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Home  > Article

Career for a Year: Life on the Farm

By Chuck Kapelke and Pogen Macneilage

Each year, thousands of young, educated people find temporary work on small farms around the world, along the way harvesting like-minded friends, terrific life skills, and an offbeat travel experience.

 
No matter what you call it, working on farms, whether traveling from crop to crop or staying in one location for a season, yields a bounty of everlasting fruits.
 

First, a disclaimer: when your parents ask what you're doing after college, avoid the phrase migrant farm labor. Trust us. Instead, we recommend itinerant organic cultivation apprentice.

No matter what you call it, working on farms, whether traveling from crop to crop or staying in one location for a season, yields a bounty of everlasting fruits. Each year, thousands of young, educated people find temporary work on small farms around the world, along the way harvesting like-minded friends, terrific life skills, and an offbeat travel experience.

Sure, you could aimlessly schlep a backpack for a year, but for travel with a purpose and a conscience, farming can't be beat. With just a little planning, you can earn room and board and tons of fun while picking kiwis in New Zealand, tulips in Holland, apples in Washington, grapes in France, olives in Spain or goat cheese in New Mexico. Lugging cheese is all in a day's work at the Coonridge Organic Goat Cheese Farm, which, proprietor Nancy Coonridge says, is situated in the middle of nowhere in western New Mexico. Volunteers at Coonridge work as much as they want, enjoy beautiful hiking, and learn to care for and milk goats (terrific life skills, remember?). And perhaps best of all, they're fed as much goat cheese as they want as long as you don't eat five or six pounds a day, Coonridge stipulates.

Or as an alternative, you could always lend a hand at Rainbow Plantation, an organic farm in Captain Cook, Hawaii, that specializes in coffee and macadamia nuts. We have one housing unit, and people have to be here at least six weeks, says Marianna Schrepfer, the farm's manager. At the Rainbow, the hard work and the payoffs balance each other out: guests are expected to rise at dawn, only to toil on a beautiful mountain situated a thousand feet above sparkling ocean waters.

Indeed, thousands of international farms are waiting for your strong, young body and enthusiastic plucking. The list of farms available through just one organization, Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF), suggests an awesome range of opportunities. WWOOF hooks its members up with jobs from Canada and France to Thailand and Togo. WWOOF workers might cultivate herbs, eggs, organic vegetables, or honey or they might be called on for plain, old-fashioned fruit picking. In general, the farms are self-sufficient not-for-profit operations. Many work directly with charity organizations.

Each situation is unique, says Kathy Ruhf, of the New England Small Farm Institute, a WWOOF-affiliated organization that teams up U.S. farms with volunteer workers. A farm may provide room and board, a tent site, a cabin, a room in the main house, or no housing. They may provide a stipend, they may offer a share of the crops. They may have a worker kitchen or share meals. Some farms are more seriously engaged in the teaching of farming others are not.

In other words, you get to pick where you'll pick. In choosing a farm, be sure to ask questions about the lifestyle on the farm. Where will you stay? What will you eat? (Many farms are vegetarian or vegan.) How much will you work? How much experience do you need?

Farm experience is often not needed at all, explains Pam Kasey, who coordinates the apprentice placement service for the Mountain State Organic Growers and Buyers Association (MSOGBA). A willingness to work hard, a sincere interest in learning, and the ability to live under less-than-luxurious conditions and interact flexibly and respectfully with co-workers are probably the most important requirements.

Another important question to ask early on: will you get paid? Many farms don t pay at all, and others require a few weeks of work before offering a stipend. There's no money involved, explains Derek Silbermann, proprietor of The Monkey Garden, an organic farm in northern California. We give accommodations and food in exchange for four to six hours of work a day. But you're around like-minded people. And you spend your free time reading, painting, or doing whatever you want. If you need to make money, there are plenty of farms that pay for pickers during harvest season though you're more likely to need experience on these for-profit farms.

In general, though, farms are thankful for help, and in most cases, if you don't know how to do something, they'll either teach you or find something else for you to do. We multitask, which is what you have to do in Alaska, explains Samantha Cunningham, proprietor of a WWOOF farm in Homer, Alaska. In addition to our gardens, which have cabbages, carrots, potatoes, and peas, there are lots of other bizarre chores, like keeping the road open or cutting up pickles or freezing caribou.

While some year-long farmers settle in at one or two farms for the whole duration, which lets them hone skills and build relationships with the host family, others move from job to job, both at home and internationally. You don't have to get stuck on one farm, says John Vanden Heuvel, director/coordinator for WWOOF Canada. Many people WWOOF across the country, spending two to three weeks on each farm, sometimes even traveling in groups.

Indeed, a dedicated WWOOFer might find a migratory path around the world, or within one country. In Australia, for example, the harvest season (during the North American spring) moves southward, with the earliest season in Queensland and the last harvests in Tasmania. In all countries, budget hotels and youth hostels in agricultural regions are excellent places for finding work and swapping tips and tales with other itinerant workers.

And best of all, the job never ends. Somewhere in the world, it's always harvest season; on most organic farms, the work goes year-round. Even if your garden is more weedin than Eden, it s always easy to move on, and rest assured, somewhere out there, a farmer needs you desperately.







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