By: Lauren Sloan
From Serbia to Spain the idea of WWOOFing is becoming increasingly popular especially for younger students who are looking for a unique way of traveling the world while expanding their mind. But wait, WWOOFing? What is that? Though its name is a bit bewildering, WWOOF’s concept is fairly simple: connect hardworking volunteers with friendly hosts who are willing to provide food, accommodation and knowledge about organic farming to their guests in exchange for hands-on help. Yes, that’s WWOOFing—but oh, is it so much more.
WWOOF originally got its name from the acronym Working Weekends on Organic Farms, when Sue Coppard thought of the idea while visiting Sussex, England in 1971. Since then, the idea has expanded exponentially with 60 national WWOOF organizations worldwide and an additional 55 countries hosting without formal association with WWOOF. Given its universal success and growth, the organization has gained a new acronym: World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. And it’s not just “Aggies” who are getting into the WWOOFing world. Lauren Miller is but one example.
”I don’t have any experience farming,” the recent graduate of the University of Georgia, admitted before embarking on her WWOOFing journey to New Zealand this past November. “I decided to do it because it just sounded like a good opportunity.”
The young yoga teacher and nurse-to-be was enthralled by the idea of going anywhere in the world for relatively no cost, whether that be a few hours away or on the other side of the world, she knew WWOOFing was an experience she just could not ignore.
Rachel Ehlingher, a fourth-year geography major at the University of Georgia shared Lauren’s thoughts and excitement about WWOOFing as well.
“Mostly, I wanted to do this because living is free,” she admitted. “It’s one of the cheapest ways to travel.”
And for travel bugs like Rachel, that small little fact means the world—literally. With a round-trip ticket as her only necessary expense, Rachel, like so many others, found WWOOFing to be a wonderful way to see the world without breaking the bank.
And these girls aren’t alone in their thought process. Over 80,000 volunteers WWOOFed in just 2010 alone, and the numbers are only growing. Although reasons for embarking on the journey may vary, one thing is for sure: the idea is spreading.
Though there are various WWOOF organizations worldwide, there is not an international institution as of yet. Therefore, since WWOOFing is set up on a national level, it absolutely essential for volunteers to decide which country they want to visit first. After selecting a location, volunteers must pay a small membership fee of around $25 and create a bio page filled with their skill sets. Once paid and filled out, members will gain access to a list of hosts and work opportunities within that specific country. Members can customize their experience to suit their needs to include activities as diverse as wine making, cheese making or even pig rearing. The opportunities are endless, and they are just a quick email away.
“Make sure to contact [hosts] beforehand to work out plans because they might already have WWOOFers and may not need assistance or room for you,” Jessica Chudnik, the University of Georgia’s Sustainable Agriculture Program Assistant suggested while recalling her various experiences WWOOFing around the world.
Though Jessica has had wonderful adventures while WWOOFing, she warns that every WWOOF situation is set up a little differently so research is absolutely essential before departure. Not only that, but it’s also important to know the responsibilities of being a volunteer; some hosts have been known to take advantage of the free labor, so reading the reviews and doing a bit of homework is highly advised.
Durations of trips vary; there is not standard period for WWOOFing. Volunteers have been known to stay for only few short days while others have lived on the same farm for over six months, it all just depends on the situation. Since there is no set time, volunteers must coordinate schedules and talk to their hosts prior to departure. The only real restriction WWOOF possesses is that most WWOOF groups require volunteers to be at least 18 years old, though some countries have different rules and regulations.
With over 2,000 organic farms just within the WWOOF-USA Host Farm Directory alone, finding the perfect farm might not be as easy as it seems. First-year Environmental Economics and Management major Mallory Warren can attest to that fact.
“I talked to maybe five farms before I found one that was best for us,” she confessed shyly while recollecting her WWOOFing experience in Lompoc, California this past summer with her boyfriend. “We wanted to find a farm that had a lot of other WWOOFers there too so that we could meet people. At one point, I think there were 11 other WWOOFers besides me and my boyfriend.”
And just as Mallory experienced, other WWOOFers can add an entirely new layer to the WWOOFing experience: cultural exchange. In fact, this interchange comes quite naturally with the territory due to the way the system is set up, living with host families and other workers. Volunteers get to see the daily lives of others, mix with people from far and near, and pick up different languages, ideas, and cultures. This creates an environment of exchange and acceptance that Mallory, along with so many others, found to be their favorite part of the entire experience.
“It was really cool because there were so many different people from all over; there was a guy from Brazil, a girl from Finland, a guy from Scotland and another girl from Belgium,” Mallory remembered with a joy. “The hosts always had dinner with all of us at a big farm table outside every night, so that was really nice; we got to know the people pretty well… We’re Facebook friends now!”
Rachel Ehlinger had a similar experience while WWOOFing in Ireland; she met two girls from France while working and made a very deep connection with them along the way.
“I learned so much French and we went all over Ireland together,” she admitted giddily. “We were like the three musketeers.”
