Weed your way around the world

WWOOF connects volunteers with organic farmers

090910_weedsThe routine was brutal. He got up at 4:30 a.m. and started weeding at five. Two hours later they passed around the bread for breakfast. On his hands and knees, loaned out to a neighbour’s farm, he thrust his gloved hands into mud and yanked out potatoes. The woman next to him grabbed what she thought was the stem of a potato plant and pulled up a rat instead. After lunch, they packaged the vegetables harvested that morning for market, slaving until nine at night. Then James Bejar fell into the men’s quarters, a mouldy, dank place, and slept. He was not an indentured servant; Bejar was on holiday.

“It was just back-breaking work,” says the 31-year-old Toronto public servant, whose vacation à la Dickens dates back to a two-week stint WWOOFing—volunteering on an organic farm in exchange for room and board—in Nagano, Japan. His story might suggest his was a one-time experiment; yet Bejar has returned again and again to what he sees as a cheap method of travel offering a glimpse of “part of a society and of a people you don’t get by travelling from hotel to hotel.”

WWOOFing organizations—the acronym stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms—now exist in over 100 countries, connecting volunteers with farmers. In exchange for weeding, feeding and shovelling manure—normally for no more than six hours a day (Bejar’s Nagano jaunt was an anomaly)—the volunteers receive food and accommodation, usually living as part of the family.

Begun in England in 1971, WWOOFing isn’t new. But growing interest in local food and organics, along with a recession that’s preventing many new graduates from entering the workforce, is helping turn it into a growth industry. Five years ago, WWOOF Canada boasted 1,000 volunteers and 500 participating farms; there are now well over 2,000 WWOOFers signed up and close to 900 hosts, though the organization does no advertising. “With this so-called economic downturn, we haven’t experienced anything—our numbers are up,” says WWOOF Canada founder John Vanden Heuvel. “We’re easily doing 10 per cent growth every year. But I don’t want to be equated with a business. We are a program providing interesting experiences.”

Indeed, WWOOFing may soon replace the old roughing-it standbys of hostelling and kibbutzing. “Why would anyone want to do the backpacking and hostelling experience when they could do WWOOFing—there is the work, but in exchange you get so much more,” says 25-year-old Mark Wade, who graduated from McMaster University with a poli-sci degree last spring and set out for B.C. His resources thinning, Wade reached out to a farmer in Duncan: “Farmer John was his name,” Wade recalls. “He says, ‘Yes, come tomorrow and we will feed you.’ ” WWOOFing introduced the Toronto boy to a world of new vegetables—Swiss chard and garlic scapes (his enthusiasm has persuaded his mum to shop at the farmers’ market)—and to square dancing in Cape Breton. “I’d never done that before,” he says.

There are now perhaps as many as 20,000 WWOOFers around the world, Vanden Heuvel says, most in their 20s. WWOOF love affairs are not uncommon (65 per cent of WWOOFers in Canada are women). The majority have never even gardened before. “I’d never chopped wood—I almost took off my leg the first time I did it,” says Alan Wong, a 38-year-old Montreal Ph.D. student. “Some people think, ‘Oh, it’s just a way of getting cheap labour,’ ” says Tony McQuail, who receives WWOOFers on his farm north of London, Ont. “It’s not really, because you have to invest a fair bit of time and training and instruction.” Many WWOOFers seek adventure, others a gardening primer (Anne Duchesne, a 44-year-old Quebec City IT consultant, planted a garden at home after she and her husband learned the ropes on a farm in the mountains of Tuscany). The farmers, meanwhile, unable to leave their fields for travel, see the world come to them.

Not all billets—or WWOOFers—are equal. “You’ve got two strangers meeting at the front door and then all of a sudden you’re living together,” says Vanden Heuvel. The occasional WWOOFer is lazy; some farmers are too demanding or mean with lunches and dinners. But the best pitfall of all is the familiarity that breeds contempt. “We never had any bad WWOOFers,” says 23-year-old Nora Kidston, who grew up with WWOOFers on her parents’ farm in the Annapolis Valley. “They kind of become part of the family. And as all family members do, they get annoying.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.