Ever wonder where organic food really comes from?Urbanite Patricia Marx goes agricultural on 23 acres in Michigan.

Martha Camarillo Greg Kruszewski and Robin Mailor
| Credit: Martha Camarillo

If there is soil to be tilled, a flower bed to be mulched, a chicken coop to be cleaned out, sheep to be sheared, honey to be extracted from a hive, a Muscovy duck to be fed or slaughtered, a drip irrigation system to be installed, pigweed to be pulled out of the pepper patch, compost to be sifted, a field to be Bush-Hogged (look it up, city slicker)—I am not the first person you’d call. Trust me, I am not even on the list. I am the most urban person you will ever meet, by which I only partly mean that I am lazy.

So what am I doing here, lending a hand at the Three Roods Farm in Columbiaville, Michigan?Why have I, a lover of New York City and an eater of all foods chemically based, come to the heartland of America?Hint: it is not because I am good with plants, though I can sauté them; nor is it because I am a dog person or a cat person, and I am certainly not a livestock person. I’m here communing with the flora and fauna (while sneaking NutraSweet packets into my tea as if they were heroin) because I like exotic experiences, especially ones that last only a few days. And okay, to be honest, I did have to get out of my apartment so they could re-grout my bathtub tiling.

And so, I signed up to apprentice for almost a week at Three Roods through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, a.k.a. wwoof, o.k.a. (originally known as) Working Weekends on Organic Farms. Together, these names tell you a lot about the outfit, but here are a few things they don’t mention: wwoof began in 1971 when Sue Coppard, a secretary in London, feeling the need for a little Mother Nature in her life, organized a weekend helping out on a biodynamic farm in Sussex. There are now 79 countries in wwoof, which means you can, for instance, clear bramble and milk yak in such places as Estonia, Guinea, Togo, and Tonga. The way it works is this: wwoof compiles a list of host farms that welcome volunteers in exchange for room, board, and an opportunity to learn about organic agriculture. Most wwoofers, I would imagine, do not show up with a photographer, a large trunk full of clothes, a computer, and a million questions. In other words, my cover was blown from the start.

I know what you’re thinking. This is one of those stories in which the author will have a life-altering epiphany and decide to give up her Manhattan one-bedroom to live in a yurt and grow alfalfa. Well, suffice it to say that at this point in our tale, I was still referring to farm chores as "errands."

Back to the land. The approximately half-hour drive from the Flint Airport to Three Roods is simple—there don’t seem to be many roads in Michigan so there are few turns to make. You drive past some farms and then you drive past some more farms until you pass by some more farms. Then continue all the way down Our Acres Drive and you will see a hand-crafted sign jutting out of the lawn that says may peace prevail on earth. You will also see a two-story barn; a coop sheltering the peeps of chickens and the rooster who doesn’t love them; a couple of stacks of wooden hives surrounded by a swarm of honeybees; a greenhouse built from a kit; several plots of raised and flat beds of vegetables; orchards of apple, peach, elderberry, and chestnut trees; and in the distance, a pasture of Shetland sheep. A German shepherd puppy named Schnitzel will bark hysterically as you approach. This is Three Roods Farm.

The 23-acre permaculture farm is owned by Robin Mallor, age 56, and her husband, Greg Kruszewski, 57, who sell the fruits and vegetables of their labor according to a 22-year-old economic model called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA): locals, also known as subscribers, buy shares in the farm and are thus entitled to a portion of the produce harvested each week. When Greg and Robin are not helping to "restore the earth to health," as Greg told me over breakfast, they work, respectively, as a homeopathic consultant and a nurse and teacher of Integral Yoga and the Dances of Universal Peace.

Greg and Robin named Three Roods Farm after a well-known homeopathic doctor in the area (Dr. Marion Rood) and in honor of their three daughters. Greg had also discovered that a rood is a quarter of an acre and, as it happens, three-quarters of an acre is the parcel of land he initially dedicated to the vegetable garden, so it’s all very om.

Let me confess. My first day, I did not think I would make it. Do you know how arduous it is to be a farmer?Even a fake farmer?Even a fake farmer on a farm where the real work does not start until around nine in the morning because Robin and Greg have non-farm jobs two or three days a week that keep them on a late schedule?Collecting eggs wasn’t so bad, though sticking one’s hand underneath the bottom of a hen is a bit icky. And yanking thistles out of the daikon radish bed would have verged on gratifying had I not been haunted by the anecdote I’d heard over coffee about the apprentice who accidentally plucked a rosebush from the garden on his first day. Shoveling compost, however, was relentless, and hauling gallons of water to the outer pasture for the sheep was sudorific and backbreaking. Actually, it was not so much the first day that almost broke me as the first night. My quarters were in the barn, where I slept on a futon, just feet from the indoor chickens and sheep. The livestock and I were not alone, for there were also bats and bugs. There was a bathroom, if you can call a room with a non-flushing compost toilet and no running water a bathroom. And oh. The barn did not smell like the Van Cleef and Arpels perfume I like to wear. On a positive note, I have a newfound respect for Joseph and Mary.

And then things took a more felicitous turn. Greg roasted a duck from their stock that had been in the freezer for a few months. We had just-picked beans, cilantro, eggs, and berries. All delicious. We spent a lazy day at the Lavender Festival, a sweet country fair attended by around 200 people on a field surrounded by—what else?—farms. Here all things lavender (soap, sachets, shortbread, aromatherapy reflexology kits, diaper bags) could be acquired and two cute alpacas could be petted. The following day, the CSA subscribers came to the farm at 9 a.m. to help harvest and collect that week’s yield, which included garlic, kale, romaine, radish, sorrel, pattypan squash, and yarrow. It was in the late morning that I almost accidentally killed the subscribers. I’d been asked by Greg to escort the group a mile or so down a path to pick sour cherries. We had nibbled on more than a few berries when Dear, the militant vegan neighbor who had joined us on our expedition, dramatically spit out a mouthful of the fruit. "Don’t anyone eat these," she yelled. "They’re poison! This is the wrong tree!" As it turned out, she was wrong but until that was confirmed later by Greg, a fright came over Three Roods Farm.

How much I don’t trust dramatic vegans was not all that I had learned in my five days on the farm. I learned that kale grown in hot weather is more bitter than fall kale, that spreading a tarp over land kills the weeds, that chickens are really, really, really stupid, that small-scale organic farming is a very fulfilling way of life for some but not for me, and that after five days of physical labor, it would have been nice to sign up for wwoaos—a.k.a. World Wide Opportunities at Opulent Spas. For more on Three Roods Farm and other apprentice opportunities, go to wwoof.org.

Patricia Marx lives on artificial sweetener.