Volunteering in Italy: Memories from a Tuscan Vineyard

Randy and Bethany January 14, 2013 15

The ghostly fog breaks mid morning, revealing a September sun eager to dry the damp Tuscan grape vines. Suddenly, someone shrieks as blood trickles from their pruning nick. I glance at my hands; they are still soft and free of cuts. I laugh to myself knowing it is only a matter of time before I too shed blood and put more of myself into a bottle of wine than I care to admit.

For the next two weeks, we own the 200-year-old vines at Fattoria Cerreto Libri in Pontassieve, Italy. From dawn till dusk, Beth and I work in the Tuscan vineyard with six other volunteers picking grapes. And while the work is arduous and monotonous, it’s satisfying—in part because we are contributing to the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms organization (WWOOF).

Represented in more than 50 countries, WWOOF was started in 1971 by a London secretary who wanted to support the organic farms in the English countryside. The organization gives volunteers the chance to work and learn about biodynamic farming from hosts who produce a variety of organic products, including wine, cheese and jam. In return, hosts provide the volunteers with free room and board as well as pass on their knowledge about their respective farming practices.

For budget travelers, WWOOFing is an excellent way to extend your travels, especially in more expensive areas like Italy and France. It also provides travelers with an ideal opportunity to eat regional, homemade cuisine. At Fattoria Cerreto Libri, for example, each lunch was like a holiday feast.

Wine and conversation flowed freely throughout three-course meals that were capped off with coffee and an occasional homemade dessert before we headed back to the vineyards. In the evening, more of the farm’s delicious table wine–a blend of canaiolo and sangiovese grapes–was uncorked, as we (the volunteers) took turns cooking dinners with fresh ingredients and produce from local markets and the estate’s garden.

Prior to the farm, Beth and I had eaten a lot of pizza and panini—basically any cheap staple food we could find. Occasionally, we splurged on more expensive dinners, but even then we never felt the quality justified the price, nor did we think it was the best representation of a region’s cuisine. But WWOOFing made us feel like we were tasting Italy, as our host, Valentina Baldini Libri, was an amazing cook.

Admittedly, volunteering at an Italian winery was more work than we expected. Before arriving we had illusions of weekend trips to Siena and Florence. And while we did manage a day trip to the latter (Florence was only 20 minutes away by train), we realized quickly that picking the vineyard clean and getting the grapes processed took precedence over everything else; after all, our hosts’ livelihood depended on it.

In the end, though, WWOOFing is what you make it. Sure we worked hard, but we also laughed hard and forged long term friendships from all over the world. And best of all, for two weeks, we got to wine and dine like Anthony Bourdain.

 

 

15 Comments »

  1. sandra June 17, 2013 at 3:39 pm - Reply

    Hi there!

    I am looking to do some volunteering with WWOOF as well but in December! This post has really opened my eyes! It looks awesome!. Just wondering if the farm is under a different name. I looked it up(under “Fatorria Cerreto Libri”) on the list of farms they emailed me but can’t find them. Do you know where you got it from??

    Thanks,
    Sandra

  2. Lourdes July 11, 2013 at 10:03 am - Reply

    Hi Sandra, I found it –
    http://www.cerretolibri.it/

    I think volunteering through WWOOF sounds fantastic – you might have to work harder than you imagine, but a great way to experience local life here in Tuscany. While there will always be many family farms that keep hard at work, so many new generations choose to not keep it up and sell the farm… a real pity, because some of the best tasting produce, wine and cheese come from these small estates.

    • Randy Kalp January 15, 2014 at 5:55 pm - Reply

      Thanks sharing the link Lourdes, that’s the farm that we WWOOFed at in Tuscany. Couldn’t agree more with your comment. It can be hard work but it’s totally worth it. With more people WWOOFing these days, I’m hopeful that it sways new generations to keep their family’s farm going, since the volunteers can help offset some of the labor costs that go into running a farm.

  3. Bianca July 13, 2013 at 6:55 pm - Reply

    Hi. This article is great! Where did you apply for that volunteering trip in Italy? It has always been my dream to do this too. I could find nothing under the WWOOF page. Best, Bianca

    • Randy Kalp January 15, 2014 at 6:01 pm - Reply

      You can find everything you need to volunteer with WWOOF Italy here: http://www.wwoof.it/en/. I hope you get a chance to do it in 2014, I know you’ll really enjoy it. .

