"tourists" Till The Land, Learn Farming From The Ground Up (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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'Tourists' Till the Land, Learn Farming from The Ground Up

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
Speaking of physical activity, here's a job that's chock full of it, farming. But if you've never farmed before, the learning curve for growing crops or caring for livestock, well, it can be pretty steep. That's why a growing number of farms are taking on newcomers, willing to work for little to no pay for a chance to apprentice on the land. Sabri Ben-Achour headed to St. Mary's County in southern Maryland to take us inside a process known as WWOOFing.

MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR

00:00:30
It's apple season on Christina Allen's organic homestead farm. And as she trudges through her orchard, she grabs a piece of fruit from a tree and cuts it for ripeness.

MS. CHRISTINA ALLEN

00:00:39
Mm-hmm. It's almost ready.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:00:42
She's looking at the seeds. If the seeds are black, then it's ready. If they're not quite black, then it's not quite ready.

ALLEN

00:00:46
Ninety percent. We could probably make the cider.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:00:48
One of Allen's inquisitive and rare beige color jersey buff turkeys stares longingly at the core.

ALLEN

00:00:54
That's Wilma. Hi, Wilma. I'm leaving this for Wilma. Is it good? Yeah, she likes it. They love the sound of that.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:03
Allen is showing her farmhands how to harvest apples.

ALLEN

00:01:07
Take the apples off. Make sure you get it completely so it's stripped clean of apples.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:10
The farmhands, Bob Geisel and Erin Salsbury, have been up since 6 a.m. They've weeded, they've harvested.

MR. BOB GEISEL

00:01:15
I'm raking all of this off because this is the mulch that keeps the weeds and moisture in.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:21
They've processed applesauce and made vinegar. They spend some days with the chickens.

MS. ERIN SALSBURY

00:01:26
Create dried manure with crud on it from the chicken coop.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:30
Now these aren't farmhands from like a John Steinbeck novel, they're doing this for fun.

SALSBURY

00:01:36
To tap out of the rat race for both of us and having a little slower lifestyle and better for the environment. There's a lot of things happening to the earth right now, wanting to go back to basics.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:48
Salsbury and Geisel stay for free in a small yellow cottage on this homestead. And in return they help Christina Allen and her husband Frank on the farm and learn a thing or two about organic farming and living along the way.

SALSBURY

00:01:59
And we're looking at homesteading, too, as a couple. So this is good practice for us.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:02:05
This thing that they're doing. This sort of organic farming, tourism/apprenticeship is a real thing. It's called WWOOFing, World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. It started in the '70s and there's a whole U.S. organization devoted to matching volunteers with the 17,000 farms looking for participants.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:02:26
Under the apple trees a few five-gallon buckets are full of apples now and so are a few turkeys. And now it's on to the cider press.

ALLEN

00:02:39
Because it's a drought this year, they've been a little drier. I'd say if we get three quarts, that'll be good.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:02:48
There is an incredible amount to learn on this farm. The turkeys and the sheep eat the bad apples and the grass in the orchard. Their manure fertilizes the trees, their bones go into a compost heap that makes larvae to supplement the chicken feed.

ALLEN

00:02:59
It's a lot for people to get. They think they can get it in a day or two or even a week or a few weeks. And it really is a year for a full cycle.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:03:07
In house it's time for lunch. A spread of orange watermelon, zucchini and turkey casserole is on the table.

ALLEN

00:03:14
Okay, this is Dale.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:03:17
The turkey.

ALLEN

00:03:18
Yes. And our potatoes. We got lots of potatoes this year. Our onions, our garlic, everything in here's ours.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:03:26
Christina and Frank, the WWOOFers and some neighbors, sit around the dining room over their delicious and home-grown lunch.

ALLEN

00:03:33
Who says you aren't what you eat? You are. Of course you are.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:03:36
Frank and Christina Allen get all kinds of people who come through here to learn about what they do.

MR. FRANK ALLEN

00:03:40
It's an incredible spectrum. We had one that was one -- had just graduated from high school. He did a deferred enrollment for college. Then you have some people that are, you know, they're having trouble finding jobs, they're trying to find themselves. You have some people that are doing this as vacation.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:03:57
A lot of people do it because they're starting their own organic farms. And other people do it just as a cultural experience.

ALLEN

00:04:03
And then we had a guy from South Korea who was a city kid and he was way over his head. He was terrified of electric fences. He was terrified of chickens. He was terrified of everything, you know. But he was a good sport and he was -- had a nice personality.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:04:20
For Bob Geisel and Erin Salsbury, now out picking aronia berries, it's about centering themselves.

GEISEL

00:04:25
I'm semi-retired. I left the corporate world. I used to be an electrical engineer at Northrop Grumman. So I got tired of it. And I'm just -- anything I can learn about self-sufficiency without being dependent on other products and people for you to survive.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:04:45
Salsbury's also looking for something, something very basic. Something she says she'll find in being close to the earth.

SALSBURY

00:04:52
I'm a trauma specialist. So I work with survivors of severe trauma. And it's so fascinating 'cause I found that when I explore their life to try to find something that will help calm their trauma system, the fast heart rate, the flashbacks. I try to find something in their childhood that was really powerful. And it is always something related to nature, and it is always so grounding to them.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:05:15
And for Christina and Frank Allen, it's about sharing their way of life. It's about passing on what they know before they die.

ALLEN

00:05:22
We're just trying to live a good, decent life I guess. And trying to, you know -- maybe by example some people might be interested in what we're doing. And if they're interested, fine. And we're willing to help them. But, no, we're not trying to change the world I think. Or we're just trying to change our part of it. Our little oasis here.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:05:44
Soon it'll be time to water the animals, bring in the flocks, close up the green houses and start all over again tomorrow morning. I'm Sabri Ben-Achour.

SHEIR

00:06:00
For more information on organic farming and WWOOFing -- I just love saying that word, WWOOFing. And even a recipe for cantaloupe ice cream, check out our website, metroconnection.org.
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