WWOOFing is an international travel experience where people volunteer on organic farms or smallholdings. They are linked with those looking for farm help by WWOOF – World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms – a worldwide network of over forty national organizations. Here is are two very different WWOOFing experiences, both providing learning about life and farming.
By Lexi Ambrogi
Last January, I stepped out of the single-runway airport on the island of Tortola, wheeling my suitcase over a sidewalk gritted with sand, and let out a gasp as something darted into my path. I stopped and rubbed my eyes. That flight must have messed with my mind; there’s no way I had just nearly stepped on a chicken in an airport parking lot.
But there she was, staring down her beak at me as I stepped around her. She wouldn’t be the first chicken I’d come across that day. I had signed up to work on a small organic farm in the British Virgin Islands; my labor would be exchanged for room and board through an organization called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.
WWOOF links organic farms in need of help with willing workers looking to learn more about sustainable farming techniques and permaculture. In exchange for working the land, the host farm provides volunteers with food and sleeping accommodations. This new wave of eco-tourism is more than a cheap way to travel, though. It requires work – real, genuine, hard work – and is not for the faint of heart.
I walked the quarter mile from the airport terminal to Trellis Bay, a respite for tourists looking to kill time before heading to the main island of Tortola. Trellis was home to a convenience shop, a cyber café, a surf shack, an art studio, and a handful of tents tucked inconspicuously among palm trees – my fellow WWOOFers.
I looked down at my oversized suitcase, and then up at people carrying flip flops and a beer, and then back at my suitcase. I was suddenly very self-conscious at all of the belongings I had brought with me. I quickly dragged my suitcase through the sand, head down and determined, and stashed it out of sight.
The next three weeks of my life seemed to span three years. It was the antithesis of being bogged down in a nine-to-five desk job, where the days blend into weeks and leave you wondering where your years went. Each day was, quite literally, an adventure.
The other WWOOFers and I often didn’t have access to a reliable car, so it was up to us to hitch rides from Trellis to the farm, located at end of a twenty-minute drive up-country. Often, we would have to stitch together partial ride offers and walk the rest of the way. Over the course of one afternoon, I tallied eight different drivers.
The farm was in my host’s backyard, nestled into the side of a steep hill. The nursery, where we started crops from seed, was situated against the side of the house. From there, at the top of the hill, you could see most of the farm. Because of the poor soil quality – the Virgin Islands are volcanic – the crops grew in raised beds, where compost is mixed in with the horse manure we picked up from a local race track. We grew mostly greens, like arugula, mustard greens, and heirloom lettuce varieties. During our breaks, we would climb up the mango tree and shake the branches so that we could feast on the ripe fruit.
On my last night in the Caribbean, I ate dinner with Jerome, an islander who spent a lot of time in Trellis Bay. He fried up a fish he had caught that afternoon, and we sat on his boat eating slowly and purposefully. After dinner, we squeezed wild honey combs he had found on a roof and bottled the sweet stuff – nearly four gallons of it. He asked me if I would be back. I told him I hoped so.
A Second WWOOFing Experience
After the initial shock of being back at home in Delaware had worn off, I started feeling restless again last summer. There were some things about the Tortola trip that I would like to have forgotten – the hundreds of sand flea bites, waking up each day with sand in my teeth – but something still beckoned me to the lifestyle of a WWOOFer. I also had a nagging feeling in the pit of my stomach that I had some unattended business. I didn’t step off my flight back to Philadelphia after my trip feeling as though I had learned some universal truth. I had thought one WWOOFing experience would open my eyes to some global lesson that would change my life, and I was disappointed that this didn’t happen.
And so, with the less glamorous points of Tortola slowly fading from memory, I booked another WWOOFing trip. This time, I chose a small farm in Bolingbroke, Georgia, a rural community just outside of Macon. I was seeking an altogether different experience from Tortola. As thrilling as it had been not to know what my next day would be like, I wanted this trip to be a bit more structured and less stressful.
