Homeless to Homestead

“Route guidance can no longer
be provided in

this area. Please
proceed with
extra caution for the remainder of your trip.”

The abnormal disclaimer from my hybrid’s navigation system quickly proved prophetic as we turned off Route 33 down a dirt road, just shy of Athens. I deferred navigation duties to my co-pilot, Natalia, as we were forced to rely on pre-printed directions to get us to where we were going without cell service.

“It says the road sign is missing, but to hang a left at the county road sign here, then ‘up a small hill, around a curve, then up a big hill.’ Does this look like a small hill? Or are we already at the big hill? Wait, where the hell are we?” she asked, her anxiety increasing.

Natalia and I have been friends for years. Together we’ve traveled to developing countries, gone without electricity for a week, and built fires to warm water for outdoor showers.

This is the first time I recall her threatening a serious you owe me as we pull into the rural Appalachian farm.

The Call of the Farm

I talk about local foods for a living. My client list is overwhelmingly that of farmers, and I’ve been known to get emotional about an heirloom tomato. I care about where my food comes from. I am invested in the process—from seed to harvest, birth to slaughter, the ritual is an art to me beyond filling my belly with fresh foods.

But I am in no way a farmer.

I am not particularly strong. Calluses are foreign to my fingers and my endurance is only tested to when I work on design projects for longer than a single hour. I haven’t a plot of land to call my own and am nowhere near permanently planting roots anywhere, literally or figuratively. So when I found myself at the end of my Short North apartment lease, I decided to hold off on putting down a deposit on another landless rental and instead submerge myself in sustainable agriculture through the work exchange program, “WWOOF.” Scrolling through invitations to over 2,000 Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms in the United States alone, I responded to the most interesting local synopsis, from a “queer family with two kids” with a passion for connecting the community through food, for my inaugural WWOOF-ing experience.

All it took was a few brief email exchanges and I’d confirmed the details of our stay: five hours of work for five days in exchange for room and board on a pesticide-and-plumbing-free farm.

I packed my worldly belongings in my car and we were off.

We can do this, we told ourselves. We could do anything we want.

Less than Free Range

“We could leave,” Natalia said, staring dead ahead at the chickens pecking their way around my car. “What’s the worst that could happen? They don’t let us come back? Is that such a bad thing?”

She was right. After our arrival on the farm, we’d shared a mostly silent meal with the host family and a female intern from Germany who’d been traveling across America for the past year. Having been on this farm for two weeks now, she had the lay of the land and we were informed that she would be in charge of us during our stay. That assignment fulfilled the extent of the host’s expressed interest in us. The intern eyed us suspiciously, no doubt wondering what she’d done wrong in another life to receive the two of us as relief.

“At least I somewhat look the part,” Natalia whispered to me as we cleared the dishes from our one communal meal of the week, per our WWOOF agreement. I gave my denim dress and black rubber boots a second glance. Natalia clad herself in aristocratic-Rastafarian threads and fit in relatively well as we walked around the feminist farm. “You make it look like we’re shooting rural soft porn,” I told her. Our functional yet fashionable dress was not well received.

Our new home tour ended abruptly when our German guide stopped in front of a silver SUV. “This is my car. I sleep in my car. I am in my car by 8 o’ clock,” she told us. “Goodnight.”

We looked down at our phones: 7:48 p.m. She wasn’t kidding.

“We could leave,” Natalia reiterated, facing me. This time it sounded like a plea rather than a suggestion. “We could,” I said, surveying our exit strategy. “But the gate is closed.”

So we stayed, pitched a tent and tried to sleep, not wanting to find out what the morning would bring.

The Rural Rundown

A dozen eggs. One package of white rice, a fistful of angel hair pasta. Three small zucchinis, a single tomato, a small loaf of homemade bread, and a pound of butter. Coconut oil for cooking. Two cans of black beans, another of garbanzo. No can opener.

“Oh good god,” Natalia said, shutting the door to the mini-fridge that was somehow being powered in the middle of our forest kitchen. “We’re going to starve. What are we supposed to eat?” I shook my head, trying to keep my demeanor confident as I slowly started preparing our first breakfast on the farm. I was the advocate after all. I’d got us into this mess and was determined to make our initial reactions a laughing matter by the end of the week.

Two tries of the pilot light did the trick, and we gulped down our scrambled eggs in time for our farmer-in-chief to walk down the way from her car, promptly at 8:30 a.m. as promised the night before.

