A Family Vacation of a Different Sort: Volunteering on an Organic Farm

When screen time became too much, Ron Ofer looked for a different way to pass the summer with his kids. What he found: Five hours of work a day in exchange for free, organic room and board.

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Ron Ofer
Ron Ofer

As the July swelter approached, my wife and I decided to invest the money we’d set aside for the kids’ summer camp on airplane tickets instead, and to volunteer at an organic farm for four weeks.

The idea arose while looking at the faces of my children, captivated by a cartoon on YouTube – their tenth in a row. I wanted to find an affordable way to unglue us all from screens.

Thus I discovered the world of volunteers called WWOOFers, a.k.a. World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or Willing Workers on Organic Farms. The volunteers are usually 20-something singles with alternative lifestyles. We deviated from all respects – Sigalit and I are not-so-young parents to three kids aged 9, 8 and 1; we’re an urban family that usually shops at the discount supermarket Rami Levy, and we are not farmers.

A man in the fields of an organic farm in France.Credit: Ron Ofer

The deal sounds pretty simple: Work about five hours a day in exchange for bed and full organic board.

Our first mission was to locate, from among the 12,000 potential host farms in dozens of countries, ones prepared to accept us weirdos. Most countries, including Israel, have a WWOOF site, a sort of organic-farm Airbnb. The photos of the farms give a feeling of hard-core agriculture, a sort not seen in crowded Israel – isolated farms, strange European beasts, farmers who look like they’re 10th generation, and a lot of close-ups of vegetables.

It can cost 25 euros to contact WWOOF farmers of a given country, so first you’d better decide where you want to go. We began our virtual journey in Norway. I wanted to experience a very different, remote culture; if it was going to be practically free, then let it be in one of the more expensive countries in the world. I showed Sigalit some farms I liked, but she said something in the Norwegian profiles was off-putting: the texts were dry and humorless, and the light in the pictures looked cold.

We decided to look for happy light, and reached the Bulgarian site. Contacting Bulgarian farmers through the site costs only 5 euros, so why not? But nobody in Bulgaria answered my emails, other than an ostrich farm that was already full for the summer. We realized we should look in a country with a large supply, whose site enabled cross-sectioning, like duration of stay (some don’t want you if you won’t be around for several months), farm type (beekeeping versus fruit picking, and so on), maximal number of WWOOFers (the more the merrier), accommodation (we didn’t want a tent) and most importantly, if they accept children, which eliminated about 80%. Most won’t feed five mouths in exchange for not-much work. They’d rather get some young ox licensed to drive a tractor.

Anyway, from Norway and Bulgaria we arrived in France, which has a ton of associated farms. It felt a bit weird to market my family to farms. What should I write? That my kids are terrific? That they like eating salad? I confessed that we weren’t farmers, I wrote that we like to cook and attached pictures. After some correspondence to and fro, we were accepted by two farms.

A man walks next to a building on an organic farm in France.Credit: Ron Ofer

The word “farm” is a tad misleading. Usually it’s a family with a field, a small business at the mercy of the fickle weather and the bugs, which have relatively unfettered access to all that goodness. The mere fact that they wanted us indicated that the whole thing was hardly economic, but more a matter of community and ideology.

Planting the seeds

After some days of conventionally touring Paris, we rented a car and set out for the first farm, a place off the beaten track called La Petite Mane, some hours from the Loire Valley. I insisted on renting a car despite being on an “economy” vacation, so we could toddle around the area when not working and most importantly, so we could flee if necessary. We spent our last day in Paris searching for the one thing our hosts asked us to bring — Indian pickles. We arrived. After some minutes of warm hugs and kissing both cheeks, we felt great. There were eight people from France, one from Holland and one from Britain. Marco and Polo turned out to be the farm’s founders – judging by their use of a single email address, I had thought they were one person. They were childhood friends who had traveled the Far East together. Marco came back married to a Nepalese woman named Shanti.

Our first dinner lasted until after midnight and consisted mainly of vegetables picked from the field, plus some items that Marco and Polo bought at a local organics shop. The rule is to eat together; if somebody’s missing you go outside, roll a cigarette and wait. During the endless meal, I tried to understand when we should show up to work the next day and what needed to be done, but we just got kind smiles, like from a guru who sees his pupils seeking their answers in the wrong places. We groped our way in the moonlight to the guest quarters, three dusty caravans whose glory days were long gone. A toilet was placed in an abandoned van with a view of the hills.

