This summer, my eyes were opened to a new movement. My teachers were a bunch of young adults who worked for free in exchange for learning and a place to stay -- interns, but interns of an unusual kind.
My partner and I co-direct a sustainability education program in a small town in western Colorado, and we had to finish a straw-bale building and put together a composting toilet, among other jobs. We knew that many of the local organic farmers brought in interns to help them. Why couldn't we try the same?
The local farmers advertised at Wwoof.org, which stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. This is the site where thousands of organic farms from around the world look for "woofers," a word that's becoming universal for farm interns. Our needs involved education and we didn't have a farm, but we thought why not? So we placed an ad. We had low expectations.
Two days later, we had our first application. And the phone kept ringing. By the end of the summer, we had received over 25 inquiries and almost as many applications. They came from the United States and France, from college students, graduate students and from people in the workforce. Most applicants were in their 20s, and most seemed competent and came with strong references.
We accepted five early on, and they all proved to be good people and good workers. We got our buildings built, ate peaches and went swimming after work, shared potlucks with the neighbors and generally had a good time. We paid them nothing, and they seemed grateful for the experience.
Our interns socialized with other interns from organic farms, and over dinners of homegrown beets, homemade pesto and recently gathered eggs, we had conversations that I found fascinating. In a nutshell, here's what I learned: Interning through wwoof.org is a big, big thing. Our small rural area hosted at least 30 woofers this summer. If all the farms advertising on the website got interns at this same rate, we're talking tens of thousands of young people in the world, working for free in order to learn about building a more sustainable society.
What motivates these young people? Many of the interns I met already had college degrees. But they considered their college experience almost irrelevant and definitely over-priced, though they enjoyed it. What these young people said they really wanted to learn was how to live a life that lined up with their values and helped create some sanity in the world -- while also paying the bills. They did not want to eat unhealthy food imported from around the world or waste hours every day commuting to some cubicle in an office. They did not want their children to grow up surrounded by videogames.
But the alternative? Most were still searching for one. Many woofers said they loved working on organic farms and would like nothing better than to do more of it. But they had little idea how to earn enough money to pay back their student loans, much less to buy land, build a house and become an organic farmer.
So they hoped for a break -- a generous farmer who would ask them to become a partner, or the discovery of a super-cheap piece of land and friends to buy it with, or maybe a way to convince their parents back in Iowa to transform their yard into a garden and their shed into a chicken coop.
Meanwhile, other interns acknowledged some freshly earned cynicism about the sustainability of organic farming. They'd met farmers whose generous inheritance purchased their farms and who broke even now only after driving long miles to ski-resort towns to sell vegetables at high prices to the wealthy. They'd gotten to know farmers who would never make it without the free labor of interns and who, even with that labor, exuded stress and desperation.
The bottom line? Organic farming seems to be high in appeal but low in its ability to offer a sustainable life to young people. Yet when I'd ask about other vocations, such as becoming a teacher, they turned the subject right back to farming.
"Some farmers do it right," they'd say. "Hopefully, I can be like one of them." The majority of food is still mass-produced and sold at Safeway, they'd complain. Until that changes, they were eager to learn more about Biodynamics and Permaculture.
It's odd, but I've yet to meet a woofer with a business degree; I've even noticed that some interns cringe at the word "business." Yet business skills can often make the difference between organic farms that survive and those that go under. It makes me wonder about the consequences of separating educational disciplines the way we do: ushering those students who care about things sustainable to environmental studies classes, while their friends who care about things financial or practical end up in different departments across campus.
Regardless, all of these woofers shared a desire to heal what, in their experience, is a broken world. It's a beautiful movement, one full of hopeful, hard-working interns who often admit to being utterly stuck.
Dev Carey is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He co-directs the High Desert Center for Sustainable Studies in Paonia, Colorado.