Looking to get away from it all and don’t mind a little dirt under your nails? A work exchange program known as WWOOFing might be your ticket out of town. Here, a tried-and-true traveler shares her tips and tricks for working your way around the world.
In early 2014, after handing in my master’s thesis, I hopped on a plane and headed to Colombia. I wasn’t taking a post-grad beach vacay; I was traveling to a coffee farm to work. I wouldn’t consider myself a farmer, but I wasn’t a tourist, either. It took one bumpy hour balancing backpacks on motorbike taxis and one sweaty hour of hiking through blackberry bushes to reach Juan Carlos’ farm, but by the time I arrived, I felt thoroughly removed from the world I’d left behind. For 14 nights, my companions and I slept in tents provided by Juan Carlos, who slept in a hammock hung between the posts of his unfinished house. For as many days, after enjoying Juan Carlos’ famous pancakes and coffee for breakfast, we shimmied buckets around our waists and tenderly popped coffee berries off trees. We moved through rows and rows of trees until lunch, and then worked again after lunch until dinner. Every meal involved the ripening plantains that we’d harvested by machete. We pooped in the woods after collecting soft, heart-shaped leaves to wipe with. There was no electricity, no mirrors. It was exactly what I’d signed up for.
If you’re not familiar with the idea of a farm-stay, the general gist of it is that a traveler will work on a sustainable farming project in exchange for food and a place to sleep. A two-week stay with 4 to 6 active hours a day and two personal days is fairly standard, but the details of each farm-stay are totally unique to that location, as farms are subject to the whims of weather, budgets, and livestock (if a goat escapes just before dinner, you will probably be roped into catching it regardless of your agreed-upon hours). The work involved can vary in difficulty and length; the place one stays may be a tent pitched on a patch of grass or a spare bedroom; the food one eats may be microwaved mac and cheese or fire-charred arepas; and the exchange can be limited to basic necessities and grunt work, or you may, for example, end up becoming best friends with a lemon farmer, bonding over beer and a ukulele.
If you’ve already heard of farm-stays, it may be because of World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF)—an umbrella organization of loosely related national non-profits that connect volunteer travelers to host farms. WWOOF, born in England in 1971 as way for city-folk to access and support the organic movement on the weekends, is now a well-established network for curious travelers, and WWOOFing has become the verb most commonly associated with traveling via farm-stay. More than 60 countries have a WWOOF host contact list that a volunteer can access for a membership fee of around $30. Workaway and HelpX are millennial-friendly, social-media-inspired platforms that perform the same function for around the same price, offering a diverse array of projects, though they may be less ardently “organic.” While WWOOF provides a list of contact information for any project based in bio-dynamic and sustainable practices, HelpX and Workaway provide host profiles and a messaging system to contact ranches, lodges, hostels, hotels, B&Bs, sailboats, and even families looking for childcare. WWOOF, HelpX, and Workaway do not negotiate travel plans for volunteers, nor do they provide visas, insurance, contracts, training, background checks, or site validation. Contacting hosts and arranging details is the responsibility of the WWOOFer (a term that applies loosely, regardless of the agency used). WWOOF will send staff members to sites with multiple negative reports, but the verification system varies country by country; HelpX and Workaway both offer a Yelp-like review system that can be helpful in scoping out a potential host or volunteer. Each organization offers previews of hosts, but their contact information is only visible to members.
If you’re visiting a place that has lots of farms or orchards, chances are high that some of them are registered on WWOOF, or are at least familiar with the practice of work-exchange, and would be happy to take on a trustworthy and upbeat volunteer. If you’ve completed a successful stay, your host may be happy to send you to friends who may not be registered farm-stays. Once you are in the system, online or not, it is easy to be passed along if you are flexible, friendly, and eager to help and learn. In Colombia, my two travel companions and I had arranged our stay on the farmtwo weeks ahead of time because a group of three can be tricky to accommodate. While we waited to meet Juan Carlos, two other farmers offered us a work-exchange. Travelers going through official networks have the option of arranging a stay months in advance, but I once called a dairy farm in Italy the day before I arrived (more on that later). Typically, a few days’ notice is all that a farm will need, but more popular projects (farms with guest bedrooms that are walking distance from a beach, for example) may require advance reservations and may not have space for last-minute volunteers.
There aren’t many limitations or qualifications otherwise. Though you must be 18 to register with WWOOF, Workaway, or HelpX, there are no age restrictions for volunteers. (I personally ended up working with a lot of folks under 40 who had undergrad degrees but were unenthused by job prospects in their home countries, from a Spanish student trained in midwifery to a German punk who wanted to give life on a goat farm a try.) There are projects that are happy to host volunteers traveling with their children, couples, or a couple of friends, depending on available space. Special training or experience is not at all necessary. Thanks to a few farm-stays in the States, I’d managed to rack up a resume that included milking and cheesemaking before I traveled to Italy, so I was sure to mention that when I contacted my host family; but in Colombia, I didn’t know a thing about coffee except how to drink it. Learning is one of the benefits of WWOOFing, and it goes both ways: many farms would be delighted to have volunteers teach them. That includes sustainable farming practices, as well as advertising, photography, translation, and the use of social media, especially for eco-hotels and farms involved in eco-tourism. If physical labor like digging weeds is not an option for you, think creatively about how you could be useful to another project.
It should be noted that although WWOOFing is an option for traveling to countries that are otherwise out of your price range, if none of the other benefits of tilling the fair-trade tourism soil resonate with you, you should reconsider using a farm-stay to get out of Dodge. Likewise, being a traveler with a higher budget doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t participate in a travel style that supports small local business, sustainable and bio-dynamic agricultural practices, and cultural exchange. Ideally, farm-stays are more than just a cheap travel option. They can be a short stint on a longer escapade—perhaps two weeks spent picking grapes in the French countryside to kick off a tour of European capitals—or, without a return flight, WWOOFing can become a lifestyle.
