wwoof = world-wide opportunities on organic farms

Claudia and I signed up to go wwoofing for a couple days on an organic farm outside of Berlin, eager to see first hand how these things work and get our hands dirty helping the farmers. In exchange for our work we would get room and board -which the farmers warned us would be rudimentary, but we felt up for it and were really excited to go. We packed our bikes with sleeping bags and a change of clothes -just the absolute necessities and caught the S-bahn north to Bernau. We had no idea what to expect.

We arrived on a Sunday night and were surprised by the rather cool reception we got from the farmer’s wife. She was playing with the dirtiest toddler I have ever seen in my life, and told us to go find the farmer. This was a good chance to look the farm over, which was covered with greenhouses full of blossoming produce. The farmer soon pulled up with two cute Italian guys who were wwoofing there for three months. But the farmer told us he didn’t have time to show us around because there was only an hour of daylight left. He quickly gave us the task of disassembling a bed in one of the sleeping wagons. Then this handsome French guy showed up who would be woofing there for the week. This all seemed promising.

Just as it was growing dark, a young, sweet German guy showed up who had wwoofed on the farm before. He had taken a break to go to the Rainbow Gathering in the Czech Republic, and was now hoping to work on the farm for the next few months. He showed us around and explained the toilet situation -there was a bucket on the ground for liquids and an outhouse for solids. The solids would be mixed with other material and turned into compost over the next year. Claudia told me under her breath that she wasn’t sure it was a good idea to use human waste on crops meant for human consumption. But we figured a year might be enough time to make it safe. Maybe.

It was getting late and Claudia and I had not had dinner yet. The German told us that there’s lots of food in the pantry and always fresh baked bread around. We couldn’t find any bread but we grabbed some muesli, yogurt and fruit. We spent a long time cutting out the bad parts of the fruit before we were ready to eat -bruises, insect bites, mold, etc. All the dishes in the kitchen were really greasy too, nothing seemed clean. We were still keeping optimistic and knew one of the rules of the farm was no soap. Dishes (and bodies) were cleaned using clay and ashes. We graciously ate our muesli and then went to bed. We had to be up working by 6:30 am.

the rooster crows

The next morning was beautiful, the sun just rising as we were assembling in the yard. Several other guys had rode in from Berlin that morning, and we were now a crew of 15 -Claudia and I the only females. I had told the farmer I was pregnant so he gave me the easy job of weeding and loading dozens of salad seedlings onto a flatbed trailer. Claudia left with a group of the guys to go weed a field near the train station. We would all re-join for breakfast at 10:30 am.

Working by myself in the cool hours of the early morning on the farm was perhaps the highlight of my wwoofing experience. It was wonderful to be up and outside so early, and to be filled with purpose and drive. At 8 AM, the German wwoofer came and got me to help him prepare the breakfast. This is when things started to go downhill.

The German explained that we were only allowed to use produce that was deemed un-sellable or couldn’t be used in the CSA boxes they deliver to customers in Berlin each week. What was left over was old, misshaped and often rotting vegetables and fruit. I carefully picked out what I thought was salvageable, but found the German was picking up my rejects. And we still couldn’t find any bread, despite the promise of copious loaves floating around at all times.

Back in the cooking wagon (which was also where the German slept), we hatched an idea to make pancakes as a bread substitute. I returned to the pantry and found a half-dozen eggs but was intercepted by the farmer on my way back. He told me to put them back. No eggs.

Frustrated, the German pleaded with the farmer to let us use a couple eggs. No eggs, he repeated without explaining how a farmer with chickens -creatures famous for their egg-laying power, didn’t manage to have enough eggs to nourish himself, his family, his workers. Instead, he brought us some more limp chard and rotting tomatoes -and a partially consumed loaf of bread that was as hard as a brick. It had clearly been baked several days earlier and when I tried to cut of the brittle edges, the German stopped me and told me he would eat those pieces.

a farmer’s breakfast

We cooked for two hours on a wood stove, making a crazy breakfast out of what was available to us -warmed muesli with fruit juice, curried vegetables from the parts that were still edible, three day old bread with butter, salvia tea. When the crew returned from the field, they looked exhausted. Claudia’s face fell at the prospect of eating curried vegetables for breakfast. Muscles were reactivated to dish out the mueseli which had the consistency of drying cement. It was only 10:30 in the morning, but the sun was already quite strong and everyone looked tired. We ate in silence until there was short discussion about one of the Italians not feeling well. The farmer -also Italian, exchanged some word with him in their own language. I learned later that the two Italian wwoofers had only arrived three days prior. It seemed pretty clear that this guy was still adjusting to the back-breaking farm work, and possibly suffering from indigestion. But more on that later.

