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WWOOFing in Normandy

Tending an organic farm is exhausting and exhilarating.

By Emily BadgerContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / June 27, 2008

Organic vacation: The Chateau de Monfreville in Normandy is one of 343 French organic farms offering visitors work and contemplation. Many others around the world do the same.

Emily Badger

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June wanted to know if I had any gardening experience, and sheepishly I e-mailed back something about my background in “small-scale urban” agriculture, thinking of the failed 9-by-9-foot vegetable plot I’d had in the backyard of my family’s three-flat in Chicago when I was 12.

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To tell the truth, I knew nothing about farming, couldn’t tell the difference between a trowel and a shovel, straw and hay, a large sheep and a really small cow.

But, then, that was part of the fun. I had a couple of weeks to kill in Europe, and in the middle of a sleepless night at my apartment in Paris, it was suddenly obvious that I should go work on an organic farm – if for no reason other than to e-mail my urban, laptop-tethered friends back in the States, “And now I’m going to go work on an organic farm!”

So I came to be e-mailing with June, the English owner of a 16th-century chateau and 20-acre organic plot in Normandy.

I found her through the network of World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, which made me a potential WWOOFer, her a “WWOOFer host” and our joint venture – my labor in exchange for her guest room and cooking – something called WWOOFing.

There are, it turns out, thousands of people in the world who say these things regularly. The directory listed 343 farms in France alone.

I’ve never been particularly organic, and I had a vague sense that my best qualification for this job was that I like to do yoga, which is something organic people seem to like, too.

The movement, though, doesn’t draw the bulk of its WWOOFers from farmers hoping to bring new organic techniques back to their own backyard polytunnels.

Rather, the idea appeals to the adventurer, the wandering soul, the liberal who wants to do more than pay for carbon offsets. I felt a little of all that.

And then I felt just giddy when I looked at pictures of the farm on June’s website where she promotes the bed and breakfast she and her partner David also run on the property.

The place was breathtaking. And I was going to be staying for free somewhere English weekenders pay 100 bucks a night to vacation? Hardly seemed fair.

“Yeah,” a friend said when I confessed this, “but aren’t you going to be doing a lot of manual labor?”

I bought a pair of gardening gloves with cute strawberry-shaped stitching over the knuckles and boarded a train to Normandy. The next day I got up with the sun to spread compost in the polytunnel.

For two weeks I worked alongside Antje, a 24-year-old woman who’d just finished a three-year carpentry apprenticeship in Berlin, only to discover she didn’t want to be a carpenter after all.

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