Saturday, July 9, 2011

Old Oak Homestead - Chapel Hill, NC

I’ve been WWOOFing in North Carolina for two weeks and have a lot to tell you. Where to start?

I got here by train – the seven and a half hours between Baltimore and Durham actually went by pretty fast. From there it was a quick ride from a family friend (thanks, Teresa!) to Carrboro, where I met up with one of my hosts, Kenny, who drove me to the farm.

Here is most of the main house and half of the front yard. I think this was supposed to be part of a panorama.

Old Oak Homestead is not exactly a farm – as the name suggests, it’s really more of a home, or sometimes (when there are a lot of WWOOFers here) a community. This means that instead of working a certain number of hours a day on a specific task, WWOOFers are expected to take responsibility for helping keep the whole homestead running and in good working order. The property consists of only about five acres of fielded, gardened, and wooded land, dominated by two large oak trees and a 150-year old farmhouse. The woman who lives in the farmhouse and owns the property is named Barbara Trent, and she’s a pretty fascinating lady.

Here is the only picture I have of Barb. She doesn’t allow herself to be photographed very often. You can kind of tell, because it’s like I caught her. Actually, I don’t even think I took this photo.

Barb not only runs Old Oak, which has become kind of an organic farming and homesteading institute for WWOOFers like myself, but is also a community organizer, activist, and documentary filmmaker. She won an Oscar (!) in 1992 for a film called The Panama Deception, which I could tell you all about if I’d had time to watch it.

Here is a picture of Barb’s Oscar that I stole from someone else’s Facebook photos because unfortunately right now it's in New York for some reason.

Anyway, Barb is an extremely generous and knowledgeable host, and goes out of her way to make sure WWOOFers learn as much as possible while they’re here. Unfortunately, right now she’s a little overwhelmed with yet another typical venture – she’s trying to get a very small solar farm off the ground – so she’s a little stretched thin and can be kind of, to use another WWOOFer's gentle words, hard to work for.

Here are the solar panels that are driving Barb crazy, literally.

See, the problem is that Barb is a pioneer, because she’s utilizing the green energy legislation that was part of the 2009 Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Since that law is still relatively new, there’s almost nobody who knows how to actually deal with the various legal hoops you have to jump through in order to get the grants and tax credits and authorization to set something like this up. So Barb is having to figure it all out herself, and there’s a lot of money (investments from friends and neighbors) on the line. I don’t blame her for being a little worn thin, and I admire what she's doing.

But enough about Barb. I think a rundown of what’s on the property is in order. Besides the house, there is:

  • a tool shed; 
  • a cabin they call “Le Hut” that another WWOOFer lives in; 
  • an outdoor shower; 
  • a field we can’t use for anything because the septic system runs under it; 
  • two veggie gardens and a hoop house (that’s a type of greenhouse); 
  • a small orchard (peaches, plums, black cherries); 
  • the solar panels; 
  • a barn (really more of a lofted shed), also WWOOFer housing; 
  • an outdoor kitchen for the WWOOFers; 
  • another cabin where Kenny lives; 
  • a big backyard; 
  • a chicken coop and chicken run; 
  • goat pens; 
  • a composting toilet (read: outhouse); and 
  • an old, run-down, messy camper where I’m staying.

Here is my camper. I’m not going to show you the inside.

Here are some goats, in their pen. Goats like to stand on top of things.

Here are some of the veggie gardens.

Here is the backyard, and the wells we use for all our water.

In addition to the veggies and fruit trees, we also keep a bunch of animals. I think I’ll have to just show you those, because animals are cute.

Here is Molly, another WWOOFer, feeding the Nigerian dwarf goats, Lily/Daisy (we changed her name) and Annabel (her momma).

Here is Annabel trying to figure out if she can/should eat my camera.

Here is my favorite picture of a chicken. Look at that face! She was totally trying to shark on my breakfast.

Here is a purple chicken. I will leave this mysterious just because I can.

Here is a wheelbarrow, neither red nor glazed with rainwater, beside some chickens, which are not white. I tried.
Enough of chickens, here is a dog. His name is Buster and he is simultaneously large and adorable. The dog in the background is named Buck. More on them later.

Here are some bees. A lot more on them later.

So we have 22 chickens, two Nigerian dwarf goats, two regular-ass goats, two dogs, three cats, two ducks, and about a bajillion bees. I start my morning routine by taking care of the animals – letting the chickens out of the coop and throwing down scratch for them, moving the goats to a grazing area, and watering the bees. Then I pick the insects off of plants (resisting the MGMT reference here), weed a little, and forget to eat breakfast.

Here is what I eventually eat when I remember breakfast.
But really, there is no routine here. One day we might be at a neighboring farm, helping fence in a chicken coop or mulching an orchard; the next we might be learning to use chainsaws to cut firewood from a fallen tree in someone’s backyard. In the last few days I’ve pruned plants the goats stripped, picked and frozen peaches, cleaned garlic and hung it out to dry, put up an electric fence, tested the electric fence (twice – it’s way stronger with your shoes off), and – yikes – emptied the composting toilet.

