By Jenna Makowski
“Ben is the real reason our eggs are considered the best,” Susan Vidal says as we plod through the knee-high grass toward the chicken coop. I eye Ben cautiously, considering what he brought to Susan’s 120 chickens that non-GMO feed and a lifetime of free range dirt for insect pecking—chickens’ real favorite food—didn’t. Ben eyes me back.
“He’s wary of strangers and protective of his flock, so don’t come in here alone,” Susan warns, handing him a jumbo-sized Milkbone and squinting under his ears for ticks.
Weighing over 100 pounds, Ben’s Great Pyrenees calling is instinctive. With ancestors bred as livestock guard dogs, Ben creates a stress-free environment in Susan’s chicken coop. Without danger of assault by vulture or coyote—fears that chickens do, apparently, internalize—the birds lay eggs that taste richer and more velvet-y (as breakfast the next morning would testify).
Two of Ben’s comrades provide this oversight to the goat and the sheep pastures.“Go ahead, stick your hand in.” Susan demonstrates, her hand disappearing under a roosting chicken’s bottom and producing a sky-blue, slightly misshapen but stress-free egg. I hesitate. I’ve never been so close to a chicken before.
In my first hour at Brightwood, I learn more about chickens than a lifetime of omelets for breakfast suggest. But I’m not here for the poultry. I’ve come to this 100-acre farm lodged in the gentle crevices of the feet of the Blue Ridge, about 30 minutes south of Culpeper, for a hands-on try at vegetable farming.
Brightwood Farm belongs to a network called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, a full-immersion farmstay education program connecting those interested in organic and sustainable foodways with host sites around the world. WWOOF, for short. Pronounced as Ben would say it. I volunteered to be a WWOOFer. For two weeks, I’d help out six to eight hours a day with farm chores in exchange for room and board with Susan and her husband Dean.
With a growing interest in sustainable food, my goals were twofold: learn a few basics of farming and translate them into my urban lifestyle in Fairfax County. I was there to learn about balcony gardens, kitchen composting and canning through the full-immersion experience on a small, diversified farm.
A History Rooted in Sustainability
When WWOOF began in England in 1971, participants weren’t as interested as I in canning tomatoes. Sue Coppard, a London-based secretary and the first WWOOFer, simply wanted to get away for the weekend. The farm Coppard stayed on was biodynamic (that’s organic+, for the uninitiated), and its practices shaped the core of the WWOOF ethos. One of WWOOF’s goals is to connect people to sustainable and organic foodways. Today, WWOOF networks exist in over 50 countries around the world with thousands of registered host farms and WWOOFers.
Thirty years later, Sarah Potenza, an environmental studies major who’d volunteered for eight months on a farm in New Zealand, founded WWOOF USA. The social and cultural landscape of the United States in 2001 was ripe for the concept. “There is an increase in sustainable agriculture, organic farming and local food, and WWOOF falls right in line with those national trends,” says Potenza. Just as WWOOF UK took off almost instantaneously, so has WWOOF USA. “In 2008, we had about 3,000 annual members,” Potenza continues. “In 2009, it doubled to over 6,000. In 2013, we [had] about 16,000 members.”
Opportunities to WWOOF exist in every state. After registering on the WWOOF USA site, $30 gives potential WWOOFers a year’s worth of access to lists of participating farms. WWOOF functions as a platform for communication between WWOOFer and host, but individuals negotiate the details. A few basic parameters reign. Hosts must provide accommodation, food and accurate descriptions of the work required; WWOOFers must work at least six hours per day; and both must be committed to sustainable land stewardship.
Beyond that, farms range from salmon fisheries in Alaska and fruit farms in Puerto Rico to ranches in Wyoming and vineyards in California. Virginia’s 32 host sites include vegetable, herb and dairy farms and vineyards. “There’s a wide range of experiences and it all depends on where you go, the time of year and type of farm,” explains Potenza. “It’s really hard to say what the typical WWOOF experience is because there is no typical WWOOF experience.”
Good Food Comes From Good Soil
Arriving at Brightwood Farm, I caught Susan and Dean in a rare act of relaxation. Crunching up the gravel driveway at dusk, they recline in wooden lounge chairs facing their mountain vista, enjoying the late spring evening. “It’s quiet tonight,” Dean says, welcoming me with a chair and a wine glass. “The apprentices went out for the weekend and haven’t come back yet.”
