Wwoofing, at first, sounds a bit like the noise a dog makes. The practice, which is an acronym for “worldwide workers on organic farms” or “willing workers on organic farms,” is actually a global, cooperative system that connects organic, permacultural or biodynamic farmers with a volunteer workforce. It symbiotically benefits both the farmer and the woofer. The farmer gets a curious, excited workforce wishing to learn about the operation of small, sustainable farms. And wwoofers, in exchange for their labor, often receive free or reduced room and board and a hands-on approach to learning the ins and outs of farming.
Also, the exchange helps non-industrial farmers who are not rich, but nonetheless market their crops or live as subsistence farmers. Conventional, industrial farming is incredibly destructive to the environment and, as huge agricultural interests muscle for an even bigger seat at the table than the one they enjoy, more and more traditional farmers up against difficult global market realities. So by banding together with organic farmers, for example, you’re supporting a more sane, environmentally-sound practice and you’re doing it through a process called “mutual aid”: both parties are contributing what they have to one another for the mutual benefit of both.
It’s also incredibly easy to get involved. You merely have to access a directory (examples of which can be found below), and start sending out e-mails or making calls.
Because it can help facilitate and enrich international travel and because (surprise!), the world contains a treasure trove of traditional knowledge and unique applications of modern techniques, and because small farmers tend to have some, well… character, it’s no surprise that wwoofing has become an international phenomenon. While woofing is relatively straightforward, there are some things you’d better consider before hooking up with a farmer.
The first thing to ask, for the prospective wwoofer, is what are you trying to get out of the experience. If you’re merely wishing to see the countryside of a place you’re traveling to and looking for a cooperative experience to facilitate this, then your demands will be few.
What would best suit you would most likely be a worktrade where there is a small workload that is generalized; you’ll spend a lot of time weeding beds or harvesting, for example. If you’re looking for something specific, skills to pick up, specific livestock to work with, or a particular method you’d like to learn, then you have to do your homework. In some cases this may include picking specific farms as a destination, instead of the more loose kind of wwoofing just mentioned.
Some farmers actively solicit intensive, seasonal internships to get a more serious pack of wwoofers and make sure that the work of running the farm will be covered by someone who is serious about farming as their future.
What sometimes happens (and this is rare), is that wwoofing gigs can turn into unpaid seasonal labor. Novice wwoofers can sometimes hook up with farmers who are looking for a workforce that they don’t have to pay and you’ll get nearly the same experience doing seasonal harvesting work (minus the pay of course). To avoid this, talk to the farmers beforehand to get a sense of what they’re looking for. Talk to fellow wwoofers about places they’ve been. They’re often knowledgeable about great places they’ve been on and what places have been lacking.
Also, some novice wwoofers are put off by manual labor. They find out quickly that occasionally intense, sometimes repetitive manual labor isn’t for them. This is a wake-up call: welcome to farming. Both the host farmer and the wwoofer are responsible for holding up their end of the bargain. If you feel like you’re being exploited, you are free to leave. If you’re not providing the farmer with the value of your agreed-upon workload, then the farmer has every right to ask you to leave. It happens. Of course the schedule and pace of farming takes a bit to get used to, but once the wwoofer learns what is expected of them, the whole experience opens up. You then enjoy your leisure time and learn that it comes in different ways than in your everyday life. Remember, the craft of farming is something you’ll learn by doing. While it’s perfectly acceptable to read up about the farming that you’re doing, you’ll learn a lot more through experience and your end of the bargain, in nearly every wwoofing experience, is your labor.
Also, you should know what you’re getting into, socially. Some farms are operated by religious groups or more socially-conservative farmers. Some are full-scale intentional communities manned by naked hippies. There are worlds in between. The point is that you are going to someone’s land. They will be hosting you, instructing you and sharing with you. While cultural exchange is the name of the game, you should have a general idea of what’s expected of you before you arrive. The upside is that many wwoofing directories are specific, with the entries written by the framers themselves. And, if there are irreconcilable differences or some unforeseen factor that means that the farmer or the wwoofer aren’t a good match, the relationship is voluntary. Either side can walk away.
And, to bring us back a little from the pitfalls, let it be said that the first night you spend in the company of others you’re working with, eating food you’re helping to produce and sharing stories will be one of the best in your entire life. So while a fair amount of caution is practical, by all means, jump in.
Here are some great places to start learning more about wwoofing. This is a very small example. A simple Google search will net you hundreds of thousands of results. The web is also rife with wwoofers’ blogs and testimonials.
Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms – http://www.wwoof.org/
WWOOF Association – http://www.wwoofinternational.org/
WWOOF Australia – http://www.wwoof.com.au/