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

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Christina Allen shows off her garden, which has taken a toll from the recent droughts.
Sabri Ben-Achour
Christina Allen shows off her garden, which has taken a toll from the recent droughts.

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, crunches into it, and tests it for ripeness.

"If the seeds are black, it's ready", she explains. "This one is 90 percent ready, we could make cider."

One of Allen's inquisitive and rare beige colored Jersey Buff Turkeys stares longingly at the core and gladly pecks at it.

Allen is showing her farmhands how to harvest apples. The farmhands, Bob Geisel and Erin Salsbury, have been up since 6 a.m. They've weeded, harvested, moved mulch, processed applesauce, made vinegar, and at times, have scraped chicken poop out of the chicken coop.

These are not, however, farmhands like from a John Steinbeck novel. They're doing this... for fun.

"[We want] to tap out of the rat race for both of us", explains Salsbury, "a slower lifestyle, better for the environment. Since it seems like there's a lot of things happening to the earth right now, wanting to go back to basics."

Salsbury and Geisel stay for free in a small yellow cottage on the 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.

"We're looking at homesteading, too, as a couple, so this is good practice for us," she says. "We're learning transplanting, what animals eat, how to take care of animals, and identifying weeds... simple things like that, 'cause I'm very new at this. It's a whole lot so I take what I can, and I write it down at night so I can keep track."

This thing they're doing — sort of organic farming tourism/apprenticeship — is a real thing. It's called WWOOFing, which stands for World Wide Opportunities for 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."

Sara Potenza helped start it in the U.S. She says it's a lot of fun and a cultural sort of exchange, but these days, it's an economic issue for some.

"Small family farms do it because they're 'squeaking to get by," she says. "In the last couple of years, our membership has doubled pretty much each year from the previous year. So, I attribute a lot of that to the way the economy has been in the last couple years and people are looking for something more affordable."

Back under the apple trees at the Allen homestead, a few 5-gallon buckets (and a few turkeys) are full of apples. There is an incredible amount to learn on this farm.

Apples become fruit leathers, cider, vinegar and applesauce. Sheep become mutton, blankets and washcloths, chickenfeed, and compost.

Turkeys eat bad apples, miniature sheep eat weeds, their manure becomes apples as fertilizer, and they become dinner.

There's even a catfish tub. They live on algae, and their manure water is used to water the greenhouse plants.

Everything is done without pesticides or chemicals, and everything is put to good use.

"It's a lot for people to get," she says. "They think they can get it in a day or two, or a week, or a few weeks, and it really is a year for a few cycles, and then you get some years with new problems."

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

"We got lots of potatoes this year, garlic, onions everything is ours, and there is some juice in here... I used elderberry juice for the gravy," says Allen.

The Allen and her husband, the WWOOFers, and some neighbors all sit around the dining room over their delicious, and homegrown lunch.

"Dale was a beautiful bird," Allen says. "He was 20 pounds. I cooked him, deboned him... I get really mad when someone leaves things on their plate after you've raised that bird, fed it, and you cook it and all that work that goes into it, and it's like any nameless chicken."

Getting back to the basics

All kinds of people pass through as WWOOFers.

"It's an incredible spectrum," says Frank Allen. "We had one who just graduated from high school, and you have some people who are having trouble finding jobs, finding themselves."

Many people do this as an apprenticeship before starting their own organic farms. Others do it as a cultural experience. "We had a woman from Russia who wanted to see the culture, but I don't think she realized we're not normal," he says. "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, terrified of chickens, but he was a good sport."

For Bob Geisel and Erin Salsbury, now picking aronia berries, it's about centering themselves.

Geisel is semi-retired. He used to be an electrical engineer for Northrup Grumman. But, he got tired of it and left. His mother says he's crazy. But he says he's free, and he enjoys learning how to be self-sufficient.

"Where you're dependent on other products and people for you to survive, I don't want to do that," he says. I don't want be dependent on people."

Salsbury, a trauma specialist, is also looking for something very basic, something she says she'll find in being close to the earth.

"I work with survivors of severe trauma," she says. "And it's so fascinating 'cause when I explore their life to find something that will help calm their trauma system, the heart rate, the flashbacks, I find something in their childhood that's really powerful. And it's always something related to nature, and it's always something grounding. So I think being in nature is really healing."

And for Christina and Frank Allen, it's about sharing their way of life.

"We're trying to pass on information before we die," she says. "We have so many people always asking us, 'how do I butcher a chicken, how do I grow that.'"

Soon it'll be time to water the animals, bring in the flocks, and close up the greenhouses. And then, start over again the next morning.

"We're just trying to live a good, decent life I guess," says Allen. "We're not trying to change the world, just our little part here."

[Music: "Familiar Ground" by The Cinematic Orchestra from Ma Fleur]

Photos: Tourists Farming

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