Dominio Vale do Mondego is an olive farm in rural Portugal, run by a Dutch couple. They offer places to volunteers through the WWOOFing scheme, and I spent a month there in 2009, helping to bring in the olive harvest.
Since 1971, the WWOOF (Willing workers on organic farms or Worldwide opportunities on organic farms) program has provided keen and interested paticipants with placements on a variety of organic establishments. The usual arrangment is relatively informal, with WWOOFers providing a free and willing workforce to assist on organic farms, which often have to cope with periods of labour-intensive activity, arising from the organic farming proccess. In exchange, WWOOFers can expect food, accommodation and an opportunity to learn about organic farming. Depending on the participant’s interest, there are opportunities to work with fruit, vegetables, herbs, horses, sheep, cows and virtually any other form of agriculture that can be deemed organic.
In addition to the practical aspects of farming, WWOOFers can choose from farms that employ a variety of spiritual and ecological ethos’, which may or many not be marginal to the stated WWOOFing objective. Some hosts provide an opportunity to work on a remote small-holding with a minimised environmental footprint, while other farms may have a spiritual focus, incorporating religious practices such as prayer or meditation into the daily routine.
Dominio Vale do Mondego is a commerical farm and ecotourism resort situated on the edge of the picturesque and mountainous Serra da Estrela national park in Portugal. Karin and Eelco are the extremely hard-working and hospitable owners, and they live on the farm with their three children, Armida, Deirdre and Storm. The main crop is olives, which are used to make extra-virgin organic olive oil (The oil has an acidity of less than 0.08% and no chemicals are used in the extraction proccess). There is also a flock of ‘Bordaleira’ sheep, whose milk can be turned into Queijo Serra da Estrela (the local cheese).
The normal working day at Dominio Vale do Mondego starts at 8am and finishes at 5pm, 5 days a week, although the sheep require tending 7 days a week. Officially, WWOOFers are expected to work at least 30 hrs per week, although the volume and intensity of work is more commonly dicatated by the season and the weather, and to some extent, the personalities involved. During the month I spent working on the farm, an easy day would involve a mornings shepherding in the sun, followed by a leisurely lunch and a few hours of light gardening in the afternoon. A hard day would be 8 solid hours of hard labour in the drizzle with a snatched lunch eaten huddled by the fire. Either way, the odd glass of vinho or shot of the everpresent Jeropiga (a mix of red wine and moonshine) would help the day fly by. Free time was often spent watching films, foraging for wild mushrooms or, time permitting, riding the family horses in the nearby mountains.
Overall, based on my limited experience, I would thoroughly reccommend WWOOFing to anyone interested in organic or agrarian lifestyles, or an energetic youngster that may be time-rich and cash-poor. From an ecological persepctive, the net environmental benefit of affluent westerners flying abroad to farm energy-intensive, high-margin organic produce may be questionable. However, after a stint WOOFing at Dominio Vale do Mondego, you’ll be in a better position to come to an informed decision.
The flock grazing in the orchard
Olive trees in the mist