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.



Though our blog posts may indicate that we have been flouncing around on mountains and cuddling baby goats all day, we have also been quite hard at work. Here are some of the projects we have been working on:

A shelf! Zach built it and I did the hooks and paint job. Watch out, Pottery Barn!


We extracted seeds from last winter’s hardiest pumpkins for next year’s planting. It is spring here and it warmed my soul to smell pumpkins in October.


Courtyard before: Construction site


Courtyard after: Well on its way to being a great communal space!
Zach built the fence and hung the gate. I built the zen garden and chamomile lawn. The stairs were a group effort.


The weeding is never ending! We weeded three plots and planted beans and lettuces that have just started to come up.



A Day in the Life: Brodie Estate

Making some new friends

James Brodie demonstrated how to tie down the canes, or branches, of the Pinot Noir vines in the vineyard behind the house he shares with his wife Anne, here at Brodie Estate. He grabbed the cane, twisted it around the wire, snipped off the end, and secured it with a twist tie, like the kind you would find next to the plastic bags in the produce section of the grocery store. “So, you think you got it?” he looked at me and Zach.

“Uh. Yeah.” We all kind of looked at each other.

“All right then, I’ll leave you to it,” and he lumbered off to buzz around the property on his ATV. Zach and I spent the day twisting the canes, initially wincing at the cracking sound they made as we wrapped them around the wires, but growing more confident in our ability to handle the vines without knocking off the precious buds that would ultimately produce the Brodie Estate 2012 Pinot Noir.

Between the opened bottles leftover from the weekend’s Cellar Door tastings and those opened for prospective salesmen, there is always a selection of Brodie wines at the dinner table that need drinking. Their 2008 Pinot Noir was my favorite from the moment I stuck my nose in the glass. One of those wines that doesn’t require any thinking. I like it. That’s it. I don’t need to try any others. It has dark berries, mushrooms and a rich earthiness on the nose and palate.  With smooth tannins and a finish that lasts into the next topic of conversation, it is a wine that feels special.  I wish we could afford a case to keep in the back of Serena Williams.

What we drink in the van VS. What we drink in the house















And though I found the one that I like, we did go and try the neighboring vineyard’s wines. Just to make sure they weren’t making something better.

Brodie Estate is located in a Martinborough, a boutique wine town. Not boutique as in snobby, but as in small and full of people who put everything they’ve got into their wine. After the morning’s work and lunch with Ann and James, we have the afternoon to ourselves. Guess what we have been doing? I’ll give you a hint: not running. That’s right, we have been judging, er tasting the neighbor’s wine.

Pinot Noir is the red and Chardonnay is the white in this town. People grow other grapes, but these two are where it all starts. We visited 10 out of 15 vineyards in town, and of those a few stood out from the rest.

Cow crossing on the way to Cabbage Tree vineyard















Cabbage Tree

Is a 3 acre vineyard in town that produces very fine wines. 3 acres is tiny. Basically a backyard operation. Except that the product of this backyard operation tastes better than many of the large scale vineyards around. The winemaker’s eccentric wife led us through a tasting of three of their wines, which took about 45 minutes. If you have ever tasted three wines, you know that it doesn’t take 45 minutes. Between each sniff and swill, she yammered prolifically on topics from organic wine making to property prices to god knows what; we couldn’t understand half of it. And then she offered us a job to take over when they “inevitably get too decrepit to run the place.” I respectfully declined. It was the first thing I’d said in 45 minutes.

The Chardonnay was awesome and I rarely say that. It was full bodied, smelled like vanilla cake, and was kind of funky like a Viognier can be. It had more character than your typical full bodied California Chard and has me thinking about it days later. I’d give Cabbage Tree Best Chard in Town. 


Other than Brodie Estate, this place is producing the most distinct and exceptional red wines in town. Their Cabernet Merlot blend (which usually does not excite me) smelled almost like a spicy, jalepeno pepper. It warmed you up with a familiar, dark berry taste and stayed with you after drinking.



Another place that was run by a real character. An older guy in a red and black plaid flannel shirt that fell almost to his knees, led us through a tasting of nine wines. He asked us if we wanted to share a glass because “it is just so hard to pour a small amount.” Melissa, I smiled at you here. This seems like a problem you could appreciate.

“Thanks, but we’ll have our own,” we told him.  Five of the nine wines were Gewurtztraminer, which happens to be one of my personal favorites. No one else in Martinborough is growing Gewurtz. From dry to off dry to sweet and dessert wines, these were what set him apart. They all had hints of lychee in them, with varying degrees of sweetness and weight. The off dry was almost like a floral Pinot Grigio while the same vines produced a wine a few years later that tasted more like a Sauterne dessert wine. It is crazy how much the wines varied from year to year, while the only variable was the weather. We stood around and picked his brain about wine and his vines. He told us stories about how he and his wife split a bottle between two big glasses and go for walks around the vineyard to “check on vines.”

And then when it was time to go, he waived the tasting fee since we were WWOOFing at a neighboring vineyard. What a pleasant surprise. And yet, it fits so nicely with Kiwi hospitality.

