Around the World

WWOOF-ing 101, part 1: What in the world is WWOOF?

these are the most delicious strawberries you'll ever eat, even if I had to mix up a combination of sheep sh*t and seaweed to fertilize them.
Planting strawberry runners on a wwoof farm in northern Norway, right next to the Arctic sea

On Thanksgiving morning of 2011, I threw on an old flannel shirt, grabbed a rake, and headed out the door of my best friend’s childhood home in the woods of Pennsylvania to rake their two acre yard under a gloriously blue sky. It was the first break I had had away from New York City in almost six months, and I was eager to get outside and breathe the clear autumn air. I had grown up in the Mountain West working outside my entire life, and, since my move to New York, had been missing the opportunity to work with my hands—other than sending emails and filling out invoices at my desk all day.  I had been longing for work that had a meaningful, visible result at the end of the day, and for more physical activity than just my 15-mile round-trip commute on my bike.

Two hours later when I came inside, I had made up my mind: I was going to leave my job and wwoof for the summer.

If you’ve never heard of wwoof-ing before, it’s high time you had.  WWOOF, which officially stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (though there are a host of other ways the acronym has been parsed out) is a very informal organization that facilitates connecting folks who want the experience of working on an organic farm, regardless of their experience level, with organic farmers of all types who need a few extra sets of hands to keep their place up and running.  The volunteers (you) trade 25 hours of work per week for room and board from the host, in addition to the training and experience you gain while on the farm. You can spend as little time as four or five days or as many as three or more months on a farm, and there is no financial obligation from either side—you never have to pay for what you receive from the farm, and don’t receive monetary compensation for your work, making it an incredibly economical way of traveling.  There are WWOOF organizations in over a hundred countries across the globe—from France to New Zealand to Venezuela to Gabon—with thousands of farms large and small to choose from.

 

these are the most delicious strawberries you'll ever eat, even if I had to mix up a combination of sheep sh*t and seaweed to fertilize them.

Planting strawberry runners on a wwoof farm in northern Norway, right next to the Arctic Ocean.

 

Unlike any other kind of traveling you’ve experienced, wwoof-ing is immersion at its truest, giving you the chance to get a completely different view of a place, the people who live there, and of yourself. I found myself hitch-hiking through rural France  in order to get to one of my farms, practicing my small talk with a former French sailor; snuggling up to an alpine goat early in the morning while discussing the grand questions of life with one of my farmers as we milked the animals; fishing for my dinner in the Arctic Ocean with century-old hand reels; and using a vast reservoir of skills and knowledge that challenged each part of my brain and body that I had forgotten I possessed as I worked.

Wwoof-ing is a remarkable opportunity to learn things you never knew you wished you knew—like cheese making, bee keeping, how to produce jam, ride horses, or why you should plant cilantro under your tomato plants in your fire-escape garden—and share your own talents, from sewing to singing to your mastery of the subjunctive mood in Farsi. The rhythm of time for work, for relaxation, and for plenty of good eating and rest rejuvenated me, rather than draining my energies (Have you ever come back from a vacation and thought: I need a vacation just to recover from that…?). I met and worked, cooked, ate, played music, dug in the dirt, hitch-hiked, walked, and camped alongside some of the most remarkable people from all over the world, each of whom shared their story with me, and shaped mine just a bit more.

 

Each year they give all the baby goats names that begin with the same letter, an ingenious way of identification and tracking age.

An alpine goat on a wwoof farm in Alsace, France

 

I absolutely loved wwoof-ing, but there is a lot I wished I had known before I started out on my excursion. In this mini-series of blog posts over the next few weeks, I’ll share some advice, tips, tricks and wisdom I learned over the course of my four months as a wwoof-er this summer. I’ll cover selecting a farm, packing and equipment, personal safety, and a few insider tips and tricks that may be useful to you.

If you’ve got specific questions, concerns, or qualms, post them in the comments section below and I’ll do my best to answer them in the upcoming posts.

Erin Brown
Erin Brown is an art-dealer-turned-nomad who calls New York City home, since that is where the storage unit with her life's belongings in it resides. She has been rambling since 2005 when she up and left to work on Lake Baikal in Siberia for a month at the age of 19, and hasn't been able to sit still ever since. Erin has lived in Moscow and Paris, been hopelessly lost in the Balkans, herded goats and studied cheese making in France, scaled minor mountains in the Himalayas, farmed strawberries 500km above the arctic circle in Norway, nearly met her doom falling through shoddily-covered manhole in Kazakhstan, and systematically figured out which restaurant on curry row in NYC has the best butter chicken. A stalker of spice markets and frequenter of food carts, Erin is a passionate foodie who is more concerned about what's for lunch than the major attractions in any city. When she is not eating, cooking or writing about food, she writes art criticism and runs a social media marketing business.

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