Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Wwoofing Tale

To introduce myself, I’m Eliza, an intern at the Center for an Agricultural Economy (CAE) and a new student at Sterling College and to the Northeast Kingdom. I’d like to take some time to describe what an awesome experience wwoofing can be and to share a bit about the experience I had this summer working on two organic farms in southern Italy for two weeks. Despite its brevity, I came away from the experience with a appreciation for what it takes to truly live both lightly on the land and earn a living off of the land.

The program that helped facilitate my visit is World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), in which participants work on farms across the world. Wwoofing is defined as an exchange of volunteer work on the farm for which one receives food, accommodation and the opportunity to learn about other organic growing methods and livelihoods. Many countries maintain their own agricultural databases which farmers opt into and which anyone who pays a small fee can have access to for one year. The list contains a brief description of the farm as well as information about logistics of the hosting process, expectations, location, and contact information.

And so, list in hand, butterflies in stomach, I picked up the phone and dialed Italy. I chose to call two farms, one in Cilento National Forest in the Campania province of Italy, home of a intentionally "peasant" farmer and the other a family farm in the Lazio province, to the northeast of Rome. I was nervous to be diving into such a big adventure, making plans to live and work and play with total strangers and all using my improvised hybridization of intermediate-level Spanish with a smattering of Italian vocabulary. Fortunately, both conversations went over well and the hosts welcomed me warmly to their farms.

So, one month later, there I was, saying goodbye to my parents with whom I had just spent time visiting Italian relatives and saying hello to bright-eyed Albino. His farm comprised of 3 hectares of fruit orchards integrated with gardens, a small vineyard, chickens, and olive trees. The majority of what he ate came from his land, and the rest was bartered for or bought with money from the odd jobs he worked on the weekends. This system of bartering combined with his abundant charisma led to a wide-reaching network of friends throughout the neighboring hillsides. I was lucky enough to meet many of them. An example of a typical exchange might be freshly picked fragolini (wild strawberries) from his farm for the children of family friends in exchange for (equally) freshly made bread using an ancient wheat grown and milled on the friends' farm. Or a delicious lunch and some tomato plants in exchange for porcini mushrooms foraged on the way over for a visit. And they weren’t just ordinary tomato plants, but plants grown from seeds received at Terra Madre from Vandana Shiva. Planting them was a magical experience, especially with the knowledge that as I planted, my good friend was interning at Navdanya, Shiva’s organization, all the way in India. Talk about a global movement. I left the area with happy memories of the beautiful waterfall in town, mouth watering fragolini (now I know where food chemists get their inspiration!), mountain views, fresh spring water, and the good humor of the people. I was invited back to see the tomatoes in full swing in late August. I laughed, thanked Albino, and said I didn’t think I’d be able to be back that soon.

A full day of travel to Lazio brought crashing down on me a 180° turn of values and work ethics. No longer was 3 hectares supporting 1 man, but 5 hectares were supporting 2 adults and 3 children ages 6-10. The farm was much more production oriented and run as a Bed & Breakfast for supplementary income. Guise, the mother, had her PhD in botany and was great with raising herbs while Filippo applied his skills to marketing. The children filled the farm with joy as they played games and vied for their parents’ ever-adoring attention. No longer were mid-day strolls into town for gelato or hikes just to see the area the norm. I experienced a new type of joy, one that was much less vacation-like. I worked sun-up to sun-down, weeding and transplanting strawberry patches, potting herbs, harvesting herbs (aromatic herbs were their mainstay), watering the garden, helping at market, and installing a drip irrigation system. Meals brought infinite content as they were so simple, so fresh and so well-earned. Leaving, after a full week of hard work, I felt like I had made a really strong connection with this family. They were extremely grateful of all my work and invited me back anytime, including to babysit the farm at times when they were away at conferences.

 I left Italy wishing I could have neighbors wherever I went that were as beautifully kind and who lived as close to land as those I met wwoofing. Already, in coming back to my home in New York state and here for school, I’ve realized that such people exist in many parts of my own country, including in Orleans county, as locally as Bonnieview Farm. The WWOOF network in the United States boasts opportunities as limitless as those abroad and it’s heartening to know they’re there and increasing in numbers for whenever you’re in the mood to brush up on or learn from scratch about everything from the relative leisure of a bachelor’s homestead to the intensive cultivation of a tight-knit family scrambled with abundant aromatic herbs.   

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