“What are these bugs called?” Liam asked as we flipped over each mushroom we picked to blow off the tiny mites that burrowed deep into the folds of the underside of the mushroom cap. “Probably blow mites,” I replied assuredly, not knowing or caring the scientific name for these aggravating little bugs. At the exposure to light, the mites wriggled out from between the folds and with our gusts of breath, floated to the ground below.
We were working on our first farm task that morning. The mushroom tent was pitched down the road from the farm and tucked away in a small clearing in the woods. About 20 logs were leaned against each other, protected from the elements by a yellow tarp, each inoculated with enough spores to produce dozens of mushrooms. Crouching under the tarp, we gently slid our fingers under the caps of each mushroom: a lip curled under meant it was still growing while a flattened out lip signaled it was ready to be picked. We sliced off each mushroom as the base, blew away the “blowmites”, and tossed them into the bag.
My college friend Liam and I set off from Brooklyn on a Thursday night, driving winding upstate roads in unnerving blackness, still wound tight from the rigors of work that week and the stress of battling our boroughs. With the need to be outside tugging at us and unused summer Fridays accumulating, we decided to WWOOF upstate for a weekend. Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOFING) is an organization that connects farmers with willing workers and offers room and food in exchange for manual farm labor. While not for those who prefer hotel beds and 5 star restaurants, WWOOFing is an inexpensive and immersive ecotourism experience — think Airbnb for farms.
After scouring the WWOOF website and contacting multiple people, the farm we chose was tucked into the foothills of the Catskills. Oneonta, New York is a small farming town with one main street running along the Susquehanna River. We drove by countless rust-colored barns, silos looming overhead, hay barrels stacked high, and various homemade signs indicating what’s being sold at each.
Our host family’s farm was still in its beginning stages. (In farm years, that’s 3 years from purchasing the plot of land. It takes on average about 5 years for an organic, family-run farm to become fully functioning.) Liz and Eric, along with the moral support of their two year old son Elliott, had purchased the land as a passion project and as a way to cut down on their food bill.
On our first day, Liz gave us the grand tour. Leo, the massive farm dog, immediately came loping toward us, herding us in each direction he saw fit. Liz led us over to the rabbits huddled together in small cages on the ground. I immediately knelt down, cooing over their soft white fur, only to be told they were destined for slaughter by Sunday of that weekend, matter-of-factly informing us that their meat was to be eaten and pelts were to be sewn together. This was our first inkling that everything on this farm had an intended purpose, sometimes hidden and unexpected.
After learning the bunnies fate, Liam, Liz, and I strolled over to three, chocolate-brown Icelandic sheep, wide-set eyes bugging out at us and skinny legs sticking out of their bodies of giant balls of wool. As the sheep munched lazily on grass, Liz explained their function — they are sheared for wool (wool can be used as both a fabric and fertilizer), used as living lawnmowers to clear the three acres of thick grass and shrubs, and when their time came, killed for food.
Next came the pigs. Massive rotund bodies balanced gingerly atop tiny hooves that made them appear as though they were prancing through the muddy pasture on kitten heels. The sound of them rooting through the completely cleared pasture (they had been in that spot about 3-4 days) made them sound asthmatic, trying to catch their breath as they searched earnestly for the last bits of food scraps, pig feed, and grass. The pigs, also multi-purpose, clear land at a shockingly fast pace. Every week, Liz and Eric move the pigs from one spot to the next, systematically sizing out a square patch of land to be surrounded by electric fencing and eaten into oblivion. Once the pigs cleared the land, they too were headed for slaughter. Eric and Liz, conscious consumers and clearly knowledgeable environmentalists only eat what they kill themselves. To avoid the hassle (and lacking the will — Eric said he becomes ill when faced with killing any animal), they hire a butcher to come out to the farm for what is called a “clean kill”, a slaughter that occurs without moving an animal from one location to another, reducing stress and suffering.
During our visit, a pig move was on the agenda. Pigs, as most people know, are observant, intuitive and altogether intelligent creatures. They react in lockstep with your body language and are tuned in to routines and habits. Lay one line of electric fencing and they won't step over that part of the ground again, even after the fencing has been removed. The task of herding 7 pigs into two tiny trailers to be carted onto the next plot of land seemed daunting at best, impossible at worst. Arms and legs out wide, Liam and I starfished ourselves, hoping somehow that making ourselves as big as possible would make them turn and run directly into the hatch. Wrong. Motivated by food yet aggressively fearful of being backed into a corner, the pigs scarfed down the feed I tried to lure them inside with before squealing and running in every direction. Two hours later after what would’ve made for priceless videos, we got them all inside the trailers and hauled them over the invisible line in the mud, to their next five day jaunt in a pig’s land of milk and honey.
For the next three days, we learned techniques for laying fencing, how to properly prep and lay vegetable plots (trick: lots of compost, lots of earthworms), and what kind of tools to use for what task. By day three, our muscles ached from moving cinderblocks, crouching over herb beds, and clearing shoulder-high weeds and shrubs with a scythe. We trudged through knee deep fields of mud to pick wild blueberries and used the wood chipper to make mulch, leading to several panic-inducing imaginary scenarios of getting a hand stuck in it. We moved from each job, gratified by the completion of physical tasks and pausing for picnic lunches under cloudless skies.
After four hours of work each morning, we took off into the Catskills, blaring Van Morrison, reading by the Susquehanna River, and eating lunch at little cafes in town. We visited Cooperstown, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, and drove the entire circumference of Glimmerglass Lake, whose shimmering, deep blue water lives up to its name. Gawking at lakefront houses and sipping coffee on the marina dock as the sun set behind the mountains, we soaked up every minute of stillness and silence.
While not many people yearn to start their own farm, even fewer end up actually doing it. Liz, my personal hero of the weekend, carted Elliott around on one hip, shovel in the other hand, while scanning her farm for the next task to be tackled. Eric, a passionate environmentalist, works a day job in engineering and assists Liz on the weekends at farm. It occurred to me at some point in the weekend that most people seek leisure time on the weekends — reading, watching tv, drinking with friends, or relaxing in general. Post weekend, Liam and I discussed how many more days we could’ve done it and settled on only one more before we needed a break. It takes a dedicated person (or couple in the case of Liz and Eric) to relinquish kicking your feet up and devote their time off to manual labor on a farm — the ultimately rewarding yet almost always exhausting task of keeping this living, breathing plot of land alive.
Traveling to farms can be seen as sort of a poor man’s vacation. We were dirty, sweaty, dehydrated from the sun with hair pulled back in tight unwashed braids. The demanding physical labor that accompanies farm work is at first foreign and daunting; but compared to my Monday through Friday self — eyes burning from staring at my computer, stress points aching in my back, and dodging the smells of Williamsburg —trudging through a pig pen, getting caught in a rainstorm on a riverbank and feeling the softness of soil beneath my feet was paradise.