Ever since I was 6 years old, I’ve known that I wanted to be a writer, a teacher, and a farmer.

So far I’ve achieved two of these goals: I currently make my living as a writer, and for years I’ve worked on and off as a teacher of environmental education, writing, and digital literacy. But even though I’ve maintained a personal garden for the past several years, I’ve long felt that I wasn’t living up to my 6-year-old self’s expectations when it came to farming.

So earlier this year, I decided to indulge in my youthful dream—and enrich my life in the process—by applying to be an intern on a local organic farm.

For the last two months, I woke up before the sun twice per week. I drove 30 minutes to a four-acre farm with sheep, ducks, geese, chickens, and a whole lotta plants. While I went there to learn about farming, I ended up learning more about food than I expected. Allow me to explain…

1. “Waste” is a total lie.
Pretty much anything can be put to good use. Food scraps can be composted into soil. Dead trees can be chipped into weed-reducing mulch. Nearly everything can have a second (or third, or fourth) life if you look at it with an eye toward resourcefulness.

Case in point: A few weeks ago, the farmer I worked for received a shipment of saplings that were wrapped in plastic. I figured I’d just throw the plastic away, but as I was unpacking the box she exclaimed, “What a great piece of plastic!” and proceeded to use it as a warming cover for seedlings.

Her example taught me to look at everything from a new perspective. Now I try to figure out how it might be used and reused for productive purposes. It’s made me an even more devout believer in the fact that we, as a society, need to take accountability for all the food we waste—and then turn those castoffs into something valuable.

2. Death is an integral part of the food chain.
From livestock to plants to insects caught on trowels—things die so that we can eat. I used to find this depressing; I was even a vegetarian for 12 years partly because I wanted to remove myself from the carnivorous food chain, and I’ll always be an advocate for making ethical choices about how food is grown and raised.

But as I worked on the farm, I started to see that there’s something affirming about recognizing that humans are part of the cycle of life and death. We aren’t separate from the rest of the food chain; we’re part of it. We eat, and (without the protections of civilization) we are eaten. So every time I consume food—whether it’s a handful of carrots or a plate of pork tenderloin—I’m acknowledging my own animal nature. There’s something humbling about that.

3. We’re not so different, plants and I.
The more time I spent around plants, the more I realized that they’re just like any other living creature. They can feel cold, crowded, thirsty, or stressed. They can feel like they’re exactly where they want to be. They can get sick and die young. They compete with each other. In some cases, they get along. And if you pay attention, it’s not hard at all to “hear” what they’re telling you.

As I came to realize this, I adopted an almost parental attitude toward the plants in my care. I checked on them when I arrived at the farm; I rooted for their growth, and sometimes I even gave them a few words of encouragement. Maybe this sounds a little crazy. But when you realize that plants are really alive—and capable of communicating with you and each other—then it suddenly doesn’t seem so ridiculous to think that the energy I gave to them might just come back to me.

4. A bowl of salad represents a small miracle. (I know, but hear me out.)
Above all else, growing food has taught me to appreciate the effort required to do so.

A single lettuce plant needs to be nurtured for months in order to produce leaves that are ready for harvest. From seed, it requires round-the-clock care in the form of water, warmth, and just the right amount of space to encourage germination. From there, it takes another few weeks of attentive care before the seedlings are ready to transplant. Even once the lettuce is growing outdoors or in a greenhouse, it still needs to be monitored for pests, weather-related stress, and proper irrigation. All told, the leaves of lettuce (and other veggies) in a bowl of salad represent months of hard work and attention from the people responsible for growing them. And that’s not even accounting for the multiple environmental conditions that need to align in order to grow the food we eat.

Witnessing this process unfold firsthand changed the way I look at food items at my local farmer’s market or on grocery store shelves. Instead of seeing the price tag, I am learning to see the care and resources that went into growing that particular piece of produce. Shifting my focus in this way has made me both a more mindful and a more grateful consumer.

Oh, and one more thing: I learned that farmers are the unsung heroes of this planet. They work long, hard hours every day of the week, in rain, snow, or boiling sun. They often earn little money for their labor—and even less appreciation. But without farmers and the land that they farm, none of us would eat.

“No farms, no food” isn’t just a catchy bumper sticker slogan. It’s the gosh darn truth. And it’s really (really) important that we all start acting like it.