I came, I saw, I WWOOFed

Pigs
Photo by Jacque Feldman.

I have consumed alcohol before nine in the morning on only two occasions. The first was Yale-Harvard ’08. The second was this summer while working in Cruis, a French town so small its market only had five stands. The other stands sold vegetables and fruit; chickens and homemade alcohol; sausage, wine, and cheese; and eggs. I was selling sheep’s cheese, goat’s cheese, and sheep’s milk yogurt with a farmer named Françoise, who has made and sold these wares for decades.

Business was slow in that small town. So after we set up our table, the sausage vendor waved us over and opened a bottle of wine to share. Françoise brought over one of her cheeses, and someone else contributed a fresh baguette from the corner store. The vegetable seller, an otherwise neat man who had undone the top buttons of his shirt, joined us. Françoise eyed him warily: she confided later that she suspected his products were grown in Spain, not locally. I introduced myself anyway.

“You are working on Françoise’s farm? You can come live with me and work on my farm,” the vegetable man said in French, winking and refilling my plastic cup. “Anytime you like.” His proposition was actually not that far-fetched. For the past month, I had been living and working in casual arrangements with strangers — or, as it’s called colloquially, “WWOOFing.”

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WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. Some will refer to WWOOF as a “program,” or an “organization,” but really, it is just a website: a list of hosts in 43 participating countries. WWOOFers arrange with hosts to work on their farms in exchange for room and board. For a small fee, anyone can become a WWOOFer, which is to say, anyone can buy access to the contact information of farmers who list themselves as hosts. WWOOF is highly democratic, completely decentralized, generally unorganized, and — along with its look-alike sites, like HelpX.com — the only way I could have found Françoise Fleutot.

So it was with the click of a button this spring that I signed up to WWOOF. I put a summer internship on hold, read host lists obsessively instead of studying for finals, and set about planning the six-week trip that would take me milking, weeding, and painting across the South of France.

Despite trying to plan my trip as far ahead as I would have that internship, I ended up leaving my first host early, and by the end of June, I was used to living off-the-cuff. I arranged to stay with Fleutot only days in advance, based on six French phrases that covered just the basics: 30 goats, 60 sheep, six cows, four pigs, a gîte or holiday-home, English spoken (it wasn’t). By the end of the summer, I had gardened and cleaned in Ardèche, restored the attic of an old barn in Haute-Garonne, milked the 30 goats and 60 sheep in Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, and harvested potatoes in the Aude with Sarah DeLappe ’12 and Chloe Sarbib ’12.

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I was late to wise up to what has become a global trend. Sue Coppard, a London secretary who was “keen to support the organic movement,” founded WWOOF in 1971, and in 2001, another Brit, Rob Prince, launched HelpX to facilitate the travel of others after an injury forced him to abandon his own global adventures. By 2006, the Guardian had pinpointed Coppard as a notable person in its “Good Lives” column, and in 2008, the New York Times’ Frugal Traveler told his story of farming in the idyllic French countryside (“Tending the Farm Stand in Southern France”). Last spring, in an article titled “Many Internships are Going Organic,” the New York Times reported the phenomenon of liberal arts students choosing farm work over more traditional summer internships.

And this summer, from four households of strangers, I received lodging; home-cooked, organic meals that accommodated my wheat allergy; and frequent perks. One host lent me his old car, a 20-year-old manual-transmission Citroën with a broken fuel gauge, broken locks, broken windshield wipers, and broken cassette deck, and I drove to the Pyrenees. I coordinated all these stays through either WWOOF or HelpX — and except for airfare, trainfare, and some gas for the Citroën, I didn’t pay a penny.

It stands to reason that this way to travel on the cheap would especially attract college students. Ours is, after all, the traditional demographic of Eurotripping, youth hostels, and junior years abroad. My dad’s high school friend, Lloyd, was my age when he moved to Israel, changed his name to Elad, and set up on a kibbutz, where he worked for his keep as WWOOFers do. Last summer, Marty Keil ’12 was looking for “a really cheap, cool vacation” — and so he chose WWOOF.

