This summer, I did what any Comparative Literature student looking to improve language skills and develop ideas about economic metaphors in 16th-century literature would do: I worked on a farm in France.
It made sense at the time. I’m interested in ecocriticism, and in the parallels between agricultural and literary production, so I thought I should take a break from the ivory tower and get my hands dirty. Also, I had spent last summer miserably memorizing Greek verb forms and was looking for something very, very different. World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, with sites in over 30 countries, seemed like it would provide just that. Spending a few weeks working outdoors in the French countryside, in exchange for food and housing, sounded like an ideal way to work on my French while taking a more hands-on approach to my theoretical interest in manual labor.
So I signed up at wwoof.fr, paid the 15-euro fee, and contacted farms whose descriptions didn’t scare me (“reconnecting with our life force” and build-your-own yurt operations were out). I got encouraging replies from two farms in the southeast of France, one a small vegetable farm and another specializing in “red fruits.” My department thought it was just adorable that I wanted to harvest organic currants all summer, but gently suggested I also do something normal, like take a refresher language course, which I duly did. When I arrived on the first farm, freshly cultured from Paris, I was fed some leftover ratatouille, escorted to a trailer with no running water or electricity and a broken floor, and told (nicely) that breakfast was at 5:30; work commenced at 6.
I usually worked 6-8 hours a day (more than on most WWOOF sites) helping farmers Xavier and Elisabeth harvest zucchini or potatoes or rhubarb, reweave lapsed tomato vines around their stakes, and weigh crates of vegetables for the biweekly markets and AMAP (the French equivalent of a CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture). At noon (or one, or two, depending on how long we could stand the heat in the greenhouses), I would retreat inside to help Margo, a Belgian wwoofeuse, prepare lunch (usually some variant on ratatouille). In the afternoon I was free to bicycle past fields of sunflowers to bathe in a river, repair to the nearby town’s bar to drink Belgian beer with Margo, or tackle my summer reading list. My books mostly gathered dust, but Shakespeare and Montaigne managed to preserve their dignity stacked next to my bug spray, flashlight, and spray-bottle of alcohol (for disinfecting purposes!). Whenever I could, I profited from the unlimited access to bursting-ripe figs growing wild on the edge of the property, though I did have to compete with some fructose-fiending wasps.
After three weeks I took a train through fields of lavender (I think? I slept the whole way) to the next farm, also run by a young couple, Ludovic and Mayi. Besides the advertised red fruits were a summer stew’s array of vegetables, orchards of plush peaches and tiny yellow plums, and a coop of chickens who laid those incredible saffron-yolked eggs everyone in Berkeley who raises chickens talks about. Work schedules, tasks, and accommodations vary greatly at WWOOF farms; here I was housed in Ludo and Mayi’s apartment in town, a 30-minute walk through rolling hills from the farm, and my workday was generally from 9 to 4. In the mornings I would make batches of currant, strawberry, or plum jam, trying to avoid disaster transferring the boiling liquid from the medieval wood-burning cauldron into scathing sterilized glass jars. I would also prepare lunch, which always featured farm-fresh produce but sometimes included items of less certain provenance, like nuggets of frozen breaded fish. (Not all organic farmers, I found out, have the time, money, or inclination to eat all local and organic, all the time.) Afternoons I would usually weed, or plant beans and think pastoral thoughts until a whiff of exhaust from the tractor or Ludo’s father’s thick provincial bark rudely jolted me from my Thoreauvian idyll.
Did my French improve? Well, I learned a lot of words for weeds, and that the offshoots of tomato plants who greedily leech the main stem’s nutrients are called, aptly, gourmands. At the first farm, I was a willing audience for Elisabeth’s Parisian parents, who arrived toting smelly cheeses (he in a beret, she in a colorful scarf), delivered frequent homages to le pain, le vin, et le fromage, and cheerfully embodied every other French stereotype I could hope for. The next farm was a much bigger operation, and my main interlocutors were seasonal workers from Romania, whose French was limited to words like “work,” “meat,” “many kilos,” and the universal “kaputt!!“, and the farmers’ son Asmar, age two, who responded to most attempts at conversation by hurling whatever overripe fruit was in reach. Out of habit, I guess, Ludo’s parents – who had bequeathed the farm to Ludo years ago, but stuck around to help out and complain about how silly all the new organic stuff was – spoke to me in a pidgin French that made me feel more like a two-year-old than a foreigner. On the plus side, I was frequently treated to pithy, enthusiastic pronouncements like “France: a lot of cycling, not a lot of work!!!” and (passing a herd of cows grazing pacifically) “In your country, cows eat corn all year! America!!!!!”
Did I learn a lot about farming? Well, I learned a lot about weeds, because growing food without the conventional chemical shortcuts is (surprise) hard work. Working on the real, solid earth was a welcome change from the numinous spaces of texts, but it wasn’t always easy to find sure footing; the honest backbreaking labor I was hoping for would get interrupted by logistical problems, the whims of the weather, and mechanical glitches (“tracteur kaputt!!”). As Berkeley English Professor Anne-Lise François has suggested, the rhythms of agricultural labor can end up resembling an academic calendar: a lot of doing nothing (or what looks like it) before cramming for a final exam or harvest, or strategic waiting foiled by an unexpected rainstorm.
Most illuminating were the differences I could glean in organic food production (and consumption) in France and the U.S. The organic movement seemed much more, well, organic in France, less of a marketing gimmick than a real (herbicide-free) grassroots effort to make the national food system better. As any visit to the supermarché (or its amped-up cousin, the hypermarché) will testify, over-processed foods certainly exist in France; I encountered such minor outrages as microwaveable éclairs and madeleines pumped with enough preservatives to outlast any search for lost time. But Big Food, that evil alimentary-industrial complex Berkeley has trained me to malign, just isn’t as big in France, maybe because nothing is as big in France as it is here. And of course, cultural attitudes towards food tend to be different. Organic farmers from inland California report that locals aren’t interested enough in fresh vegetables to subscribe to a CSA; in France, people in rural areas have too many fresh vegetables in their own gardens to subscribe to an AMAP.
So if you are interested in food policy, georgic poetry, the economics of agriculture, or the economics of your limited summer funding, I recommend checking out wwoof.org for information on how to work and stay for free all around the U.S. and abroad. The nominal registration fee will allow you to read descriptions and contact farms, some of which accept WWOOFers for as little as a few days. And there’s nothing like a brief stay at a farm to help you appreciate the fact that in graduate school – low pay, limited job prospects, and overloaded schedules notwithstanding – we’re only metaphorically in the weeds.