The girl in the hostel bunk above you just said she was “going to woof”, so now you’re wondering—is barking like a dog the next big thing in budget travel? Nope; she’s actually “going to WWOOF”, joining the ranks of travelers exploring World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. I tried out WWOOFing in Australia and found myself enjoying unique experiences miles from the backpacker trail: catching freshwater crayfish, baking lemon slices at an art retreat, and attending a church picnic in the outback hills.
The WWOOF organization started thirty years ago in England with city folk who wanted a taste of the country lifestyle. Today, more than sixty countries have WWOOF hosts. Travelers can spend two days or more – sometimes months – working on a host farm in return for food and lodging. The usual rule is that half a day’s work equals a full day’s room and board, so workers have spare time to explore the area or hang out with the hosts.
Who should WWOOF?
WWOOFing isn’t right for everyone, or for every trip. If you’re hoping to stretch your funds while backpacking, ask yourself this: do you picture your trip as a blur of beaches and parties? WWOOF may not be for you. If you’re interested in meeting the locals and seeing a variety of landscapes and lifestyles, it may be.
WWOOF suggests you bring a sleeping bag, flashlight, outdoor clothes and work gloves. Stop reading here if you can’t see yourself getting up each morning and putting on work gloves. If you can, you may soon roll out of bed, pull on those gloves, and head into the Mediterranean sun to lend a hand on a Grecian olive farm.
Some hosts allow WWOOFers to bring their children (ask first) or dogs (ditto), and you can definitely bring your partner; in fact, there’s a discounted two-person membership rate. (This means you must WWOOF together, so get individual memberships if you think you’ll want to travel separate paths at any point on a trip).
Head to www.wwoof.org to join up. Keep in mind that WWOOF isn’t a single worldwide organization, so the website will direct you to the homepages for countries that have local chapters (Australia, Canada, the UK, Japan and China, for example). To WWOOF in those countries you have to join each organization separately. Join WWOOF Independents to access hosts from forty-five countries where there’s no local chapter. The cost to join is between $20 and $50 US, depending on the country. Since staying in a hostel and eating for two days could set you back that much, the fee pays for itself almost immediately. The organization will mail you a book with a list of hosts.
It’s not just organic farms
Some hostels are WWOOF hosts, where you can help out with cleaning and front-desk duties. Sustainable living communities are looking for workers too; there your assignments might be anything from construction to paperwork. Eco-retreats, restaurants, B&Bs and yoga centers are all hiding between the farm listings in the WWOOF books. For example, a man who lives on his sailboat and travels between islands on Australia’s east coast is looking for WWOOFers to join him onboard to help with computer work, writing and photography.
Don’t underestimate what a ‘farm’ might be, either. Duties on a butterfly farm in Australia’s Northern Territory won’t include milking or weeding. A horse stud, lavender farm, and organic vegetable garden in the rainforest are all different takes on the traditional farm experience. City-slickers have options, too. Plenty of large cities have hosts looking for help with child-minding, home maintenance or backyard gardens.
Plan in advance
If you read a listing for a host that sounds fantastic, chances are, other WWOOFers agree. Never show up on a host’s doorstep expecting them to have room for you. Call or email in advance to guarantee your spot. On the other hand, if you suddenly want to visit an area you hadn’t planned on, don’t panic. Hosts in out-of-the-way places are less likely to be swamped, so just start making calls to find out who has space.
Don’t go without doing your research
Yes, the listings in the book will describe the situation – type of work, where you’ll live and what you’ll eat, how to get there – but the entries won’t tell you everything. The best idea is to contact the hosts in advance and ask them a few questions.
- How much time each day would I be working? What “half-a-day” means can change between hosts. On one farm in the Australian outback, it meant eight hours of hard work, while at a hostel in the Blue Mountains, it meant working from nine o’clock until noon. That’s a big difference.
- What is there for me to do in my spare time? Getting back to nature in the middle of nowhere sounds romantic, but that pleasure will fade under pressure from boredom. Hosts may be near the beach, hiking trails, or a fun town. They may have bicycles available to ride, be willing to teach you how to fish or kayak, or be interested in sharing the art of yoga with you. Or, you might be stuck scrounging through your backpack for reading material and counting the mosquitoes you’ve killed that day.
- Who will I be spending my time with? If the host is a sustainable-living community with seventy residents, chances are you’ll enjoy the social life. Some hosts have lots of WWOOFers at once, so you’ll have someone to hang out with after work. If you’re traveling alone and want to visit a single or family host, a phone call to find out if you’d get along is definitely a good idea.
Bring your enthusiasm and you’ll be rewarded.
Many volunteering opportunities that bring you in contact with the locals do so by squeezing your wallet. Not WWOOF; it’s within even the most frugal traveler’s budget. If you think you’d enjoy working on a dairy farm in Australia, preserving native plants in Ecuador, or building a creative arts centre in the Aegean Islands, then you’ve just found the right path for your next trip. Or you could stay home and bark like a dog – someone told me that’s the next big thing in budget travel.