After breakfast, Claudia’s crew went back out to another field, this time to pull potatoes. The German and I stayed behind washed up what seemed like one million dishes. Although a sign above the sink specifically instructed that the dishwashing to be done with hot water, the German insisted on using cold. As I looked for space in the cramped wagon to air-dry everything, balancing the greasy plates and pans on top of a couple grimy dish towels, I thought to myself “no wonder nothing here is clean!” I then went to relieve myself in the “liquids” bathroom -now a hot tin pan of smelly urine behind a dirty-blanket door. I also noticed that the outhouse was gone. It had been moved to a platform directly above the compost, so that the shit would drop directly into the bin. I promised myself not to use the outhouse while I was there. Thy hadn’t built the stairs up to it yet anyway.

all in a day’s work

Then the farmer came to fetch the German and me and we hitched up the salad seedling trailer and drove to the a former beet field. Along side the field where the beets had been was a long pig pen enclosed by two rows of electrical fencing. The farmer explained to us that our task was to move the pig pen over to the beet bed, plow the earth where the pigs had been and plant the salad seedlings there. My jaw dropped. How could we possibly do this all in one day?

Moving the pigs was fairly easy -we built a temporary pen with another electric fence, luring them over with food. The farmer told us we had twenty-minutes before the pigs got restless -twenty minutes to move the entire pen over, including a large wooden house. Well, putting up the fence alone took close to two hours. Walking on the soft, uneven beet bed in the high noon sun was not easy. I didn’t seem to have enough strength to sink the electrical fence poles into the earth. Everything seemed so heavy and my stomach was hurting. I thought that maybe I should have gone to the outhouse, but now I was in the middle of a beet field with a bevy of pigs threatening to get restless at any moment. The German, who was working in his bare feet, got too close to the live fence and got a terrible shock.

But by “lunchtime” at 4:30 pm, we had succeeded in moving the pig pen and the farmer had plowed the field. The plan was to go back to the farm, eat and then come back with all the workers to plant the seedlings. I was definitely impressed by how much we had accomplished. The work was so much harder than I had ever imagined and there wasn’t a moment’s rest.

I want to die

Driving back to the farm, I was thinking that if I found the work hard, then what about Claudia who didn’t have the pregnancy excuse and had worked all day in the fields with the men. I found her in our sleeping wagon, lying on the bed and sick as a dog. She complained of a terrible headache and stomach pains and my head was racing with the myriad possibilities of what was wrong  -sun stroke, dehydration, food poisoning, exhaustion -or all of the above. Not to mention the beaucoup bacteria running rampant all over the farm. As I sat again in silence with the rest of the crew eating lunch, Claudia quietly crossed the farmyard towards the outhouse. There were still no stairs to get up there. One of the men rushed to bring her a ladder, but it wasn’t until  she was back at our wagon that the barfing began. “I want to go home,” she whimpered.

I quickly packed our stuff and we said goodbye to everyone. It was an awkward farewell, with no question of us every coming back there again. Plus the farmer was already trying to usher everyone out to the field to start the seedling planting. Some of the guys seemed genuinely concerned and rightfully disturbed by Claudia’s condition. It could just as easily have been one of them who had gotten so sick.

Claudia had a brief respite where she was well enough to ride back to the train station. But once we were on the S-Bahn back to Berlin, she got worse and worse. She told me that she had pushed herself too hard in the field, had tried to keep up with the guys and overexerted herself. “I want to die,” she said. But Claudia is a tough cookie and how she managed to get herself home and into bed that day is proof of that. She just had caught something really bad.

As I began to recount this experience back in Berlin, I felt furious about this situation and even thought about following up a friend’s suggestion to report the farm to the health department. After all, would you buy a CSA share from them after what you’ve read here? But now I am starting to feel like it was just a really strange, long day with unfortunate consequences for Claudia. Unfortunately I didn’t take a single photograph to document any of it.

Brust oder Keule

A couple weeks later, I took out a DVD from the library of the French film “The Wing or the Thigh”, a comedy from the ’70s about a food critic battling an evil business man trying to dominate the restaurant industry with mechanized factory-produced meals. Although the film focuses on preserving high French cuisine, I thought it was way ahead of its time in addressing the type of food issues that we discuss all the time today -local vs. global, chemical vs. organic, corporate chains vs. small and independent. There’s a funny scene where the critic played by Louis de Funes is forced at shotgun to eat a bunch of industrial food produced by his nemesis. He has to go to the hospital afterwards.

When I think back to my time wwoofing, I like to think of Louis de Funes in my place, making light of all the bad parts and turning it into a comedic adventure. But the irony is that the farm is the alternative that the film promoted. Unfortunately, a closer metaphor might be Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

1 comment
  1. Howard said:

    Wow, what an epic tale of modern-day slavery!
    I don’t get why clay and ash are replacements for soap.
    Was this some sort of cruel joke or test on the wwooffers?

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