Harvest of ideas

Rosaly’s Garden in Peterborough prepares recent college  graduate for agricultural work with the Peace Corps in Paraguay

Very few English majors graduate college expecting to spend the next few years with their hands in the dirt. But for Lynsey Burke, a field worker at Rosaly’s Garden in Peterborough, nothing could be more fulfilling.

Burke, 21, of Peterborough, graduated in May from the University of New Hampshire, Durham, where she studied English, including poetry and Spanish. She has a particular interest, however, in sustainability and local agriculture.

“The environmental part of me is the passionate part of me,” she says, sitting at a picnic table at Rosaly’s, as the sun sets on a warm Tuesday evening. Looking for an opportunity to put her Spanish and her environmental ideals to use after she graduated, she found the Peace Corps program, which will station her in Paraguay for more than two years. She needed three months’ full-time experience of hands-on fieldwork, so, she says, she took the job at Rosaly’s. “I thought it was perfect, since it was exactly what I’d been interested in,” she explains. “I’m learning everything you would in a classroom, but practice it, so [I] actually retain it.”

Philosophy and sweat

Rosaly’s Garden and Farmstand is the oldest certified organic farm in the state, and one of the largest. The garden boasts over 120 varieties of organic vegetables, an acre of flowers, and pick-your-own blueberries. As a field worker, Burke performs numerous physically demanding tasks, including planting, harvesting, seeding and weeding. Tuesdays and Fridays, she says, are pick days, when she picks and washes salad mix, including lettuce, kale and swiss chard. “The rest of the week is tomatoes — that’s our cash crop,” she says. Tomatoes must be trellissed, harvested and maintained, which is no small feat. “There is a lot of weeding involved, a lot of scuffle hoeing,” she says. “We work in any type of weather — rain or shine, cold or really, really hot.”

Burke says she’s drawn to local, organic agriculture primarily because of the way that kind of farming views the land. “It’s really the philosophy, the approach, that’s so important. Here, it’s working with the land, not against it.”

She has visited several industrial dairy farms around her campus, and although she acknowledges it’s hard to compare growing crops to raising cattle, she says the difference was clear. “At the industrial dairy farm, it was treated as a business, and the cows were the machines....The land is abused and stripped and depleted, whereas, here at Rosaly’s, it’s something you nurture, you care for.”

She also values the health benefits of organic, locally grown food. “You know exactly how you’re feeding your body and what with, and all the hard work going into each bit of it,” she says.

Paraguay and
the Peace Corps

Burke’s Peace Corps program spans 27 months, beginning with three months of training in Paraguay’s capital, Asuncion. Half of each training day, she says, will be spent learning Guarani, one of Paraguay’s two official languages. Burke explains that, while Spanish is common in the nation’s cities, rural communities predominantly speak Guarani. “Peace Corps asks that you speak Guarani to your community members,” she says, because it is a clear sign of respect.

Although Burke knows the Peace Corps will station her in a rural community, she will not find out where she will be living or what type of project she will be undertaking until she learns during training where she’s been placed. “You go in and you have no idea what you’re going to be getting into,” she grins, undaunted, adding that her official title is “agricultural extentionist.” Her work, she says, could be anything from starting a school or community garden to beekeeping. “You go into the community and find out what they need,” she says. “You facilitate, you try to help organize, you find resources.”

An important part of the nature of the program, she explains, is that the experience is as integrated as possible with the local lifestyle. “Peace Corps’ goal is for us to live like we are one of the community members,” she says — which includes earning a comparable amount of money.

Although the Peace Corps supplies every volunteer with a cell phone and has minimum safety standards for living quarters, Burke will be supplying most of her own necessities from the relatively small income she earns. For about $20 a month, she says, she could purchase Internet access, but she will also have the choice to save that money for something else and make do with Internet cafes she says exist in larger communities.

Peace Corps gives, she notes, “you health insurance, they pay for your airfare there and back, and besides that you have to be in it for the right reasons.”

Burke says she’s pretty sure she’ll have electricity; at the very least, she says, “We’ll have a roof and four walls.” Even so, she says, the Peace Corps stresses that “we will still be looked at as being rich in the community.”

Small, sustainable change

For Burke, working at Rosaly’s Garden has proved to be a fitting experience to prepare her for Paraguay. The personal relationship with the land she has come to value, she says, will guide her projects — whatever they turn out to be — with the rural community where she will live.

“Working with [the land], not against it, is going to be the exact approach. Working here has taught me the art and the significance of working with things,” she explains. In partnering with locals, she says, she will “try to harvest their ideas.”

Burke says she has come across those who might write off local, organic farming as a choice only available or important to privileged or wealthy people, and she acknowledges that the higher labor costs of organic farming make organic products more expensive to purchase. However, she says, seeing organic food as a luxury is “just the wrong way to look at it. I think the way to look at organic, local agriculture...is to know that you want a sustainable future, to know exactly what you’re putting on your plate, and whether or not that’s important to you.”

She is also conscious of her position as a young American doing service work abroad, an identity that in some cases draws criticism for perpetuating the stereotype that Americans view themselves as saviors of people living in developing countries. “One of the biggest things that was important to me was wanting to represent the United States in a positive way,” she says.

She knows her 27 months will by no means revolutionize the state of agriculture or the relative poverty where she will be working. “Going into it, I’m very much prepared for failure,” she says. “Really the only thing I can hope is to be in my community and create something sustaining.”

For example, she might help create a women’s group, doing something as simple, but empowering, as selling eggs at a market.

“Not something huge — just fulfilling,” she says. “To me, that’s huge.”

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