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One Month WWOOFing in Italy

By Emma Boutcher

The four weeks that I spent WWOOFing in Italy was easily one of the most meaningful and impactful periods of my sabbatical. I first learned about WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) as a volunteer on an organic rice farm in Malaysia in January 2020. WWOOFing, like Workaway, pieces together my favorite aspects of international travel: the ability to immerse oneself in a new culture, hands-on work that feels meaningful, and the opportunity to connect with the local people. The added element of living and working on a farm was the cherry on top.

One of my primary objectives and inspirations for quitting my job was to figure out where I wanted to go next in my career. In recent years I’ve become increasingly interested in learning more about food systems, and wondered if this may be my next career step. Career change or not, I knew spending time on a farm, working with and learning from farmers, and experiencing a lifestyle that looks nothing like the stereotypical 9-5, would be an excellent use of this time off.

With a pending Italian citizenship and a strong desire to live in Italy, it was a logical place to begin my WWOOF adventure. Over the course of a month I visited three different farms in three different regions of Italy. Here’s what I did, learned, and took away from the experience.

WWOOF 1: Assisi, Umbria

I’m sitting at my favorite spot on the Assisi property. It’s on the higher of the two benches facing out towards the valley down below. My favorite yellow home is visible to my right, and my favorite sunset view straight ahead. 

The property is absolutely stunning. It’s a small (17 hectares) slice of heaven, appealing to all senses: to the ears – birds chirping and little girls (Gemma and Giada) chatting in Italian, to the nose – herb bushes everywhere you look (rosmarino, alloro, lavanda), to the eyes – a lovely property set atop a hill, surrounded by olive groves, looming pine trees and views of the rolling valley below. It’s truly one of the most calming places I have ever been. 

My host family of four has been an absolute delight, welcoming me seamlessly into their daily life. The two young girls are the biggest highlight of this place. They get along well, are patient and encouraging with me and my Italian, self-sufficient and curious, full of energy, and can either be found studying, playing in the yard, helping us in the garden, or singing and dancing their way around the house. Unlike most screen obsessed kids their age, observing their engagement with nature and their surroundings was pleasantly refreshing.

The parents, Giordano and Tamara, have been welcoming and take a very hands off approach. They’d always tell me to take a rest or speak up if I needed anything, but were never overbearing. I enjoyed nice chats with them about life, as they were always eager to share their views of the world with me. I’ve enjoyed hearing their philosophies on living in the countryside, the importance of being present (with oneself and with the garden), the interconnectedness of all things – especially human and soil, and their approach to raising two delightfully bright daughters. 

During the past week I had the chance to visit the town of Assisi, attend a German traveling circus in the town of Casa di Diavolo, watch Anne of Green Gables (in Italian), slackline, hunt for tartufi with Lela the lagotto, play cards (Uno, Exploding Kittens and Ligretto), make bread, practice English/Italian with Giada, make rosmarino crowns with Gemma, and enjoy many many meals with the family (always lunch and dinner). The food is simple but always tasty, never without salt, bread, homemade olive oil and fresh vegetables on the table.

The work has been quite simple, typically four hours in the morning, followed by a nice long lunch, and then another 2ish hours in the afternoon. I enjoyed the manual labor for the first few days, oftentimes because it made il pranzo that much more delicious. My time was spent in the garden cleaning up around the rosmarino and alloro bushes – weeding, cutting, raking, lining up weeds in the garden to be ground up by the tractor, and chopping wood for the winter. I am pleased to report that this time also kickstarted my Italian language learning, including uncommon nouns like forbici (scissors) and carriola (wheelbarrow). Saturday was a rest day and Sunday was spent making breakfast for everyone (pancakes of course) and raking the pine needles in the gravel walkway while listening to the terrifying audiobook Empire of Pain about the Sackler dynasty.

Being on such a big property and working as a team of three, I feel a tremendous appreciation for how much work goes into maintaining a property and garden. I learned that oftentimes choices are made, not for a lack of wanting but for a lack of hands and help to continually maintain. As Tamara said when she showed me the abandoned vegetable garden, “the garden needs presence”. Of course physical presence to keep it alive but also emotional presence to give it life. I’ve enjoyed their attitude in this way towards their land. 

