SHOE LEATHER: Reported Stories

Where the Grass is Greener

WWOOF takes root among city slickers and
green-thumbed alike, bringing a mobile
workforce to keep small farms alive


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About an hour outside of New York City, near a deep bend in the zig-zagging Delaware River, an odd band of volunteers gathered at the Mad Farmer's Collective. The solitary acre looks like a long, skinny oblong next to a coffee shop on a local map of Rosemont, New Jersey. Some kneeled untangling tomatoes and others dug in dirt. It was the tail end of a wet, hot summer and Aram Dadian, the mad farmer himself, stood on his back porch to watch.

Just past the small garden of herbs that sits in front of a white farmhouse, a computer programmer, the most industrious member of the group, worked on one of the eight raised beds in a make-shift green house, 30 feet long, built from the plastic sides of an old German swimming pool. To his left, a graphic designer in his twenties, jeans caked with mud, turned great heaps of rotting compost that sent out waves of pungent stench with every flip of his pitch fork. He talked of wanting to build a giant scarecrow. At the far end of the green house, a German couple examined the organic green and yellow tomatoes planted four months earlier by their predecessors from the network of WWOOF, or the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. Since the WWOOFers began arriving at the Mad Farmer's Collective in the early summer of 2009, the Dadians have been able to enlarge their farm from an eight-foot-by-eight-foot herb garden into one with a greenhouse and two new large vegetable beds beside and behind it.

WWOOFers have stayed at the Mad Farmer's Collective for anywhere from a weekend to half a year. They have meant survival for the Dadians, just as they have for other small organic growers among the 1,150 across the United States and tens of thousands in 60 countries across the world. The 8,000 active WWOOFers in the U.S. network volunteer to work in exchange for room and board. Members pay $20, for which they receive access to an on-line directory of organic farms and a printed copy for travel. They represent a new class of migrant workers who trade in their iPods for shovels and their roommates for barnyard critters like insects and curious goats.

They represent a new class of migrant workers who trade in their iPods for shovels and their roommates for barnyard critters like insects and curious goats.

WWOOFers give their time to toil for plenty of reasons, among them to experience farm life, to vacation on the cheap, or just to be nomadic. Sometimes they find themselves on farms like the Dadians', where the experience is commune-like. Sometimes they work five hours a day, six days a week for as little as a lunch and a place to pitch a tent. Sometimes they end up like part of the family. And yet no matter what draws them or what their adventures might bring, to consider the WWOOFer is to consider the host. WWOOFers have come to play an influential, sometimes vital, role in the survival of the fragile but oh-so-earnest enterprise that is the small organic farm.

Though originally started in England in 1971, WWOOF's appearance in the United States came thirty years later, instigated by a Californian on his return from a year of WWOOFing in Australia. Its growth has been exponential and comes at a time when most small, organic farms are struggling to stay in business. A bad drought in the West or a late rain season in the Northeast, like the near monsoons of April 2010, can ruin an entire crop overnight. WWOOFers help ease the burden of labor costs by simply adding to the number of hands in the fields. However, of the five farmers I visited across the United States, all but one needed second jobs to support themselves and their families. On Long Island, Mark Unger's dream to turn the island green will wilt without funding. Down south near Austin, Texas, Tim Millberg splits his time between growing food for his neighbors and putting in 30 hours a week at the local branch of a national hardware retailer. Bordering the Pacific Ocean, in the prime farm country of Mendocino County, California, Michael Foley of the Green Uprising Farm experiments with niche products to make a place for himself in an oversupplied market of organic goods and farmers.

Back in Rosemont, Dadian and his wife Tina considered the possibility of a farm without WWOOFers. Last summer, when they first put the Mad Farmer's Collective on the network, Dadian worked with a constant stream of volunteers, as many as eight at once, starting the day with the sun and ending with a large, communal dinner. Tina, who teaches elementary school art, spent her summer break with her mother in Virgina. Having WWOOFERs seemed to help at the time, but the economy has since interfered. For the first time in 20 years, the combination of income from the farm, Tina's teaching, and Dadian's independent carpentry work didn't bring in enough money to cover their expenses. To make ends meet last winter, Dadian had to take a job with a construction company four days a week. He can't foresee a time when their own three revenue streams will get them through the year.

