What Millennials and Gen-Z have learned about COVID-19 through volunteer farming
by Hayden Ginder
Harry Koeppel wakes up to the rising sun every morning since he’s been farming in Maine. As he steps down from the elevated platform where his tent sits, there’s only one thing on his mind: breakfast. The former chef walks across the grass toward the outdoor kitchen that the owners of the organic grow-to-donate farm, Veggies to Table, built for hosting WWOOFers during COVID-19.
Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, an organization that links volunteers with organic farmers, has increased their membership by 30% from March 2020 to February 2021. WWOOF’s Outreach and Marketing Manager, Tori Fetrow, attributes this surge in membership to people’s revitalized appreciation for the outdoors after being stuck at home during quarantine. “Just being in nature, breathing fresh air, weeding alongside other people, and having those conversations and sharing life experiences and stories… I think that exchange while you’re doing something that can seem you know, pretty mundane is really special and also something people don’t really expect.” In the case of Koeppel, he wanted to find an activity that could take him outside of himself as he attempted to leave behind the negativity of the past and avoid the uncertainty of the future.
For breakfast, Koeppel picks out a few eggs and some kale. He sits down to eat and enjoy the morning, but time quickly passes and before Koeppel is even fully awake, it’s 8 a.m. and time to pick the sweet potatoes. It’s September which means that it’s harvest season, so the days are long and the labor is grueling, but Koeppel finds comfort in this work. After a failed business venture with a friend and no job offers from restaurants, the 25-year-old has no idea what to expect when he returns to New York City in a few weeks. But the one thing he is certain of is he’s about to spend the whole day snipping leaves off of sweet potato stems, and he’s looking forward to it.
It’s 3:00 a.m. and Hannah Megery is still up with the chicks. The shipment just arrived at Living Circle Farm on Oahu’s North Shore and it’s Megery’s job, along with two other WWOOFers, to take care of them. “I don’t know if you know anything about chicks, but they’re like the most fragile baby animal you could possibly imagine,” Megery says. “Like, they’ll die with a strong gust of cold wind.” As the three volunteers squat inside a yurt and huddle around the warmth of the heat lamp that sits above the chicken coop, Megery reflects on what she hoped to gain from her two weeks on the family farm in Hawaii.
Megery made the decision to take a semester off from college and focus on her mental health, her hobbies, and some bucket-list items. According to Fetrow, Megery is part of the 55–60% of 18–24 year-old WWOOF members who registered within the last year. Many of these new members are students whose campuses were shut down and classes switched from in-person to remote. The studio art major’s dream study abroad program was cancelled, her art lacked inspiration, and without the ability to make any kind of long term plans, Megery felt lost. Luckily, she wasn’t the only one who felt that way.
Earlier that day, Megery woke up in the tent she shared with her sister to a torrential downpour. The Megery sisters fled the storm outside to enter the chaos of the kitchen owned by their hosts, Jenny and Nathan Toler, who were already making breakfast. More volunteers crowded into the kitchen exchanging good mornings and discussed their tasks for the day. As Nathan rattled off a conspiracy theory about mermaids, his youngest son, Duke, begs Megery to play Super Smash Bros with him before work and Megery eagerly obliges. Until the chicks arrive, all she has on the agenda is a lot of weeding and planting, so Super Smash Bros it is.
When the chicks finally arrive around 4 p.m., all nine WWOOFers plus the entire Toler family meet in the pouring rain to unload them from the truck and transfer them to the warmth of the yurt. As 20-year-old Megery, 25-year-old Kara Brechner, and 21-year-old Cullen Wigger, tend to the 160 chicks, they can’t help but select a few favorites. Wigger feels particularly attached to one of the smallest chicks, and he holds him close to his chest the whole night. As Brechner watches Wigger carefully look after the animals, she shares with Megery that at times, she feels like a fragile baby chick. She’s unsure of her path in life and wants to be guided throughout this confusing period of time as the chicks are closely guided through every step of their adolescence.
“I guess we’re all at that age where we don’t really know what we’re doing with our life and especially with COVID, we’re just all kind of lost and not sure what direction we want to go in,” Megery replies. As she watches the chicks snuggled in the sun-like embrace of the heat lamp, Megery’s eyes glaze over, then slowly shut. About 12 hours after the chicks had arrived, Megery falls asleep.
The WWOOFers wake up two hours later to cold winds and darkness where the glow of the heat lamp once lived. The solar power had shut down from the storm, and Megery, Wigger, and Brechner scrambled to turn on the generator as quickly as possible. Regaining power only took a few minutes, but 12 chicks had already died, and dozens more suffered from the harsh change in climate. Megery is crushed. The volunteers had been told by their hosts that losing a few of the delicate creatures was a likely possibility, but they were not prepared to confront the fragility of life when they first signed up to watch the shipment of chicks for a night.
Koeppel decides that sweet potato day sucks. As he cuts what seems like the millionth sweet potato green, Koeppel announces, “This is the worst.”
“What’s so good about sweet potato greens anyways?” Koeppel’s WWOOF partner-in-crime, Maeve Weeder, replies.
Despite the seven year age difference, Weeder and Koeppel have become close during the time they’ve spent together. “He was kind of a mentor, like, I would really just talk to him about any of my problems and whatever,” Weeder explains before adding, “maybe like an older brother.” The pair of WWOOFers cook together, work together, and talk about everything, including how utterly terrible sweet potato day is.
The sun beats down on Koeppel and Weeder as their WWOOF host and Veggies to Table Founder, Erica Berman, walks down from her house to join them. At this point, they’re all exhausted and Berman even jokingly admits that sweet potato day is terrible.
Koeppel and Weeder have spent countless hours with Berman and her husband, Alain Ollier, during their stay at the farm. Whether it’s going to town and meeting for brunch, cooking together, or having long talks by the fire, the Veggies to Table volunteers have experienced a kind of closeness with the people around them that is foreign to many during pandemic times. Even the days with the most taxing labor are fun for Koeppel when he’s surrounded by people like Weeder and Berman.
Once the work day comes to an end a few hours and hundreds of sweet potatoes later, Koeppel sighs and slumps in his chair, looking at the hills rolling away in the distance and the trees that form a frame around the camping platforms and the sunset above. Sweet potato day, while physically exhausting, proved to be meditative, and Koeppel had lots of time to think about what he carried with him prior to his arrival at the farm. Koeppel spent all of 2019 building a mead company with his friend, and in December of that year, the company fizzled out in a matter of weeks and he and his friend parted ways.
“I was probably still dealing with that personally going into the pandemic,” Koeppel says. “I spent all of January and February being like, ‘What do I do now?’” Then the pandemic hit. And Koeppel moved back in with his parents. And months later, he still couldn’t find work, unsure of what to do next. But for now, Koeppel pushes those thoughts aside and focuses on the sunset.
“It was pink, orange — and the color changes over the course of an hour and a half — anything in between blue, orange, pink, and eventually darkness,” Koeppel says. Maybe sweet potato day wasn’t so bad after all.