An Organic Mission
In April of her senior year at La Salle, Liz Wagner, ’11, like many college seniors, worried about her life post-graduation: Would she have a job and, if so, where?
As the pressure built, Wagner would jokingly say, “I wish I could just become a farmer.” A year later, Wagner has left behind a city of about 1.5 million denizens for life as an intern on an organic farm in Port Jervis, N.Y. Population: just more than 9,000.
“I never did a study abroad or anything wild and crazy, so this is my wild and crazy,” Wagner said.
Becoming an organic farmer was not always the plan for the Honors student who has a bachelor’s degree in English and communication. The former editor-in-chief of The Collegian, La Salle’s student newspaper, thought she wanted to be a journalist.
But by her senior year, Wagner’s life at La Salle took a different direction. She worked in the office of University Ministry and Service, organizing events such as the annual Service Trips Auction, helped build houses on spring break with Project Appalachia, and worked part time cleaning and landscaping for senior citizens in the neighborhood.
Wagner also interned at the Support Center for Child Advocates, a Philadelphia nonprofit that provides legal and social work services to abused children. Wagner said she enjoyed the idea of a service-oriented career and accepted a job with Child Advocates after graduation.
“I realized a few months in that I was not satisfied with an office job,” Wagner said. “I did not like sitting at a desk in front of a computer. I grew up in the country and was interested in recycling, composting, and sustainability.”
At the start of 2012, Wagner knew she was unhappy and needed a change. Her family had property in Lehigh County, Pa., that was farmable. Becoming a farmer, once a joke with friends, suddenly became a promising reality. Wagner researched the idea and discovered that there were many opportunities to gain hands-on experience in sustainable agriculture. She searched databases that organic farmers used to post job openings, which is how she found a post by Keith Stewart, owner of Keith’s Farm.
“(Stewart) is a trailblazer,” Wagner said. “I was very interested.”
Frank Cervone, Esq., M.A. ’04, Director of the Support Center for Child Advocates and Wagner’s former boss, recalled how Wagner broke the news of her departure from his office.
“Liz came to me in late March, just nine months into her first year on the job, looking concerned but certain. (She said,) ‘I don’t think my destiny is to save the world this way. I think I am supposed to feed people,’” Cervone said.
Stewart, Wagner’s kindred spirit of sorts, worked in Manhattan for years before purchasing his 88-acre property in 1986. He published a book about his move from the city to the farm, titled It’s a Long Road to a Tomato: Tales of an Organic Farmer Who Left the Big City for the (Not So) Simple Life. Stewart sells his crops exclusively at the Union Square Market in Manhattan and has had several articles written about him and his Racombole garlic, which patrons of the market ask for weekly.
“In her interview, Liz was open and warm and conveyed real interest and enthusiasm,” Stewart said of his first meeting with Wagner.
Keith’s Farm grows kale, broccoli, various types of mint, tomatoes, and other fruits, vegetables, and herbs, all certified organic. Restaurant and personal chefs frequent Stewart’s stand. Stewart employed six interns this season, ranging in age from 22 to 51. They all live in modular homes or cabins on the farm.
Wagner is flourishing in her role at Keith’s Farm. Stewart put her in charge of the greenhouse, and Wagner, along with some of the other interns, has her own garden space on Stewart’s property to experiment with her own crops.
“For me,” Wagner said of her side project, “I like the idea that it’s after hours, but I still have to farm.”
Wagner is still working out the details as she learns the ropes of sustainable agriculture, but the ultimate goal is to run a farm stand where she can provide organic vegetables to those who normally struggle to access healthy food options.
“La Salle definitely made me realize how important stewardship is to other people and the earth,” she said. “I became more worldly and wanted to do something that made a difference. It totally syncs up with the mission.”
Keep up with Wagner’s adventures in farming by visiting her blog: farmerliz.com.
By Olivia Biagi, ’11