WWOOF: Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms
Since becoming vegetarian several years ago, I have remained interested in sustainable agriculture and organic farming. My best friend Jamie, who has been WWOOFing prior to this and is working towards a career in sustainable agriculture, suggested that we volunteer at Coldwater Gardens, an eco-resort, agritourism destination, and sustainable working farm, about 40 minutes from Pensacola, FL. Hoping to learn about organic farming practices and how to conquer my fear of practically every insect in existence, I registered on the WWOOF website and we were off. Little did I know the rollercoaster of emotions barreling my way...
The first day we arrived we were taken to our "glamping" tents -- beautiful canvas tents outfitted with a mini-fridge, fans, coffee maker, and a queen size bed -- where volunteers are allowed to stay for free. After a couple hours of unpacking and getting settled in, despite being excited to be staying in such a unique space, the strange quietness of the setting unnerved me. We began walking around the property and there wasn't another human in sight -- not even signs of human life. We decided to try and make dinner and shocker! we couldn't light the propane stove in the 'volunteer village", the community kitchen in a little clearing on the grounds. Things were off to a shaky start. We are going to starve out here!, we kept saying, in the true fashion of two Americans who have never been even remotely close to starving. After a bit of self-loathing, we drove to Winn Dixie about 20 minutes away and bought some staples.
When we got back, the setting was borderline post-apocalyptic. I could not wrap my mind around the fact that this is what happens when people camp: you're truly alone in the wilderness. As it slowly became darker and darker that first night, my nerves mounted. I laid there imagining every horrible thing that could happen while we slept in these tents. Every crunch of the gravel outside our tent, every barking dog in the distance and every rustle of leaves in the wind become a gun-toting, murderous psychopath approaching our tent in my mind. Not sure if I've seen too many BBC crime dramas or if it was just my unfamiliarity with being alone in nature that sparked this darty-eyed, heavy-breath creeping panic.
After Jamie went through everything we would do should a scary situation arise (and after I opened a bottle of wine), I started to feel better. Also, there was no way I was going to commit to a week on the farm and flake out after 8 hours. I utilized some self-talk techniques I learned when scuba diving and finally fell asleep.
Day one of farm life was exciting. We woke up naturally at 5:30 am (with the sun) and made coffee and breakfast in our tent.
Then came the real work. Volunteers must work 6 hours a day, and you're allowed to split it up however you'd like. We began at 7 am and started harvesting tomatoes from the amazing aquaponic garden system in the main greenhouse. Two ponds of koi fish provide nutrients (koi waste) to the soil for the plants growing in the greenhouse and two algae ponds growing duckweed provide nutrients for koi -- a sort of circular relationship between the koi fish, plants, and water in the greenhouse. All morning we trimmed basil (which made me seriously want a pizza), harvested cucumbers, squash, and beans, and picked Shiitake mushrooms from the mushroom farm on the property.
When it comes to bugs, that very first day I completely broke. The manual labor was so intense and the bugs were so abundant that I didn't have one ounce of energy to be scared or disgusted by them. Within the first four hours of working, I had seen spiders, stinkbugs, earthworms, flies, aphids, army worms, pickle worm (see below) and more. My fear of bugs almost instantly turned into a mind over matter problem -- they were there and they will be forever, and I just had to accept it.
I quickly learned how to decipher a good bug from a bad bug. The worst bug: pickle worm. Pickle worm is a fat little jerk of a worm that will burrow inside veggies like squash and cucumbers. As they burrow and eat, they leave a tiny hole with some disgusting white goo around the opening of the hole -- easy to spot and it renders the vegetable unsellable (but sometimes still edible if you're not squeamish). The number of times I picked a beautiful cucumber, saw the white goo and had to throw it in the "pickle worm" bucket was countless. DAMN YOU PICKLEWORM
One of the best parts about being on this farm was the chickens. All the chickens on the farm were female, as they only want layer hens for eggs (no chickens are slaughtered on this farm). There are two chicken coops, one for grown up ladies and one for baby girls. Each morning we would feed the chickens and check for eggs in all the usual spots -- the roosting house usually had two or three chickens laying a perfect little egg every morning and evening. Each volunteer is allowed to take six eggs a week, and I've never had better. The big business egg industry is cruel, and female hens are often confined to battery cages where they can't even turned around or flap their wings. This was one of my favorite aspects of working on the farm -- seeing firsthand how much animals like chickens benefit from humane living conditions and space to actually act like chickens.
Each day working on the farm got a little easier. We figured out that is was better to start work at 6 am rather than 7 am to be able to work during cooler hours. We built compost piles, prepared beds for planting, sprinkled seeds, and staked up peppers so they would grow vertically. We dehydrated Shiitake mushrooms and weeded gardens. I faced my fears and looked in the worm beds (sleep tight, Red Wrigglers!).
Sarah, the garden manager, explained the ingenious system of feeding the chickens Black Solider fly larvae (aka maggots). Sarah put two compost bins in the chicken coop, filled them with food scraps and soil, and poked holes around the top. The Black Soldier flies (a species of fly in this area) would lay their eggs around the tops of the bins. The eggs would fall into the compost and hatch and the larvae would eat and eat until they crawled towards light and fell into a holding chamber attached to the bins. Sarah would then come and dump these holding chambers onto the chicken coop floor. It was like watching starving college students react to a free pizza situation. Larvae are apparently delicious to chickens and feeding them to them this way composts food, controls the Black Soldier fly population, and gives the chickens a little treat -- just one of the awesome sustainable farming practices at Coldwater Gardens.
After work would end at around 1 pm, we would head down to Coldwater Creek, about a mile from our tent to refresh in the river. In the evening, we read (and read and read and read). There was little to no Wifi and scrolling Instagram for hours wasn't an option. We made dinner, drank wine, and watched the sun set every night. Sleeping was easier after the first night when I realized I was actually in no danger at all and that maybe sleeping out in the middle of nowhere is actually peaceful and not terrifying. At night you couldn't see past your hand in the darkness but being able to look up and see every star made up for that.
There were times that I was so hot and tired I thought there is absolutely no way I will survive the next hour. But I did and each cool summer morning had the same appeal that made me excited to do it all over again the next day. There is something incredibly satisfying about physically working so hard that you can barely move when you're done.
It's important to know where your food comes from, especially when it's coming from living beings. Farming, especially organic farming, is a science and there is so much that goes into it that I didn't expect. Working on a farm totally opened my eyes to what it takes to maintain an organic farm, and I walked away with a deeper appreciation for farmers who are committed to sustainable practices.