"I feel like I was on to something good," he said about his commune of fledgling farmers and the new possibility their presence brought. He paused. The silence was heavy.

"In this economy I can't just step in and out," he said, resigned to having signed a longer-term contract to work on someone else's crew, renovating an old distillery into a luxury home. Dadian, in his uniform of an old t-shirt under a pair of worn, light-blue overalls attached only on one shoulder, looks like he walked out of a pastoral painting. He is the embodiment of a man with a deep connection to the earth, letting his salt-and-pepper hair curl in thick waves to the top of his shoulders and his matching salt-and-pepper beard hangs seven inches below his chin. His fingers are calloused and finely wrinkled.

The WWOOFers stay in the four chrome trailers on the farm, or they bring their own tents if all of the beds are taken. A brood of hens roam the acre along with a couple of cats and a blind dog. Dadian, who carries Living With Goats: Everything You Need to Know About Raising Your Own Herd in his red bio-diesel truck, plans to add two nannies — females goats — to the peaceable kingdom. He wants to plant a small orchard at the far end of the farm, but can't find the time to do the work with eight hours of daylight lost to working on someone else's million-dollar renovation.

"It's really depressing spending way too much time building these huge houses for people who already have houses," Dadian sighed. "It's the way I've learned how to make money. I really thought it'd be possible to break free from that. I feel like I've betrayed myself, like it's a step back."

Tina, who was sitting next to him, raised her arms and folded them behind her head. "For me," she said, "[the farm] has to be able to sustain itself. We have to be able to afford it, but it doesn't have to make money." She leaned back and shrugged her shoulders. The farm's produce has mainly gone to a barter system with the Dadians' neighbors, or to feed themselves and the WWOOFers. There were plans to sell the tomatoes that the volunteers grew to restaurants or at farmers markets, but a late rain limited the size of the crop.

Dadian has visions of assembling a Mad Farmer commune of WWOOFers again this summer, but Tina, who tends to be more practical, thinks they should limit themselves to having one or two volunteers stay for the entire summer, since neither will be there all day to direct them. "It would take a pretty special person" to find himself on a farm and know exactly what to do, Dadian said.

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Three hours by car to the east, on the other side of New York City, Mark Unger adjusted the brim of his faded "Green Guerilla" hat and motioned a group of junior high school volunteers to sift through compost heaps for bits of plastic trash that won't decompose. His farm, actually ten acres in Mattituck on Long Island that he leases from a friend, is the seedling of his ambitious dream to turn all of Long Island into an organic, off-the-grid oasis. But Unger lives on Manhattan's Upper West Side and teaches at the Teetorboro School of Aeronautics in New Jersey. Logistically, he can only be on the farm on weekends. Like the Dadians, he needs volunteers, which he attracts through WWOOF and other networks, to keep the farm running.

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The Mad Farmer's Collective

A dirt road flanked by two 50-foot piles of crumbling compost is the gateway to this all-natural paradise. Weeds grew wildly last summer, surrounding the beds of garlic and heirloom tomatoes that Unger eventually sold at local farmer's markets. In the winter, the weeds dried into brittle piles that created a natural womb for the summer harvest. Unger wants to expand the planting beds to grow cucumbers, Chinese long beans, eggplants, and more heirloom tomatoes and garlic.

His New York Natural Farm sits next to the south-end of a 50-acre sod farm owned by Briarcliff Sod. The sod is filled with perky, emerald, and chemically treated grass, soon to be used on the lawns of some of Long Island's million plus homes. Both Unger and the sod farm are leasing the land from a local fisherman, Paul Mathews, who lives on the southeast side of the property. Mathews shares Unger's dream of going fully organic, but has to lease the land to the sod farm to, well, "pay the taxes," Unger said. From Unger, Mathews asks no rent but takes only a portion of the organic produce sales each summer.