WWOOF 2: La Pievuccia – Castiglion Fiorentino, Toscana

I’m currently sitting on the train in Milano Centrale headed for Lecco. It’s crazy to think that I was last there with my dad in July at the end of our bike trip. Now, four months later, I’m back but for a totally different purpose. This morning I left the lovely La Pievuccia and wanted to document my thoughts as I did with my first WWOOF…

The agriturismo felt like a total Tuscan dream, from the vegetable garden that I’d walk to every day to get fresh veg, to the view of the castle on the hill, the apartment I lived in, the kitchen and patio that we would cook/dine at everyday, to the views of the vineyard at sunset. The property was far from town or from the station (~3km) but offered plenty of scenic running routes that I took advantage of before work. 

The nearby town of Castiglion Fiorentino is a tiny, picturesque hilltop town that would certainly be worth basing out of on a future Tuscan getaway. While most of our time was spent around the property, I always enjoyed the chance to check out the surrounding area, through quick runs to the grocery store or macelleria, a fantastic gelato shop, and a dinner out in town. 

In contrast with my first stay, which felt isolated and like a true Italian immersion, this stay was quite different. The property is an active agritourismo that just recently closed its doors for the winter season. It’s operated by two Americans, Stephen and Jennifer (although Jennifer had just traveled back to the US to visit family), and their staff members, Carla and Riccardo (Ricky). Stephen is a generous host who never hesitated to give me a lift to and from the station. He’s a true American businessman, which was comical to observe as he dealt with the Italians (who don’t do business at all like the Americans). Carla practically runs the show and was the one we called on whenever we needed help. She’s an exceptional cook, wild mushroom forager, Italian teacher, and was could be heard around the property cracking jokes or yelling at Ricky and Stephen (jokingly). Riccardo, the property’s agronomist, was just as lovely and incredibly knowledgeable about all things wine. 

Unlike my first WWOOF, I was joined by two other WWOOFers, an American from California and the delightful Julie-Rose from Quebec. I enjoyed having other people to share the experience with and enjoyed the liveliness that came from having more adults around the property.

Given the rainy weather we had the first few days, our work was restricted to indoor activities, which meant bottling, labeling, and boxing wine. While monotonous, it was enjoyable for a few days, as we blasted oldies music and sang in the cellar. However, what I really came for was la raccolta delle olive. Halfway into my stay the skies finally cleared. The days spent in the olive grove were easily my favorite work days. It was such a treat to spend the whole day outside with everyone with the sun on our faces, Carla’s favorite Italian music playing and the satisfaction of raking your hands through the olive branches as olives plummeted to the ground. 

The process of the harvest is quite simple and involves just a few pieces of equipment. It starts by laying out mesh nets around the trees and then one by one, “brushing” each tree with a small plastic rake until the branches are bare. It’s repetitive but sodisfacente. I think harvesting olives is another sneaky trick that Italians have for living long and healthy lives. 

On my last day, Stephen and Ricky took me to the mill to observe the process of turning olives into oil, which is all done by machine. It begins with separating the fruits from their leaves, then removing the skin, grinding it into a paste, separating solid from liquid, and finally, releasing the oil in all of its emerald green glory. The process takes not even five minutes from start to finish but is a great opportunity to hang out and chat (with a beer in hand) with other producers as you wait. It’s a real community event. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to take the oil home with us that night, but I’ll be sure to order some once I’m back in the US.

WWOOF 3: I Soffioni Agricoltura BiologicaButtigliera D’Asti, Piemonte

My WWOOFing adventure brought me to my third and final region – Piemonte, known for its wines, white truffles, and mountains (Piemonte literally means “foot of the mountain”). I spent my final week at the lovely I Soffioni Agricoltura Biologica, nestled in the Po River Valley between Torino and Asti, in the tiny town of Buttigliera di Asti. It’s a flat and objectively less attractive area than Toscana, but when the skies are clear, the views of the snow capped mountains on the horizon are jaw dropping.

The family I lived with was exceptionally warm, welcoming and would always go out of their way to include me and make me feel at home. From offering salty breakfasts (the Italians love their sweets in the morning), helping me when I was sick, asking the kids to speak slow for me, they really made a big effort to welcome me in. The parents, Manu and Federico, were gentle and caring. I enjoyed many good conversations with them about how they built and designed their property, and the environmental changes they’ve seen in recent years. 

