Working on a farm in Southern France until it got weird
Toiling through the mid-Summer sun in Southern France was a fantastic experience until one night changed it all.
We’d been travelling for a month through the intense June heat in Spain and Portugal. Now we’d arrived in France to the joy of a more familiar culture and the ability to conversate with strangers at last (if rustily).
After a few days resting in Pau enjoying the incredible Pyrenees capped horizon, we had arranged to do some WWOOFing. Despite my initial trepidation over what sounded like a meet up of furries, I was excited by what it would really entail: Working on an organic farm.
We’d found a farm that sounded interesting and arranged with the farmer’s daughter to stay for a week. The deal with WWOOFing is this: You work for free on the farm in exchange for free board and food whilst learning the methodology of each farmer.
It’s a fantastic option for travellers willing to offer up their hands and time for an experience abroad and for a cheaper way to stay in an area. You get plenty of time to explore outside of work. We were excited!
Good times WWOOFing on an organic farm
After an accidentally long train journey, we arrived in Aiguillon and went to the farm in the farmer’s daughter’s car. It was a picture on arrival: The farmer trundles past in a tractor with a cigarette perched on his bottom lip, his exposed belly long-since browned by long days in the sun.
We land amongst a chaos of gorgeously abundant and fresh vegetables lining the field in bushy rows and filling trailers with a rainbow of tomatoes, courgettes, radishes, carrots, and on and on.
Slowly we’re introduced to everyone else who takes part here: The hospital worker from Marseilles on a brief stop before sailing the Atlantic, the deeply tanned and mosquito-munched nomad who travels between farms for a living, the sweet older lady who snapped her cigarettes in half before smoking them, and her pre-teen daughter who had just started her summer holidays.
We also met a variety of characters over the next few days, the dearest being the gangly sweetheart who looks like he got lost halfway between accountancy and Woodstock ’69. He was a mechanic who moved to the country to enjoy a more peaceful life and became great friends with the farmer. When I asked which lifestyle he preferred he spread his arms wide, breathed in deeply, and smiled a large smile.
The next few days became a rhythm of food, work, and sleeping in the communal hut. The food was fantastic as it was nearly all fresh from the farm; the produce that wasn’t good enough to go to market. We ate like the healthiest of kings and queens. The French know their food and when it’s fresh vegetables, it’s going to feel amazing as well as taste great.
We had incredible salads bursting with colour, squashes packed with deliciousness and roasted, even radishes (one of the very few foods I’m averse to) which were made lip-smackingly moreish fried in duck fat with salt.
The work wasn’t particularly hard but in the middle of July during a heatwave in Southern France it wasn’t easy either. I learnt some new techniques to lean over without hurting my back as a 6ft 2in bloke. Even so, after 3 hours bent double you’re very pleased to get into a hammock and smell onions frying.
It was very rewarding work. Harvesting heirloom tomatoes, planting lines of baby leeks, rooting through bramble-tangled leaves to search for potatoes, sowing seeds and learning unique planting techniques as we went. We learnt a lot in a short time and there is something uniquely gratifying about any kind of work spent with nature.
There was a definite romance in waking early, dirty and covered in mosquito bites, to the squawks of a cockerel who had taken residence after the farmer hadn’t the heart to kill him. There was joy in working through hot days and touching the fruits of a land truly cared for.
It was a joy getting to know the people on the farm and with big long meal times together spent chatting, we really felt a part of French culture whilst there. Of course, my French being so-so and my partner’s even more limited it was difficult to take part in conversations as words sped across the table with passion.
Unfortunately, one evening the difficulty keeping up with conversation at the table as well as the dreaded radishes meant we had to leave.
Running away from the farm
There was tension during the day. Something seemed to be up with the farmer and moods amongst everyone seemed off. We couldn’t tell what was wrong, so we carried on.
That evening we all sat down for dinner as always with a spread of dishes. Some friends of the farmer and his daughter joined us for a packed table; it was to be something of a celebration for the hospital worker moving on after weeks on the farm.
There was a strange sense of unease in the air which only got worse as dinner went on. The farmer seemed to be apologising to the table empthatically whilst pointing at us and the other WWOOFer and her daughter. I couldn’t quite keep up with what he was saying. Everyone just translated it as: “He hopes you forgive him.”
For what? It was confusing and quite unsettling as the speeches continued with increasing intensity. Then he gets up and remembers he forgot to finish the gazpacho he was making. We’d joked about the gazpacho earlier so I vaguely jested with him. It seems I hadn’t sensed his anger as food was thrown and he stormed off.
He returned and we all continued dinner in a strange simmering of communication and attempted good humour. The farmer got drunker and drunker on wine, slamming his fist on the table at random and looking with vicious eyes around at everyone but often resting on us.
Suddenly, being the only non-native speakers at the table we felt exposed.
I don’t think they realised quite how much French I understood when some Michael Moore-looking guy who’d turned up for dinner talked openly with the farmer about how the sound of the English language puts you off your conversation. Essentially saying that hearing English in the distance was annoying.
This crescendoed in a moment when me and my partner were having a quiet chat to ourselves as everyone else spoke at the table. We had a little laugh with each other and then the fist slammed down on the table again. Everyone went silent and I turned to see the farmer staring beligerently and the farmer’s daughter looking at us with concern.
Our presence was no longer welcome, that was clear.
We retired early. In typical British awkwardness we said we were tired and not that we wanted to escape the hostile atmosphere. He argued against it: “I’m tired too, but I drink and I eat still!”
It was almost 1AM. We all had to get up early to work. Even if he hadn’t made us uncomfortable, we were tired. With discomfort and a strange bubbling anger we decided to sleep on it before making any rash decisions.
We woke. We discussed it. There was no way we could feel comfortable after the aggression that evening. We did our work for the morning and waited for the farmer to come back from market so we could say goodbye in person.
We left on surprisingly good terms with everyone. Perhaps the farmer was prone to these outbursts and simply got up and moved on with his life afterwards? We didn’t care to find out. We’d had a good time and that had ended.
We took charge of our feelings and walked off into the sunset towards Gaillac. We felt proud. The experiences we’d had were great in many ways, and it felt good to know that we were in a position to leave situations we didn’t like by simply putting on our bags and walking.
Oh, and what turned out to be the issue that fateful night? The radishes had been picked wrongly.