Have Hoe, Will Travel

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.

Your Own Organic Vacation

If you’re interested in dedicating your next vacation to the
organic farming movement, check out these resources for help in
arranging farm stays worldwide. No experience (and little money) is

World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms
Founded in England in 1971, WWOOF is a loose-knit organization of
farmers and travelers who share a desire for cultural exchange. For
a small membership fee, travelers gain access to WWOOF’s
comprehensive lists of farms. Whether your hosts raise vegetables,
rice, fruit, or goats, they will feed and house you in exchange for
help: www.wwoof.org

Heifer International
Begun in Little Rock, Arkansas, as an experiment in solving world
hunger, Heifer International now spans five continents and includes
educational farms in California, Massachusetts, and Arkansas. The
farms, called learning centers, host projects in alternative energy
production, composting, livestock care, and organic farming.
Volunteers are encouraged to drop in for a day or a week to
experience sustainable living firsthand:

Other Volunteer Travel Opportunities
Intrigued by the concept but not sure that farming is quite your
thing? For more information on how to volunteer and travel with a
purpose, check out these sources:

Alternatives to the Peace Corps, edited by
Jennifer Sage Wilsea (FoodFirst Books, $10.95). A directory of
global volunteer opportunities from 398 60th St., Oakland, CA,

Transitions Abroad, a bimonthly magazine
dedicated to work and travel abroad. Subscriptions: $28/year (6
issues) from Box 745, Bennington, VT 05201.

Earthwatch Intitute, a Boston-based
organization that plans to send 4,000 volunteers to work with
scientists on field research projects around the world this year:

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.