WWOOF, the acronym stands for world wide opportunities on organic farms. The program itself is based online, the communication and the search of hosts are also done online; Www.wwoof.org. You first sign up for a country where you may be interested in volunteering in, once you’ve picked it, you then pay a low nominal fee for a membership. That membership allows you to search hosts in the country you selected, you can search by region to make the searching easier for you. You pick a region, then scroll down the lists of hosts that are in the area you selected, you read the list of profiles, searching for the one that is right for you. There are several options from all sorts of farms that grows all sorts of things to bed and breakfasts and even wineries in certain locations. After picking the right location and the kind of place you want to be in, you want to be sure to read the part of the host’s profile where it lists what sort of duties that will be expected of you. There will be a wide range of things that can and will be expected from you by these hosts, so be prepared and sure that the duties listed are of your interest and of your ability. Once you are satisfied with location and duties, you contact the hosts and ask for a stay with them, the rest after that is self explanatory.
My first host is in Marcellaz, France. It is a small town, no no, a village, that is nestled between mountains on every side. Mountains of great stature and beauty that stop can stop me mid sentence or mid walk – as soon as my eyes focus on them. I use the word focus because if I do not focus entirely, I can honestly believe that those “mountains” are just clouds up in the sky. White patches that I know are so high up, I automatically think they are clouds, but they are not, they are indeed snow capped mountains that stand with such force and reckoning. All I knew of this farm before I arrived was that it was located on the French Alps mountain chain, that it was 20 minutes south of Geneva and it was in France. My fiancée, Jessica, did all the communication with Mikey and Hannie, our hosts.
Mikey is a man of great integrity, value and skill. He is a 77 year old French born man with a life interest in organic farming, a man with a marriage of 50 years to a Swiss born Hannie and a knowledge base that will continue to surprise you. We arrived here via a three hour train ride from Paris on a Sunday, five days ago. The train ride itself was memorizing, we wrapped around mountain sides, burrowed through the hearts of mountains and we chugged through French landscapes that consisted of numerous tiny villages that were obviously centuries old. As soon as we arrived at our host’s house we were taken care of as if we were their family. We were shown through the house, where floors and walls are made of giant pieces of 300 year old stone, large cellar wooden doors that creak when moved and we were shown through their life story – of which were displayed through thousands of pictures on a electronic picture frame, displayed through items hundreds years old on the walls and displayed through decorations from their expeditions in South America. We were shown to our room that we would occupy for the next 30 days upstairs. A room with two sky lights that you can witness the twinkle of every star through the cloudless and clear nights, a room with an old wood window that views the Alps – where at night, you can see the glimmer of houses on the mountain sides a hundred miles away and we were guided to a room that spoke for itself through its hundred of books in the bookcase, picture albums through decades and a 300 year old stone wall. Yes, the house itself is 350 years old. Mikey insisted we get comfortable and unpack as he pointed to a dresser with five drawers. Drawers, I had to remember what they were for a second, I hadn’t used one of those things in nearly three months – I was so excited to use this foreign piece of furniture! We put all of our clothes into one drawer for each one of us and happily tossed our backpacks underneath the beds, the joy to not have to look at them for a month – such pleasure!
We work on Mikey’s farm, in his greenhouse and throughout the house five days a week. Our schedule is 9am to 12pm, and 2pm to 4pm, Monday thru Friday. At noon we break for a two hour lunch. Jessica is naturally an early riser in the mornings and has always been for as long as I known her. Getting up at eight in the morning for me, is a new thing – something I am not used to nor would I ever think I would of enjoyed. Yet, I do enjoy is throughly, the mounds of things that can be done in a day started early is surprising and fulfilling.
We awake in the hour of eight, get ready for our work day with warm clothes, a pair of work gloves and a camelpak filled with the most satisfying faucet water I have tasted. Seriously – the water comes from a spring nearby, and I drink nearly two liters a day without even realizing I had ever put the glass to my mouth, it’s that good. Once we are ready in the morning, we come downstairs to a kitchen table full of fresh bread, ranging from wheats to oats to sourdoughs. There are also flaky and desirable croissants waiting patiently on the table, coffee being made on the stove and there is a variety of jellies, jams and butters galore. They also have this irresistible cereal filled with all sorts of fruits, that actually taste like fruits, and look like fruits – not processed items that look like fruits. Oh I cam’t forget to mention the basket full of bananas, apples, oranges and kiwis. Once we are filled with nutrients and filled with delicious, makes you come back for more, bread – we get our work boots on and our working bodies turned on.