The friendship and connections don’t have to stop when the WWOOFing does. In fact, Ehlingher and her two French friends are planning on seeing each other next fall and continue to talk regularly even to this day, almost a year after their WWOOFing experience together. Rachel praises the WWOOF system for connecting her to others from around the world and realized how beneficial WWOOFing can be for networking with others from around the world.
But WWOOFing isn’t all fun and games; day-to-day tasks are tiring, exhausting and, indeed, work.
“Some students have never even picked up a shovel, so how to dig a hole is a concept they have to figure out,” the experienced WWOOFer Jessica Chudnik explained. “You’re going to get dirty and sweaty.”
Mallory Warren agreed. When thinking back on her experience in California, she warned others of the daunting realities of the hard work that comes with working on a farm.
“If you don’t enjoy being outdoors and hard work, then you probably wouldn’t like it,” she cautioned. “Because it is work.”
And she’s not just saying that. In fact, according to centerforsustainability.org, organic farming typically requires 2.5 times more labor than conventional farming, so the volunteers must know exactly what they are signing up for before committing to the job.
Daily tasks are hard and require a lot of physical and manual labor. Volunteers are expected to work at least 4-6 hours a day—and the day usually starts early.
Jessica Chudnik explained her daily routine during her WWOOFing trip in New Zealand just a few years back.
“Some of us were on the early crew: milking, going to get the cows, setting up the equipment, milking at 5:00 A.M.” Chudnik explained. “Then there was the later crew: some of us were chopping wood to prepare for the winter time.”
Mallory’s experience was similar. Though work requirements differ from farm to farm, Malloy’s average was about 30 hours a week, six hours a day, and five days a week.
Her normal day on the farm began at 8:00 A.M. with tasks such as feeding the chickens, cleaning the stalls, and working with the family’s pigs, rabbits and ducks. After lunch, volunteers would move out to the garden where work ranged from weeding and harvesting to trellising the beans or tomatoes. Each morning, her hosts would tell her the tasks for the day and explain how and why this work needed to be done. She gained a vast knowledge about gardening and farming and always felt comfortable asking questions.
The experience on the farm not only helped Mallory with her gardening skills, but it also helped her in her career path as well.
“I think I will probably do something that relates to food production,” the freshman admitted. “I was planning on doing that before but it just reinforced what I wanted to do.”
Whether you plan on pursing a career in the agricultural field like Mallory, or you’d simply like to have a garden someday like Lauren Miller, WWOOFing has proved to be quite the experience for all.
“One thing I know is that everyone eats,” Jessica Chudnik pointed out. “So everyone should know where their food comes from and how hard it is to grow it, raise it and produce it.”
And that’s not even half of it; past WWOOFers agree that the experience teaches so much more than just agricultural knowledge.
“It’s really about learning about other people,” Chudnik explained. “No matter if you’re going into banking or farming, learning how to be self-sufficient and work harder are always skills that are good to learn.”
In addition to new farming knowledge, Mallory learned about her surroundings in ways she never thought of before her WWOOFing journey.
“I feel like I understand the way food can have an impact on the community and the people around you, especially since you’re working all day around food and plants,” the freshman admitted.
Another thing Jessica pointed out was the idea of practicing and learning humility and respect while on the farm. Volunteers are living in someone else’s home; therefore respect for others, regardless of one’s own thoughts or ideas is essential.
“Sometimes you will have a five-year-old teach you what you’re supposed to be doing because they know what’s going on and you don’t,” Jessica Chudnik explained. “Your knowledge base could be no more advance than a five-year-old when it comes to living on that farm at times.” Some might struggle with such a concept, but that’s exactly point; the trip can have the power to alter perceptions and people’s characters along the way.
For indeed, past WWOOFers, like Jessica and Rachel, rave about their experiences on the farm and encourage others to take a chance and give WWOOFing a try.
“I’d recommend it to anybody,” Jessica said with a smile. “Not only can it cut down on your costs for travel, but you’re going to have a hoot of a time.”
Though Mallory agrees WWOOFing is a wonderful experience, she had a slightly different idea when it came to recommendations; she doesn’t think WWOOFing its for everyone. She would recommend it for those interested in agriculture and sustainability, or for people who want to learn more about local culture in specific cities, for WWOOFing is a fantastic way to immerse within a foreign culture. If someone is not interested in any of those factors, she thinks the experience would not necessarily be right for him or her.
Nevertheless, according to the United Nations, over 40% of today’s global population works in agriculture, making it the largest business in the world. But sadly, not all of those farms are organic; factory farms produce a great danger to not only society, but to the environment as well. National Geographic reports find that factory farms cause erosion, deforestation, depleted and contaminated soil and water resources, loss of biodiversity, labor abuses, and the decline of family farms. This fact means that organic farming is in higher demand and more important than ever before—WWOOFing without a doubt then plays an important role and is something people should look into if are interested in such an opportunity; many of those who go love the experience so much, they dream of returning.
“I’m actually planning on doing it again this July with my friend,” Mallory confessed with glee at just the mere thought of returning to the fields. “We’re looking to go to either Oregon or Washington… going for a month again; not too long and not too short either, it’s perfect.”
And so the adventure continues.