Interview: Brian Bender, Author of "Farming Around the Country"

brianbenderBrian J. Bender  graduated from Ohio University with a bachelor's degree in science, and the University of Findlay with a master's degree in science education. After teaching science at a high school for two years, Brian left his career in pursuit of a more meaningful lifestyle. He embarked on a journey as a volunteer on organic farms, via the program WWOOF. Brian experienced a wide cross-section of America's small-scale organic farms, ranging from livestock to produce, and spanning sub-tropical to temperate climate zones. He describes the experience in his new book "Farming Around the Country - An Organic Odyssey" (Read Review). Brian is now engaged in an urban gardening project in Eugene, Oregon.  Doing justice to a whole year brimming with experiences you have produced an exciting piece of Travel Writing. Was this a deliberate plan? Were you taking meticulous notes from Day 1?

Brian Bender: I did not plan on turning my farm adventure into a book. Periodically, I sent lengthy "farm letters" back home. The words of encouragement I got from friends and family, such as "we want more" and "you should write a book" propelled me to do just that.

As for "taking meticulous notes," I made it a point to write down each day's memorable events no matter how I exhausted I was. These journal entries were quick and dirty like "Jane kicked over the milk pail" and "found a tick in my armpit." It was exciting to read these snippets a year later and see just how many unwritten memories surfaced.  Today, what is your general impression of the Woof network? What would you improve if you could?

Brian Bender: The Wwoof network works like a "choose your own adventure," and I love that quality. There is no pre-packaged Wwoof vacation. You have to contact the farmers directly and piece together your travel experience. Planning for a trip, such as the one I went on, was a challenging and fun project in itself.

With that said, I'd make one suggestion for improvement: greater transparency with the number of work hours expected per week.  In the book, there is a beautiful paragraph about hearing the outcome of the last US elections in an off-grid location. "While we sat around the fire, staring at the flames like primitive humans, Debbie relayed the simple message: "Obama won." The world seemed distant." Was this perhaps a comment on how irrelevant/surreal/disconnected two-party politics, in the U.S. and other western countries, maybe for ordinary people, a comment on betrayed hopes, or a comment on off-grid locations?

Brian Bender: "Irrelevant" is the key word for me. I've never been interested in politics. The whole government looks like a Dr. Seuss invention to me: way more parts than necessary to achieve such a lackluster product.

Living off-grid, although I'm not cut out for it, really puts you in touch with what's important: collecting firewood for your heat, growing food, catching rainwater, and generating power.  So is off-grid, organic, independent living really possible in this day & age? Does technology and telecommunications make it more easy or more difficult? Are such lifestyles really elitist or utopian, just for affluent young Westerners, as some critics maintain, a type of 'back to the future' or the future?

Brian Bender:  Living off-grid is certainly possible nowadays. I spent time in Georgia and North Carolina on homesteads that took all of their heat from hand-chopped firewood and water derived from springs, wells, and rainwater. A sizeable garden and a flock of hens gave each homestead a small degree of food security.

Although I think the off-grid lifestyle is attainable for anyone, not just affluent young Westerners, I think "independent living" can only be taken so far: energy and food independence. I think interdependence would be a whole lot more fun on the social level, creating open channels of goods and ideas with neighbors.

When I see a well-functioning homestead, I sometimes wonder if that model could be applied to an entire city.  There is a suspicion, which also appears in your book in a muted form,
that some Woof hosts are in it mostly for getting labour on the cheap (even cheaper than immigrant labour), while turning handsome profits. How can a volunteer detect and choose genuine hosts?

Brian Bender:  Establish the details of the work week before you arrive on the farm. Find out how many hours/day, days/week you'll be working. Even if the farm description clearly lists the work week, ask for confirmation. Often times the description is outdated or the host has decided to increase the hours. It might also be a good idea to learn what you'll be eating. Even if it's an organic farm, you might arrive to a fridge full of factory-farmed meats and pesticide-covered produce. The typical Woof setting involves an owner (host), volunteer workers andperhaps permanent or seasonal workers. What would you think of organic farms collectively owned and managed byworkers, would they see a need for volunteerworkersin your view??

Brian Bender: Sounds like taking the concept of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) to a whole new level. Instead of just purchasing a share of the farm and reaping the harvest, you also work in the fields. Oh yes, volunteer workers would be most welcome in this situation!  At a time of rising unemployment, does volunteer work in organic farms, voluntourism in general, provide any answers and solutions or does it generate more questions and problems?

Brian Bender: Well, it definitely provides a temporary solution for people in search of meaningful work. However, unless you're a full-season intern, your bank account will slowly bleed. I don't think volunteer work on organic farms provides a solution to unemployment. Voluntourism serves two major functions, in my opinion. It serves as a venue to upgrade your practical skills, in case you want to start your own farm or homestead. Secondly, if you lose your job, it's a far more rewarding way to spend your time than say sitting in front of the television and eating cheese curls. You have also participated in the growing trend of Couchsurfing, which could be considered an 'enemy' of traditional hostelling. Is it just the latest fad, or does it indicate a desire for less commercialism, and direct communication between people and cultures?

Brian Bender: Couchsurfing is without a doubt the best thing I've gotten out of the internet. It's saved me thousands of dollars in boarding costs, and most importantly has dissolved my fear of strangers. Anyone who's ever couchsurfed knows that the world is a much friendlier and more welcoming place than it's described in the news.

Couchsurfing is not the enemy of anyone or anything. For anyone who claims to be a supporter of global community, couchsurfing is an essential experience. However, it does require advance planning and a willingness to step into the home of a complete stranger. Therefore, hostels will always have a place for the spontaneous traveler and for those who prefer a more impersonal place to rest. Based on your experience how wide is the range of motives of woofers? Do most go back to their previous lifestyle, is it a life-changing experience, or does the average Woofer already have an alternative/eco lifestyle?

Brian Bender: The Wwoofers I met range from drifters to tourists to farmers-in-training. The common thread amongst all these people is an interest in becoming closer to their food source. The majority of the wwoofers, including myself, were in a period of transition in their life, so what's behind them is history and what lies ahead is bound to be enriched by the direct experience of watching seeds grow, mature, and give life. Plus, being outdoors gives one a much closer connection with the seasons, and the reality that everything is constantly changing. If you were to choose your best woofing experience so far which one would it be and why?

Brian Bender: My month living in a tepee in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. I stayed with a wonderful homesteading family, consisting of a young couple and their 9 year old daughter. The part I enjoyed most about this experience was that my hosts treated me with respect and compassion, rather than just another farmhand. They invited me up to their roundhouse for dinner every night and worked alongside me in the garden, patiently showing me how to prune raspberry canes, harvest sweet potatoes, dig beds, chop wood, tend to the honeybees, and sow cover crop. The vibrant yellow, red, and orange foliage made for stunning Fall scenery, but what I loved most about the place was the sense of belonging. I felt like I was part of the family.