Wwoofing in the wind

John Kennedy

Staff Writer

The world we live in is a dirty one. We are invited and enticed to consume daily, to consume indiscriminately and to consume regardless of actual necessity. This is especially evident during Christmas, the festival of frenzy, a celebration of consumerism, an event now as much associated with that Coke advertisement and black Friday as it is with the birth of a certain Jesus Christ. Over-consumption creates waste. It leads to bigger and bigger landfills, oceans that are more and more polluted, rainforests that are smaller and smaller, and an Ozone layer that is thinner and thinner. Consumerism has brought a crippling sickness upon our world.

It is incredibly easy, especially at Christmas, to be carried along with the fanfare, to let your mind be filled with Coke polar bears, and Christmas jumpers, and pub crawls, and bouquets and chocolates, and foreign holidays, and new shirts, and new cars and X-box games and – the list goes on. Sometimes we fall off the consumerist wagon. Sometimes we leap off, screaming. In the past ten years, more and more young people have been leaping off the wagon. Those young people aren’t chasing desperately, huffing and panting, arms out-stretched after the jingle-jangle cart and its televisions and junk food. Some are stopping, having a look about at the trampled land the cart has ploughed through and wondering if they want to get back on at all.

One thing that these young people turn to is WWOOFing –  worldwide opportunities on organic farms. The organisation was created to provide city slickers with an opportunity to escape the smoke and noise of the town, to learn about the environment and change perspectives. I was WWOOFing last summer in the north of France, to practise my French but also to seek an refuge of sorts. The idea that I could spend a full two months isolated from the brash din of consumerism, spend two months without seeing or hearing an advertisement, two months without consuming a product that was produced by a worker on starvation wages and then shipped halfway across the world, was attractive. I was attracted by the idea that I could enjoy that isolation, learn about the earth, and concretely resist a system which destroyed my environment and which I had felt hopeless to oppose.

The first farmer who was kind enough to let me stay with him was a native of Normandy. Francois (not his real name) was sixty five years old, a tall and wiry man with glasses and a whiff of white hair. He had a university degree in mathematics and had started farming organically when he was in his twenties. His farm was a modest operation: two greenhouses, a field for hay, three dairy cows, one cow being raised for slaughter (called Escalope), a few geese, a few chickens and cocks, a dog, cats and kittens. He lived with his wife and children in an old cottage, in a world of rusting cars, slumping wire fences, dial-up internet, punctured buckets, hobbledy pots, dung stars, and summer storms.

Self-sufficient organic farming is a difficult process where the practitioner works with nature’s cycles as opposed to forcefully manipulating them. The practice is labour intensive as manual weeding must make up for chemical cleansing. It requires time and foresight, chemically produced fertilizers cannot be simply be bought, when necessary and at short notice. Instead, farmers must make use of organic compost which takes years to produce. Thus form of farming is inherently riskier as crop yields cannot be chemically ensured, and a rough, organic product must be pitched to a market that has grown accustomed to the industrially uniform produce sold in mass supermarkets. Not all organic farmers are self-sufficient. This is a vocation which requires intense discipline. Francois was nearly totally self-sufficient. The only products he purchased were those he simply could not produce himself, such as internet, petrol, and toilet paper. All food eaten on the farm was produced on the farm. The clothes worn by Francois and his family were bought from second hand shops. When Francois did purchase anything, such as tools, he did his utmost to ensure that they were produced in France.

Francois was born in 1948, in post-war France. He grew up during the reconstruction, on a small farm in the fifties. During the period, globalization had not developed in the way we understand it today. French goods were produced in France, labour wasn’t outsourced, French employers could be held to task by strong unions and, as such, workers had a won for themselves a certain standard of living. At least, this was the picture of France that he idealized – a hard-working France in which citizens could earn a decent wage through honest work.

Francois certainly did work hard. Every morning we started work at nine, stopping to eat breakfast at eleven. We then worked from midday until five. At seven or eight we started again and worked until ten, when we ate dinner. Then we went to bed. I was entirely worn down by the process and actually fled the farm a week before I was scheduled to leave. Francois however had been doing this all his life. And he did it with vigour.

He saw himself as well rewarded for his labour. He scowled at radio advertisements heralding the coming of the holiday season and explained to me that work could liberate me if I wanted it to. Through working his organic farm Francois liberated himself from the evils of consumerist state. He liberated himself from products produced by slaves. He liberated himself from reliance on a state that carried out imperialist wars. He liberated his mind from the rotten din of consumerist society.

His work-load however, was immense, and his vocation was proving to be increasingly difficult to follow. In France the traditional marchés are becoming a thing of the past. They are frequented mostly by elderly people, to whom the event is equally if not more important as a social outing than a shopping trip. Massive supermarkets – cousins and brothers of the corporate giants who dominate the groceries markets on this island – are killing the marché. A hulking Super-U loomed over the market ground where Francois sold his produce, a steady stream of shoppers marching in and out. While the marché is in decline, the organic stall is suffering the most. In times of economic hardship, people simply cannot afford organic produce. This puts producers like Francois under severe pressure. He often spoke bitterly about the government giving grants to industrial farmers while he couldn’t afford to hire workers because he would be obliged to pay their minimum wages, insurance and pension.

Here is where the problem lies. In the farm’s creamery a newspaper article was proudly displayed in which a journalist described being on the farm as stepping back into the 1950s. Francois had created his own little world, his own corner of a vanished era in which he could struggle to defend from consumer society and industrial agriculture, from international capitalism. But this was a struggle which he was losing, this was a struggle that was crushing him. This evidently manifested itself in his warped personal perspectives. Francois was an anti-semite. When I asked him if there were any state radio stations in France he responded: “why John, of course, Jerusalem one, Jerusalem two, and Jerusalem three”. When radio advertisements heralded the coming of summer  told their listeners to relax and to enjoy, Francois reddened in the face and began shouting that if the Jews had their way the French would never work again. Seeing that I was perplexed by these ideas, Francois’s Japanese wife asked whether there were many Jews in Ireland, assuming I simply hadn’t heard of them.

Jews, for Francois, functioned as a way of explaining all the forces which made it so difficult for him to live his self-sufficient organic lifestyle without any genuine, searching analysis. It allowed him not to analyse the trends within international capitalism and the particularly the agriculture industry which will soon render his form of small, organic, self-sufficient farming extinct. It is only a matter of time before the jingle jangle cart crushes Francois and his ilk beneath its heavy wagon wheels. Here lies the problem with WWOOFing and other forms of environmental activism. They lack analysis – they deny the fact that their efforts are miniscule in comparison to the forces of international capitalism. Ultimately, they cannot bring themselves to the realisation that the jingle-jangle cart has to be torn apart.