Just two weeks ago, I was herding cows and weeding endless rows of potatoes on an organic farm in Austria.
I spent 10 days on a little slice of heaven 50 miles northeast of Salzburg, surrounded by rolling green hills and fields of wheat and rye, forests, wildflowers and breathtaking alpine mountains that loomed in the distance.
Last summer, I heard about World Wide Organic Farming Opportunities (WWOOF) through a friend. Here’s how it works: you receive free room and board on an organic farm of your choice in exchange for 5-8 hours per day of work. Almost every country in the world has a WWOOF program. Some people travel from farm to farm, others stay at one farm for an entire summer or even a year. The thought of traveling to a foreign country, meeting new people and learning how to farm was both exciting and terrifying, so I signed up right away.
The list of Austrian farms was quite lengthy, and it took me months to settle on a farm. My friend and I showed up in mid-May, after spending 2 weeks traveling and visiting friends in Germany. We had absolutely no idea what to expect—the only contact we had with the family prior to arriving was 5 or 6 emails back and forth discussing the logistics of our visit and how they would meet up with us when we arrived.
We spoke a little German, but it was obvious upon our arrival that communication would be interesting. The family spoke Austrian dialect, which was nothing like the high German we learned in school. Most of them knew high German and some English, so we were able to make it work.
Within minutes of arriving, we were herding cows from the barn into the pasture. 40 beautiful brown dairy cows were moved every day from barn to pasture and back again to be milked in the evening. The milk, which is packed with vitamins, minerals and healthy fat due to the cows' diet of wild grasses, is sold to a local dairy. Our host family served raw, warm milk every morning for breakfast, often mixing in cocoa powder and black coffee to make steaming mugs of "cacao."
We fell quickly into the routine of the family: breakfast at 9 a.m., several hours' of morning work, a big lunch prepared by the two eldest daughters, then more work until dinner. We did a little bit of everything: weeding, planting, potato sorting, egg collecting. On Thursday we baled hay at the field down the street (which, incidentally, was also the day I discovered I am allergic to hay). Tuesday morning we got up early and went to the farmers’ market to buy plants, then spent the rest of the afternoon planting garlic, onions, kohlrabi, cabbage and flower bulbs.
One day we were handed buckets and shown the way to the forest, where we set to work picking Hollander (elderberry) flowers. Every spring, the family makes a few dozen jars of Hollander syrup, which they use to make Hollar Saft, a sweet, floral beverage that is continually available in a giant jug on the table. The process is rather simple: the flowers were soaked in water overnight, then the water was drained and combined with an equal amount of sugar and funneled into giant jars. It took us all afternoon to clean the bottles, measure out the ingredients and fill all the containers but several hours and countless sticky hands later, we put a years’ worth of syrup in the cellar.
It would take far too much space to chronicle all of our amazing adventures or explain the details of our host family’s generosity and kindness, and it would never do them justice. Suffice it to say it was a life-changing experience. We left with tears in our eyes and memories to last a lifetime; they told us next time we come to Europe we must return to the farm. I’m already making plans for next summer.
My time at Dominican has taught me that there is so much more to life than what goes on in my little corner of the world. Many of my friends have spent time abroad through the various study abroad programs offered. They always return with amazing stories to share and it is clear that spending time in another country is a vital part of becoming a well-rounded student.
Dominican’s spirit and culture have given me the desire to explore the world, meet new people and immerse myself in difference and change. It is humbling to suddenly become an outsider in a country you have never visited, with a language you barely know. Experiences like these can be difficult and scary at times but they are also powerfully transformative.
One of my favorite quotes is from Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and make a trail." Never be afraid to take a blind leap of faith and try something completely out of your comfort zone. You never know what adventures await.