Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Organic farm adventure transformed her views

By Meg Hibbert

SALEM – Katie Rotanz didn’t start out to become hooked on organic farming, a goal to recycle just about everything and a hunger to eat the freshest possible foods.

But after spending six months traveling first in Ireland and then Australia, Katie Rotanz came home with a new view of the world, and dozens of friends from all over.

Salem native Katie Rotanz, left, and her lacrosse teammate and roommate Theresa Sweeney worked on organic farms in Ireland like this one where they found they needed to buy "Wellies" – rubber boots for feeding the pigs.

Salem native Katie Rotanz, left, and her lacrosse teammate and roommate Theresa Sweeney worked on organic farms in Ireland like this one where they found they needed to buy "Wellies" – rubber boots for feeding the pigs.

“One of the biggest things I took from this trip was the need to eliminate waste,” she said. “And I learned how amazing fresh veggies are. I’ve picked vegetables out of the ground and three hours later eaten them.”

Rotanz added, “Fresh food is so much better for you, and you know where it comes from.”

The 23-year-old who grew up in Salem and her Virginia Tech roommate Theresa Sweeney from Baltimore, Md., were both planning on traveling – separately – when they graduated in May 2011.

Katie Rotanz mixes concrete while doing work exchange in Australia through HelpX.net.

Katie Rotanz mixes concrete while doing work exchange in Australia through HelpX.net.

“I wanted to go to Australia and she wanted to go to Ireland. My dad (Bob Rotanz) wasn’t too thrilled about me traveling by self.”

Also, Rotanz and Sweeney – whom she describes as “just the coolest, most considerate person, the kind of friend who would always give you the biggest slice” – wanted to travel without spending a lot of money.

They discovered WWOOF, with stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. “We had three friends who had done it and they were saying it was a cheap way to travel. I’m glad we did it,” said Rotanz. “I think WOOOFing is the way to go.”

They flew out together from Dulles to Dublin on Aug. 31 last year. Rotanz returned to Salem on March 3.

With WWOOF, their food and accommodation was taken care of.”We were basically volunteers on the farms.”

They stayed with families part of the time, “and got to see so much about how other families live and their cultures,” Rotanz said. They also stayed in hostels and camps.

The two planned everything out before they got to Ireland, but by the time they traveled on to Australia, they planned as they went.

They packed light: one backpack each with eight changes of clothing. “We would get so excited when we found a thrift store,” Rotanz said. Making do with so little “really humbles you and makes you appreciate the simple things,” she added.

They also packed a pair of flip flops, hiking boots and Chockers. In Ireland, they found they had to buy Wellies, or rubber Wellington boots, “to go out to feed the pigs,” Rotanz explained.

Photographs from the Irish portion of the trip show them gardening at Slane Castle, wearing their Wellies in the dark brown soil in the garden and hiking in Howth.

“In Ireland, they would only eat meat if they knew which farm it came from. Most of the families made their own bread every day. I felt so spoiled,” she said.

Australian pictures show Rotanz mixing concrete for a house, taking out the wall of a school to prepare to put up new wallboard, and standing on short ladders to reach the tops of greenhouse-grown tomato plants.

They also went to the local pubs “and drank the good beer. We lived right beside a beach at Byron Bay.” The local hostels were full at one one point of their trip, and the friends discovered CouchSurfing.org. “It’s a community of travelers interesting in meeting people from around the world who host travelers for accommodations.”

They stayed with a 52-year-old woman at one place, and a 63-year-old woman in another community. “Both have traveled extensively in the past and wanted to return the favor,” Rotanz said.

“The cool thing about couch surfing is you can find out about events going on in the area. Whenever you log in, other travelers can see and you can meet up for coffee or at pubs. On New Year’s Eve in Sydney, Australia, we weren’t sure what to do. We checked the Couchsurfing website and found a person with a view of the fireworks. We wound up about 50 people, and no one went there feeling uncomfortable.”

Another of their hosts invited them to stay with her for six days at Christmastime. “We just had such a good time with her. I’d love it if she came here, to return the favor,” Rotanz said.

Since she’s been home, Rotanz has convinced her mom, Wendy, of the benefits of growing their own food, and the two are starting a vegetable garden, with plans to compost, too.

Meanwhile, Rotanz has discovered that even though the City of Salem does not offer recycling for items other than paper, No. 1 and 2 plastics and aluminum, recycling for other types of plastic is available with containers at Glenvar High School and in Roanoke. She doesn’t mind driving a few miles to recycle glass and the other items, Rotanz said.

“I feel like we’re trying to rewind as a country,” she explained, referring to the renewed interest in buying and eating local, as well as recycling and reusing. “We have to be selfless for the planet.”

Other members of the Rotanz family are sisters Ryan, 21, a senior at Virginia Tech, and Maggie, 17, a Salem High School student, plus new chocolate Labrador puppy Patonga, named after a beach in Australia.

This summer Katie Rotanz is working at Mac and Bob’s restaurant her dad owns, and “redesigning my logo so I can start looking for jobs in my field, graphic design.”

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