September 11, 2023

WEIRENS | Just Peachy: What Cornell Can Learn From Their Orchards

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I dragged the cutters behind me, leaving behind a small divot in the dirt. Despite a lifetime of weightlifting, these were far too heavy for me to hoist with ease. “Aren’t these what criminals use to steal bikes,” I wheezed to Aleks, my fellow intern. She shrugged, pulling a cart weighed down with rusty metal stakes. It was a beautiful, sunny, 95 degree day and we were in the vineyard. Our task for the day? Remove hundreds of heavy metal stakes, each driven through the center of an individual grape plant. A tragic minority of the stakes could be pulled out with our hands, while the rest had to be chopped at the root with iron bike lock cutters. 

Despite both of us being varsity athletes of sturdy compositions, it was quite the undertaking. As the sun baked down on us, we slowly worked our way through the vineyard row by row, becoming delirious, soaked in sweat and bleeding from rust and vines. Bouts of madness came and went, punctuated by chugging our bathtub-temperature water, but we managed to finish our task by the end of the day and haul the stakes into the barn. 

Two summers ago, I had an internship with Cornell Orchards. It began at the end of my first year at Cornell; I worked there the entire summer with five other undergraduate interns, a slew of graduate students, orchard managers and professors. Although what I described above was one of the tougher days of work, I genuinely loved that job. Years later, I constantly tell stories about it and take every opportunity to return to help out or participate in orchard activities such as plum picking or cider making. I’ve remained friends with all the interns, and keep in contact with our professors and supervisors to this day. 

Nothing I’ve done at Cornell University has been more exerting than tearing out rusted metal stakes in a scorching vineyard for an entire day. Yet, many things in my academic and private life at Cornell have felt a lot more difficult. What made tasks such as stake hauling, chopping trees and endless weeding feel bearable, to the extent that I remember it with such fondness? 

Firstly, I believe it is a testament to how positive the orchard culture was, and the thoughtful people that were a part of that program. It is also worth mentioning that I like outdoor work and enjoyed the research and experiments we did. But that’ll only get you so far when you’re shoveling your 20th mound of dirt of the day. The people are what really made me eager to go to work each day, regardless of what tough task awaited us. 

An essential reason for this positive culture was because of the collaborative mindset we had in accomplishing our goals. Although each student or professor had very specialized research, we all pitched in to help whenever and wherever it was needed. There were a multitude of diverse projects going on, and even though I was technically the “Apple and Cider Intern,” I had the opportunity to work with pitted fruit, grapes, berries and specialty crops. Pawpaw orchard needs to get planted? A couple thousand apples need peeling for lab samples? The vineyard drone needs tinkering? Strawberry seeds need counting? Whoever could do it was on it. There was no role too great, or too small, for anyone. We usually did it together, one task with five pairs of hands. Things got done, and were done well. 

Furthermore, the Orchards have a strong culture of general kindness. We interns worked really hard, but there was a strong emphasis on not just our grunt work, but our holistic knowledge and the utility that we gained.  Time and skills were invested into us out of genuine concern for our interests, well-being and future; they weren’t just trying to work us to the bone for every hour of work they paid us for. 

We got to eat all the fresh fruit we wanted and take cartons of fat cherries, blueberries, plums and strawberries home with us every day. I recall our professors and supervisors taking us to Amish bakeries, produce auctions, wine tastings and local farms to try homemade jams and cheeses. In the dog days of summer, when some of us were getting more burnt-out and homesick, our supervisors set up a badminton court in the massive orchard fridge, led us on fun hikes in the area and took us on a cider tour of the Finger Lakes. 

It goes without saying that Cornell’s Orchards and agricultural program are some of the highest quality in their field, if not the best in the world. I was initially surprised by the collaborative and kind culture at the Orchards, having been accustomed to the hyper-competitive and individualistic atmosphere of greater Cornell. The intense fighting over an artificially restricted supply of A grades and an elite club culture breed an environment opposite that of the Orchards, and I encourage Cornell to follow the lead of their highly-successful agricultural counterpart by fostering a greater culture of collaboration and kindness. 

The Orchards are proof that you can be top-tier without being cutthroat. I may not be a psychology major, but I believe that whatever motivation is embedded at the Orchard should be replicated everywhere else at Cornell, both for happier students and a stronger institution. 

Aurora Weirens is a third year student in the College of Arts & Sciences. Her fortnightly column The Northern Light illuminates student life. She can be reached at [email protected]

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