Farmer Spotlight: Catching up with Rae Axner

Image of Rae packing maple sap buckets into the farm truck, and of Rae working on the farm irrigation system

This year, we are grateful to welcome back Assistant Grower Rae Axner for a second season on the farm with us. We are thrilled to have Rae’s insight, dedication, and humor on the crew again, and are excited for the chance to catch up with her this busy July.

What did you get up to in the farming off-season from November through mid-February?

This past winter I was lucky enough to spend two months on a road trip, driving in a huge loop around the land known as the US. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, and was postponed from summer 2020. Mostly I spent my time visiting family and friends who I hadn’t seen in years, hiking in stunning places, and listening to sci-fi audiobooks on long drives. I had a few people along with me for short bursts, and stayed with lots of people I know. I also camped and hiked by myself, learning a lot about spending time alone and about how to make safe choices while also challenging myself to do new things. 

I love traveling and exploring places that are new to me, but this trip also reaffirmed my love of the place that I come from. This area will always be special to me, from the city of Somerville where I grew up and live, to the White Mountains, to the north shore beaches, to the Gaining Ground farmland, and beyond.

What has it been like to jump in for your second season with so much more familiarity—both with the team and the farm itself?

It’s been so nice to return to the farm for a second season. Simply being familiar with the nitty gritty details of how the operation works creates a foundation on which to learn more. Coming into this season knowing so much more than I did about no-till practices and vegetable production as a whole at the beginning of 2021 has meant that I can be more observant about the big and small variations on the farm that teach so much of the craft. One thing that I love about working at Gaining Ground is how the organization and our managers are devoted to developing their crew as farmers. This year I am managing irrigation on the farm, under Anna’s supervision. Part of the reason I wanted this specialty was so that I would be forced to keep a watchful eye on every crop. I love that in my second season I am able to take a bigger-picture view of the farm. The science and art of farming is an ever-expanding well of information and returning this year is allowing me to deepen that knowledge in a way that I wouldn’t have otherwise. 

Working with a crew of so many returning farmers is such a joy, and such an improvement in our efficiency as a team! On a personal level, I love coming to the farm every day knowing that I get to work alongside seven women who I respect and value as farmers, as people, and as friends. On a production level, it’s magic to be able to complete tasks so smoothly—understanding what needs to get done and each filling in with our respective roles. It’s clear that it takes time to build those understandings and collaborative habits.

Image of Rea working at the wash station and of Rae smiling while working on farm irrigation

With the perspective on an entire season at Gaining Ground behind you, what are you looking forward to on the farm in the months ahead?

Having now seen the farm through one-and-a-half yearly cycles, I can say that one thing I love about farming in this region is that there is always something new to look forward to. Our micro-seasons are constantly shifting, the crops and the pace of work changing with them. I just had some of the last hakurei turnips from the spring and recently some of the first fennel and tomatoes. Our garlic is hanging in the pavilion to cure, and even though I’m missing baby greens, which won’t return until the fall, seeing the softball-size watermelons coming on is good consolation. I am a person who is always in motion and gets bored easily, so for me farming is a perfect balance of working in an always-changing environment that also requires focus, patience, and deep knowledge that grows year after year.

I am also looking forward to continuing working with the high school Farm Team this summer! For several years before coming to Gaining Ground I worked with teens in farming and food justice settings, and I’m really grateful to have the opportunity to do that again here. It’s already been so much fun to get to know some of the crew the past few weeks, and I am excited by the idea that some of the team members might consider farming or other food-related paths in their futures.