If you’re interested in travelling and aren’t afraid to get your hands dirty—literally—there’s no better way to do it than through one of the work exchange programs on farms all over the world.
Websites such as WWOOF.net, Workaway.info and Helpx.net direct you to dizzyingly long lists of farms, hostels and work stays. Skimming through profile after profile, you can grow nervous—how do you know which one to choose?
Over the last five years, I’ve WWOOFed in half a dozen countries—but to do so, I had to scour hundreds of profiles first. From my experience, I’ve learned that farms vary as widely as the people that run them and reading between the lines is key to a successful WWOOFing experience.
Using examples paraphrased from actual profiles, here are four types to avoid—and the ones to apply to instead.
Avoid: “WWOOFers will help grow vegetables.”
Carrots? Tomatoes? Nothing but fields of rutabagas?
When it comes to choosing a farm, ambiguity is not your friend. Instead, look for detailed information such as a general schedule, living conditions and—at the very least—a description of what the farm produces. This will give you an idea of what you will actually be doing, as well as how well-run the farm is.
Farming takes serious skill and dedication—and part of the joy of WWOOFing is learning from your hosts.
Personally, I also avoid listings with vague titles. “Centre,” for example (ie. “Wellness Centre”), can mean anything and therefore nothing. Once, I arrived for a placement at an “Arts and Wellness Centre”, only to discover that it was a group of hippies living in trailers with nothing more than a tiny overgrown garden plot.
Apply here instead: “WWOOFers wake up at 6:30, cook breakfast on a rotating basis, then feed the animals and work for three hours. After taking a snack break, they work for roughly three more hours before breaking for lunch.”
Avoid: “Our farm is in the north of Bulgaria.”
Do you know what the weather’s like in northern Bulgaria? ‘Cause I don’t.
Learning as much as you can about the farm’s location can make or break an experience. After all, you are going to spend most of your time with your hands in the dirt, so it’s important to know the region’s environment and climate.
Envisioning the rolling green hills that dominate Ireland, I once applied to work on a farm in an area colourfully called “Knocknagraga.” It wasn’t until I arrived that I learned “Knocknagraga” is an Irish word translating roughly to “stony hills.” Guess what the fields were like? Although it turned out to be one of my favourite farms, it’s always best if you’re able to align your experience with your expectations.
Apply here instead: “Our farm is located 30 miles east of Mount Rainier National Park in a FSC-certified forest/wetland. The area is fairly remote, with no public transportation close by. If you arrive in the autumn, bring rain gear. Our summers are generally hot and beautiful.”
Avoid: “I just bought an island! I'm planning on running a hostel and I need lots of help getting the place ready. I especially need someone who is experienced in carpentry, permaculture or farming techniques. Bring your own tent, as we are still building the guest house.”
Run away—run far, far away. This is clearly someone that doesn't know what they're doing. They have a piece of land and may not know the next step or are overwhelmed with the task. Either way, this makes for a stressful WWOOFing experience. A description like this indicates that perhaps the farm-owner is looking to offload the burden of ignorance onto some unlucky (and unpaid) volunteer.
Instead, look for an established farm that’s worked out the kinks, has a schedule and knows the land. To make a living, farming takes serious skill and dedication—and part of the joy of WWOOFing is learning from your hosts.
Participation in CSA (community-supported agriculture) is often a good indication of how well established a farm is. A CSA farm sells “subscriptions” and then provides boxes, usually weekly, filled with seasonal produce for the subscribers. A successful CSA means that there will be regular work to do and opportunities to engage with the community.
Apply here instead: “We've had our farm for 10 years and started a CSA program about five years ago. We attend weekly farmers’ markets in town and have 15 families and restaurants in our CSA. Our farm is approximately 30 acres: 10 for hay, 10 for vegetables and 10 for goats.”
Avoid: “After I spent a summer WWOOFing for fun, I finally decided to leave my job in insurance and bought a piece of rainforest in Costa Rica.”
I understand impulse buying, but impulse farming?
Seeking out farms that are operated by locals rather than expats is another good policy. Simply put, if someone grows up in an area and works the land, they are going to know it better than an outsider. They know the language, the climate, growing conditions, other locals and places to go. These things take years—if not decades—to learn.
This guideline is fuzzy, though. Foreigners, particularly on well-established farms, can certainly learn all of the above as well as any local. Either way, working for a farmer who is willing to share their local knowledge is the kind of opportunity that makes WWOOFing worthwhile.
Apply here instead: “We often speak Irish with our children. If you are interested in learning some Irish we would be happy to teach you.”
This article originally appeared in Verge's Fall 2016 issue.Add this article to your reading list