“Ready for the day?” the intern asked. Natalia punched my arm as we grabbed our water bottles and were off on our weeklong adventure.

Day One: Fed and watered the cows, chickens, turkeys, sheep, goat, and pigs.

Cleared a segment of the forest to make a line for a fence. Started building a fence out of tree debris (a placeholder until they can afford a real one). Weeded the garden. Ate three eggs. Weeded more. Escaped to downtown Athens for burritos and Jackie O’s beer. Called Natalia’s dad for consultation (“Are we bad people if we leave early?” etc., etc.). Returned to the farm at 7 p.m. for evening chores. Avoided falling asleep out of exhaustion, knew tomorrow would be just as hard.

Day Two: Observed our host based on limited interaction; failed experiment of going bra-less by example. Phobia of birds got real in the poultry pen during morning feeding. Continued chopping down the forest with handsaw and hedge trimmers.

Helped give animals organic garlicky-green de-wormer. Accidentally spilled goop on the white goat. Gifted homemade granola and yogurt for lunch. Shared a pair of gardening gloves to stop the small cuts from continuously bleeding. Again escaped to downtown Athens for Wi-Fi and more Jackie O’s before evening farm feeding.

Day Three: Almost killed a curious chicken while moving the “broilers” to greener grasses. Relieved to learn the barn only gets mucked once a year. Felt faint after finding the one in 52 odds fell against us. Rescued from shit-shoveling to teach our host’s son how to write entry-level computer code inside. Bought Natalia a gallon of ice cream as consolation for abandoning her in the barn. Ate it out of the carton in a park-and-ride where we could get cell service. Shared a six-pack of Jackie O’s by the fire. Decided feeding the animals is the only “fun” part. Snuck the pigs extra apples and eggs. Taught farmers #treatyoself.

Day Four: Conducted chores in the pouring rain, noting our environment matched our mood. Finished mucking the barn and spreading the manure on the garden beds.

Emptied human waste from the outhouse while we were at it (nothing fazed us at this point.). Made sauerkraut for our host from the last of the cabbage we harvested.

Met a man who helped us identify edible weeds. Shared a dinner of raw eggs (that we’d collected and washed ourselves) over hot rice. Had a holistic revelation of this is what it’s all about. Warmed up inside our host’s house to watch the movie Pride. Drew parallels between farmworkers’ and LGBTQ members’ rights. Realized we were feeding the animals leftover grains straight from Jackie O’s brewery. Had another “moment” about my love for the local food system.

Day five: Ate the last eggs we’d want to encounter for a while. Said goodbye to the animals we’d been providing for all week. Caught ourselves blissfully waving to a duck without a left eye. Refilled the solar shower pouch for the last time as we would have running water soon. Hugged our host and the other intern, still unsure of their affinity for us, yet over it at this point as we had exhausted ourselves all week. 

Kicked up a thick cloud of dust as we sped down the dirt road out of town.

Learning the Hard Way

“It’s not like we can’t do the work, we just don’t want to,” I told Natalia on the way home, feeling a bit guilty about our indifference toward the experience. I thought I’d spend a week finding my identity in agriculture, harvesting the fruits of my labor for farm-to-fork dinners, running wild in fields with baby bovine or whatever. I was wrong. I couldn’t wait to get back to my field of work, to get paid for pressing buttons. But just because my delusional daydream was way off doesn’t mean my love affair with farming is fraudulent, rather it grew through this experience.

Farming, especially organically, is f’in hard. It takes a lot of work, all day, every day, to (literally) put food on the table. Yes, there’s a special sort of charm to taking care of chickens to receive the most beautiful eggs you’ve ever seen in return, but not without a lot of legwork and little pay to clear trees just to build a temporary fence to keep them on the farm in the first place.

With this new food movement it’s become a modern dream to have a five-acre farm, yet it’s not for everyone. Does this mean the weak should revert back to drive-thrus and big-box grocery stores? Absolutely not. But we can be mindful of the labor going into local, natural foods by paying the price for a higher quality product.

You can do your part, your way. Wear the denim dress to weed the garden. Shake the hand that feeds you. Fight for your right to good food with whatever’s in your skil set. Because luckily some people are willing to preserve this way of living and even teach their children, we can at least stand by in solidarity to defend its value, without ever picking up a pitchfork again. 

For more information, visit wwoof.net.