I became an official WOOFER last June.
What is Woof?
Woof is a beautiful organization that basically helps curious people who want to work on a farm, get experience and learn about working on the land. Basically you try to become a volunteer farm assistant while WOOF is the organization that interfaces between you and the farmer. Woof, offers the farmers the chance to be courted by a worker who will offer their skill, manpower, ladypower and time to work for a month or more somewhere in Europe. There is a FRENCH WOOF, a GERMAN WOOF and it seems all European countries have a WOOF and you basically pay the organization a small fee to get a list of farms and you try to woo them with your charms and get a position.
I woofed and failed.
I failed at least 3 years in a row.
Last year I failed, but then all of a sudden I got an email that said, YES, COME TO WORK ON MY SHEEP FARM. I did. And I failed after one month of work!
I had explicitly said that I wanted to learn goat farming but I was open to learn on any farm as long as there was the possibility of learning how to make cheese from a goat or sheep. I said I would be open to cleaning, fixing, learning and doing what needs to be done daily. I did say I was a vegetarian, but I was ok with living in a household that eats meat.
There was very little communication after I agreed to do a one month stint. Just the basics were given on where to be at a certain date and time and I would be picked up by the lady farmer.
On the day I arrived I could feel something was off, wrong, skewed and I knew from that moment, as the lady farmer helped me with my bag, and looked at me up and down, as if inspecting a cow, that my time on the farm was going to be a mix of misunderstanding and unsettled discontent.
I had a strange feeling about it all.
I know she had the same strange feeling about me.
The woman I stayed with was a very tough. A strong farmer calling herself a “Shepherd” but also a “breeder.”
I really didn’t understand this at first, then I came to realize as she asked me in the car, “You do know I breed lambs for meat”.
So Lesson Numero Uno for WOOFERS: Find out first if the farm you are working on is a meat producing farm.
I am a vegan and as Isaac Bashevis Singer answered when ask why he became a vegetarian:
“I did it for the health of the chicken not for myself.”
I was in a gorgeous part of the LANGUEDOC ROUSSILLON. The Garrigue, the vines, the clear light and the intense heat plus the shock of a pulsating wind! A wind I could not believe on a hot day could ever exist. A tsunami wind on a Ferme in Albas. The farm was on a hilly, rocky area that is indicative of the region. A region where the curious Cathars sought refuge. The Cathars, Greek for “pure”, believed that God’s kingdom was locked in battle with Satan’s evil world and that humans were base at heart. But a pure life followed by several reincarnations could free the spirit. They desired a return to the simplicity of early Christianity. So in 1208 Pope Innocent III preached a crusade against the Cathars. The major Cathar centers in this region were Beziers, Carcassone, Minerve and various other fortresses. 20,000 faithful were slaughtered at Beziers and massacre after massacre occurred in this fascinating and spirited Languedoc region.
I could say my time with the little sheep guys and goat guys wasn’t a so-called “massacre”, but I sensed my own little crusade within the “Berge” or “Sheep farm”.
The farm sat on a rugged rocky hill, a contained space for the sheep, and small out house area for the goats. I was supposed to help take the goats out watching them wander and graze and eat and making sure they don’t start going after the grape vines but that didn’t end up too good at first and the sense of trust between farmer, animal and helper was already a bit pressured. As a Shepherd you have to have this sense of your body in a space, sensing the animal in it’s own space, and that movement that rules you. You have to place your body where you predict the goat will go. Roughly that is how it is done. I am probably wrong. I am a slow learner and I needed a patient teacher and time. Sadly, we didn’t have either.
I immediately felt the pressure.
There was one month, all the time in the world and yet there was no time.
Immediately I sensed the discomfort.
