“Is it called WWOOFing ‘cos you get treated like a dog?” asked a family member, bemused by the idea that someone would actually volunteer their time to labour on a farm for weeks to months, simply in return for food and a bed.
This was by far the most unique comment I’d received, in contrast to ‘witty’ suggestions that it was another word for the other nature-based activity, commonly set in a darkened wood off the side of a motorway…
Just to clarify, WWOOF is a multinational network of organic or ecologically sound farms, community gardens and smallholdings that open their farm gates to volunteers from around the world. Their mission statement is as follows:
“WWOOF is a worldwide movement linking volunteers with organic farmers and growers to promote cultural and educational experiences based on trust and non-monetary exchange, thereby helping to build a sustainable growing community”
Hosts provide volunteers with a room/tent/yurt and three delicious meals a day in exchange for good company and manual labour. Staying at the farm is free, however to become a ‘WWOOFer’, you have to pay an annual membership fee for a specific country (e.g. WWOOF UK, WWOOF Sweden). This fee is approximately £30, and allows you to work at as many farms in that country as you want throughout the year.
The success of WWOOF is phenomenal, and shown by the increasing number of articles online promoting WWOOFing as a cheap, outdoors, and global volunteer opportunity (see the BBC, The Denver Post and Boots’n’All). Established only 40 years ago, there are now approximately 6000 hosts in over 100 countries. In the UK alone, there are 5,534 active WWOOFers, 480 registered hosts, and a countless number of environments to work in. Due to this popularity, it’s best to arrange your stay in advance, with the summer months being especially packed.
I want to jump on the article bandwagon and provide four reasons to go WWOOFing, each of which apply to the fundamentals of life.
1. Smiling and enthusiasm counts
It seems that, especially for recent graduates, simply having that ‘sparkle in your eye’ doesn’t cut it in the world of work; it needs to be combined with experience, and a hell of a lot of it.
Never milked a cow? Who cares! Can’t tell the difference between weeds and sprouting vegetable leaves? You soon will! Assume that ‘pruning’ is something that only happens when you sit in the bath too long? Think again!
Bring enthusiasm, energy, curiosity and willingness to learn, and you’re pretty much a perfect WWOOFer. Once there, you can build confidence in your own farming abilities through trial and error, learning which jobs suit you and which jobs don’t.
So, say yes to any job at hand and give it a go. There is such a wonderful array of tasks to do on an organic farm, and the longer you spend there the more you’ll recognise how each are closely linked to one another, helping create a sustainable farm system. It is incredibly rewarding to know that your efforts, however simple, contribute to this.
|Boots n’ all, Canon Frome, Herefordshire, UK
2. You can see agriculture for yourself
“People are looking for cheaper ways to travel…and youngsters who can’t find work or training see it as an alternative way of…seeing the world” (WWOOF Administrator, BBC, 2013)
One major challenge facing our food and agricultural system is the decline of young people working in agriculture. Either it’s seen as an ‘uncool’ profession, or its romanticised to such an extent that the hard work, investment and intelligence needed to be a farmer, especially a small-scale or organic farmer, is undermined. With WWOOFing, you see agriculture: the fields, the farm, the food, and the often hard reality.
As a young person, being able to spend time on a farm and listening to stories of personal successes and struggles not only increases an understanding of the reality and ‘how to’ of agriculture, but you get to know your host as an individual not just a ‘farmer’. Cultural, language or lifestyle barriers dissipate as soon as you share your first days work or meal together, and you find yourself with some of the most interesting, genuine people you’ll ever meet. For example, I’ve stayed with a teacher who had more delicious vegan recipes than any published cookbook, with a financial journalist turned organic wine maker, and a couple who got everything other than toilet paper off their own land. What makes it even better is that they’re also interested in you. Bring along a guitar, share photos and stories, or just be open to conversation and you’ll be winning.
