This past week, I started my first WWOOF experience (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) on Dulcamara Cooperative in Bologna. The concept behind WWOOF is that volunteers work on organic farms in exchange for lodging, food, and the opportunity to learn about organic farming. There are WWOOF farms all over the world — from the US, to Kenya, to New Zealand, to Italy. Italy has its own national WWOOF organization, WWOOF Italia. You pay a small fee to become a WWOOF Italia member, and in exchange, you get access to the list of WWOOF farms in Italy, regular updates about farms looking for volunteers, and some accident insurance that covers you while WWOOFing.
I signed up for a WWOOF Italia membership before we left for Bologna, having had a secret desire to live amongst fresh vegetables since reading Michael Pollan‘s books, Marion Nestle‘s books, witnessing the glory that is the Ballard Farmer’s Market, and having eaten at places like Local 360 and Cafe Flora in Seattle. I contacted Dulcamara upon first arriving in Bologna, noting that they were the closet farm on the WWOOF list to Bologna Centro, but I didn’t hear back. Then a couple of weeks ago, an SOS message from Dulcamara showed up in my inbox. “We need help in the garden,” it said. I responded immediately.
I reported for my first day of WWOOF duty last Tuesday alongside four other WWOOFers who had responded to the SOS (two Italian guys and a couple from Belgium WWOOFing their way through Italy over a period of five months). I didn’t know what to expect when I showed up. I had only had a brief exchange in broken Italian with one of the workers over a couple e-mails and a phone call. I departed Bologna by bus around 7AM, leaving myself an hour before they asked me to arrive to walk the 3 miles from the bus stop in Ozzana to the farm. Just as the walk was starting to get steep, and I began cursing the clothes and camping gear I was carrying (and the fact that I was too chicken to ask for a ride), a white truck with a tanned, jolly driver with messy hair and and a sun-faded T sped toward me and stopped. “WWOOFer?!?” he said. “Sì!” I responded. He said a few other words in Italian, pulled a U-ie, and I happily accepted the ride. Word had spread that a new WWOOFer was arriving that morning and Michele (my new field manager) was nice enough to drive down the road in search of me.
Overall, WWOOF week #1 was great and did not disappoint. I was entering with some fantastical vegetable expectations, after all. I feel fortunate because I’ve read in the inter-webs that WWOOF farms can be hit or miss, and so far, Dulcamara feels like a home run. Dulcamara is full of life. It’s a cooperative run by about eight partners. Everyday I’m meeting someone new who works there. Beyond the farm itself, they have an onsite store, a vegetarian restaurant, rooms and campsites for rent, and various educational seminars. They also host field trips for school kids, so on most weekdays in the warmer months, the farm is filled with a wonderful chorus of screaming Italian bambini and barking dogs (usually a result of the bambini being introduced to the goats).
As for the work, we work for about five hours a day, doing a mixture of jobs of varying intensities. In the first week, I sowed seeds for starter plants for pumpkins and melons; planted peppers, eggplant, zucchini, basil, and lettuce in the fields; watered the fields; harvested strawberries, lettuce, chard, and garlic; mopped floors; washed vegetables; picked elder tree flowers to make syrup; and tagged along to sell the farm’s goods at a weekly organic farmer’s market in Bologna. WWOOFers living onsite are expected to work 5 hours a day for 5 days a week. Local WWOOFers, who come from home, can volunteer for a day here and there and don’t have a commitment hour-wise.
After the morning’s work, we break for lunch and eat together in a big group of at least ten. On days when there aren’t guests in the space, we eat lunch under a whimsical portico of wisteria flowers. Sometimes we eat dinner there too. (I’d like one of these in my future home, please!)
After lunch, we may work for another hour or two. Or we may not. This is usually left up to us to decide. After work is through, we are let loose to do as we please. For me, this means exploring the farm, jogging through the regional park in which Dulcamara’s located, doing yoga in the sun, reading, and of course, testing out my Italian on the others.
We usually reconvene around the kitchen and around 8PM someone will start to cook dinner. All the WWOOFers and the workers share the kitchen chores. We all help to cook, set the table, clear the table, and rotate who does the dishes.
I slept at the farm for the first week, which worked out well since I’m without car, bike, or Luke, and the kitchen in our new apartment is not fully functioning yet. I ended up sleeping in a room, which one of the Italian WWOOFers kindly gave me, moving into a tent himself . I’ll likely sleep at the farm one more week and then start commuting from Bologna once Luke is back in town.
I’m not sure how long I’ll WWOOF. I’d like to go consistently for awhile to learn the ropes and then volunteer occasionally as time allows. I’d like to see the cycle of a full season, and taste the vegetables that we just planted when they are harvested in the Fall. For now, I’m enjoying the work, enjoying being outdoors, appreciating the opportunity to practice my Italian outside the classroom, and enjoying seeing vegetables I picked on the farm in the morning being bought in the city in the afternoon.
In a a nutshell: Aud’s volunteering on a farm.
What I saw: Stunning views of the Bologna countryside, fresh strawberries, chard, garlic, lettuce, horses, donkeys, chickens, seeds, soil, compost, starter plants, and more…
What I learned: Some farming 101 (ex: how to water a field without killing your back).
Some vulgarish Italian slang (from the boys).
Some farming Italian vocab — diserbare OR strappare l’erba (to weed), bagnare OR innaffiare (to water), piantare (to plant), seminare (to sow seeds).