I Volunteered On A Farm & It Completely Changed How I Think About Food. Here's What I Learned
I started to cultivate an interest in food during the latter half of my time in college, due to time spent living abroad in France and an internship in the health and wellness industry. Initially, I satisfied my hunger for knowledge in the library. Michael Pollan, Dan Barber, MFK Fisher, Jonathan Kauffman…you name it, I read it. And then I read it again. And again.
But that wasn’t enough. I was finding myself persistently curious about where my food was coming from, who was growing it, and how it was grown, and I realized the library didn't have the answers I sought. I needed to get my hands dirty and feel it for myself.
I needed to work on a farm.
As serendipity would have it, a 100-acre organic farm and small-scale vineyard in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia was accepting volunteers via WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). So I packed my bag, crossed my fingers, and embarked on a seven-hour drive down South. Little did I know I was en route to one of the most physically challenging yet formative experiences of my life. Here’s what happened.
It taught me the value of really hard work.
Every day started at dawn with close to two hours spent with the animals. I hauled hay for one (very pregnant) cow, dodged the wrath of hungry ducks and chickens as they charged full steam ahead toward the bucket of food in my hands. The crowds of sheep sporting impossibly thick wool may or may not have knocked me down, and the goats definitely made a habit of chewing on my pants.
Once everyone was fed (including myself), I made my way to the greenhouses to harvest, triple wash, and bag everything from bok choy and kale to arugula, tatsoi, and mustard greens. Afternoons were dedicated to pruning rows of elderberry trees for wine before turning my attention to the dried lemon balm herbs, which needed to be gently crushed and stuffed into tea bags for the local CSA pick-up. After one more round of feeding and tending to the animals, I headed inside to help cook dinner and promptly pass out in a state of sheer exhaustion unlike anything I have felt in my life.
I didn't arrive thinking it was going to be a walk in the park, but there's a fine line between understanding something from a distance and immersing yourself in the down-and-dirty reality of an experience that, I can assure you, is not what you see on social media.
It made me rethink my relationship with the earth.
Outside of the occasional trip to the grocery store for staples like sprouted nuts, legumes, and steel-cut oats, everything we ate came from the farm. And although I always thought of myself as someone who appreciated local, seasonal ingredients, even the most dedicated of locavores would find themselves challenged when faced with eating the same food day after day. Of course if I remained on the farm for a longer duration, I would have experienced the changing of seasons and, in turn, the food. But here I was, eating more bok choy than I ever thought possible. And don’t even get me started on carrots.
But in hindsight, there was something spectacular about the shift in perspective, in looking to the land to discover what it wanted rather than demanding out of a misguided perception of superiority. So often, I realized, was I thinking of myself as the star of the show, with nature in the supporting role, and I can thank the farm for jolting me out of this narrow-minded trap of tunnel vision.
It taught me how to be truly patient.
Seeds, for the most part, are small. No surprise there. But some seeds, namely celery, walk the line between tiny and downright microscopic. So you can imagine how long it took to strategically place seed after seed in moist soil, gently press it down (without it sticking to your finger), and ever-so-slightly cover it with more soil.
Then there was the whole morning I spent on my hands and knees tearing the stubborn weeds out of the earth or walking up and down (and up and down, and up and down) the greenhouses with a spike to aerate the soil. Although initially, the mundane nature of these tasks tested my patience, I eventually found comfort in the day-in, day-out routine of seeding, watering, and harvesting. Food took time to grow, and I learned how to become OK with that.
It made me appreciate how food gets to my plate.
One of the biggest lessons I walked away with is that the narrative of a single stalk of celery or leaf of peppery arugula commences far earlier than you think. It's the hard work, respect, and patience of so many farmers that we have to thank, so maybe I shouldn’t scoff at the price of a pint of strawberries. Maybe it should be that expensive. And when I'm sitting down for dinner, maybe I shouldn't have my phone next to me while I mindlessly shove food into my mouth. Maybe I should be more intentional and acknowledge the food in front of me—if not for myself, then for the countless farmers whose names I may never know.
Want to take it a step further and actually BECOME a farmer? Here's what to expect.
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