I first heard about wwoofing (willing workers on organic farms) when I worked at the Pillars of Hercules Organic Farm and cafe during my first gap year at 18. The wwoofers would help out with whatever was needed on the farm 5 days a week for 5-6 hours per day in exchange for food and accommodation. It seemed like a great way to travel slowly, learn about what was being farmed,develop some new skills and meet some local people.
Our first wwoofing hosts were Chris and Mabel at Rineck in the Baden Württemberg countryside. Chris, Melbourne born, is developing a permaculture veggie garden and is Mabel’s son in law. Mabel runs a large seminar house where groups come to practice yoga and meditation. While we were staying there was a group led by a shaman Eskimo from Greenland who built their own ‘sweat lodge’, essentially a sauna in a field which they built from branches covered in blankets and put inside are stones heated from a fire outdoors. They started at about 11pm and went through until 4 or 5am doing chants and well, getting sweaty! It’s supposed to be a spiritual and energy cleanser, not for me as I can only manage about 15 mins in a sauna..
However, we were more interested in the permaculture practises and learning from Chris some of the techniques he used in the garden. So, what is permaculture? The name was coined in the 70s by Mollison and Holmgren, an Australian student and his professor and stands for permanent agriculture. It basically involves working with nature to grow enough to sustain the plant/crop/land itself and then yield some additional for human consumption. There have been many books written on the subject and I’m keen to learn more about it and hopefully implement some practices when we’re back in Aus. On our first day Chris introduced us to his ‘hugels’, some large mounds which he had built up using a mixture of cardboard, wood and compost so it was really fertile.
We planted a number of seeds including carrots, buckwheat and peas and put a loose covering of straw over the top to help capture the moisture. We also helped Chris to build up some ‘swails’. Fortunately some wwoofers before us had already dug some trenches and our job was to break up the branches of some dead trees to fill them and cover in mulch. The swails then act as a natural water storage so you plant fruit and nut trees down their sides and the roots will soak up the water from the swails. This was a great technique, fairly easy and low in resources that I think would be extremely effective in water scarce environments
Chris also had us using an old Native American technique of building up mounds with compost, topping each mound with 4 small piles of mixed soil and sand in which we planted sweet corn with a pumpkin plant in the middle. We spent a rainy afternoon making up clay balls which had a mixture of clover and alfalfa seeds sprinkled within which we could throw into the swails. I liked the idea that we didn’t have to plant everything in neat rows but could plant different seeds in amongst others.
We also spent one physically intensive day making up two large mounds of compost. This involved alternatively layering cut grass with brown leaves/hay and then horse manure. It was hard work but it was great to think about how many delicious veggies would benefit from growing in such great compost!
We did a variety of other jobs during our stay from clearing out and tidying Chris’s tool shed, to helping out put netting over the large chicken/duck/guinea fowl run to stop the kites from getting at the birds (Chris had recently lost 4 chickens to the kites) to mowing the lawn and collecting the clippings to mulch around the bases of the many fruit and nut trees. We also enjoyed observing Chris transfer a bee swarm he had caught into a more permanent hive, watching the baby chicks and also the little foals frolicking in the next field.
The work was interesting, varied and often physically demanding. We learned a lot and I certainly have had my interest in permaculture peaked that I intend to learn more about it. The work was balanced with participating in Chris’s yoga sessions which we held a few nights a week with locals from the surrounding villages – lovely to stretch out after a day of digging/planting/shifting manure in the garden! It was also a good way to pick up a few German words – left/right, ‘ant spannen’ relax..
Touring in time off
On our days off we enjoyed doing some hiking in the local area (not cycling unfortunately as I was too short for any of the bicycles offered!) where we spotted deer, hare and a beautiful old water mill. We also liked getting away from the tourists wielding selfie sticks to join the locals at the Mannheim stadtfest where we sampled a range of local cuisines (the best was the cherry quark cake) and listened to some bands.
We also spent a day in Bad Mergentheim, a small quaint village with a very grand fort which was the headquarters for the Teutonic Knights for 300 years.
We had a delicious lunch of kase späetzle (cheese noodles) and maulhausen, huge stuffed pasta washed down with some tasty local beers while sitting out in the sunshine in the main square.
Mitch took us on a short self guided tour around the town before we headed for the fort. There was a great visiting photography exhibition on the ground floor which showed two photos of each person, one in their casual clothes and one in uniform with an accompanying description of how they felt in each. It included nuns, police officers, sportsmen, miners and even a dominatrix!
The museum about the history of the Knights was more up Mitch’s ally but it was interesting to learn about how having the Knights there over time had affected the local town. We enjoyed walking around the beautiful gardens behind the fort in the late afternoon sun where we saw a few cheeky squirrels playing on the lawn.
Hanging out in Heidelberg
We also spent one hot afternoon off in Heidelberg, a beautiful town set along the Neckar river. Although it was quite touristy we think we timed it well arriving after lunch as the bus loads of Asian tourists were exiting. We got great views down on the town and across to the castle from the philosophenweg, named so because it was where the university academics and professors used to get out of town to ponder, reflect and think deep thoughts.
The views were really fantastic however my thoughts only stretched as deep as feeling the need for an ice cream on such a hot day after a steep uphill walk! We walked back into town past the locals sunbathing/bbqing/picnicking on the banks of the river, enjoying the sunshine. Back in the old town, a two scooper mango and caramel popcorn ice cream went down a treat.
Energy restored we walked up the hill on the other side to the beautiful Schloss, mostly in ruins. It was very pretty to wander through and in and around the gardens.
We really enjoyed our first wwoofing experience at Rineck, not only was the food great (think Ayurvedic porridge for breakfasts with freshly ground oats courtesy of Mitch,
veggie kedgeree for lunch or homemade ice cream with berries from the garden al’a Anna Maria and Claudia, the resident chefs!) but Chris and Mabel were also great hosts . It was nice to be somewhere that friends and neighbours seemed to drop in and out so we could enjoy chatting and learning about their way of life. It was a great way to force Mitch to practice some German, and for some of them, to try their hand at English in return!