WWOOFing (volunteering on organic farms) is my favorite way to travel cheaply. In fact it really surpasses the "cheap travel" category entirely. WWOOFing is a wonderful way to live and get to understand more about the world. (Here's my post on cheap travel more generally.)
For a small fee ($25-ish), you can sign up to view the list of WWOOF farms for countries with a national WWOOF organization, as well as the list of "WWOOF Independents," countries which don't have enough farms to merit their own national coordinator (like Finland, for example).
You can WWOOF in the US too (a lot of my friends did so in California)--it's a wonderful way to see new things without spending any more money than the cost of transportation.
I wwoofed for nearly a year in Italy and Norway and I've been putting off writing this post for a while because I have so many thoughts about it. So I'll try to stick only with the things I think are really important. I've read lots of WWOOF-advice blog posts that say stuff like, "Bring sunscreen! Bring work pants!," but not a lot that get into the nitty-gritty couldn't-guess-it-beforehand unintuitive stuff about WWOOFing, so that will be my focus. (I did include a list of exactly what to bring--at the end!)
GETTING ALONG WITH FARMS
Go with the right attitude: you're a willing worker interested in sustainable farming. If you think you're going to have a fun chill lying-down-a-lot writers' retreat vacation escape thing, you should not be wwoofing! I was worried about this at first. I don't love or seek out exercise, and I love to sleep and do art projects and generally have quiet time to myself. Fortunately, on farms there's so much space and time for quiet contemplation. The most important trait of a WWOOFer, I think, beyond enthusiasm, is independence. So for all my easily-worn-out weakling comrades: don't worry, it's not like running cross country or weightlifting. It's like slow, patient communing with the earth.
Six hours a day with 1-2 break days a week is good/standard.
Although, to go off of #2, be aware of farms that say, "It's not a job, it's a lifestyle." I've found farms that include that as a kind of warning are trying to tell you that your free time will not be "sacred" and "respected"--but that's fine! You're there to learn! For some farms, you will be doing a lot more than 6 hrs/day--there will be emergencies (the goats escaped! or, we need to harvest a million vegetables for the market!). Or there won't be clear borders between work time and free time. Or beyond the six hours, and on break days, you'll be expected to cook and do dishes or other daily chores.
Going off of #3, be careful about sending in a complaint to the WWOOF organization. In fact, I would be so bold as to say, do not complain to the WWOOF organization. Because the organization has a very, very strict three-strikes policy, and they don't have the time to come check on the farms. If the farm you're staying at is terrible, make arrangements to leave. But a lot of farmers really depend on wwoofers, and just because you can't find your place there doesn't mean you should take them down. Sure, send an email to the farmers and air grievances till you're blue in the face, but don't complain to the national WWOOF. I've known several wwoofers who have reported farms they've stayed on, and other than one time, it was just a matter of temperament/differing expectations. Really, truly, farmers don't deserve to be punished for that. (The one time a complaint was legit was when a friend tried to go to a snail farm in Italy. It turned out that the people in charge hadn't farmed for years, let alone snails, and they were using 8 wwoofers to remodel their house!) It broke my heart to hear that one of the most amazing places I'd stayed at had gotten its third complaint (the organization wanted to strike them from the list). And other amazing places are teetering on the edge. So don't do this! (Even if you are only allowed to shower once a week--a place I lived had that very insane policy, not even during a drought.)
Even though the food will be amazing, don't count on learning how to cook the traditional cuisine of the area. I met a pretty awesome aspiring chef in Italy, and he was wwoofing because he wanted to learn the fundamentals of pasta-making and other Italian specialties. But on a working farm, there usually isn't time to cook elaborate meals. Also, you might end up eating a lot of things that couldn't be sold--vegetables on the edge of going bad, or really ugly cheeses that have had the maggoty side cut off, etc. It's better to approach wwoofing hoping to learn about how food magically becomes food from just dirt, water and sunshine--but don't approach wwoofing thinking that you'll have time to learn all about cooking.
- Do what you say you'll do, be trustworthy and patient.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT FARM
Do you like animals? Dairy farms are really dirty. You will be cleaning up animal manure all summer. And if you work at a dairy farm in the winter you will have to do a lot of hay-pitchforking and that is overwhelmingly dirty, dusty and heavy. If you work in the cheese-room, you'll have to do a ton of washing and bleaching. But to me it was worth it to get to herd goats and sheep and get to know the cows, to get to milk animals (and have the most amazing milky coffee in the morning) and eat so many dairy products.
