Awareness Wednesday: WWOOF, Part 1

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to live on a farm? Learn about the environment and sustainable agriculture? How do you feel about the idea of a few hours of work a day in exchange for food and accommodation? Or, like our “consultant” Josefina was, are you looking for a cheap way to travel, immerse yourself in a new culture, and, if you’re lucky, pick up a few things along the way? Then you may be interested in World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF).

Josefina wants to get the word out about her wonderful experience WWOOFing in Italy this past summer, so we’re doing a two-part Awareness Wednesday since she has so much to share!

The first time I heard about WWOOF was from a friend of a friend who went to work on a sheep farm in Australia for half a year during college. Now, I don’t consider myself to be particularly outdoorsy; I spend a decent amount of time outside and occasionally go hiking… but this sheep farm girl makes me look like Malibu Barbie, so when my friend Stefanie (not to be mistaken for Stephanie Solaris) asked me to WWOOF with her this past summer I initially laughed the idea off. After a little bit of thought, reading about some peoples’ experiences online, and realizing I didn’t have too much else going on at the time, I decided it would be a great way to spend a few weeks. Who doesn’t want to abandon all responsibilities and run away to a completely different environment once in a while?

WWOOF started in Britain in 1971 and has grown to be an international volunteer network with organizations in 49 countries. My friend Stefanie is from an Italian family, had studied Italian in college and was an Italian food enthusiast (same for me on those last two), so the two of us (and a few other friends you’ll hear about next week) got a one-year membership to WWOOF Italia for about $35 each which included support, health coverage while participating, and a list of hundreds and hundreds of potential hosts. Hosts range from small homes with tiny vegetable gardens to medium-scale vineyards to full-service agritourisms with acres and acres of olive groves. The work is diverse, but hosts generally ask for five to seven hours per day, six days per week: you could be weeding in the vegetable garden, taking care of sheep, or making jam and wine. In terms of accommodations, some hosts request that you bring a sleeping bag and tent while others put you up in their agritourism with a private bedroom and bathroom.

It’s up to each participant to contact the farms in which they’re interested and work out specifics regarding timing, the type of work that will be going on and general expectations. I should also note that the exchange is a two-way street: the hosts can (and will) ask that you leave if you don’t do any work but you’re also not expected to stay if the farm doesn’t live up to its end of the bargain—farms that mistreat WWOOFers are removed from the host list if reported. A quick Google search about a specific farm might lead you to past WWOOFers’ blogs or you could just ask your friends if they know of anybody who has participated; people tend to be vocal about particularly positive or negative WWOOF experiences.

WWOOF and other organizations like it have become popular over the past few years for several reasons beyond the die-hard sustainable agriculture movement. One wave has been young, jobless college graduates (me!) looking for a cheap way to travel and trying to figure out what to do in this recession. Some families want a “green vacation on a European farm” as a way of teaching their children about responsibilities and a holistic approach to life. There also has been a movement of white collar urbanites feeling the need to return back to the farm, mindful of farming facing an uncertain future and worrying that “as big agribusiness [corners] the market and family farms [close] up, the skills and knowledge needed to grow food responsibly [are] dissipating with each generation”.

Regardless of your reasons for doing it, I learned that the WWOOF experience is what you make of it and can be so much more than you expected. Next Wednesday I’ll tell you all about the six weeks I spent WWOOFing and traveling in Italy!

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