Why We Quit our WWOOFing Gig

 
  All photos by  Josh Meister Photo .

All photos by Josh Meister Photo.

My foot was aching from where the horse had stepped on it, and Josh looked like he should be on an episode of True Life: I'm a Cutter. His arms were a mess of red marks that looked increasing more painful every day.

Maybe stupidly (considering we're not exactly spring chickens) we decided a few months prior that trying out WWOOFing (working on organic farms in exchange for room and board) would be a great experience and give Josh some really unique photo opportunities, not to mention a way to majorly cut our costs for a little while. There's no formal contracts or rules with WWOOFing. You reach out to the farmers, agree on a timeframe, and show up to work a suggested 20 hours per week in exchange for accommodations and food.

The idea of working on a vineyard in Bordeaux for a couple of weeks seemed romantic and idyllic. Work a little, drink a little, chuckle with the vintner over organic charcuterie at sunset. Pretty much perfect.

We signed up for a France WWOOFing membership ($30 for a couple), and started looking at options. Sadly, there was only one "vineyard" available since our timeline didn't align with the harvest season, and that one looked like someone's fairly rundown backyard. We opted instead for two weeks on a horse, cow, and pig farm that was almost completely self-sustaining with their own crops, plus – bonus! – in one of the top wine regions of France and located by the sea.

We were picked up at the train station in Lesparre Medoc, about 90 minutes north of Bordeaux, by Thomas, an 18-year-old Norwegian who was "farm interning" for 3 weeks, the last of which overlapped with our time there. He gave us some information about what to expect, but really not all that much. We were excited and hopeful and then quickly confused. The owner of the farm, Dania, had prepared a beautiful lunch for us on our arrival. We sat on the porch and enjoyed salad and roasted vegetables picked from their gardens, hamburgers made with beef from their own cows, and local cheese. Arnaud, Dania's partner, didn't speak much English, so he mainly smiled and nodded a lot as we awkwardly tried to ascertain from Dania what we'd be doing while on the farm.

In hindsight, that was a laughable goal, as we quickly realized that we'd never know what we'd be doing until we were essentially doing it. I'm not sure if it's an American issue or just our own – and trust me, we've gotten better and better at going with the flow and living in the moment – but we have a bit of hard time not knowing what's in store for us and being able to prepare for it. Not mentally so much as literally wearing the correct things and knowing if we can or should take cameras, etc. with us.

That afternoon, we were apparently moving two pigs. Move them to and from where? Why did they need to be moved? How were we going to do that? We literally put our bags in our room, ate lunch, and then were given farm boots to wear in place of our shoes and corralled into an old Land Rover Disco with a large animal trailer attached. Two of the four tiny house dogs also jumped in, and (once again, some kind of warning would be nice) we had to make sure they were perched in their designated areas to keep from biting the shit out of each other if left in the incorrect spots in the car, as they were currently in a battle over alpha status.

As we drove, we pried a bit of information from Thomas who had some more insider knowledge than us, since he had been there for the first move of these particular pigs. He told us we were going to get back Lucy and Nelly who had been at a friend's farm for a week to mate. But they didn't like each other and had to be separated in the trailer. Seems like a bit of a theme with this farm's animals and transportation. Josh and Thomas were both given big flat boards and told to heard each pig into the trailer. Arnaud jumped over the enclosure and got Nelly to start moving in the right direction, which required a lot of swatting at her behind. The guys ran along next to her, keeping the boards on either side of her like makeshift cattle shoots. It went well until she got to the trailer and balked about going in. A few escape attempts later, she was in. A bit of a scuffle with Lucy, and then she was in too. Success! We still had no idea what was happening, but we were in it for sure.

Throughout the course of our week WWOOFing, we ate absolutely amazing and delicious food, drank some of the best wine we'll probably ever have, lived like a local in an area we otherwise never would have discovered, got a behind-the-scenes look at the winery Arnaud used to own, and worked about 8-9 hours a day, obliterating that estimated 20 a week in less than three days. Wengot a couple of hours here and there to check out the area. Dania and Arnaud let us use an old Peugot they had, which was extremely nice and generous, and we took full advantage to go to a beach one day (where we were the youngest people by about 30 or so years and also one of they few that had on any sort of clothing), as well as some of the daily markets to either buy organic items, buy old clothes in which to work so we didn't ruin our own clothes, and to eat amazing oysters that were €5 for a dozen plus some €1.50 lovely wine to wash it down.

Our daily tasks included feeding the pigs and horses twice a day and the dogs once a day. I did a lot of harvesting from the different gardens, planted various things, and helped clean horses. Josh was tasked with essentially pruning all their trees and bushes and pulling thorns. We also had to de-nettle a path for horses, clear apples from a horse field, and help out with cooking and baking a bit. The second to last day we were there, Josh and Thomas put down a pig and prepared it for butchering. It was not a good experience. Josh didn't have a problem with the task, but (preparation again!) the way it was executed (pun really not intended, sorry) was woefully bad. They didn't have literally any of the correct equipment for the job, Dania fretted the entire 2.5 hours it took, and it was summer, so there were flies everywhere, which we had to continuously fan away to prevent them from getting into the carcass and laying eggs, rendering it unusable.

We were sore, frustrated, probably too old to be WWOOFing, and our plan of having lots of time to figure out next steps in our trip was long gone as we didn't finish farm tasks until about 8 or 9pm each night. By the time we showered and ate dinner, we were wiped. Not to mention the lack of time for Josh to shoot, which was part of the reason we signed up for WWOOFing to begin with.

We had a bit of a heart to heart, and decided it was time to blow that farm stand. We weren't supposed to head to Bordeaux and our next Airbnb for another week, but we jumped on a train and had our first taste of figuring it out as we went.