Up WWOOFin' with the flocks at the crack of dawn

IJUST worked on a small family farm for two weeks. You think your social circle is small? My social circle was five people. I came to know that host family better than I knew some of my college roommates.

I participated in a farm work program via WWOOF-USA, the national organization for World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. A volunteer can use WWOOF to get training, room and board on a farm in exchange for labor. More than 400 farms throughut the U.S. participate, including more than 70 in California, and you can read more at wwoofusa.org.

Some will take you for a day or a week, some for a season or a year and a half. Some are community gardens in towns and cities, some isolated miles from civilization. I stayed at a 153-acre certified organic farm in New Jersey that runs mostly as a Community Supported Agriculture subscription service, and worked with fruit, vegetables, flowers and livestock.

I ate my meals with the family, as did the other worker who lived here. Oh, those meals. I never really understood kale until I ate garlic and lightly sauteed kale that we'd only harvested a day before. And that parsley. One day, the farmer firmly explained to me how I'd been cutting oregano wrong. To take the edge off, "I'll give you a treat," he said, and cut a stalk of parsley from the same herb patch.

"Eat that. From the stem end," he added when I was about to taste a leaf.

I obeyed, assuming I'd get a mouthful of watery fiber. But it tasted refreshingly sweet. "What kind is this?"

"Just plain Italian flat-leaf parsley."

"No, I mean, what variety is this that it tastes so good?"

"It's that good because it doesn't know it's in your stomach yet!" he replied with a gleeful twinkle in his eye.

As we all conversed over stir-fry, salad and endless delicious peaches, I mentioned my daily discoveries. A few you might enjoy:

Geese are silly. Pigs eat like pigs. There's no other way to put it. By the way, you'll get a "no" if you ask that farmer, "Do you have any pets?"

No, all the animals worked for their room and board, just like me.

Even though 141/2 hours separate sunup and sundown in late July, not all daytime is sunny. The rain falls on the just and unjust alike! So, you really do need to make hay (or weed, or mulch, or harvest) while the sun shines.

Weeding goes faster if you have a companion. I have at times had literally a long row to hoe, or been literally in the weeds. Chatting with another worker or singing snatches of show tunes or union songs helps the time pass.

Whether weeding or harvesting, gloves only help if you're touching barbs and nettles.

Otherwise they get in the way of feeling down the stems, past the leaves and down to the roots in the soil. It's like tracing the path of a cable in the rat's nest behind the TV.

And when you pull, if you entirely uproot the plant, you can feel it before you see it.

The distinctive rrrrrrrip of removing a plant by its roots feels the same whether it's a half-inch of purslane or a 4-foot stalk of stinging nettle.

The workers traded good stretches. I know lots of leg stretches, but not enough for my torso. I took to rotating my neck and lolling my head around, which makes my head feel like the stem of a weed that needs pulling — I'm wiggling the stem to feel which way the root goes.

When the part-time workers left, it was just the family and the live-ins, and the clucking and oinking of the herds and flocks. I played several rounds of Once Upon a Time (a storytelling card game) with the family's 13-year-old daughter. The farmer's wife took her son and me across the state line to the nearest town so we could pick up "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" when it got released at midnight.

Most evenings I fell asleep like the dead around 9 or 10, and woke around 5:30. But when we came back from grabbing the last Potter book, it was around 1 a.m. and I left the car and stopped in my tracks.

No skyline, no telephone wires, no mountains or light pollution for miles. The sky had infinite stars, everywhere in the bowl of blue-black extending to every horizon. I wanted to drink it. What else have I been missing?

Sumana Harihareswara writes for Bay Area Living each week. You can write to her at sumana@crummy.com.