If you love the wilderness, want a break from the norm and are sick of playing sardines on the tube, WWOOFing can be very attractive.
The unfortunately named WWOOF stands for ‘Willing Workers on Organic Farms.’ Or ‘Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms.’ (The number of times I have had to explain that I am not planning to go around the world barking like a dog, but that WWOOFing is actually a thing is outrageous.) It is a global network of farms, who host volunteers. The volunteers work on their farms in exchange for food, board and knowledge. So if you’re skint and want to travel, it’s rather perfect.
The idea of working for free (or in exchange for food and a bed) is alien to some people. “But what about your pension?” my Dad’s voice echo’s. “How are you going to support yourself?” my therapist quizzes, looking perturbed. But, contrary to popular belief, working with nature in exchange for food can be a wildly liberating experience. You are no longer pimping yourself out to do stuff you don’t really want to do in an air conditioned box. Whilst connecting to the Earth in a very real way and learning about sustainable living, you are – for a fleeting period – free from the grip of money. You literally don’t need it anymore. You have escaped the ratty race, you are emancipated. No contracts, no boss, no shitty coffee machine.
Every WWOOFer has his or her own reason they ended up in the middle of nowhere weeding someone else’s gravel path (it’s harder than it sounds.) For me, it was because I quit my job and was fed up of paying London rent. I needed some new experiences, I was hungry to see the world outside of the box, I was disillusioned with conventional work-life and I absolutely had to get away to think about what the devil to do next with my life.
So far I have WWOOFed twice this year, and both experiences have been drastically different. The first experience I will spend the least time on, because it consisted of shoveling and spreading endless wood chippings in front of some ‘glamped-up’ yurts for 6 hours a day to make them look pretty, and watching the owner sever his thumb whilst showing off with an incredibly sharp axe. This was followed by being left alone to cook Aldi frozen scampi (I’m vegan) in an out building (we weren’t allowed in the house) for me and my fellow WWOOFer before me sneaking away in the middle of the night in a panic because frankly I couldn’t stand it any longer. It was hardly organic or eco-friendly, and a safe and nurturing environment it most definitely was not.
The second adventure was much more in line with my expectations. A self-sufficient forest garden on the welsh borders, with two punks. I stayed in my own little caravan, I bathed with the ducks in their pond, I ate nettle stir-fry for the first time, and I learnt loads about low-impact living and growing food organically. This is what WWOOFing is about, there’s no taking advantage. Both sides win, and it can work.
Since my story shows that it is easy to fall into the wrong hands when you WWOOF, (after all, you are basically going to live with complete strangers) I am giving you 10 things to ponder before you travel vast distances to give your precious free time away.
1. Expect the unexpected: WWOOFing is kind of like internet dating. You see a profile online, you peruse their gorgeous pictures and brilliantly written blurb and you think to yourself – this is perfect! I have found my soul mate! So you go along with a spring in your step to the date with a super high expectation of who they are, you create a rose-tinted world of what this is going to be. Then you turn up and realise they are much shorter than they said they were and much worse at making you laugh. The same applies to WWOOFing, so make sure you do loads of research about your farm before committing – and read other WWOOFers comments about your farm thoroughly!
2. Bring your own pillow if you are fussy about things like that: Otherwise expect a very flat, lumpy, musty one. Although you’ll be so tired by the end of the day that you probably won’t notice if you were resting your head on a jagged rock. What I’m trying to say is that accommodation is often BASIC. You’ll be very lucky if you get a towel.
3. Expect to be lonely: If you don’t like being on your own, then make sure your farm is hosting other WWOOFers along with you. You’ll probably have a fair amount of free time each day, and when there’s no electricity and you’ve finished your book – it can become quite boring. If you love spending time on your own though, it can be amazing! The perfect chance to write, meditate or just stare into the distance nonchalantly without a heckler in sight.
4. Bring your favourite snacks: When you are living on the farm you’ll probably be light years away from the nearest supermarket, and it might be a long time until dinner. You’ll be doing lots of manual labour which builds up an insatiable appetite and unfortunately you are entirely at the hosts mercy in regards to food. When and what they decide to cook is up to them, so there might be times when you are left anxiously craving a KFC. So bring things like nuts, rice cakes, and chocolate to stave of the hanger.
5. Keep an open mind: The deal is that you’ll do jobs that need doing, so you might not be always doing your favourite thing. For every meal eaten, there’s a plate to be washed. So if you end up down at the bottom of the woods in the dark, washing up with rain water in a massive dirty bucket, just remember ‘this too shall pass’ and hold it together.
6. Prepare to do heavy lifting: Especially if you are bigger than the other WWOOFers. There are endless heavy things to push, pull and cart around on farms. From trailers to logs, and dirty crockery to bales of hay. So get those muscles flexing and the elbow grease greasing. (Or just hope there is someone bulkier looking than you and stand behind them so you don’t get picked.)
7. Get used to being grubby: You might be one of the lucky ones to have access to a warm shower. If you’re one of these people then good for you! Or you might have access to a cold shower, which you can build up a tolerance to. You might on the other hand not have access to any traditional washing facilities at all – in which case you hope there is a pond somewhere close for you to bathe the old fashioned way. Even if the water looks like chocolate milk and it is brimming with tadpoles, you will get in it – believe me.
8. Expect to have a ‘WTF am I doing with my life’ moment: This happened to me whilst I was kneeling on my sore knees in the baking hot sun weeding a waterlogged orchard. The weeds were not friendly, I had been doing it for four hours straight and my trowel was all bendy. I was hating life. I suddenly felt the urge to give my host the middle finger. It can be tough, the work can be repetitive and you might feel like a bit of a dogs body. But then they bring out the most delicious dinner of home-grown produce and you remember about taking the rough with the smooth.
9. Prepare to listen to permaculture wizards talking about themselves: You will probably be living with hosts who are incredibly passionate about what they do, or what they have created. This is brilliant, and you’ll probably learn loads from them. They live and they breathe their project, and they probably don’t go out very much because of all the work it entails. So although you are also a very important individual with your own story, and your own goals, prepare for them to want to talk mostly about themselves and their vision. In some cases they might want to talk about their ‘spiritual journey’ and the time that they ‘meditated for so long that water came gushing out of their palms.’ These words were actually spoken, no joke. So practice your best ‘sincere/interested/captivated’ face.
10. Have some taxi numbers handy in case you need to escape: If the worst comes to worst you’ll just have to do a runner. If you’ve got a really nice boyfriend/girlfriend then they might rescue you. If not, keep a list of local taxis handy, so you can do a vanishing act. Obviously it’s better to come to some arrangement with your host if it isn’t working out, but if you suffer from anxiety and feel like you are trapped and aren’t able to rationalise in the heat of the moment – then get the hell out of there. Call a cab, go home, run yourself a bath, eat a massive sandwich of your choice and revel in your new found freedom. After all, you’re a volunteer and not a prisoner.
If you have any other WWOOFing tips, make it known below.