A Day In the Life: WWOOFing at a Spanish Dairy

7am: Wake up, raining again!
8am: Still dark, feed cows, shovel poop, hose down milking parlor, make lots of curious cow friends
Noon: Walk the giant mastiff guardian dog recuperating from an injury
2pm: Food food food
3pm: Nap nap nap
4pm: Take pictures of calves for promotion
6pm: (always Bring a) Snack
9pm: Food, Wine
11pm: zzzzz

It’s a simple life, but it’s a good one. We worked on a lot of small farms in New Zealand, but our focus here in Spain has been the big guys. We want to start our own farm when we get home, so we need to see how commercial operations do their business to learn how to become profitable. It’s been really interesting to see how much work goes into making this place run. There are about 20 full time staff, including sales, marketing, production, animal care, and maintenance people.

The purpose and management of WWOOFers here is also much different than anywhere else we’ve worked. At small family farms we all ate together, sharing wholesome stories and getting to know each other. Here we’re provided cash and a kitchen and set off to our own devices. There’s less cultural exchange, but Christina is a great cook and its nice to make our own food choices again. Both flavors have their merits.

While smaller farms want help in the garden and someone to talk to, or care about educating young farmers and want some exposure for their kids, here they NEED very temporary workers to do simple tasks for little pay. No one is watching over our shoulders, but we definitely don’t get the fun jobs. But hey, that’s what we signed up for and we bear much of the blame because we speak poor Spanish. Though I do wonder what it would be like if we were more proficient in the language.

Regardless, there’s a lot to learn here by observation alone. This farm sells yogurt all over Spain, so their production, distribution, and marketing is very complex. For example, today we spent several hours trying to convince month old calves to look at us as we propped name tags on them and snapped photos for customers.

We work hard because we enjoy learning and because work exchange makes long term travel affordable. But when we’re ankle deep in poo stew, we couldn’t help but laugh at all the times people say “You’re so lucky you get to travel!”


The Dark Side of WWOOFing


It’s not all tomatoes and bacon, people. We’ve been in New Zealand since August, and every one of our WWOOFing experiences has been awesomely positive. Until now.

It began fine. The first few days of any relationship, let alone one that insists on working and eating three meals together, can be rough. We’re accustomed to a short “breaking in period” where conversations are a little awkward and we’re walking on eggshells. This time there were a few condescending comments sprinkled in here and there from the male head of the household, who shall remain nameless. We shrugged it off. We thought we were being overly sensitive.

But our host had continued difficulty controlling his frustration, and that manifested itself as anger towards us and his family. We talked with him about changing his tone around us and he was receptive, for a short time. We gave it another week, but little changed.

Yesterday was the last straw. He and I were moving cows to get ready for slaughter and he berated me for not moving quick enough to block the path of an angry heifer that didn’t want any part of this activity. Oh, and it was 6:30 in the morning. I’m a pretty agile guy any time of day, but diving in front of a hostile 800-pound animal is something I’m instinctually wired to avoid. No, thank you very much. He flew off the handle.

I told him that there is a nice way to give instructions, and a not-so-nice way, and I preferred that he used the former. He became more disgruntled, words were exchanged on both sides, and he stormed off, leaving me alone to move the agitated cow into the adjacent pen, where she most definitely didn’t want to go. I tried in vain to get the cow to cooperate, nearly getting stampeded multiple times, before he returned and told me to stop because he didn’t want the beast’s adrenaline to effect the quality of the meat.

This interaction proved that this situation was not tenable. First, this was the latest in a string of moments in which we were treated with disdain and condescension; not the pastoral ideal of a working environment. But most importantly, leaving a greenhorn such as myself alone with a massive, angry animal is grossly irresponsible. I could have been seriously injured, had I not been quick enough to dive from the path of the cow. So rather than endure a moment more we decided to it was time to pack up and leave before breakfast.

Now we’re sitting on a riverbank, surrounded by wildflowers, listening to the gurgling water and wind rustling the trees, about
to eat a fine feast of beans and veggies. A huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders. Why didn’t we do this a week ago?

If it were another situation, I might have stuck it out. Sometimes one needs to grin and bear it for professional reasons. But this was no paying gig. It was a short-term work-trade arrangement on a farm. I felt no loyalty here, no reason to fulfill my intention of staying the full three weeks. We have the means to move on, so we rid ourselves of this source of stress. Suddenly, I feel powerful again.

I’m not free of regret, though. In the heat of the moment, I was so blinded by emotion that I couldn’t properly articulate the damage he’s doing to those around him. I felt as if my blood might actually boil. And I had grown fond of his wife and child. They were pillars of kindness and compassionate throughout this ordeal, and remained graceful and sympathetic when we told them that we were moving on. I hope they understand that it’s not them we were fleeing, but their arrogant, delusional husband and father. We’ve learned a lot from this experience, but my suspicion is that he, unfortunately, hasn’t. Good riddance.


Uma Rapiti: Adventures in Permaculture


Uma Rapiti may be the only place in the world where you can watch your neighbors landing their helicopter while squatting over a composting toilet. That’s also what makes it perfect.  Bankrolled by two American expats, it’s a permaculture “lifestyle block” on the once-crunchy-but-rapidly-gentrifying Auckland suburb of Waiheke Island. Operated by youthful farm managers and staffed by young travelers seeking adventure and knowledge, it’s a rotating door of energy and enthusiasm, but not always expertise.

It’s edges are rough.  Staying there as a WWOOFer (named for the program that connects young travelers and farms: Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) means working 4-5 hours a day, seven days a week, and living almost completely outdoors, but its benefits are great: free accommodation in a beautiful setting, ample healthy food, and most importantly – knowledge.

Make no mistake, living outdoors is vastly different from the average day spent on car camping jaunt. There’s something psychologically jarring about being exposed to the elements: rain, wind, mud, and cold, year-round with no hope of a warm fire and a good book with a cuppa tea. All the routines of daily life are more difficult.  Oh, it’s raining? Your shower will be colder than you’d like. Is that a bit of wind? Good luck keeping the propane flame lit to heat up dinner. But the rough life can be rewarding.  Bad days are tolerated, while good days are cherished.

The farm was established in 2007 adjacent to a newly constructed home in the ritzy development of Park Point. Nestled between million-dollar houses designed by award-winning architects and panoramic vistas of looming Auckland, it’s a bit of an oddity. While the neighbors are planting olive groves and pinot noir, Uma Rapiti is fretting over kale and brussels sprouts. Why are these grungy kids rubbing elbows with Auckland’s elite old guard? Why are they huddled around a pile of soil, examining it as if it were nuclear launch codes?

According to the US Department of Agriculture, over the last century, nearly 70% of the farms in the United States have closed.  Without the small farmer, our food choices will skew increasingly toward the easy-to-grow and easy-to-ship, rather than the healthy and delicious.  Imagine a world where our most basic of needs are monopolized. It’s a scary thought, and we’re headed straight for it at dangerous speed. Uma Rapiti is one of those slowing us down by training young people to grow their own food.

The potential power of this type of arrangement is immense.  Each year, several dozen young people interested in farming arrive at Uma Rapiti starry-eyed but ignorant, and leave armed with the knowledge and motivation to start their own version of the farm in their own corner of paradise. With small family farms disappearing, programs like WWOOF and facilities like Uma Rapiti are essential to the health of our society.

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