WWOOFing rarely happens in isolation. Many farmers have converted barns, cabins, guest rooms and other hostel-esque accommodations to host multiple workers, particularly during planting and harvest season. I am the only WWOOFer at the time, though Susan keeps a steady stream of about eight WWOOFers throughout the year to work alongside her three long-term apprentices, hired through a program similar to WWOOF—the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA).
Susan and Dean acquired USDA organic certification in 2007, but those parameters are just the first step they take in their pursuit of biological farming. As I sip a glass of wine from nearby Prince Michel Vineyard, my first lesson on the minute world of soil microbes—the foundation of Brightwood Farm—begins. “Certain fertilizers and pesticides allowed under the organic program still disrupt the microbial communities in the soil, and that’s the foundation of our food chain,” Dean explains. “[The food chain] goes all the way down to single-celled creatures in the soil that break loose the nutrients that create healthy plants and people.”
The world of microbes doesn’t stop at soil. After dinner, Susan offers a glass of home-brewed kombucha and introduces me to “The Mother”, an alien-looking glob in a jar that injects fermenting tea with live colonies of bacteria (a true farmer is always growing, indoors and out). Originating in ancient China, kombucha is touted by the health food industry as a source of probiotics. “We’re trying to re-establish some of the friendly bacteria in our bodies,” Dean says.
Researchers are just beginning to understand the complex balance of microorganisms that regulate our digestion, perhaps even our sinuses and respiratory systems, just as farmers like Susan and Dean are beginning to understand the equally complex balance of microbial communities in the food chain. I sip the brew, its fizz more biting than soda, and ponder connectivity—microbes in the soil supporting plants and plants nourishing our bodies, microbes and all.
Armed with newfound interest in soil germs, I march into the greenhouse the next day for my first real farm chore—mixing soil for microgreens. Microgreens, small seedlings of arugula, broccoli, cilantro or cabbage grown in shallow, soil-filled trays and cut after 10-14 days, are trendy garnishes. Susan grows them for a local supplier who delivers them to area Charlottesville restaurants.
Many of Susan’s acre of vegetables germinate as potted starters in a greenhouse attached to the kitchen, where she builds soil from scratch: organic dirt laced with a balance of nitrogen, phosphate and potassium, plus plant-specific micronutrients. Later, when the seedlings are transplanted, layers of compost are added and sprayed with fish fertilizer—microbe food.
Over time, the Vidals have slowly breathed life back into the ground of their farm. “When we first started, we had to spread lime on the soil because it was overly acidic from acid rain,” Dean explains. “When we tested it the next year, it was as if we had done nothing. Now, we need no lime.” Over time, feeding soil microbial communities with compost and fish oil helps the soil to hold in nutrients.
Along with other soil-conscientious practices such as mulching, minimal tilling and planting cover crops, Dean and Susan are seeing results through better food. Their tests for brix, the measurement of dissolved solids in the liquid of a crop which correlates to tastes such as sweetness, are consistently high. “Last year Susan’s rutabagas were off the charts,” Dean continues. “I’ve never seen our [customers] so excited about rutabagas.”
Growing a New Generation of Farmers
By lunchtime, I check off the first goal for my future balcony garden: microgreens. I’m proud placing the final tray under the growing light; however, for Susan’s three apprentices who have committed to a full thaw-to-frost season of work, microgreens were child’s play.
Farmstay lengths are flexible, though Brightwood, like most host farms, requires a minimum week commitment. Duration is largely tied to a WWOOFer’s goals. Some people WWOOF “for a few weeks to become more informed about organic farming or more aware consumers,” explains Potenza. “Others … use WWOOF as a springboard for longer-term [farmstays] or to start their own organic farms.”
Age presents no barrier to WWOOFing (beyond being 18 to participate without a guardian). “We have WWOOFers ranging in age from 18 to 70, families, couples, retirees and recent graduates,” says Potenza of WWOOF trends nationwide. “But our sense is that the majority are college-aged or mid-20s.”
An interest in sustainable food is the connective tissue reaching across generations. When Susan and Dean bought Brightwood 10 years ago, when most folks their age are considering retirement, their main focuses were to raise plants and animals sustainably and provide quality products to the local market. “But we started coming in contact with … young folks who were interested in learning how to farm, and we saw that we have a lot to offer,” Susan says. Programs like WWOOF and ATTRA provide networking tools to connect them with like-minds looking to learn.
Susan’s apprentices are all interested in incorporating full-time farming into their lives. “I started out doing outdoor fieldwork and conservation, and along with that came sustainability,” says Stephanie Orlando. “The next logical step … was farming. You can’t be sustainable if you can’t grow your own food.”
