WWOOFing in Wyoming: the view from the farm

The charming young man in the photo here is no stranger to this blog. I have often referred to him as College Boy (Formerly Known As Picky Eater.) As a child, he gave me a run for my money in the menu department, so I am pleased, no, thrilled that now he is taking an interest in food and cooking. Luke has always had a fascination with the West, so when he found a farm on the WWOOF website (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) it seemed like a perfect match. So here I present the first guest post, written by my son, Luke Vargas. All the photographs, opinions, and words are his. I hope you will ask him questions and enjoy the trip to the farm. Take it away, Luke!     —


With such a talented chef for a mom, I’ve never been a stranger to good cooking, but I’m a latecomer to learning the craft myself. I can’t wait forever to take up the challenge, since I’m moving into my first apartment and first full kitchen this September. I want to make sure I am well-informed about the food I’ll be preparing for the rest of my adult life.

Living and studying in New York City doesn’t engender an awareness of food and its journey to the table. We have some of the nation’s best restaurants and luxury grocers, but I’ve never felt further away from the food supply. Meat, produce, and dairy products arrive in New York as if by magic, and only a small percentage of it is grown within the surrounding 100 miles. [Check out this great story on “This American Life” about the Bronx’s Hunts Point Market, where produce changes hands en route to New York customers]

It struck me there is no better way to learn about that mysterious food chain than to spend a summer working the land the old-fashioned way; to see how we farmed, ate, and lived before factory farms, soy-fed animals, and Chilean-grown produce dominated our food supply. I searched farm listings on the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms website for a state I’d never been to but had heard a lot about — Wyoming — and chose to commit myself for five weeks to the only farm without a photo. A few days later I ended up at a ranch about an hour outside of Gillette, Wyoming.

The 1500 acre ranch here is home to meat cattle, dairy cows, draft horses, pigs, turkeys, honeybees, a few hundred chickens, an extensive vegetable garden, and a charming cast of dogs. Not only have I gotten my hands dirty (literally) working with animals both dead and alive, but I’ve begun to learn why eating a traditional diet rich in wholesome and unprocessed meats and dairy products is so healthy and has lent vitality to countless generations of those living close to the land. It is easy to forget that we humans have made it this far without Purell and soy-based meat alternatives!

After a few weeks of eating foods from the farm and maintaining a traditional diet, I began to observe more closely what other people, especially children, were eating when we left the farm and visited other parts of the state. Even among a food-conscious community where raw milk fills the glasses at the tables, some customers of the farm's products mention buying McDonalds' burgers for their child's daily ride back from school. I see boys and girls saddle up to the breakfast table with Danimals “Children’s Yogurt” or watch them down strawberry milk as they go about their days, this consumption typically followed by a rush of excitement and a fit of irritation soon after.

Sugar in these forms is bad enough, but the long term effects of their consumption persist, even after most younguns move beyond sweetened milk and tubed yogurt. In addition, some parents, in an attempt to limit fat, serve their kids skim milk and lean cuts of meat, while ignoring hidden sugars in processed foods. Humans need fat to stay healthy, but if you avoid fat at all costs in dairy and meat, where will you get your share?

Do we want babies with small heads and big guts? That’s what we’re creating, not round faces and full bodies. I find it funny that we delight in photos of young Inuit babies with their “pudgy” complexions, yet despise the consumption of whale blubber and other high-fat foods that in the past supplied them with a remarkably healthy traditional diet.

There are ways to pique a child’s tastebuds and see just how much they want the foods their bodies need. After a young farm visitor finished his Danimals yogurt and asked for more, we poured him a glass of homemade kefir with raspberries from the garden stirred in. Surprise, he couldn’t resist. But how can you blame kids when the commercials between cartoons promote the false message that chocolate milk is as healthy as real milk, and depict animated children surfing down rivers of artificially-colored, high fructose yogurt?

Over the next few weeks I’ll be contributing short photo essays featuring the things I’ve learned on the ranch in Wyoming, organized by individual foods. Each story will be accompanied by a recipe from my mom, and information about how to take control of the food you buy, eat, and serve.

Look forward to features on eggs, milk, beef, and chicken. Of course, feel free to request a topic to be covered or ask a question in the comment section of this post!