Thursday, September 24, 2009

WWOOFing on a Dairy Farm

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Before I begin my recounting of a 2 week farm stay, where I would be volunteering my labor at a dairy farm, let me answer your obvious question, "What the hell were you thinking?!?" The safe answer, the one that feels right a couple months after the fact is... life experience.

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WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. Its a non profit that hooks up people who want to experience living and working on a farm with farms looking for said people. The brochure states a simple formula; half a days work for a place to stay and food to eat, with some old fashioned character building thrown in for free. If you want to know more, google it, this shit is international and pretty popular with the hipsters these days.

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I'd wanted to do WWOOFing in Japan for a while now, but lacked the time. A lot of people will spend a month at a farm, then move to the next farm for a month, repeating this for 6 months or even years. It's a novel way to travel and see the world. But with limited time to spare, I could only do a 2 week stint. Hokkaido is famous for milk, so I picked a dairy farm. I could have chosen a nice field of corn, or some kind of organic cafe, but I wanted to live with the humblest of beasts, the cow.

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A little about the farm. Mr. Kataoka is 60 years old and has been in the dairy farm business going on 40 years. He works from 6:30am until 6:30pm everyday, 7 days a week. He has 4 children, a few grandchildren, and about 70 cows. This is in the town of Monbetsu, way in the sticks of northeast Hokkaido. This is the polar opposite of anything I could imagine myself doing... ever.

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I've heard all sorts of different WWOOF stories. In some, the WWOOFer basically lives at a ski resort hotel, spending a few hour peeling carrots or something before clocking out and hitting the slopes. I've heard stories of spreading fertilizer in the hot sun for hours on end. I've heard mostly good stories though, thats for sure. Mine? In retrospect, it was good. But it was hard work. I won't lie, I really expected a sort of home stay type situation, where the farmer has plenty of normal help, and I'm just sort of there to lend a hand. I felt like I was necessary here. Which is good and bad at the same time. My energy was obliterated at the end of each day.

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I should also mention that, being a dairy farm, there is poo everywhere. You wear a suit which I dubbed the "poo suit". You wear giant "poo boots". You get a lot of poo on you no matter how careful you are. At any given time, 15% of the cows are pooping. I did the math.

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Here's the daily schedule:

6:30am to 9:00am - Milk the cows, feed the baby cows, clean the milking room of poop. Eat breakfast.
10:00am - 11:30am - Take the cows to the pasture, clean the cow shed of one days worth of poo. This requires heavy machinery. Eat lunch.
2:00pm - 3:00pm - Bring the cows back from pasture.
4:00pm - 6:30pm - Milk the cows, feed the baby cows, clean the milking room of poop. Eat dinner.

Before:

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During:

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After:

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Milking time:

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Have you ever heard the story of the traveling salesman who asked the farmer if he could stay the night?

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During the free time, I was on the internet a lot. The farm had a high speed connection to the world, but no cell phone reception. I also drank like 8 glasses of milk a day, made some ice cream, and hiked around the area. Monbetsu, the closest thing resembling a city, was actually about 30 minutes drive away. Yeah, this was the middle of it.

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After 10 days of working with the farmer, another WWOOFer came along to help out, so that was cool.

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One day I thought I had hay under my clothes for about an hour, because of the itchiness. I dealt with it for a bit, then threw off the clothes. Found a palm sized spider crawling around against the skin of my lower back.

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I thought the cows would be friendly. Yes, I imagined sitting in the pasture, napping against a particularly friendly bovine. Like in the movies! But, the cows were pretty much just robots. Their one command function is typing "bay bay!" into the input terminal. This causes them to proceed towards their next task, whether it be walking into the milking cage, or returning to the shed after grazing. Only the "bay bay" wasn't a simple command line input. It was like you were typing with nothing but your forehead. "Ba1y baay" would yeild nothing but an unmoving animal. "Bey ba74y!"... nothing. "Bay bay!"... 5 steps in the right direction, hooray. Repeat until finished. It was mind numbing at times.

They also respond to being poked in the tookass with shrubbery.

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That was it for the dairy farm, and that was it for Hokkaido!

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Next time: A wrap up of Hokkaido

8 comments:

Todd said...

Sounds like a great experience!

Keizo said...

you are my hero

travis said...

good stuff, brian, i bet it was some good milk you were drinking, fresh out of the utter and all.

Brian said...

Thanks Travis. Your advice years back led me to this.

Yeah, the milk was super good.

Anonymous said...

That looks really good! ^^

Did you need a work visa to do it? Now I can't live at 'da crib' I'm thinking of doing some WWOOFING! :D

Brian said...

You can wwoof on a travelers visa, since you aren't getting paid. It's really popular for people on their 90 day tourist visa to do 3 farms in 3 months.

Anonymous said...

Really? I did think that when I checked the working Visa's out online but I wasn't sure. Now I know I'm gonna sign up for it! XD

My only problem is that I'd like to WWOOF fairly far out, since I've lived in what feels like the same part of Japan for too long- and I have no idea how to travel to Hokkaido or Okinawa without racking up some big airline fee's. :3
Got any budget recommendations? ^^

Brian said...

I've met a few people who hitch hiked and wwoofed around Japan. Once you are out of Tokyo, it's easy!