Farmhand for a week: volunteering on a small, family-run farm in northeast Switzerland, writer Alorie Gilbert comes to appreciate the struggles and rewards of a way of life that is slowly disappearing.

AuteurGilbert, Alorie

Along the shores of Lake Constance, near the charming Swiss village of Arbon, kilometres of orchards and pastureland seem to stretch without interruption toward the distant Alpsteins, or pre-Alps, to the south. Trees laden with fruit lean heavily on wooden poles. Tractors buzz in the distance as farmers haul trailers of apples to cider factories.

This region is the apple growing capital of Switzerland. It supplies the country with the bulk of the apple juice--or 'Sussmost'--that it consumes. The landscape, while lacking the spectacle of the Alps, offers a softer, lush beauty.

But I've come to do more than admire the scenery. This week, during the 2006 apple harvest, I have volunteered to help a farmer by the name of Helmut * with his orchard and dairy farm, placed by the non-profit World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), which provides thousands of volunteers to organic farms year-round.

Helmut is one of about 45 Swiss farmers participating in the WWOOF programme.

I will spend about a week milking cows, picking apples, piling grass for feed and talking with his family.

My hope is to enjoy the outdoors, stretch myself and experience something new. And I do. But I come away with something more: a deep respect for the life of an organic farmer and his devotion to the land.

A day in the life

I arrive at the train station in Romanshorn on a misty Monday morning. I soon spot Hehnut. He looks to be in his late 40s with intelligent, golden-brown eyes and wild, greying hair that's disappearing on top. He offers me a warm smile and a handshake.

In the car, Helmut tells me (in fluent English) about his unique orchard. On 12 hectares of land he grows an astounding 250 varieties of organic apples, pears, plums and cherries. He also has 17 dairy cows and a couple of floppy-eared goats. He runs the farm. which has been in his family for four generations, with the help of his aging parents--both in their 80s--and two teenage sons.

Although there's much about Helmut and his farm that's unconventional, this aspect is quite traditional: the farm depends on three generations working the land side-by-side.

For the next four days. I will join Helmut. his 82-year-old father and his 16-year-old son Louis in the orchards, collecting apples and pears. Fridays are devoted to making cider.

Cider rules

After lunch and a tour of the farm. we all report for apple duty. Helmut and Louis take turns operating a sort of a motorised apple-sweeper. It scoops fruit...

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