Sylvester Manor: Working for free has its pleasures for farm visitors

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO | “WWOOFers” working at Sylvester Manor, from left, Zoe Taillebe, Sarah Brent, Cassie Woolhiser and Aline Rouselet.

Six young people, from places as far flung as Paris, France and Missoula, Montana, have been working as “WWOOFers” this summer at Sylvester Manor Educational Farm. They tend the four acres of Windmill Field, care for the chickens, stock the farm stand and help with day camp programs.

WWOOF stands for “World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms,” or “Willing Workers on Organic Farms.” The concept originated in England in 1971 to provide urbanites access to the countryside while supporting the nascent organic farming movement. There are now WWOOFs in some 99 countries; participants typically find placements on country-specific WWOOF websites.

The WWOOFers are on the job at 5:30 in the morning and finish at 8:30 at night, with a few hours off in the heat of the day. They get tick bites, sunburns and poison ivy but no compensation beyond lodging and food. They are all excited about the opportunity to live in a totally new environment and learn a new set of life skills.

Zoe Taillebe and Aline Rouselet, both from Paris, are juniors in civil engineering at France’s Metz University. According to Zoe, “We had to do a program for six weeks for school to learn English. We thought that the best idea was to be with a lot of people to learn and discover a lot of different things. We didn’t know anything about farming but we had a friend who had done WWOOFing last year. It’s the last time we can do something like this. We emailed, had a Skype interview and here we are.”

As they set up the farm stand for the day, the young women ticked off the list of WWOOFer chores that include weeding (“It’s boring”) to caring for the chickens, which they love and “making bouquets for sale which takes time because we want them to be beautiful.”

“We also love the little kids,” said Zoe, referring to the Young Farmers day campers. “We taught them French words this week,” added Aline. Besides learning English, they have discovered okra and blueberries, which are apparently unknown in France. Despite the weeding, they’ve had an excellent experience. “It’s a good team; everyone is very funny,” Zoe said.

This is Max Godreg’s second stint at Sylvester Manor. He first arrived in the summer of 2010 after hearing Bennett Konesni speak at Middlebury College, where Max was then a freshman. “Bennett came to school to talk about work songs and the farm … he sang songs and I was hooked. I was looking for something cool to do for the summer and this combined my passions for singing and organic farming. I came here for seven weeks last year; this year I’m here for three months.”

Max, who’s from Atlanta, doesn’t have farming in his blood. “The only other work I’ve done like this is church group stuff but I like doing this kind of manual labor and I really like singing. I love it.”

Max’s least favorite chore is harvesting arugula. “There’s not much of it so you have to go through it a million times to get enough; it’s just really tedious.” He does, however, love to mulch the fields. “It feels good to be doing something that’s going to pay off seasons later.” In addition, “Singing with the kids is awesome. When you get down to it, there really is not much that’s not fun to do.”

Zach Hooper from Austin, Texas also finds weeding “so boring.” Zach is entering his sophomore year at St. John’s College, Santa Fe, New Mexico. He farmed last summer at Urban Roots in Austin “where the crops are donated to orphanages and homeless shelters.” He also enjoys mulching, (“You feel so accomplished,” he said) caring for the chickens and cooking for the crew. “I just like working outside,” he admitted. “I enjoy manual labor.”

Hailing from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Sarah Brent also studies at Middlebury College. “I had planned to take classes in German but decided I didn’t want to spend the summer in a classroom. I wanted to put myself out of my element. I like picking up new things, I like food and immersing myself in a new community. I found out about this on the WWOOF website and it seemed perfect.”

The sixth WWOOFer, Cassie Woolhiser, is from Missoula, Montana. She just graduated from the University of Puget Sound in May with a degree in psychology but wasn’t available last week when the rest of the group gathered.

The crew eats together every night and rotates the preparation of dinner. The chef is exempt from working the 5:30-8:30 p.m. shift. “It’s been great as the summer has progressed and we can make more and more farm-only meals,” Sarah said. “I didn’t know how to make a salad when I came here but now I take my turn at dinner. We rely on lots of cookbooks, especially “The Joy of Cooking.”

Dinners these evenings consist of “creative uses of kale, fried and stuffed green tomatoes, green tomato bread and zucchini bread,” said Sarah. Zach added, “We’re really trying to get creative with green tomatoes. We had to pull up eight rows of plants this week because of the tomato blight. Hundreds of plants had to be pulled and destroyed. It was emotionally brutal.”

Despite the heat, tomato blight, ticks and the other hazards of farm labor, the students are enthusiastic about their experience and Shelter Island. “We have enjoyed meeting the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) members every Saturday,” said Zoe. “So when we go anywhere, we see people we know, which is fun.” Max admitted that the “island sheltered by islands” concept was a tough one for him. “I have a hard time with the double island part. I’m not used to being somewhere where you can’t walk forever.”

And finally, what did their parents say about their choice of summer employment?

“My parents were bummed that I didn’t get a job where I’m making money but I’m not spending it either. They visited a couple of weeks ago and were very impressed,” said Sarah.

Zoe admitted that her family thought “it was a little bit crazy but now think it’s good experience and are very proud that we went somewhere we didn’t know the language and are doing something we didn’t know anything about.”

And Zach said, “They know there are lots worse things I could be doing with my summer.”