Make Total WWOOF

By Bryn Roshong

Spring is coming – for some it’s the beginning of another growing season, and for others it's time to pack a bag and hit the road for a couple months. For many, it’s time to combine the two.

Willing Workers on Organic Farms, or Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), is an international network of organic or ecologically sound farms that offer room and board in exchange for volunteer farm labor. WWOOF, more than any other work- or volunteer-while-you-travel tourism program, is closely in line with common anarchist principles of autonomy, decentralization and mutual aid. The decentralized nature of the WWOOF network allows for direct WWOOFer-to-host contact without a cumbersome or profit-seeking bureaucracy built up around it. The fees to participate are relatively low and maintain the WWOOF communication infrastructure.

The character of each farm runs the gamut, with something to excite (or repulse) every practical skill seeker and lifestyle explorer. The WWOOF network is a boon to many of the farms that use it, too, because they are frequently small and low-budget, and only with low-cost helping hands can they be viable and productive.

WWOOF got its start in England in 1971 as “Working Weekends on Organic Farms” and became more established as the founders realized that other farms were running similar programs all across Europe. Now, 48 countries are officially affiliated with the WWOOF network, while dozens of others are loosely connected through the WWOOF Independents list.

All WWOOF information can be found on its Web site ( as well as in the manuals that are mailed to members. While lack of centralization keeps the network simple and bare bones, it also means that prospective WWOOFers need to pay to join each national WWOOF network that they are interested in (though some offer combined rates, such as Mexico/Belize/Costa Rica). Moreover, some of the countries’ sites are not in English, but they can usually be sorted out with the help of an online translator.

The sheer volume of possibilities available through WWOOF is overwhelming. Finca Agrovia Farm in Tapachula, Chiapas, Mexico, is a Rain Forest Alliance, long-time organic coffee plantation with an environmentally friendly wet and dry mill. The mill works in conjunction with a water treatment plant that enriches vermin-compost used for nutrition, according to their Web site.

Anathoth Community Farm near Luck, Wis., is an ever-evolving homestead community that produces organic vegetables in their two-acre garden and year-round greenhouses, for self-sufficiency as well as for a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Anathoth is also the home of the volunteer-based, anti-nuclear organization NukeWatch and welcomes progressive trainings on its land, such as 2008’s pre-RNC Wilderness First Responder and Action Medical classes.

Cheese-making enthusiasts can browse through France’s listings for one of several collectively run sheep and goat farms in the Alps that are unreachable by car. These farms make it plain that WWOOFing can sometimes go beyond farming and can offer a practice run at a sought-after model of living.

In 2007, Lily Gershon, currently of Ithaca, N.Y., WWOOFed on three different farms on the Big Island in Hawaii, including two orchid and anthurium farms, and a biodynamic farm connected to a Waldorf school.

“I didn't expect so much variety,” Gershon said. “Most of [my hosts] had experience with the program and had a place for us to stay and basic tips that organized the experience for us. The labor was mostly reasonable. There was one farm where the owner didn't really understand our food needs (vegetarian) and we had to talk to him about buying us vegetables.”

Quality of both hosts and WWOOFers varies, and sometimes WWOOFing does not become the fortifying experience hoped for. According to Gershon, “Some places don't take the time to teach you, and you feel just like a work horse.”

Abha Gupta, a former farm manager at Six Circles Farm in Lodi, N.Y., has heard accounts of WWOOF interns showing up unannounced, leaving earlier than agreed upon and sleeping in late. “But that’s rare,” Gupta said, “and the WWOOFers on our farm were so great, so anxious to learn.”

At Six Circles Farm, a newly established farm that became a WWOOF host in 2009, interns “were involved in practically all aspects of the farm’s operation,” according to Gupta. They planted, watered, transplanted, picked, peeled and prepared vegetables and fruits for the market, while still having space for more cerebral activities, such as helping develop sales strategies for value-added products made on the farm. “We were really open to let WWOOFers do what they wanted, which is probably unusual for WWOOF farms,” Gupta recalled.

Allan Yoza manages Dharma Farms – which harvests hundreds of varieties of fruit – in the Puna District on the Big Island of Hawaii and has hosted WWOOFers for 12 years. Yoza has dealt with “many lazy talkers, dreamers. But there are also a lot of hard-working, decent, down-to-earth people. I’ve met a lot of remarkable, soulful people this way,” he said.

