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|July 31-August 6, 2008
Trendy young farmers
Young urbanites are leaving the city behind to volunteer on organic farms
by Jessica Sidman
In 27-year-old Chris Becker’s cramped New York City apartment building, neighbors rarely greeted one another beyond a head nod or a grunt.
Becker, a chef, spent two and a half hours commuting every day and worked up to 80 hours a week in a restaurant where chicken with sage, sangiovese, schiacciata and carrots went for $90.
Now he’s given it all up to harvest vegetables in the hot Texas sun — without pay.
Becker and his wife, Amanda Becker, 28, are spending the summer on an organic farm in Waco run by World Hunger Relief, a nonprofit that provides free dormlike housing and food to young volunteers in exchange for their labor.
And it’s not just the Beckers. Twenty-somethings across the country are fleeing the cities and suburbs to volunteer on organic farms.
World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms USA, one of the best-known organizations matching volunteers with organic farms, quintupled its membership between 2003 and 2007. Last year, it had 2,643 volunteers.
Now, not only does Becker know all of his neighbors, he shares hand-harvested meals with them nearly every day. He showers with rainwater collected from his roof. He can milk a goat. And he knows that “pushing the poop down the shoot” means knocking down the build-up in the latrines when they get too full.
“Part of understanding food and how to cook it is understanding where it comes from,” Becker said, explaining why he left New York.
Some volunteers work for a week, others a year or more. But all in all, this new generation of farmers is frustrated with mainstream consumer culture, disturbed by the corporatization of farming and aching for a break from stressful, fast-paced lives.
Plus, the fresh-off-the-vine tomatoes are really that good.
“It’s definitely a trend. It’s kind of like the cool thing to do,” farm manager David Cole, 27, said about the influx of young volunteers over the past few years. “Most of the people that seem to be really going after it are people that have no farm experience at all.”
The young farmers of World Hunger Relief don’t see themselves as farmers in the traditional sense.
Yes, they have farmer’s tans and sometimes wear overalls, but some also have trendy square-rimmed glasses and pierced noses. They update the egg inventory but also a farm blog. And they have wireless Internet but no flush toilets.
The 15 current interns and volunteers in Waco, mostly in their early to mid-20s, come from all over Texas and as far away as Canada, Ghana and Michigan. Though World Hunger Relief is a Christian organization, its religious foundation isn’t always obvious beyond grace at meals. But some volunteers come to learn farming techniques they can use later as missionaries in developing countries.
“Originally, I was like ‘Whoa, Waco? Is this going to be some kind of cult?’ “ said 27-year-old Will Summers, who grew up El Paso, Texas, and majored in film at the University of Texas in Austin.
But there’s no Kool-Aid here, only raw goat’s milk.
World Hunger Relief, like most farms that attract young suburban-urbanites, is a Community Supported Agriculture operation. Instead of shipping produce to grocery stores, the farm divides each week’s harvest between locals who pay a monthly fee.
But unlike other farms, World Hunger Relief is an educational nonprofit funded by grants and donations, not just produce profits.
“People really want to reconnect with things in their everyday life. You know, food comes from the earth,” Summers said. “When you can establish a relationship with a farmer, you can see the chickens that are laying your eggs and know the guy who’s planting the seeds.”
After spending a summer volunteering on farms in Australia, Summers went to work in his uncle’s law firm.
Now he’s back to pulling weeds instead of files.
“This Bermuda grass is just impossible to get rid of. Even when you pull it out, the roots are so deep,” Summers says, yanking a tuft from the dirt. Instead of using pesticides, he’s gotten a giant plastic sheet to cover the garden. The temperatures beneath will reach 140 degrees.
“This kills everything,” he says as he and two others unroll the plastic sheet. “I’m so excited about this. I know; it’s geeky.”
At the chicken coops, Darren Croo, a 23-year-old from outside Detroit, counts and collects eggs. He is taking the year off to work on the farm before applying to medical school. He wants to be a neurosurgeon.
“Premedical studies are very competitive, and a lot of time is spent in the library,” Croo said. “I just kind of felt alive down here.”
While the others work on odd jobs around the farm, Becker spends the morning picking tomatoes and jalapenos, then dicing them up into a giant batch of pico de gallo. He also prepares rabbit braised in tomatoes for the communal lunch.
The farm bell rings, and everyone files in, covered in dirt and sweat.
As they guzzle water from recycled mason jars, they discuss “Saturday Night Live” skits, the release of “Wall-E” and how one of the goats has the runs.
But despite the array of fresh fruits and vegetables, the zucchini bread and Balderdash game nights, and the 50-step commute, Becker confesses there is one thing he misses about New York.
“I can’t order takeout.”
VOLUNTEER ON AN ORGANIC FARM
World Hunger Relief
This Christian nonprofit helps people learn more about sustainable farming. Live-in volunteers must apply and are expected to work 20 hours a week in exchange for housing and food. Intern assistantships are available for people interested in farm managerial positions.
World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms-USA
This group links volunteers with organic farms across the country. Single memberships cost $20, and members receive a directory of more than 600 host farms that they can contact directly to arrange a stay. Volunteers are expected to work up to six hours a day in exchange for accommodations and food, but arrangements vary.
More volunteer farms
To search for more volunteer and internship opportunities on organic farms, check out these sites:
Source: Dallas Morning News research
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