Earlier this summer I escaped my desk job to participate in an agricultural work exchange program called Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF). Through WWOOF, my partner Tanya and I arranged to stay on two farms, one in England for three weeks and another on a remote Scottish island for ten days. Working on the farms, though muddy and sometimes strenuous, made for a wonderful break from the office.
Radford Mill in the hilly country near Bath was our first farm. A large operation by organic standards, the 80 acre farm grows vegetables and raises sheep, cows, pigs and chickens. Everything is rooted in the principles of organic agriculture. The farm plants a variety of crops, uses manure to replenish the soil and applies no pesticides or fertilizers.
WWOOF volunteers work in exchange for room and board. Tanya and I were given a room on the second floor of the eighteenth century farmhouse. There were 11 other people living on the farm at the time we visited: three volunteers from Germany, six long- term workers from England, the farm manager Susan and her 5 year-old daughter. Besides the last two people everyone was in their twenties.
Although in many ways a throw back to the sixties – almost everyone at the farm is a contemporary hippie – Radford Mill is a serious little business. The farm sells its produce in a shop in nearby Bristol and at a weekly farmers’ market. Additional sales are made through a home delivery program called a “box scheme”.
The typical work day at Radford Mill starts around seven and lasts until around 3:00 pm. In a given day, I planted seedlings, strung peas, packed produce for sale, placed bird nets over the berries, weeded a few overgrown beds and put down manure along rows of young crops.
In addition to produce, the farm sells yogurt and soft cheeses. My favorite day on the farm was spent helping Susan make the yogurt in the small creamery next to the cow shed.
WWOOF farms are known for providing good food, and this was true at Radford Mill. The food was best at dinner when Susan or one of the workers made lavish meals with meat and vegetables right from the farm.
Nights on the farm were pretty quiet but one evening I came across Susan and a German volunteer Inken (yes, one of the neat things about international travel is meeting people with strange names) standing over an ewe trying to give birth two month’s past the lambing season.
Susan, who happened to have the baby of one of the couples on the farm strapped to her back, instructed Inken on how to pull the lamb from its struggling mother. Inken pulled out a motionless body sheathed in embryonic fluid. I thought the lamb was dead, but Susan picked it up by the back legs and swung it in a circle. Having reached a considerable velocity, she then bounced the poor creature smartly against the ground several times. I thought she was putting the lamb out of its misery but the procedure turned out to be the traditional method of getting recalcitrant new-born lambs to breathe. It worked as the lamb stirred with a gasping breath and within an hour looked to be doing well.
Our original plans after Radford Mill were to rent a car and drive to our next stint as WWOOF volunteers. This changed when someone on the farm sold us an old car for $300. From Radford Mill in southern England we drove the car over 1000 miles to the Scottish Highland town of Oban. At Oban we parked the car which had now proven itself to be quite a steal and took a ferry to the island of Tiree.
Tiree is the most westerly of the Inner Hebrides, the chain of islands off the west coast of Scotland. The ferry took four hours to reach the flat, island known by its early Celtic inhabitants as “the land below the waves”.
Our new host Elizabeth, a retired occupational therapist in her seventies, picked us up at the dock. Elizabeth calls her house and small plot of land by the water the Glebe House. In contrast to Radford Mill, Glebe House is a small-holding where most of the work is for sustenance rather than for commercial purposes. There is a one-acre walled garden and a flock of sheep that graze by the sea.
Elizabeth gave us a top floor bedroom with windows looking out on the two-mile-wide Gott Bay. Coming into the room for the first time, Tanya looked out of the window and saw a pair of seals sunning themselves on the rocks. Throughout our stay we saw much of the pair that never seemed to move very far from Glebe House.
Two young Danish women were also volunteering at Glebe House. It is always nice to have cheerful Danes around but they departed a few days after we arrived, leaving us the only volunteers.
As it was late June, we arrived after much of the garden work. Elizabeth however found some work for us to do. Her garden is built on a slope broken into tiers. During the spring rains, one tier had begun to erode and fall into the next. In order to earn our room and board, Elizabeth asked us to build some sort of retaining wall.