And found time to relax on the porch and read during a downpour, and swim in local ponds, and ride around on bikes, and go into town with the other WWOOFers.

But the coolest thing I’ve done is harvest honey. Here is another photo essay:

First we put on hardly any protection whatsoever, just to be safe.

Then we get the bees kind of high so they don’t know what’s coming. The smoke actually aggravates them at first, but eventually they relax.

Then some brave soul, in this case Matt – kind of a full-time, permanent WWOOFer in the area – opens the hive.

Then I come in and just start cold yanking frames out like it’s my job.

A frame fresh out of the hive is still crawling with bees, and the method for clearing them is to either kick it a little or drop a corner of it on the ground to give it a good jolt. The bees come swarming off of it and buzz around you – the sound is like sticking your head directly into the hive. It’s the most insane activity I’ve done in a long time.

Here is what a frame looks like out of the hive. This one is completely loaded with honey.

After knocking as many bees off as you can, the next step is to just brush the stragglers off. No big deal.

The frames go into a cooler so the bees can’t get to them and we don’t end up with an unpleasant surprise in the room where we extract the honey.

Occasionally a bee will land on you and kind of check you out, but they don’t usually sting. The key is to stay relaxed and not slap at them. Killing a bee near the hive is a bad idea, because the dead bee releases a pheromone that the rest of the hive may interpret as the signal to attack anyone nearby.

You have to be careful putting the boxes back so you don’t crush too many of the bees and put the hive into attack mode.

I managed to only get stung once. Honeybee stingers are barbed, so the bee is stuck to you once it stings you and dies when you brush it off. They’re noble little creatures.

Anyway, the next step is getting the honey out of the frames.

First we lay all the frames out, cover everything in plastic, and turn up the heat so the honey will flow.

Then we uncap the frames, using the cleverly named uncapping knife. Here I am slicing the wax off the top of the honey cells.

The frames are loaded into the extruder, which is just a centrifuge with a nozzle at the bottom.

Then we spin it.


Honey is all over everything, and it’s hard to resist. So no one does, and I don’t think I’ve ever eaten so much honey in a single day. Also, one of the knives we were using was heated (to make cutting through the wax easier), so it cooked the honey that dripped onto it and made the whole room smell delicious. By the end of the day, we'd extracted more than nine gallons of honey.

And when we were done, we just put everything back out near the hive for the bees to clean. They’re totally full-service.

Thanks, bees!

I think that about covers it – by which I mean there’s a dozen more things to add, but we’ve all got important stuff to get to, right? So I’ll leave off with a few miscellaneous photos of people/places/things I forgot. Even more photos, and larger versions of the ones here, are on Flickr (follow the link in the sidebar).

I haven’t introduced you to Jordan, the other WWOOFer. There were two volunteers already here when I arrived, but Molly (pictured earlier) left after my first week. Jordan is headed to UNC in the fall after taking some time off from school.

Here’s his dog, Buck, being a country dog. He’s a mutt, but Jordan thinks he’s mostly Catahoula leopard dog, which is the most exotic name for a dog breed ever. It’s also the state dog of Louisiana.

Here is another picture of Buster. He’s a gentle giant.

Here is a really pretty bad picture of Kenny. Like Barb, he is also very photographically evasive. He’s a carpenter and a really nice, helpful guy.

Here is an enormous wolf spider. Just thought this was rad.

Here are some delicious peaches, ready to harvest.

Here’s me, sorting the peaches and trying not to get chest hair on them.

And here is a little story about me and a chicken. She was broody, which means she’s trying to incubate her eggs and isn’t laying any, so I had to kind of put her into solitary to snap her out of it.

But first we vogued a little.

And then she got away.

My next stop is another small farm outside Atlanta called Greenleaf Farms, and then I’m jetting around a bit. Hopefully a fun-filled update will follow. Until then, leave comments, questions, complaints – and thanks for reading.

This is how the chicken story ends. Don’t worry, she’s not dead – chickens relax when you hold them upside down. And you get to look more victorious.


  1. awesome blog. I'm hoping to start doing this soon.

  2. you blog is really useful since I plan to Wwoof in NC on this May and June
    but I still have no idea and I'm a bit afraid to Wwoof there myself.
    Do you think it's good idea. I really need some suggestion
    Thank you so much for sharing


    1. If you'd really like to talk about it, I'd be happy to give you some guidance and suggestions -- leave your email or something. I think WWOOFing in NC is a great idea, it's just a matter of learning to pick your farms.

  3. Cool site. The pictures are great. Curious about the purple chicken though. I'm starting a small farm of my own and this was helpful to see how other farms look and function. Thanks & Cheers!

    1. The purple chicken -- what a mystery! They told me she had been attacked by a rooster, and that the salve they used to heal the wound had somehow had that effect. Either the stuff was purple, or it reacted with her feathers in such a way as to turn them purple. Anyway, good luck!