WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. It’s an organization that facilitates contact between organic farms and volunteer workers interested in organic farming. In exchange for food and housing, volunteers work for a certain number of hours, which differ from farm to farm. WWOOFing is an inexpensive way to travel and see the world. I was curious about it for a long time, and thought the end of my time in France would be a good opportunity to try it out.
. . .
It was drizzling as I dragged my massive duffel bag to the train station in Nice, and drizzling still when I disembarked from the bus in Trets, a village in Provence. A sun-browned woman who introduced herself as Annette* met me at the bus stop and drove me back to the farm. She didn’t begin or encourage a conversation. I ventured a few questions, but her responses were so cold and brief that I quickly succumbed to silence.
The cheery view from the bus to Trets.
We entered the farmhouse through a door marked Auberge, which lead into a large dining room. Eight tables were evenly spaced around the room. In one corner was a large cabinet, and in the other a countertop that looked like it might sometimes pass for a bar. There was a chalkboard with an old Menu du Jour still artfully displayed. Upon reservation, the farm will become a restaurant. While I was there, they were discussing an upcoming wedding reception to be held there.
Annette helped me carry my bag upstairs to the room I had to myself. Four twin beds had been squeezed in along three of the walls (two were bunked), along with one blue dresser. I surveyed the wide assortment of reading material, in at least four languages, taking up most of the space atop the dresser. I also spotted cards and, a real throwback, cassette tapes with handwritten labels (“Nine Inch Nails”). Through the one window I could see the driveway, the chicken coop, and a distant field. Rain was still sputtering down outside.
The soundtrack of my life on the farm.
Later in the afternoon, when the sun had come back out, I stepped out to explore the farm and the environs. The fields start to the right of the house, and wrap around back. The farm doesn’t specialize in any one particular kind of produce; it grows all sorts of vegetables. Directly across from the house is a large fenced-in area that holds a veritable menagerie: chickens, geese, and turkeys, and next to the birds rabbits and other rodent-type animals. To the left of the house is a large fenced-in field, where two goats, a donkey, and a pony frolic. Three dogs and at least one cat also call the farm home.
I followed tractor tracks alongside fields until I stumbled upon another dirt road. Not a single car passed by in almost an hour of walking. I reveled in the sun, the mud, the fresh air, and the relative silence of the country compared to Nice.
Annette wasn’t at dinner; it was just Elise and her three-year-old daughter Lucy. Over our plates of lettuce, shredded beets, and fried potatoes, I asked what made a good wwoofer. She replied that the ones really interested in agriculture and organic farming are the best, but not those who come to have an inexpensive vacation. This statement was accompanied by stereotypical French sounds of irritation.
I wonder if she saw guilt spread across my face, or my polite smile falter.
The farm, coming back from my walk on my first day there.
. . .
At breakfast the next morning, Elise explained the rules of the farm. In exchange for lodging and meals, I was expected to work four hours every morning, Monday through Friday, and Tuesday afternoons, as well. The first rule was no violence, toward people or animals. Return all tools to the garage; do not leave them in the fields. Help prepare and clean up after meals. Be quiet when the three-year-old is sleeping (although there was no guarantee that she would do the same for me).
Annette was sick that day, so I worked with Elise. All morning I separated crates of potatoes, broccoli, and carrots into individual bags. I helped Elise collect eggs from the henhouse. In the late afternoon families came by to pick up theirpanniers—they held out their reusable grocery bags or baskets, and I filled them with produce: 1 kg potatoes, 1 kg carrots, 2 German turnips, 1 kg broccoli, 7 artichokes, celery, half a dozen eggs, and a head of lettuce.
Elise was very plain, and at first she reminded me of an old maid, like from the card game: she wore round spectacles that slowly slid down her nose until she squinted them back into place, and had prominent yellowish-brown teeth that gaped out when she smiled. However, her fair skin was still mostly unlined, and her light brown hair held no traces of grey. Underneath her granny-sweater she wore a black fleece pullover and black jeans. Upon closer inspection, I noticed her spectacles were held together by bright blue plastic, which I guess was supposed to bring out her blue eyes, and that she had a pierced nose.