The property is primarily a vegetable farm with a diverse range of produce including two types of kale (cavolo nero, cavolo riccio), zucchine a trombetta, broccoli, pak-choi, lattuga, cipolle blonde, finnochio and aglio. In addition to the vegetable garden they have 15 chickens, bees, a dog, hazelnut trees, apple trees, and a whole host of other native trees that Federico has reintroduced to the property.

The work was quite simple, and usually done before breakfast, with afternoons often free. I spent my days cleaning garlic heads/braiding garlic to be sold at the market, or harvesting veggies from the field to sell in the little shop on the property. My personal favorite, both for eating and harvesting was finnochio.

All three meals were enjoyed together, with lunch and dinners being the most memorable. We enjoyed plenty of fresh roasted vegetables, local cheeses and meats, with beer on the table for every meal (except breakfast). On Friday night they hosted some friends for their annual bagna cauda night, a Piemontese special. Originating in France, bagna cauda is widely popular in Piemonte and served in a similar way to fondue, with the bagna cauda in a bowl above a heat source and a spread of vegetables and meats for dipping. The sauce is made from an absurd amount of garlic, anchovy, olive oil and tomato sauce.

In addition to fennel, I enjoyed an abundance of anchovies during my stay, learning on my first night, as I devoured a whole anchovy topped pizza, that these salty fish are a staple of Piemontese cuisine. It was also on my first night that I knew I’d get along well with my hosts when I jokingly asked if they could order me a pineapple pizza.

The weekend was spent exploring the surrounding area by running, visiting a neighbor’s garden and a taking a trip to the adorable town of Chieri to check out the local market. Food stops included: gelato, caldarroste (roasted chestnuts), salsiccia e polenta, and a local IPA for me. Top it all off with a healthy dose of sunshine and I’d call it a picture perfect afternoon.

What struck me the most about this host was their passion and dedication for their work and their culture. While raising a family of three young kids, they managed to operate a full property, supply delicious organic vegetables to the community, teach in local schools, and cook up delicious food for themselves and their lucky WWOOF guests. It doesn’t look easy, but they do it with grace and with patience.

WWOOF Takeaways:

Farm work is rarely glamorous. It’s grueling. It’s repetitive. It exhausts your entire body. But it’s also nourishing, and gives one a true sense of purpose. For me, this one month period was an excellent introduction into the world of farming, and one that I intend to build upon. I struggle to find the words to convey the sense of grounding and ease that comes from working in the dirt everyday. As I sit here at my desk, typing, I can already feel my hips tightening, my shoulders clenching. I long for the freedom of movement that comes from an office outdoors.

For whatever reason, there have been many moments on this sabbatical that have felt incongruent – like I’m not where I’m meant to be. With a wide open world and a totally blank canvas I found myself many times in a state of indecision. While those feelings would come and go, the time I spent WWOOFing felt the most grounding and affirming. I no longer doubted myself. The weight that I felt lifted from my shoulders; the pressures to “figure it out” were completely gone.

On my first evening of WWOOFing I scribbled in my journal: “Just walked around the property here in Assisi. Had a cry because my heart feels so at peace. Walking amongst the olive trees with the sound of the breeze, I just feel like finally I’m where I need to be. I don’t want to change anything. I feel full, calm, engaged, grounded, and warm. I haven’t felt this way in a while.”

As I slowly piece together my notes on this period, between journal entries and quick notes typed up on my phone, I want to convey the intense sense of joy and alignment that I felt during this time. I recognize that operating a farm is neither a practical nor an economical career path for me at this time, but I feel satisfied knowing that I dipped my toe into a world and industry that has been calling me. I feel satisfied knowing that these callings are not just in my head but in my heart. And that if and when I want to pursue them, I’ll be able to lean on this period for guidance and inspiration.

I am incredibly grateful to all of my hosts who welcomed me in during this time. My greatest joys while traveling often come from the chance encounters with complete strangers, who after just a few days, start to feel like family. It’s an indescribable feeling in which you go from a mere tourist, a nobody, to feeling like part of a community. This, to me, is the beauty of travel and exchanges like WWOOF.

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