Practical experience and the knowledge to confidently start his own farm are the most valuable mementos Robert Lagrosas carried back to his native Philippines after a year-long immersion in The Chef’s Garden’s student internship program.
During his 12-month assignment, Robert gained experience working just about everywhere on the farm, including seeding, harvesting, soil making, and food safety and packing, as well as The Culinary Vegetable Institute.
“The best part of being the student on the farm is that you get a hands-on experience in different areas,” Robert said. “Supervisors are there to guide and teach you in order for you to learn the importance of the certain area and how it contributes to the farm.”
For more than 20 years, The Chef’s Garden has partnered with Communicating for Agriculture Exchange Programs (CAEP) to bring young adults together from all over the world to share and learn about agricultural practices. It’s an opportunity for students to experience other cultures, and to gain confidence and farming knowledge to prepare for a future in agriculture in their home countries.
The one-year paid internships are awarded to students who are either in or have completed college. There are currently ten student interns working at The Chef’s Garden, representing Uganda, Rwanda, Brazil, Philippines, Japan, Tanzania, South Africa, Viet Nam and Columbia.
Robert’s primary job at The Chef's Garden was growing and harvesting microgreens under the tutelage of experienced grower David Hartwig. As a beginner, Robert admits that he fumbled clumsily with the scissors. But, with time, his skill and dexterity improved until his hands were as deft and fast as his teacher’s.
“At first you get your fingers snipped since you do not know the different techniques and ways of how to handle the scissors,” he said. “But, if you give it some time, it will be easy then. You only have a hard time in the beginning. Once you get the hang of it, everything will follow.”
Some crops took longer to learn, but Robert said that, as long as the plants were healthy, he liked them all ─ even the tricky ones.
His mentor, Hartwig, said Robert’s skill and confidence quickly grew as robust as the plants he tended.
“I had the pleasure of working with Robert during his year here on the farm,” Hartwig said. “His start was not the easiest for him ─ not only was this his first job in a greenhouse, it was his first job, period. Faced with a new job in a new industry in a new country surrounded by new people, he rose to the challenge and let nothing hinder his drive.”
“Rarely have I seen that much determination in an individual,” he continued. “Once he started getting the hang of things, his confidence soared, and that allowed him to learn even faster. What helped the most was his enthusiasm for trying new things, no matter the situation. He learned some aspects of this greenhouse, certainly, but the real education came from somewhere bigger than this farm.”
Robert had other talents as well, according to Ed Berry, who supervised Robert’s education in soil development.
“I will never forget his karaoke talent that he shared at Christmas with our family,” Berry said. “His Hawaiian ‘hang loose’ shaka sign will always be remembered as his signature greeting. His constant happiness was uplifting to all he came in contact with.”
Cultivating a Brighter Future
Even though Robert’s internship has drawn to a close, he is eager to implement all that he learned and experienced in order to forge an agricultural future for himself in his homeland. “With the experience I have gained from the farm, I believe that I am ready to take the next step,” he said. “I want to have a farm on my own here in the Philippines. I have to see what crops are the best to grow, and are suitable for the climate and affordable to the people.”
The keys to future success, he said, is the most important lesson he learned from his mentors at The Chef’s Garden. “With hard work and dedication, surely you will be successful in business and in life,” he said. “Just be resilient, diligent, and focused. I think I can make it a long way.”
Separation from family and loved ones was the most difficult part of being stateside for a year, but with his sights set on beginning a farm of his own, Robert said the sacrifices he made by leaving home for a time were well worth it in the end.
“In life, you have to take that step in order for you to grow and be successful,” he said. “I think that would be the best gift you can give to your family. I will miss everything about the farm ─ the hustle, seeding, harvesting, making soil, packing and much more. The farm helped me grow and mature.”