There’s numerous things that we can do here for Mikey, either inside the house or out on the property, where lies a greenhouse and acres filled with all sorts of crops, trees and plants. What we have done so far is manage the weeding inside the greenhouse, which I’d like to mention, we have gotten pretty pro at already within 5 days of working. It is an art form indeed. I remember my first hour inside there tackling those weeds, I really had no idea which ones were the weeds and which ones were plants. I aimlessly looked around like a confused child eager to do right. Now, I am moving productively as I spot weeds and tear ’em out with the swiftest, ninja like motion of the garden tool I posses. Jessica also has become the queen of weeding, her trails are always remarkably weed free, I admit, I get rather jealous. We have spent nearly seven hours weeding so far – and I expect we will hit nearly 100 hours before we leave here. Other than that, there is the tending to the plants that are already in the ground flourishing, and tending to the ones where I can’t see anything but soil yet at. Watering them with liquid manure, yumm, and picking some of them out of the ground and preparing them to be sold in Mikey’s market.
He has a market attached to his house, with a door that’s facing the road with signs that state he has organic vegetables and fruits. What gets me about this market is that is based off of a trust system, there is no one tending to the market – so if you’re a customer, you come in, pick the items you want and leave your money in the mailbox. That fact alone made me love this place, this village of Marcellaz.
Other things I have done in the mornings are weighing vegetables, pricing them and going through ten kilo bags of garlic (that’s 22 pounds) – taking them apart to expose every single cloves and putting them into their own bucket – since Mikey has a great system here. He buys bags of garlic, then rips them down to single cloves, then plants the cloves in the ground, getting 100 times what he actually paid for. I’ve spent three hours alone today taking apart hundreds of them – I think I’ll have arthritis if that continues. Ha.
Mikey is a solid worker himself, he always makes sure he comes and helps out in whatever he had us doing, and not just leaving us to mind it all. Mikey is also on time like a clock is – insisting we work on time and leave on time, and never going over our allotted time. Mikey is also gentle, kind and filled with lightheartedness. He is not a man to yell or to bash you for a mistake, he will teach you how to do it right slowly and kindly without any feeling of anger.
Once noon comes – if we were outside, we head back up the frozen snow path from the greenhouse to the house. That path always takes twice as long to walk then it should, since I can never not stop and admire the mountains all around me. If we were inside working, we just pause what were doing till later that day. Before I come inside the house, I am always sure to kick off the mounds of snow and mud that our work boots have contracted. Once inside, Hannie is already in the kitchen fixing up something that ALWAYS smells fantastic and appealing. I usually head upstairs and lay face down on the bed for about half an hour, since my body is not used to any sort of labor. Though, after a few days of the squatting, lifting and other things my muscles were frightened of – I have grown used to these movements and my muscles have allowed me to do them without falling apart.
Lunch, this is the first meal of the day where we are sitting at the dinning room table with everyone including Hannie and Mikey. Jess and I always help set the table with forks and knives, glasses, jars of all sorts of condiments and a liter bottle filled with that awesome spring water. Knives, another thing I have learned of and seen everywhere in France, knives are used not in just the ways of cutting. They are used in the support of the fork, assisting it while pushing food onto it with the none sharp side. Hannie has made over 12 meals so far here and every single one has been pescatarian for us. Which means without meat, yet with fish, eggs, cheeses. She has been very kind to of offered us these meals, as they normally do eat met in the household. Lunch lasts an hour usually from 12:30 to 1:30, where we would eat a few courses at the sitting. Salads to the meal itself to a round of cheese and bread, then followed by a round of unique Swiss coffee flavored yogurts or ‘grown on their property’ fruits. Fantastic and extremely healthy.
