Life Under a Tuscan Barn

Even though I proclaim Tuscany a Disneyland for adults;  great biking, gorgous hill towns and wine tasting around every corner, Tuscany is also a great place to bring kids.  A few summers ago, I took  my  daughter to Tuscany to work on an organic farm for a few weeks. Below is our story from that experience.

It sounded romantic…. To work on organic farm in Tuscany, “Humm, interesting,” I thought, “wouldn’t that be a great thing  to do with a kid?” What an excellent way for my daughter, Paisley (pampered in the ways that most American kids are today) to learn the meaning of hard work and that food doesn’t originate in a super market. This farm happened to be in Tuscany— and as a self proclaimed Italiophile, I would use any excuse to get back to the land of my dreams. It took only a few miserable months of the winter doldrums to get me fantasizing again, okay, I emailed and signed up for the spring!

The Workers on Organic Farms or ‘WOOF’ program operates to help farmers with the incredible work load, while allowing travelers and agricultural students the opportunity to learn about the operations of an organic farm. Basically, hard work (can I stress this point) is exchanged for room and board. I made all the arrangements, pulled my traveling companion out of the last few weeks of  4th grade and we made our way over the big pond to Italy.

I envisioned myself, tank-top clad under the Tuscan sun, tending a bello gardino with a bella vista, while my little spawn helped out and learned about the miracles of horticulture. Little did I know, it would be me who would learn the meaning of hard work, as my daughter independently flew around the farm in her cowboy hat, with a  bike too small for her, legs sprawled in the air.

Paisley would race down the hill, bringing me gloves, tools and water and telling me that the lunch bell had rung, a fact that escaped me as I worked hard to cut overgrown grass out of a drainage ditch with a rusty sickle. Talk about the law of diminishing returns, this was ridicules. I know they do things differently in other countries, but what century are we living in here? My electric weed-eater back home was sounding so luxurious and making me salivate. Even with all the hard work, I chuckled that this all must be some make work project for my Italian Marie Antoinette experience and as I was in Italy, all was right with the world, I could survive anything, how much worse can it get I thought!

We were asked what type of work we most wanted to do. “Work outside” I said, fearing toilet cleaning duty “and with the animals!” Paisley shouted. One of our first days we were asked shovel a large pile of hay that had fallen from the stacks. This wasn’t your cube variety of hay, but one of those monster rounds, as tall as this short Hispanic girl.  A few pitch forks into our work, we established that Paisley was allergic to hay. I then understood that it would be me that would be feeding the hay to the animals and cleaning the hay from their stalls. After two hours with pitch forks, a sense of accomplishment overcame us when we finished the large pile. I actually thought, it can’t get much harder than this.” Such a fool was I, at least that pile of hay was clean! I had no idea the magnitude and scope of goat and pig soiled hay in store for me in the coming weeks.

Try as I may, I am not a big animal person. But on the farm I quickly acquired a new love for animal husbandry, which was to be my greatest challenge and some of my fondest memories.  At last, my 4-H experience that I successfully escaped as a youth, finally realized, such luck! But, as true luck would have it, I only had to assist the very competent and simpatico duo Marco and Sebastiano with the daily animal duty.  These two kind souls became our mates as we laughed about the hilarious animal antics, all the shit  “merda” that needed to be shoveled and who would be so fortunate to receive the next assignment. “At least,” I thought, “I don’t have to clean the pig stalls like Sebastiano.” Ha! Yup—that is one hellish job, but that experience has set a new bar of difficulty for me, because after that, everything is easy.

Getting up early has it advantages and disadvantages, a quiet time to escape for an hour and go for my run. Running was postponed until my body recovered from the pain of newly discovered small muscle groups in my shoulders. Muscles sore from cleaning out a ditch or pitching 3 trailer loads of animal dung. I endured this experience with my Pollyanna attitude that I was able to ‘workout’ whilst I slaved, “Arhhghh the girls back home can’t get this kind of toning in a Pilates  class,” I reasoned. The disadvantage to getting up early is being discovered as an early riser and thus given more responsibilities.  When we called home, Paisley proclaimed “Dada, we’ve been promoted to sheep herders.” Hurray, we were the new Pastorina’s!

Sheep herding actually turned out to be one of our favorite daily rituals. Each morning, as Paisley slumbered late, I would report to the sheep stall and wait for the sheep to be milked and then herd them down to a great, green Tuscan pasture. My greatest fear was losing a few on the way. I laugh now, understanding how truly dumb sheep are. They would never do anything without the rest of the flock and in this case, without their alpha female, a goat named Batista.

