There’s nothing touristy about getting your hands dirty—quite literally—and traveling the world through WWOOF.
WWOOF, which stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, is an online service that connects individuals with farms around the world that could use their help. For those who enjoy being outdoors and don’t mind a bit of manual work, WWOOFing is a unique way to get to know a new destination deeply over several weeks or months. Workers receive free room and board in exchange for their efforts on the farm, so this type of travel can be extremely cheap.
A standard work schedule for volunteers is half a day (about four to six hours), Monday through Friday, but as they select their farm, WWOOFers should clarify their host’s expectations.
WWOOF is particularly appealing for its mission. As the Federation of WWOOF Organizations’ website states, “WWOOF specializes in linking people who are passionate about healthy food, healthy living and a healthy planet.” Hosts are committed to teaching workers about ecologically sound and sustainable farming practices. The organization aims to impart both practical skills and an ethos of care for the environment.
While most people who choose to WWOOF are individuals and couples under 35, people of all ages can do it. Children and pets are also welcome at many farms, making WWOOFing a viable family travel option.
To get started on the WWOOF journey, volunteers must first choose a destination and make an online account. Farms are located in more than 150 countries from Italy to Nigeria to Japan, and each nation’s independent WWOOF organization in the larger network has its own site. For a small yearly subscription fee which varies by country (if WWOOFing in the U.S., it's $40 for individuals and $65 for couples), WWOOFers sign up and receive access to a complete directory of farms in their chosen location.
Many volunteers narrow their choices by being specific about what types of farming they wish to explore, like cheese or winemaking, olive growing, or working with a particular animal. After finding a promising spot, would-be volunteers can read the reviews by other WWOOFers and look for any red flags before contacting the farm.
The WWOOF experience
Lucy Kates, Miko Martin, and Wayan Buschman have individually WWOOFed in Havelock North and Gisborne, New Zealand; Coeyman’s Hollow, NY; Blue Hill, Maine; Las Vegas, New Mexico; and Pawcatuck, Connecticut. WWOOF lists over 8,000 participating farms of all sizes, types, and locations, and a typical stay ranges one week to one month.
Because extensive advance communication is key to making an appropriate match, would-be WWOOFers reach out to potential hosts through the site's messaging system (no personal info is given out by the site).
“Ask them every question you have and more,” Buschman recommends. “Emailing and speaking on the phone can be especially helpful.” Volunteers will want to know what they’re getting themselves into before they commit to their stay, and every farm is different.
First-time volunteers often wonder what jobs they will be given and how strenuous their work will be. The answer is that it varies from place to place. “As long as you’re putting in effort you’ll be fine”, says Buschman. “If you feel like you’re not pulling your weight outdoors, you can always find ways to help out in the kitchen or with other chores.”
Martin echoes Buschman’s advice. “My work was as physically demanding as I wanted it to be and I had pretty much complete say over what task I was doing. My host let me decide what to do from a bunch of jobs she needed help with,” she says of her stay at Magic Forest Farm in Coeyman’s Hollow.
A WWOOFer's responsibilities might range from collecting eggs to pulling weeds to bottling olive oil. “Repetitive tasks are common,” Kates says of her time on a homestead in New Zealand. “There were sometimes a few options of what to do, but usually not.”
Of course, with only half of volunteers’ time devoted to work, many WWOOFers also enjoy leaving the farm and exploring the surrounding area.
“I bought and sold a car for pretty cheap when I was farming in New Zealand, which was really nice in terms of having the autonomy to travel and explore during my hours off,” Kates says. Many farms are in rural areas, so weekends are usually the best time to travel farther and see more sights.
While some WWOOFers prefer working alone, most cite interacting with other WWOOFers as a highlight of their experiences. “I met people from all over the world, which was incredible," says Martin. "I didn’t think that I’d find such an international group of people WWOOFing in a small town in upstate New York."
"There was also a pretty wide age range,” Martin says. “I was the youngest [at age 20] and the oldest WWOOFer was in his fifties. It was really refreshing to be around people who had such different outlooks and backgrounds.” WOOFers should ask in advance if other volunteers will be on the farm during their stay.
Trying a mini WWOOF
For travelers unsure about taking the WWOOF vacation leap, there's the option of local WWOOFing, during which volunteers get a taste of farm work for only a day and receive a meal from their host but not sleeping accommodations.
On the other end of the commitment spectrum, WWOOFing for months at a time is a popular choice for travelers who want to take root in a destination without breaking the bank. On similar sites like Workaway.info and Helpx.net, hosts offer room and board in return for work but without the emphasis on organic farming. Some travelers prefer Workaway, where one membership fee allows them to work around the world. With WWOOF, volunteers pay a separate fee for each country.
Those who WWOOF look back on their farm travels fondly. “It was really fulfilling to develop a routine," Buschman says. "In New Mexico, I always collected the eggs at 5pm, and I started to look forward to that as my chore."
Martin says that her favorite part of WWOOFing was “eating quality food and doing real work that had a real impact." Her least favorite part? “Leaving.”
Visit the WWOOF website to learn more about the organization, including the locations of participating farms and how to get started as a volunteer.