Woofing: A Way to Travel and Farm

July 25, 2011 at 3:41 pm Leave a comment

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© Slide show by Margarida Correia.

This is the last in a series of posts on my 10-day experience as a volunteer farmer in northern Portugal.

Relax, don’t worry, Filipe Antunes, co-owner of Cimo de Vila Farm, tried to assure me.  My job would be easy.

I wasn’t at all convinced.  The job at hand scared me to death.  I — with my mighty 105-pound, five-foot-one frame —was to block the farm’s long-horned, 1,000-pound cows from going the wrong way.  If they suddenly decided to go down the forbidden dirt road where I was standing, I was to do two things:  flail my arms and yell at the mischievous cows.

Fortunately, the cows seemed to know the routine.  They gathered at the corner of the pasture where they had munched all day on crunchy greens.  One by one — Bonita, Rosa, Mila, Tangerina, Princesa (all 15 had names) — exited through the wide gate and proceeded to a verdant new mountainside.  They bobbed their heads and acknowledged me as they walked by.  The menacing-looking creatures, I began to realize, were docile and chivalrous, just like Shrek.

I and two other farm volunteers — “woofers” they called us — had spent three long exhausting hours with Antunes literally “staking out” the ground where the cows were to graze.  We hiked up a very steep side of a mountain carrying stacks of three-foot plastic stakes and reels of electrical wiring.  We cordoned off the area, so the cows wouldn’t get away.

“It would take me twice as long to do this if I were alone,” said Filipe, as I hobbled beside him with a pile of stakes in my arms.

Without woofers, Antunes and his partner, Isabel Teixeira, would probably not be able to run their 30-acre organic farm in northern Portugal.  Woofers – technically WWOOFERs – are able to search for farm work through Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, an international network of organizations that links farmers and volunteers.

It’s very difficult to find local workers willing to work on farms in Portugal, Antunes noted.  The unemployed, he said, earn more money by collecting the Portuguese equivalent of U.S. unemployment checks.

Woofers like us therefore helped fill the labor gap.  From what I observed, woofers work hard but gain much in return for their labor.  In addition to food and place to stay, woofers get a chance to learn first-hand about sustainable farming.  While some “woof” to finance their Eurail travels, many use the opportunity to assess their calling for farming.   All in all, WWOOF enables the ultimate symbiotic relationship.

Cimo de Vila Farm has hosted volunteers since it opened in 2002, five years before WWOOF Portugal was officially established in the country.  It hosts volunteers year-round for both short and long periods of time. Since March 2010 it has not had a single day without at least one woofer on the farm.

“Volunteers know what they’re coming here to do,” said Teixeira in Portuguese. “I think they all want to leave their own mark or imprint,” whether it’s a tree they pruned or a garden or trellis they built.

She recalled two French volunteers frustrated by a heat wave that prevented them — or anyone — from doing any farm work.  The young women decided to paint a mural on the side of the stable – a beautiful drawing of mountains, eucalyptus trees and, of course, many cows.

“It’s reinforced my desire to run an organic farm,” said Oliver Elliott, 22, an Australian and fellow woofer who spent two weeks at Cimo de Vila. Elliott, a modern-day back-to-the-lander, had woofed on several Australian farms and dreamed of one day hosting woofers himself. His goal is self-sufficiency.  “I enjoy being able to eat all my own food and be autonomous,” he said, as he shifted his dreadlocks from the left to the right side.

His girlfriend, Claudia Franke, 23, wasn’t as radical.  The farm she envisioned would produce food to sell to the public. She imagined having bees and chickens and growing fruits and vegetables.

“I don’t want to stay out of society,” said the first-time woofer.

In fact, Franke envisioned an educational farm that helped people, especially children, connect to nature.

“I realized that I had to change my life,” said the disillusioned college drop-out from Germany.  Franke fretted that society had grown overly materialistic, overburdening an already stressed-out planet.

Her experience at Cimo de Vila helped her realize that it’s possible to earn a simple living farming.

The farm has been a testing ground for countless other aspiring farmers. The earliest volunteers, a couple who lived at Cimo de Vila for one year and had a baby there, opened their own farm in Portugal, but it failed within a year. Though they now live in Belgium — and have three children —they visit the farm often.

For owners Antunes and Teixeira, woofers keep life interesting. Woofers, said Antunes, are his mode of transportation to different places, far better than buses, trains and planes.  Rather than physically travel to other parts of the world, the world comes to him through its many colorful representatives, its woofers.

“Without them,” said Teixeira, “life on the farm would be a lot more monotonous.”

For related posts on Cimo de Vila Farm, click here, here and here.

Captions for slide show:

Photo 1:  Filipe Antunes, co-owner of Cimo de Vila Farm

Photo 2:  Filipe Antunes with cows

Photo 3:  Isabel Teixeira, co-owner of Cimo de Vila Farm

Photo 4:  Woofers Claudia Franke (left) and Oliver Elliot

Photo 5:  Woofers Claudia Franke, Oliver Elliot, and Taon Thorne (in foreground)

Photo 6:  Woofer from Germany

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Entry filed under: City Farmers, Global Issues. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , .

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