As a student with one year remaining of a Bachelor’s degree in Food Science, the looming promise of graduation and entry into the “real world” is all too daunting. Days of lectures and studying turn into weeks of monotony and conformity. In an environment that makes a concerted effort to mold students into the clones of capitalism, it becomes all too difficult to break that chain. When I thought to myself about how I would spend this last summer of freedom, I was pulled in many directions. Would I get an internship at a big corporation, like so many of my other counterparts? Would I stay at my current job and start saving for my future? Would I take summer courses? In the end, another non-conventional option won out. One that involved a conglomeration of traveling, learning, volunteering, and expanding my horizons in more ways than I could have imagined.
My journey began with the organization Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or more colloquially known as “WWOOFing.” The premise of WWOOFing is that host families house and feed volunteers, in exchange for work on their organic farms. A pretty simple concept, with vast opportunities to learn about organic farming principles and authentic culture in the surrounding areas. After a few encounters with people who had experienced WWOOFing, and a bit of research, I decided that my summer would be best spent volunteering on organic farms in Europe. Throughout the planning stages of this adventure, I, along with my travelling partner Gary, narrowed down three countries we would visit: Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovenia. Once we created our WWOOFing profiles online and messaged potential host families, we finally narrowed down three farms that we would be volunteering on. All that was left to do was wait.
As my final exams were finished, June rolled around quickly and I boarded my first flight into the unknown. I said goodbye to my parents, my friends, and my familiar way of life for the next three months. Landing in Czech Republic brought a multitude of thoughts to my mind, “What would it be like there? How would they view me, as an American? What skills would I learn? What jobs would I do?” We arrived via bus to our farm, on a gravel path with the trees, sun, and sky there to greet us. Our first destination would be a massive estate with an incredible view of the surrounding fields and lakes. The next two weeks would consist of tending to the goats, making cheese from their milk, weeding vegetable beds, planting seeds, and feeding the chickens and pigs. It was enjoyable work, and a good change in pace from my busy day-to-day life back in the States. We spent equal time working and taking in the local culture in Southern Bohemia, through various day trips and festivals.
Our hosts were very good to us. The wife did most of the manual labor on the farm, while the husband watched from his office above –an interesting dynamic. It was empowering to see such a strong woman juggling the many responsibilities of the farm, along with caring for her two children. The husband was well-learned and engaged in many conversations with me on politics, religion, and education. I was not surprised that the political strife my country was facing came up in our conversations regularly. It was hard having a constant negative association with my government placed upon me, and I quickly realized that this was a theme that would follow me for the duration of my trip. This farm was our first dabble into WWOOFing, and I was even more excited to see what the next two farms had in store for us.
We waved goodbye to the Czech Republic and carried onto our next farm in the remote countryside of Hungary. The train ride was long and arduous, given the incredible heat and the heavy pack on my back. It arrived at our destination, and there we were greeted by our new host. We rode back to the house where we would be staying at for the next week –a real change of pace from the Czech Republic, with the town being a bit more rustic and less developed. The work varied a great deal, from staking tomato plants and harvesting vegetables like sweet peas, to picking sour cherries from the tree and pruning bad leaves off of the grape vines. I learned about self-sustainability, and the effort it takes to grow organically from working at this farm. A day that still resonates with me is when we harvested a massive pile of sweet pea vines, for two or three hours, only to see that we were rewarded with a mere half bucket of peas. It made me look at a simple can of peas in a whole new light. In America, we take for granted the fact that we can drive to the grocery store and pick out fruits and vegetables right off of the shelf. There is no depth of understanding that those canned peas were grown on a vine, picked from their shells, washed, thermally processed, and packaged into the can we see before us. The massive industrialization of our food sources has created a disconnect between people and the plants that provide us with nourishment. It was a huge epiphany for me.
Our hosts were amazing to us once again, and we enjoyed dialect about the destruction that common pesticides cause to the environment and local water sources, along with comparing politics and economies of Germany, Hungary, America, and England. I enjoyed the long days under the sun, cutting off the diseased leaves of the grape vines used to make wine for our hosts. Another realization came to me on those days about the commitment our hosts had to being not only organic, but better than organic. They would not compromise by using any form of chemical on their plants, not even those approved for organic crops, like copper. They also inspired me by their dedication to self-sustainability; every meal we ate was comprised of things they grew or that were sourced from neighbors in their village. Never in my life had I had a clear picture of where exactly my food was coming from, and better yet it all came from a less than one mile radius from the spot I consumed it in. My time in Hungary changed the way I look at my food, and helped me realize that the industrialization of food has created an apathy to acknowledging where our food comes from and why it matters.
