Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Gael Who Cried WWOOF

Actually, this post has nothing to do with crying. We are dancing joyful jigs, here on the farm, even if we do have only three knees between the two of us.

Back in November, the Piper hurt her knee while shifting a bag of "pig bread" on uneven ground. Ever since then, it's been a challenge for her to manage the daily farm chores. Physical therapy provided a brief respite, but pain and swelling have continued and even the knee specialist confessed some measure of bafflement.

In between my part-time job and a several-month stint as a hospital chaplain, I wasn't much help to the Piper at Wounded Knee. The young couple who stayed with us during the winter helped somewhat, but their hearts were full of their own farm dreams and they moved on as soon as they found a place of their own. (That move occurred right at Beltane-- May 1st, the traditional start of the outdoor work season.)

So, what can a couple of farmers do when they have one bull, two cows, six pigs, eighteen chickens, twenty-four garden beds and three functional knees? It was time for these two Gaels to cry, WWOOF!!!

The WWOOF program counts as part of our Celtic/British agricultural emphasis, as it began in the U.K. about forty years ago. (WWOOF stands, variously, for "Willing Workers On Organic Farms" or "World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.") Essentially a networking system, it allows member farms to seek assistance while allowing "WWOOFers" to seek hands-on education in sustainable agriculture. Farmers and volunteers arrange the details of each informal internship--everything from a single weekend stay to full-season or full-year engagements. While details vary widely, the program's generally accepted standard is that each half-day of volunteer labour is compensated by a full day's room and board at the host farm.

We signed up with the program in April, as soon as we confirmed our Winter couple's departure date. Inquiries started to reach us a few weeks later. WWOOFers tend to embrace opportunities for travel; our first month's inquiries included folks from Quebec, Tennessee, New York, Taiwan and Seattle. We sent e-mails back and forth, trying to ensure the best match between what we could offer and what others might want to learn. We realized we would be educating ourselves, too--expanding the range of skills needed for task-sharing and delegation. We began to brainstorm. We made lists. We talked with other farmers about the specific challenges of hosting volunteers. We invested in extra blankets and pillows. We developed our own list of questions for potential volunteers and began sending them out as e-mail inquiries appeared...and then we chose our first WWOOFer and the real fun began!

So far, the program has been everything we hoped, and more. Our WWOOFers have pitched in with enthusiasm, demonstrated a wonderful eagerness to work and learn, shown good humour, flexibility, and stick-to-itiveness. We've been fascinated by their wide range of life experiences, their travel stories, and the range of things they've seen and learned on other farms as they WWOOF their way around the world. They're not perfect--they do come to learn, after all, and occasionally a tool gets left in the rain or a veggie plant gets pulled instead of a weed--but overall the experience has been genuinely lovely. Each one comes with their own delightful surprises, too--One WWOOFer turned out to be an absolute wizard in the kitchen and helped us work on a new website for the farm. Another has a great way with a camera and has captured our creatures in some wonderful images and videos. A third came along to the farmers' market with a typewriter and raised money by creating custom poems for market-goers on the spot--an effort I'm doing my best to carry on. Shared evenings around the table are another side benefit--we've found the kind of camaraderie, diverse perspectives and wide-ranging discussions on which we thrive.

WWOOFing may not work for every farmer. We have to relax our expectations and give up some of our perfectionism. We have to remind ourselves sometimes that these folks are still learning; many of them love the idea of farming but are unfamiliar with foundational concepts and basic skills. Others come with tremendous skill AND enthusiasm and we have to reign them in a bit, as we lack the resources to tackle the range of projects they ask to undertake. It's a balancing act, to be sure, but isn't that true of farming and life in general? Might as well meet new folks, share what we know, and make new friends along the way!

So here we are, in all our three-kneed glory, dancing. With each new WWOOFer, we learn a new way to move to the music, a new way to dig the beat (beets?) and enjoy the grooves (furrows!) of this land. The WWOOFers complete our broken circle and help us keep in time as the season calls the tune.