My Experience with WWOOF: Organic Farming in France and Ireland

February 19, 2014

“I was WWOOFing in France last summer. It was an amazing experience.”

Have you heard of WWOOF? It’s the word on every vegan’s lips, these days. I have friends who know people who’ve done it, who have done it themselves for a couple of weeks on their Europe trip, or  have seriously considered doing it.

But, for those of you who haven’t yet heard of it…here are a few fun facts–and what I learned from my experience with WWOOF.

Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF)

According to their website, “WWOOF is an exchange – in return for volunteer help, WWOOF hosts offer food, accommodation, and opportunities to learn about organic lifestyles.”

WWOOF was founded in 1971 in England. Over the following 43 years, WWOOF has grown to include more than 97 countries in its long farm list.

Organic farmers around the world put up information about their farm through their country’s WWOOF site. Volunteers can sign up to view a specific country’s WWOOF site, usually with a reasonable annual fee of around $30. The volunteer can then see the list of different farms looking for help.

In my experience, contacting a farm should be done  far ahead of time. Many farms (especially the super-cool ones!) are booked for WWOOFers months in advance. Last minute requests aren’t usually accommodated.

The wonderful thing about the system is that it is mutually beneficial to both farmers and volunteers. It’s active enough that farms have plenty of help, and it’s so widespread that volunteers can definitely find a farm that they’d be excited to work for.

Speaking from personal experience, WWOOF definitely is amazing. I worked at two farms in Europe this past fall and winter.

The best experience I had was on a farm in the south of France. My travel buddy and I worked for two women who ran an equestrian center about an hour away from Avignon.

My WWOOF Experience in France and Ireland

The farm in the south of France had the most glorious sunsets.

We woke up at around 7:30am every day so we could start feeding the horses around 8am. There were 35 horses on this farm, and I can tell you now – feeding all 35 of those horses in one morning took quite a lot of walking and carrying heavy bales of foin (hay).

My WWOOF Experience in France and IrelandOne of the horses – Quitte!

We fed the horses twice a day, painted the entire barn, took children on pony rides, groomed the horses, built electric fences…the list goes on. We definitely got a great adventure from it, and made some amazing friends.

countryside
Ah, countryside!
with_horse
Hugging Fleur, the pony!

 

But of course – not everything is perfect all the time. Not even something as inspiring as WWOOF.

Two farms cancelled on us. The olive farm we were hoping to work on in Turkey stopped responding to us about a month before we were supposed to arrive. The farm we wanted to work at just outside of Rome cancelled on us for vague reasons the day before we were scheduled to board a plane to Italy.

We also had a fairly nightmare-ish experience on a farm outside of Galway in Ireland. While the farm we were working on was beautiful, our host was an absolute terror. We would milk the goats in the morning, plant trees in the bog area, set the firewood stove, tend to the woodlands, weed the garden…and do our host’s laundry, or clean his room, or cook him dinner.

There was a strange sense of powerlessness and servitude going on at this farm, and it felt inappropriate. My travel buddy and I agreed that we felt like surrogate wives, or something along those lines. We felt like housekeepers and personal assistants, rather than laborers on an organic farm.

On top of that, the man had a terrible temper, and yelled at us for really insignificant, meaningless things. He yelled at us for eating too much bread, for eating the last banana, for putting something away in the wrong cabinet, or for cooking potatoes that were different sizes. He would lose his temper, and during work,  would throw things at us instead of tossing them to us. He was also inappropriate towards another female WWOOFer on the farm, telling her how he’d be a great boyfriend to her and making her feel uncomfortable.

One night, the host berated us for using the wrong blankets in the room he gave us. We decided that we weren’t interested in staying there anymore, but we were terrified to tell him that we wanted to quit and get a ride back into town. We woke up at 6am, grabbed all of our things, and walked though the woods to the nearest road. We escaped by hitchhiking, and figuring our way out from there. Quite the adventure! Not an ideal situation, but at least we got out fine.

Since WWOOF doesn’t have an online rating or review system, these kinds of things can easily happen. Treating WWOOFers poorly, or canceling on them last minute, does not affect the influx of free labor coming to these farms. WWOOFers go in blind, because everything’s on the internet, and there’s no way to know how other volunteers have felt about their experience with these farms. We contacted WWOOF Ireland in an attempt to report this specific host, but to no avail. We never heard back from them.

I would definitely do WWOOF again. However, until the organization comes up with a review system, I will never again work for a farmer I haven’t met before. I would love to do WWOOF in my home state, with access to my own car and my own escape if I need it. It’s an amazing experience, and something I will always consider doing again, just to get out of my own element and experience something different.

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Abbie Zulock is a writer based out of Seattle, WA, currently traveling throughout Europe, working on organic farms and exploring vegan delicacies around the continent. Abbie is also an experienced professional tarot card reader and when she's not writing or traveling the globe, she can be found hanging out with her black lab, Jackson!

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