I pull into a dirt driveway that leads to a small, old barn. I’m not sure what I’m getting myself into.
Farm work sounded nice when I signed up, but now I’m second-guessing my decision. Why did I wake up early to do physical labor, and why did I volunteer? What’s in it for me?
I step out of my car and let my eyes adjust to the sunny, pastoral landscape speckled with shade from pine trees. Farm manager Andrea Heim is planting baby flowers in the field with an intern and two regular volunteers. There is a man tangled up in some brush off to the right. Though I’m a stranger to the picturesque little farm, no one bats an eye as I meander over — visitors are not unusual here — and before Andrea and I have a chance to meet, I’m intercepted by two of the farms friendliest members. “We try to keep the dogs away from volunteers because they usually smell like zombies,” Andrea laughs. She means the dogs — not the visitors. “They like to roll in dead things.”
A trip to Spice Acres is worth it for the scenery alone. Andrea takes me past a greenhouse and a high tunnel where plants have been prepared for a plant sale. Behind them is another field, next to a tiny orchard — just a couple of fruit trees in a 25-by-15-foot space. “It’s still in the experimental phases,” Andrea tells me. We pass a couple beehives tended by a man who sells the honey back to the farm. Then we make our way to a little nook, shaded by wild vines, where a terraced mushroom village has begun to colonize. A weekly volunteer heads the mushroom project, I learn. I remark to Andrea that the terraces look like a little fairy colony. “We hang lights all through this area and set up a bar here for our Plated Landscape events. It’s ridiculously pretty,” Andrea smiles. Enclosed by tall pine trees and fresh air, the farm is ridiculously pretty as it is.
The National Park Service’s Countryside Initiative, of which Spice Acres is a part, allows farmers to lease farmland in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, so when you visit Spice Acres you are also visiting the National Park. Farmers who apply face a competitive application process and, once approved, must abide by strict guidelines for sustainable farm management. The program started in 1999 as an effort to rehabilitate approximately 20 picturesque old farms that operated in the valley from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century. “It is actually pretty unique in the United States,” explains intern Chris as I join him planting flowers. “More states should have programs like it. Otherwise the land just sits there. When people are using the land, they take care of it.”
After finishing with the flowers, Andrea gives me the sexy task of untangling hundreds of feet of hoses. The labels had worn off, so we need to measure each one to determine in which field it belongs. “Volunteers help us do whatever needs to be done. It’s not always super fun,” she notes apologetically. But lugging those heavy hoses around in the sunshine was way better than going to the gym, in my eyes, or even doing what I normally would have been doing on a morning like this: sleeping.
Volunteers are more than just welcome at Spice Acres, they are crucial to its operation. “The farm is basically run on volunteers,” Andrea tells me. As a farm novice, I am curious whether most volunteers had prior farm experience. “Most of them are interested in gardening, but don’t have farm experience. No experience is required — or even recommended. Volunteers get tons of guidance from farm staff,” Andrea explained. “It’s interesting for gardeners to get involved with farming,” she went on, “they’re not necessarily used to the efficiency and productivity of a farm. We just drop the plants in the ground and move on. It doesn’t require the same finesse as gardening.” Because they are a for-profit company, the folks who come help out on the farm are not technically volunteers but farm club members: They exchange some of their time for hands-on farming experiences, fresh air, and increased knowledge of local food systems. Since the operation is relatively small, volunteer work is flexible. Most work a morning shift from 7 or 8 to lunchtime; some eat lunch there and stay all day. Andrea prefers that volunteers come at a regular time each month or week so they are easier to keep track of, but if you want to just go once that is fine, too.
Now that I’m a veteran volunteer, I have a couple recommendations for anyone visiting for their first time:
- Pet the hogs, especially Curletta, a curly haired breed, apparently superior in terms of meat production, and also in terms of cuteness. They are surprisingly dog-like with their tail wagging shenanigans.
- Bring a water bottle. The water on the farm is not for humans, so be sure to bring enough hydration to make it through the day.
- Hang out with Andrea. This is probably inevitable, but if you haven’t realized it already, she is super cool.
- Go volunteer! As it turns out, the idea of volunteering on a farm can be just as nice as actually doing it.