Josephine “Fien” Aerts-Morel, however, a WWOOF host in Normandy, tells me she is annoyed to be “promoted as a free holiday rather than the shared experience” — perhaps because the WWOOF experience offers more than most vacations. Keil ended up learning how to make miso from rice on a farm in Tuscany. Allie Bauer ’12, WWOOFed first “on a whim” (“I love cows,” she gushes) and has since WWOOFed twice more. By now, she says, “I don’t think I could travel as a tourist anymore.” She calls going off alone to perform manual labor for a week or two “a guilty pleasure,” adding, “my parents would probably prefer I take physics classes.”

Theirs is a normal expectation. Many Yalies do take classes in the summer, in New Haven and abroad. Yale Summer Session offers courses in cities as far-flung as Beijing, Buenos Aires, and Mombasa, where learning the local language and culture earns students Yale credit, too. I may not have received language credit for WWOOF, but I did learn the French verb used to describe attaching a milking machine to a goat: brancher. Weeks later, I understood when I heard that the adjective form, branché, describes someone who is hip or “plugged in.” Upon my return to campus, the departmental placement test showed that my weeks of WWOOF had amounted to a year’s worth of French classes.

Kelly Cannon ’11, who has studied abroad with Yale-in-London and held a Bulldogs in Madrid internship, calls her time WWOOFing on a French herb farm a “much more intense” cultural immersion: “There is more pressure on you to live like them because it is their home.” Bauer describes going with her farmer to help his neighbor, Antoine, make hay. They would finish at 11 p.m. and then celebrate, drinking wine and eating raw peanuts. “There’s something a little different,” says Bauer, “about the way you’re talking to French people when you’re working with them and you’re not their guest.”

After her time WWOOFing this summer, Bauer spent some days travelling alone across the South of France, and she found she would do anything to break what she calls the tourism “barrier.” She would tell vendors at markets that she was poor and ask if she could spend a morning helping them sell their wares. Some agreed. “I got so many tomatoes,” Bauer grins.

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Most of the Yalies who spoke to me sandwiched just a week or two of WWOOF between their semester and a class or an internship, so Jeannette Penniman ’12 was exceptional. After finishing her sophomore year, she took a year’s leave and spent three months WWOOFing through Argentina and Chile, joining Kate Grace ’12, who had also taken time off. At one Argentine farm lived a yoga master, and after each day’s work he led Penniman and a handful of other WWOOFers in yoga under some shade. “We’d start with this very relaxed, restorative yoga,” recalls Penniman. “And then, a chicken would run over and peck at someone’s head, and you’d have to put him back in the fence.” Some might imagine the farmer’s life to be centered, idyllic and tranquil, but Penniman has spent long enough with WWOOF to know the truth: “You just have to improvise…that’s what farm life is like.”

The appeal of farming to Penniman had even more to do with her passion for sustainability than her downward dog. And among Yalies, she isn’t alone. Take the number of courses a search for “food” on OCI will yield (ten). As student interest in the Yale Farm grows, and dining halls get greener, WWOOF is one way to explore issues of sustainability hands-on. “I like eating meat,” says Bauer, “but [before WWOOF], I didn’t understand the underlying problems.”

Saying WWOOF forces carnivores to understand their choice is an understatement: “You want to eat meat, you have to kill the meat,” says Anna Skarstad, a senior at Bates College in Maine. “Chicken for lunch? You have to go kill the chicken.” DeLappe became a vegetarian just after her time HelpXing and has stayed meatless since. At the vegetable farm where she and I worked, when the cucumbers were ripe, that’s what we had for lunch. Now, she says, “it just makes more sense to eat local vegetables.”

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Some people planning to WWOOF describe it as an escape from the “real world” of responsibility to which they’ll graduate. Standing in the Davenport courtyard this spring, a friend pointed at the divide in a half-cloudy, half-clear sky and said to me, “That side — the sunny side — is our bright college years. That big grey cloud is the tiny Brooklyn apartment, the real world.” The culture that produced Eat Pray Love imagines extended travel as an escapist fantasy, or else a spiritual pilgrimage. But I’m not Julia Roberts, and farming isn’t Hollywood.

