What to Expect When Volunteering on Farms (and What Farms Expect from You)
My front garden on Ometepe Island in Nicaragua
“WWOOFing” has become a very common form of budget travel these days. The concept is simple enough: Workers/Travelers volunteer a few hours of labor in exchange for room and board. In your free time, you can frolic on beaches or hike mountains just as any other tourist might. It’s a great deal. It’s particularly fantastic for those of us who aren’t particularly good at sitting still or are interested in growing food, and, of course, if you’ve not got a lot of money yet still feel entitled to travel the world. A work exchange might be just the ticket.
Seriously, I’ve been traveling for the past eleven months. The trip has taken me to five countries, allowed me to live on an avocado farm (Guatemala), on an island (Nicaragua), along the Caribbean coast (Costa Rica), at a lakeside summer home (Panama), and at a hostel/farm near a lake in Colombia. Including transportation expenses to this point (I did start in Guatemala, so there was not an initial flight), I’ve spent about $1750 (USD). In Panama, I was paid to stay six months and work on converting a property into an organic garden/food forest, so I’ve actually made money on the trip.
But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
WWOOF, WWOOF, WWOOF
WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) is an initiative that started in the 1970s in Britain. The acronym originally stood for “Weekend Workers on Organic Farms” and was founded by a secretary, Sue Coppard, working in London. The idea was that city dwellers like Sue could get an opportunity to get outdoors and participate in the organic movement.
Farmstay in Costa Rica, just a walk away from the Caribbean
It worked a charm. Not only did farmers seize the opportunity, providing housing and food for volunteers, but also the demand to work for free expanded. The organization soon had independent branches in other countries, and travelers rather than just secretaries were taking advantage. Weekends were no longer enough, so the organization changed its name to “Willing Workers on Organic Farms”.
These days the organization is an international hit. Nearly every country has participants, and more and more travelers catch on each year. In 2000, the organization had its first international conference and decided, for immigration reasons, to change its name to “World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms”. WWOOFing is now recognized as a genuine cultural exchange, and the terminology has expanded far beyond the organization.
I use HelpX, an Australian-run site, as opposed to WWOOF to find my farms. For WWOOF, each individual country has its own WWOOFing set-up, each one charging a fee. HelpX covers everywhere with one fee, as well as provides other options like hostel work and NGO opportunities. Work Away is another site, which I’ve used for hosting a person, but not used as a traveler, that gives options globally for a one-time fee.
But, it’s not just a free place to stay
Even so, it’s important to realize that the farmers do expect volunteers to do their part in this exchange. Many listings I’ve read are overly expressive about needing people interested in farming, willing to work, and ready to be challenged. On the farms where I’ve volunteered, owners have shared lots of stories of being burned by volunteers who are using the exchange only as free accommodation. As with anything, being a decent person goes a long way on both sides.
My favorite kitchen yet at La Juanita Finca Verde in Colombia
In general, hosts all expect about the same thing: half a day’s work. Other than that, tasks can be quite different. I’ve literally worked on digging a hole the size of a small swimming pool (in which to cure bamboo), I’ve harvested fruits, and I’ve built two free-run chicken roosts out of found wood. I’ve cared for farm animals and even babysat children (for a short while). At times, it has been backbreaking and laborious, and other times, days have felt like a cool breeze. In the end, I’m interested in learning about and sharing in organic farming and permaculture, so it’s a fair exchange.
What to expect in return
The deal in its rawest form is you work for shelter and food, but rarely does a work-exchange work like this. In fact, it’s usually something much richer, more generous, and fun. People tend to invite you into their lives, even if only for a week, to share meals, knowledge, and ideas. You’ll likely interact with pets and children. You’ll often work side-by-side with locals, as well as other volunteers from around the world. And, for good workers, with just minimal knowledge, more opportunities will likely arise.
The lakeside property in Panama — six months of pay to live here
I’ve now volunteered at five farms. In Guatemala I became a kitchen manager and dinner chef — and my wife a volunteer manager — for nearly two years. In Nicaragua, my wife and I ran the volunteer program for two months while the owners were in Europe having a baby. In Panama, we were offered six-month paid positions as the property’s caretakers. In Colombia, we were offered a six-month exchange with benefits. I’m not sure if that’s normal, but I know it’s not completely abnormal.
That said, it’s important to know exactly what you are entitled to. This can be different for different farms but should be established up front. Nevertheless, there are some general guidelines. All meals should be provided (I think even on days off, but I’ve had one incident), and that means enough food to keep your body fueled and your diet balanced. Shelter is provided, which can be anything from an open-air loft to a tent to a guesthouse beside a lake in Panama. (I even got to stay in a tipi once.) Expect something similar to camping or staying in a dorm rather than the latter.
The view from Earth Lodge, the avocado farm in Guatemala
What not necessarily to expect
Lastly, some things that I’ve noticed at most of the places I’ve worked and/or heard stories about:
The people running these farms are not always experts. Often, you’ll be working for someone who knows a little more (or less) than you and simply decided to give it a go. Unfortunately, many ‘organic’ farms don’t practice to a T what their title implies. Usually, ‘sustainable farms’ are not at all sustainable but rather in the early stages of reaching for it, so don’t expect to necessarily harvest all the food you eat — I’ve yet to do that. Still, realize that most hosts are doing their best and want you to enjoy your experience. Respect what they are doing, and provide a value.
(For those looking to assist professionals, there are opportunities out there to learn from experts. Check out PermacultureNews.org courses, for example, for courses in cool, ecological growing techniques. If you are interested in eco-building, a Google search will provide innumerable listings for courses. However, these will not be work-exchange but rather professional training that you pay for, by experts in the field. That’s a different garden altogether.)
The other thing to keep in mind is that often farms are not in the most touristy of areas. More often than not, I’ve been in places that require a few kilometers to walk out of, or an hour or two by ‘chicken bus‘ to get to. The areas are usually stunning, with loads of nature and quiet time, which is what I’m into anyway, so this is rarely a problem. However, it does mean things like phones and WiFi aren’t a guarantee everywhere you go. Best to check first if that’s important.
I can’t imagine traveling any other way now. You get to see awesome projects in beautiful places around the world, meet motivated and motivating people, and spend less money than you would staring at statues in some historic square that you only know about because of a guide book. To me, that’s the way to do it.
Would you leave your kid with me? I will work for food.