An Artist's Harvest

By Patterson Clark
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 18, 2001

Near the secluded Mondego River valley of northern Portugal, ancient terraces of vineyards, vegetables, and fruit and nut trees support a small community of organic farmers and their animals.

My wife, Lenore, and I have come to live and work with them for a week. We're not farmers, merely urban organic gardeners with a hankering for the feel of big land and agrarian community. Through an organization called Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF), we've signed on as farmhands of sorts. They give us free room and board; we give them six hours of manual labor a day, five days a week.

Lenore and I have long had a vague dream of one day moving to the country to grow our own food. We know farming is hard work.

We are about to discover just how hard.

Three hours from Lisbon, we hop off the night train at tiny Santa Comba Dao, where our host, Toivo, and his 11-year-old son, Tezra, greet us. They drive us to their mountainous farm at the end of a valley. No electricity here; we rely on a late-October gibbous moon to illuminate the path to our candlelit trailer, where we find the bed firm and the blankets thick and warm.

At daybreak, a chilly fog slowly yields to the sun and the landscape unveils itself. Pines and cork oaks cover the wild hillsides that flank the 17-acre farm's terraced vineyards, which are woven through orchards of olive, apple, pear, peach, cherry, quince, chestnut, hazel and persimmon.

Past the farm family's temporary home, on the bed of a big truck, and beyond their house-under-construction, we find the outdoor kitchen tent. Here we meet the residents, five adults and four kids:

• Toivo, Annie and their two youngest children, Tezra and Jade, moved here two years ago from a community farm in Wales. The British expatriates purchased the old farm in hopes of establishing a community of several families. The dream has been slow to develop, so they've opened their farm to WWOOFers, who've helped shoulder the heavy workload.

• Another Brit, Su, and her two young children, Rosie and Jaia, live in a motor home in the valley below. Su is persistent in her efforts to construct an earth oven so she can bake bread for the farm.

• Robert, a soft-spoken first-time WWOOFer from the Netherlands, often makes the three-mile hike uphill to the village for cigarettes and a visit to the cafe. The only one on the farm with a radio, he provides the latest weather reports.

• Ross, a former recycling manager from Roanoke, lives in an old circus wagon down by the quince orchard. He came to Europe last spring for a two-month tour and discovered that he could extend his stay by working on organic farms. His goal: to spend a couple of years farming his way through Europe and Australia.

After breakfast, we lace up our work boots, plunge our hands into thick leather work gloves and traipse down the mountain to help Su dig her earth oven. Excavating with a shovel and pick, we cut a deep groove into a bank of crumbly granite subsoil to bury a metal barrel on its side. The barrel will be suspended over a fire that's vented with a chimney at the back. Until the oven is finished, we'll continue to eat bread from the village bakery.

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