I made the thirteen-and-a-half-hour drive to Bolingbroke in one straight shot, pausing only for coffee and gas. My hosts Sandy and Morgan welcomed me with open arms and a hot meal. They laughed at the look of incredulity on my face when I learned I would be eating three meals a day with their family and sleeping in a newly renovated apartment above their garage. I explained my last WWOOFing experience, and the laughs continued.
Here, they assured me, I would be taken care of. And I was. Sandy and Morgan took me into their home. I pitched in where I was needed; they even let me help cook dinner, and I showed them an easy recipe for roasted potatoes and vegetables. The work wasn’t always easy – my back was sore for days after spending my first two morning splitting wood – but it was satisfying. I went to bed exhausted and happy. It wasn’t warm enough to grow much food yet, so I worked on preparing the garden beds for the upcoming spring planting season.
We feasted each night on leftovers from last year’s bounty; bell peppers and butternut squash, as local as they come, were worked into many meals.
Something the WWOOF organization makes clear to its members is that no two farming trips are exactly alike. There’s no such thing as a cookie-cutter WWOOFing experience, and perhaps that helps to explain part of the program’s appeal. Volunteers are cautioned to be very flexible about their expectations for everything from diet to sleeping accommodations.
If the Tortola trip was an action-packed roller-coaster, the Bolingbroke farm was more like a relaxing lazy river. In Georgia, I was able to fall into a routine; I woke up knowing what to expect in terms of labor, and I knew I would have three square meals a day. My workload was moderate and reasonable. I fed the chickens, horses, dogs, and ducks after breakfast, and would chop wood or tidy up the yard until lunch. The afternoon’s schedule would include some light weeding or raking, and then I would have a few hours to myself before dinner.
But upon further reflection, I began to realize that maybe these two places weren’t so different. At both farms, people seemed to have it ingrained in their minds that waste is, well, wasteful. No food ever went to the garbage – anything edible was thrown to the chickens, and things like melon rinds and banana peels were dutifully composted. Plastic bags were reused, foil was saved, egg cartons doubled as seedling houses. In Tortola, scraps of metal from the art studio were fashioned into digging tools for the garden. In Bolingbroke, the last ounces of the morning’s coffee were poured into a pitcher and baked into pumpernickel bread at the end of the week.
Another equally valuable lesson I learned is that there are still parts of the world where people remember how to talk to each other. Without the distractions of smartphones and the expectations of a fast-paced urban, or even suburban, life, something incredible happens. People look at you when you talk. Dinners extend into the night long after the food is gone. The most fun I had in Tortola was not the half hour a day I spent checking emails and keeping in touch with people at home, but rather the hours with Jerome on his boat, just talking about nothing at all.
Finally, I realized while adding to the compost pile during my last days in Bolingbroke, that this is what I had been searching for. I left my comfort zone of the northeast Megalopolis because, perhaps, something felt lacking or unsatisfying in my life. I thought my primary goal was to learn more about how to produce my own food, but I realize now that there was something bigger on these farms. I gained a perspective on life that can only be obtained through real life, through hands-in-the-dirt experience.
The goal, to paraphrase essayist and philosopher Wendell Berry, is not easier; the goal is actually the journey and the experience. If nothing else, that’s what WWOOFing provides – personal growth by uniting people through something as primitive as growing your own food.
Formally called Working Weekends on Organic Farms, WWOOF came into being in 1971, in England, when a London office worker named Sue Coppard recognized the need to provide access to the countryside for people like herself who did not otherwise have the means or the opportunity to farm, but who were keen to support the organic movement. Learn more at www.WWOOF.org and www.facebook.com/WWOOF
Lexi Ambrogi is a graduate of the University of Delaware’s Energy and Environmental Policy program. She actually hates learning about policy, but enjoys cooking, teaching kids how to grow their own food, and coaching high school track and field. This article was first published in Natural Life Magazine.