It’s the first time I’ve sat in a chair for over a week. As much as I love sitting on tatami mats, I am enjoying the small luxury of a chair to share some first WWOOF experiences with you.
I’ve spent the past 8 days on an organic farm in Keihoku (京北, Northern Kyoto). In an open valley many turns north of Japan’s old capital city, Zenryu and Ava of Hello Farm Organics tend to 5 ‘gardens’ scattered 5-10 minutes walk away from their traditional Japanese house in a birdsong-filled town called Jyuichi (十一, Eleven).
It sits on the side of a river, in a lush green hills wrapped in languid morning and summer shower mist.
I ended up in this off-the-map town thanks to the WWOOF Japan program, where volunteers assist on organic farm work in exchange for room and board. Much like Couchsurfing, Hospitality Club, and other travel networks, hosts and guests have profiles and can screen each other before making arrangements. I chose my hosts because they had an interesting background (Canadian in Japan and Japanese monk), and I appreciated their philosophy of reduce, reuse, recycle.
WWOOFing is a unique immersive experience while travelling in a country: living with locals, in many cases practicing the local language, and learning about how we grow the food we eat. Nonetheless, it’s not for the faint-hearted. Helping out for 5-8 hours a day on a farm can be a learning curve for city-dwellers like me, so I’ll list out my experiences here for those of you who are curious about what it’s ‘really’ like.
1. Sleep like a local.
If this appeals to you, then it doesn’t get much more local than rural country houses. I stayed in an upstairs room above the harvesting shed detatched from the main house. For those of you who have never tried, sleeping on tatami mats with one or two thin mattresses above is one of the most comfortable beds I’ve ever had. I got to listen to the 5 sparrow chicks right under me chirping endlessly for food, and many other invisible coos and whistles from other birds just outside every day.
2. Throw city routines out the window.
The first is probably waking up around 6/7am, when morning light floods your room and right about when you should get breakfast before morning work at 8am. Farm work is time sensitive and cannot be done on a 2pm-10pm evening shift.
Another routine includes a long lunch break. Mine was 12pm-3pm, which is a great window for both meal preparation and a nap after when the sun is at its peak. A nap might seem a foreign concept given our usual 9-5 office routines, but you should take it when your eyelids begin to droop. It’s magical for the afternoon work.
My evening routine evolved into me obsessing over the fire, because this little furnace heated our bathwater! My host never asked me to, but I thoroughly enjoyed kindling a small flame from dry leaves into a crackling beast that devoured every branch I could throw at it. Usually by the time I got it to a self-sustaining size, dinner was ready. After dinner was done, the bath was ready and cleaned ourselves one by one to the routine symphonty of frog calls in the dark.
3. One city day’s calorie count is one meal on the farm.
I learned after starving before lunch the first day that big breakfasts were important (for me anyway). Usually I stocked up on a bowl of rice and two pieces of toast, or 5 pieces of toast before setting off to work. Somehow, how matter how much I ate, i was always healthily hungry just before lunch, but not in the severe fainting way.
Lunch and dinner were usually served with what would be a horrifying amount of carbs for a health-conscious city dweller. As you can tell in the picture, it usually contained a full portion of both rice and noodles. The caveat is that all these meals were vegan, as Zenryu is a Buddhist monk (& chef). We also had a feast of vegetables that would cost a fortune for in the city, always freshly picked from the gardens. For protein we had various types of tofu, beans, and for those who want super Japanese, natto, one of the healthiest foods around.
This is probably beginning to sound like a free vacation. The work part is below!
4. Get used to dirt.
So what’s farm work actually like? A LOT of dirt. For a week, and even now, the creases in my hands and corners of my nails are stained black. Actually, it feels great, especially when you massage the dirt with your hands. The rich soil, which has compost, manure, and other organic material can vary from ochre colour to pitch black from bed to bed depending on what each plant needs. Some beds are dense, thick, and clay-like. Others are loose, airy, like moist powder. On sunny days, most become caked ash grey and dusty. The best way to get a sense of it is to dig in with your bare hands.
Your nails will ache from being clogged with mud, so a tip is to trim them! Even if you keep your hands above ground, the rain will ensure that your hands are covered in black goop. An easy solution for both issues, and one my hosts often offered, is gloves. Gloves also offer protection from being cut by the grass and prickles when weeding. My right hand is completely bandaged, but I personally preferred improving my weeding techniques and washing often after work. You would be wise to use more preventative measures!
5. You’re back in elementary school.
Unless you have done farmwork before, you will be learning from square one. Whether it is chopping baby greens with a knife, harvesting bright pink radishes bursting from the ground or trimming tomato vines that are sprouting, everything is new. You learn to pay attention to every detail, and learn on the job after you’ve been shown something that is ‘very simple’. You learn only after harvesting mustard greens that the big tall ones are ‘volting’, and undesireable to restaurants even though they’re perfectly edible. You learn that some seeds need to be distributed an inch apart, and that some plants need to be buried extremely deep. All simple things. Yet, these small details that you make decisions on have large implications on future harvest, what is kept for consumption, and what is tossed out.
