How the Whole Volunteers Thing Works
Where and how to get free labor, what to expect from volunteers, and why it’s totally worth it.
A table full of happy volunteers
It was less than a year ago that my wife Emma and I set out on journey through Central and South America, our plan being to volunteer on farms the whole way. We’d toyed with gardening here and there, spent some time running the hotel side of an avocado farm called Earth Lodge, but our interests in growing our own food, becoming more sustainable people, and living less job-oriented lives had reached a pinnacle. We wanted something different, and gardening seem to make sense.
It didn’t take long for us to see how much there was to learn. At our first volunteering post, Totoco (Nicaragua), we got our first taste of gardening in the tropics. We were dealing with an overabundance of water sometimes, an all out dry spell for the other six months of the year, and insects big enough — forget crops — to run off with a person’s leg. Still, something about the lifestyle — living and cooking outside, waking with the sun and sleeping with the moon, growing and harvesting our food — just felt right. We were addicted right off.
Within the next three months, a month and a half behind schedule on our trip, we were offered an amazing opportunity: To develop half a hectare of property — later deemed Glenavon on the Lake — in Panama into a food-producing ‘jungle’ and to run a volunteer program in doing so. Well, despite only a few months as part-time gardeners, we had had plenty of experience with work-exchange programs and were apt to take the challenge. And, we knew we wanted to use the permaculture ideas and techniques we’d picked up.
Now three months into job, I couldn’t imagine taking it on without volunteers.
I haven’t had to paint anything!
Where and how to get free labor
WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) is the go-to organization when the idea of volunteering on farms comes to mind, but for us, this option proved difficult. As volunteers, especially ones on the move, the individual fees for each country proved too expensive, and as hosts, the qualifications too far from our reach. We are using 100% organic (and waste-free) methods now, but the property has long been a victim of chemical fertilizers, weed killers, and other atrocities. We won’t officially qualify as organic for ages.
While WWOOFing is now more or less shorthand for farm workstay, we knew we’d have to take a different route to get our volunteers. So, we started with Australia’s own HelpX, a site that helps travelers looking for gigs on farms (organic or not), in hostels, or even aboard boats. We’d used the site for our trip and found it to be well worth the twenty-dollar sign up fee. We found work everywhere we were going, and everywhere we went seemed to get plenty of workers.
The other site that seemed to be used a lot was one called Work Away, which was free for hosts and still cheap and all-encompassing for volunteers. On our abbreviated soiree into volunteering, we’d met lots of people who used Work Away, and it seemed much the same as HelpX. Why use only one site when we could post for free? So, we cut and pasted our write-up from HelpX and made a Work Away profile as well.
Work Away volunteers making a magic circle
In less than two weeks we got such a response that we were having to turn volunteers away. We were ready to host two to four volunteers at a time, but we’d gotten enough interest to keep us staffed with eight or more through the summer. The budget just couldn’t do it, so we took as many as we could.
That’s the where and here’s the how: Since our neighbor’s have seen the volunteering system in action, some of them have become really interested, and we’ve tried to give them a hand. They’ve had less success than us. I think the reason is permaculture and pictures. We’ve posted information about the cool projects we are doing — pizza oven, food forests, communal gardens — and posted photos of projects we’ve already done — magic circles, hugelkultur and herb spirals. People are genuinely interested. Why wouldn’t they be? Often such experiences require fees. I think showing real work and having a plan for what’s next makes a big difference in attracting volunteers.
What to expect from volunteers (and what they expect from you)
The standard deal with volunteers seems to be something in the four-to-five hour range in exchange for room and board. I’ve heard of some places only providing a couple of meals a day. I’ve personally experienced outdoor sleeping in an open-air loft, paying a few bucks a day to help with groceries (Work Away doesn’t like this), and variations of shopping for, harvesting, and cooking my own food. I’ve seen accommodation in tent, teepee (no joke), private house, and extra bedroom forms. Meals can be prepared by an onsite chef, the property owners, or volunteers. The menu can be vegan, vegetarian, pescetarian, or full-on carnivorous.
A volunteering couple constructing a worm farm together
As for this property, Emma and I are vegans, so that’s what we offer volunteers: three balanced vegan meals a day with plenty of snacks around and the freedom to forage while they work. We have private, en-suite rooms — the nicest we’ve ever seen for volunteers — on offer, simply because that’s what is available. We share cooking and cleaning up duties with volunteers because we want to be part of it with them and we know not everyone is skilled in the kitchen or in the know when it comes to vegan food. If volunteers want meat or dairy products, they can buy their own and use our facilities (this has only happened once). Everyone, including ourselves, works five hours a day, Monday through Friday, and three hours on Saturday.
So far, we’ve had great experience with our volunteers, and we’ve tried to pick their brain for what they liked about the project. The communal space we’ve created — a nice covered outdoor area with games and sofas, a kitchen, a ping-pong table, funky art projects, and hostel-style book exchange — goes down well. I believe we work people pretty hard, but just as with the website write-ups, volunteers love working on projects, having clear tasks (even when it’s undesirable stuff like weeding), and doing a variety of things. Also, I noticed how much more volunteers got into the groove once we started giving tours of the property, explaining the different types of beds and composts and so on, on their first day. And, they love being vegan for a little while.
Dream-catchers have become an anytime project. We now have an official dream-catching tree.
Why it’s totally worth it
Budgets will be different in different places, but Emma and I use less than $250 a month to feed our volunteers and ourselves. We stretch our meals with pots of filling foods like beans and rice, and we get most of our greens and fruit from the garden. Generally, we try to stick to about two or three volunteers (we have had as many as five) because it keeps the budget and the cooking manageable. More or less, we’ve gone months now with only a couple of days at a time without people around.
What’s great is that work gets done. Some volunteers need more guidance than others, some take off and come up with their ideas, but all of them come to pitch in. They want to learn. They take on time-consuming tasks — cutting up mangoes or raking the neighbors leaves for mulch — that otherwise we’d have to do. They want to be around, be a part, and take something away from the experience. They are from all walks of life. We’ve had French urbanites, British beach bums, and a German expat who has his own permaculture farm in Costa Rica. Everyone brings their own little twist to the garden.
For us, the benefits stretch even further. Volunteers mean we get to keep that traveling vibe by having it come to us rather than going to it. We meet loads of new people and really get to know them, and now we’ve got loads of new places to visit and friends to crash with. It keeps us motivated to move the project forward. It helps us finish things that need doing and keeps us on our toes for thinking through the next steps. Hosting also allows us to share, in a much more meaningful way than a conversation, worldly things we care about: permaculture, veganism, community, activism, and backgammon.
Constructing a hugelkultur stumpery with my new French friend
Best of all, when we want to sleep in on Sundays, the volunteers always take care of feeding the dogs.