Although we are creatures who love, are dependent on, and share meaningful time around food, most of us have no role in its cultivation or production. Happily, there are people whose lives are constructed around their relationship with land, food, and animals. Often these are people who constitute a community — a community engaging in the difficult work of sustainable farming that allows all the planet’s inhabitants to enjoy the fruits of their labor. This is the story of one such community, the individuals who constitute it, the work that they do, and the challenges of that work.
Sue Coppard was working as a secretary in London when she realized that people living and working in cities might have a desire to be more connected to the organic aspects of life. In 1971, she began arranging for people to voluntarily work at biodynamic and organic farms in exchange for food and accommodation. World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) is now international; it connects host farmers with workers who are willing to volunteer on a farm. Workers choose to WWOOF for numerous reasons, perhaps because they are interested in learning more about agriculture, taking a break from their routine lives, or using it as a way to travel the world. While WWOOF is designed to positively serve both hosts and WWOOFers, regardless of the economy, the economic downturn has undoubtedly produced both more demand and supply for WWOOFing.
Il Rosmarino di Piergiorgio Defilippi, an organic farm in the tiny town of Marcon, 25 kilometers north of Venice, Italy, has been a WWOOF host farm since 2000. I found Il Rosmarino through WWOOF Italia while searching for a community that would allow me to participate in its daily routine while photographing it over an extended period of time. I took up the challenge of WWOOFing and documenting life at this farming community for three weeks between October and November 2014.
I had expected an established community of people living and working there, a group of like-minded individuals working in support of their common goal of organic farming. What I experienced, however, reflects the predictable, unvoiced division between the owners of the farm and their employees. My further assumptions about a group of humans engaging in communal life were undoubtedly based on stereotypes and a culturally inherited nostalgic ideal of farming, a progressive American romanticization of a less industrial environment rooted in the desire for people to join in a common search for survival outside of the cultural norm.
I soon discovered that there were expectations of me, as well. Naturally, each of us came to the situation with our own interests: the owners, WWOOF hosts for fourteen years, anticipated that in me they were getting a young American to work on the farm for a few weeks who would occasionally make photographs for herself and for their marketing purposes; I anticipated I would be immersing myself in their community to photograph and occasionally help out on the farm.
As an American photographer working at Fabrica Research Centre, I am often asked how I got from Seattle, Washington, to Treviso, Italy. It’s a valid question; I had never even heard of Treviso before applying to work at Fabrica and, until last spring, I had not imagined that I would be spending a year of my mid-late 20s living in a small historic town in Italy. But now I find myself silently thanking my 18-year-old self’s foresight for choosing to study Italian for two years in university despite my German heritage and my location on the west coast of the U.S. Not that I am anywhere near fluent after six months, some five years after my last educational exposure to Italian, but I can get by. And on the farm, I had to communicate; more time than I’d like to admit was spent nodding along in conversations when I only understood a few words here and there. Only one person on the farm, Cristina, speaks a helpful amount of English, and she spoke to me in Italian about eighty percent of the time.
I was not the only cultural outsider at Il Rosmarino, but the other foreigners have all assimilated to Italy more than I could hope to do in the past six months. Only three of the eight people who live on the farm were born in Italy. The others emigrated from such disparate countries as Brazil, Ukraine, Romania, and Serbia, each of them in Italy for employment. With another daily worker from Sicily who does not reside on the farm and one other WWOOFer, a young man from India, we were well on our way to hosting a lesser UN meeting.
Il Rosmarino, certified organic since 1992, belongs to Piergiorgio Defilippi, who has been running the farm for twenty-six years. His 92-year-old mother, Argentina, has been living there since 2007, and from what I’ve been told/witnessed, she’s the captain of the proverbial ship. Piergiorgio’s partner in business and life, Cristina, has been residing at the house for two years now, though she has been involved in the farm for five years.
Nada and Vladimir, residing at Il Rosmarino for the last seven years, are a married couple from Serbia; Nada helps with cooking delicious food from the farm (seasonally cabbage-based while I was there), cleaning, and caring for Signora Argentina. Benonno, from Romania, has been working on the farm and living in a trailer near the horse stables for five years. Tomaz (Brazil) and Pietro (Ukraine) each also live in their own trailer, for two years and one year, respectively.
Humans create communities, intentionally or not, for many reasons, and this group of humans from all over the world do constitute such an entity, unplanned though it may be. Each member of this community is at Il Rosmarino to play their role in the various aspects of what life on an organic farm in Italy in 2014 consists of.
