I laughed when I first heard the term WWOOF. It inspired thoughts of past friends (mostly of the four-legged variety), and still has a tendency to elicit a jovial response from people. WWOOF is the acronym for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. The WWOOFing community consists of a network of host farms (places for volunteers to work) that offer unique opportunities to volunteers (who are typically younger in age) to gain real-world farm experiences.
WWOOFers, as they are called, are travelers from around the globe searching for opportunities to assist on farms and learn the Old World approach to organic farming, animal husbandry and living within a community.
During the past 10 years the Urban Farm has hosted numerous WWOOFers ranging in age from 18 to 30, with a variety of experience levels. Volunteers stayed from three days to nearly a year and brought a new level of energy to the Urban Farm.
The process of becoming a host site or finding a farm to visit is pretty straightforward and primarily based on the Internet. A simple search using the term WWOOF will bear lots of fruit. Being a farm owner I have only been a host, although on a hot summer day I often dream about packing a bag and doing some WWOOFing of my own.
The first step for a host site is to place a listing on one of the WWOOFing websites, where you will be asked a series of questions, and to provide a few pictures. Then it is just a matter of waiting to see who contacts you. The logistics of room and board are up to you and the volunteer. The agreement typically involves some mixture of the volunteer working a set amount of hours per week and in return the host site providing some level of room and board. I usually settle on 15 hours per week in exchange for anything they can harvest to eat from of the yard, bulk beans and grains from the store and a cushy place to live.
Before the volunteers are selected I always have two conversations that, so far, have weeded out anyone who might cause problems. First I explain that the Urban Farm is a drug-, alcohol- and smoke-free zone. Then I ask them for three personal and three business references, which I always check out as these are people who will be living in my home with me. A majority of the time I never hear back from applicants, which makes the weeding a lot easier. Then I always talk to them at least three times on the phone, just to get to know them.
When the volunteer arrives, usually at the airport or bus station, he or she takes up residence in my guest room and essentially becomes part of the Urban Farm family. I have a new person to befriend and get to know.
One of the first things I do is ask them to take on some kind of legacy project that they will be remembered by when they leave. This is always the most curious process for me. Some people take it on with a passion and boatloads of creativity while others will have nothing to do with it.
Eddie from Toronto was my first visiting WWOOFer. He was getting away from the cold and was an incredible and creative volunteer. Just prior to his arrival, the home across the street burned down and I spent a significant amount of time harvesting 50-year-old 2-by-12s from the junk pile as they disassembled the house. Eddie took one look at the wood pile and the irrigation ditch on the south side of the Urban Farm and decided to build a boardwalk over the ditch. So he laid out a plan, reused the wood and 10 years later Eddie’s Boardwalk, built from scrap wood by an enthusiastic volunteer, is still in place.
Becky decided that she wanted to plant an apple hedge to the south of my driveway, which actually needed to be a few inches inside the neighbor’s yard. So we asked the neighbors for their permission, promised to manage the hedge in the future, offered to share the harvest and then had to locate and plant the trees. Now, seven years later, I have the privilege of doing the winter pruning and the neighbors and I share a nice apple crop every June.
The projects are not always outside. As many of you know I have a large collection of books in my library. Bruce, a computer programmer, took on the creation of a computerized listing of the books in my library.
Each of these incredible people had their own WWOOFing experience and learned about life while connecting, in their own way, to the food that can grow all around us. Without exception the young people who have come into my life through the WWOOFing program have been stellar in their individual ways. Some of them are searching for their meaning in life while others have had a clear picture of who they are and what they had to contribute. Each one has left a special imprint on my life while making a unique contribution to the Urban Farm.
ARE YOU READY TO WWOOF?
WWOOF.org links to WWOOFing resources around the world (as well as sources for non-organic farms and other work opportunities). Many of the WWOOF organizations are national; some are independent. Greg Peterson uses the website GrowFood.org, which has placed over 20,000 volunteers on 2,000 organic farms in the North and Latin America.
According to WWOOF International, volunteers need a genuine interest in learning about organic growing, country living or ecologically sound lifestyles, and a commitment to help their hosts with daily tasks for an agreed number of hours.
After reviewing some of the descriptions, I’d also add a willingness to accept basic accommodations and meals.
A peek at the opportunities on offer reveals host sites from Arizona and Australia to the U.K. and Zambia. The expected volunteer commitment ranges from 16 hours per week to 50+. The duration varies from a weekend stay to year-long projects. You can work on a CSA in Illinois, help build a strawbale building in Appalachia or raise sheep in Alaska.
Greg Peterson owns the Urban Farm (urbanfarm.org), a sustainability showcase home on one-third of an acre in Central Phoenix.