The farmer lady and I had issues with communication and to be frank I think she had made a judgment the minute she saw me. I sensed from that moment she didn’t want to know a thing about me and the door was closed. Her English was basic, and I was incredibly grateful that at least there was a chance to work, help and do what I could with this mishmash of my non existent French and her bit of English. In saying this, there was just non-stop misunderstanding after another. She was a powerful, strong French woman on her own, taking care of a farm of over 150 sheep, with another 100 that were being cared for on a mountain by another Shepard. She had at least 50 chickens for eggs, and she would sell those and the goats were milked to give milk for the little lambs that had no mother because of various issues that I was not savvy to. She needed an assistant. She needed someone as strong as she was and clearly I was a skinny female, but I was strong, just not as strong as she. I sensed the judgment. I sensed the disappointment. Skinny females didn’t belong on HER farm! I could read her looks!
No matter, I dug in and worked hard. 4 am awaking. I knew that farming is intense daily work. Lifting huge bails of hay to feeding sheep, then these bizarre nutritional pellets thrown down the gangplank of the barn where the sheep sheltered. All this work to me seemed strange. We were feeding these animals to fatten them in order to go to slaughter. This just didn’t jive with me. No matter how heavy the huge containers were that we fed them with, running back and forth down the alley way of the barn while they all scrambled, ran and screamed simply to eat a tiny bit, I found it hopeless. One sheep overtaking the other, total survival of the fittest and each and every time, a little lamb crushed in the mayhem of trying to stick his tiny head through the trough to eat a bit before being squashed by a big sheep guy. This whole fiasco was insane, but I didn’t question. I shut up and worked through the incessant howl, braying and high pitched fiasco of 100’s of sheep screaming for food!
I would watch the day to day care of the sheep and watched how everything is based on eating. They wanted to eat all the time. Food is everything. And not being able to go outside was one of the major problems I sensed. Why spend so much money on these “nutrition pellets” when the sheep can graze and eat and thrive? I was told the area near the farm wasn’t good grazing land and there wasn’t really much for the sheep to eat. That is why the other 100 were on the mountain a bit away from the farm with another shepherd. That didn’t make much sense to me. We were in the hearty area of France. There MUST be vegetation here that they can eat no?
There were some days when the farmer would have to get another assistant, normally a man, but there was a young lady who came who was pretty powerful in grabbing sheep to go to slaughter as this was the talk for the day and could not be done with one or even two people. The way you pick them up, the way you walk them over by holding their back legs, was troubling to me. I was told that I would just log their numbers on a paper form. I would look at their yellow dirty tags full of mud pierced into their ears. I could see how long they were on the farm by how much mud build up there was. The lady farmer had to clean the yellow tag with her hands to find the numbers and read them off.
And as the farmer and the assistant would go grab more sheep in the barn I would stand there with the metal cart that contained the curious, confused animals and watch them. They rattled about a bit. They looked to the outside of the cart. Looking at each other. They knew. They always know. They were being separated from their flock. They knew what comes next.
One of the heart-breakers was the little lamb guys who would be hungry all the time. They didn’t have their mother, so they would depend on the goat milk we would get from the goats in the morning. I enjoyed the milking of the goats immensely. I loved being so close to these animals, the smell, the hair, the hay, the milk. I was fascinated with the goats. They were not that trusting and I couldn’t blame them. But they provided so much hope and sustenance for those little lamb guys. There were so many of those little guys, just wanting to drink 24 hours a day and you could see their runtness. They were underweight, they bellowed and I recall their numbers, 123, 112, 113. Many mornings we would find one lying dead on the hay just underweight enough to pass over to the other side. Just not enough nutrition to continue. And it was just the way things were.
Why? I asked the Lady Farmer.
Could be anything she would say. Could be anything was always the answer.
The energy of the farmer was fascinating to me. She had the natural energy of a communicator of animal entities. She gave off that something “extra” that understands farming, dirt, animals and survival. Something psychic I would say that all shepherds must have. Their bond to the animal is unspoken, but pulses through the electrical wires of each body connecting. But this “sense” was tough, rugged and brutal at times. She could be loving and she cared, but at the end of it she knew she had a job to do and emotion would not come into the equation. The animal would be slaughtered endpoint. That is the goal isn’t it? So everything leads to this.
