Volunteers Learn to Grow Green
Spending a Summer Working on an Organic Farm
Shula Ornstein of Albany, N.Y., finishes her morning chores by leading cows out to pasture at Kiss the Cow Farm in Barnard, Vt., on July 9, 2014. Ornstein and two other volunteers were matched with the farm through the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms. In exchange for room and board, the “woofers” learn how to milk cows, process ducks and survive on the farm. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Shula Ornstein brings food and water to pasture-raised ducks and chicken in a field at Kiss the Cow Farm in Barnard, Vt., on July 9, 2014. “They are so messy that they don’t care if I pour their food right on top of them,” she said. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Using a detailed map of the sectioned-off pastures at Kiss the Cow Farm in Barnard, Vt., as a guide, Randy Robar shows Shula Ornstein left, and Katelyn Matuska of Shelton, Conn., how to guide the herd of cows to the correct field on July 8, 2014. Neither Ornstein nor Matuska had much farm experience before beginning work at Kiss the Cow, but after only a few weeks they were able to milk cows, process chickens and make cheese with slow but steady confidence. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Over a dinner of mac and cheese made with the farm’s milk, cheese and butter, Randy and Lisa Robar exchange funny stories with Shula Ornstein, left, and Caitlin Hargrove at their home in Barnard, Vt., on July 15, 2014. Lunch and dinner are eaten together, either on the farm or at the Robars’ home, and the “woofers” cook their share of meals. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Shula Ornstein takes advantage of time between evening chores and dinner to pack her belongings on her last night at the farm in Barnard, Vt., on July 15, 2014. As she picked up worn jeans and the visors she wore to keep out of the sun, Ornstein found a brochure from Quechee Gorge, which she visited on one of her days off. “That’s the good thing about being a messy person,” she said. “You find your memories scattered around the floor.” (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Lisa Robar explains to Katelyn Matuska how to set up the Kiss the Cow Farm booth at the Feast and Field farmers market in Barnard, Vt., on July 9, 2014, which was Matuska’s last day working as a volunteer with the Robars. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Katelyn Matuska, left, and Shoula Ornstein guide a heifer back to her herd at Kiss the Cow Farm in Barnard, Vt., on July 8, 2014. Matuska and Ornstein are volunteering on the farm through Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
With their hosts, Randy and Lisa Robar, working elsewhere on the farm, Caitlin Hargrove, left, and Katelyn Matuska collaborate to make sure they bring all the correct items to the farmers market in Barnard, Vt., on July 9, 2014. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
East Barnard — Wearing long, green waterproof aprons, the farmer and volunteer stand side by side at a table, plucking stray feathers from freshly killed ducks at Kiss the Cow Farm. After rinsing the birds, they slide them into plastic bags, to be delivered to customers that day. Lisa Robar, who owns the farm with her husband, Randy, lifts a chicken out of the big round “EZ Plucker” machine.
“Hallelujah,” she says, placing the bird on the table. Having fewer feathers, chickens are much faster to process than ducks.
They’d started harvesting the birds at about 7:45 that morning, and by 4 p.m., both Robar and Caitlin Hargrove, a volunteer from Round Rock, Texas, were pleased to have the end of the task in sight.
“Almost there,” Hargrove said.
The Marlboro College student had spent the past seven weeks on the farm as a “woofer,” a volunteer with Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms. The nonprofit matches host families with volunteers, who work in exchange for room and board and a chance to learn about organic farming.
According to the WWOOF-USA website, there are 1,880 host farms in the United States, including 29 in New Hampshire and 55 in Vermont. The program draws a wide variety of people, from those who grew up on farms to others who are entirely new to the work. That would include Hargrove.
What has she learned?
“Oh man, lots of things,” she said, laughing, and then ticked off a list: how to care for ducks and chickens, how to milk cows and trim their hooves, animal anatomy, and even how to shovel “in an effective way.” Recently, she added making cheese curd to that list.
The Robars started experimenting with cheese making last winter, and since then every woofer on the farm has had the “excitement of watching milk curdle,” which is “about as interesting as watching paint dry,” Robar said, laughing.
Hargrove left earlier this month to take a job in Brattleboro, Vt. She had planned to stay at the farm through mid-August, possibly picking up a part-time job to earn money before returning to college. But she never had the time. The woofers usually leave for the farm at 7 in the morning and finish around 6 p.m., said Hargrove. “That was a part of the experience that I did not expect at all.”
According to the organization’s website, woofers generally work about four to six hours a day, 5 1/2 days a week, but the hours vary widely depending on what needs to be done. And, of course, farms are busier at certain times of the year.
Following the old adage “make hay when the sun shines,” Randy was out cutting grass, Lisa Robar said on a recent Wednesday evening, and “I am very up to my eyeballs in chickens and ducks.”
Occasionally they goof off for a couple of hours during the day, but long days are typical on the farm, Robar said. “For Randy and I, it’s a lifestyle, not just a job.”
To ensure the animals are taken care of, the couple teaches each volunteer how to do every task, but they try to be flexible with scheduling, working around woofers’ appointments and giving them the chores they prefer, Robar said. But misunderstandings can happen. This year, their first experience with non-farmers, “taught us a lot about … how we communicate what we are doing.”
They had explained in advance what tasks would need to be done, Robar said, yet on a recent evening over dinner, the woofers said the work was “a little more than they were expecting.”
The couple made some adjustments, such as combining several half days off into two full days off. Talking it over helped clear the air, Robar said. “Listening to everyone’s concerns, it was really helpful.”
As tiring as the work is, it’s usually “really rewarding,” Hargrove said. And, she made an interesting discovery about herself: “I actually have more energy now that I am doing stuff all the time. Normally I’m pretty lazy.”
The Robars, who started taking woofers on their farm last year, both have backgrounds in education. Lisa is a music teacher at Woodstock Union High School and Middle School , and Randy, now a full-time farmer, is a trained social studies teacher. He’s taught computer languages and also taught in a few teaching museums, including Billings Farm & Museum.
For Katelyn Matuska, who recently wrapped up her stay with the Robars, the focus on learning was a plus.
“I specifically looked at places that were willing to take the time to really make sure it was an educational experience,” said Matuska, of Shelton, Conn. “There’s nothing for me like hands-on (learning) and having people willing to teach you pretty much for free.”
A recent college graduate, Matuska will study educational leadership and policy at the University of Vermont this fall. But before heading off to graduate school, she’ll squeeze in one more woofing experience, this time with homesteaders in Newfane, Vt. She doesn’t plan to be a farmer, but may pursue homesteading someday, so the skills she’s acquiring may come in handy. But, she said, the most valuable part of her experience was the confidence she gained in her ability to handle challenging physical tasks.
“I can build an outhouse, or I can lift a 50-pound grain bag, or I can handle large animals,” Matuska said. “It was kind of empowering.”
And the lessons run both ways. As farmers, they’re still learning, said Robar. The couple started out five years ago with one dairy cow in their two-car garage. Now, they lease about 75 acres on Royalton Turnpike from the Vermont Land Trust, as part of a cooperative that also includes Eastman Farm and Heartwood Fable Collective Farm.
The woofers who work with them on Kiss the Cow Farm often come up with new ways to do everyday tasks, Robar said. “Having those new eyes is really very, very helpful.”
Aimee Caruso can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3210.