Dirty Hands and Full Hearts: One Young Adventurer's Experience With WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms)

The author transferring a plant

By Kaitlin Vonderhaar

Dirty fingernails and sore joints. These were things we were going to have to get used to during our time as farmers. It was new territory, all of it: the land, the physical labor, the people, even having the three of us together.  But, our excitement filled the gaps that our underlying doubt had created.  We were on an adventure. 

I didn’t want to fall in the trap. The trap of graduating college and moving on to the next thing with restlessness and blind motivation but without much thought or awareness.  I wanted to continue my education outside of the classroom.  And, what did I want to know?  I wanted to know passion.  I knew I felt passionately about sustainability; about the health of our people and our planet.  Even more specifically I felt passionately about food and everything that it involved and effected.  I had annoyed my college roommates for years by being vegetarian and buying mostly organic food.  It was important for me to know what I was putting in my body and to understand the effects that the food I was buying had on the environment.  But, as much as I stood behind the local and organic food movement with my wallet, I hadn’t had the opportunity to contribute much of my time to the cause.  I had so many questions, and it bothered me that I had never grown something myself, not even a basil plant in the windowsill of my kitchen.

Kaitlin picking sugar snap peas

Kaitlin picking sugar snap peas

Luckily two of my friends felt similarly, so we decided we were going to go on a year long farming trip across the country through a volunteer organization called WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms).  I was going to have to save up some money first; a process that always seemed to add colorful experiences to my volunteer opportunities. In order to do so I got a job at a nearby TGI Friday’s.  The thought of working at a corporate food chain seemed too ironic a contradiction, but I thought it was a unique experience to use their business as a way to fuel an experience I found great value in.  And to be completely honest, I was humbled by my time there.  I’ve realized that being humble is an important component to passion because I’ve found very few people receive the respect they deserve for their passionate work. In my mind, my time spent at the restaurant was all part of the bigger picture.

We were motivated for our trip from an earlier experience.  One of my friends and I spent two weeks volunteering on an organic farm in Georgia a couple months prior.  We had worked for a large, traditional, conservative Southern family.  It wasn’t the typical demographic I associated with local and organic food, and from the beginning I was excited to break down my obvious prejudices.  When I had thought about the kinds of people I would be volunteering for I always pictured fit middle aged professors who dressed in Patagonia clothing and insisted on riding bikes wherever they went.  In fact, my first experience was quite opposite from that.

After spending some time with the family in Georgia, they shared their reasons for switching to organic practices.  One of their five children had been diagnosed with autism as a very young boy, and after doing some research the mother was worried it was connected to the pesticides they had been using on their crops.  She couldn’t help but think that these chemicals were leaching into the soil and ground water which was the same water the family consumed every day.  Of course with my interest in environmental studies and my friend’s passion for public health, we were hooked.  The two of us had recently traveled to India the summer before to study water quality and pollution in the Ganges River.  The levels of chemicals we found in the water were heartbreaking, and there was no doubt that this contamination was connected to the various health conditions across the country... But water contamination in a small Georgia town? It was reasons like these that had persuaded me to eat organically years ago, and it was fascinating to hear this family’s first-hand account.  We wanted to learn more.  We wanted to continue to meet the people that had the courage and dedication to take a stand against conventional practices, so our farming experience didn’t stop there.

Radish picked during experience in the shape of a heart.

Radish picked during experience in the shape of a heart.

To start out our trip with WWOOF, we drove to the American southwest just in time for spring. One of our first destinations was at a small farm in the mountains of northern New Mexico.  It was a poor town that struggled with heroine addictions and high school drop outs.  We were also farming in the desert; a privilege only made possible by the 500 year old irrigation canals that lined the streets.  Our days were hot and they were filled with the same monotonous tasks that no organic farmer can escape.  This consisted of weeding, planting rows of seeds by hand, and continuously making adjustments so that our plants received the water that they needed.

But, it was also here that we came to realize the simple beauty of being a farmer.  I introduced myself to the land while it introduced itself to me.  While the mornings were early, there was just something about waking up with the sun that made me feel alive and connected with the earth.

It felt good to do hard and honest work.  Most of the vegetables we were growing were donated weekly to the local elementary school as a way to provide healthier meals to the students.  The man who owned the farm was a lawyer and fortunately he was financially able to use the farm in this way.  He was from one of the oldest and most established families in the area, and to him donating food to the children in his community meant he was feeding his own people.  He held strong beliefs that this area of the country had gotten the short end of the stick all too often when it came to governmental decisions.  This distrust in the system led him to his organic farming practices as well as his involvement with the schools.  He wanted to know what these children were actually being fed.

Unfortunately we live in a time where most children don’t know where their food comes from.  I was appalled in a meeting years back when I heard a teacher explain that when she asked one of her kindergarten students to draw a picture of a fish, he drew a picture of a fish stick instead. It is situations like these that highlight the disconnect most people have with their food.  And because of this ignorance it is important to recognize that the local and organic food movement not only opens doors for better nutrition and environmental health, it also provides opportunities for agricultural education.  As much as this may seem like an irrelevant subject to incorporate into our education systems, I think it is one of the only ways to raise awareness about our food production.  A couple of the farms we traveled to actually hosted school field trips to do just that. They would explain the growing processes of the vegetables and let the students harvest some of their own to take home.  The children’s enthusiasm always seemed to validate my own.  To watch a child pull a plant out of the ground and see a carrot on the other end is a miracle all on its own.  It was a realization for many and for myself that our food can come from our own backyard, and that in itself can be very empowering.

What surprised me the most about our trip however, was an aspect of health that I had previously given little attention to but yet affected me most during my time as a farmer.  It was experiencing a strong sense of community.  In fact, I think this is what I am most grateful for.  I shared my life with people.  We worked together, cooked together, ate together, and relaxed together.  We spent our days together, and as simple as it sounds, this is a pleasure many people do not experience with the ones they love.  I honestly cannot explain in words the beauty of community, but it creates something so much greater than the sum of its parts.  It felt powerful. We were given the time to form relationships; relationships with each other, with the people that purchased our food, with our neighbors.

Sharing a meal as a community

Sharing a meal as a community

Life is slow for a farmer.  It is a life that challenges you to relinquish the desire to control time, because growing and cooking your own food are processes that cannot be rushed.  They require patience and passion.  You will not find instant gratification in farming.  Instead you will find dirty fingernails and sore joints.  You will find hard work and frustrating outcomes.  You will find dedication and vision.  You will find what is wholesome.  You will find community.  And to tell you the truth I miss my dirty fingernails.

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