For me I am a turtle. I go slow. I approach things slow. For this work, I was thrown in. Normally, with animals I ease my way in and I don’t like diving in that abrupt and interrupting sort of way spooking animals and beings. I wanted to spend time with the goats before I started to invade their space. But it seemed there was no time. There was always a lot of pressure surrounding our chores. As there were so many sheep to feed, so much screaming, the little lambs bellowing away, braying, then the goats, the chickens screaming when I fed them, the rustle of the dirt, the spray of the feed. A huge opera on top volume and speed. Just that unto itself was enough to cause a lot of stress. They are waiting for you to feed them and how you feed them, holding huge buckets from one end of the barn and walking down the entire end pouring the pellet on the ground, as they rushed under your legs almost flipping you so you stumble and stagger. They all gang up to the area you just threw the food, so you have to run back to get more food, so they spread out and everybody gets some! Hay, pellets, and more hay, and more food, endless and more endless. For what? For this?
Photo: This was one of the little sheep I watched be pulled into the wagon.
I found the whole experience stressful. Because I knew what the end result was.
I wouldn’t mind if we were feeding the animals who weren’t going to slaughter. I hated the fact we were feeding them to die. That concept I will never understand nor will I agree with.
Leave the animals be.
Let the sheep breed and live off the green of the open land.
When they die they die.
Stop breeding for meat.
Stop breeding for death.
Stop breeding animals. That is how I look at it when people tell me “but we have all these animals, what do you want them to do.” And I say, “Just breed a small amount so we don’t have excess animals. Control it.” Like spay and neutering your dog or cat. As simple as that.
We don’t need so many cows, nor sheep, nor lambs.
But people want their meat.
(I know I know.. I’m going to get a lot of people complaining and outraged by the stupidity of what I’m saying. Fine.)
I think nature has an intelligence and that intelligence has nothing to do with humans interfering in it.
But it is easy to take 200 sheep and bring them to a mountain to feed for a few months and then bring them down the mountain for slaughter. How much you make from that, I am not sure, but I guess this is how many young sheep farmers do it. I met a young 20 something couple that did this. They were beautiful people. Their energy was different from the farmer I worked for.
I had great respect for them too but they had a sense of calm and humanity. Much more humanity than I sensed from the farmer I was working for.
The issue at hand with the farmer I stayed with was basically her ambiguity about the whole thing. I sensed she knew that she couldn’t do this anymore. She seemed to imply that she had LYMES DISEASE and she would be extremely exhausted days on end. So the chores would be harder and harder to do. Because of this ailment, I sensed her frustration and shortness in temper.
The last two weeks of my month of work there, the farmer got the chance to go on a horse trip with her two horses out in the province area. I would be left on my own while two other farm people would help me with the chores in the morning and night.
Curious enough, her gorgeous Border Collie dog (one of at least 5 amazing farm working dogs, plus the PATOU mountain dogs) had accidentally become pregnant and the dog was going to have babies. This birth coincided with the farmer being away. She had left instructions with one of the farmer helpers that once the dog had babies he would “know what to do.” I had said to her, maybe we could find a way to give the puppies away. She said no one would want a mixture. She said she wanted to breed PUPPI with a pure bred dog, not this dog that accidentally knocked her up and basically she would simply destroy them. Mistake, destroy, done.
I was a bit shocked. I have worked for over 10 years in animal shelters. I have seen about every abuse and every horror you can think of, but we are in 2017! I would think there would be people in the various towns that could help with finding homes for the puppies like crowdsourcing. It is the power of the many, the numbers that could help pass the word around that creates various other options, other than neutralizing puppies.
I enclose some videos of the puppies.
I was there through the whole episode. Puppi had 9 puppies and they were gorgeous. I emailed everyone I could. The farmer got back on day 4 of the puppies’ birth. And the first thing she said when she came in the house and saw her dog feeding the puppies was “Didn’t so and so take care of it? I had asked him to do that.”
Basically she didn’t want her dog expending extra energy on feeding the puppies.
