WWOOF-ing 101

It’s been almost a year since I got back from Europe and I’m still receiving e-mails from people who want to try WWOOF-ing.  A lot of people want to know the name of that WWOOF #5 (I’ll never tell, so stop asking).  But most people want to know how it works and what to expect.  And so, I’ve written this post, “WWOOF-ing 101” for anyone who’s curious about WWOOFing.

So let’s start from the beginning, shall we?

What is WWOOF-ing?

If the description on the official website (click here) wasn’t descriptive enough, here it is again!

WWOOF is an exchange – In return for volunteer help, WWOOF hosts offer food, accommodation and opportunities to learn about organic lifestyles.

If that’s still not registering, here’s the simplest possible description:  you (prospective WWOOFer) will go work on a farm in exchange for food and housing.  You will sleep in their homes (or their garages/chicken coops/tents/ caravans/ kid’s room/ home offices).  You eat their delicious/disgusting/bland/culturally-typical food.  You will learn about life, love and yourself.  (Okay, I’m stretching it with that last bit, but it’s not far off…)

Working in the vines in Italy

But please, here are some guidelines…

In my travels, I came across some mixed reviews about WWOOF-ing.  I’ve lived my share of bad experiences and heard some more.  But most bad experiences can be avoided if you (the prospective WWOOFer) follow these guidelines.

1.  Expect the unexpected.

No matter how many details are listed in the WWOOF postings, the farms you will go to will never be anything like what you were expecting.  This can be good and this can be bad.  But don’t fret!  WWOOF-ing is about adventure!  So you’re shacking up in a rotting cabin with hundreds of mosquitos.  It’s all part of the fun!  If you can rough it, it’ll make for an interesting story later on.  If you can’t, go find yourself a five-star, Michelin-rated bungalow and stop complaining!

True story: I worked on a farm in France and the farmer asked me to translate an e-mail he had received from a couple in New York.  The e-mail read like an e-Harmony questionnaire.  They wanted to know how far from Toulouse the farm was situated (in miles and in hours by train), what the accommodation was like, what they’d be eating, when they’d be working, what kind of work was expected, if they’d get days off, etc.  Midway through translation, the French farmer stopped me.  He asked to reply to their e-mail.  He was rejecting them because of their lack of adventure.  While these were all valid questions to ask, I had to agree with the farmer’s position on the matter.  These people clearly were expecting one thing for their summer vacation.  And if they didn’t get it (which they probably weren’t), they wouldn’t be happy.  And neither would the French farmer.  I digress.

It’s normal for you to be excited and nervous about your first WWOOF experience, and that’s okay.  As you go on and work more farms, you’ll learn to loosen up and take whatever is coming your way with a positive and adventurous attitude.  It makes for very attractive personality traits as well.

Be open to surprises.  They can be good.  They can be bad.  They can be surprisingly awesome!

2. Be a good house-guest.

If I had to choose two words to describe a WWOOF-er, they’d be: laborer and house-guest.  While the earlier is a given, the latter isn’t always so obvious.  But being a good house-guest is just as important, if not more, to maintaining a good relationship between WWOOFer and host.

After receiving strangers in their homes week-in and week-out, many hosts have certain expectations of their WWOOF-ers.  There’s the obvious: don’t hog the couch/shower/food/whatever; be polite; pick-up after yourself.  Also, on all of the farms I’ve worked on, I was asked to do the dishes after dinner.  These are all expected of you as a house-guest, so don’t whine about their house rules.  They did make you dinner after all!

But it’s not just about chores.   Be social!  I’ll admit that on my first ever WWOOF, I was a complete anti-social brat.  After dinner, I’d do the dishes then head straight to the caravan (my accommodation) and watch Planet Earth with the headphones on.  Big no-no.  Stay and chat!  My favorite memories of WWOOF-ing are the post-dinner political chats, cultural teachings and all around celebrations of life.  Don’t be shy!  Make friends!  Be social!

3. Work

This is obvious.

Because there is no exchange of money, WWOOF (as in the organization) has set up guidelines for both workers and hosts to follow.  Hosts may ask their WWOOFers to work a maximum of six hours of labor per day, six days a week.

For many big-city westerners, working in the country may sound bucolic, but it’s a lot harder than many imagine.  But if the hosts are accommodating you nicely and feeding you full every night, you have to do your part.  Fair is fair.  If you don’t meet their working expectations, they may speak up.  If they do, this makes for awkward dinner conversation.

Working away in France

Not only that, but most of the farms posted depend on WWOOFers to make ends meat.  This may be your vacation, but it’s their work (and their life) you’re helping support.

In short: don’t be a freeloading traveler and put in your hours!

That said, I have worked on a farm where the host has juiced me for more than my WWOOF-ing hours worth.  If this happens to you, speak up to your host first.  Tell him/her that you’ve worked over six hours today.  If they nod but continue to work you overtime day after day, report them (HONESTLY* and OBJECTIVELY*) to WWOOF.org.

* One WWOOF host I worked for contacted me a year later to act as a witness on his behalf.  Apparently, one WWOOFer he hosted barely put in her hours and he confronted her about it.  She left the farm the next day.  A few weeks later, his WWOOF Host membership was revoked because of false claims this lazy WWOOFer had made about him.  Because of an injury he had suffered while I was there, he can’t do farm work alone.  Not only that, but he depends on WWOOFers to help maintain his farm and his crop. Luckily, previous WWOOFers, who are now good friends of his, have decided to help him out.  *

Why WWOOF-ing?

1. It’s cheap!  No kidding.  As a (lazy) student traveller on a budget, WWOOF-ing was perfect for me.  I’d stay put (geographically speaking) for two weeks at a time and not spend a dime.  Jumping from hostel-to-hostel was, in my opinion, way more exhausting than hard labour in the (picturesque) field.

2.  You’re totally immersed in the culture.  I learned way more about Italy living with an Italian family, speaking Italian, eating Italian food, watching Italian television than I ever would in my Italian hotel room reading my Italian guidebook with my non-Italian travel buddies.

3. It’s so much fun!  The hosts are awesome!  You eat amazing food.  There are other WWOOFers on the same farm; you make friends.  You watch a baby deer being born.  You go for a hike in the nearby woods.  You play with the house cat.  You make wine! You go to the market.  Sell some jams.  Buy some pattiseries.  You take pictures.  Show your family.  What’s not to love?!

Bonus: street cred.  “So you took cooking lessons taught by Jamie Oliver?  Pst! I was taught by Italian gypsies in a 12th-Century shack in the Tuscan countryside how to make real Italian sugo di pomodoro fresco al basilico, senza electrical devices.”

Hopefully, this answered all your questions you may have had about WWOOF-ing.  But from the bottom of my heart, I think it’s something everyone who loves a good adventure should try.

Safe travels!

🙂 Julie