This is WWOOFing
Gritting my teeth, I slipped gloves back over each of my stinging, red, dirt-caked hands. My body was sore but my heart so full; I was ready for war.
An army of stinging nettle plants towered over me. I knew, though, that little by little, we’d make progress and the pain would be worth it.
We spent hours upon days carving out apple orchards in the English countryside, infested with sticky weed, overgrown grass and stinging nettles. Somehow, achy muscles and all, I found the energy to belt out Spice Girls hits while I scythed one last section of the orchard.
This is WWOOFing.
WWOOF, known in its longer form as Willing Workers on Organic Farms, in my mind, is a magical force for travelers. An address book of limitless opportunity.
This loosely organized network exists across the world, linking traveling volunteers (aka WWOOFers) to thousands of prospective host farms and agricultural properties.
The general idea, according to the Federation of WWOOF Organizations, is to facilitate exchanges around organic agriculture. This means in exchange for an agreed amount of hours of work on the property per day, the WWOOFer receives housing and meals.
Many WWOOF hosts have only one requirement — the WWOOFer must be a registered member for the country where they wish to WWOOF. (Membership costs range from country to country, but the average cost is about $30 USD for the entire year. Members receive access to the country’s registered WWOOF host contact list.)
It was December in Australia: summer Down Under. A friend and I were studying abroad in Queensland for the year and decided to spend our holiday exploring the eastern and southern regions of the country. We had no real plans and not a lot of money. WWOOFing seemed like not only our best option, but our only option.
We headed for Victoria clutching our little WWOOF membership booklets and stuggling to support backpacks nearly as big as us. Starry-eyed, we set up camp at a coffee shop, eager to reach out to potential hosts. We had no sleeping arrangements for the night, so time was short.
I flipped to the Melbourne region of the booklet and dragged my index finger down the list of hosts, pausing at each description that sparked our interest. We called about ten different hosts and were, discouragingly, met similar responses from each: Sorry, we’re booked for the month. We don’t have space for you girls.
We, however, remained optimistic and decided to try a few more phone numbers. Finally a woman, with the exact accent you’d expect an Australian farmer to have, answered our prayers. Her family’s farm was tucked away in a small town called Waikerie in the Riverland of South Australia.
We’re maxed out on WWOOFers, ladies, but our friends are in need of some help around their farm, she told us. My friend and I were thrilled! And like that, no real questions asked, we were off to our first WWOOF farm.
A lanky man with a beard devouring the bottom half of his face met us there. A man named Alan met us there. His skin looked worn but warm energy flowed from the gentle eyes behind his this glasses.He shook our hands, grabbed our bags and drove us in his small sedan down a remote road toward his property.
He seemed timid, yet eager to befriend us. We chatted away, trying to gauge how much we could trust this complete stranger.
The car slowed, making its way into the drive. A small black Kelpie bolted toward the car, as if to herd us into the parking spot. A smiling woman, his wife Jenny, waved at us from a distance, closing the gate to the chicken coop before making her way to greet us.
I tried to take mental note of each moment, as if engraving it into my memory like a photograph. Somehow I knew this place would forever be special to me. I was right. Almost instantaneously, these complete strangers that welcomed us into their home, felt like family.
I’ve WWOOFed a total of five times in the past six years. I’ve travelled to towns I’ve never heard of and have been exposed to lifestyles and skills I never would have dreamed of encountering. Each experience has proven to be completely unique and equally magical.
Folded away in an old piece of my luggage are a few marked up maps I’ve kept after each of my travels. Each mark, for me, represents a part of my story. The marks remind me of where I’ve been, what I’ve learned and who’ve I’ve met. These are places I would have never otherwise traveled to, and memories and skills I would never have gained.
Each of these hosts, each of these small towns hold a special place in my heart. They will forever feel like home.
This is WWOOFing.