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WWOOF

The author, second from right, hiking at Mt. Monadnock in New Hampshire, with fellow WWOOFers, from left, Matt Cook, Greg Mizar and Camille Horace. Photo by Melanie Glissman

By Stacy Santini

This is the last installment of a four-part series. Miss part three? Read it here.

Jack Kerouac did it, John Steinbeck did it; there is something to be said about being on the road. Not for everybody, there are countless moments when the vexation of it all can be overwhelming. Living out of suitcases and spending more time crouched over a steering wheel than being vertical most definitely takes a toll, but for me, those inconveniences were small in comparison to what I was feeling and the perspective I gained. 

“My life is my message.”
 Mahatma Gandhi

After so many years of ignoring the spirit that now guides me, I felt completely and utterly free, treasuring every mile of my journey. Revelation upon revelation unfolded itself and I got to know a person that had been a stranger for all too long — myself.

I unfolded my crumpled-up bucket list and placed check marks where there had been blank spaces, and WWOOFing it in New England served as a springboard to extraneous adventures I took advantage of while I was away.

During my time in the Northeast, I was able to reconnect with my family in Concord, New Hampshire, and stay with dear friends I don’t often get to see in Exeter. Sitting around dinner tables, breaking bread and talking to familiar faces was a comfort.

I felt empowered and strong as a result of farming and did not feel out of my comfort zone when I read poetry at an open mic in Portland, Maine or dined al fresco in Saratoga Springs. There were strange faces along the way that quickly became native as I was invited to join them to observe jam bands at local venues.

Friendships were made and alliances amongst my fellow WWOOFers were welcomed. I took my Southern California comrades from Owen Farm to Melanie and Matt’s organic farm in Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire, to hike and assist them in turning sap into maple syrup in the sugar shack.

Charlie, my morkie, and I traveled west to our beloved Catskills, walked part of the Appalachian Trail and held fort in New Paltz for several days, shopping at Groovy Blueberry and chowing down with a women’s motorcycle club at The Gilded Otter.

Returning home was not easy, as there was so much more I wanted to explore, but I have learned to trust timing, and without hesitation I know that Charles Crawford and I will one day again be road warriors embarking on the unknown. I am not sure whether or not I thought I would return to Long Island a farmer, but regardless, I knew I would come home different and better for this undertaking. Mission accomplished.

Stacy Santini is a freelance reporter for Times Beacon Record Newspapers. If you would like to find out how to become a WWOOFer, visit www.wwoofusa.org.

The author chops wood on Owen Farm. Photo from Stacy Santini

By Stacy Santini

This is the second in a four-part series. Miss the first installment? Read it here.

Once my decision and logistics were finalized, the preparing began and believe me, this was no easy feat for a woman who had spent most of her life tucked into neatly landscaped neighborhoods and luxury vehicles that had never seen a dirt road. It is mandatory to have the right clothing, gear and provisions for this type of living. In retrospect, I know that it would have been impossible for me to have survived mud season in New England without my neoprene muck boots, North Face rain attire and Cabela’s thermals. With every item of clothing I packed, varying weather conditions were always a factor, and my Jeep Patriot became the keeper of six large suitcases and numerous plastic bins; my vehicle overflowing with my expectations and a little fear, well, maybe a whole lot of fear. I also had a little Morkie, Charles Crawford, to consider, and he had his own impedimenta.

I selected two farms to call home during my time as a WWOOFer, and they could not have been more different. My first agrarian family was the Owens. Ruth and Derek were an elderly couple running a well-established 180 acre farm, Owen Farm, in Hopkinton, New Hampshire, for more than forty years. The property included 30 acres of cleared land primarily used for pasture, a small orchard and 1 acre for planting and gardening. When I pulled up to their large colonial farmhouse on April 1st at 4 p.m., there was still snow on the ground, chickens running amuck and the property was buzzing with activity. I was greeted by fellow WWOOFers, a young Southern California couple named Camille and Gregg, who had arrived two weeks earlier, and as Gregg swooshed past me carrying a pile of wood, I became acutely aware that I was indeed doing this; I was about to become a farmer.

Adjustment is an understatement to describe my first few days at Owen Farm. Dignity took a back seat as I slowly but surely acquired humility and a work ethic not often seen by the rest of society. At this time of year, while most of the ground was still frozen, our main duties involved caring for the animals, which included cows which are milked by hand, sheep, pigs, poultry and horses, three of which were Arabian.

The author at 5 a.m., on the first day of WWOOFing it in New Hampshire. Photo from Stacy Santini
The author at 5 a.m., on the first day of WWOOFing it in New Hampshire. Photo from Stacy Santini

My first introduction to animal farming was the very afternoon I arrived when I observed Camille feeding Hallelujah, the resident pig who was the size of a small freight train, a “sumptuous” bucket of composting leftover veggies. At 5 a.m. the next morning, I had the pleasure of meeting Karl, the alpha cow. As she entered the barn for the first of her two daily milkings, I was overwhelmed with the enormity of this mammal. Our daily chores began before sunrise and would include gathering eggs at the chicken coop several times a day, feeding the cows and sheep, wheelbarrowing hay out to pasture for the horses and mucking stalls. When these obligations were filled, we would have special projects, like building fences and uprooting the 4 feet of manure and bedding in the sheep shelter.

The ground was frozen solid in the awakening sunrise hours but would melt somewhat by afternoon. Our footing was constantly challenged during our chores and it was not uncommon to be walking and soon find out that one of our appendages was wearing just a sock as the last step had stolen our boot which was being suctioned into the mud.