The next day, Marco explained that the farm’s economy is based on about 100 subscribers to a weekly box of produce that costs 10 to 16 euros, and a small stand at a local Monday market. It’s a tough living, especially in winter, but WWOOFers help them make ends meet.

On our first morning, we showed up at the central building at around 8 A.M.; the other WWOOFERs came at 9, and after a leisurely coffee, work began. We were briefly taught how to uproot shallots: the trick is to touch them while they’re still underground to make sure they’re big enough to eat. Neri and I picked, and the girls grouped each 10 shallots using rubber bands. It was very hot and rather hard, but my adrenaline ran strong before the blisters and sore back. I wanted Marco and Polo to admire our farming skills and shallot bouquets but actually, nobody came to inspect our productivity.

It didn’t take long for us to grasp that not only the vegetables are organic – so are the personal interactions. Meetings between youngsters from around the world, protracted meals, and joint lakeside leisure were as important as growing vegetables. I asked Polo why they’d accepted people like us, of little benefit to the farm; he said they’d never turned anybody away.

The author's children take part in a communal meal on an organic farm in France.Credit: Ron Ofer

Everybody was great with the kids, but after a week I was getting tired. The dust and chaff, and cats infiltrating our caravan, had me mainlining asthma medicine and antihistamines. But I felt satisfied, work-tired and healthy, much more than if I’d spent the day in front of a computer. I was surrounded by people as sweet as organic carrots; I wasn’t worried about the morrow. I did realize that it wouldn’t take that long for me to get terminally bored, though. How much interest can one find in zucchini?

On our last day, we made hummus and falafel for everybody. People were astonished by the finely-diced Israeli salad of cucumber, tomato and onion. Or they were being polite. Then we went to rest and digest the legumes. The next day we departed with hugs and kisses. We drove east for two days, to Burgundy, to the second farm.

Season two: The sweat of our brows

We were en route to Andre, a retiree with six bicycles and five canoes, who lived alone in three homes with a giant garden full of junkers. After our toddler Hilleli ran into one nettle too many, Sigalit declared it an actual danger.

The chance of finding a different WWOOF that would take a family seemed pretty remote. In the morning we told Andre we were leaving; I was relieved that he seemed okay with that, even suggesting that we check his brother’s farm in the village next door. Later we realized we weren’t an exception.

I tried to negotiate terms with Luke, owner of the Moulin de Braux, but with three tired children in the car I didn’t have clout. Luke, an older man with younger eyes and a generous smile, but mainly a farmer tough as nails, settled for 10 hours of work a day to be divided between me and Sigalit. He suggested we give it a 2-day trial.

I slept badly and dreamed that my family and I were part of a chain gang, hoeing the land. I heard Luke go out to the field at dawn. He would return at about 10 at night. He works the same hours even after a trip to Paris to sell his produce.

The author's daughter holds a chicken.Credit: Ron Ofer

In the morning, a list of tasks awaited us in the kitchen. On my way to water baby lettuce, I accidentally stepped on a sowed field. A WWOOFER hastened to cover my tracks and glanced around to make sure Luke hadn’t seen us.

I worked mechanically all day – I am already 45. I could have gone on a wine-tasting tour of Bungundy, but something in me wanted to please this hard-working man; I wanted to be accepted in his Sisyphean club.

Our extreme farmer accommodated us in a large, clean room. I gradually kicked the antihistamines. The WWOOFERs here were fun too, though under Luke’s eye, work was taken seriously. Even the kids were infected with responsibility, helping to make food and watering plants.

Luke told me he made two decisions at age 15: He was a city boy but decided to be a farmer, and he decided never to have children. For him, the meaning of life is to make big, long-term decisions and to stick to them. I started to fantasize about changes in my life that would bring me closer to Mother Earth.

Unbelievably, toward the end of our stay, the uberfarmer thanked me for my hard work. Compared with the usual young messy WWOOFer, I, like he, understood that life consisted of endless tasks that need doing. He also smiled more at the kids. I felt I had earned those smiles and appreciated them.

Some days later, back home, the kids were back on their screens; my same old job swallowed me up and I found zero time to plant vegetables in our tiny, neglected garden.

With slightly heavy heart, I bought tomatoes at Rami Levy and at night had a strange dream. I was swimming in a lake of crushed tomatoes. The tomato paste was warm and pleasant, and oddly, as easy to swim through as water. I saw my family around me, swimming through the crushed tomatoes like dolphins. Little Hilleli sat on the bank, splashing her little feet in the red liquid. When I came out, a stranger walked up to me, wearing a towel, and asked if the tomato crush was organic. I considered the question, then woke up.

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