Like Napoleon laying out his battle plans on a map of Europe, Unger views Long Island as the stronghold from which to spread his vision to the rest of the United States. Such an organic conversion would be no small task. Long Island has about 670 farms and nearly 35,000 arable acres. But Unger thinks it is possible. "People are just crazy about getting off-the-grid on Long Island," he said.

"'Home-grown' is what we call it on Long Island," Unger said. "Everything starts with the community. The community builds the strength of the city, the city builds the strength of the county, and the county builds the strength of the state. It's an inside job."

The middle school volunteers from R.C. Murphy Junior High School in Stony Brook number about seven on this November afternoon, but on summer Saturdays Unger said the volunteers come in all types and there are usually many more. Some are WWOOFers from New York City who don't need a place to sleep, as Unger can only provide a lunch in exchange for a day of work. He paused to put the students back to work, as they finished with the compost and stood giggling and playing with the camera they brought to commemorate the afternoon for their club archives. He asked them to roll up stray hose on the sod farm.

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Unger combines his passion for organic farming with the solid understanding of mechanics his aeronautics background gives him. He shares that knowledge with local residents who come to the farm to learn how to build alternative energy generators. He teaches his neighbors for free. He said a wind-powered generator could be as crude as taking a 55-gallon water drum, splitting it in half, and then attaching both pieces to a broom handle. "A caveman could do it," he said, though, of course, the process gets more complicated when the contraption has to be hooked up to batteries and voltage alternators.

In addition to his renewable energy project, Unger also created a foundation in the name of the farm to teach Long Island farmers how to go completely organic, even though he is only a sixth of the way to converting all 60 acres of the Mathews farm. So far, three farms have expressed interest, but without funding, the process of conversion can't go any further than a sign-up. "It's not easy because most farmers are afraid to change," Unger said. "It's always going to be more work and it's always going to be more expensive."

Eventually Unger wants to build permanent housing for WWOOFers, because as of now there are only camping grounds. Unger is limited financially as to what he can offer WWOOFers, but he is upfront about it in his advertisement in the WWOOF handbook, sent to every member of the U.S. network.

Some farms are less forthcoming. WWOOF is sometimes described by volunteers as a "crap-shoot," because of the differing personalities of the farmers and the goals of each farm.

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Aram Dadian

Christina Yannis, a sophomore at Fordam University, experienced how far a white lie can stretch when she WWOOFed at Squash Blossom Farm in Pena Blanca, New Mexico, 35 miles outside of Santa Fe. Originally from Connecticut and interested in Native American and Mexican culture, she was excited to experience something outside of the Northeast norm and to be able to do so without spending much money.

She and a friend scoured the WWOOF website for descriptions of farms in the Southwest and settled on what appeared to be a desert oasis. "Spend your free time the wilderness, which is our backyard, hiking, finding petroglyphs, pottery shards and arrowheads, rock climbing, biking, tubing down the river, visiting nearby Cochiti Lake to swim or boat, visiting the nearby pueblos or making art."

"Oh my god," Yannis sighed upon arriving to the farm, fixing her blue eyes on the few acres of crops surrounded by a horizon of desolate desert. "What am I going to do here for ten days?"

A lonely, tall and lanky farmer named Joe Moody showed Yannis and her traveling companion to a worn-down trailer with dead bugs embedded in the couch seats and a broken latch-window that let in enough rain the first night to flood her bed. There were no bikes, no pottery shards, and the lake was too far away to reach on foot after a hard day of working the fields.

Moody ran the 10 acres of Squash Blossom Farm by himself, with an occasional visit from the farm's two owners who live in Santa Fe. He told awkward jokes ("How about the rack on her?" Pointing Yannis to a heffer), but with a charming smile on a well-tanned face. Without the help of Yannis and other WWOOFers who, like Yannis, came and went, Moody had to work from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., everyday, just to survive. He hardly ever had money to buy gas. "He was always driving on 'E' in the middle of the desert." Yannis said. "It was scary!"