|Weeding in Tamil Nadu, India
|I should mention that, despite my own Euro-centric experiences all being mainly positive, WWOOFing is not all chat. Agriculture is hard work, and in order to achieve a sustainable lifestyle and a synergy between nature and culture, you need to work at both the rewarding but also mundane tasks. This includes growing your own crops and rearing animals, but also copious amounts of hand-weeding and maintaining the compost loo. WWOOFers are often landed with the latter tasks, especially if they are only staying for a short period of time. Keep an open mind: you may draw the short straw (and so can your host), but at least you can get a few laughs out of your experience as these two bloggers did (see ‘Dirty Vagrant’ and Transitions Abroad).
3. You get to eat real food
Michael Pollan suggests that growing, foraging for or cooking your own food from scratch helps to realise the full ‘karmic value’ of your meal. In other words, not only have your own emotions and labour gone into the meal, but you become connected to/knowledgeable about the source of your food and the surrounding ecology or culture.
Now, I’m not suggesting that all WWOOFing experiences will give you a first-class course in spear fishing or foraging (for this, why not check out Three Hungry Boys), but chances are you’ll experience a host of karmic adventures. An article by The News Tribune provides a quote from a city-dwelling graduate exemplifying one of the reasons why this is so important:
“I knew that I was so disconnected from my food source and I wanted to experience my food in real time…I had no idea the time and effort that goes into producing quality food”
These could include milking cows to make fresh dairy produce, hand-selecting herbs to go in fresh pasta, choosing freshly laid eggs for veg-filled omelettes, unearthing beetroots and carrots for fantastic salads, de-stoning and drying your own apricots, eating your body weight in sun-ripened raspberries… These are simply my own experiences, so I urge you to go gather your own.
As Ellen Gustafon says in her new book ‘We, the Eaters’, it’s not just about changing what we eat but also changing the way we eat. While WWOOFing, meals are often cooked and eaten either with the host or with other WWOOFers, helping build a social ‘homely’ atmosphere. Eating together at the dinner table, or outside under a tree, is a simple but incredibly important element of a healthy food culture: you can converse, laugh, share delicious food, and above all, take time to reflect on taste and origins of the meal itself.
4. You can exercise and relax
“Strength of mind is exercise, not rest” Alexander Pope
Relaxation is not always synonymous with simply doing nothing. For example, if all you’re living for is the thought of melting into the sofa and relaxing with an episode of The Great British Bake Off, think again. In contrast, WWOOFing provides you with an opportunity to take the stress of daily life into your own, soon-to-be muddied hands, rather than relying on your TV box.
The relaxation benefits of beautiful scenery are pretty self-explanatory, so I want to get to the nitty gritty: sweaty, manual labour. The exercise involved in WWOOFing will help to lower the levels of stress hormones in your body by giving you an aerobic workout, or at least distract you from thoughts that would send levels of adrenaline and cortisol sky-high.
WWOOFers are often given the more basic farm or garden tasks, such as weeding, or maintaining sites/produce plots on the farm. These may sound tedious, but they provide results quickly. There is nothing better than finishing a day of farm work, and actually seeing tangible, positive evidence of your efforts; something you often don’t get out of a day of office work.
It’s important to add that any task, however arduous, can be achieved with the help of a friend. With this in mind, before choosing a farm, ask your potential host whether there are any other WWOOFers staying at the same time as you. If there aren’t, bring along a friend or partner, but only if they are willing too. Our host in Tuscany told us that there is nothing worse than a couple arriving, and on the first day of work it becoming very clear that the one crying in a corner has simply been dragged along by their loving partner.
|It may look like I’m smiling but it’s actually a grimace…
Overall, WWOOFing is cheap, global, based outdoors, physically and mentally exhausting at times but also relaxing, a chance to see agricultural life, an ideal opportunity to cook and eat authentic home-grown food, a way to meet people or strengthen existing friendships while milking a cow, and this whole experience requires simply a smile and enthusiasm.
GO FOR IT!