When I asked Zach if I should mention any of the other vineyards in this post, he said, “those are the places I’d take people to,” which I think says it all. There is a lot of very good wine grown in Martinborough, and amongst the good wine is some really exceptional wine. It is a shame that it is such an expense for small winemakers to ship to the US. With each of the wines that I get really excited about, there is a friend or family member that I wish I could share it with.

Maybe I’ll come home with no clothes and a backpack full of wine.


A Day in the Life: Waiheke Eco-Lodge

The Eco-Lodge

As you may know, we’ve thrown off the shackles of our former life for a simpler existence trading work for room and board in New Zealand.  Sounds nice, right? But what does that mean, practically? How do we spend the hours between sunrise and sunset?  If you’re wondering how we go about our daily lives as WWOOFers, this is the post for you. I present a new series here, called “A Day in the Life.”  As we move from place to place – roughly every two weeks for up to two years – we’ll document an average day to give you a better idea of what it’s like to do this.  First, a bit about our surroundings.

Waiheke Island is a 40 minute ferry ride from Auckland, which is the most populous city in New Zealand and main entry/exit for international travelers. Locals tell me the island was settled by farmers seeking a self-sustaining, utopian ideal.  Some of the crunchy flavor still exists, but is increasingly being pushed out by the rich. Satellite images show opulent homes with helicopter pads adjacent to old farmhouses.  On summer weekends, the island fills with tourists from the city seeking refuge.  Imagine Martha’s Vineyard in a jungle, and you’ve got Waiheke.

We’re working for Sue and Dave, the owners and operators of the Crescent Valley Eco-Lodge.  The Eco-Lodge is a small, secluded bed and breakfast in a less-traveled part of the island that offers guests rest and relaxation in an earth-friendly environment. They compost extensively, use a rainwater collection system, and grow a lot of their own food. As a personal testament to their methods, in a week here we’ve produced about ten small pieces of actual trash – far less than a full bag – and nearly all empty Tim-Tam wrappers. Yes, in one week we’ve developed a crippling chocolate biscuit addiction. I’m not ashamed.

In exchange for a few hours of work per day Dave and Sue provide us with a simple cabin, breakfast, and lunch. A average day goes something like this:

We wake up between 7:30 and 8:30am; no alarm is necessary because our small outbuilding doesn’t have a toilet. I like to think of it as getting up “naturally.” The mornings are a bit chilly here, so we get bundled up in our fleece and long-underwear and walk a few feet down the hill to the lodge, where Sue has already set out our breakfast.  It varies day-to-day (awesomely), so one day may be muesli and yogurt and the next eggs and bacon.  I love the surprise. We eat a leisurely breakfast in the dining room of the lodge while reading, writing blog posts, editing photos or wasting time on the web.  It’s just like home!

A surprising benefit of the time zone difference is the flow of email.  Because the US workday ends at 9am our time, I can check (and usually delete most of) my email in the morning and I’m free from the slow trickle of messages throughout the day.  Usually when I check again at in the evening there’s nothing new. This is ideal.

At 10am we split up to do our daily tasks.  Sue and Dave also run a catering company that operates a food truck, so one of us is usually assigned cashier/sous chef duty on the truck.  The other stays at the homestead and does prep work, landscaping, or cleaning around the lodge.  Landscaping can be as easy as pulling weeds or as hard as hauling buckets of rocks a few hundred feet up the hill.  Prep work has been: cutting a bucket of onions (oh, the tears!), making dozens of burgers, or similarly monotonous tasks. We both prefer the truck. Sue and Dave seem to know everyone on the island, so it’s cool to meet all the locals that stop by for lunch. I’d argue that the landscaping work is more rewarding though; it’s nice to see immediate results.

At two o’clock the prep/landscaper person rides (coasts, really) one of the rickety bikes that are available for our use down the hill to the truck for lunch.  We serve delicious burgers (chicken, venison, or beef), sausages (boar or venison), and other very meaty things. So far, the venison burger is my favorite, but I haven’t worked my way through the entire menu just yet. I learned just yesterday that venison has less than half the fat of beef, which makes eating it every day a bit less disgusting.  A bit.

At Onetangi Beach with friends Javier and Leandro from Argentina.

After lunch we’re free to explore the island or relax for a few hours. We’ve become fond of the wine, the beaches, and the general beauty of Waiheke, so even sitting back at the lodge and enjoying the day is often enough. We’re constrained to a smallish portion of the island by the aforementioned rickety-bike-transportation-situation, but still, we’ve found plenty to do and plenty of joy in not doing a whole lot.

Dinners, as Stina mentioned in a previous post, consist of lots of fresh veggies from the market and a few ingredients from the garden.  Every few days she’ll ask me to go pick some lemons or rocket or rosemary, a task that I find immensely pleasurable.  I’ll always be amazed that a tiny seed can sprout into something delicious and nutritious with a little water, sun, and soil. It’s magical.  So I’m happy to gather what we need for dinner; knowing it came from the ground a few steps away makes the food taste better.

The sun sets around 5:30pm and we eat dinner soon after – it feels right to eat just after dark.  By nine we’re usually yawning and crawling under a heap of blankets in our humble little cabin up the hill, with a book that we’ll try to read for a few minutes before nodding off reluctantly.

It’s a simple life, but one to which we’ve adapted easily.  The crowds of the city seem galaxies away.  Now we take pleasure in providing food for ourselves and others; the most basic and fundamental of joys.

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