As interest in organic and sustainable agricultural practices increases, more people are seeking methods to reduce their environmental impact and shift toward self-sustaining lifestyles. In the last forty years, an organization called WWOOF, or World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms has been gaining traction and bringing together farmers and volunteers to create a unique environment of collaborative learning, sustainable practices, and cultural exchange. The idea of a decentralized network where families or individuals who have farms or smallholdings could link up with enthusiastic volunteers has its origins in the early 1970’s in London, attributed to Sue Coppard. Over the last four decades, the WWOOF name and tenets have become adopted across the world, as individual countries create websites where farmers, and those interested in sustainability and organic practices can come together and organize.
The premise is simple: Hosts from all over the world provide food and housing in exchange for volunteers to stay and help in their homes. Typically, this work is centered around the growing and harvesting of plants, but the gamut could include healing arts centers, art studios, carpentry, stone-laying, yoga, or anything in between. Hosts generate a profile on the website explaining the nature of their farm, location, types of work or projects that are currently on the horizon, accommodations provided, and the time of year which a “wwoofer” should apply. Sometimes the farm is for profit, and is the primary means in which the owner sustains themselves. More commonly, however, the hosts are simply interested in moving toward sustainability and growing/raising their own food. A key principle of WWOOFing is that money does not change hands. The hosts invite the wwoofers to live in their home and help on their farm in exchange for housing, meals, and the opportunity to travel to a foreign country and live frugally.
A “wwoofer” is the individual or couple seeking to volunteer. Many countries allow a couple or a family to register online as a unit. A wwoofer makes a profile for prospective hosts to get a sense of their potential volunteer. On the profile, a wwoofer would list prior experiences, particular interests, and general get-to-know-me type information. As wwoofing is centered around the idea of communal sharing and learning, it is not necessary for volunteers to be skilled in the practices, but to be engaged and willing to work and learn. The wwoofer then sends a message to a desired host, (typically weeks to months in advance), and the host would respond if they need a hand at that time.
Membership to a website usually costs around $40.00, and gives the wwoofer year-long access to peruse the available hosts in the country. With over fifty countries with official websites (plus WWOOF international which brackets dozens of smaller countries together who lack an overarching website), the possibilities are ostensibly inexhaustible. California has over 200 registered hosts, Argentina with near 100, Ireland at a dense 390, and hundreds more across Asia and the middle-east, there is a ever-fluctuating array of possibilities. Australia alone has over 2,300 hosts looking for wwoofers.
What makes wwoofing alluring and unique to many is the sort of intimate, personal experiences it has the potential to create. As there are no concrete guidelines or rules to what a host or a wwoofer must be, experiences tend to be broad and diverse. Certainly, on most vegetable and plant-based farms there will probably be a fair amount of weeding to be done. While weed-removal is inevitable, there has been a push to broaden the scope of activities and projects available. At the time of this writing a host in Toronto, Canada needs help with “canning, juicing, seed-saving, fencing, building, animal care, and butchering chickens.”, a couple in Chubu, Japan is preparing to make jam and offers Japanese-speaking lessons, and soap-making lessons are available in the Wicklow Mountains in southern Ireland.
In order to suit a wwoofer’s ambitions, one’s interests would dictate the country, or part of the country that a wwoofer would want to go to, and the time of year. In WWOOF Ireland, for example, the majority of hosts indicate that they want wwoofers between March and November-a practical result of the closed door on the growing season in Winter. However, opportunities still exist even in those months for those interested in other aspects of farm-life. There are many hosts who are working toward sustainability on other fronts: animal husbandry, installing solar panels, or getting involved in community art projects. Some farms will host wwoofers for a week or so, others have had volunteers stay with them for months.
Loren Farese, 25 from California explains some of her time in Abruzzo, Italy, where she lived for three months:
“It was an agriturismo, or organic farm and Bed & Breakfast, which they have all over France and Italy. I helped to clean rooms, feed the donkey, goat, pigs and chickens, kept watch for the fox during siesta, did some garden maintenance and harvesting, and helped to prepare meals, among other odd jobs on the farm.”
Descriptions of time spent wwoofing as “nothing but positive, enriching experiences” is among the more common responses to the program. As hosts invite wwoofers into their homes with only what information a wwoofer provides on their profile, (and vice-versa) there is a certain level of trust that is implied and built between hosts and wwoofers, which is what makes the program so important to the members. The experience of living in home of hosts in a foreign country can be a daunting prospect for both parties, but sharing meals and working together provides a unique platform to build strong friendships, learn new skills, and to share cultures in ways that are not possible within the confines of a hotel or tour-bus. For more information at becoming a member of a “global community”, visit www.wwoof.org to learn about becoming a volunteer or a host.