When Diego Grossmann, a recent graduate from John Bapst Memorial High School, traveled with his father to Nepal earlier this year, he was amazed at the amount of sustainability he saw while visiting cities and rural areas.
Nearly all of the homes had solar panels to power the energy used inside. Structures in larger cities often incorporated sustainable features, such as using sandbags to create walls or rooftop gardens.
But outside, trash sat alongside fields and pollution filled the air.
The contrast was jarring but a lesson in how the world views sustainability compared with the U.S.
“Yes, there’s trash and pollution, but there’s this kind of leaping forward. … When they talk about sustainability, it’s not a political thing. It’s just them doing what makes sense,” Grossmann said.
It’s that mindset — of doing what works — the 17-year-old hopes to find more about in the coming year volunteering abroad.
Grossmann was recently accepted at Bowdoin. But instead of starting this fall, he is taking a gap year, a period of time taken by a student usually between high school and college to gain real-world experience in his or her desired field of study. Next year, he will volunteer abroad with World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, an organization that pairs up willing volunteers with farms around the world.
A budding interest
The teen started working with his hands several years ago, while doing odd landscaping jobs for neighbors and friends in Holden. He loved being outside and working with soil, so he started volunteering on various farms throughout Maine.
After spending a summer working as a farm hand at Horsepower Farm in Penobscot, he realized agriculture was where he wanted to focus his future energy and study.
The year after, he applied for and was accepted to the University of Maine Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research. While there, he worked with Professor Eric Gallandt studying organic solutions to a ubiquitous farming problem — combatting weeds.
Gallandt said Grossmann was enthusiastic and had a way of approaching a problem, such as organic weed control, with creativity and gusto.
“He was a very good worker … and really creative, in terms of thinking outside the box for ideas,” Gallandt said.
For example, Grossmann was working with Gallandt to find ways to manage seed banks to reduce pressure on organic farms. Instead of just studying what Gallandt already was doing, Grossmann proposed a new idea: using microwaves to kill the weed seeds before they had a chance to germinate.
A multi-faceted experience
Grossmann traveled quite extensively as a child and teen and has a way of talking about the world that exemplifies his love of culture and adventure.
Born to Venezuelan parents, he has been to half a dozen countries as a visitor but never worked abroad. France, in particular, has always captured his heart. He loves speaking and writing the language and regularly watches French movies.
WWOOF France was a natural choice.
The WWOOF program is a grassroots organization that pairs up volunteers with international hosts who provide food and accommodations in exchange for four to six hours of help daily. Volunteers may be asked to help with a variety of tasks, such as sowing seed, making compost, cutting wood, milking or feeding, among other tasks, according to the WWOOF website.
For Grossmann, it also was important he combine volunteering with his other love: music. He plays the cello, guitar and stand-up bass and is eager to learn about other instruments played around the world. So when he searched for farms, he looked into ones where the farmer either played or taught an instrument.
As a result, “The Musical Farm” in France will be his first stop. He also will volunteer at a farm near the Maritime Alps with a farmer who plays reed instruments and hopes to find music at the others he plans to visit over the next year.
“They’re teaching people about music in addition to being an organic farm. … I’m open to learning about whatever they’re doing. It’s just a great opportunity, [and] I get to live and work in France,” Grossmann said.
Searching for solutions
Grossmann leaves for France in September and has farms lined up through March, though he may stay longer.
When he returns to Maine and heads to Bowdoin to start his freshman year, he plans on focusing his studies on ecology and agriculture, so he can focus on finding solutions worldwide to increase access to food.
“Sustainable development is crucial right now,” he said. “People have to find a way to farm more sustainably, but at the same time we all have to eat and it has to taste good.”
It’s that mindset Gallandt says is key to young students, such as Grossmann, who are looking to go into organic agriculture fields.
One of the areas Gallandt and others are working on is improving the efficiency and profitability of small-scale diversified organic farms that are supporting growing and are very exciting. Grossmann’s experience on small, international farms may be just the experience he needs to get ahead of his peers.
“I have no doubt he’s going to be a great contributor to the field of organic agriculture,” Gallandt said. “We need to figure out, ‘How do we help these young and small farms become more efficient and more profitable?’”
For the time being, that means not necessarily being a farmer but being part of the bigger picture for Grossmann.
“There’s a lot more to being involved in the world of agriculture than just working on a farm or planting a few acres of vegetables,” Grossmann said. “We need all sorts of people all working for the same goal.”
Plus, there’s plenty of time for farming later. International adventure is waiting.
“When I’m old and have kids, I’ll have a homestead,” he said.