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I picked up yet another decaying olive branch and chopped it into smaller pieces with my machete, dividing it between the piles of twigs with leaves, mid-sized branches, and larger branches. I had been warned: working on a farm could and most surely would become monotonous. But the bright Puglian sun and the bountiful countryside helped to relieve the tedium of the manual labor.
Elena and I had come across the organization WWOOF (WorldWide Opportunities on Organic Farms) when researching ideas for our gap year. We both had our separate plans for the majority of the year but were hoping to meet up at some point and volunteer on a farm. Both of us were traveling on fairly strict budgets, and we found that WWOOF was a great opportunity to try something new without tugging too hard on our purse strings. There is only a yearly membership fee (for the Italian organization it was 25 euros) and otherwise there are no real additional costs. WWOOF is a worldwide organization, but many countries also have their own national organizations for which one can purchase a membership. The organization provides lists of organic farms that the members can contact and arrange to volunteer on the farm and work a certain number of hours a week in exchange for learning about organic farming and room and board. However, the organization should not be viewed as a cheap way to travel but instead as an interesting opportunity for cultural exchange that is, coincidentally, inexpensive.
We did a bit of research on the organization ahead of time and tried to contact people who had previously done volunteer work them. The best piece of advice we were given was to make solid arrangements with our WWOOF hosts ahead of time about working hours, accommodations, food, and general volunteer tasks. Some farms are wonderful and others are not: this is simply a risk one must take. Thorough examination of the farm list and communication with hosts, however, can greatly reduce the risk of ending up in a less-than-ideal situation.
Fortunately, Elena and I chose well when we selected a farm near the city of Lecce in Puglia, a Southern province of Italy. The farm had olive orchards, citrus orchards, a vegetable garden, horses, cows, cats, rabbits, dogs, and chickens. The farm also had a website with a list of past WWOOFers as well as current and arriving WWOOFers, which we took to be a good sign.
When we first arrived at the train station, we encountered a bit of a miscommunication and had to wait several hours before finally meeting our hosts. They were very gracious and welcoming, however, and we immediately went to a large Easter festival in a national park, where we danced the Tarantella, a folkdance native to the South of Italy. Within hours of our arrival we were already immersed in authentic, traditional Italian culture.
Not all of our days were this laid-back, however. We worked about six hours a day for five and a half days a week (four hours in the morning, two hours in the afternoon). We were asked to perform a range of tasks, including weeding the vegetable garden, planting baby radishes, covering the roots of potato plants, loosening up soil, cutting up the branches of pruned olive trees, preparing broccoli for dinner, and carrying hay bales. In the vegetable garden we learned about the different ways of organizing and growing vegetables. Our hosts tried out many different systems used in different parts of the world. We also ate many of the vegetables directly from our garden for dinner, which was a nice direct reward for our work.
On our off-time, the farm supplied us with mountain bikes, and we were free to bike to the beautiful deserted beaches, to the small sleepy towns, to the local market or just through the open fields when we were done with work. Our hosts were also wonderful cooks, and we were rewarded with pasta dishes nightly. The other volunteers also made the experience worthwhile. Four other WWOOFers resided at the farm during our stay: one studied horticulture at the university in Ireland, the other barely spoke English or Italian and came from Japan, and finally there was a couple from Germany who had sold their house, put all their belongings in their car and were now traveling from farm to farm. We were quite a sight walking down the streets of Lecce. Our diverse backgrounds provided another source from which to learn and to mitigate the monotonous nature of our work.
Along with the good, we also experienced some less pleasant moments. Our living conditions were not always ideal. One night, the septic tank overflowed into the middle of our bedroom. Our hosts came and looked but were unwilling to really help clean up the mess. We were somewhat left to solve the problem on our own and felt that the living conditions were no longer sanitary. One recommendation, therefore, would be to stand up in unpleasant situations and address the problem with the hosts. As a volunteer, one is not obligated to stay on the farm if the situation becomes unpleasant or unbearable.
Our initial purpose in volunteering on the farm was to seek a new experience and to gain an appreciation for the manual labor that farmers do on a daily basis. WWOOF also gave us a chance to escape the travel that tourists often engage in (sightseeing, residing in hotels) and to really become immersed in the culture while learning something and being of some service. Neither of us had dreams of becoming a farmer when we grew up or took this as a serious career opportunity. Instead, it gave us a way to travel that was not too expensive, that taught us new skills, gave us an appreciation for others, and allowed us to have an authentic taste of la dolce vita in Italia!
This article was reprinted with permission from Associated Content, The People's Media Company. Visit www.associatedcontent.com today to publish your own content and explore AC's growing multimedia library.
© 2008 Associated Content, Inc.
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