WHERE better to experience small-acreage self-sufficiency first-hand than in Italy: a country famed for its sun-ripened produce, luscious artisanal cheeses, plump piquant smallgoods and hearty pastas and breads?
It’s this reasoning that motivates a family of four Australians to pack their bags as lightly as possible and head to the opposite side of the world in search of both skills and inspiration.
Having already relocated from suburban Sydney to a semi-rural block in the Adelaide Hills, Pip, Shannon, Aiden and Riley decide to take their quest for a tree-change one step further by spending several months learning the essentials of the trade as ‘woofers’ – Willing Workers on Organic Farms.
With housesitters in place and sons Aidan and Riley bribed with the promise of gelato every day, Pip and Shannon guide the little troupe through pre-dawn Rome before arriving at the first of four properties on which they will volunteer their labour in return for basic board: a remote bee-keeping operation near Rassina, Tuscany.
As their adventure progresses, woofing carries them to Zambone in Calabria (from where they have a spectacular view of volcanic Stromboli), Pianoro near Bologna in Emilia-Romagna and Cassole near Turin in Piedmont.
In between stints on-farm, the family detours to Sorrento and Positano on the glamorous Amalfi Coast; Mount Vesuvius near Naples, long overdue to erupt again; the millennia-old limestone cave-dwellings of Matera; walled Lucca, with its terracotta-and-stucco labyrinth; and wondrous, watery Venice, where the boys discover that even their hotel-room toilet has its own private canal view.
Along the way they are challenged physically by the demands of planting, weeding, pruning, constructing and conserving for hours in Italy’s fierce midsummer heat and emotionally by the realities of extracting a sustainable existence from relatively few resources and of living side by side for extended periods with hosts they barely know.