At 6 am, Lara Weise, a then senior at Sterling, is feeding the horses. She cleans their stalls, and enjoys the quiet morning routine. On this July morning in 2020, however, she is not at the Alfond Barn at Sterling College. She is about 350 miles southwest in Marathon, New York, at the Northland Sheep Dairy, a farm run by Maryrose Livingston and her partner, teamster Donn Hewes. By 8:30 am, she has a team hooked on to the mower, and is ready to make some hay.
In an average year, students like Lara would have opportunities at Sterling to work on the farm, serve as teaching assistants for courses, and complete independent coursework.
The disruptions caused by the coronavirus and the campus closure from mid-April until mid August provided two Sterling students the opportunity to spend a month on the horse-powered sheep farm.
Zenaide McCarthy used her time at the Northland Sheep Dairy to explore her interest in working with draft animals, and to make up draft time missed in class due to the pandemic. Lara used her internship to “work with animals all summer, make hay, and have fun”.
And have fun and make hay they did! Donn reports that he put up about 3,500 bales this summer with the horses and the students – a near record number for him.
Donn attributes their productive season to both the great attitudes shown by the students as well as the skill base they had when they arrived. Zenaide was about halfway through the Draft Animal Minor course sequence at Sterling before she arrived at Donn’s, and Lara had already completed it, giving each of them significant time handling and driving draft animals. “It’s the first time I ever had people come with the amount of experience that they had”, reports Donn. “However, the nice thing about it was that they both came with plenty that they could still learn.”
In the end, Lara said that she really enjoyed driving multiple animals, and that seeing how Donn’s horses integrated into his farm and career added another dimension to her academic understanding of how draft horses can work in a modern farming system. Both students said that they would enthusiastically recommend the experience for those ready to work hard and learn.
This summer experience makes me think about the importance of work with sustainable agriculture practitioners for students, and the critical and energizing role this real-world experience can have when students see their education in action.
And the experience isn’t only energizing for the students – many farmers find that they relish the influx of energy, questions, and positivity that students can bring to what can otherwise be a very solitary profession. Reflecting on this experience in September, the first month where he was again working alone, Donn said as much, when he commented: “I’ve had a great September, but it reminds me for the millionth time that I like to do this with other people.”
In closing, many thanks to Donn Hewes of the Northland Sheep Dairy and all the wonderful practitioners who welcome Sterling students to their farms and mentor the next generation of ecological thinkers and change-makers. In these challenging times, the strength of our connections keeps the sustainable agricultural community strong, vibrant, and growing. These strong bonds also serve as symbols of resilience and hope for brighter seasons ahead.