6. Your knees (and more) will ache. Suck it up.
Much of your time is spent crouched and kneeling if there is space. Because these are organic farms, they don’t use pesticides and often have rich natural soil. This means lots of weeds. LOTS. OF. WEEDS. You will never be finished weeding, although I learned that I really enjoy it and have a great sense of accomplishment when I feel I’ve saved the produce from a green invasion. You’ll be crouched doing almost everything else too, including seeding manually for accuracy, transplanting, diggging, tying strings for vines, and harvesting.
I have a chronic injury on my lower back and bad knees, but you can find ways to deal with it. Mix up sheer focus and willpower, switching positions, resting and stretching.
7. Animal pets. Insect neighbours. Mini mortal enemies.
Whoever said the countryside was quiet was lying. Every night I went to bed lulled with the endless symphony of happy frogs (and the odd toad belch). A family of sparrows that nested in the harvest room, so we watched 5 chicks grow from hidden grey puffs to energetic and demanding toddlers nearly falling off their nest. There is a frog that hangs out in a little stone well close to the fireplace and washroom. The soil in the gardens is never still, teaming with everything from spiders to 5 inch earthworms (which are great for the soil).
And, there were the mortal enemies – yoto, which bury close to the roots of plants and only eat the part where the stock touches the soil, virtually logging down every single plant in sight while wasting the leaf. Wiki says ‘cabbage moth‘, but I am not sure about this. They were in many of the beds, and we often spent an afternoon digging for them and feeding them to the fishes after. Another one is the white butterfly which lays eggs on the leaves for its caterpillar offspring to devour.
8. Food never tasted so sweet.
Even the best chefs can only do so much with old produce, which is why so many world-class restaurants have their own gardens. We ate whatever was extra from our daily harvesting and packaging. These were the leaves with holes, the slightly wilted kale, the baby greens that were ‘too big’, the bursting radishes that were super sweet, or the wrinkled and fat snap peas.
To some, this may be seen as ‘lack of options’ or getting second best after the customer. The reality is that often the produce that looks less ‘perfect’ is often more ripe and flavourful. The leaves with holes have been certified by picky insects as the choice sprouts. The radishes with cracks are more mature.
On the farm, what looks delicious isn’t what’s ‘perfect’, but what is most ready.
Every meal, I had the satisfaction of knowing where my food came from, that it was harvested at the right time, and that I was saving it from wasteage because the supermarkets and restaurants wouldn’t take it.
Lastly, Zenryu was the head chef of his monastary, and cooks with both great efficiency and deep understanding of the ingredients he is using. The result is top-notch restaurant quality with 30 minutes of preparation for most meals
9. US$5 for baby salad will seem too cheap.
In their few years after moving to Keihoku, Zenryu has perfected a delicious 12-leaf baby salad mix. To make it, each type of leaf must be fresh cut, hand-sorted for holes and damage, kept moist (but not too moist), spin-dried if appropriate, and hand mixed. It takes a full day’s work and on days with large orders at least 3 people are on the job. The large plastic bags we harvested in are turned inside-out and hung to dry.
Everything is sorted by weight, and we always erred on a few grams too much on the scale. Kale was 150 grams. Mustard greens was 100 grams. So on, and so forth. The correct amount was then gently wrapped up and shuffled into a corresponding plastic bag. The leaves had to be presentable, aligned, and the tape sealed in a particular way. These were then stored before being distributed the same day. We liked the one or two customers that wanted good produce and didn’t mind receiving their fresh goods in reusued plastic bags.
10. Go out before your city brain says ‘no’.
If the city is about working mentally hard to earn the many experiences an urban hub has to offer, the countryside is about working physically hard to enjoy the subtleties of the natural experiences around you. Those, you can only get if you are out – even just sit outside rather than retreating indoors. Despite a long day’s work, I cycled to a nearby community centre every day not only to get an hour of wi-fi, but more because the evening sunset was always hazardously beautiful (I frequently came close to crashing roadside poles), whether it was a splatter of orange clouds against blue sky or a streak of magenta ripping through the tempest on a rainy day. On my day off, I cycled 42km on a borrowed bike with 3 gears through the mountains into another ‘city’ to see the thatched houses of Miyama (美山) and sit alongside a crystal clear river with jumping fish. It was exhausting in a simple, rewarding way. The water I collected in that river brought out the subtle aroma of my Tieguanyin (鐵觀音) that the highest grade mineral water in Hong Kong couldn’t do. On my last day, Zenryu made onigiri for another WWOOFer, Mai, and me and took us swimming in his favourite spot in a river 10 minutes drive away. It was worth soaking my clothes as I swam in the cold mountain water before hoping on a bus back to Kyoto: who’s to say when the next chance will be? It turns out, my clothes dried in the sun while I was waiting for the bus anyway!
Last Tips for Choosing Your WWOOFing Experience.
A disclaimer is that every WWOOF member farm is very different, even if they are all organic (if you find out your hosts aren’t, you should report them!). The things that vary the most are the types of hosts you get, and the environment you’re farming in (i.e. everything important!). Keep weather in mind, and check the temperatures and seasons (i.e. rainy season) for the places you are going to. Also, if you know you prefer certain styles of lodging, be honest and ask your hosts about their routine and amenities (i.e. wi-fi).
By the way, for those of you in Japan, Hello Farm Organics has a veggie box delivery program.
WWOOFing opportunities are available worldwide and you can check the link here for a WWOOF member country you’re interested in visiting.
If you liked this post, please share. Thanks!
What were your experiences on farms?Please leave your comments and let me know!