Leah Retherford harvests greens at the Queens County Farm Museum (Ryan Thatcher)
Early morning livestock feedings and cultivating the herb garden aren’t on the daily list of duties for most New Yorkers, but for Leah Retherford, they’re business as usual. As farm manager of Queens County Farm Museum, she oversees 47-acres, which has been operating since 1697.
“I wanted to keep farming when I moved to the city a year ago,” said Retherford, who had been working at a smaller operation in Detroit. “This as the perfect opportunity: I’m living in the city and working with animals among fruit trees.”
All in a day's work
As farm manager, Retherford, 30, is responsible for maintaining the health of the farm’s sheep, pigs, dairy cows and other animals, as well as day-to-day chores such as feeding and keeping them and their environment clean. The farm also grows vegetables (sold at the farm and at the Union Square Greenmarket). Retherford oversees planting and harvesting and makes sure the farm is using sustainable methods.
A gig for outdoor lovers
Retherford said many people start out as volunteers and become apprentices. You have to love being outdoors and manual labor to enjoy the farming life, Retherford said. “I like to think of farming as applied science, where you are observing a natural system, and trying to make management decisions that will support healthy plants and animals,” she said.
Retherford came to the Queens Farm Museum as an apprentice last year. She had experience working with vegetable farming, but not livestock.
Many city farmers bring their produce to Greenmarkets. These farms need hands to man the stands, especially during the busy summer and early fall seasons. Pay is generally $10-15 per hour.
Volunteer opportunities also exist at the Queens Farm Museum from April through September, as well as at smaller city farms, such as Added Value in Red Hook and East New York Farms, a collection of 60 urban farms and gardens, both in Brooklyn.
On the road to the farm
In college, Retherford took environmental studies classes and worked as a campus groundskeeper. She worked at several community gardens and urban farms before attending Michigan State University, where she took a one-year organic farming certificate program.
Experience is key. Retherford recommends volunteering with Willing Workers on Organic Farms, a non-profit that offers positions at farms worldwide. These positions offer free room and board, and participants can learn standard farming practices. Many farms also offer opportunities to learn specialized skills such as cheese and soap making, and fiber processing.
Farm managers might make $30k and up, depending on the type of farm. Apprentices might get a stipend of monthly $1,000 to start Bonus: free food!
SUNY’s Alfred State College in Alfred, NY offers an associate degree programs in Agricultural Technology, with concentrations in animal or plants sciences. Tuition costs about $15,300 per year. Visit www.alfredstate.edu for more details.
The Brooklyn Botanical Gardens offer classes like Urban Composting and Plant Propagation for beginning city farmers, as well as courses on caring for the trees on your block and growing grapes for wine in Brooklyn. Go to www.bbg.org for pricing and schedule.
GROW NYC offers environmental education and hands-on training for students of all ages in New York City. Students learn about gardening and Greenmarkets, as well as the urban ecosystem. GROW NYC also hosts events and lectures on a regular basis and works with recent immigrants to train them as farmers. Get more information at www.cenyc.org.