I realized early on that the farmers who hosted me were, in fact, real people, and that our work was their reality. Just as a summer internship in New York City gives Yalies a chance to try out Brooklyn apartment hunting and the office work of an entry-level job, WWOOF lets them see what it’s like to be counted on by cows needing milking. DeLappe discovered: “If you’re fully engaged in providing for yourself, if that’s what you want to do, then you have to focus your whole life on making your food.” A sustainable, family-oriented country life may not be what many Yalies picture for themselves — but that alternative does exist. And it’s hard to imagine until you’ve given it a try.

Anna Skarstad from Bates WWOOFed first for a summer in Norway to study agriculture. Then, she took off a semester to WWOOF around France, and this summer, she returned to her favorite place in the world: a pig farm. She describes a long-running joke with the farmer — he likes to drive her around the area to point out houses for sale — and then, she reconsiders. It’s not a joke, exactly. “There’s no reason, actually, why I can’t just quit everything and move there. That’s actually the reality for the most of the world…not well-to-do American kids at expensive schools.” Skarstad plans to go into alternative medicine after she graduates, but she has seriously considered becoming a farmer. After WWOOF, she knows “the world is broader…Bates would never have showed me that. WWOOFing for me was the ultimate preparation for the real world.”

Of course, most students who WWOOF don’t WWOOF because they want to be farmers. In fact, Yalies find WWOOF rewarding precisely because it differs so drastically from anything else they have ever experienced, or plan to. DeLappe calls WWOOF “a really good sort of antidote to a Yale education, to dive into someone else’s reality, remind ourselves that there’s a world beyond our ivory tower,” adding that farming is “totally different from every Yale class, because you get so dirty and grimy.”

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WWOOF differs from Yale classes in learning curve as severely as it does in learning style. Keil observed that “anybody can do [WWOOF],” having worked alongside people diverse in education, income, age, and life experience. Yalies accepted to certain internships know they will spend the summer surrounded by their peers, but to Webster’s WWOOF host, “it didn’t matter who we knew [or] what kind of internships we had. The kind of stuff that mattered at Yale didn’t matter to Ursula. She wanted to know what we wanted to have for dinner.” The only thing these hosts ask is that you be willing. For a Yalie, taking on such a job can be strange — and, once you get to the farm and learn what you have to be willing to do, difficult.

Also, humbling. Trying to attach a milking machine to a kicking goat’s teat, I couldn’t help but feel there were certain holes in my elite education. My arms sore after a morning spent in carpentry, I realized that rather than being overqualified for manual labor by my Yale education, I was simply not qualified at all. To Bauer, too, WWOOF posed certain challenges. “Yalies sometimes think, we’re working so hard, it’s going to pay off, but what farmers do is hard in an entirely different sense,” she says. “In some senses, it’s harder.”

Bauer learned not to “wax romantically about [WWOOF], because a hard job is not always pretty. I’ve been covered in cow shit all summer.” But even thusly warned, Yalies can’t know what’s in store when they set out to WWOOF. They learn to adapt to deviations from their careful plan — like the unexpected frost that had damaged the potato crop at one farm where I stayed. “Being at a college in the U.S. is challenging, for sure, but easy in a way,” observes Skarstad. “You have control over your life.” She has found WWOOFing, on the other hand, a “terrifying idea, to just email a stranger in the middle of nowhere and go live with them.”

I was lucky with all my strangers — except my first host, Niek, who lived alone, two hours’ walk from the nearest place with a bus stop. He was Dutch, and we communicated in my broken French or his broken English, so I had both language and cultural barriers to help me excuse his comments about my derrière. Still, after a few days of discomfort, I asked him to drive me to the train station, having found a welcoming host elsewhere. I spent the last half-hour on that train, and every other train that month, high with adrenaline, wondering who would meet me at the other end. Skarstad has found this type of fear “addictive. You learn it’s OK. You still live. You trust your intuition.” At Bates, she adds, “you’re coddled. People hold your hand — it’s a stark, stark difference.” Last summer, Will Koh ’12 learned to grow grapes and olives, but when I ask him what skills he gained, he mentions self-reliance first.

