Diary of a WWOOFer
A Sacramentan volunteers on an organic farm in Australia
There are times where I feel like I’m going to sink into the earth, when the soil squishes and pulls at my boots. I’m thousands of miles from Sacramento, in an attempt to skip winter by dropping below the equator to Australia. And today, I’m thinning carrot seedlings on my hands and knees, in mud and freezing rain.
Romanticism, meet reality.
But this is what I signed up for when I decided to join WWOOF, or Willing Workers On Organic Farms. It’s simple: In exchange for four to six hours of work a day, I get a place to sleep and three healthy meals.
And, despite the hard labor, it’s worth it. Especially at the end of the day, sitting around a dinner table with four other “WWOOFers,” plus two farmers and their 1-year-old son. We’ve shared a pot of risotto with fava beans, spinach and dill harvested that same day.
I’m OK with the muck and mud of reality. I’m even OK with hardly showering, unrelenting dirt and the unrecognizable crawly things that want to join me in my studio while sleeping. WWOOFing is a no-brainer. It not only promises a chance to learn about organic farming, gain valuable skills, escape the city and meet people who value the environment, but it also makes traveling possible. There is no way I could have afforded this with the meager savings from my service-industry job.
And there is something else: My labor has real value.
My hosts Amy Glastonbury and Luc Rolland run a twice-weekly community-supported agriculture box business for about 30 families at Moora Moora co-op community in Healesville, Victoria, which is just outside of Melbourne. Inviting wwoofers to their farm helps them stay on top of its incessant demands and the precariousness of relying on nature for their livelihood.
“There’s just so much work to do in terms of planting, weeding and harvesting” Rolland explained. “We can’t possibly do it all. WWOOFers are absolutely necessary.”
Farmers such as my hosts need WWOOFers, who in turn need them. It is a simple, real-life supply-and-demand exchange that has been successful going on 40 years.
WWOOF was founded in the early 1970s in England. In countries like Australia, WWOOF organizations are run autonomously, but all with similar key goals. To be part of WWOOF in Australia you simply buy a membership (about $70), and get a book with hundreds of organic-farm listings and contact information.
There is no one common trait linking my fellow WWOOFers. Sophie Reiher, 21, finished high school in Germany and traveled ever since. She is the type of person you like immediately. With dreads and piercing, almost yellow eyes, she looks the part of a traveling, organic-farm worker.
“You can achieve so much more when you work with people, together,” she said. Reiher also says she can’t imagine living any other way and that, once she settles, it will be at a cooperative community, much like Moora Moora.
The “French WWOOFs” are two cousins from Paris and look it. Living in the country is a novelty for them; it’s something they are trying out until they can find a place in Melbourne.
“It’s very different from my life in Paris,” one of the cousins, Adele Ansel, said. “I do stuff that I would never do there, and I always learn something different, and I really enjoy it.”
It’s been five days since I arrived at Moora Moora. Five days of traveling in a foreign country, and I haven’t spent a single dollar. Yet, I have gained so much—and there is dirt under my nails to prove it.