If you’re a budget traveller set on doing some no-frills exploration of the world, you might have heard of WWOOFing. And no, it doesn’t anything to do with dogs.
WWOOF stands for “Willing Workers on Organic Farms,” and is a project that started in 1972 in England. The concept is simple: travellers (or anyone, really!) can work for 4-6 hours per day on a farm as a WWOOF volunteer in exchange for food and lodging. A classic example of a win-win scenario, budget travellers get to make their money stretch a little further and have a fun experience while farm owners get labour for a lot cheaper than paying out full-time wages.
Not just swapping work for food and accommodation, WWOOF travel is also intended to be an educational experience- in fact; that is where the whole incentive shines. Unfortunately, we live in a world where there is a huge knowledge gap between the food that stocks our supermarket shelves and where that food is grown, manufactured and packaged. The average apple in the fruit section is eight months old. Food travels halfway around the world so that we never have to eat seasonally, and our meat is packaged to an extent where we forget about the slaughtered animal whose thigh we are chomping. If you had asked me where beans come from 5-months ago, I would have only been able to take a wild guess. Trees? Bushes? Where do those little suckers come from!
Volunteering with WWOOF is an excellent way to bridge that gap. The volunteer experience will have you planting crops, milking cows, and scooping the poop from fields (friends, there is so much poop involved). You will arrive with perfect nails and leave with chipped, callused farmers hands. You will know the real pleasure of a hot shower when your skin is caked in dirt. You might even experience the horror of live animal birth, relax with a nap in a rustling cornfield or take with your hips riding in a saddle with the wind in your hair. You will see more sunrises than ever before, your back will ache, and you will meet some amazing people. Above everything, WWOOF travel will teach you the true beauty and exhilaration of how our earth grows the food we eat- it’s amazing.
Sounds good, right? You can have an amazing WWOOF volunteer experience of your own whether you’re single or travelling in a pair. So, before you fasten up your farmer-chic overalls and pull on your wellies, here are five things you need to know before you go WWOOFing:
1. It’s bloody hard work.
Excuse my Australian slang, but if you have pictures of frolicking around with baby lambs, or kinfolk-style picking big heaving baskets of fresh fruits and vegetables, then you are going to be in for a rude shock. Farming is far from romantic! During my two-months of WWOOF travel in New Zealand, I spent time cleaning dead worm carcasses from a pond, days scooping up donkey poop, and tears were shed when I witnessed the harsh reality of watching baby animals die from being rejected by mothers (SOB). There might be some beautiful moments mixed in, and I did get to spend a good amount of time playing with baby goats, but please get your head out of the clouds- you will be disappointed.
2. The people are the most important thing.
You might be on the most beautiful farm in the world, but if your host’s hobby is looking at you through a crack in your doorway, ya ain’t gonna have a good time. Out of the three farms I worked on, one was with a friendly South African couple, one was with a kindly German, and the third was with a scary woman who liked to kiss her goats on the mouth every morning. Guess which place I only stayed for three days?
Pick your WWOOF volunteer location carefully. Don’t go anywhere without at least 2-3 reviews. Places that advertise with an extensive list of rules and regulations are a no-no. If you’re a single girl, don’t go to a place with a single man. Choose a place with more than one WWOOF traveler so that you can make friends and have allies if things go awry. And if you ever feel uncomfortable, then just leave- don’t try and stick it out.
3. It’s time to wear your thrift shop finest.
Don’t bother packing clothes for WWOOF travel. Just go naked!
I’m just joking, but seriously, don’t pack your Sunday best or your favourite pair of travel harems (I know you have them) because your clothes will get trashed. Depending on the location, I would suggest a couple of pair of old jeans, some sturdy farm shoes, and a windbreaker that can act as a poop and mud barrier. Top with a pair of sunnies, a slap of sunscreen and get ready to look the worst you have ever looked.
This is where solo WWOOF travel has its benefits; there will be no one to recoil in horror at your end-of-day appearance if you’re travelling alone.
4. Don’t work more than 6 hours a day.
Unfortunately, there are WWOOF volunteer placements that exploit free labour. The very foundation of WWOOFing is that workers are supposed to have the time outside of their workday to enjoy their surroundings, visit the local area, and have a fun time.
If you’re waking at 4 am and working through until the late afternoon then something is wrong and you are being exploited. If you are being asked to work for more than 6 hours, then you should leave or sit down and have a chat with the owner. Again, being a WWOOF volunteer is supposed to be fun. You should not be stumbling into bed as soon as your slave driver host gives you the word that the day is over.
5. If you’re not learning something then move on.
It’s not willing workers washing cars, doing endless washing up or even scrubbing toilets. Yes, you might have to wash a car or look after a baby, but that should not be your full-time job. WWOOF travel should be an educational experience and NOT a way to employ a housekeeper for free.
When I traveled as a WWOOF volunteer in New Zealand, I learned how to grow seedlings, how to prune grape vines and how to make goat’s cheese. These are skills that I now hold dear to my heart. I can now pick up some sweet potatoes at the market and know exactly what the tasty tubers look like when plucked fresh from the earth. I know how thrilling it is to see the tiny green shoot of a seedling as it pushes up through the dirt, and I know that cows like to follow you around a paddock so that you can give them chin scratches (warning: this experience might turn you vegan – it did for me). If you are learning just a little something every day, then you are doing it right.
To sign up for wwoofing placements- http://www.wwoof.net
To sign up for wwoofing in Australia- http://www.wwoof.com.au
You will usually have to pay between $40- $80 for a year’s membership, depending on the country you choose. WWOOFing is available in 100+ countries.