  4. Jimmy August 21, 2013 at 9:49 pm - Reply

    Hi, I’m interested in volunteering in the vineyards for 2 weeks. How do I go about doing it? I’m available from 5/10 to 17/10. Thanks

    • Randy Kalp January 15, 2014 at 6:05 pm - Reply

      Two weeks is perfect! To sign up, you need to get a one year membership from the WWOOF chapter (Italy: http://www.wwoof.it/en/) in which you want to work. Generally, it runs about $30 and once you sign up they’ll give you all the info you need to find a farm to work on.

  5. Ruta January 7, 2014 at 1:17 pm - Reply

    Hi, when is the best time to go there or it is all over the year ? thanks

    • Randy Kalp January 15, 2014 at 6:11 pm - Reply

      It really depends on the region that you want to visit as well as what the farm produces and needs from volunteers. For example, on the vineyard we worked, they needed people in the spring (preparing the vineyards), September (grape harvest) and October (olive harvest). Your best bet is to check out the farm list on http://www.wwoof.it/en/ to see what works best for your travel dates and location.

  6. Leela Krishna February 8, 2014 at 2:13 pm - Reply

    Hey!,

    I am Leela Krishna, a student from India. I have been doing organic farming in a small scale at my academy where i study and i also worked in a French colony where i leant organic farming. i am looking forward to taking a gap year in europe and a part of that would be spending time in an vineyard.

    I wanted to know the available dates for volunteering and the costs which come along as I am a student and i have megre financial resoruces. I also wanted to know if accomodation will be provided and how if the meals/food is complimentary again as i dont have too much money.

    Thank you,
    Lee

    • Randy Kalp February 27, 2014 at 5:43 pm - Reply

      Hi Lee,

      I’m really happy to hear that you want to volunteer on a vineyard during your gap year in Europe. With your experience and interest in organic farming, I think you will get a lot out of value from WWOOFing.

      The dates that farms need workers really depends on what they produce on the farm. For vineyards in Tuscany, their busy season is September for the grape harvest. Generally speaking, I’d say the spring and fall are probably the best times to look for work. Your best bet, though, is to decide what country you want to WWOOF in and then sign up for the membership. This give you access to the farm list, which should give you a lot of information about when farm’s need the most help. The yearly membership fee varies from country to country. Italy, for example, is about $30, while Serbia is $5.

      You are responsible for your own transportation costs to and from the farm. However, your hosts will usually pick you up at the nearest train/bus station. If you are WWOOFing, then the host will provide your meals and lodging. In Italy, for example, our hosts cooked lunch everyday and then we were responsible for cooking our own dinners. However, all of our food was provided for us.

      If you have any more questions, feel free to email me at: randy@beersandbeans.com.

  7. DarthVader February 25, 2014 at 4:25 am - Reply

    Me and my fiance want to volunteer too!
    I am an Indian citizen and she is an American. Can we travel and volunteer on a tourist visa?

    • Randy Kalp February 27, 2014 at 5:57 pm - Reply

      Good question. We’re from the US and never had a problem WWOOFing on our tourist visa in Europe, but each country is different.You should be fine with the tourist visa in Europe, but I’d check with the country’s WWOOF organisation too, just to make sure.

      Here’s the link to the WWOOF International site, which is a great resource with lots of information: http://wwoofinternational.org/.

  8. Robert March 9, 2014 at 12:47 pm - Reply

    Is there an age limit? Can u stay for an extended period? How about any jobs for people with limits who have MS. My wife & I are interested in doing this. I have 40 years of construction & my wife, who has MS, is not in a wheelchair, but has limits. She is an office manager so she has years of computer & office skills. Is there opportunities for people like us?

    • Randy Kalp March 24, 2014 at 9:39 am - Reply

      Hi Robert,

      I’m so happy to hear that you and your wife are interested in WWOOFing! I don’t think there is an age limit as long as you can do the work. On our farm, for example, the the volunteers ranged from 20 to mid-50s. As for your wife, I’m not sure if that would be a problem or not. I’d imagine that it depends on each farm, so it would be best to email and discuss the situation with your host beforehand. With that said, one of the volunteer’s at the vineyard was pregnant, and while she did help in the fields some, she also did other things that were less labor intensive to help the host out. So, I think your chances are good, especially with all of your experience, of finding a WWOOF farm to work on.

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