also appreciates getting experience working with tractors and tractor-driven implements (his assigned tractor is the Farmall 140 that we use with the basket cultivator), and projects like building the new greenhouse. He enjoys the animals, too, particularly how excited they are when you come to feed them in the morning. Although the pigs are really selfish, “I don’t blame them for that,” he says.
By now, we’re in the caterpillar tunnel, harvesting tomatoes. The alkaloid smell of tomato plants fills the long archway filled with foliage and ripening fruits as the discussion turns to the farm community. I’ve noticed that farm-kid Rachel has developed a friendship with Keith. “I think she’s cool,” he agrees. He also particularly likes how the barn cats greet him early every day at morning meeting, and again when he returns home at the end of the day.
In his spare time, Keith enjoys tinkering – he is learning bicycle repair, and his creation “Picnic Table Man” greets the crew in the farmhouse yard. He also enjoys NFL football and movies. For cooking, he prefers hardy favorites like carrots and potatoes.
After this apprenticeship, Keith is torn between returning to environmental consulting and continuing the farming dream. Land in central New York is affordable, and with careful management, he thinks he could get started. Organic practices that prioritize soil health, and zero waste principals, would be guiding sustainability principles of his operation. Whatever his next steps are, we know they will be carefully considered. In the meantime, we are glad to have his steady presence at Simple Gifts Farm.