WWOOFing – do you mean the sound a dog makes, I hear you ask. Yes, but it also stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. WWOOFing is a fantastic way to learn new, practical skills whilst also visiting areas of the country which are off the tourist trail. It is important to note that WWOOFing is not a holiday, per se. You are expected to work an average of 6 hours a day, 5 days a week. After touching base with a few potential hosts, I waited with much trepidation at Welshpool train station for my first host to appear. Note to potential WWOOFers – always find out from your host what they look like. I tried to figure out if the man sitting on the park bench next to me could be him. As it turned out, my host was running late and eventually we put two and two together and off we drove to my first WWOOF farm.
WWOOFing is not for princesses. Tiaras and high heels won’t win any awards whilst you are WWOOFing. BUT, it is important to know your level of comfort whilst WWOOFing. I made the mistake of underestimating my level of comfort when I signed up for a 3 week stint at a WWOOF placement where there were no showers and I was living in a caravan in the middle of the British winter. Whilst, I grinned and braved the cold, shivering my bits off. I was seriously concerned about getting chillblains or frostbite on my feet. You also need to dress practically rather than attempt to win any fashion awards. Wellies (gumboots for Australians), hardy work gloves and clothes you are prepared to get covered in animal poo and/or get torn from getting caught in barbed wire or jumping over fences are imperative.
Why would anybody sign up to WWOOF? For me, personally, I decided to join WWOOF last New Year’s Eve, having spent the previous two months travelling and finding myself slightly jaded from moving from place to place every couple of days and fitting in the major tourist attractions at each destination. There didn’t seem to be much purpose behind where I was going other than to say that I had been there. WWOOFing would allow me to have my cake and eat it – I would get to see various parts of the British countryside but also my days would have a fulfilling purpose.
I was happy to be WWOOFing at last, but didn’t quite realise what I had gotten myself into by volunteering in the winter on a fairly remote farm. I didn’t realise I would be traipsing around in snow-encrusted mud (or is it mud-encrusted snow?) trying to convince the small herd of highland cattle at the farm to change paddocks. Nor did I realise there was such a precise method to planting onion seeds in the cloch (I didn’t even know what a cloch was before arriving on the farm for that matter!). But, I did also have a lot of fun – including building my first snowman, and having snowball fights with the kids.
After a couple of days between hosts, I headed to Cornwall to my next farm – a community farm based on the outskirts of St Just. Having lived with a family of 5 on a remote farm in the Wales countryside for 3 weeks to all of a sudden being ensconced in a dynamic community farm with people always coming and going, it took me a while to adjust. Although some of the tasks were similar at both farms (such as convincing pigs, rather than cows, to change paddocks), I have been constantly learning new skills from each host. This has a “pay-it-forward” effect, where I now can use these skills I have learnt at previous hosts with current or future hosts. For example, I learnt how to fence (not the Olympic sport, unfortunately) at the farm in Cornwall, and my next host in Worcestershire was literally rubbing their hands with glee that I could help them build a chicken enclosure using these fencing skills.
Whilst each host has different circumstances, the size of the land and its topography and what they hope to achieve in the season and long-term, fundamentally, they are all doing battle with the weather. Imploring the wind to stop howling, more rain, more sun, less snow, less frost. When I first started WWOOFing, the “horse meat” scandal was working its way through the media and the various “big” supermarket chain outlets one-by-one were being outed. One of the managers at a farm I was WWOOFing at put it most succinctly when he said, “We shouldn’t be competing against each other, we should be working together to reduce the profits of these big supermarkets”. This has predominantly been a recurring theme at all of my WWOOF farms – there is a want to increase the public’s knowledge about buying locally grown food and reducing food miles. Probably the most rewarding aspect of WWOOFing has been seeing customers come to farmers markets or buy a veg box with vegetables that I picked and salad that I harvested with my own hands. It is such simple pleasures that have made WWOOFing in the UK a wonderful and insightful experience.