By Laura Keeler
Within 36 disorienting hours of my arrival in France last May, I was tugging on udder after udder, milking 70 cows that live a blissful, grassfed life two hours north of Paris. It was the beginning of my three-week stay on an organic dairy farm in the Picardie region of France. Following my stint as a milkmaid, I took a high-speed train to another organic farm in the Midi-Pyrénées.
With two years of college French classes under my belt, and growing interests in sustainable agriculture and cooking, I had discovered le wwoofing.
World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) is a network that enables organic farmers and eager volunteers to exchange work for food, lodging and a firsthand look at sustainable farming. WWOOF publishes lists of organic farms that welcome volunteers, but hosts and volunteers must contact each other and decide on the terms of the visit. Neither hosts nor volunteers receive any payment, although both pay a small membership fee to WWOOF for the ability to share contact information.
My first hosts, Claire and François (both from farming families), had abandoned conventional farming some years before, though they retained a fairly conventional business model. Their transition to an organic lifestyle was ideological, and more about the health of their cows, their land and the planet than a quest for self-sufficiency. They took a bucket of milk out of the morning collection for their own consumption—to drink as is, or to make fromage blanc, a fresh cheese eaten with jam for dessert. Otherwise the entire yield went into holding tanks until the truck from the distribution company collected it. Claire even bought butter, crème fraîche and yogurt—all biologique (organic)—at the supermarket. This farm produced milk, and milk only. Later in the summer, two small gardens would produce some fruits and vegetables for household consumption. But since nobody in the family enjoyed cooking, and all felt that their other duties were too demanding, the gardens received scant attention.
As wonderful and astonishing as each orchard’s great bounty was, one of the greatest revelations of my time on the farm was the wild fruits that were too delicate or too difficult to harvest. Dotted throughout the orchards were a few dozen misfits—trees that were too tall and leafy or too small to be cultivated. The red and yellow prunes sauvages, barely bigger than grapes, fell at the touch of a finger when ripe. The tiny, bright spheres on wild sour-cherry trees left the branches less readily, but each time I found a group of trees I filled another bucket with cherries as juicy and translucent as currants. Sitting at the kitchen table, looking out over the vineyard, I pitted cherries until my fingers were wrinkled from the clear, sticky juice. With the summer's first rhubarb I made cherry-rhubarb pie, then cherry-plum pies, cherry-peach-raspberry compote and cherry-plum and cherry-raspberry jams.
Unlike the dairy farmers, Christine and Stéphane believed in polyculture—cultivating many different fruits and vegetables and raising sheep, rabbits and chickens for both the market and their family. They pressed their own apple and grape juices and produced jar upon jar of preserves. However, picking perfectly ripe, wild fruits, pitting each one and making pie crusts from scratch was a time-consuming luxury in which I alone, as a volunteer and guest, could indulge. Out of necessity, most of Christine and Stéphane's energy went into producing for the market. Making pies would have been too self-indulgent when they could eat a fresh plum for dessert and work another hour in the orchards instead.
Back in Austin, where the peach crop had failed and my mother's blackberry cuttings had died in the drought, the memories and tastes of those faraway fruit trees still lingered. Through wwoofing, my appreciation has grown for the farmers whose work allowed me to spend time in the kitchen, rather than in the treetops, transforming their bounty into luscious treats.
Learn more at wwoof.org.