Getting a situation on a WWOOF farm (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) is a bit like internet dating. You check each other out online—“likes candlelit dinners and walks on the beach, etc.”—maybe exchange phone calls to make sure you’re simpatico and finally get together for coffee or dinner and then sometimes you ask yourself “What have I gotten myself into?” and “How quickly can I gracefully scramble out of this situation?”
Looking back, our two WWOOF farms represent the two skinny ends of the bell curve:
1) Our first farm with Nicolas and Carla (not their real names because they value their privacy) was socially delightful, gastronomically rich, horticulturally fascinating, geographically engaging and domestically romantic. That’s the pleasant, skinny end of the bell curve, with most farms falling into the broad and tall middle of the bell. (Photo below: Nicolas, Chris, WWOOFer Gabriel, Carla, Frank as we get ready to go to Maggie's Farm.)
2) At the second farm we discovered the other not-so-pleasant, skinny end on the opposite side of the bell curve. Maggie’s farm (not her real name to protect the innocent family members) was gastronomically mixed, geographically wondrous, horticulturally righteous, domestically quaint (tongue found in cheek here) and socially destructive (with salient and wonderfully memorable exceptions).
After our week on their farm, on a Sunday, Nicolas and Carla drove us the hour from their farm on the Mediterranean coast to Maggie’s farm in the wild, sparsely populated, thinly interwebbed Massif des Maures (Mountains O’ Pines). They wanted to meet Maggie, see her farm and see us off properly as we had all become friendly. On the way we did some sightseeing and stopped in a wooded area for a multi-course picnic of sandwiches, fruit, cheese and chocolate. (Below, photo of Carla among wildflowers on our picnic walk)
Maggie treated Nicolas and Carla to a tour of her farm and pretty much ignored Chris and I, which was contrary to our experience with other French people. As they prepared to leave, Maggie gave us a tour of where we would be staying—a small single-wide trailer among other trailers for WWOOFers-- and laid out the food arrangements: she would provide us food for breakfast and dinner which we would prepare in our trailer (the only one with a kitchen that other WWOOFers shared) and we would all eat lunch together at her house, but would have to make our lunch and wash all the dishes. Technically not a bad arrangement given that we had room and board in a beautiful place, but we had been spoiled by N & C’s welcoming ways. And the trailer scene was a bit depressing. We felt like we had fallen into a migrant worker camp (which is technically true). Seeing N&C drive away while leaving us in the wilderness with Maggie made us wonder how bad a mistake we had made. In a phone conversation later, they told us they were worried for us as they left.
For our next few dinners and breakfasts, Maggie gave us some armsfull of food—bread, eggs, pasta, homemade tomato sauce—we were so tired and it was late, so dinner that first night was a simple omelette and bread toasted over the gas cookstove. We expected other WWOOFers to show up to make their dinner, but then surmised that we were the only ones there. The other worker we had barely met and had not yet gauged, named Caleb, was reportedly a full time worker with his own trailer. (Below, he's sorting vegetables for the CSA customers. In the background is a neighbor, Michel, coming from the mudroom/pantry/washroom. )
We had known little about Maggie’s farm as we made our plans in the states: a couple of acres of organic vegetables, chickens for egg production (which had Chris very excited), in the middle of beautiful, sparse wilderness, far from towns. We had played phone tag unsuccessfully with Maggie and her internet connection was second hand with a friend of hers in the nearest town, so we hadn’t communicated with her directly before we left, but when we asked ourselves “How bad can an organic farm in the south of France be?” we didn’t realize that the south of France could have a slice of the worst-of-West-Virginia waiting for us to step into.
That first anxious night we decided we would work with Maggie on Monday and see how it went—maybe she would prove friendly, maybe other, fun, WWOOFers would show up, etc. If our feeling about the place didn’t improve we would hitchhike our way out on Tuesday (both her car and her truck were in need of repairs, with the truck up on blocks…..hmmmm), pick up our rental car early and roll outta there.
Monday we put up a trellis for peas and impressed Maggie with our quick work and handiness in fashioning the trellis using a system she was unfamiliar with. But there was no real thanks for our work.
Lunch was at the table outside her house in a nice enough setting, but her outsized concerns about health started showing up: she offered us powdered spirulina (a superhealth food/condiment made from seaweed, I think) to put on our buckwheat and vegetables, but we passed, as we talked it was hard to look at her, as her food and lips had turned an unappetizing shade of blue/green from the sprirulina. She told us that there hadn’t been many WWOOFers this spring because WWOOF hadn’t sent her an email reminding her to renew her membership and she only just realized that her farm wasn’t listed this spring (we had set up our dates with her over the winter).
After lunch, Chris and I went for a hike up the nearby hill, by way of the neighbors’ donkey stable to the top for a view of the countryside and to consider our options. Maggie thought her car would be running the next day, Tuesday, and was willing to run us an hour into the nearest city to pick up our rental car, so we decided to stick it out at least that long. The work wasn’t demanding (tho Maggie didn’t express appreciation nearly to the degree which she reminded us how far behind schedule she was due to her shortage of WWOOF workers) and the setting was stunning, her two young daughters were sweet and there was the possibility of taking care of the chickens. (Below, the view of hills and olive groves from the hillside.)
