A #Thriveinlife Interview
An arch of grapevines leads you to a trellis engulfed by Wisteria so thick and twisted, you wonder what stories it could tell. The red winged black birds flit from bird feeder to tree and back again, trilling their high pitched signature song. The rolling field gives way to rows upon rows of organic produce soaking up the hot, golden sunshine that they need to flourish. Beyond, unseen through the trees, a series of smaller accommodations for the woofers and other staff are tucked into the forest. Duck Creek Farm is a magical place.
We sit down with Eland, Michaël, and Dave. Eland is the Farm Manager, and son of the owner, Sue Earle. Dave is somewhat of an Agriculture Apprentice who is signed up to stay on the farm for a full season. Michaël is there for a short time, woofing.
We ask one question to get the conversation going: What is a Woofer? Turns out, the answer to that isn't easily fit into a dictionary sized summary.
First off, the word itself seems odd. It actually comes from the acronym WWOOF, which stands for “World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.” This is an organization that helps facilitate the placement of workers on organic farms on an international level. Their concept has become a movement that people have taken into their own hands.
The easiest way to think about it is it is an exchange. Commonly, the connotation is that woofers work on the farm in some sort of agricultural capacity. But it really can be much broader than that. Michaël, who is a traveler from a small town near Montrèal, elaborates.
“You share your service, any type of service on the farm, mechanical, electrical,...to get the basics that you need to live.” The essentials are usually food and accommodation, and sometimes a small wage. The service really can be anything. There is obviously a lot of work to be done in the summer with the crops, like harvesting, watering, maintaining. Here on Salt Spring, there is a Farmer's Market on Tuesday evenings and a bigger market on Saturday mornings that Duck Creek Farm attends and needs all the hands they can get to harvest, clean, and prepare their wares for those days. Sometimes people will drop by to help clean and braid garlic, just for the day. There is no particular structure the arrangement must adhere to, it is different on every farm.
One of the big draws for Michaël as a traveler is that it is an easy way to get short-time work while you are on the move. Unlike Dave, who will stay for the whole season to learn all the steps that go into managing an organic farm, Michaël will only stay a short while. Woofers can stay anywhere from a few days to 3-4 weeks. At Duck Creek, they generally ask what people's plans are to get an idea of how long they will be around and then ask for a 3-5 day trial. If they have the right fit, they might even extend their stay to a couple months.
Finding the right fit is key, especially for the longer term arrangements. The first thing these gentleman recommend is talking with people in the community. Go to the markets, meet the farmers, and ask around about the local farms. As the manager, Eland loves this approach as he can really get a feel for someone much better in person. Michaël did just this, and choose Duck Creek Farm because of it's stellar reputation for quality food and quality people.
Dave is in it for the long haul. His passion for learning to work the Earth is clear. “Times are changing, and people are loosing touch, loosing a grip on what the foundation of this country is. For me it is important to get back to the basics of life and experience that. It's not all about the flashy things you can have. Thriving is making a difference.” Dave's time on the farm will be geared towards education. He wants to learn the entire process of farm to table as a stepping stone to maybe running his own small farm someday. “If you know you are going to start a farm, being on another farm of a similar scale is the best way to get an education.”
It is also clear that the whole group puts a high value on learning by quite literally getting their hands dirty. Getting an education in a classroom is not wholly discredited, but the true test, they say, is applying your knowledge and challenging yourself physically. “Education isn't going to teach you physical labour...Knowledge is one thing, but putting it to use is the real challenge,” says Dave. “Can you take the heat of the sun?” he questions, almost as a challenge to anyone who dares try. They talk of long days, where you work the morning, and break in the hottest hours of the day to avoid overheating, and go back to work in the cool of the evenings. “Don't come to slack off and vacation...Be ready to work hard, because it is hard.” Michaël advises. There is a certain amount of pressure that goes along with the lifestyle as well, to get a good harvest, to get things planted on time, to prioritize a work week. But as a team, they handle it all together with what seems like a very mutually beneficial arrangement.
