In 1971, Sue Copard, an English secretary, began volunteering at farms in the countryside, recognizing the need to understand where her food came from and desiring the opportunity to support organic farms. The organization gained traction, and its name was changed to World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms after it became a global phenomenon.
World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or WWOOF (the acronym can be used as a noun or a verb), is an organization that facilitates an exchange of services between a farmer and volunteer. While WWOOFing, the volunteer works for days or months on the farm in exchange for meals and a place to stay. The volunteer pays only for membership in WWOOF and transportation to and from the farm. WWOOF’s sharing economy promotes awareness for the organic farming movement, while depending on the concept that experience, time in nature, physical labor and forging relationships are more rewarding benefits than money.
Brigid McMahan is a University of Dallas alumna who graduated with a history major in 2014. McMahan WWOOFed for the first time in Ireland with her cousins and was drawn, like Coppard, to the experience of working outdoors. It was an experience close to her heart, as she grew up picking lettuce and strawberries from her family garden. McMahan also saw WWOOFing as an excellent opportunity to travel. After graduating in 2014, she traveled to New Zealand, and after working on two farms there, for two weeks each, she traveled to Australia, Singapore and Thailand. At the first farm, where she harvested macadamia nuts, she learned to shell and package the nuts and then sold them at a farmer’s market. At the second, a sheep farm, she fed lambs and cows, worked in the fields and performed other farm duties.
Does McMahan recommend WWOOFing?
“100 percent – it’s almost better than Rome,” McMahan says, explaining that the experience was both rewarding and fulfilling. She describes feeding cows below the mountains seen in the “Lord of the Rings” movies and explains that by working and living in the area she was immersed in the local culture more deeply than when just traveling.
To some, WWOOFing may sound like a way to get free labor on farms, a new spin on sharecropping or serfdom. When a group or an individual offers only room and board and no monetary compensation to their employees, the relationship sounds more like one between the company store and a coal miner.
However, as McMahan puts it, “No money exchange is part of why the experience is so beautiful.” She speaks of her time on the New Zealand sheep farm as being a part of a family, as she ate every meal with the family and even went to the children’s birthday parties. They gave her advice, taught her to farm and one fellow WWOOFer even taught McMahan to change a tire on a car. As she sees it, the lessons, support and relationships make the experience well worth it. While a WWOOF volunteer often works unpaid for 4 to 6 hours a day, McMahan says if you work over the allotted hours in a day or if a neighboring farm needs help picking apples, you will be paid for those extra hours. If you stay in an area and the local hostel needs workers, you can stay on as a waiter, sometimes with free board. WWOOF has created an alternate economy, a system of production in which no money is exchanged—an economy of service.
McMahan describes a situation of opportunity, experience and reward, and one that has even developed into a desire to one day have land of her own, to have chickens and a garden to work in.
“It feels so good to fall asleep at night after you’ve been working outside all day,” McMahan says. “You feel so good. You feel so happy.”
The WWOOFing process is simple; visit their website, sign up for membership ($40 a year), pick a state or country, pick a farm, contact the farmer and negotiate a contract.