Many Hands Make Light Work
WWOOF volunteers have given 1000’s of hours of help to organic producers. But what exactly is WWOOFing – and how can people get involved?
Katherine Hallewell explains
In 1971, Sue Coppard organised a working weekend for herself and three other Londoners on a local organic farm. They were all looking to get out of the city and into the countryside for fresh air and exercise. Sue made a deal with the farmer at Emerson College: they would help out with work that needed doing on the land in exchange for food and accommodation.
This simple idea would guarantee the visitors plenty of exercise in a beautiful spot, while keeping their trip affordable. But little did they know that their working weekend would develop into an international movement.
The Land Army
The farm manager at Emerson was initially reluctant to give the city-folk a try. But by the end of the weekend, after the four visitors had successfully cleared ditches and cut back brambles, he asked them to come back the following week. Soon, regular trips to the farm were taking place every third weekend.
News of ‘Sue Coppard’s Land Army’ gradually spread and other organic farms got in touch – even one in New Zealand – all keen to offer their hospitality in exchange for help from willing volunteers. Working Weekends On Organic Farms – or WWOOF – was born.
Sue’s initial choice of organic hosts was a purely practical one, based on her assumption that organic farms were more likely to need unskilled labour. However, as each WWOOF weekend gave the visitors a deeper understanding of the benefits of organic farming, before long learning about – and supporting – the organic movement was at the very core of the group’s aims.
Another key principle that still stands today is that no money changes hands: hosts provide wholesome food and suitable accommodation in exchange for help from volunteers. In return, volunteers experience a different way of life, get their hands dirty and learn about organic techniques by working alongside others.
Today, WWOOF stands for ‘World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms’. An estimated 50,000 volunteers can visit over 6,000 registered ‘hosts’ across 88 countries – from Alaska, Madagascar, Nepal or even Tonga – to gain experience and be part of the organic movement.
Increasingly, however, many are choosing to volunteer at host farms across the UK. While WWOOFing is regarded as a great way to travel responsibly outside the UK, interest in ‘local’ WWOOFing is growing in response to concerns about climate change and peak oil, as well as a general desire for a deeper connection to the local environment and community, and WWOOF UK membership has doubled in the last year.
How does it work?
To ‘WWOOF’ is to arrange a stay on a host farm to volunteer. ‘Host’ farms are those organic growers, farmers or smallholders who are willing to provide food and accommodation for volunteers. Hosts submit an application to WWOOF and, once approved, are listed in the relevant WWOOF directories and on the WWOOF website. WWOOFers can then contact hosts directly to arrange a stay. A WWOOFing visit can last for anything from a weekend to several months – it is up to the individual host and WWOOFer.
Every WWOOFer has a different reason for WWOOFing, just as every host can provide a unique opportunity to learn something new – and benefit from the volunteer’s help. In return for food and accommodation, hosts might ask WWOOFers to clear out and restore that old outbuilding or to lay new hedges, clear ditches or remove weeds. Being a host is also a fantastic way to meet people from all walks of life who share your values.
For the public, WWOOFing represents a great first step into the world of organic farming and growing – and a training ground for the more committed. Arjen Huese – who teaches at Emerson College where WWOOFing started all those years ago – actively encourages any would-be organic students to go WWOOFing as a way of dipping their toes into the world of organics. And by hosting WWOOFers, he says, farmers and growers are making a real investment in the future of organic.
But WWOOFing is more than the exchange of food for labour: it is an opportunity to be inspired by people, places, conversations and shared achievements. Hosts invest trust in their visitors, offering hospitality to WWOOFers in return for their work. WWOOFers rely on their hosts for the chance to really learn – and not just carry out a list of odd jobs that need doing. When it works, which mostly it does, WWOOFing is magical.
For more information on WWOOF and how to join as a host farm or a WWOOFer, call 01296 714652. Visit www.wwoof.org.uk Katherine Hallewell is an active WWOOFer and part of the WWOOF UK team. Contact her on firstname.lastname@example.org
Want to find out more?
- Interested in becoming a host? You will need to:
- Farm or grow using ecologically sound methods
- House and feed WWOOFers in exchange for a reasonable day’s help (we suggest 5–6 hours with suitable breaks)
- Share your knowledge and skills with WWOOFers – they have come to learn by working alongside you
- Have patience and a good sense of humour!
- Get the appropriate insurance cover.
Joining the WWOOF UK Host Farm Network costs just £30 a year and includes a listing in the printed host list (circulated to all WWOOFers three times each year), an online listing and a quarterly newsletter.
- Want to be a WWOOFer? You will need to:
- Have an interest in growing organic food and treading lightly on the earth
- Be flexible and willing to get stuck in
- Have a good sense of humour
- Bring clothes, gloves, boots and waterproofs for working outdoors
- Be willing to help with daily chores (cooking, washing up) as well as your WWOOFing tasks.
Joining WWOOF UK as a volunteer costs £20 a year, giving you access to the host farm list, online or in hard copy, and quarterly newsletter. For information on WWOOF UK call 01296 714652 or visit www.wwoof.org.uk
Being a Host
“Over the last eight years we have accommodated nearly 100 WWOOFers on our 6ha smallholding. Our description in the UK Host Farm List reads “Fun, variety, fulfilment and new experiences…” and the hands-on, low impact life-style we offer certainly seems very popular! We provide our visitors with a mix of seasonal daily chores, like milking goats, garden maintenance, or cheese and yoghurt making, together with new skills like coppicing and green woodwork.
“When WWOOFers join the household – and we prefer two at a time – their presence adds a fresh and buoyant dynamic. They learn from us while we learn from them: it is a two-way opportunity, where cultural, social, cooking and other skills are eagerly exchanged. Sometimes I deliberately relax during a ‘WWOOFer spell’ with a sense that – at long last – we are catching up! I love hearing two newly arrived WWOOFers babbling away in the vegetable garden, making friends with each other and the space they occupy.
“At the end of a visit, off they go. And I must admit I sometimes find myself shedding a tear or two as they disappear round the corner.”
Edward and Romola Acland farm 6ha at Sprint Mill near Kendal, Cumbria, with sheep, poultry, goats and vegetables and coppice woodland.
Willing & Able
WWOOFing is work: that is the bottom line. I discovered that this ‘work’ really suits me, despite being at the mature end of the scale. My early life on a farm in South Africa bred into me a liking for the smells and sounds of rural life. I relish the pleasure of getting my hands into the earth, of being in the open air. There is also something about pace, finding efficient ways of doing jobs, solving practical problems, and being trusted.
A host needs jobs to be accomplished in certain seasons, like weeding, mulching or harvesting. And then there are the ongoing things, like maintenance, sorting or shifting. A WWOOFer arrives with just the right aptitude to tackle the untidy tool cupboard or shed.
Apart from tasks having their own intrinsic reward, there are the relationships that flourish, both with other WWOOFers and with hosts. It is being part of a fraternity that binds us. We know that the daffodils will bloom, the leeks will grow, and the coppicing will continue to pay off long after we have left.
Verona Bass started WWOOFing at the age of 60, going on a backpacking trip to Australia and New Zealand. Since then she has had over 40 placements in both countries, as well as the UK.
This article was published in Organic Farming Magazine – Winter 2008
To download a copy of the article, please follow this link:
WWOOF Article - Organic Farming Magazine, Winter 2008