Piergiorgio began the farm half his life ago, in his 20s. He has been vegetarian for thirty years, and his philosophy regarding the production of food is based on maintaining the earth as best we can; he believes that organic farming is the most productive way to serve the larger human community. He and Cristina proposed a plan for an urban farm, an eco-village, to the municipality of Marcon, but it was rejected. Consistent with his beliefs, he is a strong supporter of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, created in Norway as insurance for the preservation of seeds in the event of global crises. Not surprisingly, the farm is also home to two-dozen horses, eight donkeys, several goats, a few turkeys, and countless chickens, geese, and ducks. The two-legged animals are all free-range, though the chickens are secured at night to protect them from wild dogs.
When I asked my fellow workers at Il Rosmarino why they came to work there, all of the immigrants said that the farm provides a decent job. Pietro told me he has always worked in agriculture, as it is a relaxed, comfortable life for him. Benonno works in Italy because the money is better than in his home country. Pietro and Benonno each go home to their respective wives in Moldova and Romania for between two weeks and two months at a time and are assured of a job at Il Rosmarino when they return. Gaetano, the Sicilian, said he was there because he loves the horses. Deep has been WWOOFing there for three months while he sorts out his documents to return to India, having lived in various parts of Europe for five years. Cristina came to the farm from an office job, looking for a healthier life more connected to the earth, precisely the beliefs that inform the creation of WWOOF.
Piergiorgio says it’s always been a lot of work to maintain the farm, but it has become increasingly difficult of late, especially as he and Cristina age and their energy decreases. The farm has been struggling financially since 2000, when grain prices began to rise and the Italian economy was on a downhill slope toward recession. Although there is help from Veneto volunteers who come to take classes or participate in events hosted on the farm, and others who seek agricultural work to escape the monotony of office life, they, the employees, occasionally the WWOOFers, and Cristina and Piergiorgio are working from the moment they wake up at 6 or 7 o’clock until anywhere from 7 to 11 at night in an effort to make a go of it.
Reflecting their deep connection with all the residents of their community, Cristina or Piergiorgio have been known to gaze lovingly at one or more of the three pet cats sleeping or purring and ponder rhetorical questions: “Do you think the cats worry? They must have no worries. The horses too, all of the animals: they get their food and then they are content. They don’t have worries like humans do, about paying for the electricity or water or internet.”
Piergiorgio and Cristina are open about how stressful the situation is, and it is heartbreaking to witness Cristina’s sense of despair when, for example, the electricity is shut off for a day while they scramble to pay the bill. Their Brazilian employee, Tomaz, has been compelled to find work elsewhere because there is so little cash flow at Il Rosmarino, and Pietro has another job, thereby working seven days of the week so that he can send money to his wife and son in Moldova. Cristina constantly frets about better ways to advertise Il Rosmarino in order to cover the costs of the property, utilities, and their employees’ salaries.
They cobble their income stream together from a variety of markets: there is a shop on the premises where they sell their vegetables and fruits, seeds, chicken and turkey eggs, flour, bread, beer and wine; they go to the outdoor market every Friday to set up a tent and sell their produce there; people pay to ride the horses; they have a program for people to adopt a chicken; and in the summer they have a didactic program for children. They rent out spaces on the property for events during which they charge for homemade meals made from Il Rosmarino’s harvest, and they are even discussing collaboration with Danish artist Koen Vanmechelen to sell their seeds and grains in his proposed installation space. But still, they are struggling, counting each day’s produce profits, hoping that the bottom line will be in triple digits.
They have asked the largest organization for European farmers, Coldiretti, for a loan, but have been rejected because of their financial instability. Piergiorgio says if they just have faith, they will manage, and Cristina asked me more than once if I thought they would manage to get out of this. I could only wish that I had an answer for Cristina’s question. In an idyllic world, we might find a way to adopt the unassuming life of the animals at Il Rosmarino, so that the human inhabitants of the farm could also simply expect to be fed, watered, and cleaned without having to work so hard for it and worry so much. Or perhaps there are answers in connecting one community to others, a model that would allow this small, hodge-podge yet international farm community to be embraced by the larger community in more economically feasible ways. In such a reality, members of farming communities like Il Rosmarino could spend less time worrying and working from dawn to dusk to sustain this way of life, and instead be confident about meeting the basic needs of human survival, assured that that there will always be hay for the stable and food for the table.
This work was produced October-November 2014 and is sponsored by Fabrica.