Perhaps it was that we arrived at just the right time- past the driest heat of summer, in the full swing of harvest and production. It also could be that we had some rough WWOOFing wake-up calls just prior to our arrival - realizing, at Sunny Meadows and Mold House Farm, that we could take for granted neither our hosts' passion for agriculture nor their commitment to the WWOOFing ethos of education, exchange, and integration. Or it could simply be that we were back in France, and happily fattened on the realities of French pâtisserie and encore du vin.
Whatever the reason, we quickly realized that Ferme de Truttenhausen was and would remain unique among our WWOOFing placements. Here was a place where we felt fully integrated and graciously welcomed by our hosts, and perhaps more importantly, a place where we were introduced to an inspiring form of agriculture, and by extension, a way of living. The single most basic goal of this 9-month journey was finally realized on this small farm on the eastern edge of France.
We spent five weeks at Ferme de Truttenhausen, a biodynamic vegetable and dairy farm located in the wine growing region of Alsace. It was immediately apparent that this was a hard-working, well-organized farm. Over the course of our stay we were able to fully appreciate the respect and recognition that this farm has earned among its neighbors, its dedicated clientele, and the biodynamic community as a whole. The workload was rigorous but managed in a stress-free, fully dedicated manner: four days a week, we WWOOFers started work at 700, broke for lunch at 1230, and then worked from 1430 to 1900. A chore wheel added a few hours here and there for shared tasks such as feeding the pigs, cleaning the WWOOFer housing, washing the lunch dishes, etc. Full-time farm staff worked a similar schedule, with one additional morning shift a week and occasional evening or weekend shifts for markets and deliveries.
Communal lunches were one of the highlights of the work day. Expertly prepared by a full-time staff member, Nacima, the lunches featured a full array of the farm's produce in the bounty of harvest season: vegetables, fruits, bread, butter, cheese, yoghurt, nuts, pork, veal, chicken, as well as preserved foods such as pestos, tapenades, jams, etc. With a two-hour break, the three-course lunch was typically followed by a nap - a French custom to which we are both now enthusiastically, fully accustomed.
Truttenhausen has two distinct operations that are jointly managed by it's owners. The Élevage, livestock and diary operation, is managed by the founder Antoine Fernex, and the Maraichage, vegetable farm, is managed by his partner Pierre-Henri. The full-time staff are trained in and specialize in one of these two branches of the farm. WWOOFers, typically, split their volunteer time equally between these two halves of the operation to better understand how they function independently and, perhaps more importantly, how they support each other. In addition to WWOOFers and paid staff, Truttenhausen also accepts young students from Waldorf high schools, as well as college-age interns from biodynamic and organic agriculture programs. The Waldorf students typically stay at the farm for 4 weeks, and the interns work 4-7 months. At a weekly Monday morning meeting, all the staff, students, and volunteers gather for a review of the achievements of the preceding week and the goals for the following week.
Late summer harvest was in full swing when we arrived, and thus we were asked if we would be willing to spend the majority of our time on the Maraichage team, with one day a week spent with the livestock and diary. We were happy for this opportunity to learn both aspects of the operation.
In this busy time of year the sheer volume of the harvests were impressive. Here, Heide sips coffee in the cool barn attic to help with the motivation to dig into this mountain of onions that needs to be cleaned.
However, no one was alone in their work. Here a team cleans and prepares garlic for seed at our communal dining table. We often worked in teams of 6 or more, giving us plenty of time to practice our French. Many at Truttenhausen were bilingual - all the staff and interns spoke French and a bit of German, all the Waldorf students German and a tiny bit of French, and the majority of people at the farm had some level of English.
Truttenhausen has several markets for its produce including four weekly farmers' markets in nearby Strasbourg and Barr, a weekly farm stand when clients are able to visit the farm, and nearly one hundred AMAP clients (Maintien de l'Agriculture Paysanne: similar to what in the USA is called CSA or Community Supported Agriculture). In order to stretch the season, many fruits and vegetables are processed (called transformation) so that they can be offered to clients during the shoulder seasons together with the farm's bread and dairy products.
During our stay, we were involved in a number of transformation projects: cleaning onions for onion tapenade; chopping tomatoes for green tomato jam; cleaning vegetables for ratatouille; salvaging bruised tomatoes for tomato sauce; collecting windfall apples and pears for juice. Through this active, organized processing of produce during peak harvest time, Truttenhausen produces very little vegetal waste. Any remaining edible product is fed to the pigs, calves, and chickens, while dry waste (onion skins, stems) is added to the compost.
A major transformation project that we participated in beginning to end was the annual sauerkraut production. Sauerkraut, in French choucroute, is a very popular regional dish of Alsace; neighboring town Krautergersheim holds the title "Capitale de la Choucroute" and one can see vast fields of green cabbage dotted between the vineyards.
Working as a team we made quick work of harvesting a field of green cabbage. The following day we brought our harvest to a local production facility where the cabbage was cored, shredded, and packed in salt.
