I Spent a Month on an Olive Farm in Greece and Failed Miserably

published Jul 28, 2016
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(Image credit: Ariel Knutson)

I am a self-described wimp with a capital “W.” Sure, my relatives in Minnesota are farmers, and the Montessori school that I attended until high school required all the kids to help out on the school’s farm every couple months, but these things didn’t instill in me any kind of physical skill required to be actually helpful. I am definitely more of the reading type — or “decoration,” as my brothers liked to tease me.

At the same time, I enjoy seeking out uncomfortable situations. As weird as it sounds, I like being scared. That’s why, when I graduated college six years ago, I decided to go WWOOFing.

WWOOF, which stands for “World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farming,” is an organization that pairs organic farmers all over the world with volunteers. The volunteers are responsible for their plane ticket, but room and board is covered.

For someone who has lived in some city or another my entire life, WWOOFing seemed like the perfect fit for an uncomfortable experience: It was cheap, outside my comfort zone, and involved travel. So, I bought a one-way ticket to Greece.

(Image credit: Ariel Knutson)

My host family — dad, mom, and two daughters — lived in a small town in Crete called Kabanos. They had a small house overlooking the town, complete with an orange tree and vegetable garden. A mile or so away, they also had a separate plot of land with a modest vineyard and a grove of olive trees.

They made their own wine, which they gave to friends, and turned their olives into olive oil and bars of soap. Their main business was pottery, mostly handmade ocarinas that they sold at art shows around Greece and the rest of Europe.

When I reached out to them from the WWOOF website, the family was looking for someone to help them around the farm, especially with the olive trees, and maybe in their pottery studio. The mother was pregnant and not able to do some of the heavy lifting that was necessary around the home. I would be their first-ever WWOOFer.

Was helping out with “heavy lifting” something I had ever been capable of? Um, no. Was it lying if I said I was totally capable? Maybe. But I had working legs and arms and I was healthy, so I had that going for me. I was willing to try and be helpful and I thought that would be enough. Maybe I was capable after all.

(Image credit: Ariel Knutson)

After briefly settling into my host family’s home, still consumed by jet lag, they brought me out to the olive tree grove for my first volunteer assignment. My job was to help pick the more mature olives that the family used to make for soap.

They had big plans for me to help out every day in this matter. I remember the father being particularly excited for the extra hands saying “I can’t wait to see what you can do!”

I remember nervously thinking: Yeah, me too.

The whole family went out to the olive tree grove that day. The work, it turned out, was nothing complicated: We were to bundle the nets that were on the ground to collect the olives that had fallen from the trees. I wore my hiking boots and special gloves I had purchased before my trip; the daughters — one was 8 and the other was 12 — wore sneakers and nothing on their hands.

I was careful in the ways I chose the olives that were good for soap. Not too wrinkly, not too young — they had to be just right, like the father had explained. But perhaps I was too careful, as it quickly became obvious that I was working much slower than the rest of the family in gathering the olives.

At one point, the father came over to me and tried to explain a faster way to grab the olives off the ground. I could tell he was getting frustrated, so I picked up the pace and started to really hustle. But even with my doubled efforts, I was only able to collect about as many olives as the two young daughters combined — probably less.

At some point, the mother came over to me and suggested we go back to the house to make lunch. “The rest can stay out here,” she said, softly smiling. I felt humiliated — and terrified. I couldn’t even pick up something on the ground fast enough, so how was I going to help out with other, more strenuous things the rest of the month? What had I been thinking?

I hid my personal shame in prepping big Greek salads (oh, that feta!) and by sopping up glugs of fresh olive oil with bread from the grocery store.

(Image credit: Ariel Knutson)

As it turns out, I was only asked to go out to the olive tree grove once more. Another day, I helped pick up discarded twigs once at the vineyard. But most of the time, I weeded the garden for hours (and hours), helped prep lunch and dinner every day for the family, entertained the two daughters and took the dogs on long walks. On rainy days, I would find some kind of project to do, like washing the walls of the kitchen without being asked, or organizing something in the pottery studio. I even helped the mother set up the family’s pottery business on social media.

While I was keenly aware of the disappointment in my skill and that the original purpose of my being there had essentially been dropped, I was still able to find other ways of giving back to this family. They, in turn, were good enough not to mention my failure. And I think they actually appreciated my efforts: They continued to host other WWOOFers as a result of their first experience.

(Image credit: Ariel Knutson)

As for me, I discovered that, while I obviously wasn’t suited to farming, I could be helpful in other ways. I was resilient and resourceful and yes, capable — maybe not at picking olives, but of figuring things out when life is scary and uncomfortable.