After lunch we head back to work for two hours where usually the sun is more active then it was in the morning, so we attack the branches of the apple trees. Espically since Juan has been here, another WWOOF volunteer, since he is 6ft tall himself – extremely handy for cutting hard to reach branches. The art of cutting branches is something I could describe in a essay itself, it is precise and with a purpose. I must admit, I thought I was a joke the first time Mikey had us cutting branches, he had us trimming branches but not the one an inch from it, yet trim the twig coming off of that one an inch from it. Like, huh? He had us following his every direction like we zombies without brains of our own, aimlessly cutting whatever he insisted. It was humorous for me, I must admit, hearing him direct Juan, who had climbed to the top of a 20 foot tall tree. Mikey, in French, was saying “yes that one” “no no stop, not that one” “above, above, no below now” “below the one you last touched.” Watching Juan trying to figure it out was hilarious, I wasn’t laughing anymore once I was up there on the ladder myself and was struggling to understand which damn branch he was wanted me to cut! Imagine if you will, an artist, a painter in front of his canvas. This artist has his arms tied behind his back, and you have his paintbrushes – you must paint what he has in his mind precisely onto the canvas, imagine the frustration and the time. That is exactly how it was to cut branches for Mikey. A few days in, I was trimming branches without asking Mikey, I had finally understood the purpose and could see for myself which ones needed the trimming. More space between branches, a more spread out tree grows bigger apples, rather then the smaller apples that grow when there is little space to grow. The smaller apples, he can not sell, the bigger ones, he can sell – makes sense. I respect Mikey for his ability and his knowledge, it is all meaningful and sensible.
Once it hits 4pm, we are off of work and either face down in our beds or brewing up some fresh coffee or tea. Dinner is served between 7:30pm and 8:30pm, so we have several hours to relax, blog, check out the mountains and learn some French. It is delightful, how rewarding it is to help Mikey and his farm, his responsibilities of the farm and to hear him say “tres bien.” It feels like I am helping out grandpa rather than “working.” It feels like I am giving my youth’s strength and range of motion to help a man that would completely do it on his own if he could. It feels like a learning experience rather than a working day, and I thoroughly enjoy it.
Dinner is once again a series of courses, which I look forward to like I did look forward to the meals while I was in the Army. I can never grow tired of fresh vegetables taken right off the farm and picked right off the trees, fruits that are as sweet as they are unique – such as the special “red orange”, which only grows on volcanic grounds. Looks like an orange and tastes like an orange, yet is much more bitter than it is sweet and has a hint of a reddish color underneath the skin. I could never grow tired of home grown walnuts and apricot jams made in their cellar and the eggs that just came fresh from the chickens in the backyard. After our meals we have two buckets to put our leftovers in, leftovers that range from cheese and orange skins to bread crumbs to whatever else you have. One bin is for compost that goes into the soil later on and the other bin is what they feed the chickens, they love some cheese skin! It’s a great cycle, we get eggs from the chickens and vegetables from the soil but we give back to them, it is a cycle of giving.
Next week we are planting the hundreds of garlic cloves outside underneath the snow, they will take three months to grow fully. I am looking forward to planting them, to having a finished product after the hours of peeling apart the cloves, I wish I were here to see them grow! Next week we are also preparing a room in the house where 20 or so baby chickens will be soon! Mikey bought some chicks, surprisingly cheap at 2 Euros each (about $3), that he will keep inside. The point of keeping them inside is to keep them warm and to feed them correctly with the right formula till they grow old enough to go mingle with the other chickens outside. I had asked Mikey why he doesn’t let the eggs hatch that come from his own chickens, he said that during the winter it is so cold that the mother chickens do not care for the eggs properly and that certain breeds of chickens do not sit on their eggs like they are suppose to and he doesn’t want to risk it. I can not wait to see the chicks, they will be so adorable! The room is next to our bedroom, so I foresee a nightly visit of awing at the chicks will be in order!
I feel almost spoiled living here, well, volunteering here. It doesn’t feel like I am going out of my way or working or doing things I do not want to do, I just feel overwhelmingly grateful and humbled by all of this. I have learned so much in just one week, I have developed relationships with my kind and sincere hosts and have learned teamwork skills with Jessica that are unique and valuable. I feel honored to be here.
P.S. The sound of scrapping utensils is NOT an annoyance or a rue action here, it is a assurance that the food was fantastic and to not waste a crumb. Our hosts insist to not leave any morsel of food left in the pot or pan. Sometimes, even when I am completely full I will have another serving to finish off what’s left in the pot – I call it ” taking one for the team.” Juan has done is several times, and so has Jessica. We all gradually and smoothly look at the last spoon full of goodness in the pot, and glance at each other, wondering who’s going to take one for the team today.