If he did have enough to make it to a farmer's market, he'd barely make $50. Moody must lower the prices of his French taragon, catnip, leeks, and spinach just to compete with chain grocery stores and other, larger organic farms that have more workers and electronic equipment. The numbers never quite add up, Yannis said, and Moody washed away the unsuccessful weekend with 40 ounces of Budweiser.

Yannis wasn't bitter about her ten days in New Mexico. In the end she loved it. Despite the bait and switch, she felt "lucky to have such a raw experience."

Moody has since updated the description of Squash Blossom Farm on the WWOOF website. Yannis said she thinks that the tendency to romanticize the descripitions comes not from a willful dishonesty but because the farmers are visionaries. They post what they want their farms to be, rather than what they are.

"I felt like I really lived the way my farmer did, and I enjoyed that aspect of it," Yannis said. She plans on WWOOFing again, and next time will asks her hosts more direct questions before signing up.

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The risk of exploitation is among many reasons why farm life isn't as romantic as back-to-the-land movements make it seem. The work is hard, dirty and often thankless. Although WWOOF is a great opportunity to see another part of the country inexpensively, it is not for everyone.

I think it should be compulsory. There is a way we take for granted our food and not because we're craven, horrible people. Because there is only so much sympathy you can have for something you haven't experienced yourself.

"WWOOF is inherently exploitive," Dadian said. "I know because I'm so afraid of getting exploited. I tell them when they get here that there's no mandatory hours. People can come and go. At other farms you're there to work. But it's like okay, for a bed and some food, I'm worth this? I've been separate from my labor, I've built houses that I don't get to live in." (One home owner asked him to spend around $40,000 in decorative bronze eagles to edge the roof and break up snow. "Hideous," he said. "just hideous." )

Sue Coppard, the founder of WWOOF, agrees that this appears to be a problem all over the world. "You occasionally get someone who hasn't got the idea of it being a sort of exchange," she said. "You sometimes get an occasional — they're very very much in the minority — host that sort of wants to use you unfairly or else WWOOFers who kind of want to take a very lazy working holiday instead of working hard. Occasionally a WWOOFer won't show up. Those are the failings of individuals, not the organization."

Coppard was a bored secretary in 1971, staring out the window of her London flat on one particularly lovely autumn evening. She found herself yearning for a way to get out of the city and into the countryside. She wondered, what would happen if she just showed up on a farm outside of London? Then she thought she could probably do some chores for the farmer in exchange for staying on the land. And of course, it'd be more fun to do this with friends. From that, and a small advert in the London Time Out, seeking fellow volunteers, WWOOF was born.

"My real belief is that WWOOF was wafting around in the stratosphere looking for a channel to Earth, and picked on me because - as a city-based secretary pining for the country - I fitted the bill!" said Coppard.

Eventually foreigners picked up the idea and planted it in their own countries, like Australia and New Zealand, which are the most popular places to WWOOF. "[Its growth is] extraordinary," Coppard said. "They can go WWOOFing to change their careers and learn all about farming and everything if they want to. Or they can just do it for exercise or being in the countryside and having a complete change in the environment. It's a lucky way of seeing another part of the world or another country."

Coppard believes WWOOF's virtues far out-weigh its drawbacks, and Yannis would agree. Despite the rough nature of nature, like finding a daddy-long-legs spider in the underwear stash in your backpack, there is a certain je ne sais quoi that continually brings city dwellers to the countryside.

Boris Fishman, another New York-based WWOOFer, spent a summer commuting on weekends from his apartment on the Lower East Side to the Bobolink Dairy and Bakeyard Farm on 200 leased acres at the New York-New Jersey border. The Russian-born writer took his inspiration from his outdoorsy father.

