Aug262011
Missoula, MT: A Hands-On Rustic Getaway With a Delicious Payoff

Interested in learning about organic farming? Then join WWOOF, and be prepared to break a sweat.

Kristen Lee-Charlson and her kids are part of the Heirloom Project, an urban homestead in Missoula, Montana. (Photo: Kristen Lee-Charlson)


Think “farm stay” and you might picture yourself skipping through meadows with lambs or lying in fields of wildflowers counting butterflies. But that’s not the reality for a dedicated bunch of people known as WWOOFers, who put some serious elbow grease into their rustic getaways.

What started as an ad placed in London’s Time Out magazine 40 years ago by Sue Coppard, who was looking for likeminded city dwellers in search of a hands-on countryside experience, WWOOF (originally Working Weekends on Organic Farms but these days World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms or Willing Workers on Organic Farms) has grown into a global phenomenon.

Coppard’s first jaunt involved clearing brambles and unblocking ditches, but today’s WWOOFing trips cover anything from cheesemaking to berry harvesting, with properties ranging from compact urban lots to sprawling isolated farms.

In exchange for free board and lodging, participants work approximately three to six hours a day, five days a week, for two weeks or more (exact details are agreed upon in advance).

In addition to homeschooling two kids (her two stepchildren are also frequent visitors), maintaining a blog (Heirloom Foodie Blog) and running a local real-foods buying club, Lee-Charlson is also in the process of making the property self-sustaining. It’s no wonder that she and her husband, TJ, who also works full time, joined WWOOF after deciding they could use some help.

Among the 1400 member properties in the U.S. is the Heirloom Project. Located in the culturally thriving college town of Missoula, Montana, this urban homestead is home to Kristen Lee-Charlson and her family.

But Lee-Charlson doesn’t see it as a one-way street. As she explains, “We were not only thinking, ‘how do we get things done (day to day),’ but also ‘how do we create a learning environment for a different generation?’”

Roast local pork with winter squash: it’s what’s for dinner (Photo: Kristen Lee-Charlson)

“We’ve only been on our homestead for a year and a half, so we’re learning along the way as well. But we’re not only developing the property, we’re also developing a sense of community in our neighborhood. When the WWOOFers come I think, ‘Who in my circle can they be exposed to for other skills that I don’t possess?’ I want them to be able to take part in the opportunities to be educated. I don’t expect them to be standing in the sun all day.”

So what does she expect?

“We really are super chilled and flexible. But we also require a certain work ethic. Some WWOOFers get up at six in the morning and do a couple of hours’ work and then take some time off later. Or we might do some things after dinner instead of working in the heat of the day.”

And while some WWOOF properties expect participants to buy and/or prepare their own food, those at the Heirloom Project are luckier. Not surprisingly, given Lee-Charlson’s foodie credentials, she places a big emphasis on eating well. “We’re still waiting for some of our own stuff to grow, but in the meantime we source all kinds of farm-fresh ingredients—pastured meat, dairy, vegetables…We have our own chickens, so there are always plenty of eggs. There’s an abundance of food. It’s something I take pride in. Nearly everything we have available is made from scratch—there’s very little packaged or processed.

Eggs a-plenty (Photo: Kristen Lee-Charlson)

Says Lee-Charlson, “The WWOOFers who just left turned to my kids and said, ‘Do you realize what you have here—do you get how lucky you are?’”

And what did the kids reply? “They’re so used to eating like this. This is normal for them.”

While the main objective of WWOOFing is to get your hands dirty, not every moment is spent working. WWOOFer and recent Heirloom Project visitor Brittany Allison, Heirloom Project owner Kristen Lee-Charlson, and Missoula resident and International Wildlife Film Festival and Montana CINE International Film Festival Executive Director Janet Rose give their recommendations on where to eat, drink and hike locally:

Brittany Allison

1. Good Food Store: Missoula’s own Whole Foods-style market, selling cheese, meat, produce, bread, toiletries, prepared meals—you name it. It’s all organic or natural. 1600 S. 3rd St. W., (406) 541-3663,www.goodfoodstore.com

2. Bernice’s Bakery: Everything is made in-house at this passionately run spot. The cakes and muffins are ridiculously good, but the savory stuff is equally hard to pass up! 190 S. 3rd St. W., (406) 728-1358,www.bernicesbakerymt.com

3. Break Espresso: If you need a pick-me-up, this laid-back café-bakery does strong coffee. There’s also WiFi if you want to connect with your folks back home. 432 N. Higgins Ave., (406) 728-7300

Kristen Lee-Charlson

1. Biga Pizza: Seriously one of the best pizza places ever. It’s run by Bob Marshall, who makes everything himself, from Flathead cherry chutney to sausages to the pizzas. 241 W. Main St., (406) 728-2579,http://bigapizza.com

2. Bayern Brewing: This eco-friendly brewery makes the best hand-crafted true Belgian-style beer around. It gets its water directly from the Missoula aquifer, rather than the chlorine-laden city water. 1507 Montana St., (406) 721-1482, www.bayernbrewery.com

3. Ten Spoon Vineyard & Winery: Our only organic local winery. It grows and uses some of its own grapes as well as organic Flathead cherries. 4175 Rattlesnake Dr., (406) 549-8703, www.tenspoon.com

Janet Rose

1. Roxy Theater: Originally built in 1936, this is one of the oldest historic theaters in Montana. It screens great films on major cultural, social and wildlife issues. 718 S. Higgins Ave., (406) 728-9380

2. Hiking the ‘M’: Ending at the big white ‘M’ on Mount Sentinel—the ‘M’ is in honor of the University of Montana—this is of the best hiking trails in Missoula, if not the state, if not the world! The view of the city is spectacular. Start: Campus Dr. (behind Washington-Grizzly Stadium)

3. Pearl Café: Locally grown food, prepared from scratch. It’s woodsy, with a warm and intimate atmosphere, elegant yet casual, and owned by a wonderful woman, Pearl. 231 E. Front St., (406) 541-0231,http://pearlcafe.us

At a Glance Information

WWOOF

There are many separate WWOOF groups operating in different countries. Annual membership fees range from around $20 to $50. WWOOF USA has around 12,000 members; to join, go towww.wwoofusa.org.

THE HEIRLOOM PROJECT

Some spots are still available during fall/winter. Contact Project Heirloomfor details.

MISSOULA

—Location: western Montana

—Population (2010): 66,788

—Tourist information: www.destinationmissoula.org

—Major festivals and events: International Wildlife Film Festival, May, and Montana CINE International Film Festival, October (www.wildlifefilms.org for both), Big Sky Documentary Festival, February (www.bigskyfilmfest.org), First Friday Gallery Night (www.firstfridaysmissoula.blogspot.com)


Back To News Archive