Trading in Ski Boots for Sandals: Winter Adventures for Farmers (Part 1)
Becky Maden is the Assistant Farm Manager at Intervale Community Farm (ICF), a thriving member-owned CSA farm in its 21st season of growing organic produce in Burlington, Vermont. Becky has worked on several diverse vegetable farms throughout the country and around the world. At ICF, Becky is either found in the greenhouse, on a tractor, or jogging between the two. She also writes the farm newsletter, Bottom Land News. In her time spent away from the farm, Becky loves to travel, write, bike, run, ski, and cook bounteous meals with glorious produce.
My desk illustrates everything you need to know about my winter days: seed catalogs bent open and piled on top of one another with circles and slashes covering their pages, stickies slapped on my window reminding me to return library books, pages of scratch notes next to my computer calculating the number of pepper plants per bed and the quantity of seed we’ll need for this year’s beet crop. But lurking in the far right corner of my desk is a more tantalizing prospect than all of the crops a farmer can dream in the chill of a Vermont winter: it is the glossy Lonely Planet travel guide to Myanmar. Under it is a folder with my passport, visa, plane tickets, and hotel reservations. And they are all paid for and ready to go, with my name boldly on them.
I need to be utterly honest: every time I glance at this book or see the block of three weeks extending across my calendar stating “Becky Burma”, I feel queasy. My mind darts to all the things that could go wrong and to all the things that I should be doing during those three weeks. Why, I ask myself, am I leaving behind this snowy paradise, where life is a luxurious concoction of paging through seed catalogs, refilling my tea mug, exploding our first ever popcorn crop into delicious puffy nibbles, strapping on my skis and sliding through the billowing snowy hills, and sharing warm wine-filled evenings with friends. Why disrupt this perfect patchwork of joy, why spend my hard-earned money, why set aside all of the urgent farm-related tasks to get sweaty blisters, dodge big snakes, smear DEET and sunscreen all over my organically-fed body, and fret about having diarrhea on long bus rides?
The relief from my confusion is multi-layered. It begins with my grateful acknowledgement that this is a time in my life where travel is possible personally, physically, and financially. But the depth of my desire to throw off the sweet quilt of winter luxury is tethered to a longing for exactly what I fear most: the humbling discomfort of stepping foot outside of my known normalcy. We live in a world composed of glaring cruelty, of massive exploitation, disturbing inequity, and environmental degradation. We also live in a world filled with immense kindness, generosity, and beauty. My travels both domestically and internationally have taught me that the yin and yang of the planet can coexist in a profoundly beautiful way. And it is in seeking this contradictory experience of discomfort coupled with a glorious, gaspingly beautiful adventure that I set out to travel once again, this time farther than I’ve ever been before. My bags are packed; my malaria medicine is in hand. Now all I need is a little courage and a few reminders of why I’m going. In this article, I hope to inspire YOU to take some winter travel time, and to also inspire an agricultural focus in your journeys.
WHY TRAVEL? (Because you could just work all the time…)
- It is a forced break from the farm. Nothing gives you space from your work than not seeing it everyday – and not having control over what might happen while you are gone. Things are always fine when you come home (right?).
- Time slows down. Your travels will be etched in your memory for the rest of your life, whereas another three weeks of work won’t be something you remember in twenty years.
- Travel exposes you to other cultures. Nothing is as illuminating as seeing how people in other places live, eat, and farm.
- Going away is guaranteed to infuse you with a deep appreciation of the farming community and life that you have built right here at home. Returning to your life after time away is a good measure of how much you love what you have.
The Buswoman’s Holiday: Farming on the Road
For me, the idea of three weeks relaxing on a beach sounds boring and expensive. I need movement and action, which is why I love farming in the first place. Interspersing my travels with volunteer work or with farm visits helps me structure a vacation, connects me to local people, provides fodder for great stories, and usually keeps me well fed on my trips. Furthermore, if you own your own business, a farm-oriented trip can be a written off as a business expense. Here are a few suggestions for structuring your working holiday:
- Use an existing network of organizations to find out what opportunities are available where you are going. WWOOF (http://www.wwoof.org) is the most widely established organization for farm travel. WWOOF has lists of international as well as domestic farms. You pay for access to farm listings and then are responsible for contacting the farms independently. There are also some good agricultural volunteer organizations like Winrock International (http://www.winrock.org) and Sustainable Harvest International (http://www.sustainableharvest.org) (I have never worked with either of these organizations, but have heard good reviews). Slow Food International (http://www.slowfood.com) is also a great network for finding willing farm or food-related contacts, and forums like Couchsurfing International (https://www.couchsurfing.org/) can help you find local people with similar interests. It’s also useful to contact local organizations, like the farmers’ markets or organic farming groups in the region you are going to, if any exist. And finally, use your own networks of friends and colleagues – this is a time when Facebook is quite useful. Do as much researching and networking ahead of time as possible and contact farmers that you may like to meet before your trip.
- When you arrive somewhere, make a beeline to the farmers’ markets (make sure you find markets that are producer markets). Talk to vendors. Don’t be shy about asking about their farms, and if you connect, see if you can visit their farm.
- If you can, bring goodies from your farm or locale, like jams or maple syrup. It’s a great way to thank people for their hospitality and to share a bit of your agricultural heritage.
- Bring photos of your farm, equipment, and crops to show other farmers.
- If you are traveling in another language, learn a few farm-based words to help navigate conversations. Handy words to know are: farm, soil, vegetables, fruits, animals, and tools. It’s also great to learn how to describe your own farm – how many acres (or hectares), where it’s located, what your climate is like.
- Always offer to help out. Think about how you’d feel if someone showed up at your farm randomly wanting to “visit” and “learn about your culture”. It’d be really nice if they pitched in, right? And remember, if you are travelling during winter in the Northern Hemisphere; try to respectfully remember that for many farmers, winter is a time for family, not for hosting extended farm visits.
- Reciprocate. After many touching travel experiences where strangers invited me into their homes, fed me, drove me places, and shared precious time with me, I vowed to myself that I would open my own home and farm up to strangers as much as I felt comfortable with. It goes without saying that on both as a traveler and as a host, good judgment and intuition are essential (especially as a woman), but I also can’t emphasize enough how special the generosity of strangers has been in my travel experiences.
All of this said, some places are easier to find farm experiences in than others. I spent four months in France one year, WWOOFing, hiking, and visiting with generous people I met along the way. The farm network in France felt familiar and the culture was easy for me to navigate. Another year, I spent several months travelling on farms in California. Again, it was easy to contact people, chat with them, and intuit who was open to a visit and who wasn’t. That wasn’t the case for me on trips to Honduras, Peru, and Mexico. I’m not as confident in Spanish, and the culture felt more daunting to me. I explored the markets with enthusiasm, and spent loads of time hiking through the fields of the Andes, where I saw quinoa, amaranth, and potato crops. I was able to chat with farmers in the fields along the way, but my ability to glean tangible knowledge was weaker there.
I anticipate that my trip to Myanmar will be even more difficult in this way. There is very little infrastructure for travelers there, and certainly no organizations to accommodate curious vegetable farmers from abroad. The advice I got from one Vermont farmer who has recently been to Myanmar was, “If you see fields of veggies and someone working, just stop and chat, if you like.” It is these whimsical interactions that can make a trip outstanding – all it takes is a dose of courage, a bit of common sense, a big smile, and a nice little bottle of maple syrup.
Stay posted! I’ll let you know how it all turned out when I return.