Barbialla Nuova farm
Have you ever been curious about what it’d be like to live on a farm? Want to travel to new places? Learn about healthy, sustainable agriculture? Interested in communing with nature and taking a break from the hectic pace of urban life? Does the idea of manual labor in exchange for food and shelter sound appealing? Then you might want to check out the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF).
I first discovered WWOOF a few years ago when a friend was exploring it, and at the time, I brushed it off as the most SWPL thing I’d ever seen. (Hypothetical parental reaction, “Uh, you’re doing what? How many of your ancestors have worked in the fields so you don’t have to?”) I am still well-aware that the phenomenon of well-educated people going back to the farm is quite hipster, but I’ve come to think that this is exactly what we need. There are so many problems with our food system that begin at the farm level; shouldn’t we be encouraging bright graduates to become environmental stewards at the ground level?
Starting next week, we have about six weeks of summer break. I am traveling for some of this but can’t afford to travel for all of it, so I revisited the WWOOF site and decided to register. WWOOF registration for a year costs about 30 euros, and gets you health insurance coverage and access to the official WWOOF farm list for your country of registration, along with access to the WWOOF Independents list. I signed up for WWOOF Italia to minimize travel costs, and also because I hope to improve my Italian by immersing myself with an Italian family.
When I first began searching for a host farm, I thought that it’d be a piece of cake to find a suitable host farm. After all, there are hundreds of farms on the official WWOOF list, and every week an email is sent out with the farms that need help ASAP. I wasn’t particularly picky about living accommodations or the types of activities the farm offered. However, I did want to have internet access, and immediately ruled out all the farms that only provided a phone number as a contact method. I sent out a handful of emails in mid-June, about 2 months before my intended start date, and much to my dismay, everyone replied negatively, saying that they were already booked with WWOOFers or that they didn’t need help in August. After all, August is the national holiday month, where everyone takes off for the seaside and all businesses shut down. Several people said that it was too hot for farm work and they needed a break. Ah, Italy.
Stunned by my slate of refusals, I redoubled my efforts and sent out another 17 emails. This time, I broadened my search geographically to Piemonte, Veneto, Lombardia and Toscana. In the end, out of the 23 farms I contacted, 10 farms replied with “no,” 6 replied with “yes,” and 6 did not respond at all. That’s right, I had a 26% success rate.
Amusingly enough, one farmer wrote back and said, “I see you’re from Cornell. We’ve had two other Cornell students this year who were interested in WWOOFing, what’s up with that?” The thing is, in my introductory email, I hadn’t mentioned being a Cornell grad at all. (Instead, I tried to sell people on my experience at UNISG.) However, this information is easily discovered online. It is always oddly flattering and disconcerting at the same time to find out you’ve been cyberstalked. I went on to exchange a few more emails and discuss the Vietnam War with the farmer, who said that he couldn’t host me in August, but that I sounded interesting and should come back in the fall.
In the end, I narrowed my choices to a few farms outside of Florence because I have a couple friends who will be visiting there, and chose the farm that seemed the most responsive to my emails and offered the best internet access. Barbialla Nuova Fattoria is a large 500-hectare farm about 50 km outside of Florence, with a herd of Chianina cattle (Tuscany’s most prestigious breed), a vegetable garden, cereals and other crops, white truffles (!), and an agritourism business on the side, where city slickers can spend a few nights in the country. For my two weeks in August, I have been told I can help with making pasta sauces and jams, and that there is also gardening to be done. Woohoo, I will not be threshing wheat for 12 hours a day!