Ashley Cavender is all smiles on her trip across the pond.

By BONNIE BAILEY

H&T Correspondent

Ashley Cavender made a life-long dream come true this past summer, and it began with a spur-of-the-moment purchase at the beginning of the year.

“I was looking at flights with my friend on New Year’s,” Cavender said, “and we found one to Italy. It was a very good deal.”

Cavender, who had never been out of the country before, booked the flight, but decided she didn’t want to experience Italy as a tourist. She wanted to immerse herself in Italian culture. That’s how Cavender became a WWOOFer. A WWOOFer lives and works alongside a host in their chosen country, and in exchange, they receive room and board.

“WWOOF stands for Worldwide Organization for Organic Farming,” Cavender said. “You can WWOOF anywhere in the world, but I’d always wanted to go to Italy. I’ve been obsessed with Italian culture and food since I was young.”

The Jonesborough resident wanted to work on a farm, but not in agritourism, a growing industry where visitors get to briefly enjoy the more-fun aspects of farm life.

Cavender serves through AmeriCorps as the local food coordinator for Boone Street Market, and she works with small farmers daily — so working on a homestead, she reasoned, would not only be more interesting than agritourism, but would help in her job as well.

“With all that I’ve done at Boone Street Market, I know so much about agriculture,” Cavender said, “but I don’t know the hands-on aspects of it. I don’t know what it’s like to get your hands in the dirt 12 hours a day.”

She used the website WWOOF.org to find a suitable match, and she ended up on a homestead called Tobbiga, located near Scansano. She lived at Tobbiga with a farmer, his wife, and their two children for 18 days, and she woke every morning at 7 a.m. to feed rabbits, chickens, donkeys and cows. She did the milking, chopped wood and fixed fencing, and she was present for the birth of a new addition to the farm: a calf. 

At first, it was overwhelming, she said, especially since the family didn’t speak as much English as she thought they would, but after a while she fell into a rhythm.

Cavender arrived at the farm on July 20, a blazing hot time of year in Italy, and especially in Tuscany, which has been under a drought.

“Some days it would get up to 104 degrees,” she said, “so we wouldn’t work in the heat of the day. We would make lunch for ourselves and the family, then we would nap for an hour or two and go back out.”

Dinner, she said, usually wasn’t until about 9 p.m. 

“It was really challenging physically and emotionally, but I really enjoyed it,” Cavender said. “It just gave me a different perspective on the farmers I interact with daily. I don’t think I could do it every day. It takes so much out of you.”

It has its rewards as well, though, Cavender said, like being present for the birth of the calf.

“I can see how it’s really a labor of love,” Cavender said.

The relaxed Italian lifestyle appealed to Cavender, and she has vowed to implement a more relaxed attitude in her Tennessee life.

“Italian culture is much slower than the United States, and it really taught me to just sit back and relax,” she said. “They really enjoy their time and their food. They put so much love and effort into every meal they produce.”

The meals were a highlight of the trip for Cavender.

“Their food is outstanding,” she said. “It’s so fresh. We had olive oil from the olive trees on the farm. We had grains that he had grown himself and ground. The culinary aspects are phenomenal.”

In addition to the straight-from-the-farm fare, Cavender experienced cuisine in other Italian cities while traveling, including Florence and Venice.

The month-long experience changed her perspective on farming, she said, and she saw many connections and similar struggles between the small farmers in Italy and the small farmers in Tennessee. The experience also changed her perspective on life in general.

“It changed me,” Cavender said. “I can bring a gazillion aspects of that back to Boone Street Market and back to Jonesborough with me.”

She was nervous about making the trip and had fears about traveling alone, she said, but doing so added to her life in ways she never expected.

“Have you ever had such an intense gut-wrenching fear… then you feel the fear melt away and turn into this confidence that you never thought you’d have inside of you? That’s literally what traveling alone did for me.”

The encouragement of the Jonesborough community, including a wonderful going-away party, helped in getting her to Italy, she said.

“It was really, really beautiful to know there was so much support and love for me as I went on this adventure by myself, and it was even better to know when returning that I was coming back to such an amazing community that loves and supports me.”

Cavender plans to WWOOF again, and she recommends the experience to everyone.

“It’s a great way to travel. It’s for anyone at any stage of their lives.”