The author with freshly pulled carrots(Nate Olive)
The one-lane road leading up to St. Croix's Creque Dam Farm (pronounced like "creaky dam") follows a dozen hairpin turns on its way from the coast up to the slopes of the western rain forest. It's rough going—the street is rutted with potholes, and vines graze my windshield. Like a reward for perseverance, a sweeping view of the property's 100 wild acres, backlit with a Caribbean sunset, spreads out in front of me as I drive through the farm's gate.
If getting to the farm is challenging, what I'm about to embark on is even more so: a vacation in the guise of good old-fashioned down-in-the-dirt work. Growing up in Oklahoma, I got my first taste of farming on annual visits to my great-grandmother's backyard orchard. At harvest time, we'd spend long days picking peaches from the trees, collecting them in juice-stained paper sacks. While I now spend my days typing, I'm eager to tap back into that kind of hands-on self-sufficiency.
That's where the Virgin Islands Sustainable Farm Institute comes in. The 7-year-old operation is based at Creque Dam Farm and invites folks like me to see for themselves how an organic farm operates—and even pitch in, if the mood strikes. I've signed up for a two-day stay, with the intention of participating in all manner of farm activities, a vague but persistent impulse I've harbored since the day I discovered World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) 10 years ago. Through WWOOF, students, travelers, and frustrated desk jockeys can locate farms for short-term work-stay projects of varying intensity. A decade back, the organization contained mostly European listings. In recent years, however, as Americans' fascination with local foods has grown, WWOOF's domestic listings have also increased. It now showcases more than 1,100 farms in 50 states, where travelers can try their hand at shearing sheep, making cheese, and even beekeeping. WWOOF's mission seems all the more relevant at a time when devotees of Facebook's FarmVille app outnumber actual family-run farms.
I'm ready to do real work, sure, but I want to do so in a relatively pleasant setting. Creque Dam, with its lush landscape, hilltop views of the Caribbean Sea, and range of accommodations (simple wooden cabanas, a yurt, and even a tree house) fits the bill. The farm's 15 gardens and its orchards of banana and mango provide the yield for an island Community Supported Agriculture program. Workers post online updates about ripe produce, and food isn't harvested until someone places an order. In the height of winter, dozens of people filter through for various workshops; day, weekend, and weeklong sessions cover everything from bush skills to holistic health. When I arrive in September, though, I'm the only overnight guest. The 10 residents (volunteers, interns, and program managers) seem happy—if a little surprised—to find me wandering the grounds.
Embarrassingly, I'm late to work on my first morning. Each day begins with an old-school wake-up call: three blows of a conch shell signaling the start of breakfast. By the time I rouse myself, my instructors, Patrick Boulger, a soft-spoken Californian acting as the farm's energy resources manager, and Alex Seiz, an even softer-spoken New Jersey native, have already headed to the garden. A solar-powered, open-air community center serves as the farm's dining hall, meeting room, and Internet café. Patrick has left a bowl of homemade grits in the fridge for me, which I supplement with coffee and guava juice cut with water. The program coordinator, Rebecca Sornson, asks how I slept and tries to assuage my fears about the many bugs I've already seen: "It took me about 10 days to stop thinking about bugs 24 hours a day," she confesses. "But after a month, I stopped entirely." Considering I'm here for only two days, her reassurance isn't that effective.
Over the next couple of days, I pull weeds, shovel compost, aerate soil, and take water breaks in the shade with the farmers (my favorite part). I learn how to substitute holy basil leaves and neem twigs for a toothbrush, and I pick up surprising facts: A banana tree fruits only once in its lifetime; ant swarms inching up your leg will jump ship if you keep moving.
But it isn't until carrot-harvesting time that I feel as if I'm really, you know, farming. Crouching in the garden, I pat around in the soil for the largest specimens, ones that might be crowding out runts that need room to grow. As I poke my fingers in the earth, searching for promising candidates, I realize that what I've imagined as "the soil" is actually a squirming, 50/50 mixture of dirt and tiny black bugs. Exercising mind over matter, I dig in my knees to get better leverage and go for it. Oblivious to my internal struggle and triumph, Patrick suggests I use the vegetables I've just pulled to make a shredded-carrot dish for the next evening's potluck dinner. "Everyone will be really impressed if you prepare something that you harvested," he explains. I stare back. "Or you can just bring rum."
I choose rum. On my last evening at the farm, Creque Dam is holding one of its monthly Community Dinners, meals that are open to anyone who shows up, dish in hand. About 40 people trickle in—an all-ages mix of Cruzan natives, American expats, tourists, and volunteers—and lay down their contributions: curried chickpeas, pickled okra, homemade bread, beans with smoked Alaska king salmon, tostones, wheat-free coconut cookies, and "bush wine," a fermented drink made from apples, berries, and some root vegetables. My nearest tablemates—an art teacher at an island elementary school and a fund-raiser for a local nonprofit organization—share tips for what to do with my free time the next day (hit wide, white-sand Dorsch Beach, on the island's southwest edge, or Cane Bay Beach, on the north shore). The teacher even gives me her phone number, suggesting that the best way to see the island is with a guide who drives you around while you stare out the window (also useful if you aren't used to driving on the left).
After dinner, I take on my final farm challenge: finding my way back to the cabana in complete darkness. I'm unused to relying on stars instead of streetlights, but my eyes ultimately adjust, and I locate the trail. Once inside, I tuck my work-weary bones under the bed's thin blanket and wind down to the xylophone-like sounds of tree frogs. I drift off with a smile—especially because I know that the next morning, I'll be sleeping through those conch blasts entirely guilt-free.
visfi.org, double-occupancy cabana farmstay $85, single bunk in a shared cabana $35, breakfast $10, weekend workshops from $45.