Going From a WWOOFer to a WWOOFee
"I'm going to go WWOOFing in the UK."
The statement was met with many raised eyebrows from my friends and family at home in Canada. Surely I didn't mean to bark my way through the streets of England but, if not, what was WWOOFing all about?
WWOOF stands for 'Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms'. It's a network of national organizations that help volunteers to live and learn on organic properties. WWOOF is an educational and cultural exchange whereby WWOOFers give their time and energy to helping on a host farm in return for room and board.
WWOOFing has been gaining momentum in recent years as an affordable way to travel, an opportunity to get to know a new place through immersion in local life, and a great way to pick up practical skills and knowledge in organic agriculture. There are now WWOOF networks in more than 50 countries around the world, and it's growing quickly.
I had no farming background when I took my first farm job in 2007. The job was in apple and cherry orchards in southern Ontario, Canada. I worked on a very large, conventional farm, and I fell in love with the work. I loved being outside all day, climbing apple trees, learning the art of pruning, and coming home exhausted. I loved my undergraduate studies in politics too, but with life on the farm I felt like I was venturing into something new, something that would be with me for life.
When I finished the season, I knew that I wanted to learn more about farming and I was curious about organic growing and about smaller-scale alternatives. As I neared completion of my undergraduate degree, a career counsellor mentioned WWOOF. With a good friend about to get married in England, I already had a good reason to travel. And when I discovered that there was a thriving WWOOF network in the UK, the deal was sealed.
After a quick online registration process and payment of a small registration fee, I was a member of WWOOF UK. A bona fide WWOOFer! They sent me over a hard copy of the WWOOF directory - a list of all of the WWOOF hosts in the UK with contact details and short descriptions of their places. That act of connection is the main role of the organizers at WWOOF headquarters. After that, it's up to WWOOFers to make contact directly with potential hosts, to find out about availability, to see if their interests and expectations line up, and to work out logistics.
There are many hundreds of WWOOF hosts in the UK, so my first task was to narrow down the selection before I started contacting people. What a job! With so many fascinating people and places to visit, how could I decide? I had about four months to play with and wanted to stay for at least a week or two with each WWOOF host. I also wanted to work at a diversity of places. I was mostly interested in growing vegetables, but I also wanted to know about livestock. I was keen to be part of a family environment, but was also interested in participating in a commercial operation.
After a whole lot of emailing, my search had ended and I had arranged an itinerary that included stays at five farms in England, Scotland and Wales.
My first stop was Higher Hollamoor Farm in Devon, England. The farmer, Ruth, raises small numbers of a diversity of livestock, grows a vegetable garden, sells cut flowers, and has a small, 15th century cottage rental. I was involved in everything from feeding the animals to preparing beds in the garden.
At Cefndeuddwr, in North Wales, I lived in a caravan in a most idyllic setting. Tyr and John, together with their family, have been pouring life into a historic stone house and the land that surrounds it. There, I painted furniture, sorted garlic, and helped look after the poultry.
Upper Cefn Y Pwll in Mid Wales is home to a very lovely retired couple who made me feel right at home in their wind-powered house. I woke up every morning to a gentle knock on my door and a perfectly prepared cup of tea. I spent my days there immersed in their award-winning vegetable gardens and fruit trees.
Culdees at Loch Tay, Scotland, is a small eco-community made up of folks from a great diversity of backgrounds. I was in charge of feeding the pigs and chickens and milking the goat. I adored my early rises and making fresh yogurt and cheese from the milk.
MacLeod Organics, near Inverness, Scotland, runs a large, organic fruit and vegetable box delivery. Together with four other WWOOFers, I helped with weeding and harvesting as well as packing up boxes with beautiful food for delivery.
For me, WWOOFing turned out to be a first step in what would become a long road. I returned to Canada to undertake an intensive internship on a small, organic vegetable farm. Then, while completing a Master's in Rural Planning, I worked as a senior intern and volunteer coordinator on another organic farm.
Five years later, I am still in touch with many of my WWOOF hosts and look back on the experience with immense gratitude. These people, who do not hesitate to open their homes to strangers, share their knowledge and experience in hopes of creating a more sustainable world. I met many other WWOOFers who were equally inspiring. It became clear that there is a great thirst for knowledge out there and that we all have something to give - and to gain - from sharing with one another.
Today, my partner and I have just finished our first season as WWOOF hosts on a small farm in New Zealand. Experiencing the flip side of the WWOOF coin has left us convinced that WWOOFing holds an important place in a more sustainable future. And we are delighted to be a part of it.
Want to know more about WWOOFing? Then make sure you read our article to find out more.
Also, if you're interested in volunteering then check out our articles section for some ideas and inspiration on some of the things you can do.
And if that fails, chat to other gappers on the message boards and ask questions. Trust us, it works...
About the Author: Kailea MacGillivray
Kailea MacGillivray was born and raised in the beautiful Ottawa Valley in Ontario, Canada. She holds an undergraduate degree in Political Studies and Global Development Studies from Queen's University and a Master's in Rural Planning and Development from the University of Guelph. Kailea now lives with Andy, her partner in life and farming, in his home ground of New Zealand. Together, they have been managing Toi Toi Manawa - Centre for Environmental Learning and Innovation. You can find out more about Kailea at www.kaileamac.wordpress.com.