Our group was a bit surprised at the state of the cabbage production facility. A cavernous barn housed a rickety assortment of ladders and scaffolding that precariously linked together conveyor belts, rotating blades, and sputtering motors, all of it dripping with shredded cabbage in varying states of decay. Scattered throughout the facility were enormous wooden casks outfitted with pipes and valves to release the gasses of fermenting cabbage.
Patrick was given the job of standing in the container that would hold the fruits of our labor, stamping and salting the shredded cabbage as it fell from the conveyor belt.
Once all our cabbage was processed, our containers were left at the facility to begin a minimum three-month fermentation. Back at the farm, we had the helped with the final step of the process: packaging the choucroute of the preceding year for sale. From the field to the market stand: we were glad to see it all.
As much as we enjoyed working on the harvest teams and in the fields, we were also happy that we were given one day a week in the Élevage, and thus gained a fuller picture of the workings of the farm (and it doesn't hurt that these young Jersey cows are terribly cute).
The farm has approximately 50 Jersey cows, which are milked twice a day, in a year-round rotation. The cows spend their days grazing the fields and those who are with milk are brought back to the milking parlor for the morning and evening milking.
Bringing the cows to and from the farm was a straightforward but enjoyable part of the days we spent working in the Élevage. The walks gave us a chance to enjoy the beauty of our surroundings during dawn and dusk - views of the valley and forested hillsides, glimpses of the neighboring abbey.
Unseasonably warm weather preceded by a rainy summer led to a flush of green grass and unusually high cream and milk yields during our first few weeks at the farm.
Here Kaled shows Patrick the method for attaching the automated milking system. These machines are a bit unwieldy at first, but we soon got the hang of it. It helped immensely that Kaled was an exceptionally patient instructor - despite the fact that his instruction was almost exclusively in French.
Each cow is milked by hand into a testing vessel before the milking apparatus is attached, in order to proof for irregularities. This system seemed to work out well for the barn cats.
Tending and milking the animals took up only a small portion of our time in the Élevage. The majority of our time was spent in the crèmerie or the cave. Truttenhausen produces an array of raw milk cheeses, ranging from soft, young cheeses to hard cheeses aged several months. The farm's other diary products include yoghurts (both natural and flavored with fruits or vanilla), crème fraîche, and butter. The first step in the production of all of the cheeses begins with the raw milk being heated in this copper cauldron.
The soft cheeses are heated to a lower temperature, with a portion of the milk removed from the cauldron early on in the production process to be allowed to sit at room temperature while the cultures are activated.
The hard cheeses are raised to a higher temperature and are processed until the whey is separated from the curds. The whey is removed and piped directly into the pigs' trough, while the curds are packed into weighted molds.
Here Heide has removed one of the hard cheeses, Carré des Vosges, from its mold after it has been allowed to rest under weights for 24 hours at room temperature. The cheese is already relatively firm, and it is trimmed and inscribed with the date before being sent down to the cave to begin its aging and salting process.
Once in the cave, the hard cheeses are placed immediately in a brine bath and covered with additional salt. Depending on the variety and size of the cheese, they remain in this bath for anywhere from a few hours to a day before being removed and placed on wooden planks for the remainder of the aging process.
The temperature in the cave is regulated at 17 degrees Celsius, and the Carré des Vosges, Tomme d'Alsace, and Muenster cheeses are all aged here for 4 to 6 months. Our primary weekly task in the Élevage was turning all the cheeses in the cave and rinsing them with a saltwater solution. The saltier Muenster cheese receives this brine rinse three times a week, while the milder cheeses are washed only once a week.
Washing the cheeses was, to put it kindly, NOT the highlight of our week. It was repetitive, awkward work to lift the heavy planks of cheese, and the brine pickled our fingers and left us stinking of Muenster for the better part of two days. And for some reason, the cheeses never quite tasted the same to us after our hands and arms smelled like them.
Happier work was to be found back up in the crèmerie, in the production of butter.
Here Heide and Cecile, a fellow WWOOFer from Denmark, complete the final stages of butter production after the cream has been heated, churned, and washed. Any remaining water is squeezed out of the butter by hand, and then the butter is packed into a wooden mold before being wrapped for sale. Butter production happened once a week at Truttenhausen, and on those days we were always happy to find fresh, still-warm butter on the lunch table.
The unique role of Truttenhausen within the biodynamic farming community did not become fully apparent to us until the last weekend of our stay. We had a hint of it in the enthusiasm of our fellow volunteers and the farm interns – many expressed surprise that we had not known of Truttenhausen before our arrival, as it is well known within alternative European agricultural circles. Another clue should have been the pile of horns outside our bedroom door.
