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In an era of corporate farming and food miles, volunteer placements on organic farms are reviving the human connection between man and his lunch.
Origins of WWOOF
So I’d better explain for those assuming all this has something to do with barking dogs. Based on the principle of exchange, WWOOF is a worldwide network of organisations which connects individuals with the desire to gain a first-hand experience of organic farming to hosts willing to share insights into sustainable ways of living.
Founded in England in 1971, the early organisation was the initiative of Sue Coppard, a London secretary who recognised the need for city-dwellers to get away from their desks and the demand for a more practical understanding of organic farming. Originally called ‘Working Weekends on Organic Farms’, large numbers immediately responded to the concept of skills trade.
The name was later changed to ‘Willing Workers on Organic Farms’, in recognition of the demand for longer stays; and more recently, to ‘Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms’, which acknowledges the international nature of the organisation as WWOOF has gradually been adopted by countries world-over, in climates as diverse as Scotland and Sierra Leone.
Each country’s organisation exists independently within the WWOOF network and charges a low annual membership fee from WWOOFers in exchange for host contact details, from which you can organise your stay directly. Volunteers willing to work an agreed number of hours will receive bed and board and will normally spend their time as a member of the family.
Setting out on my first WWOOF adventure having arranged three consecutive placements on farms in Italy, I had no real expectations to learn agricultural skills or commune with nature. Working five-six hours a day, five days a week, was merely to be my way of paying for bed and board, and the chance to improve my very basic Italian whilst getting a true insight into the culture.
But like many WWOOFers I have encountered, I have learned to love the outdoor work, the physical contact with soil, wood and stone, and the satisfaction of playing a part in the growth of the food which you will eventually be able to enjoy at the table.
Lisa Takata, 46, is a waitress from New York who has continued to WWOOF for extended periods since her first WWOOF experience in June 2010:
I really just wanted to take an extended break and work in vineyards in Italy since I have a love for Italian wines… and then…I fell in love with learning the language and meeting the farmers and becoming part of the family, and I fell in love with working with the land, working with living plants and animals that help us produce wonderful things to eat and drink! And I haven’t been able to find a way to bring myself that kind of happiness in New York.
Given the chance to experience the challenging but rewarding life on an organic farm, many volunteers discover a satisfaction in outdoor, co-operative labour and a slower-paced, higher-quality way of life.
WWOOF stresses that their volunteers are not migrant workers, but individuals offering labour in return for learning new skills. Don’t think you have to be young, tall and muscular to work on a farm. The work is likely to be varied depending on the season and heavier work will be a group effort.
Indeed, any preconceptions I had about farming as mundane manual labour were soon dismantled: in Siena, Tuscany, where the method of olive-tree pruning was described as architecture; in Varese, Lombardy when I was taught when to plant crops in relation to the cycle of the moon; and on the Isle of Mull, Scotland, where my hosts demonstrated how seaweed can be effectively employed as manure.
For hosts too, WWOOF membership can be a positive, fulfilling and educational experience. Dermot O’Mara of Sunny Meadow Farm in County Galway, Ireland, has hosted WWOOFers with his family for more than five years:
We have exposed ourselves to the joys of many cultures. We have met many great people from all over our world. I have worked alongside people who genuinely enjoy what they are doing. We have broken bread and shared great food with great eaters and excellent cooks. We have been entertained by enthusiastic musicians, singers and artists. Friendships have been formed and many partings have mixed emotions. It is always hoped that everyone leaves with enhanced positivity…We look forward to another exciting year sharing the simple pleasures of life.
Man with a Hoe
The Ancient Romans, recognising the fortune required to harness volatile Nature and produce useful crops, would pray regularly to a plethora of gods and goddesses, to bring them aid in the management of their land: the God Seia was appealed to for the protection of seeds in the ground, the Goddess Patelana for the protection of the shoots, and the Goddess Hostilina for the protection of the stems.
With the spread of Humanist philosophy, the success of the harvest became aligned less with the generosity of a god, than with the skill of an individual farmer. Writers and artists of the twentieth century captured the timeless figure of the farmer, as in Edwin Markham’s ‘The Man with the Hoe’ (1898):
Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans upon his hoe and gazes on the ground, the emptiness of ages in his face, and on his back the burden of the world.
Whatever happened to that noble notion of the people who cultivate our land, and carry out the most important work necessary for our survival? Today, it seems we have never been so distanced from the origins of the food we eat. Farming is understood as the work of heavy machinery and fertilisers; Old MacDonald is no longer a pillar of the community, but a character from a bygone era.
Over the last hundred years, the commercialisation of farming has purposefully disconnected man from food production for the profit of a few. John Steinbeck, in ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ (1939), charted the corporate takeover and dehumanisation of agricultural production in the United States:
A bank isn’t like a man. Or an owner with fifty thousand acres, he isn’t like a man either. That’s the monster.
The organic farming movement, whilst making use of modern technology, recognises the value of human input in agricultural production, where vines are torn, fruit picked and tomatoes harvested by hand, to prevent harmful damage to the plants from machinery. Direct contact between harvestor and crop fosters a greater understanding of the sensitivity and intelligence of plants.
Global Village Paradox
To me, farm life is a sort of antidote to that “one-man with a backpack, alone with just the empty open highway ahead of him” fashionable dream of the frustrated individual in the capitalist consumerist society. Community life on a farm offers an alternative to the isolation people can feel in a technologically-connected society. The philosopher and farmer Wendel Berry explains in ‘The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays’:
There can be no such thing as a “global village.” No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it. Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity.
The potato movement in Greece suggests that the global financial crisis is already awakening communities to the benefits of a closer relationship between producers and consumers. The new emphasis on purchasing locally produced food could create significant social, economic and environmental benefits.
WWOOF is already playing an important role in the re-education of city-dwellers about sustainable agricultural production and food consumption. After eating at the table of an organic farm, you really can’t deny that a fresh, local, organic tomato or carrot tastes a lot better than any packaged, far-travelled vegetable you might find in a supermarket. And you will feel the physical and mental benefits too. When I buy eggs I now think about how the chickens have been treated and look to see which farm, exactly, I am purchasing from.
WWOOF faces the challenge of growing as a sustainable network in every sense. It may encounter difficulties as it grows in existing as a legal entity. Therefore it needs an operational structure and support to allow WWOOF to grow organically and to be prepared to see a growth in members as struggling urbanites revive their agricultural ancestry and adventurous travellers look for inexpensive but rewarding alternatives to luxury cruises and package beach holidays.
I owe a lot to WWOOFing. It has undeniably made fundamental contributions to who I am today. I have learnt a language, made life-long friendships, gained real insights into different cultures around the world; encountered novel ways of thinking; found a new respect for nature; and fostered a better understanding of sustainable living. It’s a way of travel I can’t better. And I’m already making plans for Germany later in the year. One day I might even have my own farm where I can take in WWOOFers and return the experience.
Alas, the beach in Bali will have to wait.
Advice on where to go:
Other WWOOF testimonies:
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