BERLIN — Kapri Grant and Hannah Klein are the oddest June Bugs you are likely to meet. Before hitting the Boardwalk for the evening, they spend the day weeding and doing other farm chores as a way of earning their keep. They are obviously bored and tired but resigned to finish their contract before moving to their next working vacation destination.
The young women are participants in the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) and have been working on Christie McDowell’s The Good Farm for several days. They are ready to move on.
WWOOF is an organization that helps travelers — usually college students, but families and retirees also participate in it — find farms where they can work in exchange for room and board. Room is a slippery term, often meaning a free place to park an RV or put up a tent. Board, on the other hand, tends to mean the most satisfying meals people can have — those they have helped to create.
WWOOFers generally live off the land they are working, getting a share of the crop or being fed from the already harvested crop of their hosts. The hosts get what is essentially free labor and the guests get a picture of how difficult and tenuous any country’s local food supply really is.
For Grant and Klein, the amount of work it takes to have tomatoes, say, to top a hamburger with, is staggering and a little intimidating.
“I’ve never farmed or done anything like this,” Grant said. “It’s very hard work. You realize how much effort goes into farming.”
WWOOF is the natural outcropping of a more localized attitude that has been bubbling just under the surface for many decades. Community Sponsored Agriculture (CSA) programs, where for a fee a participant gets a proportionate share of a farmer’s harvest, have long offered discounted shares in exchange for a day or two of work each week.
Organic farms tend to have an even tighter margin than their agribusiness counterparts and as a result are often one- or two-person operations that only work if there are volunteers to help take care of the chores that don’t require a significant amount of expertise.
The two were finishing up a three-day stint weeding and watering on the farm before seeking another job in Northern Virginia or elsewhere on the western shore. Grant is from D.C. and Klein from Potomac, Va. After heading out to Ocean City for the afternoon, they would have a meal and some sleep and return across the bay.
It has been said that a person can know something and not believe it, or vice-versa, and that only in combining the two can a person be said to have complete understanding. Grant and Klein appear to be one side short of completing this equation. Their words say they understand how important the work they are doing is, but their eyes and bodies appear still unconvinced there is not a better way to get food. In this, they are in the majority.
As fuel costs cause food prices to creep up and natural disasters in the Midwest put the bite on grain supplies, buying local is doing more than becoming affordable, it is becoming necessary. Most people know this.
What is difficult to believe, however, is how close to broke the most successful organic farms tend to be. The farm stands that populate any given road in the region are very much more than a second income for people who have other jobs. Committing an entire livelihood to the whims of the Eastern Shore growing season — especially given that spring was eliminated this year as we bounded from winter into summer — is a decision that no farmer takes lightly.
The most effective strategy appears to involve selling to local restaurants on a contract basis in addition to maintaining a CSA and a farmers market presence. Many of the Berlin Farmers Market participants have deals much like this.
For her part, McDowell has given up on the part-time farming she’s done for the past five years and committed to growing and eating all of her own food while selling the rest for material support. She’s been having a difficult time of it, making the transition to full-time farmer and volunteers from WWOOF as well as local enthusiasts and volunteers have gone a long way toward making it a viable profession.
Her newest WWOOFer, Andrea Filven, came on duty the same day Grant and Klein were finishing their tour of duty. A global affairs major at William and Mary, Filven appears to be among those who both know and believe that sustainable is the last best chance of maintaining safe, reliable access to food for future generations.
The Good Farm gets much of its meat from chickens and ducks they raise for slaughter. As disgusting as Filven finds driving behind chicken trucks, being present as McDowell plucks and guts the fowl doesn’t do much for her enthusiasm. But her response goes to her self-awareness and she, in a way, speaks for many of us.
“I like to try and ignore where my food comes from,” she said. “Betsy has been making the food.”
Betsy Barb is McDowell’s 12-year-old daughter. She has taken to farming more enthusiastically than even McDowell herself. The evening before, she took ground corn to make polenta for dinner and has no problem running out and choosing from among the livestock when there’s to be chicken for dinner.
Where Grant and Klein participated at the recommendation of friends, Filven stumbled across WWOOF while she was searching the Internet for service opportunities. Killing livestock aside, she had committed to the notion of learning how one patch of earth can provide for the people living on it as well as the satisfaction that comes along with moving from consumer to provider.
“It feels good to plan stuff and know it’s going to feed other people,” Filven said. “I feel like I’m expanding my horizons.”