Lending a hand on organic farms in exchange for room and board is a great way to meet real people around the world. English writer Kathryn Good discovered this in Australia as she weeded vegetable patches and bottle-fed baby goats in order to forget about a boy back home.
Standing ankle-deep in mud in somewhere in Tasmania, trying to cut a goat’s horny toenails as it struggled to kick the daylights out of me, was one of the occasions while WWOOFing when I wondered: “What the hell am I doing here?”
WWOOFing (no, it’s not just for dogs) stands for Willing Workers on Organic Farms, an international organization that helps travellers exchange a certain amount of work per day for board and lodging on farms around the world. For some, it’s simply a cheap way to travel, others do it to learn sustainable-farming techniques, while for many it’s an opportunity to meet “real” people and escape the endless round of bunk beds in backpacker hostels.
For me it was a way of combining travel in Australia and manual labour in the hope that it would take my mind off an unsuitable boy back home in Britain. Which is how I found myself—in no particular order—attending to grape plants in a vineyard, scraping manure out of old cow horns on a biodynamic farm and carding wool to make felt in Tasmania.
The amount of work you’re expected to do, the friendliness of the hosts, the comfort of the accommodations all differ widely from place to place. In return for a small joining fee, WWOOFers are issued a handbook listing all the farms participating in the program (the Australian handbook has more than 1,400).
You soon learn to interpret the “code.” I’m afraid, being a soft city girl, I steered clear of listings that read “bush showers/visitors should bring flashlights as we have no electricity.”
Before I’d become adept at reading between the lines, however, I managed to find myself staying with a tree-hugging, folk music-loving yet completely joyless couple somewhere in the Australian state of Victoria. With no heat, the filthy house was freezing cold. I spent two days planting eucalyptus seedlings, which I then had to surround with old milk cartons as “guards.” While the work itself was pretty satisfying (and left my hands smelling delicious), the thought of another evening drinking warm home-brewed ale with my hosts’ cousins was too much to bear.
Having planned to stay a week, I plotted my escape with clandestine calls to bus companies before heading south to the Great Ocean Road.
That’s the beauty of WWOOFing: Since it’s an entirely voluntary arrangement you’re always free to move on. When you contact your host family, you generally agree on the amount of time you plan to stay—a two-night minimum is the official rule and some specify stays of no less than a week—but since no money changes hands you can always make a quick getaway, rural bus timetables permitting. The more cushy-sounding hosts (such as a Byron Bay beach house where WWOOFers have “access to the spa and pool in exchange for two hours work per day”) tend to get booked up pretty quickly.
A lot of women travelling on their own choose to WWOOF as a safer option than backpacking. But it’s not all young, budget travellers looking for cheap ways to get around. The vineyard owners I stayed with once had the Canadian chief executive of a computer company turn up in a brand new Audi, the trunk full of booze; he was just looking for a different “holiday experience.” More often, the hosts get foreign students looking to improve their English. The hosts’ organic credentials, too, can sometimes be quite dubious. The grape growers were definitely more interested in drinking the fruits of their labour than worrying deeply about alternatives to chemical pesticides.
On a property near Gilgandra in deepest New South Wales, however, I stayed with a couple of ordinary Aussie farmers who embraced the most extreme form of organics, biodynamics. While their three young children were fed on fluorescent-coloured ice cream and frozen food, their sheep were lovingly administered with homeopathic remedies and their chickens (called “chooks” in Aussie slang) roamed free, pecking away at their organic feed.
I spent hours one day scraping manure out of old cow horns that had been buried under a certain phase of the moon and left for months until the manure had apparently become super fertile. Seeing the happy hens clucking around the fields, and then having to clean hundreds of their poo-smeared biodynamic eggs with steel wool made the extra money you pay for organic eggs at home seem a bargain.
I also discovered there’s nothing quite like holding down sheep while they’re given their medicine, driving around on a four-wheeled bike herding cattle and cutting metal with an axle grinder in the midday sun to make you appreciate a long shower, a cold beer and a huge dinner.
True, few of the skills I was learning were likely to come in very handy back home in north London, but I was developing enviable thigh muscles. The unsuitable boy was out of my mind (well, some of the time), and I was meeting people I would never normally encounter, let alone spend a week with, in places I could never have found on my own.
When I landed in Tasmania, my host Karen picked me up at the ferry and drove me through the most magical countryside, green and lush, until we arrived at her house, tucked away at the end of a long, winding dirt road with no other properties in sight. It was like entering another world, and for a week I became part of the family, looking after their two girls, bottle-feeding their baby goats, weeding their organic veggie patch, and carding wool to make felt.
Once the children were at school, Karen and I spent the mornings in a shed turning the felt into luridly coloured hats. On Saturday we took the hats to a market in the island’s capital, Hobart. Standing behind the market stall selling the hats I had designed and made, I felt strangely proud of my bizarre craftwork and slightly superior to the herds of tourists aimlessly wandering around the market, checking it off their lists. It’s not often as a traveller (particularly a young, female one) that you get the opportunity to glimpse a country from the inside out so easily, quickly or safely.
Even if you haven’t the slightest interest in farming or organics, WWOOFing offers an excellent alternative to backpacking. It’s a big, adventurous, lucky-dip of a way to travel. True, you could turn up at Cold Comfort Farm but, equally, pick right next time and find yourself, as I did, sitting on a veranda looking out over a vineyard, knocking back wine and eating steak hot off the barbie—all in return for a few hours of good, old-fashioned hard work.
If you want a cheap way to experience the real meat and bones of a foreign land and learn new skills (useful or not), it’s ideal. As a way to get over unsuitable boys, though, it may not be so successful. The unsuitable boy and I are planning to take our baby son WWOOFing as soon as he’s old enough.
Excerpted from the British newspaper The Independent (October 1, 2005), www.independent.co.uk.
Many countries, including the U.S. and Canada, have national WWOOF organizations, which you join to link up with farmers. More information: www.wwoof.org