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home : features : features April 15, 2014

10/29/2012 8:21:00 AM
'Ag Interns' put in long hours learning the ropes
Ken Hedler/The Daily CourierStephani Freitag, foreground, bends down to pick chard from a field Thursday at Whipstone Farm in Paulden. Freitag and the three others behind her are learning organic farming at Whipstone through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or WWOOF.
Ken Hedler/The Daily Courier

Stephani Freitag, foreground, bends down to pick chard from a field Thursday at Whipstone Farm in Paulden. Freitag and the three others behind her are learning organic farming at Whipstone through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or WWOOF.

Ken Hedler
Special to the Review

Four young adults toil as long as 12 hours a day, planting and harvesting vegetables, washing them, taking them to farmers markets and performing other hard labor.

They pick more than 100 varieties of vegetables and at least 50 varieties of flowers at Whipstone Farm here, one of the four, Stephani Freitag, 25, of Madison, Wis., said. They work side by side with six seasonal farmworkers.

And they are doing it for months at a time for free at Whipstone Farm. Farm owners Cory and Shanti Rade are providing free room and board.

Visitors to Whipstone Farm will not hear any complaints from Freitag, another woman and two men, all participants in the informal "internship" program called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.

"It is so rewarding," said Emily Stix, 25, a high school classmate of Freitag's in Madison. "There is instant gratification to it. We just grow things from the seed and put it in the ground. I am part of every step in the process, from growing to selling, to talking to customers" at farmers markets. "I'm at the cash register. I get to see what everybody has (selected)."

Stix, who earned a bachelor's degree in history and minor in Latin American history at the University of Washington in Seattle in 2009, said she learned about WWOOF in late 2011. She is serving an eight-month stint and will leave within a week and a half.

Freitag and Dylan O'Brien, 24, of Martha's Vineyard, Mass., drove around the 6-acre farm in a Cushman cart Thursday morning. They later headed to the packing shed, where Freitag checked off a list of picked vegetables. Stix washed a batch of freshly picked lettuce in a large sink while O'Brien washed kohlrabi nearby.

O'Brien said they place vegetables into a cooler in the shed when they are done washing.

Later that morning, O'Brien, Stix, Freitag and Andrew Poletis, 21, of La Plata, Md., bent over to pick chard from a field.

O'Brien said his Thursdays begin between 5 and 5:30 a.m. by driving a truck with a trailer to Flagstaff to deliver vegetables and flowers to a Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, program.

"It is not just a daily job," he said. "It is a life commitment."

O'Brien said he initially visited Whipstone in January 2008 after learning about WWOOF, which is based in England. Thirty Arizona farms are participating in the WWOOF program.

"And I really became part of the family," O'Brien said. He said he took time off his studies in world religion at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., to spend three months of the harvest season at Whipstone.

O'Brien returned to Whipstone in March 2011. Freitag, who earned a bachelor's degree in environmental science in 2010 from the University of Colorado in Boulder, joined the farm at the same time.

O'Brien and Freitag began dating each other, returned to Whipstone in March and plan to open their own organic farm in Denver after completing their assignments. Their future farm will be similar to Whipstone, Freitag said.

"We want to do a variety of stuff," she said.

Most WWOOF participants arrived at Whipstone with no previous farming experience, said Shanti Rade, who has worked at the farm for a decade. She said she has used WWOOF recruits for eight or nine years.

Besides learning farming, the participants learn how to get along with others, said Rade, who shares her four-bedroom house with her husband, their three children, Freitag, O'Brien and Stix. Poletis lives in a trailer.

"Everyone cooks one night a week," Rade said.

While she said she cannot afford to pay the four aspiring farmers, she said, "We feed them. We pay all their utilities. We take them out to dinner. Sometimes we buy them beer."

Rade, who earned a bachelor's degree in agro-ecology from Prescott College in 2001, said she has asked some WWOOF participants over the years to leave because they did not want to work "very hard."

Poletis said, "At the peak of the season you are working 12-hour days. You've got to pick (crops) under certain conditions."

Poletis, who grew up in a suburb of Washington, D.C., acknowledged facing culture shock living in remote Paulden.

"It's rural. There is nothing here, but I value my time. I love being alone," Poletis said.

However, he said he has adjusted.

"I don't want to go out to the mall anymore," Poletis said. "I love it. I want to be a farmer."

While Poletis and his three peers are in their 20s, WWOOF is open to all age groups, said Donna Coomer, who at age 59 is finishing her assignment at Chino Valley Farms. She said she held a variety of occupations, including managing two veterinary hospitals, in retail and insurance before joining WWOOF in Scotland in 2010.

For more information about the WWOOF program, log onto www.wwoof.org.

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