Sure, movie theaters are partially closed and eating at restaurants isn’t an option for some thanks to COVID. Amusement parks aren’t in operation; even staying at a family friend’s cabin for a weekend is in question.

Though maybe not an immediate getaway idea for most, there is one thing that’s mostly unaffected by the pandemic storm.

Think open fields, animals, and plenty of fresh air.

“As soon as they walk onto our farm, they are family,” said Jean Braatz, farmer with My MN Farmer in Montgomery.

That’s right — a farm.

Harvesting 2,400 rows of potatoes might not seem like a classic holiday trip, but it was for Aadesh Salecha. He volunteered with Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, USA (WWOOF-USA) at Braatz’s family farm.

For just over two weeks in late summer, the U of M junior picked beans, packed boxes for food delivery, helped vaccinate sheep, harvested plants and weeded the fields.

“I got to,” he said, alluding to the voluntary nature of it all.

FARM SWEET FARM

For Salecha, the choice to pack up his Minneapolis life and head to rural Minnesota let him explore a few hobbies of his, mainly traveling.

“WWOOFing is a medium for you to explore and keep the costs down,” he said.

He wanted to start farming earlier in the summer, but COVID put so much under discussion. As his computer science classes quickly approached in early September, he realized something.

“I have to do it. I just have to get out of my house. What better way to get out than to go work on a farm?” Salecha said.

So he did just that.

Working remotely, he’d switch between cleaning up chicken coops and doing teaching assistant work.

And it proved to be immensely helpful for Braatz, her husband, and their seven children. They’ve had WWOOFers for six or seven years, sometimes bringing in 10 volunteers at a time.

Most volunteers get a COVID test before arriving, Braatz said. Families can stay in a provided camper and there’s a guesthouse for singles to stay in if they choose.

‘WE’RE KIND OF A HIATUS’

Since COVID started, Braatz said she’s seen an uptick in visitors. As to why?

“Because they can’t go anywhere else. This is a COVID-free, ‘helping somebody out’ outing. It’s pretty much the only place they go,” she said.

One WWOOFer was visiting from overseas when the virus hit and couldn’t travel back home because of flight restrictions. So at the farm she stayed. Braatz calls the farm a pit stop for people to call theirs when home isn’t the best place in the moment.

“We’re kind of a hiatus for people who couldn’t get back to where they want to be, so they kind of adopt us as their family,” Braatz said.

Seventy-some miles northwest of My MN Farmer sits New Story Farm in Hutchinson.

Farmer Stephanie Zetah hosts volunteers through several programs, including WWOOF. This season, she was far less stressed thanks to an influx of visitors. The increase may be because it’s the second year she’s hosted WWOOFers so the farm has more visibility.

Luckily, she’s able to keep volunteers safe.

Nobody shares a bathroom (WWOOFers have outdoor composting toilets), and everyone has a face mask they’ll put on if needed. They observe social distancing guidelines when able. They do share meals inside but are out on the land most of the day, she said.

“The nature of farming is such that we’re outdoors. When we are weeding, we’re not close to each other,” Zetah said. “But we’re still able to talk and to share stories and to ask questions about each others’ lives and share information.”

That last part? It’s key to lots of hosts and guests.

Salecha met friends on the farm, friends who had never gone on a road trip. He fixed that and went to South Dakota with two other WWOOFers during a weekend lull at the farm. That was just one blip on the whole experience radar, he said.

“I got to meet amazing people and I got to learn so much and I was outside the whole time and I was in nature. It was a lot fun,” Salecha said.

WWOOFing has opened doors for Braatz and her family, too. They’ve hosted guests from Germany, Mexico, and across the U.S. (as well as plenty of locals, especially these days).

“For some people, I think COVID has made their world smaller,” she said. “On the farm, COVID has sort of made our world bigger.”

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