“I’m right now WWOOFing and it is the best experience in my life” Jaro from Spain, WWOOFing in the UK. We’ve heard this so many times. WWOOF changes lives. — Scarlett Penn, WWOOF UK
Since 1971, it has been a long while since Sue Coppard, a woman working as a secretary in London went on to create a worldwide revolution on organic farming. WWOOF – the good, the bad, and stories from the farm is an exploratory and on-going story based on tales straight off the farms – from the volunteers and the organisers. This is an long and immersive story, and I am writing it as new aspects and insights roll in. Continue reading to gather the context around it, or skip to the individual sections to read individual tales. UPDATE: A conversation with Scarlett Penn of WWOOF UK. We gather some helpful insights from the organisation and the place where it all started. UPDATE: gli oli delle donne or “the oil for the women” – from the fields of Kibo Farm, in Italy. From Spiragården in Sweden, a farm run by a couple challenged in hearing, Gracie, a first-time WWOOFer shares her experiences From Becky Young, co-ordinator WWOOF Canada: On growing it organically and the quirks of running an international volunteering ecosystem. From Harish Tiwari, Director of WWOOF India on culture shock and the challenges and rewards of WWOOFing in India If You Go: Contacts and personal information if you want to go WWOOFing
I had the chance to talk to Scarlett from WWOOF UK and asked perhaps the first question that comes anyone who has been following the organic culture for a length of time: Would you say WWOOF has come to a position you aimed at when it was founded? How was the wwoofing culture like pre 2008 and what changes have you foreseen since 2008 ever since WWOOF UK turned into a charity?
WWOOF UK has always been a non-profit organisation. The fact that we are now a charity enables us to apply for grant funding which perhaps otherwise we couldn’t have. Three years ago, a large grant was successfully secured in partnership with a care farming organisation, and now many vulnerable young people are benefiting from a supported and meaningful connection with the land. Having watched the success of this project, we realised that more money means more outreach projects, which means more people experiencing this wholesome way of life. We’re hoping to make full use of our new Fundraising Officer – a role which we’re recruiting for at the moment!
Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms or formerly the Willing Workers on Organic Farms was until recently, a loose network of national organisations that facilitate placement of volunteers on organic farms. While there are WWOOF hosts in 99 countries around the world, no central list or organisation encompasses all WWOOF hosts. There is now a step towards centralisation however. The Federation of WWOOF Organisations – found at wwoof.net – was formed earlier this year and is now is the official home of WWOOF around the world. Each national WWOOF organisation is autonomous and each country member has one vote in the democratic FoWO. WWOOF UK was looking after some assets such as domains and Trademarks on behalf of the wider family, and it is the source of worldwide celebration that they now have a central body to pass them to.
Where it all began
Sue Coppard first WWOOFed at the Tablehurst Farm in Sussex, which was at the time affiliated with Emerson College. It has been a long time since. While Tablehurst still exists, it now only takes volunteers with learning disabilities rather than WWOOFers. However it’s sister farm – also biodynamic – is a current WWOOF UK host. Emerson is home to the Biodynamic Agricultural College and until very recently, were hosts specialising in growing biodynamic flowers for market.
Scarlett: In a bizarre twist of fate, I now live 4 miles from this same Sussex village! There must be some good, strong energy rooting WWOOF there…
While none of the WWOOF organising bodies own and operate a central farm connected to the organisations, Scarlett is working towards an exciting project which promises a more transparent exchange of work and experience.
A rural base is something I’ve given thought to and would love to set up: an organic training ground, teaching the holistic principles of a sustainable mindset. It could also serve as a prime example for volunteers of what a good and fair exchange looks like. That way they can be more confident to speak out in future exchanges if they encounter hosts who are not upholding our values, keeping the host standard high. We mustn’t forget that in the world we live in, money is king and fear culture is peddled in the media. WWOOF’s founding principles of trust and exchange are now a rarity and the concept of volunteering at the home of someone you’ve never met can seem very frightening to many people. In some ways, it seems that breaking the mould society has created for us and re-training people in the art of alternative thinking is the first step in enabling more people to experience the huge benefits of WWOOFing.
