Practicum with the Liles reinforces environmental interest

Russell Liles shows Karen Leu the intricacies of harvesting honey during her summer work at the Liles’ farm.

Russell Liles shows Karen Leu the intricacies of harvesting honey during her summer work at the Liles’ farm.

Maryville College senior Karen Leu, left, poses in full honey-gathering gear with Kate Caldwell, Russell and Sheri Liles after harvesting honey during her summer practicum experience at Liles Acres Organic Farm.

Maryville College senior Karen Leu, left, poses in full honey-gathering gear with Kate Caldwell, Russell and Sheri Liles after harvesting honey during her summer practicum experience at Liles Acres Organic Farm.

Karen Leu holds Lapin, one of three Angora rabbits at Liles Acres Organic Farm.

Karen Leu holds Lapin, one of three Angora rabbits at Liles Acres Organic Farm.

On a Saturday morning in July, I was standing with my friends Russell and Sheri Liles as we sold vegetables grown on their organic farm, Liles Acres Organic Farm. From 9 a.m. until 12 p.m., the Maryville Farmers’ Market bustles with shoppers, vendors and the sounds of banjos from musicians playing Americana tunes. It was 10 in the morning and already hot -- the kind of miserable, sticky hot that sends cumulus clouds to pile up like a cotton candy traffic jam, the kind of hot that wilts flowers and people, the kind of hot that sends perfectly reasonable people into philosophical tangents. However, this was the best part of summer, the cream of the crop, and even better, the mint plants were fresher, the tomatoes were juicier, and I’d say the colors almost seemed brighter than I’d ever seen before.

It’s hard to know where to start when talking about my summer practicum with the Liles. The skills and knowledge I’ve learned here are mostly a continuation of principles I’ve followed my whole life. Campaigns that encourage people to shop locally and “know where your food comes from” are something that I would support as well. As an environmental writing major, I believe any step you can make to get closer to the source is essential, and it’s fun, too. To me, working in a garden is fundamentally less boring than perusing boxes of food in a fluorescent-lit supermarket. And that’s just the start of how rewarding my summer was.

Growing up in Lebanon, Tenn., my family and I were always interested in alternative energy sources but never had the means to install a system of our own. Since the Liles have a solar panel, it’s as if they turned theory into reality, in my mind.

I have moved forward, too, in my pursuit of an environmental farming career. Sheri Liles makes beautiful handspun yarn from fiber from her five llamas and three Angora bunnies. The animals are such a part of the farm’s ecosystem that I started considering getting some of my own someday - the way people might wish to own a dog or cat, but these animals are more useful. When Sheri taught me to hand spin the fiber into yarn using a drop spindle, I was hooked. Anybody can go buy some plain scarf from the store, but how many people could not only knit the yarn into a scarf, but spin it, too? Perhaps being proud of being able to spin makes me a dork, but it also gives me an intuitive understanding of rotational mechanics, so it’s all right.

Principles of organic farming that I have learned are also interesting to me. For example, I’ve learned that one of the best ways to keep a garden free of bugs without pesticides is to plant flowers that attract beneficial, predatory insects to clean up the plants as soon as their production wanes. I’ve also learned how to take care of the soil, an organic farmer’s biggest investment. Compost is a mixture of different kinds of decomposed organic materials, and it is a great natural fertilizer. Organic materials will, of course, decompose on their own, but I spent much of the summer making compost by layering different “ingredients,” such as vegetable scraps, animal waste and wood shavings. It’s a stinky, sweaty and dirty job. The result, however, is “black gold” that, when mixed into the soil, makes vegetables grow so big that customers at the farmers’ market are convinced that we’ve “put the hoodoo” on beets or green peppers.

I even think that chores like cleaning out the chicken coop are fun when I’m working at the farm, because there are a few other kids my age who come to the farm to learn as well. Joking and smiling with them makes the work easier. And if I’m the rare breed who enjoys farm chores, imagine how elated I was to pick blackberries as big as my thumb or large, shallow baskets full of grapes. Then came the day when Sheri, Russell, my friend Kate and I took honey from the beehives. Working fast before the cloud-filtered light turned to rain, we lifted the heavy frames out of the “supers” and eagerly put our noses to them to smell the sweet honey mingled with the smoky smell that calms bees. That was a great day.

Who knows how many other kids want to get a farming job, but you can put me on that list. You can visit me in the future on some few acres somewhere, growing vegetables and maybe who knows what else, teaching the next generation how to get back to the source.

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