Young Agrarians Apprenticeship Program – Andrew Kozak

Posted by Kolby Peterson on January 21, 2022

Big City to Farm, and Back Again

by Andrew Kozak

In the summer of 2020, I was sitting locked down at home, in Canada’s largest urban centre and the city I grew up in, Toronto. The city life is far removed from the vast fields of our rural compatriots. At this time, the streets lay empty and quiet for months, and the fatigue was starting to set in. I had just finished my bachelor’s degree and I was waiting to put my hands to good use when I looked closely at them. They were soft, clean, “city slicker” hands. My goal then, was to earn some scratches, calluses, and so much dirt on them, it wouldn’t come out for several washes. It was time to get to work.

I had the luxury of apprenticing for not one, but two farms during my time with Young Agrarians in Alberta. The two farms were quite different from each other. They had different enterprises and were on opposite ends of the province, but they shared the same values I have witnessed at the core of every farm I have visited since. A close connection to food requires a deep sense of place, purpose, and vision… and that’s exactly what I was looking for. 

Before starting the apprenticeship, I did a trial run at First Nature Farms near Grande Prairie. After a few messages back and forth between me and Jerry, the farmer, I flew to Edmonton International. I arrived at the airport and stepped outside, waiting for a white pickup truck to pull over. I waited. After several minutes I sent a text to Jerry asking where he was. He said he was standing outside of the Grande Prairie Airport… some 500km away. It was already getting dark and I panicked about how this happened and how I was going to get there. I called Jerry. He picked up and in his humorous tone said “Expect the unexpected!”. His cheery tone disarmed me, and I smiled. It was going to be a long night, but I was no longer worried.

I quickly learned that this is a common phrase on the farm. Each day presented new challenges and you never get to finish everything you want in the day.  I had never been around so many animals and so much fresh food in my life. And it was hard work. Each day we would feed over 300 pigs, pail by pail, of mixed grain. Almost every day I would make mistakes, or forget something important, or break a tool. It was quite frustrating and a little discouraging. But everyone was very patient and willing to teach the “city slicker”. We would work all day and settle down for a filling supper in the evening and go to bed ready to tackle the next day’s challenges. Aside from work, Jerry would treat his volunteers well. After a few weeks on the farm, he invited me to socials, where I got to meet even more local farmers. 

I’d stand there, drink in hand, observing how different this all was from my life in Toronto. Everyone was still in their work clothes. Dirty boots lined the door and inside were tattered shirts and worn Wrangler jeans. My clothes were pretty dirty too, covered in the day’s feed dust and wood chips. I looked at everyone’s hands. Dirt under every fingernail. Calloused palms. Scratches on the back. Real farmer hands. Then I looked at my own, a few scrapes here and there, palms toughened, and dirt caked under my nails. I smiled, feeling like I had become part of the machine that keeps it all running.

I continued to have this attitude through the rest of my time on all the farms I’ve worked at. Whether it was hauling pails of water and feed, or tightening electric fences, or strapping hundreds of nest blocks for millions of bees, my hands only got tougher, unrecognizable from only months prior.

Now, if you ever wanted to be a farmer, listen up. Among everything I’ve learned, the top three would be: 1. Be Observant, 2. Be Proactive, and 3. Be Thoughtful. 

Every farmer I’ve worked with has a keen eye for the minutest, even invisible details. A good farmer can tell when an animal is hungry or full, if a cow will give birth soon, if one is sick, if a garden needs a certain nutrient, if a distant gate is left open… the list goes on and it includes surprisingly precise weather prediction too. A farmer’s analytical brain must predict future problems and quell them before they arise or become a bigger problem tomorrow. I got a taste of this observance, and you will too, because after a while, mother nature will tune into your frequency and shout at you for your attention. I would be casually checking our herd of cows every evening and my eyes would gloss over the scene. However, one night, I was about to quad my way back to the main house when I saw a cow with small hooves sticking out of her. I drove over and noticed that she was ready to give birth. Upon even closer viewing, I saw that the hooves were upside down, which meant the calf was coming out backwards. What followed was an intense combination of stress, sweat, and shit to get this calf out. Then we did and after checking to make sure the calf was healthy, we caught our breath. Peter told me: “If you hadn’t noticed her, tomorrow they would both be dead”. On the farm, you have to pay attention.

Next, you have to be proactive. On the farm, there is no ‘leaving it for later’. That usually doesn’t end well for you. A careless approach to tasks can give birth to a much larger problem the following day. So don’t wait for anything, don’t be lazy, and close those gates behind you. 

Lastly, and most importantly, you must be thoughtful. You must think generationally. Generations of the animals, the farmers who tend the land, the land itself, and your community. Know that you are a piece of a much larger ecosystem that existed long before you, and will continue long after. Tend to your land the same way you tend to your animals each day and be active in your community. 

As the program came to a close in October, I was ready to go home. I had been gone for almost a year, and it was time. I am now writing this from the home I grew up in, where this story had begun. It has been a month since my last day at my farm. The last day of morning chores, the last day of digging potatoes, the last tractor ride, the last pigs fed, and the last turkey plucked. As I’m typing this, I look at my hands again. Dirt under my nails long gone. Scratches healed into scars. And calluses retreating back into the warmth of my palms. I re-entered the city with many new skills, many new stories and experiences, and many deep friendships. Whether or not I become a farmer in my life, I will always remember the time I have spent with hard-working, creative, and innovative farmers. I am confident that I will use what I have learned and apply it to parts of my life unrelated to agriculture.

Andrew participated in the Young Agrarians Apprenticeship Program in 2021. He spent time at Nature’s Way Farm and Stonepost Farms in Alberta. 

Interested in applying? Apply by January 31st! Check out other Young Agrarians Prairie Apprenticeships being offered in 2022 and APPLY HERE!