WWOOF in the Hudson Valley

The search for meaning and purpose at the end of a major life phase proves daunting. For many, it is far easier to walk across a commencement stage than to step off it. Without a concrete plan in place, where can one turn? Utterances of the phrase “gap year” are often met with disapproval. Self-discovery is stigmatized as wasteful meandering through integral periods of life.

Joining Worldwide Opportunities of Organic Farms may offer the right blend of novelty and genuine opportunity for those feeling lost. “Coppard’s Land Army,” nicknamed by agriculture magazine SEED writer Michael Allaby after its founder Sue Coppard, grants over 100,000 people around the world a glimpse into a different style of living.

Inhabitants of more than 100 counties have participated in the practice, registering themselves and their farm as official “hosts” through WWOOF’s website. Tenant farming for the Airbnb generation, membership to WWOOF enables volunteers to travel with only the limits of time they are willing to spend on each farm, tending to be small and independent entities. Periods of stay expanded to several months from the original weekend idea. Hosts instruct on the practices of organic farming. Guests learn through experience. Equal parts vacation, part-time job, and educational venture, WWOOF presents a truly unique opportunity.

Coppard’s clever bartering with a farmer in rural England established the first WWOOF trip in 1971. She, a secretary with sparse agricultural experience, and three of her friends spent the weekend enjoying the serenity of the British landscape without cost, paying instead with their labor--clearing brambles, weeding, and other efforts. With farmers eager to attain free workers, word of mouth quickly spread the idea across the British countryside, and eventually to the rest of the world.

The global phenomenon has a large presence in the Hudson Valley, offering college students residing here weekend getaways or a place to stay during breaks in between semesters. Depending on the farm, guests can stay as little as one night or up to several months volunteering.

Dense fog along curving mountain trails marks the path to Clove Valley CSA of High Falls, N.Y. The voyage takes travelers just past the tourist-pleasing Mohonk Mountain House near the artist haven of New Paltz, N.Y. Hilly back roads lead to High Falls, a quaint Hamlet featuring a few art galleries, a few grocery stores, and a lot of land. Clove Valley takes advantage of the fertile plains of the Ulster slice of the Hudson Valley to grow organic vegetables.

Upon arrival at Clove Valley CSA, volunteers are greeted with sights characteristic of local ragtag rebel farms; the science of agriculture is more of an art here. Thin driveways riddled with rotund gullies attack the tires on low-suspension cars. Hand-painted signs say “SLOW PLEASE,” “CAREFUL,” and “WELCOME.”

The ivory-white facade of the arching gray-roofed farmhouse, one of several places volunteers sleep, sets a plain rustic vibe--a subtle, authentic, non-HGTV version of a rustic aesthetic. Adjacent stands a silo adorned with a mosaic of autumn-harvest-colored tiles, with long-dead ivy winding toward the dome that tops it. Before it are two more signs: “PARK AROUND BACK” and “NO DOGS OFF LEASH,” with an emerald-green felt chair laying on its side. The greenhouse to the left is sheltered by translucent tarp and thin two-by-four wood beams. A few dilapidated sheds surround a small area for parking in the back. Vast land surrounds this sole complex of structures.

The first time Aileah Kvashay, the head of operations at Clove Valley, made the drive, she herself was a volunteer. A two-year “vision quest to find [herself], or something along those lines,” ended here, Kvashay said.

Her responsibilities were simple, trivial, and routine. Pull weeds. Feed the animals. Clean around the house. Repair the fence if it gets damaged by livestock. Assist the host in planting and harvesting. The fundamentals of organic farming were instilled in her, as she observed the healing abilities the tranquil lifestyle possessed.

Kvashay made the drive up the mountain pass of Ulster County, N.Y. not to gaze upon the glorious lookout, but to reach labor at a farm on the other side. Toby Stover, owner of one of the many farms in the region, was offering a spot. The fit was natural, the work was peaceful, and the school of Suny New Paltz presented a unique opportunity to attain a coveted Masters degree. She received a lease from the owner to manage the farm.

For nine years, Kvashay has made the drive over the mountain as a resident, one lieutenant of Coppard’s army of small-time farmers leading the revolt against goliath agricultural corporations. She opened up her quarters to WWOOFers without a moment’s hesitation.

WWOOFers reside in the main farmhouse, outside in teepees or on tent platforms, in RV’s if they utilize them for transportation, and in the lot’s former pottery studio: one of the sheds.

“People are enthusiastic--I make the schedule very clear. Some farmers tell their volunteers ‘Eh, go out for four hours, do whatever.’ I manage the sessions of weeding, harvesting, irrigation work, greenhouse care...it’s more engaging to work together as a team,” Kvashay said. Although she maintains a general structure, every day is different.

Clove Valley produces curly, dino, and Russian kales, chard, broccoli, mustard greens, beets, parsely, spinach, twelve varieties of tomatoes and peppers, eggplants, melons, squashes, and bok choy, as well as an array of perennial flowers, herbs, and tea plants. Some WWOOFers have remained for nearly two years, breaking during the short winter months while the farm lay dormant.

Volunteers engage in community service through WWOOF. A neighboring farm in New Paltz, N.Y. donates 30-50,000 pounds of food each year to People’s Place, the largest food pantry in Ulster County. Billiam van Roestenberg, the owner of Liberty View Farm and head of the pantry, strives to spark change in the lives of his volunteers.

“I try to help them figure out their life as well. Last year, I paid for one of my WWOOFers to go back to school. He was very intelligent and was forced to drop out of college. I got him a car, and he went to Ulster County Community College,” van Roestenberg said.

Musicians, artists, and writers compose a substantial portion of the WWOOF volunteer community. A Chilean volunteer taught her host traditional Latin guitar along with his native tongue, a vital communicative skill for a frequent host of Spanish travelers. An artist, Sam Leibert, converted an old outhouse at Clove Valley into an eight-by-eight art gallery titled EUREKA! Installations and events by emerging artists coincide with seasonal change and harvests on the farm.

“It mirrors WWOOF in many ways. Bringing in people from outside communities in order to build new ones, super low-stress, all about having fun and learning and experimenting. There is a constant ebbing flow coming in and out of [these farms],” Leibert said.

Many of Kvashay volunteers have grown to become her best friends. Cooperation and support is bountiful within the network of independent organic farmers in neighboring counties. “A significant aspect of the experience is to see people transform, change, come alive, find their passions, experience the world in a new light,” Kvashay said.

Raphael BerettaComment