Organic Farm

Volunteers Pitch In on Farms and Watch Themselves Grow
Sometimes from afar, they travel to gather in organic crops, reap happy experiences

Published on September 09, 2002|RENEE TAWA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a 57-acre valley, where the traffic consists mostly of deer and rattlesnakes, 19-year-old Christophe Devlies and the four other unpaid farm workers take a break. Their morning began at 5 a.m. with yoga or meditation; now, the fields of organic eggplant and other crops can wait.

Lanky, with a blond ponytail, Devlies ducks into the four-bedroom farmhouse to escape the heat in the foothills of the Angeles National Forest. He shrugs off the calluses that line his palms, testimony to two weeks of field work and other duties at Ananda Marga Lake Hughes Peach Farm. His bare feet are dirty, his legs are cut up, his wallet is empty–and his summer vacation is turning out to be just grand.

“I’m working in the house and the field, but the house and the field are working on me,” said Devlies, who flew in from Belgium for a one-month volunteer stint at the nonprofit farm and yoga-meditation retreat. “All the things they give me back are more important than money because you help humanity, and also you develop yourself …. It’s a really good place because it’s basic, but that’s the only thing we need.” Later this month, he will return home to finish his high school equivalency exams.

Dozens of organic farms throughout California–and throughout the country–rely on volunteers such as Devlies who sometimes travel thousands of miles to help out during the summer harvest or beyond. In exchange, volunteers usually receive meals and housing, which could be a yurt, tent or bedroom in a farmhouse, and occasionally, a small stipend.

Typically, the number of California listings on www.organicvolunteers.com is higher than that of any of the other 40 states that are represented, said Ethan Schaffer, who created the Web site in June 2001. (California ranks second, after Idaho, in the number of acres–96,851–dedicated to certified organic cropland, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.) The site has 2,000 registered users, though Schaffer doesn’t track how many of them actually end up on farms. (Paid farm jobs also are listed).

The growing consumer interest in organic foods has led to a curiosity about such harvests, Schaffer said. And in late October, Schaffer anticipates another surge of interest, when the USDA’s National Organic Program takes effect. The program sets standards for products labeled “organic.”

A majority of the volunteers are recent high school graduates or college students. And what pulls them toward organic farms seems to be the same sense of commitment and idealism that energized college campuses in the ’60s–but with a key difference, said UC Berkeley professor Arthur I. Blaustein, author of “Make a Difference: Your Guide to Volunteering and Community Service” (Heyday, 2002).

“It’s comparable in a moral sense but not in a political sense,” he said. “It’s comparable in terms of the pervasiveness of it, but it doesn’t involve confrontational activities.”

In the early ’60s, when civil rights issues dominated the news, Blaustein volunteered for CORE, the Congress of Racial Equity, and signed up to work with migrant laborers in the potato and corn fields of Long Island. These days, he pointed out, a driving concern is the environment, as well as a sense of anti-materialism–both of which could explain the growing number of young farm volunteers.

Schaffer, who doesn’t screen the farms he lists on his site, said he leaves it up to volunteers to investigate the postings before agreeing to pay their own travel expenses and work for free–an arrangement, he acknowledged, that could raise questions. “People wonder what they’re getting into, so we really encourage them to get a good dialogue going beforehand,” he said.

He helps that process along by including a space for volunteer reviews. A volunteer’s posting about the Ananda Marga peach farm, for instance, noted: “Though you’re free to participate or not participate in their spiritual practices, there is an expectation that you’ll join in the thrice-daily mantra chantings and meditation sessions …. The workdays are definitely long, though rarely backbreaking. All in all, I’ve very much enjoyed my time there….”