Elise’s three-year-old daughter, Lucy, is one of the cutest children I have ever met. With big, black eyes, darker skin, and a head of soft black curls, she didn’t look anything at all like her mother.
Their presence on the farm aroused my curiosity immediately. Elise told me she has lived there for just over three years. She must’ve arrived while she was pregnant with, or just after she gave birth to, Lucy. Her relationship to Annette was unclear; definitely not romantic, but whether she’s a relative, an old friend, or just a stray who landed at the farm and decided to stay, I couldn’t tell.
My imagination stepped up to the plate and supplied numerous fantastic and scandalous reasons that Elise moved to the farm: single mother seeking refuge; divorced mother seeking refuge; abandoned mother seeking refuge; homeless mother seeking refuge; lesbian mother seeking refuge; rape victim seeking refuge; abused wife and mother seeking refuge; baby snatcher seeking refuge; some combination of the above.
Clearly I watch too much “Law and Order: SVU”. I eventually heard Lucy mention her papa once at dinner, so there is a father figure out there, somewhere. But on the farm, it’s just Annette and Elise.
. . .
I woke up at 7:30 every morning. My bed faced the window, and I left the curtains open so the sun would be streaming in when my alarm went off. The birds were awake and noisy long before I was, but luckily I sleep like a rock.
I wore the same pair of jeans every work day for 10 days. They started out fitted, but every day they loosened a bit more, and by the end I had to roll the waistband down like sweatpants to keep them on my hips. They were muddy round the hem, and at the knees where I would kneel on the ground, and had a smear of dog shit on the butt (yup, I sat in dog shit my first day on the job; the smell went away after a day or so).
I made myself coffee and bread and jam for breakfast, and ate alone, or with Elise and Lucy.
My first morning in the fields, Annette showed me how to hoe a row of peas, first one side, and then the other. She had to show me twice, because I didn’t get it quite right at first (apparently there is a proper technique). I hoed all morning, and all the next morning, too. Finally I understood the phrase “back-breaking work”. I often kneeled to weed by hand, just to give my clenching, cramping back a rest.
Annette was a character. She fit almost every farmer cliché in the book, except she was a woman. She wore loose, faded, ripped, and patched blue jeans, and simple, well-worn t-shirts and sweaters. Her skin was a true tan, the color and texture of a worn leather jacket. Her short, brown, curly hair betrayed a few grays mixed in with the natural highlights. Like Elise, she probably wasn’t yet forty, but her teeth were those of someone older, maybe because she and Elise both smoked. She stalked around the farm, or rolled around on the tractor, with a cigarette dangling down from her lips, her hands busy, always busy.
Another day Annette showed me how to shovel compost into a wheelbarrow and then fill holes in the ground. I re-made a trench for bean plants that hadn’t sprouted and needed to be replanted. I dug holes in the ground (and filled them with more compost). I cleaned radishes. I hoed some more (by far my least favorite job). She wanted things done a particular way, always showing me how to do it while she explained in French, and then watching to make sure I understood. Sometimes she would come over to check on my work, watching over my shoulder soundlessly. If she saw something I could do better, she didn’t hesitate to correct my work or my method; if not, she would stalk away without a word.
While I worked, I thought about how healthy it felt, and how badly my body needed it. I thought about how cool it would be if I found archaeological remains; farmers are always the ones turning things up in their fields. I kept an eye out for prehistoric handaxes, but all I ever saw were vaguely teardrop-shaped rocks…no evidence of human modification at all. When my body really started to ache, I thought about becoming one with the tool, be it shovel or hoe. I meditated. I thought about what I would write on my blog.
The first few days I woke up stiff and aching, but that passed more quickly than I expected. In the afternoons my body felt tingly with energy: exhausted, but very much alive. I went on afternoon walks, which helped to stretch out my tense muscles. And I gratefully fell asleep at 9:30 or 10 every night.
*Names have been changed because I don’t mince words.