The horns were stockpiled in the barn loft for an important biannual event known in biodynamics as the “preparations.” Once in the spring and once in the fall the biodynamic farmer engages in the preparation of highly specific and, to an outsider, somewhat mystical soil amendments. The founder of biodynamics, Rudolf Steiner, conveyed the details of these preparations to a group of farmers at the first biodynamic conference, which was held in Germany in 1924 and is generally considered to be the “birth” of biodynamic agriculture. A scientist, clairvoyant, and philosopher, Steiner developed (or divined) the preparations in order to set the biodynamic farm in balance with the cosmos. Steiner was a prolific writer, and there is a wealth of material written by him and his followers – as well as his critics – that can be accessed online and in printed form. Rather than attempt to explain the details of this complex, deeply holistic view of agriculture, we would prefer to simply explain what we witnessed and participated in during the preparations.
First of all, the horns! (It should perhaps be mentioned here that the horns are NOT removed from living cattle. The removal of a cow’s horns is viewed as deeply disrespectful and traumatizing within biodynamic agriculture.) In the fall, these horns are packed with fresh manure and buried for six months. The horns are retrieved in the spring, and the aged manure is then applied thinly to the fields to stimulate humus formation. In total there are nine animal, vegetal, and mineral preparations in biodynamic agriculture; cow horn manure, or 500, is what is known as a field preparation.
There were many guests to the farm on the day of the preparations that enthusiastically helped fill the large volume of horns with manure by hand. We also employed this contraption (Gelato machine? Sausage machine?) to speed the process along.
In addition to 500, there is one additional field preparation, 501, in which horns are packed with silica powder (in far fewer quantities than the manure preparation). These horns are buried in the spring and then retrieved in the fall when the silica is diluted with water and sprayed over the fields to prevent fungal diseases.
Autumn also sees the production of a number of compost preparations, which are not applied directly to fields but are rather used to enhance the properties of the farm's compost. We witnessed several, including (from top left): chamomile blossom sausages; dandelion blooms stuffed into the mesentery of a cow; and crushed oak bark funneled into the skull of a domesticated animal. All of these preparations were buried on the farm's orchards and grazing fields, to be retrieved in the spring.
You might be wondering: what did we make of of all this? How did this day impact our views of the farm, and how much do we now know about biodynamic agriculture? The simple answer is: not much. Biodynamics is still a bit of a mystery, and we both want to do more reading to understand it better. What we know is this: over the 5 weeks of our stay we experienced a smoothly functioning, impressively productive operation that was managed by and employed with some of the most dedicated, optimistic farmers we have met during our entire 9-month journey. That is saying something. The preparations were an extension of what we experienced to be a healthy approach to farming and thus they, perhaps bizarrely, did not feel at all bizarre. We have already recommended Truttenhausen to a few WWOOFers we have met since, and would both be happy to return one day and learn a bit more.
Another aspect of Truttenhausen that makes it so recommendable as a WWOOFing destination is the way we were able to spend our free time. Yes we did work long days, but the pace was relaxed and the setting was stunning. Lunch breaks and before dinner pauses were often filled with engaging conversation or games such as backgammon and table tennis.
Hiking was another option: the farm lies directly on a series of hiking paths that crisscross the region and the Vosges mountains. One could easily trek along wooded paths and country roads through vineyards, to nearby towns, and to historic monuments and ruins.
The onset of fall also allowed hikes to be turned into foraging expeditions. In France there are many nut trees to be found – walnuts, chestnuts, and hazelnuts – along trails and in the public right-of-way.
Alsace is well-known for its white wines, and we were located a short walk through fields and woods to the wine-producing town of Heiligenstein. A wine tasting and grape sampling walk was a nice way to spend an afternoon off.
We also took advantage of Alsace's incredible bicycle infrastructure, where marked cycle lanes and dedicated cycle paths link local villages and provide access to such regional destinations as Strasbourg and the banks of the Rhein river.
One Saturday we cycled the 90 kilometers roundtrip to Strasbourg in order to do a bit of sightseeing and to visit the weekend farmers market in which Truttenhausen takes part.
We also had a chance to visit one of the AMAP drop-off sites in Strasbourg. It is located outside a cafe that is owned by the wife of the vegetable farmer, Pierre-Henri, where AMAP members often round off their evening veggie pick-up with a glass of wine and snacks from the cafe.
We found Strasbourg to be a charming city with, not surprisingly, a very Germanic feel. In Alsace we became accustomed to shopkeepers, campground owners, and waiters greeting our bumbling French with the question: "Anglais? Ou Allemand?" With Heide's German skills, the answer was invariably: "Either." We were surprised at how useful - and sometimes necessary - German language skills were here.
Many of our prior WWOOFing placements were relatively remote, and far from cities as cosmopolitan as Strasbourg. We enjoyed a taste of urban life in the extravagant, baroque architecture of Strasbourg and in small details such as the sight of an urban apiary, browsing an upscale flea market, and gaping at this French-made wooden bicycle parked outside a budget grocery store.
As our time at Truttenhausen comes to an end, the fall weather has begun to settle in and the rhythms of the farm are adapting to the close of the summer season. Though we are both looking forward to our upcoming farm stay in the Pyrenees, the change of the seasons heightens the sense of nostalgia we feel while leaving Alsace.
Thanks to everyone, for everything.