Since I have been running the story, I have time and again come across reports on the violation of wwofing codes – the 4 hour a day working limit, the no-money code, etc. Scarlett has her opinion:
In the UK the guideline is about 30-35 hours per week. Some hosts offer less, but some ask for more. We are fine with hosts that go over these hours, as long as it’s completely clear on the description and the hosts double-checks that the volunteer understands. Also, many of the farms that ask for more are very busy, interesting, profitable enterprises with a lot to teach a dedicated WWOOFer. We’ve heard of many examples of enthusiastic volunteers using this as a sort of apprenticeship scheme, and wouldn’t wish to deny them this learning by enforcing our suggested criteria too strongly.
When last counted, Glanshammar, a locality in Örebro, Sweden only had 727 inhabitants. Here is Spiragården, a full circle farm, run on agro-organic principles. This is where I found Gracie Roberts, having spent the first week of her first WWOOF experience. Here also is Kim – a tall, thin and youthful-looking Swedish girl with a cute blonde bob. She is also the only resident farmer at Spiragården who can speak, and she can hear a little with an aid.
Among the eight other members living right now in the corner of this tiny hamlet is also Nicolas. As Gracie introduces, “the Frenchman and fellow WWOOFer that I have been getting to know over the past week. He has a more youthful and carefree attitude toward life than even I do, which I think is what has kept him so healthy and energetic in his 40s (not like that’s even any kind of old age or anything).”
The art of growing off the land is more than 10,000 years old. The composition of eating has always been of significant intrigue to me. While the world has progressively moved more towards the setting in which a produce is consumed or worn, there are still a notable few who hold the method in which it is harvested, prepared or cooked to the ways they were originally conceived to be.
Spiragården is a farm where the animals and the land are in balance with one another. A farm which attempts to grow flavour rather than heaps of produce, and where people are a natural part of the interaction.
I got a chance to talk to Gracie who is at the moment learning the ways of nature on an organic farm. She is WWOOFing, as the term goes. I also talked to frontier organisers of this organic revolution that started in 1971.
Back then, the name stood for Working Weekends On Organic Farms. It was started by a London secretary who thought city people needed a convenient way to enjoy the countryside and learn a little about the organic movement.
To define what WWOOF is all about, Sue Coppard, the founder of the organisation has this to say:
WWOOF is an acronym standing for World Wide Opportunities On Organic Farms. It is a cooperative network, now worldwide, which offers members the opportunity to stay as working guests on a wide variety of organic farms, smallholdings, gardens and other rural enterprises. No money changes hands, it’s an exchange. In return for your help on the land and with other tasks you receive bed and board, and a lot more besides: farming and agricultural experience – even training to change to a rural life; contact with nature and animals; access to beautiful countryside; good physical exercise; learning a host of other skills – leaving a considerably lighter carbon footprint!
Growing it organically
Once I started being interested in WWOOF, two terms that kept coming back to me every time were “permaculture” and “organic growing methods”. What’s the philosophy behind it and what are the best examples of it that you can cite among the registered farms? I asked this to Becky Young, one of the co-ordinators of WWOOF Canada. Becky describes the philosophy;
“Living in harmony with our environment, helping not hurting, for the long term health and vitality of the earth and all its inhabitants. I have visited a few Canadian homesteads, and read of many more, where families landed 30+ years ago on a bare or treed patch of land and set about to build themselves a life of sustainability for themselves, their children, and the earth and animals who graciously provided their sustenance. I am forever affected and impressed by their dedication to continued learning and practising of sustainable living, and their willingness to share and teach others. They are an inspiration I would wish everyone to experience.”
At Spiragården, Gracie reports that they eat only organic food (most of which has been grown on the farm itself). Right now, the people of the farm are working to build a large greenhouse, which will expand its capabilities to incorporate organic growing methods into the system. In addition to eating organically, composting is another practice that is held dear to those who live here. It ensures that the least amount of food is wasted and that compostable waste products can be naturally returned to the earth.
Why go WWOOFing at all?
Not only is it an extremely affordable way to travel and see a new part of the world, but the relationships one can build while WWOOFing are something to be spoken of. As a WWOOFer, you get to peek into someone else’s life for a short period of time, learning how others live and interact. But with so many options of voluntourism around, how does WWOOFing set itself apart?
Gracie tells me of a life that is so different from us city dwellers; “In my case, this has been especially interesting, as Spiragården is a farm that is made up of individuals who are either deaf or hard of hearing. They mainly use Swedish sign language to communicate, which I have needed to pick up during the time that I’ve been here. I knew neither Swedish or sign language coming into this experience, so every day is a new learning experience, and I’ve loved all of it. Seeing how deaf individuals can interact with each other and successfully run a business has been fabulous, and the feeling that I get from being able to be a part of their community, if even for a short time, is hard to put into words.”
