Both hosts and guests give and receive during these farm stays

by Mel Paradis | Photography by Jamye Chrisman

Growing up on a shady Chicago city lot, I didn’t know much about growing things. So, after moving to Teton Valley, meeting my husband, and purchasing our Tetonia home and starting a garden, my perspectives on life expanded greatly. The organization known as World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) has become an amazing agent in cultivating that change.

WWOOF is a group of independent agencies in different countries that connect volunteers to gardens and farms where labor is needed. At its most basic level, in exchange for free labor, hosts give volunteers a place to stay and food to eat.

At its heart, though, WWOOF is an exchange of knowledge and cultures.

For our 2011 honeymoon, Jeff and I dreamed of going to Italy. We didn’t just want to see art and churches; we wanted to experience the culture. This is when a friend turned me onto WWOOF. I did some research and found I could learn about Italian-style home cooking, while Jeff could get his physical-activity fix through farm work. I signed up with WWOOF Italia and found Cimbolello, a fifteen-acre farm in Umbria with vineyards, olive groves, sheep, and a small vegetable garden. Francesco, Luisa, and their twenty-something sons, Nico and Sebastiano, took us in and treated us like family. They taught us how to sheer sheep with scissors, make cheese, and set up drip watering systems. For our part, I gave a lesson in making flour tortillas, while Jeff set up a bucket system for sprouting grains to feed the chickens.

“The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” —Masanobu Fukuoka, The One Straw Revolution

During the day we worked the land. By night, we sat at the kitchen table sipping wine while boisterously discussing politics and world views. The highlight of our stay was an excursion to a nearby hot springs. We almost felt back home in the hot water, except for the knowledge that the concrete pools had been built by the Romans two thousand years ago. We left Cimbolello filled with new ideas for our garden and anxious to share the experience with others.

The following summer, I got on the WWOOF–USA website and signed up as a host “farm.” While we do not have a proper farm, the footprint of our garden beds is larger than the footprint of our home. Each year, in addition to the sometimes overwhelming task of prepping garden beds and planting seeds, we have a list of projects we hope to accomplish. The four WWOOFers we have hosted have helped us out tremendously with these ventures.

Our first WWOOFers, David and Aly, were a young road-tripping couple from Wisconsin who arrived in mid-July. After battling through quackgrass to relocate our strawberry patch, they assisted in fencing a newly expanded chicken run. When not working, David and Aly toured the Tetons and enjoyed a respite from life on the road.

The next WWOOFer we hosted was my cousin Sean. He had heard us talk about our experiences and asked if he could come stay with us after his college graduation. An Agriculture Business Management major, Sean came in full of knowledge and enthusiasm. While prepping beds and planting seeds, he helped us think up new ways to extend our growing season. When his hands weren’t in the dirt, he was a tremendous help with our infant daughter, Sylvia.

A few months after Sean left, Eva, a young French woman on a multi-month tour of the United States and Canada, arrived. During her ten-day fall stay, we harvested vegetables, planted garlic, pounded posts for fences, and built four new raised beds. She bonded with Sylvia and sang French lullabies to her. Eva had one dream for her visit to the area: to experience Yellowstone National Park. Because of the time of year, tours were scarce and expensive. Jeff and I hadn’t been into Yellowstone in over five years, so we decided that a loop around the park with an overnight was in order. We felt nostalgia for our trip to Italy as things came full circle when we introduced Eva to her first hot springs, Boiling River, which pours into the Gardner River north of Mammoth Hot Springs.

Each WWOOFer staying with us has given our family far more than labor. David and Aly reminded us of the simplicity of life. Sean’s quest for knowledge and zeal for agriculture got us excited about future projects. Eva made us stop and reconnect with the beauty of where we live. I’m confident that the next WWOOFers to visit our home, as well as WWOOFing trips of our own, will continue to cultivate and improve us as a family.

Visit to learn how to “Start WWOOFING!” as it says on the home page.

The author’s cousin, Sean Flynn, harvesting garlic.

The author’s cousin, Sean Flynn, harvesting garlic.

the author (with pitchfork) and Eva Imperatori of france, digging carrots.

the author (with pitchfork) and Eva Imperatori of france, digging carrots.

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