Farms become WWOOF host farms at no official cost aside from a requested donation, and they must agree to follow basic guidelines in order to be part of the network. Farms must provide clean and dry shelter as well as food; they must not require more than six hours of work a day, six days a week; and they cannot charge WWOOFers for room and board.

The guidelines emphasize that this program forbids monetary exchange and is meant to transcend a typical employer-employee relationship. It’s unclear what role WWOOF plays in enforcing these guidelines. Online, those who manage the WWOOF infrastructure do show concern where necessary. An administrator on the WWOOF Mexico Web site participates in forums on the site and asks for details from members who complain about farms being unresponsive to work offers, and the administrator appears to follow up with slacking farms on behalf of members. But in terms of dealing with farms that provide extremely negative experiences for WWOOFers, there appears to be no clear process.

Being a host has been an effective way for Gupta and Yoza to keep their farms in order during busy seasons. Six Circles Farm has a very small budget and would not be able to pay for labor. While it would be possible to find local volunteers, it would take a lot of time and possibly still not be enough. At Dharma Farms, WWOOFers make up 20 percent of the workforce; the rest are hired workers.

Gershon and Gupta agree that one of the most important pieces of advice for prospective WWOOFers is communication with the farms that they intend to visit. According to Gershon, WWOOFers “should ask [hosts] specific questions before arriving in order to understand the kind of thing that will be expected. Every place is different. Ask about what accommodations [and] food they offer and how many hours you'll be expected to work. Ask about transportation and what kind of labor you'll be doing.”

Gupta agrees.

“For logistics and safety,” she said, “it’s good to do a background check on the farm. Definitely have a conversation with the farm manager. And if you’re going overseas, definitely bring a buddy with you, because you might be really isolated.”

Yoza advises that WWOOFers prepare physically for the experience. “Play sports to gain endurance and coordination.” On the spiritual side of things, he believes that WWOOFers should “learn to be vegetarians, give up all intoxication, gambling and illicit activities” because farming is about “the cultivation of the soul and becoming purified in the heart and mind.”

Clearly, farms participating in WWOOF vary in their character and labor, which will affect a WWOOFer’s experience and the things they learn.

“I would suggest always having some sort of back-up plan,” Gershon said. “Sometimes you quickly realize that you aren't exactly fitted to your host or the weather or the type of work. Be sure to have another plan in the back of your head about where you might go or what you might do if it doesn't work out. I prefer going from one place to another initially, for maybe a week each. Then, if you like one place a lot, you can probably come back to it for longer.”

Additionally, when traveling to an out-of-country farm, WWOOFers need to acquire the right visas and insurance, depending on the length of time spent working. WWOOF itself does not offer any insurance, and some farms do require WWOOFers to be insured.

For those interested in travel and non-farm work experiences, there are other networks that provide similar frameworks to that of WWOOF., another low-cost membership program, has page after page of jaw-dropping opportunities: a sustainable agricultural development program in Nepal; a bed-and-breakfast on the beach in Andalucia; a center for Polar and Arctic exploration in the Laplands of Finland owned by a South-Pole trekker who needs help training huskies and turning their feces into a form of fuel.

Similarly, Help Exchange lists a smorgasbord of international offerings, though fewer than WWOOF or Both of these networks cost less than $20 a year to join and each grants access to all international listings, as opposed to WWOOF’s country-by-country system.

“I personally chose to go WWOOF because it seemed a fair trade – I work for the person and in exchange I have a place to stay, some food and the opportunity to see a place I've never been. Also, it gave me a chance to interact with people who were actually living in the area instead of being in a hotel with tourists. I could avoid a lot of the whole commercial/capitalist thing that often accompanies travel. To me, it seemed that I [got] a real view of what it was to live in the place I was going: I was interacting with farmers and farm workers, living in the same space and in much the same style as they were,” reflected Gershon. On the idea of volunteering for the sake of charity she said, “I think the main thing is the mood of any of these things – if you go into the experience thinking that you are there to ‘do good,’ expecting all this gratitude for your temporary saintliness, then that can be really condescending. If you go into it seeing it as a trade where you are getting as much as you are putting in, then it's a different experience.”

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