If you’ve never heard of WWOOFing, check it out here. WWOOF is a program that allows travelers to trade farmwork for food and a place to stay on organic farms all over the world. I’ve had some great WWOOFing experiences (as have many others), but a few have been horrible.
I WWOOFed on a farm in Ireland which worked us to the bone – 13 hour days, 7 days a week. I stayed somewhere else where the farmers had their own kitchen and a separate “WWOOFer kitchen”. Their kitchen was filled with honey, freshly roasted coffee beans, a variety of fancy smelly cheeses, and all sorts of culinary delights. Our kitchen was filled with moldy beets, carrots, and potatoes from last year’s harvest (this was June). The woman who ran this farm, by the way, spoke frequently of her own bowel movements and purported that Rome fell because the Romans “practiced homosexuality”. It was an awkward experience all around.
At yet another place, our host accused me or my companion of peeing on her floor (for the record, neither of us did – though afterwards I won’t deny that I was a bit tempted, because what is the fun of being accused of something when you’re innocent?) She tempered her accusation by informing us that she didn’t actually check, and it may have been water (note to future hosts: it’s probably good to be sure before bringing something like that up). This woman also fed us half an artichoke for dinner once (yes, she was French, since I know you were all wondering). It gets worse, though. A friend had a terrible WWOOFing experience in which he was made to do hard labor from sunup to sundown with no days off, no food, and no lines of transportation or communication to the outside world. It was a monumental effort for him to escape. His story is exceptional (he was the first person to WWOOF at that farm and he later found out that his farm had dropped out of WWOOF just after he arrived, so there was no oversight), and most WWOOFers will never face a situation this bad. But the truth is that a few bad apples will have no qualms about abusing WWOOFers in a way that they would never dream of abusing paid workers.
I’ve also had many fantastic WWOOFing experiences, but won’t share those stories because they aren’t funny, though if you’re interested in farm recommendations, feel free to drop me a line. I will, however, share my learnings from these experiences, so that you can be better prepared than I was.
1. Set clear expectations. This can’t be stressed enough. Before you arrive at the farm, find out how many hours they intend for you to work, when you will have days off, where you will be living, and what you will be fed. Some people will try to squeeze out every bit of energy and life you have in you, so don’t let them.
2. Get references. Ask for contact info for previous WWOOFers. If they’ve been doing this for a while, that shouldn’t be hard to come by. Previous WWOOFers will be your best source for candid information and recommendations. Some travelers have even published regional guides to WWOOF farms.
3. Have a backup plan. I emphasize this a lot because it can’t be emphasized enough. Sometimes, no matter how prepared you think you are, things can fall through. Keep a list of other options or possibilities (or even just couches to surf on) in case you need to get out. When I escaped from a WWOOFing-in-hell experience in Ghana, I spent the following days just sleeping in my friend’s home in Accra while I puked my guts out from the pills I was given to cure my malaria. I don’t know where I would have been had I not had a good backup plan, but it isn’t fun to think about.
4. Expect to work hard. Farming can be tough, and it can be tedious. Depending on when you go and how long you’re there, you likely will never see the fruits of your labor. If you’re not used to manual labor or working outside, it can be really difficult. Don’t come into this expecting to laze around all day and enjoy a peaceful, cheap vacation.
5. Know that it might not be legal for you. WWOOF isn’t great about mentioning this, because they’re in the business of selling memberships, but some countries prohibit foreigners from WWOOFing without a work visa. WWOOF explicitly tells volunteers to remain silent about their plans if interrogated by border agents, which might seem more than a little sketchy. You can read a story here about a WWOOFer who was denied entry to the United States. Try to research the laws where you want to WWOOF to see whether or not it’s legal on a tourist visa.