Equipped with a new mindset on the food system, Gary and I travelled on an overnight bus to the capital of Slovenia, Ljubljana. We arrived at 4 a.m. just in time to trek up the hill to Ljubljana Castle to see the sunrise. We headed out to the countryside the following day to our third and final farm. The mountains of the Julian Alps surrounded us from above and the lush forest welcomed us on the ground. This farm was a much more established business than the previous two; there was a farm shop, a mill used to process grain from farmers in the surrounding area, fields full of organically-grown vegetables and grains, fruit trees and bushes that covered the backyard, as well as hand-built, wooden cabins for tourists to stay in. The work days had a clear schedule and specific tasks to be completed. The other farms gave jobs more sporadically, so it was motivating to have organized expectations laid out each day for us. The list of jobs went on and on –picking garlic, onions, spingles, plums, carrots, raspberries, blackberries, potatoes, and peas, milling grains, caring for the chickens and pigs, packaging products for the farm shop, baling hay, putting up fencing, cleaning tourist cabins, and bottling beer. Our hosts were beyond amazing to us, and we felt like part of the family during our stay there. My time on this farm impacted me in many ways. Our hosts’ work ethic was truly admirable, getting up before us volunteers every day and working long past our finishing time. The variety of products they produced had me in awe. From jams and pickled vegetables, to homemade bread and beer, it was truly unbelievable. Once again, our meals were comprised of things harvested on their land, including the meat. I watched as the husband of our host family processed chickens for us to eat. The live chicken I saw moments ago became cuts found at any grocery store in America. As difficult as it was to watch an animal be killed, it was an important event to watch and reflect upon. As a meat eater, it is necessary to recognize that the chicken cuts wrapped in cellophane were once part of a living being. The cuts didn’t magically appear, and if we can’t bear to watch a chicken or pig or cow be killed then maybe we should rethink how much meat we consume every day. It was an experience that reinforced my thought on our disengagement with food we eat every day.
Another difference we encountered was that Gary and I weren’t the only volunteers at this farm; we were joined by a girl from France and a couple from Portugal. Not only did their company make the work days seem shorter and more enjoyable, but it provided a valuable exchange of culture and ideas. No matter what country we came from, we shared the same view that living off of the land in a responsible and sustainable way seemed the only way to live. A simple life rising with the sun and working to put food on the table (not just a paycheck) seemed natural to our existence as humans –yet this way of life is so far removed from what we experience in our home countries.
After three months of travelling, learning, and living, it came time to fly home. I packed my bags and took this new mindset with me as I prepared to adjust to my old life of routine. In the subsequent days, I reflected often on the lessons learned on my journey. The most significant of these being the new worldview given to me on our food system and alternative ways of living. In the United States, it’s easy to get lost in the busy hum of everyday life. Very rarely do we stop and take a minute to breathe for fear that the people we are constantly competing with will surpass us in that moment. Without stopping, we transition from childhood to university student, to graduate, to full-time employee. That young child with an ideal mindset of the world no longer exists and the hopes and dreams we once had get swallowed into the abyss of the 9am-5pm grind. Pulling myself away from this atmosphere for the summer allowed me that moment to sit and reflect on where to take my life. In my experiences abroad, I met countless people –husbands, wives, families– who wake up every day thankful for the earth and all it bears. They work hard to put good, organic food on the table. They live a life of simplicity and humbleness and contentment. To me, what other way is there to live besides with harmony and gratitude for the earth and all who live in it? In the broader picture, my time away showed me that although the modern and industrialized food system is efficient and profitable, it inhibits a natural conception of food. This allows the consumer to disregard what pesticides and chemicals were used and how negatively they affect the environment and our bodies. Organic and self-sustainable living is hard work and requires a certain amount of regression to times before modernization –something hard to grasp for many contemporary societies. The fruits of this way of life are better quality food, an independence from the corporate food industry, and less contamination of soil and water sources. So, as I return to my university with this knowledge, I am met with the same pressure of conformity to the industry that I endured before I left. The difference is that I have an underlying enlightenment to the new ways in which I can understand and expand my knowledge of our food system beyond my Bachelor’s degree in Food Science. I can immerse myself with other experiences outside of the classroom that encourage a connection to the food we eat, not just a desire to profit from it. As difficult as it is readjusting to life at University, I smile with a new perspective on the things I am learning, and I anxiously await the day I receive my diploma. At last, the confines of the system placed upon me will be freed, and from there the true cultivation of knowledge begins.