The next morning, the bad news was that her car had not been repaired, so we were still stuck in the wilds of West Virginia/Provence. The good news was that the so-called permanent worker—Caleb—had shown up that morning after hitch-hiking the day before to the coastal resort of St. Maxime (sort of a poor-man’s St. Tropez) to see one of his girlfriends and to get an additional tattoo on his back. He couldn’t catch a ride back (how many people would be leaving St. Maxime to get to some empty holler in West Virginia?) so he had walked all night to get back. Lucky for us, as it turned out.
After a morning of helping Maggie pick strawberries and fava beans, we were happy to see that Caleb, a “Quebec’er”, had made lunch that day—a huge casserole dish full of succulent lettuce from the farm, surrounding a layer of salmon and crowned with slices of hard-boiled fresh eggs from the farm accompanied by a mustard-based dressing the color of rich egg yolks. And then a course of home-grown potatoes and another course of pasta and homemade tomato sauce, some homemade bread and cheese rounded it out. An elderly neighbor, Michel, a retired photographer, joined us for lunch; he came to the farm once a week or so to help Maggie with harvesting for her shrinking number of CSA customers. (Below, Maggie sorting lettuce heads, chard, radishes, fava beans and strawberries for her customers.)
In the afternoon we chatted with Caleb and learned that Maggie had a bad habit of giving him a “basket of shit” about any little transgression. After lunch, she had given him grief about using too many eggs in the salad. And ranted about all the work she needed him to do. And we learned that she had ragged about Chris, who while washing the lunch dishes had put a thumb-nail sized, stale slice of bread in the compost bucket. Maggie said that “some people don’t know the value of things.” According to Caleb, Maggie made a habit of going behind WWOOFers to see what they had thrown away or composted.
We also learned from him that the last WWOOFer was a young woman who was scheduled to stay for a month, but had left after a week. And as far as he knew there weren’t any scheduled to come after us.
Wow. Clearly the wheels were coming off of this farm.
And a set of wheels of our own were just what we needed.
I told Caleb that we weren’t happy and were going to leave early as possible and he was welcome to join us. He was more than ready to leave, but was waiting for Maggie to pay him as pay day was the coming weekend. Caleb had been on the road since Jan., living hand to mouth and by his considerable wits. He had made money various ways in his travels with his many skills, including busking by reading tarot cards for people: “one euro for a false answer and two euros for a correct one.” He had learned to read tarot cards from his mother.
Quickly the three of us were thick as thieves and our desire to explore the Massif des Maures without benefit of Maggie’s Farm was tempered by our enjoyment of Caleb’s effervescent company.
Maggie’s recently divorced husband lived in a nearby trailer (until he could move to some other land he owned) and had a car and was willing to take us to town on Wed. to get our rental car. He was a nice guy, who had told Caleb that he put up with Maggie’s control issues and hostility for 18 years, because he thought she would “get better.” No luck there.
After getting our car in Draguignon, we did some shopping and that night had Caleb over for a late dinner and some late drinking while he told us his life story; raised by an Arabian Muslim father and a Quebec Wiccan mother. Some of his tattoos related to verses from the Quran, but he wasn’t strict about his religion—he actually knew how long it had been since he’d eaten bacon—4 weeks !
The next day, Thursday, Chris and I planted a few hundred overdue tomato transplants—each almost waist high and begging to be in the ground. We planted them in a plastic hoop house—string suspended from the ceiling would be wound around them as they grew to hold them off the ground. We prepped the ground with composted donkey stable sweepings and an organic fertilizer (3-6-6). For the most part the plantings were in really good shape and well-managed. Too bad Maggie’s good horticulture skills didn’t translate into good relational skills.
That morning we’d witnessed Maggie having a hissy fit and screaming at her ex-husband in front of their daughters over some real or imagined slight.
We mutinied—no lunch with the mistress of the plantation that day. We invited Caleb to join us "on the terrace" outside our trailer for Nicolas and Carla style lunch of salad, omelette with camembert, bacon and fresh bread and several kinds of chocolate for dessert. And a local red wine of course. The two daughters were on their way to their dad's place for lunch--they picked up on our festive vibe and hung out with us a bit.
In the midst of this week of work and wistfulness, we had told Caleb about what a great couple Nicolas and Carla were. He was looking for someplace else to work or WWOOF. We sent them an email about how much we liked Caleb and how valuable he was to Maggie—keeping the generator and irrigation working, making good meals and just having a good spirit. Last we heard he was going to get paid by Maggie on that Sat. and then hitch-hike down the coast to N& C’s farm on Sunday.
When Chris and I left Maggie’s Farm that Thursday afternoon, we were relieved to be shed of Maggie, but sad to leave Caleb, Maggie’s daughters and her ex-husband. To add more wistfulness, the ex-husband’s oldest daughter, by another marriage--Estelle--showed up to visit her father and half sisters and the three of us hit it off right away (or just as soon as we realized that she wasn’t Maggie’s equally trying sister that Caleb had warned us about).
The resemblance between Chris and Estelle was amusing—Chris’father’s family is from France, by way of Quebec, and Chris’ mother’s family is from Italy. This southeastern corner of France has been swapped between the two countries for centuries, so there’s not a little Italian blood in this area as well. Between her looks and her good French accent, Chris fits in quite well everywhere we’ve been.
So in the end it was a sad leave-taking and Maggie was gracious enough to wish us well.
But I bet she still managed to give Caleb a major basket of shit before the day was over.
Below, the day of our escape from Maggie's Farm. We went higher into the hills to do some hiking around outside the tourist zone in the little hilltop village of Ampus. More aboutour hikes and bike rides coming soon.