For both penny-pinchers and big spenders, there is a plethora of non-financial reasons to volunteer on a farm while traveling abroad. If you want to avoid shuffling through museums with herds of other tourists, work-exchange is low-impact tourism. A few days in the most popular cities in Italy left me sweaty, cranky, and train-sick. I spent a desperate hour in a McDonald’s, taking advantage of their free Wi-Fi to frantically message Workaway hosts for last-minute openings. I wanted to see the countryside, milk goats, learn about Italian cheese, and practice rolling my Rs. (For the committed polyglot, full-on immersion is an effective and bewildering way to become fluent in a non-native language. That said, the whole process is much easier if you share a common language with your host.) The next day, I found myself in a place I’d never heard of; but that place, called Monesiglio, was a quaint, happy town in a stunning landscape where I met many fine friends. For solo travelers looking for company, hard labor forges friendships easily, despite language barriers.
In Italy, I was a single female traveler, and that played a big part in my decision to work in Monesiglio. During my frantic search for a host, I contacted a horse trainer who gave me directions that involved commandeering a boat and warned me that there might not be much work because of recent rainy weather. I politely declined. For this trip, I wanted an easy escape route for a quick getaway, something that didn’t seem as necessary when travelling with two trusted male comrades, as I had in the past. I looked for a project that was currently hosting other volunteers, preferably female ones, as a clue to that farm being a safe space. Monesiglio was a decent-sized village, easily accessible by train; there were other volunteers there, and the hosts spoke English. Trust your gut and don’t put yourself in recklessly dangerous situations.
Speaking of safety and remote farm-stays, whether you agree to take a motorbike up a mountain or work at the front desk of an eco-hotel, you should email your mom and let her know what’s up. (OK, it doesn’t have to be your mom, but for me, it has to be my mom, because she worries about me.) In general, give updates to the worriers in your life. Some projects may take you out of Wi-Fi range—let the people who worry know where you will be and when they can expect to hear from you. I underestimated the scope of my Colombian coffee stay and returned to the Internet a few days later than expected. Do not do this to your mom. She might send emails every few hours for three days that say, “I love you, but I am really starting to get nervous.” Or, that she is “Starting to freak. Please be OK.” And then she might realize she knows “someone whose son works for the DEA” and form a “plan to move forward with your dad, Aunt Roxanne, Aunt Linda, Grandma, Aunt Dottie, and Uncle Dave. I believe I will hear from you, so I am not worried. I love you, don’t be mad.” (Luckily, my mom was able to calm down and avoid an international incident when I finally got in touch a few days later.)
Traveling alone while female not only comes with its own set of risk management suggestions, but also necessitates a certain amount of tact in both accepting and challenging the type of work involved in the exchange. Farm lifestyles are often quite traditional: physical labor is designated as masculine and domestic tasks are considered feminine. On the coffee farm, the other female volunteer and I prepared every lunch and dinner. This task was less physically grueling, though more complicated than digging holes, but it still involved building a fire and usually took a full hour. I love cooking, and so did my new friend, so we didn’t mind at all. In Italy, I was the only female WWOOFer in the barn—usually, the women who came through would help in the cheese room, adding rennet and wrapping hunks of chevre to age in hazelnut leaves, but I was happiest and most helpful when milking goats. My hosts were excellent at challenging my strength, but let it be known that they were surprised that this short, harmless-looking girl was accepting the challenge. My advice for these moments is to evaluate your situation and decide if your skills are being fully utilized, if you are enjoying your task, and if you feel like you should be contributing to a different kind of work. Don’t put yourself in the way just to prove that you can hang, and don’t assume you are being ignored because of your gender. At the end of the day, you should be most concerned with being as helpful as possible and enjoying your time, whether that means accepting your physical abilities are not suited to a certain task, or encouraging your host to reconsider their assessment of your potential helpfulness.
On the goat farm in Italy, we had the afternoons to ourselves. I took long walks over the hills to neighboring villages, jogged by the river, read, drew, and perused the farmers’ market. It is important to entertain yourself when traveling by farm. Bring reading material, a journal, a camera. Ask about walking routes or hikes, but know that your host is not your tour guide, and may not have daily recreational activities planned for you. You may, however, be invited to take part in the quotidian events of your host’s social calendar. You should probably say yes/si/oui or just nod your head and smile emphatically. The other volunteers and I were invited to many dinner parties in Italy, or threw our own in our host Lorena’s small kitchen. On the weekends, Lorena packed us in her car, along with tents, sleeping bags, and tons of food. We headed to the mountains for reggae festivals and hikes to Alpine lakes.
What do you pack for such a sojourn? I recommend jeans, T-shirts, and boots that have no sentimental or aesthetic value, a bandanna, a menstrual cup, sunscreen, bug spray, cash for snacks and day trips, and a headlamp. But beyond what you bring, the most important quality you should cultivate in yourself is flexibility. Everyone has a different comfort zone, and when traveling alone, I deeply believe in pushing beyond it. I ended 12 years of vegetarianism in Italy, but eating prosciutto is a different level of flexibility than slaughtering pigs. Be honest with yourself and choose your projects wisely. Accept a farm opportunity only if you can commit yourself to that lifestyle; backing out early for lack of Wi-Fi is disrespectful to a farm’s time and resources. If you find that balance between challenging and comfortable, your farm-stay will almost certainly yield a bountiful harvest.
Story and Photos by Audrey Cerchiara
This article originally appeared in the Aug/Sept 2015 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!