By LORENZO LIGATO
The (Toledo) Blade
Knees firmly bent down, Sean Smith smiled as he started feeding a brood of chickens out of a Coors Light plastic pitcher filled with grain and seeds. Soon, he turned away from the coop and walked over to a nearby garden to pick fresh beans as the afternoon sunlight began to beat down on his back.
A recent college graduate from Georgia, Smith will spend a year harvesting fruit and vegetables, tending to chickens and bees, and pruning apple and plum trees — all of this while living on a farm in the heart of Toledo.
Smith, 24, found his way to Toledo through a global movement known as WWOOFing, or World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.
Born in the United Kingdom in 1971, the idea has evolved over the years into an international network that connects travelers with organic farmers who are willing to offer room and board in exchange for volunteer work on their land.
The advent of the Internet and the boom in social networking helped membership skyrocket. With thousands of farms in more than 50 countries, WWOOF offers penniless college students, adventurous wayfarers and farming enthusiasts an economical gateway to travel around the globe and a chance to learn about organic agriculture.
In the U.S. alone, the movement includes more than 13,500 active members and 1,600 farms spread across the country. Of these, only 20 organic farms are in Ohio, and two are in Toledo.
Crowds of green-minded globetrotters have become regulars on Michael Horst’s farm in West Toledo, the other WWOOF site in that area.
Horst, 23, a Sylvania native, moved to his new home about three years ago. But it wasn’t until this January that he created a profile on the WWOOF website, opening the 2,900-square-foot yard behind his house to farming enthusiasts from all over the world.
Since then, he has encountered dozens of people from all sorts of backgrounds: free-spirited vegans looking for locally produced food, cyclists crisscrossing the country, bands on tour making a stopover, and even a Southern Baptist minister.
For Horst, the diversity of population is one of the many perquisites of being a host, as “every visitor makes his little contribution to the farm.”
Thanks to their help, Horst has learned new gardening practices, such as the Native American tradition of interplanting corn, beans, and squash in the same mounds to enhance the soil’s fertility, and he has been able to expand the crops in his backyard.
For Horst, gardening has been a lifelong pastime: He calls it “a stress-relieving activity” that allows him to take a break from unhealthy “gas-station food” while saving money. Now, through the movement, gardening also can be a gateway to the world.
Nestled within the tree-shaded streets and eclectic mansions of the city’s Old West End is Smith’s home for the next 12 months.
Here, he will be lodging in the residence of Toledo City Councilman Steven Steel and his wife, Catherine Hernandez.
Two lifetime organic farmers, Steel and his wife decided to become hosts in June 2011, to share their knowledge of sustainability and urban agriculture with younger people.
“It’s more than just farming,” Steel said. “It’s about living an intensive, sustainable lifestyle in an urban space.”