While many students opt to spend their long, lazy breaks in front of the T.V., allowing every intelligent thought to ooze from their brains, others choose to live and work on organic farms and get their hands dirty.
World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, commonly referred to by its acronym WWOOF, is an organization that connects owners and operators of organic farms in need of volunteers with people who are looking to get experience working on a farm. Host farms register on the website, listing what kind of experience and work they are looking for. Volunteers from all over the world respond to posts that interest them, and work for lengths of time ranging from a few days to an entire season or longer. Most work between four and six hours per day, five and a half days per week.
WWOOFing is not for the faint of heart.
“WWOOFers (volunteers) need a genuine interest in learning about organic growing, country living or ecologically sound lifestyle,” according to the organization’s website.
WWOOFers are not paid for their work, but are provided with room and board. They often live with a host family, but sometimes live in tents with other volunteers. Volunteers say that the variety of living situations can be one of the more interesting parts of WWOOFing, and often a major reason for volunteering.
“I spent the time living with a 44 year-old Catalan man in a one-room cabin halfway up a mountain, about an hour and a half from town,” said Nate Dolton-Thornton ’15, speaking about his three-week long experience working on a farm in Olot, Spain.
He has also worked for a month each on two farms in California. As Dolton-Thornton learned first-hand, not all WWOOFing experiences are equal.
“The second farm, outside of North Fork, California, was very much the opposite of David’s cabin, but almost equally life-altering,” he said. “I lived in a village of four trailers (affectionately called ‘WWOOFville’) with 12 other WWOOFers from all over the world: New York, Puerto Rico, Quebec, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, central Canada, and Sweden.”
The tasks performed by WWOOFers also vary greatly from farm to farm, and even vary significantly from day to day on any given farm. The variety of work to which WWOOFers get exposed is seen as one of the greatest advantages of the organization.
“We learned how to make cheese and were in charge of the hen house,” said Rob Roth ’14, who worked on a dairy farm in Craftsbury, Vermont for two weeks. “My other two friends learned how to set up trails for sheep grazing. We also did a lot of babysitting for their kids, which was a lot of fun.”
Like Roth, Dolton-Thornton said he has also gained an impressive résumé of experience by working on these farms.
“I learned in my WWOOFing experience how to plant trees; mix and lay concrete; milk a goat; bake bread; knap flint arrowheads; construct a fence; care for poultry, goats, llamas, burros, and horses; practice no-till farming; split wood; clear forests sustainably; identify mushrooms, birds, trees, and many other plants; and play ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’ on the banjo,” Dolton-Thorton said.
The activities performed by WWOOFing volunteers can vary depending the volunteer’s familiarity with farming.
“I didn’t have any experience with farming, agriculture, etc., so I was a little nervous beforehand, but all the work I was assigned was very manageable,” said Amanda Simmons ’13, who WWOOFed for two weeks outside of St. Pons in the South of France. “I did a lot of gardening and mended fences. My work was not at all difficult, but I was assigned tasks based on my lack of experience. A young German couple who had just bought acres in their home country to start their own family farm did most of the ‘heavy duty’ work.”
Thanks to the variety of host farms registered on the WWOOFing website, volunteers with any level of experience can find a place that suits their interests and talents. WWOOFers can choose the farm at which they want to work based on a multitude of factors, including the type of labor that is needed, the type of farm, and the location.
There are farms in all 50 states that are usually seeking volunteers. Additionally, nearly 100 countries currently have WWOOFing host farms, providing volunteers the opportunity to combine their work with an international, cultural, and linguistic experience.
Although many people are drawn to the organization because of an interest in organic farming and sustainable agriculture, volunteers say that the cultural exchanges and opportunities to meet new people end up being some of the most satisfying aspects of the WWOOFing experience.
“Of course I learned a bit about the practices and the economies of organic farming in France, but WWOOFing is so much more,” said Aria Danaparamita ’13, who spent five weeks WWOOFing at four different farms and vegetable gardens around France. “It’s culturally enriching, opening your world views through encounters not only with the land but with your hosts, other WWOOFers, and travelers who cross your path. It’s also a great way to travel and learn about a new culture. You learn about current affairs, local cuisines, local expressions. You visit local markets, local bakeries.”
In many cases, after the workday is over, volunteers have the rest of the day to do as they please. This provides a unique opportunity to fully experience a new culture or rhythm of life.
“Most of my time was, I think, spent talking with my hosts over wine and simple meals, or biking the valleys of Provence, or reading a book under a tree somewhere,” Danaparamita said.
Simmons had a similar attitude about her cultural experience in France.
“I tacked on the WWOOFing experience to my semester studying abroad in Paris, an incredible city, but one that couldn’t be any more different than the village of St. Pons and the farm where I worked,” Simmons said. “It was really worthwhile to get a glimpse at the diversity of a country where I lived for four months.”
Other students agreed with Simmons, explaining that one of the most enriching parts of their WWOOFing experience was their exposure to interesting and diverse people.
“The people we lived and worked with were by far the most rewarding part of the experience—not necessarily the work,” Roth said.
Other students voiced the same opinion, saying that interacting with other WWOOFers, their host families, and other local people had a profound effect on their lives.
“[My host] David had a friend, an older British man named Jamie, who also studied natural farming, as well as Zen Buddhism,” said Dolton-Thornton. “I learned an amazing amount about natural farming, as well as bio-construction, permaculture, and Zen Buddhism from Jamie. It was in part because of his influence that I ended up living for about a month and a half in a Zen monastery in California the following year.”
Danaparamita agreed that she gained a lot from her conversations with her hosts.
“My first host was an old retired couple who kept an organic garden for themselves and people in the village,” she said. “So there, I’d help them in the garden. Then they’d tell me stories about World War II or Montesquieu or how much they dislike Sarkozy. I do think the best part was the dinners that last three hours, where we’d talk about everything from French movies to fracking to hitchhiking in Europe.”
Ultimately, all of the interviewed students found their WWOOFing experiences to be extremely enriching and rewarding. They came away with a greater understanding of sustainable farming, and perhaps more importantly, an expanded sense of cultural awareness.
“The ideas and anecdotes exchanged, even culinary and artistic projects you share” said Danaparamita. “Really, everyone should try and embrace WWOOFing cultural philosophy.”