"I remember the day, sitting at my dinner table in my apartment, I had my family over for dinner, and I mentioned casually that I was going to start spending weekends on a farm near the New Jersey border," Fishman said. "My father's face was kind of bemused in this gratified and marveling way. My grandfather's face looked as if I'd said something insulting to him."

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Mark Unger with volunteers

In Russia, farm work was mandatory for town folk. Without heavy use of preservatives or flash freezers, Russian city dwellers relied on fresh produce from farms bordering the urban areas. Because of a shortage of labor, people like Fishman's grandparents had to help the farmers prepare crop beds and harvest vegetables. Fishman still believes that this is how it should be.

"I think it should be compulsory," he said. "There is a way we take for granted our food and not because we're craven, horrible people. Because there is only so much sympathy you can have for something you haven't experienced yourself.

"Even the most conscientious people, who know their food comes from such and such farm, have they ever been around a pig? Do they know the noise pigs make when they get killed in order to supply that food?"

Fishman admits to being a little poetic about produce, but believes his work on the farm — even though "you smell like shit most of the time" and "you're amazed by how much work you put in but how close to the edge financially you're skating" — came close to something primal in human nature, as if it were something people had been doing for a really long time that ended abruptly but wasn't supposed to have.

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Perhaps this is one of the most compelling reasons to WWOOF. Almost all the volunteers I interviewed described the Emersonian ideal of getting back to nature, and the desire to revisit a world from which they feel disconnected. Although many WWOOFers step into this lifestyle for a only few days or maybe a few months, some live in the network, moving from farm to farm in perpetual migration.

During the winter months, many of these vagrant horticulturists head south. Robin Brooks, a recent college graduate from Seattle, started a bike tour of the United States last summer. During January, she found herself on Millberg Family Farm just outside of Austin in Kyle, Texas — five acres of raised beds, 35 chickens, and 140 peach and pecan trees. Always a fan of getting her hands dirty, the Environmental Studies major thought WWOOFing was the perfect way to get food and shelter while she traveled between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

The day after she arrived was misty and about fifty degrees. Tim Millberg, the owner of Millberg Family Farm, walked her out to a long bed of weeds at the southern end of the property. Millberg is tall and slender, with a thick white mustache and slight elongated vowels that betray his Wisconsin origins. Brooks slipped on thick navy blue and grey garden gloves and pushed back her pixie-cut brown hair as she followed him.

Millberg practices what he calls "farm-scaping," which uses the layout of the land to create "microhabitats" that combat problems like pests and wild animal foraging. He planted Dogwood trees to attract Bluebirds, who eat grasshopers, and placed hawk perches on the perimeter hoping the hunters will grab mice and rabbits. Instead of his crops, he puts bushes on the wrong side of the fence for deer to munch. He said he let the land decide the lay of the farm, much different than conventional farming which uses chemicals to almost over-ride nature.

His house sits at the entrance of the property. Directly behind it are beds of cilantro, arugula, onions, chives, carrots, turnips, and mustard greens. He sells these in five-pound bags for $7 weekly to the members of his local CSA, which is short for Community Supported Agriculture. Selling produce at a flat rate to surrounding families, the program is a step away from a barter system for the small organic farmer, and into profitability without having to set up shop every week at a farmer's market. Beside the raised beds are long irrigation tracks that look like a perfect string of sine curves. The hills of dirt allow water to collect, and then slowly irrigate the crops.

Weeding is a constant preoccupation of organic farmers, especially because they can't use chemicals to tame them but if untamed, the weeds leech nutrients from the ground. Millberg handed Brooks a broad fork, which looks like a giant wooden "U" with metal spikes at the bottom, to break up the soil. As she stabbed the earth, slammed her foot on the wooden bottom to dig it even deeper, and pulled down on the handles, Millberg bent down and pulled out the weeds himself.

Oh my god. What am I going to do here for ten days?

"Some farmers treat them [the WWOOFers] as weeders," he said, standing back for a moment and watching Brooks. "On my farm they pull, maybe, 20 weeds. I don't expect them to do it. That's my problem. I don't expect Robin to pull any weeds. She's here to learn."