That evening after witnessing a great dog dedicated to feeding and cleaning and caring for her 9 puppies for the last four days, while not even going to the bathroom outside (I would bring her a bowl of food as she wouldn’t even eat or drink) the farmer as we were going off to go do the chores whistled for the dog. Puppi looked around, a bit shocked and simply as instinct calls, got up fast and ran outside after her owner. The dog went with us to the farm.
I stood there shocked.
While I watched 9 tiny little puppy guys scramble, squiggle and now flounder on the blanket and the floor trying to figure out what just happened to their warm mom no less the teat they were milking on.
The farmer had other dogs.
She did not need this dog.
It felt so cruel.
She thought nothing about it.
After that I simply said to her, “Please could you wait to do whatever you decide to do, until after I leave.”
I was leaving the next day anyway.
When we got back with the dog, Puppi just ran right to her bed where the 9 puppies were still somehow scrambling all over the floor and grabbed them all to bring into her bed. It was very sad and pathetic. I tried to say a few words, advice, options, but the farmer didn’t want to hear what I had to say. She had made her decision and she was looking at me like i was the “crazy, sensitive, skinny, city idiot” fighting to keep some humanity alive, when I mentioned “how about spay and neuter?”
She said that she would take one or two puppies but the rest would go.
“Go” as in meaning to drown?
Many people tell me they are shocked by this behaviour, but others say, “this is the brutality of farm life.” Just deal with it.
Fine. But in 2017 I don’t think we have to drown puppies. We should be able to have a preemptive action of making sure the dog doesn’t have babies.
Here is the dog and her puppies.
I don’t think this farmer understood anything about me. She didn’t really want to know anything about me.
There was no real give and take.
There was no “real” learning.
I learned a bit about her, but she was extremely private and wouldn’t share much. A tiny bit. I was curious and I did ask a lot of questions. I did want to get to know her!
The one thing I got from this journey and experience was the love of goats and still I adore the sheep and the lambs but my hope is to find a good farm to work on and assist in making cheese that is my goal for the next WOOF experience.
And the most incredible gorgeous silence in the 10pm light. Yes, it was a still gorgeous pink and silky light at 11pm with only the incessant sounds of these swallow type birds rushing and buzzing and humming everywhere. I fell in love with them too. Plus the silence. My best friend.
And of course Puppi who would come and sleep beside me, well, she was full of fleas, so near me on the floor, only when the Lady Farmer was away!
I will tell you that WOOF seems highly competitive and I sense that the best places keep the same people coming back summer after summer and that is why I could not find a WOOF position for over 3 years of trying.
My suggestion is to keep an open mind, be open to what you can learn but if you are a vegetarian or have an ethics that doesn’t believe in the slaughter of animals, then do not work on a farm that sends animals to slaughter.
I truly didn’t have a problem with the whole thing, it was more the “head-set” of the person, who people are, what they think, how do they communicate, what kind of ethics do they have. I sensed this woman was a really good person, a good human who was very conflicted. She had confided “I want to stop doing this.”
Anyway, I do not condemn anyone. But my philosophy is a Buddhist one. My actions will always come back toward me. If I do something with calm and kindness vs craziness and hate, I will get what is necessary on an objective level. It is just science, good will equal good, and anger will equal anger and suffering will equal suffering.
I don’t think people nor animals have to suffer, but in order for that to be true one has to have a practice, ethics and take action in order to not allow for that suffering to ease its way into your bloodstream. If supply and demand means 1000’s of people stop eating meat, that means they won’t breed as many animals, so all this comes down to a person to person level. We all contribute in the simplest of ways.
Don’t kill animals then maybe you won’t get sick, or you won’t suffer the way you do?
Don’t eat animals as one is simply eating suffering and ingesting that into your body.
ps: Anyone know of a cool goat farm in France to work on next year? I’m game. And again, I don’t mind living with people who eat meat!!
“A human kills an animal for food then he is neglecting his own hunger for justice” Isaac B. Singer.
“Man prays for mercy but is unwilling to extend it to others” Isaac B. Singer