It’s a common story: schools close down, office employees work from home, and internships are canceled. Last spring, most plans went out the window. As a college student, I was preparing to intern either at an orphanage in Mexico or with a policy group in Washington D.C. The last thing that I expected to spend my summer doing was live in a trailer and work on a potato farm in Wadena, Minn., 5 1/2 hours away from home. As you can imagine, though, that’s how the story went. In June, I was starting my last-resort option, and by the end of the summer, I had learned more about agriculture and myself than I ever could have imagined.
I spent my teenage years growing up on a small, family farm with livestock. The idea of working for R.D. Offutt Farms-– which is part of a global farm chain – to grow potatoes seemed foreign. Both farms are part of agriculture, but the differences are great. Working at the Wadena branch of RDO Farms in Central Minnesota consisted of scouting – observing crop performance – in two dozen potato fields. Along with one other intern, we were responsible for submitting observations, collecting samples, and delivering potatoes for 2,500 acres of the company’s 50,000 acres of potato fields.
Surprisingly, I found working with potatoes more difficult than I thought. To highlight some of my experiences, I got my pickup stuck four times, dug out my four-wheeler nearly a dozen times, and gave praise to my four-wheel drive on almost a daily basis. Living in a trailer house, I may have found myself fleeing tornadoes a time or two, and I got pretty fit after spending over two weeks manually digging potatoes. Moreover, performing pest samples made me overcome my fear of bugs!
Those are perhaps the less-than-pleasant aspects of my experience – I haven’t talked about the reward. I couldn’t have known the skills I would gain, from learning about agronomy to the food supply chain. I didn’t know how my simple observation reports would help minimize pesticide and insecticide applications. I never knew how much all of my equipment breakdowns and weather disruptions would teach me about patience, resilience, humility, and hope. I certainly didn’t know what it was that made my home farm and this farm different, yet both essential. I didn’t only walk away from my internship with technical skills that I can use in my career. I also walked away with valuable relationships, stronger values, and perspective.
People often ask if I enjoyed my internship. To put it simply, day-to-day it was a challenge; big picture, it was one of my best experiences. At the conclusion of my internship in August, I felt adequately satisfied with finishing a summer of digging potatoes and living in a trailer. There were certainly highs and lows, but I had finished the job I signed up for. I walked away knowing that stabbing too many potatoes during a test dig means you’ll have to dig another 30 feet up, you can still ride in a helicopter with the engine off, and it doesn’t matter how many times you get the four-wheeler stuck, but how many times you get it unstuck.
Potato harvest happens from September to early October, and I had left my internship before then. Wanting to see the end product of our work, I made a trip back to Wadena, Minn., for harvest. When I started my day in the first field, I pulled into the field to see a fleet of equipment. There were several large potato harvesters, 27 semi-trucks that cycled through the field to the farm, and one tractor on standby waiting to pull semis that got stuck. A line of two tractors harvested 16 rows of crops at once, while simultaneously filling a single semi full in two minutes. On average, a single acre produced 50,000 pounds of potatoes.
After being loaded in the field, semis retreat to the farm site where four 350-foot long buildings consist of two bins, each of which store up to 230 million pounds of potatoes in piles over 25 feet high. The next step for the stored spuds is to dry through the building’s airflow system, cool down to 48°F, and be transported to the food processing in Park Rapids, Minn., – all while frequent samples and testing is maintained to ensure quality products. A season of watching potato plants emerge, bloom, and get harvested left us with a product ready to be processed into french fries and tater tots for fast food companies like McDonald’s and Wendy’s.
A summer of challenges seemed like nothing once there was a final product. The humbling sense of pride gained from harvesting our work showed me how much hope goes into planting a seed. Although I would argue that farmers are some of the most hopeful people on earth, this lesson doesn’t apply just to agriculture. Taking a leap of faith to emerge yourself into a new internship is a risky investment that leads to an equally beneficial payoff. It takes work, and the reward it isn’t immediate, but there is value in accomplishing a job and gaining a new perspective.
My internship challenged me, equipped me with valuable skills, and opened a world of insight. My “last resort for the summer” may lead me to a job working on a 60,000 head dairy farm in Oregon, which is where I hope to live. It may help me guide someone else to fill my spot with the internship next summer. It gave me some crazy and educational stories to share in my future classroom. This summer may not have gone as planned or been easy, but it played a powerful role in my future. Opportunity awaits, and who knows, if you take a risk and invest in an internship, it could yield greatness.
In the upcoming weeks, I will be sharing what I have learned and continue to learn from my experiences and conversations across the state. Topics will range from local stories to understanding the relevance of policies and current events in agriculture. Literacy is listening. To share any questions, story ideas, or comments on published or potential articles, please feel welcome to email me email@example.com.