Farmhouse Fun

A few weeks in a traditional-looking stone farmhouse set among rows and rows of apple trees with a backdrop of snowy mountains sounds like a great way to spend some time working and learning about the way of life for many Argentine farmers. At least that is what we had thought.

We had signed up with a global program called WWOOFING, well known by many international travellers. WWOOF literally means Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms. Wanting to spend some of our time volunteering in Argentina, this sounded like a worthwhile cause. And as two individuals deeply interested in food security and sustainability, we thought it was a great idea to learn about how communities in this less-developed part of the world organically live off and with the land, in an age of growing climate concern. Where it hasn’t rained since May and where the main source of farming irrigation is glacial water run-off from the nearby mountains.

On the bus on the way to the property we bore witness of the unsustainable practices that the locals are protesting about in this region – mining. In the midst of the pristine mountain environment we were slapped in the face with the sight of burning oil.

At the farm, greeted by an elderly farmer, Agustin, we arrived at what we thought was to be our home away from home in central Argentina, ready to start out next big adventure with high hopes – to give a helping hand, learning from the locals, and learning to live off the land.

There was no mistaking it, we were deep in the Argentine countryside as we passed a farmer riding his tractor and others selling their fruit roadside, gauchos going about their daily business, horses grazing bales of hay, and miles and miles of farmland, as far as the eye could see.

Agustin and his wife were to be our hosts for the next month or so. Agustin, originally from Andalusia in Spain, moved to Argentina at the age of 15, and had spent the last 60-odd years farming in the region ever since. While Agustin tends to the 5 hectares of apple orchards and vegetables, his wife, a proud Mendocina, looks after the house, the firewood, the gatita (kitten) and the six resident dogs (or at least five and one crazy hound).

Arriving on the farm, Agustin gave us an honorary tour of the farm as we learnt the Spanish names for everything from chicory to quince and then showed us to what was to be our room for the next little while.

As we dumped our bags down and took a two second glance at the four walls surrounding us, we looked at each other, politely thanked Agustin and his wife and mumbled a quiet “esta bien”.

The volunteers lodging was a brick shed. Four brick walls barely held together by concrete and a timber roof. In one corner was a sink with running water and a hollowed out stove, and in the other our bed – a double mattress that was to be laid on the ground. There was no toilet, apart from the one in the main house, and that one closed at night until 8.30am the next morning. Showers were not discussed.

Before coming to South America we were aware of the some of the conditions that we may face. Being less-developed, we would not always have the comfort we have in our Melbourne home, and we were prepared to face what may, to live as the locals live. But this was something else.

There were only two reasons we should enter the main house, to use the toilet (during opening hours), and to eat. Later that night when we were called in for dinner, we realised that we weren’t living in the same conditions as the duenos. Inside, a big wood fire heated the farmhouse. The same wood fire was used to heat the potable water. The wood for the fire was sourced from the winter pruning from the apple orchards, quite an ingenious use of tree cuttings.

The warm and cosy farmhouse also had a spare room, equipped with two beds, neither of which were those of the elderly couple who lived alone (apart from the odd volunteer) in the house. To add fuel to the (log) fire, the couple advertise this room as being for volunteers, and then evidently when they arrive, put them outside in the cold. We were told of stories (from the farmers themselves, mind you) of volunteers coming and staying only one night. Two Australian girls lasted three nights.

Nonetheless, we quickly realised that our eagerness to help and to learn while helping was interpreted as us being ‘the help’. Our understanding of the concept of farm volunteering is that, if lodging is provided, it would be in the family home, or in similar conditions.

After all, responsible behaviour in agro-tourism lies not only with those coming onto the farm, but also with the duenos to provide safe and human living and working conditions for volunteers and other workers.

After our vegetarian dinner we spent the rest of the evening like any other Argentine family, at the dinner table with little conversation and in front of the TV. Argentines, we have figured out, have an obsession with cheesy ‘80’s style game shows, which can be found airing anywhere dinner is served.

Apprehensive of the night that awaited us, we decided to get an early night and headed off to our cold, outdoor broom closet of a room.

In the centre of Argentina, in the middle of winter the temperature drops significantly overnight.  That night apparently dropped to minus five degrees Celsius. Needless to say that with no protection from the harsh winter temperature we did not sleep a wink that night. All of our energy was spent on staying warm until the sun came up the next morning.

The next day we faced a day of hard labour, which we did with no complaints. After lunch our attempted explanations that we couldn’t sleep in those conditions, which meant that we couldn’t work any longer without sleep, were met with miscomprehension, so our stay on that particular granja ended there.

As we headed back to Mendoza we decided that we would spend the next few days looking for another farm for the month ahead. Our farming days haven’t ended, but they have only just begun.

2 Responses to “Farmhouse Fun”
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  1. […] and it rings true for our Argentinean farming experience. From our first experience at the farm in Tunuyán, we were almost ready to pack up, head south and then leave Argentina, a month before planned. Then […]

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