Tuesday, July 31

wwoofing in sicily

Born with one foot in the paddock, I was keen to spend some time working on a farm in Sicily as part of the WWOOF Italia program (willing workers on organic farms). In return for a day's work, volunteers receive food, accommodation and a chance to experience regional family life.  From a varied list of small to medium farms I selected a five hectare property called La Casa delle Acque  (the house of the waters), in the fertile foothills of volcanic Mount Etna.  Like most farms, it has its share of rusty "treasures" in the yard and ongoing projects in various stages of completion. An old brick kiln is waiting to be restored and the shed is half finished, but the original villa has been brought back to its former splendour, and is a majestic pink landmark against the backdrop of deep green orchards and a smoking Mount Etna. 

Summer is quiet time on the farm, with only myself and two Italian male woofers in residence. The days were hot and dry, with the solstice dusk stretching long into the evening, encouraging the ferocious mosquitoes to linger. During the winter citrus season, at least 15 volunteers chip in to help harvest oranges, mandarin, lemons and grapefruit varieties that are exported throughout Europe.

The owner of the property, Nirav, is the president of the Sicilan arm of wwoof Italy and a passionate advocate for organic and biodynamic agriculture principles.  The kitchen produce garden follows a "wilderness" model where weeds cohabit with mixed herbs and vegetables, and one of my jobs was to help Nirav lay new irrigation pipe around the vegetable beds.  Each evening I would pick a bowl of lettuce, rocket, basil, tomato and figs, and toss a big salad to accompany pasta, home pressed olive oil, and fresh wood fired sourdough bread.  The boys would have a tumbler of wine and several chunks of cheese at dusk, then start to prepare dinner at 10pm, sitting down to their meal around 10.45pm; a schedule I found hard to mirror. 

From late nights comes a sleep-in, and the fellas would wander into the kitchen just before 8am to grope for the coffee moka pot and tear off a hunk of fresh bread. Daily chores would follow - feed the assorted fowl, weed, sweep, clean - with Nirav giving directive for specific jobs. The main program for my stay was clearing the weeds from the citrus grove and re-establishing irrigation gullies to each tree. 

The slopes of Mount Etna are terraced to the valleys below, and permanent water flows in a time-honoured system of concrete and terracotta channels over 800 years old. Each farm is allocated a watering day and via a series of movable floodgates, the flow is diverted to flood each individual terrace. To assist the passage of water horizontally from the central channel I had to hoe a ditch to each tree, then watch with satisfaction as the trickle widened to quench the soil and inundate the terrace. As one level was flooded I would move upwards, closing the gates behind me and effectively pushing the water backwards. No sprinklers required.      

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