Batista is one of those amazing animals that one loves as a kid and never forgets. She is a goat that thinks she’s a sheep, performing her every activity amongst the sheep. We learned to love her more that any other animal, because of her intelligence and unique cool deposition. Marco told us of how “speciale” she was—having been saved from the slaughter by a neighbor, who took brought her back to be mated.  The farmer later returned her since she was unable to get pregnant. They quickly discovered her to be especially magical amongst the sheep, so she was traded back in exchange for a pig. Last fall she became pregnant and was ready to deliver soon! “Mama, wouldn’t it be great if Batista had her baby while we are here!” Paisley pleaded.

One morning I noticed how impatient Batista was to get down to the pasture. Later that afternoon, when we returned to bring the sheep back to the lake, Batista was in the trees licking her new arrival, a black and white kid goat, big and strong enough to stand somewhat. She was beautiful, all furry and perfect. I had to cry because it was such a miracle, reminding me of Paisley’s birth. Marco came down to the pasture to witness my blubbering and to help the new duo back up to the stalls. What a gentle soul Marco was, a true goat whisperer. He cradled Batista’s baby, speaking his quiet Italian goat language “Ma come bella la tua bambina, Batista.”

Life on this farm had a daily rhythm. Peacocks meowing like cats at five in the morning, tractors moving at six, sheep and goats being milked shortly after, a lone pastorina in running shorts dancing at 7 with sheep in a field, I-pod blaring out a Beetles tune, “Here comes the sun—do-doo-do-doo”.   There were daily breakfasts of goat milk lattes, fresh grain bread and honey. There were many sweaty, stinky, hard hours of working in animal stalls or the fields but also a few opportunities to work in the amazing kitchen preparing a meal for the family and workers. Lunch everyday was a feast of melons, salad, chestnut pasta, pecorino cheese, olives and oil all organic and produced on the farm. Some days were spent helping out in the farm’s small factory, boxing 100’s of packages of  organic pasta that would later be exported to specialty shops in Japan.

Pais and I made a great duo, working as hard as we could to keep up with our varied duties. She helped where she could and played around the animals when she was bored. Paisley became an excellent waitress and busgirl.  Guest at the farm would comment, “your daughter is such a hard worker, is she like this at home?” I’d laugh, “if only!”

All in all the days were long, starting at seven and ending at six with breaks for breakfast, lunch and afternoon coffee. Cooking was not required but welcomed, and you might be served potatoes, cheese and bread if no one came to help, so we all quickly figured out how to make ourselves useful in the kitchen. Dinner was the last late ritual of the day usually commencing at eight after the goats and sheep had been milked. We would quietly finish our meal, tired from a day of hard work, help with the cleanup and then find our way to our comfortable cabino. Just before ten, we’d fall into our down duvet, reading together for a few precious moments, before passing out to recharge for another similar day.

So back to that fantasy,  my bello gardino Tuscan experience. Yes there were a few of those beautiful fantasy moments realized in the herb garden, leaning on a rusty hoe and gawking at the incredible view. Some of our fondest moments of our work on the organic farm; making  truffle and olive oil pizza in the wood oven, Batista’s baby goat and being the only mother/daughter sheep herding team.

In the end, the thing that made our experience truly special was sharing some time with a few unique characters that we came to know and love; Marco the goat whisperer-hippie, who stayed five years ago, after camping at the farm and saying arriverderci to his motorcycle buddies; hard working Sebastian, the kind, twenty-something agricultural student from Berlin, always a smile on his sweet face; adorable, hilarious and sarcastic Massimo, the business manager who could perform just about any farm duty, but he shone in the kitchen and in the pizza making departments; creative Veronica and her son Mattias from Argentina, who was forever speaking only Spanish, confusing my fragile Italian language skills; and Ricardo, our only American mate that shared in all our hardest jobs, bottles of wine and bars of dark chocolate, as we laughed about all that is lost in translation between cultures and life on a rural Italian farm.

Yes, agricultural work is  very hard and you won’t hear bout me buying an Italian farm soon, but this short experience with my daughter will be forever etched into our memories and our collective beings. There are inside jokes that we will always share, (merda!) and as of yet, we never pass the smell of hay or farm animals without a small fond tear reminding us of life under a Tuscan barn.

To learn more about Workers on Organic Farms ( WOOF)

08/23/2010 10:35 pm | Share | 1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Betsy & Paisley, your experiences are so interesting and wonderful. Enjoy so much that I read frequently. Thank you for sharing. Love and best wishes for many more trips to come. Lin


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