Down to Earth: Explore Organic Farming

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By Jim Long

I first learned about WWOOFers through Kyle Christensen, a former editorial assistant at The Herb Companion who left the publishing world for WWOOFing. WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) began in New Zealand and spread worldwide. Kyle traveled for much of a year, spending from two weeks to two months on organic farms across New Zealand and Australia. Because of his stories about the wonderful families he met and the WWOOFers he encountered, I enrolled as a host farm in the WWOOF directory.

Over the past two years, we’ve enjoyed a diverse assortment of WWOOFers at Long Creek Herb Farm. The youngest was 18, WWOOFing through a gap year before college; the oldest a couple near retirement who came to work during their summer vacation.

WWOOF volunteers labor for five hours a day, five days a week, in exchange for learning organic agriculture techniques. They pay their own transportation, while the responsibility of the farmer is to provide food and lodging. It’s an outstanding opportunity for both the volunteers, who learn from experts, and for the farmers, who benefit by seeing their operations through fresh eyes.

Our first and most diligent WWOOFer of this past season was Adam, a 23-year-old artist and recent graduate of the Art Institute of Philadelphia. He had volunteered on other farms previously, but came to us specifically to learn about culinary herb growing. I had surgery in January of last year and told him I was nearly desperate to see the garden underway in May. Adam agreed to arrive early.

From the start, Adam had clear goals. He wanted to know what it takes to grow herbs of all kinds, and wanted to explore turning those crops into meals.

As the planting season came to a close, Adam began planning for a move to another farm where he might be needed more. I urged him to consider staying an entire season, so as to see the maintenance of crops and the harvest season, as well as planting. He had never experienced an entire season from beginning to end, so he decided to stay until fall.

Occasionally, I’d glance down from my window upstairs where I write to the garden below, and I’d see Adam grab an herb and poke it into his mouth. I taught myself the flavors and fragrances of plants using that method decades ago; crushing, crumbling, nibbling everything as I passed. I laughed to see him take a particular liking to papalo (Porophyllum ruderale) without being put off by its strong scent or common name, “Buzzard’s Breath.”

By early summer, Adam was harvesting every crop as it came ready and bringing those bounties indoors with ideas for how they could be incorporated into the meals I prepared. He taught himself intuitive cooking, tasting or smelling an herb and creating a recipe in his mind for how it would combine with other flavors and foods, then bringing it all together in the kitchen.

Adam’s enthusiasm for harvesting produce was exciting to see. He was so excited, in fact, that he promptly ate the first few red raspberries. After that, he delivered a regular bounty to the kitchen. He harvested the daily supply of cucumbers or tomatoes with a handful of Thai basil, some peppers or a bouquet of herbs. Adam would already have a recipe in mind for supper.

Adam loved to experiment, and had an amazing talent for combining herbs into gourmet concoctions. He would approach a flavor in several ways. Papalo, for example, was dried, fried, crushed into ice water, made into tea, stir-fried and chopped up in salsa. In Adam’s attempts to find all the ways this herb would be useful, he made teas and tisanes, liqueurs, pickles and more. What was intriguing to me was his inquisitiveness. He would explore each herb from as many approaches as he could until he felt he knew that herb well.

Adam worked hard in the garden, generally working long hours. For the first time in my life, I felt comfortable turning over much of the gardening responsibilities to someone else. It has always been my personal domain. While I had already accumulated the seeds and plants for the garden, Adam took on the challenge of finding additional places for things, creating new beds in areas I’d not had the energy or inspiration for; and he gave us the best garden in a quarter century.

The bounty of the garden increased, in part because of abundant rains, but primarily because Adam harvested produce at its prime. Most herbs, and all vegetables, produce more bountifully if harvested often. By harvesting what was available each day, we ate extremely well from the garden all summer long and many of our evening meals looked like something out of a magazine.

Adam’s enthusiasm and excitement about each plant, each herb and even each insect inspired me tremendously. I’ve always loved the garden, but it was especially enjoyable for me to see someone else exploring and learning the very things I hold so dear. As glad as I was for this labor, seeing Adam expand his passion for herbs and gardening was his greatest gift to me.

Contributing Editor Jim Long writes and gardens at his farm, Long Creek Herbs, in the Ozark Mountains.

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