Before I set off to grad school, I WWOOFed on an organic farm commune in the green mountains of Vermont. This experience was much more than a summer adventure, it was the culmination of 24 years of exploration and the beginning of my life’s work. It was not that I did not know all along who I was, or what I was on the earth to do, it was a matter of being ready to own it. I said to my teacher in kindergarten that I wanted to be a chef in space, and in many ways that is still true. I will not be joining Elon Musk on a culinary space odyssey, but as a vertical farmer, I will be one of many new wave entrepreneurs who will redefine urban food systems. In order to show you how I arrived at this point, I am going to give you a glimpse into one of the most profound, uplifting, experiences of my life, and the people who taught me what it truly means to feed the people, a mission I hope to share with many others.
Earth Sky Time, was where I WWOOFed, and it will always remain my home in Vermont. First off, what is WWOOFing, and how on earth did I end up on a farm commune for the summer? WWOOF is an acronym, Willing to Work On Organic Farms. In short, it is an international community of farmers who host anyone from college students to families, who work on their organic farms in exchange for food and housing. There is no exchange of money, and most people stay anywhere from a few weeks to a few years. It is an unparalleled way to experience pastoral life and communal living, while truly immersing oneself in a different lifestyle. For many, it is an escape from the confines of modern society, an adventure, and for others, it is a beginning of a new life journey. One could go on for hours regaling romanticism of a simpler life, however, I encourage readers to explore it for themselves. One of the best narratives of WWOOFing I came across, was published by a former Yale undergrad, Jacque Feldman, titled, "I Came, I Saw, I WWOOFed." Feldman's article portrays the experiences of a group of undergrads who elected to look at their life and "careers," in a more alternative matter. It reflects an overarching social movement, a rise of counter culture, where people are questioning why it is we go to universities, work for corporations, and why it is that so many of us do not do what it is we really want to do. After returning from my experience, I greatly enjoyed reading the perspectives of these students, because their stories were not overly idealistic, Eat Pray Love, clichés; they were real. Feldman shared a quote from fellow Yale undergrad, Allie Bauer, which I thought encapsulated WWOOFing quite well. Bauer explained how she tried not to "wax romantically about [WWOOFing], because a hard job is not always pretty. I’ve been covered in cow shit all summer.” That is the blunt truth; farming is an extremely difficult and humbling way of life. The only difference each respective WWOOFer will have, is the type of shit they will be humbled by. To most, this sounds terrible and that is fine, but for me, there is nothing more fulfilling than cultivation. Any day outside using my hands, no matter how hard, or how dirty, is better than the best day in any office.
Deciding on which farm would be my home for the summer was an interesting process. WWOOF USA, has a database with basic profiles on all participating farms that describes the type of projects and level of experience owners are looking for. With hundreds of farms across every state, it can be daunting deciding where to begin. I performed my due diligence, and created some general guidelines to avoid any potential disasters. Of course I read some horror stories, where certain farms were more reminiscent of draconian labor camps or feudal serfdom. It would have been great to drop off the grid in remote areas of Alaska, Montana, or Utah, but I could not shake the visions of being brainwashed by an ultra religious cult, or ending up in the freezer of the next Jeffrey Dahmer. Horror stories aside, I knew I wanted to focus on organic vegetable farming, meet interesting people, and become a part of a community. Thus, I narrowed my search to family-run, community farms that held a decent sized crew (5-10), in locations that I could escape from if need be.
