The light filters through the branches of the plum tree, each leaf outlined in a brilliant yellow from the just risen sun. We are reaching up, stretching to pluck the abundant purple plums above us.
In about an hour, we’ll all join together for our first meal of the day; muesli, homemade yogurt, and fresh fruit salad, made with fruit we picked earlier in the week.
I’m on an organic stone fruit orchard in Australia, volunteering with five other travelers from around the world. After breakfast, we gather in a shed for our next job. We laugh and tell stories around a table as we carefully slice fruit for the solar drier. Once our four hours of volunteering are over, we convene with the farmers and share a big communal lunch.
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The rest of the day we have free to explore – we can borrow bikes, go for a walk around the neighboring orchards, relax and read books, or talk and play games with our new friends. At dinnertime we reconvene for a group meal, which we take turns each night cooking. Tonight, the Japanese travelers are trying their hand at a quiche, and I overhear them asking the older couple from Switzerland for advice about how to make the perfect crust.
Every day, I am learning new, practical skills for free. More importantly, though, I’m meeting like-minded travelers intent on learning from each other and giving back to the world. We are WWOOFers – Willing Workers on Organic Farms.
The minimum day requirement varies depending on the hosts. Most ask for at least one or two weeks, although its possible to arrange a shorter or longer stay. Some hosts will allow language learners or people interested in starting their own farm to stay for a long time, from 3 months to a year to forever! As a WWOOFer, though, if I really disliked or felt uncomfortable at a farm for any reason, I would be free to leave the next day.
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WWOOFing for the past two years in Australia, New Zealand, and Southeast Asia has changed my whole outlook on life. Before, I assumed that my life would be linear; I would go to graduate school, get a job, buy a house, and raise a family, like most people I have known. After WWOOFing, I have experienced first-hand the many alternatives there are to that path.
WWOOF was the first organized program of its kind, created in 1971 by a London secretary named Sue Coppard. Her aim was to bring busy city folk back to nature with weekend trips to farms in the country. More than 40 years later, there are now thousands of places to WWOOF in 99 countries all over the world. In Australia alone, there were 2287 host farmers looking for volunteers in 2010.
Since its creation, WWOOFing has evolved to keep up with the growing demand from both travelers and farmers. Other voluntourism programs have also sprung up to embrace this new form of travel, such as HelpX. This websiteexpands far beyond organic farms to hundreds of other volunteer opportunities. Through the HelpX program, I’ve painted the outside of a bed and breakfast in New Zealand and taught English to kids in Bali. Volunteer projects are rarely boring.
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Case in point, one of my projects involved building teepees and adobe houses in Australia. Don and Sue live in a straw bale house they made with their own hands on their 10 acre property outside of a small town in South Australia. Even though they are Australian, the couple is fascinated with Native American spirituality and lifestyle.
Inspired by the Lakota tribe, they lovingly create custom-built teepees of all sizes. One overwhelmed mother wanted a private retreat to escape from her boisterous children, while another man wanted a space where he could safely barbecue in the backyard of his high-fire risk neighborhood. Sue and Don also have teepees with beds and firepits set up on their property for “glamping,” or glamorous camping.
When I first accompanied Don to the forest, he knelt on the ground and thanked the trees for their contribution to his art. Then we sawed down trees and stacked them on top of his old Honda, taking them back to his property to strip off the bark, and sand smooth. A few days later, after he had measured and sewn the canvas cover, we drove to a customer’s house and set up the 25-foot-wide teepee in the moonlight. It was a magical experience.
On that same trip, I spent my mornings chopping down thistles, feeling like a warrior from Lord of the Rings. With other WWOOFers from Canada and Finland I built a spiral herb garden. We also spread a sandy clay on the walls of a new straw-bale structure they were building. Sue and Don don’t count hours, they just told us what projects they needed help with on their expansive property nestled in a eucalyptus forest, where platypus swim in the stream and kangaroos gather in the pasture at sunset. I stayed in a straw-bale cabin there for two weeks.
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Not all voluntourism experiences have been as ideal, though. I remember working for a commercial organic vegetable farmer who needed 3-8 WWOOFers to weed for 5 hours a day just to keep his business running. I only stayed there for a few days because I was unhappy with the way he treated us. He had been hosting WWOOFers for more than 10 years and was disillusioned by the whole scheme, not bothering to learn anyone’s names.
Paul Kretchner’s biodynamic stone fruit orchard has a completely different take. Thanks to a roster updated daily, I knew exactly what my duties were to be, hour for hour, every day I was there. I found this comforting, since I knew that I was giving exactly what they expected.
Over the past 13 years, Paul has happily hosted 315 volunteers on his orchard.
WWOOFers add a diversity and interest to our lives, which we would otherwise not have,
he says. After traveling for 3 years in the USA, Canada, and South America, Paul also knows the importance of having a safe respite from travel for a week or more.
WWOOFing gives volunteers a place to stay for a while in a family setting, and to have some ‘home life‘. It’s an opportunity to experience this part of Australia, and to learn new skills working on a fruit property. For non-English speakers, it’s a great opportunity to improve their English.
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There are no age limits or requirements to volunteering. Many farms, including Paul’s, accept families with small children, and enjoy having older WWOOFers.
The oldest volunteer we had was 70, from Switzerland, and he did a fantastic job,
said Paul. Likewise, the minimum stay varies from host to host. Most ask for at least one or two weeks, although its possible to arrange a shorter or longer stay. Some hosts will allow language learners
or people interested in starting their own farm to stay for a long time, from 3 months to a year to indefinitely. However, if WWOOFers felt uncomfortable a farm for any reason, they are free to leave the next day.
On the merits of voluntourism, James Nolting, a Californian who has volunteered on ten farms around Australia and New Zealand says:
Volunteering is the purest form of cultural exchange. There is no money changing hands, only the goodwill of travelers and hosts. I WWOOF because it’s a great way to get in touch with a new place. I get to meet the locals and dive into a different culture. It makes me feel more connected, less like a tourist and more like a member of the community.
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For me, WWOOFing has exposed me to new ways of life I never would have dreamed of. I am realizing that there are many other ways to live than those I have seen in my own country. These ongoing discoveries challenge me to redefine my life plan. Now, there are so many more options to choose from.
When I volunteer, my travel experience has a deeper meaning, transcending sightseeing and tourism. I feel fulfilled and powerful when I know that I’m helping someone.