What in the world wide web does a word like that mean? If you are anything like me, up until recently it sounded like something that had more to do with canines than it did organic food or traveling for that matter. As soon as I started researching my round the world (RTW) trip, though, the word WWOOF would pop up on website after website and in conversations with veteran independent travelers nearly non-stop.
I quickly learned that WWOOF stands for Worldwide Opportunities On Organic Farms, and it is a network of organic farms and volunteers working for first-hand knowledge, room and board, and a unique travel experience around the world. Now think about that for a second. A traveler gets to experience a destination instead of relying on expert opinions in guidebooks, all while saving money in the process. It sure sounded like a independent traveler’s dream come true to me, so I had to find out for myself.
Tips for first time WWOOFer’s
1. Select your spot
When I first started researching WWOOFing, I had visions of simply skipping merrily along from farm to farm in country after country with an overflowing produce basket under my arm. I assumed I would just sign up on a master WWOOF website somewhere, and voila, the opportunities would come flowing into my inbox from all over the world. After all , the WWOOF acronym sure looks like a global organization that would have a brick and mortar headquarters in a city like New York, Geneva, or Brussels and an accompanying website that speaks for all host farms around the world, right?
This is simply not the case though. Participating WWOOF host farms are listed on their own home country or region’s WWOOF website. Because of this, you must decide on what country or region you will be WWOOFing in first before you decide to take the next step.
2. Be prepared to pay
Each regional WWOOF website that I researched had a fee for joining, and it was not possible to contact potential WWOOF hosts without paying the fee. At first I scoffed a bit at the idea that I would have to pay to work for free, but the more I thought about it, obviously there are costs involved in running these regional WWOOF sites and organizations, and this is the way that they recoup some of these costs. Therefore, if you are a budget independent traveler, you likely will not be joining up with dozens of different WWOOF sites around the world. I decided to join one. How did I narrow it down to just one country?
3. WWOOF right off the bat
When deciding which country to WWOOF in, I would highly suggest picking a country near the start of your trip itinerary. New Zealand was the second stop on my round the world trip, and it offered many WWOOFing opportunities, so it was a natural fit. The main reason being that you will be able to plan the WWOOF at home during the relative calm before the storm. Once you hit the road, things can get very hectic very fast, and the odds of finding a WWOOF host and coordinating the communication between the two quickly diminishes. Another advantage of WWOOFing near the start of your trip is that it will give you an opportunity to catch your breath a bit in what can be a hectic part of the trip, the start.
4. A little persistence pays off
Let’s face it, the word is out on WWOOFing, and you won’t likely be the only person contacting some of the more attractive gigs. You need to make your profile and your communication with hosts stand out and ultimately pay off. I’m not going to lie, I sent quite a few emails to my host that started out with a line like “Just e-mailing to follow up” or “It’s been a while since I’ve heard back, but … “. Yes, I emailed, re-emailed, and even called my host on Skype to get their attention. Why? Because I really wanted to WWOOF on their farm. Why was that, you ask?
5. Pick something you will enjoy and are interested in
I cannot stress this enough. You see, I love wine. I especially love Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough Region of New Zealand. It was a natural fit then to sign up for WWOOF New Zealand and try to find a host in this region. By doing this I could get a real understanding of how my favorite wine is made first-hand instead of simply just stopping in for a winery tour one day.
In that early browsing stage of the WWOOF New Zealand website, I saw many other attractive opportunities on garden variety farms, but I knew I wanted to work on a winery. To me, there is just something romantic and relaxing about a vineyard, and I figured even if I was walking back to the house every day broken down from hard work on the vines, just seeing the grapes in their rows would make it all better. The chance at possibly securing some wine on the side didn’t hurt things either. That didn’t stop a few of my fears from creeping in though, and I made sure not to over-extend myself with my commitment.
6. Bite off only what you can WWOOF
To a rookie WWOOFer and suburban slicker like me, the term “farm work” was a a bit intimidating. Since I had never WWOOFed before, I will admit that I was a bit nervous as to whether or not I could hack it. I figured that arranging to WWOOF for one week would be perfect for myself, seeing it almost as a trial period for myself and the WWOOF host. Now every host is different, and some have minimum commitments, so you will have to do your homework there, but that all leads into tip #7.
7. Keep your WWOOF word!
This is probably the most important tip. A WWOOFer and WWOOF host are only as good as their word. It is a two way street. You can’t expect to just show up and lounge around in exchange for room and board, you have to work for it. On the other side of the coin, a WWOOFer is not just free labor. You have to establish the ground rules ahead of time and then stick to them.
Make sure you have a clear understanding of what your duties and sleeping arrangements will be, how long you will be working, and what you will be receiving in exchange for your work before you arrive. In my case, it was a five hour workday in the vineyard and some help with dishes in exchange for breakfast, lunch, and dinner provided by the hosts with private sleeping arrangements.
You must have these rules established beforehand though, that way if someone doesn’t keep their word, you have something to refer to. I agreed to be up at work at eight each morning, and I was. I did not feel awkward at all walking away from the vineyard at 1 PM on the dot. This was what we had agreed upon. You cannot be intimidated to make sure you receive what you have been promised, and you must make sure you do what you have promised.
8. You never know what extras you’ll learn
Not only did I gain a little bit of knowledge about wine-making and farming in New Zealand, I got to learn how to sail. Why am I telling you this? Well, when you start interacting with people instead of just passing through, you increase your odds of magical things like this happening. After a hard day’s work on the vineyard, my WWOOF hosts invited me to go sailing with them in the Marlborough Sounds. I thought I would just be along for the ride, sitting back on the boat soaking in the famous sounds, but they had a different idea. I actually got to help with the sailing of the boat and got my first experience as a deckhand.
What was planted in the 1970′s in England as a way for city dwellers to contribute to the organic food movement on the weekends has sprouted to mean so much more. I can now vouch that the global organization of loosely affiliated WWOOF host farms and WWOOFers is without a doubt one of the best ways for travelers to truly discover a destination instead of just simply making it a dot on their travel map.