“If you woof, you're going to see the nicest properties and eat the highest quality food,” says Michaël. And if you are in the right place, it sounds like you are going to have an amazing learning experience, even if you are only there for a short time. “You do get to be a part of all parts of the farm as a woofer. The harvesting, the planting, the maintaining, you really get to see how a business/farm functions.” Michaël clearly values what the farm stands for and what he is learning.
“There's not that many good opportunities to volunteer in a fair exchange in general. This is a great opportunity, there is no way I could take care of this land by myself. In so many jobs, you don't feel like you are making a difference. This is a way to see that you are making a difference and feeding people you know.” You can hear how connected Eland is to the farm, and how grateful he is for the help he receives. “The other cool thing about woofing is that we are all disconnected from our food and where it comes from. Woofing is a rare opportunity to talk with those people that are actually doing the work”
Both Michaël and Dave have spent time working in kitchens, and obviously Eland has a great respect for the food he grows. They are all excited to see the fruits of their labour on a plate and on the plates of people they know. Dave offers a wonderful perspective on the experience.
“My goal is to gain the full circle of food. Lots of chefs have never worked in a field, it's just food cost for them, they don't respect it, they waste it. I am learning a new respect for food...I love giving without receiving, I think food is the best way to do that. Food really brings people together.”
Eland is so proud to produce the highest quality of food possible. The amount of care and effort that goes into an organic farm is immeasurable, especially when you factor in all the pesticides that they are saving from entering our bodies and our land. Spending a few hours with these gentleman, in such an incredible environment, is enough to spark inspiration in anyone to live a more sustainable lifestyle. Everything they do just makes sense.
The theme of respect throughout their conversation is overwhelming. Respect for the land, respect for the food, for each other, for the opportunities they are giving and receiving.
When we delve into what advice would they give to someone looking to employ woofers or be one, this comes right to the forefront. They agree that its all about mutual respect and teamwork.
“For me, woofing is about respect. It's more personal [than just working for someone]. We share together, we work together, we live together, we eat together. I feel like a guest here. Be super respectful and thankful. And be honest about yourself.” Michaël has voiced what is clearly the root of an agreement like this.
Eland agrees. “If you are a farmer housing woofers, or doing the woofing, the main currency we have is respect and gratitude.”
“Don't come in with any expectations, because you never know what you're going to get thrown into. Don't come in with an ego. Listen and observe, that's the way you're going to learn...Be present.” Dave exudes so much humility in these words. “Listen to how they respect their land, the full commitment that it actually takes. Success isn't one good growing season, it could be years. Don't get ahead of yourself. The benefit is that you tap into mother nature...Getting your hands dirty, you feel human again.”
They also talk a lot about the community, of farmers in particular but also at large, and how good it feels be a part of it. “If you get a good reputation with a farmer in a small community, you have a really good in with the network of the locals. People that were here in the past that connect with the community have a network, a peer group, friends.” It is clear that anyone who comes to Duck Creek Farm is grateful for this. Dave and Michaël would both urge everyone to bring something to the community they are visiting and to experience it, both on the farm and outside of it as well.
The connection the group has to the land and to their team, is inspiring. It is a way to connect to the Earth, and to yourself it would seem. Dave recounts a time when his work for the day was moving a large pile of manure, and reveals a metaphor that he is fond of.
“How do you deal with a pile of [crap] in life? One wheelbarrow at a time. As the pile got smaller, I was more motivated to get it done. Some people would look at it and say “I'm not going to deal with that.” You can't have that attitude. You can't be complacent. That's not how you deal with life. We've got all our problems and it seems like a lot in the big picture, but when you break it down, you can take it in baby steps.”
It would seem that being on the farm is an education well beyond that of working the land. What you put into the Earth is what you get out of it, and the same could be said of working on one's self. What you get out of it, that is up to you.