Orlando, on her second multi-month farm stay, was not raised on a farm. She came from Milwaukee, Wis. Neither are most WWOOFers, nor Dean or Susan who, before buying Brightwood, lived in the D.C. suburbs. “It used to be that almost everybody was a farmer. Now it’s less than 2 percent,” Dean says.
I, too, have memories of spiny tomato plants and carrots growing in my parent’s suburban backyard. But, like many, my family’s real connection to farming stopped when my grandparents ventured away from their parent’s rural roots and into the factories and secretary’s offices of urban America.
“But now the local food movement is starting to resonate,” Dean says. “People are getting interested in farming again, but they don’t have the knowledge or the assets to buy property.” Programs like WWOOF, where education is a founding principle, fill the gap between experienced, aging farmers and young would-be farmers. “A lot of family farmers are at the retiring age and [their children] don’t want to take over. By welcoming WWOOFers on their farm, farmers are also inspiring other people to take over the reins,” says Potenza.
Taking Exchange to a New Level
Though exchange of work and knowledge sit at the core of WWOOF, there is one element absent. “It’s a guiding principle that [through WWOOF] you’re exchanging education and culture, but it’s not based on money … it’s about being able to trust other people and be part of a community of people that shares those ethics,” Potenza says.
This non-monetized philosophy draws like-minded workers to farms like Brightwood. “I feel like the mindset of a small farmer is incongruent with the way our economy is nowadays,” apprentice Brian Hill, from Fredericksburg, says as we cut bok choy for the Charlottesville farmer’s market, where Susan sells weekly. “Farmers were the original conservation advocates. They took care of their land because their land took care of them … [m]odern farming is based … on an extraction mentality as opposed to symbiosis.”
While the framework within which WWOOFers learn is devoid of monetary exchange, the world in which a small family farm exists is not. Farmers markets and the local dollars spent there are lifeblood for helping to keep small farms—and their beyond-monetary values—alive. Markets are also an opportunity for WWOOFers to learn other skills connected to running a farm, including marketing, branding and catering to niche consumers.
“Farmers markets are crucial to reforming the food system,” Orlando says. “Bringing people together around … food will change everything that’s wrong with the system, where people don’t have a say or a vested interest in … the steps food goes through before it gets to the grocery store.” As I worked at the market selling bunches of carrots and pyramids of bok choy, I saw how Brightwood’s values radiated out into their consumer base, solidifying community ties. “I hope I got here early enough for eggs this week,” one woman addresses Susan by name. “Your eggs are the best I’ve ever tasted.”
On the morning of my last WWOOF day, I awake moving through the steps of a routine I barely notice I’d established: Drag my thick rubber boots into the feed garage. Measure grain out of the buckets and grab a Milkbone. Twelve hungry goats shove against my legs as I race them clumsily toward the feed trough. Checking their guardian’s ears for ticks before I leave, I finish by feeding the hens and gathering eggs. Becoming a steward of animals is not something I expected to learn, but they are an important part of the cycle, providing much of the compost that enriches the land.
Before soil, though, farmers start with a plan, and earlier in the week I’d plotted out my future balcony garden. Taking into consideration factors like sunlight and shade, I’d start by building raised beds out of 2×4 beams, lining the bottoms with weedcloth, and planting shade-loving greens—lettuce, kale, mint, beans—along with potted herbs. Combined with my introductory lessons about mixing soil, drying herbs, making jams and kitchen composting, I was overloaded with starting points for beginning my project in urban farming.
“Historically there have been farmers and hunters. The farmers are still out there. They just don’t know it yet because we are in a technological society without much room for farmers. But interest is growing, and I think some of us are just genetically programmed to farm.” Dean’s words resonate.
A few years ago, I’d gone on a quest to find my great-grandfather’s old farm in Poland. When the bus dropped me off near the “village” listed on his birth certificate—a cluster of farms an hour south of Warsaw—I didn’t have an address. It didn’t matter, in a place where fences and memory, not numbers, demarcate property boundaries.
My great-grandfather had immigrated to America in 1905. The farm, gradually broken into smaller pieces in ensuing decades, was sold off by the 1950s. After a few phone calls, I found what I’d been looking for. One 90-something village resident remembered exactly where it had been. Over a century and two world wars later, a connection between an old piece of land and my family’s name still remained in living memory.
Preparing to leave Brightwood, I pack my plants, soil nutrients, fish oil and a sack of organic starter dirt into my car. It wasn’t land, but soil, microbes and knowledge are a start.