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WWOOF And Wine: A Glimpse Into The Agriculture Of Northern New Mexico

Animas Valley Vineyard

Animas Valley Vineyard. Photo courtesy of Emma Gibson

Cross the river. Go up the hill, but don’t go down the hill!
Cross the river. Go up the hill, but don’t go down the hill!
Ahh Emma, don’t miss your turn for the vineyard!

I repeated these directions in my head a good 20 times as I scanned the edges of U.S. Route 550 for signs of my hidden destination. Finally my turn arrived and my adventure at Animas Valley Vineyards began.

Animas Valley Vineyards is a host vineyard with Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) in Cedar Hill, New Mexico. WWOOF connects volunteers to organic farms, allowing volunteers (WWOOFers) to gain intimate knowledge about trending and long-established organic farming techniques. If you’re more of an animal than veggie person, there is a place for you too; many farms have animals that are organically raised and active participants in the farm’s self sufficiency. The farm provides WWOOFers with room and board after they donate five to eight hours of work. There is no monetary exchange between the WWOOFer and the owners, but believe me the farm pays WWOOFers well with hearty meals, hearty sleep, and hearty conversation. WWOOFing is an excellent choice of travel for someone interested in an education or volunteer based vacation. In the autumn of 2013 I had my first introduction to WWOOF on a farm in Nevada; needless to say, I’m still hooked on the program.

So it should not come as a shock to you I squealed when I discovered a WWOOF host close to my hometown of Farmington. According to my idealized career plan WWOOF was out of my life for the moment, but to my surprise, my perfect plan and WWOOF met right in my backyard. Bound and determined to have a mini adventure in what was now my post-WWOOFing life, I called the owners, Randy and Kia Orbesen, to schedule a tour. How were people farming in northern New Mexico? I was excited to find out.

How The Vineyard Began

My answer lay at the end of a meandering dirt road on a plot of land laden with 2,000 grape vines. Gazing at the five acre vineyard, Randy Orbesen recalled his story with the land; his family had owned this area along the Animas River since the 1890’s, but it was mostly left to its own devices, playing host to a few cattle and deer over the years. Time after time Orbesen found himself drawn to this land. The summer camping trips of his youth to Cedar Hill left him with a passion for the area and it was these trips that planted, as Randy put it, “…the bug to grow stuff…” in his mind. In 2012 while driving through his beloved patch of earth, Randy stopped, and declared it was time “…to make that pretty.” Inspired to attain this beauty through a vineyard after visiting Sutcliff Vineyards of Cortez, CO, he planted his first 1,000 grape vines, and thus began his life as a farmer.

Orbesen

Orbesen and his dog, Buck, playing fetch. Photo courtesy of Emma Gibson

Orbesen Meets WWOOF

When Orbesen began his vineyard he had never heard of WWOOF; it was by mere coincidence Animas Valley Vineyard’s first WWOOFers found their way into his life. It all started in the summer of 2013 when one of Orbesen’s sons hosted the WWOOFers in Albuquerque as they Couchsurfed their way across the United States. As the WWOOFers and Orbesen’s son began talking, the subject of the vineyard arose and the WWOOFers soon made it their mission to introduce Animas Valley Vineyards to the program. After all, what organic farm wouldn’t jump at the chance to receive free labor in exchange for providing vagabond travelers with a few meals and a bed?

The first WWOOFers helped Orbesen set up his farm profile, and planted another 1,000 to 1,500 vines during their week stay at the vineyard in May 2013. Now the vineyard grows four varieties of grapes—pinot noir, chardonnay, merlot and muscat grapes. Orbesen says those first three WWOOFers were the driving force needed to finish the planting for the season. He retold how these women would have each vine in the ground and ready to grow before he could even unload his next truck full. Some might say WWOOFers have magical powers; we might like you to believe that, but in all honesty, there’s no magic involved. Most WWOOFers are simply in love with the land and truly want to help farmers provide others with the food and lifestyle we have come to cherish.

Plans For The Future

I may romanticize the world too much, but my favorite part of meeting new people is listening to their dreams. Orbesen’s goal for this next season is to put up deer fencing around the vineyard, in the hopes of preventing deer and other wild animals from nibbling on the vines. Deer are especially good at pruning these vines down, creating a mass of branches which Randy describes as a “grape bush” instead of the preferred T-shaped vine. When I asked Orbesen where he wanted the vineyard to be in five years, he surveyed his 2,000 vines and said he wanted to share it with his community, achieving his dream to spend more time at the vineyard producing and selling wine.

T-shaped vine

A grape vine tied into a T-shape. Photo courtesy of Emma Gibson

How A WWOOFer Can Help Animas Valley Vineyard

Like at all WWOOF hosts, there is always something to do at the vineyard. While I was visiting, Orbesen was pruning the vines, preparing each one for the upcoming growing season. (With some of the vines I imagined myself harnessing all of my Pinterest derived yarn skills to persuade ornery branches to become the perfect T-shape.) A visit during the spring will have you planting grape vines, the summer calls for your daily care as the grapes mature, and in early fall the vineyard needs hands to collect the harvest.

If you’re interested in becoming a WWOOFer or a host farm visit WWOOF USA and register. For WWOOFers a $30 membership fee grants you access to the farm address book, and once you are a member all you have to do to find Animas Valley Vineyards, or your dream farm, is search for it by state or key words, in this case New Mexico and vineyard. WWOOFers email the farms they’re interested in and wait to see where their next adventure will be! Farmers are always looking for help, making it easy to land an invitation.

The Animas River

The view of the Animas River from Animas Valley Vineyard. Photo courtesy of Emma Gibson

If you are looking for an adventure near the Four Corners, take a look at Animas Valley Vineyards. Christieelyse’s review of Animas Valley Vineyards on the WWOOF USA website states, “The family was so much fun to hang out with after a work day, and the wife makes incredible Thai food for most meals.” Randy has a trailer and meals waiting for you too, not to mention gorgeous views of the Animas River.

Have you ever done WWOOFing? What was your experience like? Please share in the comments below.

*Featured image via Aurimas Adomavicius

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Emma Gibson

Emma Gibson is a curious traveler who is constantly captivated by daily adventures, be they in a stranger's kitchen listening to his tales, or on the top of a mountain. She's gotten lost in Paris, rock climbed all around Flagstaff, Arizona, been a farm hand as a WWOOFer in Nevada, and traveled as a cultural anthropologist across Gozo. Her new blog, Restless and Roaming, collects the tales of her quirky enterprises. You can also follow her on Google + and Twitter.
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