WWOOF around the world
it’s not always all merry – on working hours and culture shock
WWOOF mandates a number of guidelines which are meant to define the way a host (the farm) and the volunteer (the WWOOFer) interact and what they exchange. One of them is that there can only be a maximum of 4 to 6 hours of work assigned to a volunteer.
However, not all mandates are followed and I have found both complaints and explanations to the same. Given that the organic farming ecosystem is already so fragile, a deviation in the standards which some have even labelled as “abuse” poses a dark enough threat to worry about.
Becky helped shed some interesting light on this. Here’s an excerpt of my conversation with her:
I have come across reports on the violation of wwofing codes – the 4 hour a day working limit, the no-money code, etc. Have you experienced any of this or been reported of any of these? Is there a way you deal with such violations?
WWOOF Canada deals with a number of reports of concern every year – an extremely small percentage given the 8,000+ WWOOF-stays arranged every year. Most concerns are regarding working over the prescribed 20-33 hours per week exchange, and poor accommodation and/or food.
Many complaints are often a result of culture shock and experiencing a way of life very different from what one is used to. And sometimes language barriers, personality conflicts and often unknown expectations will cause misunderstandings, disagreements or disappointments.
What do you have to say about financing at the wwoof farms? If no money changes hand, if I may be so straight, what are the main monetary avenues you have witnessed?
WWOOF is a volunteer program, helping hands given in exchange for meals, accommodations, education and hands-on experience in sustainable agriculture, and a cultural exchange with the Host family sharing in family and community activities.
WWOOF is not a job and no money in payment for help given is to be exchanged.
WWOOF India is taking a slightly stronger stand at this, as Harish Tiwari, the Director of the organisation body in India told me:
If we get any complaint from volunteers then we ask our host to give clarification and we have formed a complaint cell to settle the issues . We have few female staff in this cell who directly deal with complaints filed by females. The decision of the cell is then forwarded to the volunteer and host . Upon receiving the second complain we remove such hosts from our list.
Gracie explains from ground zero that it is much more complex than just putting up a time frame. However, what’s a little surprising is the fact that volunteer and host guidelines can often be overlooked. What’s positive is the way WWOOF has been structured – it all comes down to the experiences shared and, more often than not, it is a mutual understanding;
About the 4-6 hour working code, I didn’t even know that was the limit. I’d say I’ve worked up to 7 hours in a way, but it’s mostly because tasks were time-sensitive and needed to get done that day. I feel that most farmers (and some WWOOFers) have the attitude of if something needs to get done, they will work until it’s completed. It hasn’t really been a huge issue for me, as there are also days where I will hardly work at all. In the end, it balances out. It becomes apparent to me that I am getting many things for free whenever we go to the grocery store. I’m able to pick out the food that I’d like to eat, and the Spiragårdeners buy it for the house. It pretty much feels like you’re a family member of the farm, as you live, work, eat and sleep with the family that runs the farm and are integrated into everyday activities.
How evident or relevant is culture shock? As it is, culture shock has kept raising it’s head every now and then even in traditional travel. More relevant among backpackers and offbeat enthusiasts than packaged travelers, but evident nonetheless. However, when it comes to actually living and working in a local setting, in most cases into the country side, it’s a whole other question. Culture shock is less so in demographically similar countries, say North America
and East Europe, but what about Asia which is so significantly different? For instance, regarding India the WWOOF page warns, “Avoid wearing sleeve less shirts, short skirts or shorts, low cut tops etc because these are not common in rural villages. Hugging, touching or flirting is not a normal Indian culture. Keep proper distance and behavior with other volunteers, farm staff or hosts.” . Harish Tiwari, Director of WWOOF India, clarifies:
In rural areas of India where all our farms are located still there are many traditional taboos. The women are supposed to cover the hands, face and head. We have put those points so that the volunteers should not break those traditions. Female travelers should avoid travelling alone in the night, always use public transport and inform your hosts where you are going and when you shall come back.
Becky from WWOOF Canada too finds this an important aspect that needs to be considered by prospective volunteers:
I think culture shock is relevant. Appropriate guidelines are given to WWOOFers in each country, as seen in your example from WWOOF India. An example is a young person travelling for the first time, someone who has never had to do chores at home and has no work or volunteer experience. It can be quite a culture shock for a person with this limited experience to be living with a Canadian host family where you are expected to help with the farm work, and then be expected to also help with cooking, cleaning, etc. as all other farm family members do. This is where the complaint “working over the 20-33 hrs” is often sited. In this example there is no concept from the WWOOFer of work versus general living – and how efforts are equally shared. And perhaps limited understanding from the Hosts of the WWOOFer’s experience back home. Communication and compromise is key. As in all relationships WWOOF seems to attract a dynamic type of individual who is respectful of other cultures and open to learning and experiencing what new opportunities are presented to them. It is very very rare to hear of someone who is not respectful or open to experiencing a new culture.
The coming of WWOOF and why should you do it
In 1971, a secretary to the Textile Research Unit at the Royal College of Art in London missed the countryside. As a child, Sue Coppard and her brother spent beautiful summers at their cousin’s farm where they would run wild, exploring the woods, picking flowers and sliding down hay stacks. However, by the time the 70’s churned in, Sue lost her ‘country seat’ where she could invite herself every now and then. The desire of going back to the woods was born here.
Sue’s search soon led to Andrew Singer, publisher of the booklet ‘Making Communes’, and Michael Allaby, the editor of ‘SPAN’, a journal published by the Soil Association of Britain. They helped her pick out some farms where she could relive her childhood. Sue’s advertisement on the trendy “Time Out” magazine for interested volunteers brought in just 15 replies to start with. In the end, it was Sue and just two others who tried out what they first named “Working Weekends On Organic Farms”. The first variant of WWOOF was born.
The original goals have not changed much – it is still about those authentic experiences. As Sue puts it;
My goal when I first thought up WWOOF was to get myself into the countryside in a ‘meaningful’, affordable way with good company. A pub stay would not have done the trick. Events from Emerson that glow in my memory are: haymaking – feeling much like a Constable painting; swimming in the wild pool in the woods after toiling in the sweltering sun; coming across glow worms one balmy twilight; laughing and joking as we threw turnips into the cart; being taught how to clean and grease tools once the day’s work had finished; and a happy trip down to the pub in the village after supper.
At that time, an ‘alternative’ little magazine called ‘Seed’ was run from a tiny office in London’s Notting Hill, by someone called Ken Sams. Ken was an American who came from the Korean war and was dedicated towards offering people more enlightened values. His sons Craig and Greg would go on to become the pioneers who would bring organic food to London. Ken read an article on Sue’s adventure in the country and invited her to join the publication. Sue ran an article named “Rent-a-Serf” on her experiences while on the farm.
Craig tells a little about the Seed magazine at the time;
Our dad, Ken Sams, had just retired from working as an air force historian in Vietnam, where he had published a magazine called Grunt [‘grunt’ in US army parlance is a foot soldier]. It was full of laughs and represented the reality of life for a US soldier in Vietnam, and he was at a loose end, so we recruited him to make the magazine happen, while my brother Gregory and I, and a couple of macrobiotic advocates who had come over from Boston, took responsibility for content. Very quickly we got submissions from all sorts of people who came out of the woodwork and we had more material than we could handle.
Within a few weeks, WWOOF’s membership grew and town-bound folks signed up quickly for weekends in the mud. Sue and her idea never looked back.
As individuals, there are assorted reasons for joining WWOOF. Many, like Sue, feel a need to go back to nature. Other inquisitive minds want to learn to grow their own food. For many, it is a fleeting experience in an array of traveling slowly and responsibly around the world. Whatever your reason, give Sue’s calling a chance to pull you in as well.
Becky, of WWOOF Canada, feels that WWOOF gives enough incentives to encourage individuals to consider how their personal choices make a difference in the world as a whole;
Most volunteers will learn through hands on experience, and most will appreciate (if not now, then at some later time) where their food comes from, the amount of hard work it takes to grow healthy food free of poisons and pollution, and why eating healthy food is important not only for humans, but also for animals, plants, and the earth as a whole – and how great it tastes in comparison!
The hands on experience coupled with lively conversation with the new people you meet – not only host families, but other WWOOFers around the world – provide enviable education, perhaps beyond one’s previous limited experiences. The opening of the hearts and minds to previously unknown realities provides positive answers and solutions that you can effect by your actions – as simple as buying organic food from your local farmer/market back home, or casting your vote in political elections. You may start voicing your opinions and concerns for a healthy planet, getting involved in community organic gardens, and go on to boundless other opportunities. Becky shared some excerpts from the experiences she had with volunteers and hosts working through WWOOF Canada:
“Just wanted you to know that I consider the $50 I spent on my WWOOF membership the best $50 I’ve ever spent. This is our first year, and we’ve had quite a number of Wwoofers stay with us. Without exception, they’ve all been wonderful, have been great workers, and its simply been fun getting to know them and learn about where they come from and what their lives are like. Our formula is simple: treat them well and they will give you all they’ve got. It’s been a great experience.” – Keith, WWOOF Host “For the past while I have had 4 volunteers here from France, Japan and Mexico. The girls are around the same age and although 4 helpers at this homestead may seem like a bit of overkill, I really didn’t want to miss out on this cultural experience while we all shared tasks at this place. Those girls completely ran this place and looked after everything while I was in the hospital for 5 days and they were probably half scared to death. It was a huge surprise for them when I walked through the door and a huge and pleasant surprise to do a small walkabout of the property where I was unable to find anything that was behind in schedule. Respect breeds respect.
The story of gli oli delle donne or “the oil for the women” – from the fields of an Italin farm
Rosellina Di Salvo, in a part of the large Chibbò Barbarigo estate which was purchased in 1930, has converted the 12 hectares of good earth into a extensive olive grove with over 3,700 trees. From the Kibo Farm run by Rosellina with her husband and her daughters is the story of the making of “the oil for the women”. The extra virgin oil comes out the help of WWOOFers that lend in their hands to produce of over 200 quintals of olives with a yield af 40 hectolitres of the extra virgin olive oil. It is a beautiful intense limpid golden yellow colour with light green hues. lts aroma is ample and rotund, rich in fruity hints of ripe tomato, together with elegant fragrant notes of mint, basil and sage. The taste is complex and vegetal, with a flavour of broad beans, lettuce, celery and a spicy finish of black pepper. The bitterness is strong and pungency is distinct. Rosellina calls it the “oil for the women” and I can understand why. Her “Nocellara del Belice” and “Biancolilla” olive plantations speak of an intense love of the land. Rosellina and her husband Maurizio, and the two daughters Eleonora and Laura controls all the phases of the productive process, picking the olives by hand to ensure they are not spoilt by machines. There are no catalysts and the oil rests through its natural period of settling before bottling.
What makes Kibò Olive Oil so good? Perhaps it’s the soil and sunshine, and the perfect Sicilian climate? Or perhaps it’s our Sicilian pride and insistence on doing everything natural way, without shortcuts. All olive picking is done exclusively by hand to prevent olives from spoiling. We don’t use pesticides or preservatives. We don’t overplant. We do everything the natural way like our great grandfather did when he owned the farm.
Accommodation is original and rustic, with thick stone walls, traditional wooden roof beams, and hand-laid plaster. Adapted to meet all comforts and remain eco-friendly.
We are a family that loves nature and enjoys living naturally off of the land and producing almost everything we need to live ourselves. We believe the beauty of the natural earth—the gentle sun, the rolling hills, the brilliant colors and textures of fruit fresh from the field—rejuvenate us and allow us to live a happy and healthy life.
If you go:
Gracie is chronicling her days in the Spiragården farm over at her tumbr blog. Becky is an exceptionally accommodating person who coordinates WWOOF Canada along with Gary and Kelby. There are a number of amazing host farms over on their website. They are also running a very interesting video contest where visiting volunteers journal their experiences while on a farm. The Federation of WWOOF Organisations (FoWO) website (wwoof.net) keeps an in-depth FAQ page and also has links to all the regional WWOOF establishments across the world. As exotic as India gets, WWOOFing here promises to be an unforgettable experience. Harish Tiwari, the director of WWOOF India can be reached via their website. Kibo farm has 2 private cottages: 3 bedroom, kitchen/living room cottage with a large bathroom (including Jacuzzi). Accommodates 6/7 people. and the second one a 2 bedroom, 1 bathroom cottage with a kitchen and separate living room. Accommodates 4/6 people. The Di Salvo family run all aspects of the farm from pruning trees to creating product designs, and follows a green ethos in business and in life.
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