Learning to Farm on the Side of a Volcano

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Tabitha Alterman, former apprentice, with Bob and Beryl Foerster, who grow organic coffee at Dragon's Lair Kona Coffee Farm in Hawaii.

Someday my partner, Bernard, and I hope to have a bit of land so we can grow our own food. We’ve always thought it would be wonderful to make money at it, too, but the prospect of becoming a farmer is downright scary. Like everyone else in their mid-20s who grew up in cities, we assumed it was really, really hard work. To find out if we have what it takes, we joined up with WWOOF-USA, the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms program in the United States. Apprentice farmers, or “WWOOFers,” volunteer their time — and sweat and muscles — in exchange for food, lodging and an education in organic agriculture.

It was important to us to choose an organic, labor-intensive farm so we’d get the most bang for the buck. We also wanted to have a good time, so we looked for exciting places to farm and discovered a happy coincidence. Coffee, being a value-added crop, is extremely labor-intensive to produce, and the beautiful islands of Hawaii are filled with organic coffee farms. After much research and several phone interviews, we ended up at Dragon’s Lair Kona Coffee Farm on the Big Island.

From seed to cup, coffee goes through no fewer than 10 distinct stages, all of which present opportunities for learning — and for making mistakes! We tried our hands at everything, including planting trees in a’a (chunky lava) with O’o bars (Japanese digging tools), pruning according to two different ancient traditions, harvesting (which is harder than you might think if you have to climb the side of a volcano), processing (the dirty part), roasting (the fun part) and even Web sales and distribution.

We were lucky to find work with farmers who provided amazing accommodations (think fully stocked cabin in paradise). We were also lucky to end up with hosts who respect the ancient, slow, rhythmic traditions of the Japanese who began growing coffee in Hawaii in the mid-1800s. Weed-whacking wasn’t that much fun, but raking coffee into long rows on the hoshidana (drying deck) so it could be warmed by the tropical sun was positively meditative. And snorkeling after a long hot day was even better!

One of the greatest gifts our host farmers gave us was taking us regularly to farm council meetings and extension agency workshops. We were able to see firsthand how farm policy develops and how a community of would-be competitors can actually work together to keep farming practices sane. We even got involved in the struggle to get genetic engineering out of agriculture. We think that anyone who wants to farm should definitely spend some time at board meetings.

Eventually our savings ran out, but in the end we discovered that farming is, in fact, really, really hard. But it’s also super-satisfying. And, yes, we think we’ve got what it takes. So if you want to try “WWOOFing,” here’s our advice: Choose work that’s harder than what you ever hope to do and pick a place that’s more fun than you can imagine.

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