After they had loosened the soil and cleared it of weeds, Millberg and Brooks gathered garlic shoots to plant.

"Okay, now just plant them in three rows and make sure the lines are straight," Millberg said, as he bent over the freshly turned earth. "I'm like a German, I like them perfectly straight!"

Brooks grabbed a bundle of garlic plants and knelt down, sticking her finger through the layers of compost and dirt to poke a small, round hole. She then gingerly placed one garlic stalk in, and packed the dirt around it. A few plants in, Brooks' rows were straighter than Millberg's.

After they finished planting the twenty-foot-by-three-foot bed, Millberg and Brooks took a late-afternoon break. Soon they'd have to deliver bags of produce to the 20 CSA members. Millberg usually does this alone, during his lunch break from work at the local Lowes Hardware. With his profit from the farm dependent on natural forces, and with Texas being in the midst of a long-running drought, Millberg had to get a part-time job to support his family. He'd rather be on the farm, but tries to convince shoppers in the garden section of the store to buy organic fertilizers and insecticides.

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Brooks planned to stay on Millberg Family Farm for only a few days, before moving on East. Other young single WWOOFers like to settle in for a much longer stretch. Rachel Baker, who is 26, volunteered in the summer of 2009 at the Green Uprising Farm in Willits, California, came back the following spring and is thinking of staying on permanently.

Baker is a tall girl with soft hazel eyes and a gregarious smile, whose positive attitude tacks a hearty "for sure" onto the ends of her sentences. While on the farm, she lives near a goat's barn in a large white yurt, a mobile wooden dome-shaped structure covered in canvas fabric, which is perfect since her favorite chore is milking.

"They're like big dogs, for sure!" she said, while taking a break from working in the greenhouse with farmer Michael Foley. Another WWOOFer, Kyle Madrigal, stood next to her and laughed. He didn't quite take to milking, though he spent the morning helping Foley's wife, Sarah Grusky, section off a part of the goat's barn for a pregnant nanny named Persimmon, who later gave birth to three babies. One kid was brain-damaged and had to be tube fed until it became apparent that he wouldn't eat on his own and was put down.

Madrigal is a tall, thin and curly-haired musician who has been WWOOFing at the farm for about a year. He lives in a cabin on the opposite side of the goat barn. He said he came to live on the farm to see how "the sun moves and how the weather changes here." Although he isn't technically part of the WWOOF network because he said he doesn't "like to be a part of any organization," Madrigal heard about the program through his band member, Jeff, who is the husband of Foley's eldest daughter from a previous marriage.

Madrigal, 23, is a Willits native, and is focusing on both his band, The Dirt Floor, and his connection to nature. He has a girlfriend, whom he said he'd like to marry on the winter solstice in 2012 to make the Mayan doomsday into something good. She is taking an 11-month course in Roots of Herbalism at the California School of Herbal Studies, about two hours away. Madrigal typically tackles the larger projects on the farm, like building a barn in a field on the far right of the property that will board the horse of the farmer's 17-year-old, Theadora, or cleaning the hay out of the goat's barn.

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Tim Millberg and Robin Brooks

The five acres of Green Uprising Farm are the home to three families, living in a compound of three houses that align to form a "V" shape. Grusky, Foley and their two teenage daughters, Theadora and Ariel, are in the white stucco house at the vertex. Foley's two daughters from a previous marriage, Allegra and Benedicta, live with their husbands and children at the other two points. In the center of the area between them, near a chicken coop, is a compost toilet, which all of the family members use. Only the parents have a flushable toilet, which they say they use sparingly.

Since joining the WWOOF network last winter, at least one email arrives every day from prospective WWOOFers asking to stay.

"At first we accepted just about anyone," Foley said. "But now we like it if people have a little farm experience. We had one girl who wasn't really into the farming aspect, and we don't want that to happen again. One time, she went in this frilly white blouse to go milk the goats!"

