In a hot, desert-like place in southern South Africa, an area called the Little Karoo, Kirsten and I got a chance to literally get our hands dirty by volunteering at an organic farm through Worldwide Opportunities On Organic Farms (WWOOF). The owner of the farm is Brett, a computer engineer in an earlier life, who quit several years ago, moved out to the Little Karoo and bought a plot of land to start his organic farm. We came at a time when Brett was quite busy. The area had recently been flooded by a storm which had caused quite a bit of damage. Even so, he still took the time to educate us about his farm, farming in general, and permaculture.
His farm was pretty big (at least to our eyes), with a nursery, various fruit trees (including peaches and figs), vegetable plots, grape vines, and some acres across the road which were for his sheep to graze. We stayed in one of the small houses that he was currently finishing. This was also our introduction to the basic outdoor toilet – kind of like a port a potty but instead with a deep hole in the ground. Going to the bathroom took a certain amount of fearlessness as you were likely to encounter a few bees and other insects hanging out in there.
We helped out everywhere we could and Brett tried to make sure we were exposed to as much as possible, which was great. We got to pick and process figs and learned to make fig jam, created hot compost for new vegetable plots, planted new seedlings in the nursery, built fortifications in a ditch to protect the farm in the next flood, built a roof, dug holes for a future shed, chopped wood, worked with the solar panels, picked veggies, pruned grape vines, bottled organic honey fresh from the hive, fed the chickens, collected eggs, and created the start of a veggie garden from scratch.
The work was hard but gratifying. We got into a good routine waking up before 6am and working until lunchtime and then working again in the late afternoon. It felt good doing some manual labor; feeling like you did an honest day’s work tilling the earth and completing a task that you set out at the beginning of the day. But doing manual labor did make me have an appreciation for my current job as a lawyer. I definitely felt fortunate not to have to do back-breaking work to make ends meet. On the other hand, it was refreshing to work outside and work with your hands instead of being cooped up all day in an office. It also felt good to actually be eating food that came from the farm and knowing that it was all natural and not contaminated with GMOs and chemicals.
I developed a lot of respect for Brett and the other farmers in the Little Karoo. He, like many of the others in the area, was never going to get rich being a farmer. He worked his fields everyday to harvest or prepare for a harvest, to feed himself, and hopefully have enough to sell. The work was endless no matter what task he completed. But this was his. His farm, his food, his work. He himself controlled what he made and what went into his body, a sense of independence that was refreshing to see. Most inspiring though was the fact that in doing this work, he is a part of a new movement, one in which people are aware of what they consume and only support/use healthy, truthful, environmentally friendly and sustainable agricultural practices. Good for the industry and necessary for the future of the world.
Thanks for all of your teaching and the great experience Brett!
If anyone is interested in volunteering their time on an organic farm in exchange for learning and a great local experience, visit:
Oh, and when we get back to the States we can’t wait to start an organic garden of our own.