Serendipitously, I stumbled upon EST, in Manchester, Vermont owned and operated by Oliver and Bonnie Levis. It had really positive reviews, the family seemed wholesome, and my housing options were either a retro-fitted 1970’s school bus, a barn, or a treehouse. I thought hell, I’ve got nothing to lose, and sent them an email. I approached my email as if I was applying for a corporate job, and now that I look back on it, I laugh at myself. I can picture Bonnie and Oliver reading it to the crew in the kitchen saying, “who does this guy think he is?” After a week of not getting a response, I decided to give them a call, and had a hilarious conversation with Bonnie: Me: “Hi, I sent an email about potentially WWOOFing on your farm for the season, and wanted to follow up.” Meanwhile I can hear children yelling and fighting in the background. Bonnie: “Oh yea… the guy who said he has an ‘unmatched work ethic…’ yea yea, sounds great. Tell me about yourself.” Me: “I am beginning an MBA program in the fall, and would like start my own urban agriculture company, so I am trying to learn as much as possible about conventional growing and greenhouses.” Bonnie: “Do you smoke?” Me: Interesting transition…”No…. not into that…” I was thinking in my mind, shit… what was I suppose to say? I hate smoking, but maybe this is a trick question, and they like pot? Damn, I am over thinking this!” Bonnie: “Good, we have a really solid crew this year that is really working well together, but we will give this a shot. We usually have a week trial period to make sure everything works out.” Me: “Great, thank you very much. Soooo…do you need to discuss with your family etc? I have a blog if you want to learn more about who I am.” Bonnie: “No, we are good, I don’t think I need to read your blog. See you in May.” I was thinking, wait that’ it? Do I just show up? How can she not want to read my blog or listen to me tell her how great my worth ethic is? Oh yea, that’s right, Bonnie and Oliver run a farm and are constantly busy.
The day came, and I grabbed my overalls, boots, and a bag full of ratty old t-shirts, and hopped on a bus to NYC. My aunt drove me from NY to VT, and dropped me off at the farm. We drove through Manchester, a posh, old money New England town, with sprawling country estates, and pulled up the gravel road outside of town that lead up to EST. There sat a beautiful old farmhouse built in the 1920s, set atop 13 acres, with a pond and views of Equinox Mountain (4,000 ft summit). With greenhouses, broken down tractors, and lawns full of crops all surrounding a quintessential country house, it was quite an unconventional looking farm.
Walking up to the door, I was overwhelmed with the smell of freshly baked bread, as I passed a bunch of random peace signs and stickers reading, “Nobody for President!” “Ban Fracking,” and my personal favorite, “Honk if you shower with Dr. Bronner’s.” I chuckled to myself, and thought, welcome to Vermont. Bonnie showed me around the farm, and then we talked about where I was going to live. I had spot in the “Apple Shed,” a barn that was converted into a small, rustic cottage, but one of the guys wasn’t moving out for a few days, so the magic school bus was my home for a little while. This 1970s school bus was straight out John Krakauer’s, Into The Wild. I felt like Chris McCandless, reading Walden, by candlelight during the cold nights. It took me a few days to learn the ropes, and get into rhythm of farm life, but it was very peaceful, and everyone was so welcoming.
Our days usually began around 7am. Everyone had their assigned farm chore ranging from opening up the greenhouses, harvesting for the CSA, to my personal favorite, tending to the chickens. I took great pride in this quintessential farm chore, and soon was dubbed the “Chicken Whisperer.” When I woke I headed into the kitchen, which was quite the war zone in the morning, as Oliver and Bonnie wrangled their 3 rambunctious kids, to get ready for school. I gathered the buckets of vegetable compost that we collected from previous meals, and headed to the chicken coop where I fed a lively group of Rhode Island Red laying hens. The best part of looking after my chicks was collecting the bounty of eggs they provided the farm each day. Farmers eat better than any other people on earth, and the eggs were simply incredible. No matter how fancy the restaurant, or high end the grocery store, you have not tasted an egg or any vegetable for that matter, until you have collected fresh from the coop or pulled from the earth.
After the kids were off to school and everyone had finished their breakfasts of homemade yogurt, granola, fresh bread, and farm eggs, we all gathered on the porch to discuss our plans for the day. The farm had two focuses, bread / prepared foods, and vegetable farming. Oliver ran the farm and the bread business and Bonnie ran the kitchen. Each of the WWOOFers had their own specialties and areas of interest, so depending on what needed to get done we would split up accordingly. Some preferred kitchen and bakery work, which included anything from making dough, shaping, and baking, to veggie burger, hoomos, and pesto making. While others preferred the outdoor activities, such as planting, cultivating, and harvesting of the farm land. I wanted to experience every facet of the farm, so no matter what the task that needed to get done I would volunteer for it. While some tasks were more enjoyable than others, It was incredible to see how every process was intertwined in the workings of EST.
