Hands-On Harvesting

Volunteers Get Dirty on International Organic Farms

The flock sits safely in the stable, and the nearby streets are silent. The tranquil evenings of Pradorrey, a village in northwestern Spain, are reward enough for a day spent tending sheep and harvesting grapes, but dinner—perhaps of fried sardines with goat cheese, bread and olive oil—awaits as well.

Meals and a bed are the standard returns for travelers working through Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF), an international organization of Earth-friendly agriculturists, but the intercultural understanding and agricultural know-how generated by WWOOF is sustenance for both the soul and the soil. “It’s an act locally, work globally mentality,” says Canada Director John Vanden Heuvel, putting a twist on a bumper sticker aphorism.

I worked as a “WWOOFer” for four Spanish hosts in autumn 1999, and I discovered the farms are as varied as the countries that belong to the organization. Together, the 18 branches offer sites on four continents.

After prospective volunteers contact the ephemeral collection of e-mail addresses that sometimes serve as a country’s WWOOF hierarchy, they pay a small fee for a list of locations. Most hosts in Spain have little contact with the WWOOF quasi-collective, and a passion for old-school agriculture is often the only similarity among sites.

The homemade bread sales we held at a tropical WWOOF farm near the southern village of Orgiva forged relationships with rural neighbors, and our work to clean a nearby “acequia,” or irrigation ditch, was part of an effort to restore a centuries-old system of communal water use. But such communalism was almost antithetical to my isolated-but-industrious two weeks in Pradorrey, where chilly days began early for Domingo, the shepherd with whom I lived.

After the 5:30 a.m. milking and feeding, we shook the barley from our overcoats and paused for oatmeal with warm goat’s milk. Leading the flock to pasture was a late-morning ritual, and after a 3 p.m. lunch, Domingo took an ever-so-brief siesta: The harvest—of everything from pears to potatoes—beckoned. For me this was time to read or visit neighbors. Hosts generally request a half-day of work from visiting WWOOFers.

Internet Connections

Such hospitality is an integral facet of WWOOF, founded by weekend farmers in England 28 years ago. Today, increasing popularity in the global group has led a coalition of national branches to schedule the first-ever WWOOF International Conference, held last October. And the advent of the Internet continues to attract students and other travelers throughout the world.

“Our web site’s been up for less than a year and we’ve already had 10,000 hits,” Vanden Heuvel says. But even large groups like WWOOF Australia, through which I located my Spanish hosts, try hard to retain their rusticity. “We operate closely in a small community—on sort of a trust, really,” says WWOOF Australia Host Manager Debb Schmetzer. “If somebody from the U.S. sends for a list and they’re $10 short, we’ll get them the list and ask them to pay the rest when they can. As far as being in touch with the Earth, environmentally and spiritually, that’s us,” she says.

Though chemical-free farming is perhaps the ideological foundation of the organization, it also aims to revive the personality of rural culture—the opposite of the cool, cell phone-and-sunglasses detachment it sees as all-too-common in contemporary society.

In October, I worked at “La Retuerta,” a formerly abandoned village where for 10 years a group of Germans and Spaniards has been reinforcing roofs and replacing blackberry brambles with gardens. After days spent harvesting chestnuts and chopping firewood we gathered in the kitchen, where solar-powered lights enabled us to bake rye bread or slice apples for drying.

One Sunday—a day normally reserved for picking wild mushrooms or stitching leather sandals—we helped an elderly San Vicente couple harvest and press their grapes for wine. Though only a few of us hauled baskets of plum-purple grapes to their tractor-driven trailer, all of us at La Retuerta—even the Sunday sandal-stitchers—were invited for a midday meal of freshly caught fish and a regional soup of pork, cabbage and potatoes.

My immediate yields from Spain were blistered hands and an airport delay—the fact that I had worked with foreign fruits led to a customs inspection in New York. But memories of vibrant villagers and the benefits of my practice with permaculture will persist long after my hands have healed.

ERIC DAVID LARSON is a graduate student at the University of Minnesota.