More lessons: this summer, I learned how to cook — local and organic ingredients, elderflower pancakes and cordial, salads of greens still wet with that morning’s dew. I learned how to be alone in a strange country. I learned how to rely on the kindness of strangers who soon became friends, sending me off with kisses and picnics for the road when it came time to leave. Françoise’s husband called me his pitchounette, a Provençal pet name.

“What kind of people do that?” asks Webster. “They got so much pride out of feeding us well and being able to house us in that little villa.” Patrick Chalmers, my HelpX host in the Haute-Garonne, can explain his choice: “Our society is very — the French word for it is ‘atomization.’ We don’t know our neighbors… HelpX [allows] for the world to be less anonymous.” He finds himself delighted by the cultural exchange HelpX provides. “I’m hopeful about human nature,” he adds, “and I think that HelpX is a reassuring example of that.”

“There’s so much technology that people think we’re so interconnected,” says Bauer, inspired by a Ted Talk she heard recently. “But the irony is that we still associate with the same network as we do in our physical, real world on the Internet.” Instead of becoming interconnected, citizens of a wired world “never truly grasp a more profound understanding of other countries.” WWOOF has been Bauer’s fix: a way to connect authentically with other people and cultures. When I email her hosts to ask why they put her up, their response is simple: “new friends = high.”

Perhaps understanding a person is the first step toward understanding a people. Webster’s WWOOF experience “was more about sitting down and trying to figure out the two people we were staying with. Ursula was obsessed with soap operas. Also, they had 12 cats.” My HelpX host tells me he likes that his eight-year-old daughter can meet — and befriend — people from all over the world. I have hanging on my wall that little girl’s parting gift, an old horseshoe from her horse. I think it’s even luckier than horseshoes usually are.

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Professor Maria Trumpler, a senior lecturer in WGSS, took a four-year break from her career in academia to make cheese at the Vermont farm she co-owns. She calls the experimentation required to design her own type of cheese, Vermont Ayr, “totally intellectually satisfying” — and the idea that an intellectual can benefit from farming is not at all new. Emerson wrote that the “scholar is he of all men whom this spectacle [of nature] most engages.” A relationship with nature “with its sanative influences” can “repair the errors of a scholastic and traditional education.” Emerson’s ideal, the curious and well-rounded Young American, resembles the goal of another old American ideal, the liberal arts education that emphasizes molding the whole person. (At Columbia, students must still pass a swimming test to graduate.)

What Yale College offers is a liberal arts education, which — according to this year’s Freshman Handbook for the Class of 2014 — “regards college as a phase of exploration, a place for the exercise of curiosity and an opportunity for the discovery of new interests and abilities.” Though what we learn here may not have direct bearing on a career, we will still emerge as thinking people, equipped for whatever future we choose. “Anything you experience that gives you a new perspective compliments a liberal arts education,” says Webster, naming WWOOF as one example.

So during the school year, I read Dostoevsky, Joyce, and Shakespeare, and during the summer, I learn to recognize different herbs by sight and smell, to use an electric sanding machine, to insulate a roof with hemp, and to speak with French countrymen in their language about the problems of their world (on a hot market day, the cheese runs and spoils). After learning about thunderstorms from WWOOF, walking to class through pouring rain will never seem the same.

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I learned about thunderstorms on the same farm where I learned that lavender oil could be used to disinfect the cuts on a wounded goat or sheep. I was standing under the cherry tree, picking and eating cherries, as I waited for l’orage (my host taught me the word), the storm.

When you feel the first drop of the storm, you need to forget the cherries and run. You need to get to the clothesline before the rain does. When you’re lucky, the rain won’t start until you get the dry clothes in — and then it will pour.

You will be surprised by a long, fast line of white spilling over a hilltop. That line is the sheep and goats running in from pasture to the dry barn. They need to be milked rain or shine. They will wait to be milked in the barn while you wait to milk them in the house. All of you will watch the storm.

You’ll know the storm is over when the birds come out again.

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