Few people live on farms anymore, but many people daydream about it. There's just something very gratifying about that type of hard work—and working with nature to create healthy, nourishing food. But the fact is, farm life isn't always how you may envision it, and chemical-based farming is robbing farmers of a decent living and making our country sick (especially the farmers). In her book Organic Manifesto, Rodale Inc. CEO Maria Rodale describes the trap many modern-day chemical farmers fall into, relying on expensive, genetically engineered seeds, chemical pesticides and fertilizers, financing expensive, gigantic farm equipment, and leasing more land than they can afford. "Being a farmer is hard these days. Commodity prices soar and fall along with the prices of gas and fertilizer and consumer confidence, and the ever-increasing amount of land needed to earn a living makes it hard to enjoy the job," she writes, adding, "It's always been hard to be a farmer. But a generation or two back, at least it was a family affair that brought with it a set of values and joys that made up for the long hours and backbreaking work."
The good news is, that sense of community and the importance of producing nourishing food seems to be returning, with the public's interest in sustainable organic farms back on the radar screen. There's been an explosion of interest in sustainable agriculture, and that's good news for families seeking healthy food, and for the farmers, too. A recent report from the United States Department of Agriculture found that organic farmers earn a better living than their chemical-oriented counterparts. Most likely because they don't buy into the chemical system that may seem to work at first, but winds up putting farmers in debt and puts them on a treadmill of needing more and more chemicals as their soil becomes less and less healthy.
If you want to experience the benefits of chemical-free farming yourself—besides buying and enjoying the food—there are several ways you can get a farm experience without quitting your day job or selling your house and heading to the countryside.
Don't own a farm? No problem. Here's how to farm without being a farmer:
# 1. Start or join a crop mob.In the last few years, the phenomenon of "crop mobs" has become more popular. During a crop mob, volunteers gather on a farm for a day to perform tasks that could take an individual farmer days or weeks to complete, such as erecting a hoophouse, mulching field beds, or painting a barn. Participants include other farmers as well as people who want to help out, meet local farmers, and get some exercise. To set up such a group in your area, query local, sustainable farmers in your county about projects they need help with (and when), ask how you can help, and then find like-minded helpers and schedule your own crop mob event. If you belong to a CSA (see below) or shop at a farmer's market, start the conversation with the farmers there.
# 2. Become a WWOOFer.The World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms program lists organic-farm host families from all over the world who allow people of all different backgrounds the opportunity to spend a week or even months on sustainable farms. Each host family lists the length of stay and expertise level required for volunteers, but many require a visit of just a week or two (perfect for a volunteer-vacation experience) and no immediate farming skills. The volunteers get room and board, and take home invaluable advice they can apply to their own garden—or who knows, maybe one day to a farm of their own. Experiences range from vegetable farms to organic dairy or shiitake-mushroom-growing operations.