Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Gary Porter

Dietrich Gosser and Courtney Herring arrived at LoveTree Farmstead near Grantsburg in far northwestern Wisconsin one hour ago. Fresh from their home in Chicago, they were already busy clearing small trees and brush from the edge of a pond. Soon they’ll help make pizzas with sheep cheese and organic ingredients picked fresh from the farm.

As part of WWOOF, the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms program, individuals exchange work for room and board at organic farms in Wisconsin, other parts of the United States and around the world. The concept is simple, but the opportunities are diverse and widespread.

Similar in concept to Youth Hostels International or the Elderhostel program, WWOOF is an international organization made up of organic farmers (though not necessarily certified organic) and members interested in organic farming.

Participating farms can post a brief synopsis of what type of farming they do, and what types of help they are looking for. Members interested in traveling, getting their hands dirty, learning farm techniques and meeting local farmers then apply to supply the needed labor for free room and board. The exchange rate is usually one half-day of work for a day’s room and board. Length of stay is worked out on an individual basis between the farmers and the WWOOFers. It can be anywhere from a few days to a full season.

By last count there are 32 farms in Wisconsin advertising opportunities for WWOOFers. These range from basic organic farms to scythe-based ecological farming.

In September, I had the opportunity to visit a couple of these WWOOF farms and meet WWOOFers at work.

First stop was Bike Farm, a 37-acre farm near Cushing, north of St. Croix Falls, named for brother and sister Suzannah and Jefferson Clark’s love of biking.

Their entry on the WWOOF website reads:

“We live on a 37-acre farm on a lake surrounded by prairies, woods and hills. We grow organic veggies and apples, harvest and process maple syrup, care for goats, chickens, sheep & pigs. We try to limit our fossil fuel & water use as much as possible. We are located near the St Croix River, the perfect spot to bike, hike, swim, canoe & climb trees.

“We mostly need help working the gardens, but we’ll have a variety of work opportunities available depending on your interests.”

Helping at crunch time

The day I arrived, I met the Clarks and WWOOFer Daniel Kunkler of Madison, who was on his last day of a one-week visit. This was Kunkler’s third WWOOFing experience. The September afternoon was warm with sunlight and brimming with fresh produce, especially cucumbers and tomatoes.

When the crops come in, farmers have to work fast and long, and that’s where WWOOFers come in handy for the Clarks, who mainly sell their produce via farmers markets in the Twin Cities.

They can target seasons when they need more help, without the extra expense of hiring seasonal workers.

After an afternoon working in the garden and orchard, the Clarks headed down to a picture-perfect lake that borders the farm. It was Kunkler’s last look around before hitting the road west for the Twin Cities, where he hopes to land a full-time job.

Suzannah Clark explained that the cleared area by the lake is a potential campsite for future WWOOFers.

I can sense the bond Kunkler and the Clarks have established working side by side for the week, and can tell he will be missed, at least until the next WWOOFer comes along.

Thrown into the mix

I left Bike Farm heading farther north to Grantsburg, to meet up the next day with Dave and Mary Falk at LoveTree Farmstead.

Their entry reads:

“If you love wildlife, this is a great place to sit back and watch as the critters are abundant here! We are a 200-acre pasture-based dairy sheep operation (100 acres dedicated to wildlife refuge) located in lake country (8 small lakes within two miles of farm), 10 miles south of the Crex Meadows 30,000-acre wildlife refuge and five miles from Governor Knowles state forest. Our farm is low tech and predator friendly, this style of farming has worked well for us for the past 20 years. We farm with approx. 8 livestock guardian dogs for sheep protection, and border collies used for herding sheep.

“We raise the sheep organically on an almost exclusive pasture grazing basis. We have over 18 years experience of knowledge of grazing for flavor for raw milk cheese production. We also have extensive knowledge in selection for genetics for hardy regional sheep bred for organic production. A month would be great, longer is possible too.”

As an added venture, the Falks began Pizza by the Pond in the middle of July, opening their farm once a week to the public to enjoy sheep’s cheese pizza. The pizzas are made with their own organically grown vegetables and baked in a handmade wood-fired oven, overlooking a beautiful little pond.

Pizza night

I arrived at Pizza by the Pond about an hour after WWOOFers Gosser and Herring arrived for a one-month stay. They had been running an organic restaurant in urban Chicago.

The two are especially interested in cheese production, and being in the restaurant business they are also interested in pizza night.

They were already busy cutting brush down by the pond to provide a better view for pizza patrons when I arrived, and soon the time came for them to change into clean clothes and head for the “cheese cave,” where pizza preparation was under way in an underground structure made for the cheese and pizza business.

Outside the cave, late afternoon sunlight streamed through smoke from a wood-burning oven made of large, rounded stones stacked as high as a person.

The fire got so hot that Mary could turn a pizza out in two minutes. It’s a good thing too, because a recent article about Pizza by the Pond in a Twin Cities newspaper promised a record crowd that night.

The Falks have been raising sheep and making award-winning cheeses for a number of years, but “in this economy, we have to explore new ways of making money,” Dave Falk said.

Gosser and Herring jumped right into the bustle like old pros and added four helpful hands at a time when they were sorely needed.

Helping out

Gosser helped with the pizza prep using skills he learned in Chicago, and Herring greeted an onslaught of customers as they arrived, making sure they got orders in and were served promptly.

The atmosphere was not unlike Jazz in the Park at Milwaukee’s Cathedral Square Park, on a smaller scale. Visitors set up chairs and tables filled with wine and appetizers, some lay blankets on the ground. Music was replaced by fresh air, the sounds of frogs from the pond, sheep, sheep dogs and mosquitoes.

At 6 p.m. Dave “runs the sheep,” his version of Pamplona’s running of the bulls, delighting families from the cities. Sheep were herded by dogs, and Dave led the charge to the barn running, with sheep in tow, for night milking. Parents with their children filed into the small milking barn to see what it’s all about.

At the end of the evening, I sensed the weariness of a long day. Gosser and Herring had finished their first whirlwind day of WWOOFing at LoveTree Farmstead. They performed like seasoned veterans.

The two are just beginning a yearlong tour of the United States, which includes at least one more WWOOFing gig in Washington’s Puget Sound area.

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