A few months ago I decided that I wanted to travel and explore the world while doing something useful for our Mother Earth. But “How?” I asked myself. That was when I discovered World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF). Through this network I found an eco farm in Southern Chile where I volunteered for two weeks. In return for my help I learned about permaculture and had the chance to exchange ideas and experiences with the local farmers and other volunteers.
WWOOF is a worldwide network of organic farms that works under the basis of trust and non-monetary exchange—volunteers work at organic farms in exchange for lodging, food and, of course, knowledge. The community is run by national and regional organisations. Jan-Philipp Gutt, a WWOOF host in Germany and an active member of the WWOOF community explains that “WWOOFing is for people who want to share daily life on an organic farm. Curiosity and willingness to adapt to new situations and lifestyles are maybe the most important preconditions”.A different lifestyle—that is what volunteers mainly want to experience and what hosts offer. Besides the fact that WWOOFers can use this kind of exchange to move around in a cheap way, it is the idea of getting new experiences that fascinates them about this exchange. “Through WWOOF, we usually get people who are genuinely interested in farming and gardening and enjoy being in the countryside. A lot of people see it as a great way to get a break from their studies or office jobs and do some hands-on physical work while learning new skills,” explains Anne Freitag, a former WWOOFer volunteer and now a host herself. In 2013, Anne quit her job, traveled to different countries and enjoyed several WWOOF experiences from which she collected inspiration. In Spring 2014, she moved with her partner to a smallholding near Hameln. Since then they have been renovating and preparing a project called the Simple Life Farm with the aim “to create an organic smallholding including a pasture, woodland and arable farmland that is designed to have all of the components working together so that we have minimal external inputs and maximum self produced outputs”. Of course they joined the German WWOOF community as hosts.
Founded almost thirty years ago, WWOOF basically provides a network with an educational background that puts volunteers in touch with hosts. There are about a hundred countries with a WWOOF community. To access information regarding diverse farms on the national level, a volunteer needs to register at the national website of the country in which s/he wants to volunteer. S/he contacts a host and together they agree on the terms: the duration of his/her stay and the tasks s/he will do. The layovers are usually two to six weeks.
Basically anyone can be a WWOOFer given that previous farming experience is not needed. As Jan remarks, “WWOOF farmers ‘lead by example,’ farming organically or living self-sufficiently with the help of volunteers, while WWOOFers experience an alternative hands-on lifestyle and learn practical skills”. And that is what really happens.
I hadn’t had any prior experience in proper farming except that my mother comes from a small agricultural village. During my time at the eco farm in Chile I helped to build a chicken coop with a technique called earthbag (or sandbag) building. I learned how to weed the vegetable garden, collected algae and herbs, and picked up horse manure to use for making compost. I got other non-agricultural skills as well: I learned to bake bread, helped to organise a local event and took part in a local food party. Every day at the farm I had the chance to learn something new and the continuous exchange of knowledge and ideas was part of my daily routine (I still remember most of the conversations I had there when at the end of a fruitful day we were chilling), but what is most important is that during those two weeks I was part of that small local community cropping their own food, living as sustainably as possible and closely connected to nature.
Many volunteers want to become WWOOFers and the exchange is equally important for the eco farms. According to Jan, the group in Germany is “receiving several applications of aspirants every week,” and as Anne explains, “not only do we get extra hands that are always needed at the farm, but it’s also great to get new perspectives on our project from lots of different people. The positive feedback we get from our volunteers is really encouraging.” WWOOF gives people from different cultures and countries the opportunity to live together. Volunteers are coming and going from all over the world. In Germany, as Jan also points out, about half of the WWOOFers are nationals while the rest are from North America and other European countries, with some from Asia, Australia and New Zealand.”
Elsa Mirapeix, a Spaniard living in Berlin, is one of the ones who decided to volunteer in the country she is living in. She recently spent two weeks at a farm in Bloischdorf, a small town about fifty kilometers south of Berlin. She found this farm through Workaway, another platform similar to WWOOF, although this one focuses on intercultural exchange and offers other possibilities such as language exchange or helping in a hostel. Elsa wanted to leave the German capital for a couple of days as well as get new experiences without spending a lot of money. Not only did she acquire knowhow and an inspiring experience, but she was also able to help people with whom she shares the same living values and ideas—all this for the price of a €16 roundtrip bus ticket and a website registration fee (both websites charge volunteers a small registration fee that allows them to use the website for a year).
Elsa would do it again and right now I am also thinking about when and where I could become a WWOOFer again. It is a great experience and without a doubt a great adventure—you can travel practically anywhere, you learn from the locals not only about sustainable farming but also about their lifestyle and culture, and you will enjoy great local food that you will be cropping yourself. And most of the time you will be able to enjoy a breathtaking landscape in a remote place where there are only locals. Are you ready to leave behind the ways of “normal” tourism and participate in this new lifestyle and way of exchange?