Sunday, March 31, 2013


Last week, Katie reserved Joel Salatin's 'You Can Farm' from the local library.  It has been a very interesting read, a tremendous distraction from doing real work, and we'll probably post a favorable review on here before long.  One thing that surprised us is Salatin's recommendation to not acquire a piece of land as one of the first steps in your farming life unless you already have two things: experience on a farm and sufficient funds to live on for several years while your farm goes through the growing pains of becoming profitable.  In fact, it seems that in his opinion, prior farm experience is the most important descriptor of a new farmer's success.

So, how then to acquire said experience?  The most obvious--and possibly convenient--way would be to approach farmers in your area who do the kind of farming you're interested in (vegetables, dairy, pork, fiber, etc.) and ask if you can volunteer.  It's possible to learn quite a bit by spending an hour or two per day at an endeavor, especially if you can do it year-round and see the operation through all the seasons.  However, it doesn't really give the kind of immersive experience that would seemingly be most helpful when starting your own farm.  Unfortunately, you're probably not going to find many farmers willing to bring you on board for an around-the-clock agricultural crash course...unless...there were some kind of organization set up for the sole purpose of facilitating that kind of connection...

A fun logo for WWOOF.  We found it at Veni Vidi Vici.

Enter WWOOF (World-wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). Started in the UK in the 1970s to introduce new farmers to organic growing methods, WWOOF has since expanded to encompass the whole globe and offers thousands of locations for motivated (but often inexperienced) farmers to learn the trade in a live-in setting.  Host farms in the WWOOF program range from urban farms to homesteads so remote they can only be reached by bush plane.  The idea is that WWOOFers travel to the host farm (WWOOFees?), stay there for a period of time (two weeks to several months), learn some skills while helping their hosts, and then move on.  No money is exchanged between WWOOFers and WWOOFees, but the hosts typically provide a room and meals.  However, since most countries have restrictions about foreigners coming temporarily just to work or volunteer, it's important to note that the experience is supposed to be mainly a visit/vacation with no formal labor arrangements.

Raspberries on a WWOOF farm in Australia.  This is one of the only WWOOF-related photos in the Wikimedia Commons, so if you go and take pictures, please post them for bloggers to WWOOF vicariously!  Photo credit: Wikipedia.

The way it works is this: aspiring WWOOFers (that includes us) pay a reasonable membership fee upfront to gain access to the database of farmers in a given country.  (You can see locations and snippets of information about each farm beforehand, but to find contact info and in-depth descriptions about what the hosts are looking for, you have to pay the fee).  Membership fees go to maintaining the online database.  Each country operates independently, so if you're a U.S. citizen for example, but want to WWOOF in Canada, get a membership to the Canadian WWOOF database.  Once you can see the database, you call or e-mail farms you're interested in and sort of 'feel out' if the fit would be good (they'll be 'feeling out,' potential WWOOFers, too).  If there's mutual interest, you can work out expectations like length of stay, hours of help per day, type of help needed, etc.

The main downsides are that you're on your own for travel arrangements and that ideal stay times are typically longer than most employed people can afford for vacation.  However, WWOOF recommends that the daily time commitment be in the range of 4-6 hours, so if you have work you can do remotely, you might be able to work out a long-term stay while continuing your normal job duties.

The upside is (in our opinion) huge.  Once you get to your destination, you get free lodging, free meals (probably home-cooked), and a free education in organic agriculture.  You get to see new areas of the world and meet interesting new people.  Plus, you get lots of experience that will be invaluable when you finally decide to put down some roots.

Here's the process we went through, flow-chart style, in case it would be useful to you.  We got to the green square, but haven't gotten our membership (yet).  David Wallinga's TED talk can be found here.

Do you have any experience with WWOOFing?  Do you know of any other similar opportunities?  How have you negotiated the vacation time restrictions with your employer?  Tell us about it in the comments section below!


  1. I love the flow chart! I read it out to Matt, and we both laughed a lot! We made it to "might not be a wwoofer" based on our current farm obligations, but there might come a time when we can be "wwoofees?" It'd be fun to see how other farmers do things, though... maybe Sepp Holzer WWOOFs?? I'd go there!
    Also, if you get that excited about animal breeds, you should take a look at (the Livestock Breeds Conservancy)- that always gets Matt going: "But we could get crevecoeurs and lakenvelders and spanish goats and gloucestershire old spots and...."

  2. There are a lot of places that advertise permaculture in their listings, and there are plenty in Austria, so maybe! Although I suspect he wouldn't have to join WWOOF to get people to come volunteer on his farm.

    Oh man, the ALBC website looks like a dangerous time sponge. And just when I was looking for another distraction... :-)