In the past few years, the term WWOOF has inserted itself into the University vernacular and frequently appears in campus conversations—especially during the spring semester as students begin formulating their summer plans.
WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) is an online service that connects people with organic farmers around the world as part of a cultural non-monetary exchange and education program about sustainable farming practices. In return for travelers’ labor, host families provide food and living accommodations, thus offering an alternative experience that has helped make the program a burgeoning phenomenon on college campuses. Along with offering a cheap way for students to travel around the world, a growing number of University students are opting to WWOOF to practice foreign languages and engage with a rural way of life.
“I was mostly intrigued by WWOOFing for the ability to farm and be in nature…but also because I was going alone and I was thinking about money,” said Carson Horky ’20, who WWOOFed in Wales the summer before her first year at the University.
In addition to cost efficiency, other Wesleyan students who have WWOOFed shared passions for the outdoor spirit while at the same time not having any future plans to work in the agricultural industry.
“It’s not like I want to do anything with farming professionally, let’s say, but I really love nature and don’t get to be in at as much as I would like or have the opportunity to start with my day by doing something active, which is not what I do with the rest of my life, so that was really nice and made me feel healthier, calm and not as stressed,” Horky continued.
In signing up for the WWOOFing experience, students forgo the comforts and conveniences of standard tourist traveling in favor of manual labor and more simple lifestyles on the farms—another key motivating factor.
“I’ve never really been into the idea of staying in hotels and doing that whole curated experience,” said Bella Convertino ’20, who WWOOFed in Norway and Italy. “I liked the idea of when you’re going somewhere of it not being leisure, of transporting your life or aspects of our work into a vacation, because I think you see more of what it would genuinely be like if you lived there. Vacation isn’t a real experience in that sense.”
“Staying in a farming family also just connects you to a longer tradition than a city family,” she added. “Farming families have normally been there for centuries, so there’s a specific culture and identity there that’s directly linked to the area.”
The farming training that students receive encompasses other values that can be translated into various fields.
“Along with being very interested with nature in general, I feel like it’s just a really intimate experience working with the earth,” said Jolene Leuchten ’21, who WWOOFed in Hawaii as part of her gap year before Wesleyan. “Also, I think it’s super important to know the source of your food, especially these days. And I’m also passionate in general about food justice issues.”
While the challenges of the WWOOFing experience can vary drastically based on the family, many students work full days of intensive farm labor in the summer heat. Even the experience of Jesse Marley ’21, who grew up in a farming community in Oregon and was accustomed to manual labor, shows that the conditions into which students throw themselves can be trying.
“It was very isolating, it was a shock to leave everything and be around adults mostly,” said Marley, who went to Australia during his gap year. “I went to this lime farm in the middle of Australia which I didn’t quite realize was similar to Texas in weather conditions. Dry and also politically conservative as far as Australia goes. I found myself on this farm picking limes for eight hours a day, living in a separate very not fancy house, and sunburnt every day.”
As Marley’s experience also demonstrates, however, that the challenges faced while WWOOFing can offer a fresh perspective when returning to his everyday life.
“It instilled a desire to do intellectual labor, to be really excited for it, because manual labor is so brutal, so it motivated me for college,” Marley said. “I breezed through college apps during that period.”
In many ways, Wesleyan students use WWOOFing to offset certain flaws that they perceive in the on-campus academic and social life.
“Being at Wesleyan is kind of like being at a playground—it’s this weirdly fake world and everyone’s the same age and there’s this kind of fantasy nature to it,” Convertino said. “And I find that, aside from academic work, people can be neglectful in living in this fantasy world—but it’s not real, it’s not rooted in anything and it can dissolve once you leave campus, so I think WWOOFing can help you realize other experiences and counteract that fantasy feeling.”
At the heart of the WWOOFing phenomenon on Wesleyan’s campus, however, lies a strange contradiction. For the most part, students dedicate themselves to farming for a chunk of their summers, despite having no future plans of actually going into the agricultural industry. While not universally true, there is often a socioeconomic dynamic to WWOOF, as many of the farms that host college students from elite schools struggle economically and only use the WWOOF system because they can’t pay full-time workers.
“It’s really interesting because I think it’s tied into the paradox of the Wesleyan existence where there’s a lot of pressure to not identify oneself with the fiscal elite,” Marley considered. “We’re not supposed to go to Wall Street after here, and so I guess that that’s where the motivation comes from for Wesleyan kids to live like the ‘poor folks,’ to play the game.”
On reflecting on the way in which WWOOF has become a University trend or fad, Marley worried that it has merged into the realm of organizations like Habitat for Humanity, or social justice-oriented experiences that are seen as purely self-serving, resume-building projects without actually aiding the communities in question.
“While manual labor is humbling and the closest you can get to having real empathy for the hosts that you’re staying [with] and what their life is like, I’m skeptical about the concept of sympathy as a virtue in itself if it doesn’t translate into any action,” said Marley. “So the question remains if it’s okay to spend a few weeks on a farm pretending to be poor and then go back and join the upper professional class, and re-enter the financial elite.”
However, others take a more optimistic approach and see a middle ground in how the WWOOF experience can be used by University students in a socially beneficial way.
“I think it’s about feeling like you’re contributing to something while simultaneously having your own experience,” Leuchten said. “The fact that free travel can be paired with something that feels like you’re doing good is why I’ve also heard people critique WWOOFing—because you’re trying to engage with something that other people have no option but to do, which I could see being a valid judgement. I think it does have potential to be a valuable experience that’s not simply checking off a box and is mutually beneficial. I also think it’s an important experience because a lot of people are really out of touch with physical labor and that’s a reality for a lot of the country. Having that opportunity is beneficial.”
Luke Goldstein can be reached at email@example.com.