I have always been drawn to farmer’s markets as I feel they are the purest representation of culture and community. When Bonnie and Oliver asked me to run their farmer’s markets I was excited; from soil to market, I would play a role in every part of the business. I love interacting with people from all walks of life and acting as a merchant in this age-old tradition was a very special experience.
The barter culture that existed between farms was fascinating. From the surface, all of the action of the farmers market occur in front of the stalls where bread, produce, and meats are sold, but few have ever experienced the happenings behind the stall at the beginning and end of the market. I was in Vermont for over two months, and I rarely ever used money. In a productive, sustainable community there is little need for money, because it produces everything it needs to survive. For EST, our currency was bread, and I was amazed at its value in the community. After each market I walked around the stalls, chatted with local vendors, and traded for what we needed at the farm. EST had no dairy cows, and we woke up very early in the morning, so cheese, milk, and coffee, were hot commodities to trade for. Bonnie and Oliver always joked with me saying I did not need to go to business school, as I would learn everything I needed to know at the market. I still went to business school, but in many ways they were right. After all, markets symbolize the dawn of social commerce between civilizations, and in many ways are more real than the gilded institutions founded on Wall Street. I am incredibly thankful that I had the opportunity to play a role in every facet of the farm, and I have such great respect for the creative brilliance and resourcefulness of all my friends at EST. Despite being a graduate student pursuing an MBA (greed, capitalism, evil), I was welcomed into Bonnie and Oliver’s home, with genuine love and openness; the likes of which I have not experienced anywhere else in my years of traveling. I will say however, Bonnie, with her innate Queens attitude, was a little skeptical of this collared shirt wearing, jock, pretty boy, from “upstate” New York (i.e. anything North of Manhattan). However, she soon warmed up to me when I learned the fine art of homoos and veggie burger production, which had quite a steep learning curve. Very few WWOOF’ers were cut out for the artful combination of power and finesse required to craft the perfect veggie burger. In fact, many perished during the process from a variety of career ending injuries resulting from weak wrists and bruised egos. Toss in blaring 90s music, farm children, and the ever present kitchen vernacular one must master, and you have a rather hectic kitchen environment. I can still hear Bonnie’s phrases in echoing in the back of my mind, every time I walk into a kitchen: “J.J., come on! You have to de-schmutz before you schlump… and make sure you give the homoos a good shprinkle of Za’tar,” and my favorite, “J.J. get those boots out of kitchen! Remember, we are in an unending battle of keeping food and shit separate.” I loved it! I feel at home in a bustling kitchen.
A lot can be learned in a kitchen, and just as the market is the lifeblood of the community, the hearth is the heart of EST. It was were people of all walks of life converged to tell stories, sing, dance, and share the bounty that the earth provided.
Our weekly Shabbot festivities were without a doubt my favorite memories at EST. Imagine the Royal Tenenbaums meets Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and you are only beginning to scratch the surface of how fascinating the family and cast of characters who came together for these wholesome gatherings.
Starting at about 8pm and lasting till the wee hours of the morning, these celebrations put any other dinner party to shame. Shabbot represents the culmination of a hard week of work, where everyone puts all of their superfluous constraints aside, to let light into their lives, in the form of music, singing, home cooked meals, and growing families. Shabbot in the Levis house is the epitome of what their family and community represent. Oliver and his family’s lives are centered around sharing. Whether it was the knowledge of cultivating the earth, the intricacies of baking, friendship, or family traditions, everything is done to be spread through the community.
I can encapsulate my experience in one word, Love. The Levis family, and the crew at EST showed me how to open my life, and share love and passion with my community.