The goats live in a barn on the opposite side of the property, and all eight are due to give birth sometime this spring and summer. The pregnancies make them cranky, and Chante, an old, earless goat who was adopted into the herd from a neighbor who could no longer take care of her, frequently head-butts the lead goat, Floppy. The goats are a part of a milk-share program, where 24 members in Willits own shares of the herd and receive milk bottles weekly. This avoids legal hassles like selling raw milk, which is illegal. It would cost $20,000 to upgrade their milking station to meet legal standards.

My real belief is that WWOOF was wafting around in the stratosphere looking for a channel to Earth, and picked on me because — as a city-based secretary pining for the country — I fitted the bill!

Milk production doesn't get into full swing until late summer and early fall, when the eight new mothers have started to ween their kids. In the meantime, Green Uprising Farm grows a variety of vegetables and fruits. They sell at the Willits Farmers Market every Thursday, but there is often stiff competition with the many other local organic farms. Foley turns to experimenting with microgreens, 3-inch sprouts of bokchoi and chives, to try and create a niche product in an saturated organic market.

Like Unger and Millberg, to supplement their farming risks and sometimes failures, Grusky and Foley both have taken on part-time employment. Grusky works as a subsitute teacher, much to the chagrin of 13-year-old Ariel, who will be seeing her mother everyday at Willits Charter School this spring where Grusky will be taking over for a Spanish teacher. Foley manages the weekly farmer's market, and receives social security and a pension from when he taught at a Catholic school in Washington D.C.

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Although Foley is trying to find a special cash crop, the Green Uprising Farm is known in the market for its mixed-salad greens, which Grusky, Foley, their daughters, and their two WWOOFers eat at almost every meal. Both Madrigal and Baker spend almost the entire day with the families on the farm, since the town is small and quiet. They are less like volunteers and more like extended family, preparing and eating every meal with the farmers, and helping with household chores without being asked. As soon as we finished our breakfast of farm-fresh eggs and bean sprouts, Baker stood, collected the plates, and washed them without hesitation.

Grusky said it's amazing to her that people like Baker and Madrigal want to come to work on her farm for free. Coming from a family of sociologists with advanced university degrees, she stood a moment with a cup of tea and wondered if there is any historical precedent for WWOOF.

"There is more romanticism about farming than there ever was in my lifetime," Grusky said, even considering the back-to-the land movement. "It's because we've come so far from the source of our food and we're eating plastic foods. That's why we're romanticizing dirt."

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On the other side of the country, Dadian of the Mad Farmers Collective sits, staring out his dining room window at his land. He yearns to be outside, feeding the chickens, digging his hands in the dirt, and feeling the earth encompass them. This feeling is more than romance, it's a deep devotion to the earth.

But it's night outside and he's been working all day. He has to go to bed soon, so he'll be ready for work at 7 a.m. While building a home he'll never sleep in, he thinks about last summer's WWOOFers and the way the whole month of August felt like a giant party. He remembers fondly people like Jesse Mann, a 29-year-old graphic designer who stayed with Dadians for nearly five months.

Mann had spent the past five years working overtime for a design firm in New York City with only one week's vacation. One day he upped and quit his job in July of 2009, packed his bags with no idea of where he was going and then ultimiately arrived on Dadian's doorstep. He had given up his apartment and put everything but a small bag of clothes in storage.

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Rachel Baker with farmer Sara Grusky

"I wasn't in a good place," Mann said. He spoke slowly and carefully while staring at his inter-locked hands on the table. On the farm, where I first met him, he let his hair grow in heavy tendrils down his face and his beard long and thick like Dadian's. Back in New York City a few months later, his clean shaven face made him slightly unrecognizable. "Part of the reason why the Mad Farmer's Collective was good was that it wasn't a big operation where I'd be slaving away picking peas for twelve hours a day. I wasn't ready for that kind of experience. But I was also looking for something that looked like it was human and real. To have a little bit of my faith in life and nature restored a bit."

