The over-commercialisation of volunteer tourism is hugely disillusioning. While some people volunteer abroad to ease their conscience, or because they consider it some sort of rite of passage, there remain many who genuinely seek mutual reciprocity in travel; a desire to gain knowledge, understanding and experience of a different culture and lifestyle, in return for providing real help (or, as the cliché goes ‘making a difference’).
So, if you resent being charged hundreds of pounds to cuddle a baby panda, or recognise that orphanages are generally better off being built by local people, but still want a travel experience that seeks to combine the beneficial interchange of cultures, labour and ideas with a pinch of adventure, then maybe you should consider WWOOFing.
What is WWOOFing?
WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms and encourages the exchange of 4-6 hours of volunteer help, in return for food and accommodation.
History of WWOOF
WWOOF began in 1971 when Sue Coppard, a secretary living and working in London, became aware of the need for people who had neither the means nor opportunity to support the organic movement and access the countryside. With help from the Soil Association she set up a trial weekend with four volunteers working at a bio-dynamic farm at Emerson College, the success of which propelled the movement forward, with a proliferation of organic farmers and smallholders willing to host people keen to work on their farms in return for food and accommodation.
The first International WWOOF conference was held in 2000, with representatives from 15 countries, with aims to develop guidelines as to what is meant by being a WWOOFer and WWOOF host, as well as to encourage and support emerging WWOOF organisations in developing countries. By 2012 over 50 WWOOF groups existed worldwide e.g. in Nepal, Uganda, Israel, Thailand and the USA. A Federation of WWOOF Organisations (FOWO) was established in 2013.
WWOOF has changed its name on numerous occasions; it began in 1971 as Working Weekends on Organic Farms, to Willing Workers on Organic Farms. Yet, the use of ‘work’ in the title caused problems, becoming inappropriately connected with migrant workers, and became viewed as a clandestine migrant worker organisation. In 2000 it was therefore changed to World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.
How does it work?
Each nation which is part of the WWOOF Federation has its own website, where hosts sign up, writing a brief summary of who they are and their set-up, what help they need and their expectations of how a prospective WWOOFer should behave. They also provide images, details of accommodation, food, working hours/days, how many WWOOFers they accept at any one given time, and the location.
WWOOFers also sign up to a specific national website, paying a fee of around £18 to access the host lists. Once you find a host which suits, then you can contact them and hopefully an agreement can be reached!
What do WWOOFers do?
Your experience of being a WWOOFer depends hugely on the farm and host you choose, but there are some general similarities. Volunteers usually live with the host, and are expected to get involved in, and cooperate with, everyday jobs. These vary, but are usually related either to farming e.g. sowing seed, looking after animals, harvesting or cutting wood; or domestic tasks e.g. childcare, cooking, or cleaning. Yet, there are some more diverse farms advertised e.g. working at a yoga retreat, or building an eco-friendly house.
How much does it cost?
The ethos of WWOOF is that no money should be exchanged. It works through the exchange of 4-6 hours help per day, in return for accommodation and food. The host, especially if they live in rural areas, will normally also collect/drop you at the nearest bus/train station.
What are the benefits of being a WWOOFer?
There are many benefits!
As a WWOOFer it is a chance to gain an insight into the everyday workings of the country you are visiting. It is not a tourist venture, but a real immersion into the day-to-day realities of life, in a rural setting which you would not normally have the chance to visit.
It is also free, and all accommodation and food is provided. So, once you have done your work for that day, and on your days off, you are able to explore the local area. If you choose well, you might also have a host who can show you round e.g. taking you to a local fiesta, hiking, or just helping you practice speaking that particular language.
It is also a great opportunity to meet a diverse range of interesting, engaged and pro-active people as many farms accept several WWOOFers from all over the globe. Similarly, talking to your host, or host family, can be a hugely rewarding and enriching experience, opening yours eyes to new approaches to life, foreign cultures, and the environment.
As it continues to expand, WWOOF is now recognised as having an important contribution to the organic movement, influencing policy and consumer demand not only through putting WWOOFers in contact with hosts on organic farms, but through newsletters, training and jobs.
The time and experience that WWOOFers provide to their hosts can also make a vital difference: helping sustainability take root across the globe, and opening the door to a way of living that continues to fundamentally change people’s lives.
So I hope that perhaps next vacation you might all be WWOOFing too!