Volunteering – Produce, store and effective re-use

  • Post category:Travel / Volunteering
  • Reading time:12 mins read
Montepulciano valley

Before leaving the Italian Alps and beautiful random walks, I had aligned for two projects. One I wrote about already; the one introduced me to Permaculture. It also had a mix of meditation and other therapies. It was a new experience that gave me chance to observe different aspects of human behavior, while learning about organic ways of farming. It all happened while sharing smiles, laughter and activities together with other volunteers and participants. Be it picking cherries for the first time from a tree or using the weed whacker or relaxing in sound therapy session, it was all done while enjoying the amazing Italian cooking. The next project I selected was in continuation of organic farming, although not strictly following Permaculture. This project also had a lot of focus on re-use and reducing wastage. General idea was to stay 2 months in Tuscany. After visiting Pisa and Lucca, I packed my bags and moved south of Tuscany in the most famous Wine area, Montepulciano.


Montepulciano railway station
It is small, isn’t it?

Montepulciano is a small town almost mid way between Florence and Rome. Before I left my previous host, I learned about its popularity in maintaining the beautiful landscape in Tuscany and also its famous Vino Nobile. As the train moved towards this town, I noticed that landscape of beautiful Tuscany just got better. After few hours of journey, I was at the small train station. Station is about 10 km from the main town center. As there are not many tourists coming through train, I was the only one who got down at station. My host was coming to pick me up and asked me to wait outside the station.  There is a locality established around the station. On the left there is an open area where local market is held twice a week. One can buy vegetables, fruits etc. directly from the local farmers. My host was there in about 5 min. After initial salutations, we went to have an ice cream, before she drove me to her farm.

Food time in Montepulciano
Daily view from food table

The farm is almost half way between the station and the city on the side road ,away from the regular traffic. She had a pretty big place that had olive trees, vineyard, plums, apples, pears, a vegetable garden, a camping ground which was closed now, a pond with lilies and lotuses. Next to the house there was place for herbs and trees along with storage room and workshop. There was a greenhouse room between vegetable garden and nursery. My room was on first floor with connected small kitchen and bathroom. As there was no other volunteer, so it was more a private accommodation. There was a dining table outside the house, overlooking the vegetable garden and the valley beyond. We usually had our meals there. Next to it was a summer kitchen with wood stove and necessary utensils to prepare food. It was a setup, that I have seen for the first time. The view from this table was beautiful and we would also see the clouds rising up on the mountains on the east. When these clouds would rain, they would create silver curtains of rain drops that we would see moving along with the wind. Sometimes, some drops would be left in the air to paint the sky with rainbow colors.


The place is run by just one lady, who took over the place from her uncle. She started to work on the land about 10 years ago and she created the vegetable garden by learning things from others while also self teaching herself through internet and practice. Most of the place she built by herself using material from the junk yard. She bought new things only when absolutely necessary; be it the water pipes or poles or tin for roof or fence around the garden. Before she started working on the farm, she did office work in UK and Australia as well, while also travelling to different places. The effect was

Volunteering in the garden
Vegetable garden and the house in the background

clear on her spoken english from this experience. For different reasons, she happened to  have a personality that could be hard for many people. She had strong ideas about her way of life and belief. Be it a belief in the organic farming or re-use of the items or strong views against various aspects of system or in general human behavior that does not align with hers. She worked hard in her life, to stand against family, against her colleagues and also society while building a farm almost by herself. In a society where not having a husband can raise background noises, to build your way up to stand and prove yourself can have some other side-effects as well.

Despite her strong opinions, we had a nice communication between us. We discussed about many different topics at lengths. Be it politics, banking system, agriculture, supermarket dominance, food wastage, re-use of things, consumerism, human preference to buy than help and work, spirituality, yoga, ethics, self motivation vs excuses and so-on. We talked about various topics at length. Like most people she also kept different perspectives of ideas; in general and from her own perspective. Of course based on the situation, she would pick one, unaware of that they contradict to each other. We somehow managed to find a common communication ground and almost during whole stay it worked very well.

The big meal table
Place for a lot of people, right?

Apart from her there was a dog and a cat living in the house. The dog was sweet and affectionate. He was like a shadow to her and would be sad when he was left alone at home. I met few other people as well, while being there. One was a Romanian guy, who was now living well after his struggle to immigrate to Italy. He did some work in the fields and would bring his kids also sometime. Few other friends also came by, some time for dinner or some were part of local dance groups. Overall a very nice interaction with all people, who were happy to share their time and life.


Eat fresh or make jams?

When I reached there, I was the last volunteer to be accepted. The reason is that host was going for a study course for 1 year. For this reason, she was not starting any new projects or planting anything new that cannot be managed in her absence. However, there was still a lot of work to till the land, dig holes to plant trees, or cover existing plants with grass or straw as needed or restructure the workshop and storage area so that all things are aligned and in order for anyone who would take up the care of the house and farm in her absence. With time she has done lots of experiments with different farming techniques. She adapted what she found best fit for her needs, her place and reduced her effort.