Our work on the farm monopolized most of our waking moments. Our main relief from these enjoyable but arduous tasks was mealtime. We ate family style three times a day and everyone would gather in the farmhouse kitchen at the big oak table. Missing a meal was frowned upon, as Ruth, the revered matriarch of this homestead, would spend the majority of her time at her century-old black wood-burning stove cooking creations from what was available from the farm and cupboard or reinventing leftover dinner from the night before. We feasted on stews, farm-raised pork, fresh greens and topped it all off with homemade dressings and cheese.

The word “waste” was not part of our lives or vernacular at Owen Farm. Every scrap, every egg shell, every bone was utilized, whether turned into compost or recycled, and we were very aware of the ramifications of squandering. After lunch, we would take an hour or so before returning outdoors to learn about wet felting, knitting and how to make condiments such as butter.

Ruth and Derek Owen were two of the most beautiful, stoic individuals to cross my path. I learned much from them and was grateful for the rare moments Ruth would take on the role of nurturing Mother. I started to look forward to Derek’s dry, humorous one liners with relief, as much as I welcomed his worn overalls as they would approach me, knowing I was having difficulty with a task. But their lifestyle is in such stark comparison to what I am used to that adapting was one of my greatest challenges.

Having little running water, only a compost toilet and very little time for hygiene, I struggled to let go of routines that are so much a part of my daily existence. Blow dryers, make-up and freshly washed towels did not exist during my stay. The Owens consider those things frivolous, unnecessary, and I must admit, as much as I missed my creature comforts, there was a certain freedom in letting all that go.

Dwelling under these conditions is not for the faint of heart and as I did my damnedest to acclimate, Charles Crawford, who was now being referred to as Farmer Chuck, was fighting his own battles . . .

Like what you’ve read? Check out part three here.

Stacy Santini is a freelance reporter for Times Beacon Record Newspapers. Look for her adventures at Owen Farm in Hopkinton, New Hampshire, and Patch Farm in Denmark, Maine, in the next two issues of Arts & Lifestyles.

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Stacy Santini holds a newborn lamb in the sheep shelter at Owen Farm, Hopkinton, N.H. Photo by Camille Horace

By Stacy Santini

This is the first in a four-part series.

I started WWOOFing this past spring, and no, I do not mean I acquired a new pastime of barking like a dog. I joined a movement that is gaining worldwide momentum and, in some way, is a reminder of the days when joining the Peace Corps was all the rage. I walked through my fear; left my home, family and friends, and entered the world of farming in rural New England. Along with my little dog, Charles Crawford, I boarded the Port Jefferson ferry, kissed suburbia goodbye for several months and embraced a self-imposed challenge that would change me, my value system and perceptions about the world forever.

WWOOF-USA is an entity that gives people the opportunity to work and live on farms throughout the United States and is rapidly injecting awareness into our culture about sustainable living and helping our nation rid itself of an extremely self-entitled and wasteful mindset. One of their key goals is to integrate farming, food, culture and environment.

The WWOOF program began in the United Kingdom in 1971, by Sue Coppard ,under the name “Working Weekends on Organic Farms,” as an opportunity for London city dwellers to experience the growing organic farming evolution in the countryside. Her idea blew wind onto a smoldering brush fire, and today, WWOOF programs, currently known as “Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms,” has expanded to more than 100 countries, each acting independently.

Becoming a WWOOFer is rather simple. One registers online and then arranges their stay with a host family. The website is extremely user friendly and feedback from other WWOOFer’s is inclusive. A prospective WWOOFer’s key task is to identify exactly what type of experience they wish to have, whether it is comprehensive organic farming, working with animals or beekeeping, and of course what part of the world they wish to have this experience in.

The riptide that was my final motivation to embark on this journey was sudden, but the ebb and flow of the currents encouraging me to have this experience were occurring for years.

As a music lover and journalist, I have the privilege of witnessing some of the most creative music being produced. As a result of being a part of the Grateful Dead community for as far back as I can remember, I have had the opportunity to be exposed to bluegrass and roots genres. In recent years, I can, without reservation, say that I have become a dedicated fan of bands like The Infamous Stringdusters, Greensky Bluegrass, Carolina Chocolate Drops and my ultimate favorite, Railroad Earth.

This affinity has lend itself to meeting some of the most down-to-earth, creative and impassioned people in the country. Coming from all walks in life, I found that there was a common denominator, a thread that linked them all together — their love for the earth and their desire to experience nature in the here-and-now.

One such couple’s adventures, Melanie and Matt, whom I now count among my closest friends, became the template for my expedition.

I started to pay close attention to their travels, observed them via social media, living and WWOOFing off the grid in Kodiak, Alaska. I admired their tenacity as they boated amongst whales, built greenhouses and preserved fruit. They were standing in the middle of their dreams and living with freedom and purpose. Their return to New England to run Tracie’s Community Farm, a small, organic farm in Fitzwilliams, New Hampshire, provoked a visit, and it was here I witnessed firsthand the meaning of “the good life” and how it had been hubristic of me to keep walking down a road to “someday.” I quickly noted that my “someday” had arrived and it was time to step out of my comfort zone and follow in their footsteps.

And so my Thoreau-like journey commenced. I started to hike with the Adirondack Mountain Club in the Catskills and began my planning to become a WWOOFer.

Like what you see? Read part two here.

Stacy Santini is a freelance reporter for Times Beacon Record Newspapers. Look for her adventures at Owen Farm in Hopkinton, N.H., and Patch Farm in Denmark, Maine, in the next three issues of Arts & Lifestyles.