Internship lock-down!

December 21, 2020

I was thrilled to have the opportunity to do my master’s internship at the Palopuro lighthouse farm in Finland. It was the perfect internship for my learning goals and skills. An opportunity to implement my knowledge of ecology and design on a real, commercial farm. Being a travel-fanatic, I was also excited to be going abroad, and so were my friends, who had already planned a long weekend to visit me (and a few Finnish saunas).  

It can be easy in a classroom setting to design intercropping systems based on theory, but I wanted to apply these theories to the real-world where it does not always work out as planned. Being a New Yorker, I have had little on-farm experience. I could tell you how to grow lettuce in an indoor, vertical, hydroponic farm in downtown Manhattan, but could not tell you how to sow a seed potato. My only land-based farm experience, and the main inspiration for my studies at Wageningen, was at a permaculture farm which is a stark difference from a commercial farm, bounded by commodity food prices and the pressures of producing on a large scale. That’s why I was thrilled to be designing an intercropping system for a real Lighthouse Farm! 

Without any photos in Finland, I decided to photo-shop myself into this field to come as close as possible to the real thing!

Working from home in the midst of a pandemic was more burdensome than many of us expected. I was looking forward to staying at the farmer’s home, sharing meals together, and getting to know my colleagues over coffee breaks. But now relationships had to be made through video calls, and as you can imagine, farmers generally don’t love being behind a computer screen. Plus, they are very busy people (especially in the springtime when they are occupied with sowing crops for the summer season)! Luckily for me, the farmers, Markus and Kari, always made sure to make time for our meetings and answer my emails.  

I also struggled to really grasp all the intricacies of what was going on at the farm. Part of my design process is performing a systems analysis, but as my internship progressed, I found I had to keep modifying it to include new information. Without being physically there to see all the aspects of the farming system, it was difficult to know what questions to ask to get all the information I needed. It was important to be patient with myself and unafraid to ask questions I felt I should already know the answers to.

Although there were many challenges to working from a distance/at home, there were also a few perks. I got to sleep in a little bit later and occasionally work in my PJs when I felt like it (though not too often!). I was also motivated to take on new hobbies, like getting into fermentation and practicing yoga from home. It also became easier to have meetings with experts from all over the world.  

Most importantly to me, I was able to drastically cut down the carbon footprint of my internship as I would have likely flown to Finland had I gone. While travelling can be rewarding in ways that are irreplaceable (take it from someone who has a hard-core case of the travel bug) a lot of travelling we do is unnecessary or excessive. This pandemic has given me the opportunity to look at my travelling habits and really assess what is and is not worth the environmental cost. I plan to take this lesson with me in post-corona times and continue reducing the amount of flying I do, and hope my colleagues do the same.

Finally, I’d like to offer 5 pieces of advice for students who may have a similar experience during the times of COVID-19:

  1. Make the most of the time you have with farmers or researchers by communicating effectively and in an organized fashion.  
  1. A detailed systems analysis can go a long way when you are not there personally to see what is going on, so take the time to fully understand the system you are working with before you start diving into your research! Supervisors should be able to assist you in collecting all the information you need.
  1. Be kind to yourself and remember to take breaks! Working from home can be challenging, it is essential to create a sustainable work habit.
  1. Find ways to get your hands dirty locally. I volunteered at one of the research farms on campus. It was really helpful to get some hands-on experience, and this helped me feel more connected to my work. Plus it was a good excuse to get out of the house!
  1. Find creative ways to build a relationship with the people you are working with. One of the farmers would frequently send me photos and videos of what was going on at the farm. I really appreciated this because it helped me feel more involved with the farm.

Though my internship was not what I expected it to be, I still gained a lot from this experience. I gained so much practical knowledge from working with the farmers Kari and Markus, even though I was working behind a computer all day. I am so grateful for this opportunity and all the time the farmers dedicated to me. I hope to visit them one day, maybe when the intercropping system is up and running and corona is a thing of the past!

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