Despite all the work she did and her strong belief in her methods, she still accepts that there is a lot to learn. However, one really need to prove how new method is better than hers. I learned many simple things from tilling of soil, to covering the land to avoid weed and digging holes to provide best chance for plants to grow. She told me that one does not work with the plants, but one works with the land. She also observed that plants favour certain places on land more than other parts and one need to observe all the time how plants reacts. Reaction to shade, water, sun, slope, other plants in vicinity and so on. Sure one can probably read a lot about it, but then one miss that connection, that communication and personal touch with plants. One need to work together with plants and land and not force something on it. Yes, it needs time, patience and commitment to build that relation, unless one is happy with mechanical farming.

Apart from working in the vegetable garden, we cleaned the greenhouse, re-arranged all stuff in the storage place, cleaned up the workshop, picked up pears, plums and blackberries. She showed how to make jams from different fruits and also to preserve fruits by making juices and home made pasta. She also made her own wine, various dips and ash soap for washing and cleaning. She also showed how to make Limoncello, although it did not come out so well that time as expected.


Indian cooking in Montepulciano

It was an intensive and very interesting experience here. Apart from working in the garden, we did yoga almost everyday. I liked the timing as it was before lunch. This was helpful as the body was warmed up after work and yoga helped to stretch and relax the muscles to avoid any stiffness. Followed by fresh salad based lunch, mixed with bread and dips was refreshing. I heard that some of the volunteers would leave or complain about the hard work at the place. I felt that it was just a difference between expectation. Imagine a city office worker coming to a farm. If (s)he does a physical hard work for 4-5 hours, the feeling the person gets is that the person worked for more than 8 hours, as the body feels too tired. In the farm,  however, it is normal daily life. Also, people from city would like to getup late. In summer, it is ok to go to office and work after 8 or 9. But in the farm, if you do your work when the sun is out, the effort feels double or more than what it feels in the shade. This and other points, I had discussion with the host as well. Although, she understands the difference in situation and background of a volunteer and herself, she has hard time to accept it.

It was also interesting to see different perspectives. While the host had her own strong perspectives, the people around her had different. The Romanian guy was nice. We talked in my broken Italian and his little English. He was a very hard worker and did not have any time to think about big world conspiracies. He loved his kids and would work to provide them good facilities. With him, I got a chance to visit and take shower in a natural thermal spa. It was first time for me and it was a beautiful experience.

A festival close by

While being there, I visited the town on the hill, famous for its Vino Nobile. It is a small town with a beautiful view to the valley all around. Mostly a touristic town, full of shops and restaurants. But, there are some small quiet corners as well, where one can enjoy a simple food. From here, I also visited Florence and little known but beautiful town of Siena. A day visit to universities town of Perugia was also very nice. The day was beautiful with not so strong a sun. Every town was different than other, while still having some similarities.

It was here that I made Indian Roti for the first time and then many times over. It was good feeling to make it. The host had special affection towards India and Indian food. Although, sometimes her notions of India were little off the track or limited in variations than India has to offer, but in general it helped to align our work and activities. While I cooked some Indian dishes and bread, I got to eat some Italian salad, fresh made pasta and other home based food. Almost at the end, when we had cleaned the workshop, it helped to open up the oven as well. There with the help of our Romanian friend, I got twice a chance to eat home made Pizza in many variations. Those were beautiful evenings preceded with long debates on how to warm up the oven.

Italian home made pizza
Conversation over Pizza

There is a lot that I can write as I try to recollect this time. Hard work, strong discussions, simple meals, lot of lessons on farming and re-use, many talks with different people, visits
and walks; a lot happened here in those few weeks. Now, when I reflect back, it was a very eventful and enriching experience, in the presence of simple people just living life in their own simple ways. At the end I had a bag of pizza, breads, jams and fruits with me, when I took the early morning train to Rome to spend some touristic days in the ancient city. It was the time that I would always remember because of the smiles that I shared with few of very simple people that I met.


The hay wagon had upset in the road and the young driver, Mulla Nasrudin, was terribly worried about it. A kindhearted farmer told the young fellow to forget his troubles and come in and have some supper with his family. “Then we will straighten up the wagon,” the farmer said. The Mulla said he didn’t think his father would like it. “Oh, don’t worry about that,” said the farmer. “Everything will be all right.” So Nasrudin stayed for supper. Afterwards he said he felt better and thanked the farmer. “But,” he said, “I still don’t think my father will like it.” “Forget it,” said the farmer. “By the way,” he added, “Where is your father?” “He’s under the hay!” said Nasrudin.