To build the wall, we teamed up with Kate, a college student who helps Elizabeth during the summer. We began the work by searching the beach for appropriate rocks. It took a morning of carting wheelbarrows of rocks through a field of curious sheep and into the garden before we had enough material.
The work, which mostly involved arranging the irregular shaped rocks into the best possible configuration, went slowly. We finished only a small section of the 2 and a half foot high wall each day. The pace of building had much to do with the scarcity of perfect rocks but also with Kate and Elizabeth who were very particular about the wall’s shape. “That’s not plum, it’s all googly,” Kate often called in her Highland way as she inspected a section of wall. Only when a section of wall had the approval of Elizabeth and Kate, did we bring out the cement. A crooked wall was just not something built on Tiree.
Despite the detail put into the wall, work at Glebe House demanded much less than at Radford Mill. The work day lasted no more than six hours, included a long lunch and frequent tea breaks, and left us with plenty of time and energy to explore the island afterward.
The flat, virtually treeless (the winter winds knock them down) island receives more sunlight than anywhere else in Britain. This might not sound impressive since Britain is known for gloomy weather but Tiree is a very sunny place in summer. The sunlight turns the shallow waters around the island a Caribbean shade of blue and the sand on the wide beaches a golden white. With all the sun and the warm air brought by the gulf stream whose eastern edge passes by the island, it is difficult to believe that the Tiree is level with Stockholm.
Tiree which has a year round population of 800 and a summer population of 2000 is crowded only by sheep. Outnumbering people 40 to 1, sheep graze by the side of the road, in front of the co-op grocery and occasionally behind fences.
With so few people, Tiree lacks traffic, street lights and sort of background noise you get used to in urban places. Ten days on the island working in the walled garden relieved me of all the stress built up from my years spent in Washington, D.C.
On our last day the wall looked good. A little more needed to be done but it would not take Kate long. I liked the idea of leaving something on the island, particularly a stone wall that fit in so well with all the others on Tiree. Aboard the ferry, I watched as Glebe House and the little island that managed to slow down the pace of life faded from view.
The program saved us a good amount of money, around $2000 dollars in room and board
(food!). We could not of possibly stayed in Britain that long otherwise. But what I liked even more was that the program provided us with something interesting to do. If I had traveled about for the five weeks, I know I would have gotten tired out and restless from doing no sort of work.
WWOOF exchanges are a good option for all sorts of travelers. You do not have to stay on a farm for as long as we did. While many farms like volunteers to stay at least a week, some farms prefer one or two day visits. Trips do not have to be limited to one or two farms. Stringing together several one day stays would be a great way to see the British countryside.
So, if learning about small farming interests you or if you just want to do some creative traveling in Britain, throw some old clothes in a bag, put those boots on and go “WWOOF’ing”.
Willing Workers on Organic Farms
PO Box 2675
Lewes, E. Sussex
BN7 1RB England.
You’ll need to send WWOOF an international response coupon which can be bought at the post office.
Membership is $20 a year for a single person or couple. After joining you will have the choice of having WWOOF arrange up to three stays or using their fix-it-yourself list of over 300 hundred farms. We used the fix-it-yourself book and had no problem arranging our stays well in advance, over the phone.
The best fairs to London are usually through Iceland Air or Virgin Atlantic. The British rail system is much better than in America and trains can bring you close to where WWOOF hosts will pick you up.
Radford Mill and some other farms pay small weekly wages but there is no WWOOF policy and you should inquire with your host about wages before arriving. Above all, ask hosts about the type of work, work hours, food and how you will be housed in order to insure a good stay.
Fun Between Farm Stays
The Slow Coach run by Youth Hostel International allows travelers to go on a circuit from London to Edinburgh stopping off at major cites along the way ($150, phone: O1249 891959). Go Blue Banana Bus (0131 220 6868) and Haggis Backpackers (0131 557 9393) offer affordable and very popular group bus tours in Scotland.
If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our Europe Insiders page.