The first week was rough. Mann had just broken up with his girlfriend and on his second night there, received a call from his father that the Florida retiree had developed prostate cancer. Feeling low and vulnerable, Mann laid in his bed in the studio beside the main house. In the depths of his dark thoughts, Mann felt a fat, fluffy cat curl up next to him. He opened his eyes and found Tweed, the loving and stubborn calico, laying against his legs. She slept next to him the whole night. "It was so comforting," he recalled what he thought to himself at the time. "See, things like that can happen in a place like this."

Mann soon moved into a silver trailer behind the two large solar panels, at the southern edge of the property, and decided to commute on the Transbridge bus four days a week to New York for freelance design work. But the commute became too onerous and Mann had to leave the farm and return to the city to work last November. After a short stint in Bedford Stuyvesant, he now lives in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. He still works for the company he tried to quit during the summer, but now feels he is more prepared to pace himself.

"I think a lot about Aram [Dadian], all the time," Mann said. "I have nothing but gratitude for how open they were. They're completely just unconditionally supportive and loving of everyone they come in contact with. I feel like their No. 1 rule is to be good to people. They've made room for that in their lives, when a lot of people in busier places, like here or wherever, almost don't have time to be that open. Or they're afraid.

"Because of Aram," Mann said, "I feel more love and compassion for people in a more unconditional way, and from Tina I learned in order for that to occur you have to respect that there are some rules and boundaries in how you treat people."

Mann said he feels forever changed after his experience on the Mad Farmer's Collective, something that is common for the people who enter The Dadians' lives. For 15 years, while they lived in neighboring Lambertville, New Jersey, raising their three daughters, the Dadians took in homeless people from the city.

An interest in helping the homeless actually started for them in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The Dadians met in Madison, Wisconsin, where Tina was attending graduate school for fine arts and Aram was finishing his undergraduate classes while working at a wood shop he had started. It wasn't love at first sight, at least as Tina remembers it. The two met through a mutual friend and Tina said she was "a little surprised" by Dadian, intrigued.

They are less like volunteers and more like extended family, preparing and eating every meal with the farmers, and helping with household chores without being asked.

When Tina moved to New Mexico to start an artist-in-residence program, Dadian followed. They soon found themselves with a house in Santa Fe next to an alleyfull of stray dogs. One night Dadian found a small black dog, the size of a Labrador, with nine little puppies. He took them home and asked Tina if they could keep them. "I should have known!" Tina laughed.

The couple then moved to New Hope, Pennsylvania, where they worked at the Solebury School, a college preparatory for ages seven to twelve. They lived in a wooden hut on campus while Dadian taught environmental studies and built a garden with the students by the log-house.

The first homeless person they took in was an old woman Dadian saw from his car, wandering in the middle of the road. He pulled over as soon as he saw her, thinking she was in distress and in need of an ambulance. She was mentally unstable and had been abandoned by her family.

Click to enlarge
Kyle Madrigal

Though she was impossible to live with, they looked after her her for six months before putting her in the care of a psychiatric center. Even after moving to Lambertville, close to their current home in Rosemont, the townspeople thought of their home as a half-way house. They seemed to take in anyone who was in need. In 1988, after a devastating earthquake in Spitak, Armenia, Dadian reached out to his family's ancestral homeland and took in two women survivors, helping them to get a new start in the United States.

It was a resurgence of their compassion for people in "in-between" stages in their lives, and a passion for expanding their farm, that made them join the WWOOF network last year. The summer was simply magical for Aram, who seeks an economy beyond money, where everyone pitches in with labor and shares in the rewards.

For the time being, he plans to have weekly, Saturday night dinners, where anyone from the city or the surrounding area can come to Rosemont for the weekend, and contribute whatever they can offer to the Mad Farmer's Collective. He's not ready to let it go, to let them go, not yet.

"I think it's possible to love people who may be transient in your life," Dadian said. "To love them wholly, and to love them without hierarchy."

Patty can be contacted at

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NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute