Why working holidays on organic farms help you see the world anew

| 14th July 2010

WWOOFing on a sunny afternoon

WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) is not just a cheap way to see the world - it's a hands-on way to learn new skills of sustainable living

Bending arm-deep in a permaculture-style flower, weed and vegetable bed in the glorious Norfolk sun, trying to work out which plants to pull up and which to leave, I ended up with nettle-rash in some interesting places. Though the stinging soon reduced itself to a tingle, the impression WWOOFing left will last much longer.

In 1971 founder Sue Coppard arranged with an East Sussex farmer that she and her friends would work on the farm for a weekend in exchange for accommodation and food. This became a regular arrangement, and ‘Sue Coppard's Land Army' soon spread to other farms.

Now, WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) is a truly global movement, and around 50 countries have national organisations, from Ghana to Germany, Taiwan to Sierra Leone. A popular and cost-effective way to see the world, or just the UK, WWOOF is also a great way to learn new skills and gather inspiration for sustainable living and farming.

From milking goats to keeping bees, from garden-sized to 600-hectare operations, if it uses ecologically-sound methods, you can probably experience it.

Hands-on experience

My WWOOF host, Bridget, picked me up from Diss station on a sunny June afternoon, before collecting some of her other WWOOFers from the local library. She began recounting stories of rural life, and I felt so welcome, it was like I'd come home.

When three men piled into the car with a small sheepdog and introductions were made, conversation soon turned to the earlier sheep shearing and the preoccupations of running a small farm, from goat milking to hay making. I was instantly immersed in the community life that was to occupy the next two brief days.

Bridget, a woman in her mid-60s, manages the isolated Norfolk smallholding with its animals, poultry, vegetables, kittens, barns, sheds and strawbale building with such enthusiasm you would think there was something in the water. Perhaps it's the way of life she loves so much.

Touring Fincham's Farm, she described how this structure or that reed bed came about, many from the 4000-odd hours of WWOOFers she's recorded.

'Oh, this needs varnishing,' she would say, gently, pointing to a new gate, or 'that needs weeding before the seeds spread,' and I soon realised I was being introduced to my potential jobs.

WWOOFers got talent

As each of her visitors is valued for their interests and abilities, a recent artist WWOOFer created beautiful signage on aspects of farm life, one loved cooking, another hair dressing, fitting Bridget's (borrowed) motto: 'From each according to their abilities to each according to their needs.'

Amid all this choice, she was very patient with my propensity to wander about aimlessly, trying to decide where to start.

As meals - many fresh from the garden - were shared either in the kitchen or outdoors, I got to know the other WWOOFers, many of whom return year after year.

Many are young people travelling on a budget, but Bridget has two women in their late forties coming from the US next month. A wealthy South American woman said her reason for WWOOFing was: 'I've seen Europe, now I want to see its people!' Such is the WWOOFing experience.

I admit my image of community living was that of a disorganised group of drop-outs, ambling around a scrubby patch of land all day, not really achieving much. What I found was a group of highly practical, intelligent people living ideals they truly believe in. It was a way of life I didn't realise I missed.

Anything from mulching to transferring seedlings was carried out purposefully, with a real joy in watching work flourish into dinner. I relished the simple enjoyment of getting up early to milk the goat (or at least giving it a go - I discovered milking takes practice).

A new perspective

Being so close to nature you are exposed to its frailties in a new way, to the quirky traits of animals, which engendered a strong bond of responsibility, something I sensed in others, too. ‘Wild' kittens lived in one of the sheds (but were fed daily), and a broody duck who had sat for a week on sterile eggs was carefully and thoughtfully removed.

There is such diversity in WWOOF hosts that there are opportunities for most interests and abilities. Some will have greater time pressures than others, for example where a weekly vegbox must be delivered.

You don't need to know about farming to WWOOF, but you do need to be willing to learn and fit in with your chosen host. This makes research important.

I called some potential hosts to find out about them and how their farms work. Some hosts will incorporate WWOOFers into their family life more than others. Deciding a time frame is important, too. I spoke to one host who said people who stay the shortest time are most rewarded, but this varies between operations, and many will suggest a minimum stay.

The WWOOF experience gave me an entirely new perspective on the value of things. Despite being good at the three R's (reducing, reusing and recycling), I was impressed by the sheer resourcefulness of the smallholding. Bridget told me: 'You could count the things I've bought new on the fingers of one hand.' Old tyres and old tiles were reused in some way or other, from new seating areas to hammocks, many thanks to one particularly ingenious WWOOFer.

The thought occurred to me that exposure to such a way of life offers huge benefits. The experience of reconnecting with nature and learning to appreciate the value of natural resources is one of WWOOF's major benefits.

As the website says, its growing numbers means WWOOF may soon appear in the dictionary. It is certainly a welcome addition to my vocabulary.

More information:

Membership is £20 per country per year for individuals, or £30 for joint membership, giving you a list of that country's hosts and their contact details.

There are over 400 hosts in the UK, and the UK web address is www.wwoof.org.uk. The international one is www.wwoof.org where you can search by continent.

Once you have registered, each host's page includes location, contact details, preferences on length of stay and accommodation details and a short description written by them, giving you an idea of who they are and how the farm works.

Laura Laker is a freelance journalist

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