Farm life in the Pyrenees: blood, toil, tears, sweat and a fair bit of pork

Las LaousTRAVELLING the world, once seen as a venture only for those who could afford it, is increasingly something that attracts students. We want to make the most of the experience whilst we’re young and fresh, not retirees with too much time on our hands. The number of people taking years out both before and after university has swelled in recent years, and this is partly due to the realisation of many that travel need not be ridiculously expensive. There are emerging online practices like Couchsurfing which allow people to find not only a free place to stay in a foreign city, but also a friendly local who’ll happily show them around.

Over the course of my summer travels in Europe I did my fair share of sleeping on the sofas of kind strangers, and I loved every moment. But the highlight of my trip has to be the time I spent on farms, working in exchange for food and board.
More commonly known as WWOOFing (though WWOOF is just one of many organisations that does this sort of thing), this phenomenon is growing in popularity year-by-year. It’s all done online; you pay to gain access (€20 for two years if you use the cheapest of the farmstay websites, HelpX) to the database of hosts, complete with descriptions, pictures and, most importantly, reviews. It’s then as simple as getting in touch with the host via email or phone to ask if and when they might want an extra pair of hands.It’s advisable to do this in good time; I ended up in a bit of a rush to find a place but luckily came across Las Laous, a pork farm in the southwest of France, where they had two weeks free for me to come and stay.

After having spent 17 hellish hours working my way through the French public transport system, I finally stumbled off the bus and onto the busy streets of Saint-Girons, in the department of Ariège in the Midi-Pyrénées. I’d had far too little sleep and my sour mood wasn’t helped by the July sun beating down on me as I stood around for half an hour waiting for my lift. Eventually a slightly worse-for-wear pick-up truck pulled up alongside me and my host Emily popped out to greet me, one-half of a British farmer couple who moved away from London a few years ago. She and husband Justin have had a happy existence in the mountains ever since, if not a bit more hectic and difficult than most.

What started as a few pigs here and there has developed over the years into a thriving organisation that is well known in the local area for their high-quality pork and beef. They have well over 60 black pigs and an expanding herd of cows. The original plan had been for us to drive up through the mountains to the farm, but it turned out that we needed to swing by the town abattoir in order to pick up a pig. All of the actual workers at the abattoir had gone home (welcome to rural France), so I ended up playing a very involved role in the decapitation of a pig. Hardly the conventional start to a working holiday, especially for a former vegetarian of two years, but it was certainly a valid representation of what was to come!

After that ordeal, we drove up to the farm and I finally met Justin and some of the other helpers at the farm. You do tend to get a very international feel on these farmstays, which is great for the cultural exchange aspect of things. At Las Laous at the same time as me were two New Zealanders, an Irish girl and a Romanian woman; all with a variety of different stories to tell.

The average host will ask you for around four to six hours of work per day, with a full day off once a week. I soon discovered that Las Laous is not an average farm. For us, the work day tended to be closer to eight or ten hours, and it was fairly physically demanding stuff; chopping wood, moving wood, the odd wrestling match with a pig… That’s not to say that it wasn’t worth it; I found it to be both rewarding and fascinating, and I’ve never appreciated a cool beer at the end of the day as much as I did over those two weeks. It should also be noted that we were exceptionally well-fed and watered; basically as much lager as we could drink and the most amazing pork (as locally sourced as you can get) on the table every evening.

What was probably the most remarkable day began with an alarm clock set for three in the morning. Another helper and I drearily made our way downstairs for a hasty breakfast before beginning the journey to a nearby village, where we were set to provide a hog spit-roast for a vide grenier (the French equivalent of a car-boot sale). Seasoning the pig, trying to lift it up onto the spit-roast, keeping the fire going strong enough to actually cook the thing; it’s a tricky business and I was relieved to only help out rather than run things.

Seven hours of cooking later and an eager crowd of locals had assembled in the village square to relax, socialise, and of course, eat. We all donned red polo shirts and became catering staff, attempting to get by in French despite having been up for ten hours already. A long lunch-break was a welcome respite, but having to clean up and transport equipment meant that we didn’t get back to the farm until six in the evening. By this time we were all fairly exhausted and ready for a nap more than anything, but there was yet more work to be done.

Two of us had the heartbreaking responsibility of grabbing a small pig who we’d taken to affectionately calling ‘Rusty’ and putting him into a trailer that was destined for the abattoir the next day – an experience that was both physically and morally draining. By the time we’d finished, I was more than ready to end my twelve-hour shift. What we weren’t expecting however, was a picnic basket of bread and pork, a cool-box full of beer and an offer of a lift up to a scenic spot in the mountains from Justin. I spent that evening getting drunk with new friends, exhausted from the hardest day’s work I’ve ever done, and more than content to sit and simply enjoy the moment that the sun set over the border between France and Spain.

Farmstays are certainly not for everyone but they’re worth considering if you don’t mind hard work. If you want to freeze your travel costs, gain rewarding experience, learn valuable skills and form valuable friendships along the way, I seriously recommend that you check out either WWOOFing or HelpX.