Have Hoe, Will Travel

Seeing the world one organic farm at a time

| May / June 2004

The dull ache of an overused back, the odor of rotten tomatoes, the cling of sweaty skin. Sound like an enticing travel brochure for your next summer vacation? If not -- well, then how about the meditative calm of harvesting green beans, the sensual intoxication of fresh basil, and the gentle evening sound of crickets?

Around the world today, the hardworking traveler can taste both the rigors and the rewards of agrarian life in exchange for a helping hand. Many organic farms now happily offer room and board for a week or even a season to those willing to help tend the fields and orchards. There are a lot of opportunities out there for adventurous volunteers, from biological field research to teaching English. But a stay on a farm remains a unique shortcut to understanding an area's ecology, economy, and culture from the ground up.

There's something profoundly educational about burying your hands in the soil of a place. I got my first hint of this several years ago on a visit to a permaculture garden in northern New South Wales, Australia. The permaculture concept, first defined by Australian Bill Mollison in the 1960s and 1970s, is based on creating crop ecosystems that are as diverse and hardy as natural ones. The site I visited was teeming with papayas, bananas, limes, ginger, cilantro, and peppers. Geese foraged through fallen fruit, leaving behind a trail of waste that fertilized the overhanging shade trees. I could clearly see that a permaculture gardener has to pay close attention to a region's climate, vegetation, and fauna. But I left knowing I'd never really understand the bond between growers and their home turf until I got my hands dirty.

My chance arrived a year later on an organic farm in northern Virginia. I spent a summer with the region's dark, fertile soil under my fingernails, planting garlic, picking squash in the thick morning mist, and reaping the bounty of a harvest that to a native Midwesterner seemed to go on and on, thanks to the late frost. We hauled truckloads of melons, squashes, tomatoes, and peppers to 13 weekly markets in and around Washington, D.C. At my farmers' market post, I sliced Cherokee Purple tomatoes for hungry urban connoisseurs of fresh produce and commiserated with other farmers about that year's drought. I was experiencing the region and its organic microeconomy from the inside, much as an actor might learn to empathize with a historical figure by playing that role. I learned that the D.C. area's progressive population is well suited to the organic movement: Its educated consumers don't have to be sold on the superior taste of heirloom tomatoes or the need for conscientious land use.

Last summer, I traded northern Virginia's rich, loamy soil for the lighter-colored, rockier earth on a small organic off-the-grid farmstead in southeastern Minnesota. To till that soil, we relied on Hercules and Atlas, our oxen. In the shorter growing season, I saw how the habaneros and bell peppers struggled, unable to mature by the first frost in early September. The challenges extended to our marketing efforts. The farm operated a 30-member community-supported agriculture program that regularly delivered fresh produce for a seasonal fee. Although CSA programs are growing in popularity, we found that people in the area were often unfamiliar with the benefits of organic produce, or at least unwilling to pay even what they paid for the supermarket produce they were familiar with. Public attitudes are as much a part of the local climate as sunlight, rain, and hail -- and just as key to the small farmer's success.

My ongoing garden-level education has taught me things about the human ties to place that I might have missed if I had stayed only at youth hostels and bed-and-breakfasts. The French word terroir is used to explain how the qualities of a vineyard's soil and climate affect the taste of its wine. Others use the term to describe how the earth and air somehow infuse other crops with their essence. As a volunteer on organic farms, I've learned to stretch the concept farther yet. Something inexplicable happens when you bury your hands in the earth -- and begin to learn how its character speaks through us, in the form of a region's economy and history. Farm travel is a way to get to know Virginia's rolling countryside, Minnesota's bluff country, or most anywhere else on this beautiful earth -- all in a day's hard work.

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