Farming & Facebook

Today, I found a good use for Facebook.  I know, I know – there are lots of you out there who can’t imagine living without it.  I’m not one of them.  I’ve often wondered what I’d miss if I closed my facebook account.  I can’t say the list was too long.

I would not miss Farmville for sure.  I couldn’t care less about the crops on your fictional farm.  Probably because when I have an interest in farming, I go volunteer on an actual real-live one. I know plenty of you don’t care to do that, or don’t think you could.  To each her own.  But a fictional farm just doesn’t do it for me.  That’s why I’m feeding my farm fix by WWOOFing in Italy next spring.

For those of you that don’t know, I’m getting rid of most of what I own and living “on the road” for a year as of 7/7/11.  Part of my year will be spent in Italy working on organic farms in exchange for room and board.  That’s why I spent a week at Sisters Hill Farm this past summer – to see if I could hack farm work. Well, turns out I can.

Here’s the first dilemma: where in Italy do I want to farm?  The country has over 200 farms that take WWOOFers.  By joining WWOOF Italy, I get a list of these places with a short description of the farm, the work, and the accommodations.  But how much can you really know about a place just on a short description?  You don’t pick a surgeon by his bio on the internet.  Nor do you pick a farm this way.  In both cases, you want personal recommendations.  But how do I get those when most everyone in my life never heard of WWOOFing until I told them about it?

This is where facebook comes in.  Today I found a page for those of us that are planning to WWOOF in Italy! On this page, I can say when I’m going and what I’d like to do, and other WWOOFers can recommend farms I might like.  Here I thought I’d have to spend hours searching the internet for people’s WWOOFing experiences, but with facebook I now have access to over 500 people who can help me find just what I’m looking for.  Thank you, facebook.  I’ll be keeping my account.

We made the paper:)

There were a photographer and reporter visiting Sisters Hill Farm the same week I was there.  Here’s the article as it appears this week in the Catholic New York.  And yes, that’s me in the picture.

Geometry and Lettuce

“Don’t you teach math?” Ashley asked.  “Yes – but that’s just book smarts.  Completely useless in real life,” I said, frustrated at how difficult I was finding it to plant lettuce in a straight line.  “It’s Geometry – they do lines in Geometry,” Ashley offered.  “Yeah, but my students don’t even have to draw straight line – they have graph paper,” I said.

But honestly, I did have what looked like graph paper in front of me.  Farmer Dave had built some sort of tractor attachment that lays a grid on the soil.  In front of me were three long vertical lines cut every foot by a horizontal line.  My landmarks were the places the verticals and horizontals met.  I had to plant there as well as halfway between. Sounds simple enough, no?  That’s what I thought.

After he initially showed us how to do it, Ashley and I paired up.  She would pop the plants out of a tray and toss them onto the ground in about the spot where I was to plant them.  I straddled the middle row of transplants.  I stuck my fingers two inches into the soil, inserted the lettuce plant, and then covered over the peat moss with dirt.  I then did the one on my right and on my left.  I inched forward, planting the one in the middle, the one on my right, the one of my left.

I thought I was doing fine until Farmer Dave showed me that my rows of plants were not quite straight.  “If the plants are off by too much when we run the cultivator down the sides of them to weed, we’ll tear up the plant instead of the weeds.”  That’s all I needed to hear.  All I could picture was the farming apprentices attempting to weed these beds next week and tearing up lettuce instead, cursing the volunteer who planted them.  Or worse, the whole row would get torn up and there’d be no lettuce for the farm’s CSA members to pick up in their weekly share – and it’d be all my fault!

Ridiculous as these thoughts were, it’s what was going through my head.  So what did I do?  Switched jobs, of course.  Ashley got down on her hands and knees and had no problems.  I’m going to credit her youth (she’s only 21) and the fact that she actually wants to be a farmer.

My new job was “throwing” the transplants.  I’d pop them out of the tray in which they’d been grown and toss them onto the ground aiming for them to drop in just the right spot on the grid.  Then Ashley would come along and plant them.  But I’m not so great at sports – especially ones that involve throwing anything.  So after a few tosses that were way off the mark, I instead crouched down and started gently placing my transplants in the right place.

After a while, my partner in crime asked if we might switch jobs again.  I agreed – ready to face this thing.  Sarah, another volunteer, reminded me that I’m not expected to know how to do it perfectly the first time.  Good point.  After all, I’d never in my life done anything like this.  So I once again straddled the middle line and started planting.  Every few minutes I looked back to see if my lines appeared straight.  Not trusting my own eyes, I’d call on Ashley to check my lines too.  “Looks good to me,” she said, as if she fully expected that I would be perfect at this.  It got to the point that she would look and tell me how great I was doing without my even asking.  Isn’t that sweet?

It seemed to take forever, but between me and the other three volunteers we planted over 2500 lettuce and broccoli transplants in a couple hours.  When we finished, it was only 9:30 AM.  I’ve accomplished more before 10AM this week than I ever have in my life.

There are many things out there that I want to try just once, and then will probably never do again.  Such was the case with skydiving.  And riding my bike across Iowa.  We’ll add planting lettuce to that list:)

Straight Lines of Lettuce (the black is the drip tape to water them)

Farm Prep

So tomorrow I’m off to the Sisters Hill Farm to volunteer for a week.  I knew this was a little out of my element when I applied, which is one of the things that attracted me to it.  But I was reminded how far out of my element I am when I got an e-mail two weeks ago that said this:

“…am going to suggest the following might be good to add to your farm work clothes- depending on the weather and your past experience, rain boots, rain “poncho”, sun hat, sun screen, sunglasses, work gloves, water bottle, swimsuit(there is a pool nearby)…”

Here’s the problem: 1) I don’t really have “farm clothes.”  I’m hoping gym shorts, T-shirts, and sneakers qualify.  2) I don’t own rain boots…or a poncho…or work gloves…or a sun hat.  My plan is to raid mom and dad’s house for these items.  Most people would go buy them, but in my family we head to mom and dad’s first.  3) The only sunglasses I own slide right down my nose as soon as I lean over to do anything – and I imagine working on a farm requires a lot of leaning over to do things.  Not sure how I’ll fix that one yet. But will hopefully have it figured out in the next 24 hours….

The Next Adventure

I have the good fortune of being blessed with a mother who listens to my ever changing ideas and when she sees something that might be of interest to me, she sends it my way.  So thanks to Mom, I’ll be spending a week living and working on an organic farm run by the Sisters of Charity at the end of July.

This all came about because my mom read, in the Catholic New York newspaper, an ad seeking volunteers for the Sisters Hill Farm.  Volunteers would plant, weed, and harvest for the farm which has a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.  She left me the name and number of the contact person.  I googled the place and mom was spot on.  It sounded like the perfect opportunity.  I have a growing interest in eating local food and have twice participated in CSA programs (and written posts on the topic here).  I also have done plenty of volunteering with women religious and have loved every experience (see my posts about Sr. Cathy and Mississippi). And ever since I found out you could basically travel the world living and working on organic farms in exchange for room and board with WWOOF, I’ve wanted to “test out” my stamina for the work.  No need to plan on three months of farming in Italy only to find out I can’t stand it!  So a one-week test drive sounded perfect.

Yesterday I found out I was accepted into the program – but only after I assured them that I have no physical problems that would prevent me from squatting down to weed (and being able to get back up again!).  I’ll be sure to keep you all posted on my experience July 24-31:)