I wasn’t surprised I fell in love in Tuscany—many solo travelers do—but, I didn’t think it would be with a flock of sheep. Near the villa where I was spending the week, there was a sheep farm, belonging to two delightful Sardinian brothers, Bernardo and Giovanni. They ran a small dairy operation selling milk to a local cheese maker. As we drove past the farm on the way home from the airport, I asked my hostess if it would be okay if I came back to take a closer look at the animals. She suggested I come back in the morning, when the sheep would be milked, for a very close look.
I arrived promptly at 5:45 a.m., eager to get in on the action. I was welcomed with two very jovial buongiornos and then immediately positioned behind a sturdy, yet frisky sheep. I knew what I was expected to do. With my hands trembling and my internal voice cheering me on, you can do this! I took hold of my first udder. The feeling of its warmth and weight in my hand was thrilling. After that, much like a barn cat on a dairy farm, Bernardo and Giovanni couldn’t get rid of me. As a solo traveler, what I relish most is the freedom I have to fully focus on new people and new experiences; farming turned out to be my travel dream.
From the minute I left Tuscany, I found myself pining for farm life. Unwilling to leave it to chance that I’d once again happen upon a farm, I registered with HelpX, an online data base that pairs farmers with volunteers. After reading through countless profiles, I found my match. Pedruxella Gran, an organic olive farm in the Tramuntana mountains of northern Mallorca, had it all: sheep, olive trees, a mulit-lingual farmer, and a villa I could rent, so I would have private accommodations.
A step beyond the traditional agriturismo experience, where guests are spectators to a farm’s operations, a farm stay is a full-contact sport. Volunteers are, quite literally, on the field playing for the home team. This is perfect for the solo traveller who wants to get into the rhythm of local life, replete with a strong sense of purpose and the blisters to show for it.
A farm stay may not be the easiest of vacations, with its early mornings and physical demands; still there is nowhere I’d rather be. I’m drawn to rural areas, but have struggled to find ways to engage meaningfully with the community. Working on a farm, I can stay comfortably in one place long enough to really get to know it. I’ve found the structure and entrée I’d been yearning for.
Before arriving at Pedruxella, I was nervous about my lack of agricultural experience. Tuscan sheep aside, picking out Brussels Sprouts at the farmers’ market does not a farmer make. But, my concerns were unwarranted. What I needed to know, I learned on the job. During my two-week stay, Tolo, the Mallorcan super-hero of farmers, taught me to drive a tractor, erect fence posts in rocky soil, forage for mushrooms, and tend to the olive trees. As for the sheep, I learned how to carry one so the fifty-pound wooly mass became docile in my hands.
It’s one of our better qualities, as people, that we love to share what we know with others. A farm stay is the perfect way to revel in this particular form of generosity, while also giving back. And, who knows, you might just fall in love.