Will work for travel

WWOOFing—trading manual farm labor for room and board—transforms an ordinary visit into an adventure

French WWOOFERS Charlene and Matthieu, along with Chicoan Rachel Bush (right), sort plants in suburban Baton Rouge, La.

French WWOOFERS Charlene and Matthieu, along with Chicoan Rachel Bush (right), sort plants in suburban Baton Rouge, La.

Photo courtesy of Rachel Bush

WWOOF yourself:
For those interested in local WWOOFing opportunities, contact Molly Albright about her plant farm in Elk Creek at plantsbymelelkcreek@yahoo.com, or Neil Meyer at nrmeyer@pobox.com for work in Berry Creek. Or check out “Plants by Mel” on Facebook. Also, log onto www.wwoof.net.

If someone had told me a year ago that I’d soon be voluntarily digging up weeds in the middle of Texas, I’d have told them they were crazy. But as it turns out, that’s exactly the trip I signed up for this past winter.

As a recent college graduate, I’ve exhausted just about every possible effort to delay my entrance into “the real world.” My favorite distraction thus far has been traveling. But as much fun as I’ve had roaming around hostels and taking pictures of foreign scenery, traveling just for the sake of it was beginning to lack something. Hoping to make my travels more productive, I turned to WWOOFing.

World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or WWOOF, as it’s commonly known, is an organization founded in London in 1971, with the intention of allowing urban residents to participate in the organic farm movement. Now available in more than 50 countries, WWOOF has become an international network of farmers, travelers and volunteers. After paying a fee online, the volunteer becomes a registered “WWOOFer,” where she or he can choose from a selection of farms worldwide, exchanging labor for food and housing.

I tried WWOOFing for the first time earlier this year, at two locations in the American South: a farm outside Austin, Texas, and a home in Baton Rouge, La. Although I was born in Chico and raised on a walnut farm, I began my WWOOFing journey with very little farming experience. So while I could distinguish a walnut from an almond, my knowledge ended there. But as Harry Simmons, WWOOFing host and owner of Simmons Family Farm, reminded me, all levels of experience are welcome.

“Our goal is to give people the opportunity to get their hands dirty and work,” Harry said. “The biggest advantage for WWOOFers is to see where their food comes from, and that it’s not an easy process. You don’t just throw seeds on the ground and come back two months later.”

Harry and his wife, Maew, own and operate 130 acres of farmland in Niederwald, Texas, an agricultural town with more chickens than people. Besides raising cattle and chickens, Harry and Maew grow a dozen different kinds of vegetables and spices, which they sell weekly at the farmers’ market in downtown Austin. That was where Harry learned about WWOOFing—a customer approached him, hoping to volunteer. Since then, they’ve had roughly 32 WWOOFers at the farm.

Picking carrots with fellow WWOOFer Savannah Watson (right) in Texas.

Among those volunteers were Savannah Watson, 19, and Meghan Chase, 26, whom I worked alongside during my two weeks in Niederwald. After waking up with the roosters, we’d spend our mornings picking and prepping vegetables for the market. On less glamorous days, we’d weed the onion patches until lunch. If any activity was going to remind me that farming was not easy, this was it. The rhythm of plucking and pulling roots was momentarily therapeutic but quickly turned into monotony.

“After weeding by hand for hours, I have a greater appreciation for my food,” Savannah told me. “And when you work with Harry and Maew at the market, you can tell their customers feel the same way.”

For me, the most sustainable aspect of WWOOFing wasn’t about the food production, but rather the concept of the organization. The direct exchange of labor for housing and food meant all of my basic needs were being met, in lieu of a paycheck. When I first heard that the guest rooms in Niederwald were converted horse stalls, I was equally intrigued and worried. Half-expecting bales of hay to serve as the furniture, I was pleasantly surprised to find rooms with real beds. The accommodations were modest, but comfortable. Having no Wi-Fi was the best “inconvenience” I could have asked for because everything was right outside my door, including the ingredients to make nearly every meal we prepared.

I wasn’t the first young traveler to discover the perks of a simple lifestyle; according to most WWOOF hosts, the majority of their volunteers fall between ages 18 and 27. Meghan quickly got on board with the change of pace that farm life brought. “When I was working in Boston I was buying so much stuff all the time. But it’s easy not to need anything besides a bed and a shower. I’m happier out here; I’ve even forgotten about the scorpions!” Yes, they have scorpions in Texas.

But WWOOFing is more than the work exchange. With most farming projects requesting a half-day of work, I had plenty of time to explore my surroundings at both host homes, with chances to make day trips into the cities as well. On many adventures, I shared the company of fellow volunteers and host families. As my Baton Rouge host, Deborah, claimed, her main purpose of hosting volunteers was to “meet new people and have an exchange of cultures.” From my days discussing European pop music with French volunteers Matthieu and Charlene, to my night playing Texas Hold ’Em in a historic bowling alley, I, too, was getting an “exchange of cultures.”

Matthieu and Charlene, who used WWOOF as a platform to travel through Canada and the U.S., were pleasantly surprised at how welcoming the WWOOFing community was. “Families open their homes to you so easily. In Canada we spent Christmas with our host family and all their cousins. They gave us shortbread cookies and offered us tickets to a hockey game, and we had just met them.” (Guess where I’m WWOOFing next?)

Of course, like anything else, WWOOFing provides a mixed bag of opportunities. With endless host homes to choose from online, no two are alike, and I quickly learned not to have expectations before entering a new home. When I signed up to stay with Deborah in Baton Rouge at her suburban nursery, I thought I would be working in an exciting retail environment while learning about horticulture. In reality, I found myself in a backyard with a couple hundred wilting plants, which Deborah hoped to sell eventually, although she never had. I ended up attending to her online projects, scattering old bags of her cat’s poop outside to “keep the armadillos away,” and becoming a part-time housekeeper in a very cluttered home.

While the cynic in me wondered how she was ever going to make money from those plants, who was I to judge? Often entertaining my own idea of selling doodles of burritos as art, I realized that everyone’s allowed to dream. Deborah provided me with a room to stay in, more plates of beans and rice than I could ever have asked for, and a deep appreciation for her volunteers. Having an unexpected WWOOFing experience is exactly what WWOOFing is about, so I could hardly be disappointed.

I returned to Chico still a novice at farming. But becoming an expert was not my intention. I immersed myself in a network of people who care about the relationship between food and their community, and I won’t forget that.