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WWOOF Ireland, organic farming volunteer abroad, Work Overseas on a farm
By: Kari Windes (justin) 2012.01.06

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The goat had escaped her pen again. As she trotted nonchalantly past the kitchen window where I stood washing dishes in a 500-year old farmhouse in Ireland, I realized that despite my early years of living in rural Ohio, I was as helpful on a farm as a plague of three-cornered alfalfa hoppers. The goat's lead dragged, the knotted end tripping along the rutted roadside and occasionally snagging as she paused to nip at brambles, one of her favorite foods.

I ran to the hallway, tugged on my boots - Wellingtons, of course, for those living on those island nations - and hobbled out to the road and up the lane. I hoped she wouldn't make it to the sheep field. As I was volunteering on the farm, called WWOOFing, or Willing Workers On Organic Farms, I was keen to make a good impression with my host for the two weeks I was staying. Once off their lead, goats, which normally come back upon first sight of an offered food pail, become of one mind with the sheep. They move and flow like clouds (read: hard to catch) when being chased about the emerald Irish fields. They're gone until they're good and ready to come back.

That's where I lost her. Eventually, the goat came back after I had spent two hours running about the muddy fields waving what a tempting pail of oats. The goat returned, but only after I had already trudged back to the little stone farm and admitted to Vicki, the owner, my inability to catch an animal with an intelligence level that dictated it eat anything it could reach. And not before I had been witnessed by several of the local bachelor farmers, waving my arms and calling the goat by all the names I could think up for her. Most of these cannot, in good conscience, be printed.

Other tales? With James Herriot stories echoing in my memory (he's the veterinarian who wrote all those feel-good animal books.) I learned to feed the family pig. I had to scratch the immense porker (larger than my sub-compact stored in the garage back in California) with a stick to lull the beast into a state of semi-consciousness, then launch myself over a wire fence and slog through shin-deep mud to deliver its dinner. I overfed the chickens, too. Repeatedly.

Similar incidents comprised the rest of my stay-situations which caused a bit of good-natured ribbing from the farmers who arrived nightly to take me out to the local pubs in Ballymacarbry. WWOOFing is not for the weak. Begun over 25 years ago in the United Kingdom, WWOOFing joins able-bodied travelers with organic farms-both big and small-throughout the world for a symbiotic relationship of the best kind. The farm gets a worker; the worker gets free room and board. How much work? That would depend on a variety of factors: the size of the farm, the season and the family who is sponsoring. Most of the time the work hours range from three to six hours a day. I fell into working on a reclaimed rural farm owned by a single woman with two children; she relied heavily on WWOOFers to help maintain her modest home. A typical stay can range from a couple of weeks, as I did, to several months.

What is a normal day for a WWOOFer in rural Ireland on a reclaimed organic farm? The good thing is, you're not up with the *****'s crow. While the rest of the family may have been working for a couple of hours already, WWOOFers aren't expected to be out to work until a more comfortable eight or nine o'clock in the morning. My main tasks were to feed the cows (I fed them hay instead of straw one day and they weren't too happy), feed the chickens, and chop some brambles. Then feed myself some lunch. Out for more brambles, followed by carrot plucking-a necessary chore during fall and early winter to keep the crop from freezing and rotting. Then dinner and later, some free time.

It was not all work. I sang songs and told stories in pubs. Drank beer. Ate thick slices of soda bread coated with fresh butter. Hitchhiked back to the farm after my day off in town and experienced what it was like to be a part of a completely self-sufficient enterprise. I slept in a camper outside the barn and waited a week for my underwear to dry during one of the wettest winters the eastern side of Ireland had seen in a long time. All in a day's work.

WWOOFing is not for the faint of heart but as a solo traveler, I found a way to experience another culture, entertain my interests in working on a farm and acclimate myself to a world which didn't sport the ubiquitous 7-Eleven on every corner. Returning to Southern California (population: 73 malls) I wanted to figure out a way to bring a llittle bit of my experience into my daily life. Do the ever-present Southern Californian housing associations allow for goats? Not yet, I'd bet, but I've got a plan. I'll scrap the cookie-cutter homes, the planned, pastel apartments landscaped with scraggly rubber tree cactuses, the stacks of condominiums and stick with rural California canyon living.

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