Volunteer travel trend: Wwoofing

(Courtesy Zak Stern
Volunteer traveler Zak Stern in a village in the Amazon, two hours south of Puyo, Ecuador, in May 2007.

After Zak Stern graduated from Florida State University in 2007, he found himself contemplating a time-honored question: Should I postpone my job-hunt and head to graduate school instead?

Stern chose to postpone entering "the real world." He enrolled in pharmacy school as an alternative. But he had doubts immediately. As he recalls it, "I was 22 years old, wearing a white coat and tie, and paying $16,000 a semester to learn about benign prostate hyperplasia (enlarged prostate). Meanwhile, I felt like I knew so little about life."

So Stern withdrew from graduate school after his first semester. "The call of the wild consumed me," he says. "I decided that while my prostate was still small, I needed to live my life to the fullest. Since then, I've been traveling the world learning how to live off the fat of the land—best decision of my life."

Stern found an organization called WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms)—a resource that helps people find work on organic farms, schools, hostels or just families that need help building a garden. WWOOF has access to farms in 43 countries where you volunteer in exchange for food and shelter.

In the beginning, Stern knew nothing about farming. So he began WWOOFing in South Florida in the winter of 2008 with the idea of moving up the East Coast, as the seasons changed. He WWOOFed for three months at Bee Heaven Farm in Homestead, Fla., a five-acre family farm that was running a CSA (community supported agriculture) and three local farmer's markets.

"I would wake up around 7 a.m., eat some oatmeal in the barn, and then begin weeding and mulching rows of lacinato kale and rainbow chard," he says.

After three or four hours of work, Stern would break for lunch, which he and his fellow WWOOFers prepared by themselves. After that, he worked another two to three hours harvesting heirloom tomatoes, eggplants, and pole beans for the farmers market the next day.

With three others working with him on the farm, and all the food not sold as theirs to eat, it was like Iron Chef every night.

"We had a chocolate custard-like fruit called Sapote Negro, a milky lychee-like fruit called caimito, carambolas, guavas, avocados, exotic Asian greens, Romanesco broccoli, and so on and so on—the rewards of working on a farm in a tropical climate," he says. "After dinner, I typically had just enough energy to read a few chapters in a book before wanting to crawl into my teepee and rest my bones."

But working on any type of farm is hard work, and WWOOFing isn't considered a vacation. "Whether you're on the coast of Spain on an olive farm or the Great Plains farming corn, manual labor is manual labor," he says. Yet the exhaustion made him feel even more alive.

After his time in Florida, Stern headed north to manage the Hostel in the Forest, an environmental teaching hostel in southern Georgia. He worked there for seven months as manager.

Stern also volunteered with the Shuar tribe in the Amazon of Ecuador for one month. There he'd go hunting with blow darts. He spent another month WWOOFing on a non-profit organic farm in Ahmednagar, India.

Working on a farm for at least two weeks works best for both the WWOOFer and the host. Two weeks is a long enough period of time to see if the farm best suits your interests.

Hosts typically give preference to WWOOFers who are willing to commit to longer periods of time. Hosts expect you to work four to six hours a day and five to six days a week. Many farms host one or two other volunteers as well.

Individual countries usually have their own national WWOOF organization to register with. Each national organization has its own membership fee, which is usually about $20 a year. Once you sign up, you'll receive a list of farms within that country. Pick a farm that suits your interests, and contact the host a few months before your trip.

You must be 18 years or older and have a valid visa.

Buying health insurance isn't a bad idea. Many wwoofers buy policies via World Nomads or O V Europa.

Some countries like Greece and Thailand don't have a national WWOOF organization, and are grouped under WWOOF Independents. (Here's a guide on preparing to WWOOF internationally and a PDF on WWOOF Independents.)

Stern begins another WWOOFing trip in August. He starts in Sweden at a number of different bakeries to learn the art of sourdough bread. Then he'll head to France, which has more than 400 registered WWOOF farms, to learn how to make cheese. He'll eventually head back over to Italy, with more than 300 WWOOF farms, to grow grapes and ferment wine.

"I will hitchhike, camp, and couch surf my way from farm to farm," he said. "My budget is low and my time is unlimited."

—David Cumming


Budget Travel's round-up of great volunteer vacations

Volunteer Vacations: A First-Person Account, at a Singapore Orphanage

Matador Change's guide to WWOOFing

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