I stayed on some farms that mostly focused on vegetables and had a few meat-animals out in the pastures or whatever. Not all dirt is created equal--the dirt from harvesting tomatoes is not the dirt from lifting up a ewe's afterbirth-bloody udder for the newborn lamb. The plant farms weren't so smelly but there wasn't so much animal contact.
Do you have patience for repetitive tasks? I've heard grape-harvesting season in Italy is exhilarating but it is also days and days and days of the exact same chore over and over. However, all of farming is repetitive. It surprised me once to hear a wwoofer (a bad one, who shouldn't have been wwoofing) complain about how "boring" farming is. Yes, the pace is slow, but the pace is the pace of the world moving around the sun--cosmic and pure. Every day feels different and challenging. You have to cope with whatever nature throws at you. People who are amenable to it find it extremely exciting.
Are you counting on socializing with other wwoofers? When I first started out, I only wanted to work on farms that had several other wwoofers. I wanted to meet people from all over the world. I envisioned singalongs in the fields, or something. And though I loved working with other wwoofers, I found I had just as much fun at the farms where I was the only one. And at farms where I was alone, I had more choice as to the kinds of jobs I wanted to do. So, don't be afraid of the farms where you might be the only one! There will be people around for you to hang out with.
What kinds of landscapes stir you? This is one of the best parts of wwoofing--the stunning natural beauty!! Do you like rolling hills? Desolate snowy forests? Mountains? Beaches? There are farms everywhere, and you can really live in your landscape dream.
HOW TO CONTACT FARMS
I got this question on Tumblr, so I thought I'd update this post to add it! I'm sure my recommendations are pretty much in line with everyone else's.
Farms tend to be very open to people with no experience. Everyone has to start somewhere—and since they’re not paying you, it’d be crazy for them to expect you to have advanced farming skillz. I went and looked back at the first emails I sent to farms. My best advice: start several months in advance. (Roger at Nordvoll Farm, the northernmost WWOOF farm in the world, fills up all his spots 6 months in advance at the latest!) Contact your very favorite 1 or 2 farms, and give them a week or so to get back to you—a lot of farmers don’t check their email every day. Then contact a few more if you don’t hear anything.
Along with describing when and how long you want to stay, mention in your letter a little about you and why you’re so interested in organic farming. (I'm concerned about climate change and fascinated by traditional lifestyles, so I worked those points in.) Explain why the farm you’re contacting particularly interests you. Maybe you liked the tone of the description, or the type of plants/animals they have. I asked some questions too—what sorts of jobs can I expect to be doing? (I followed this up by explaining that i like doing all kinds of work—I think every farm appreciates people who are willing to shovel manure without complaints.) What are the sleeping arrangements like? Do they host more than one wwoofer at a time?
This sounds like a lot, but I kept mine to about three short paragraphs. I really think one of the keys to getting a spot, new wwoofer or not, is just starting early. And then after the first farm, if you want to go to others, you can modify your letter to include the new experience you have!
WHAT TO BRING
Things to do during free time, especially books. Maybe some cards. Watercolors. A journal. At some farms it is next to impossible to get to a city or town by yourself. At some farms there won't be internet. (Or even electricity.) So you will get so, so much reading done, if that's your jam. I brought a Nook e-reader along everywhere and it was great to have so many books in such a light package.
While I was wwoofing, I particularly loved reading Wendell Berry's essays (The Art of the Commonplace has a lot of great ones). He is a wonderful spokesperson for the far-reaching benefits of agriculture and traditional lifestyles. I also loved Elizabeth Kolbert's Field Notes from a Catastrophe, and Jim Holt's Why Does the World Exist?--great things to contemplate while you're harvesting endless string beans.
A camera!!! (I know that there are compelling arguments to made against having a camera--"live in the moment" and all that. But I found myself more motivated to go on hikes and try new things because I knew I might get a good photo out of it.)
You can expect that lots of farms (particularly the ones that have had wwoofers for years) will actually have a huge collection of work clothes and rubber boots that former wwoofers have left behind. But here is the basic list: 2 pairs of work pants. 5 t-shirts. A hat. A bathing suit. Sunscreen, sunglasses, bug repellant. Rubber boots (soooooo crucial on animal farms, or anywhere in the winter or the spring. Or anywhere. Because there are no sidewalks, only feet and feet of mud).
Hiking boots. Crocs/close-toed watershoes. Seriously, in every country, farmers have Crocs these days. I got a sort of ladylike pair that I could use as slippers, in the shower, even in town. Quick-dry moisture-wicking socks. Don't bring a polar fleece unless you want to get it full of pieces of hay. A sweatshirt might be better. Little gifts for your hosts (that's where the watercolors come in). All the chocolate you can fit in your backpack (it might be hard to go to the supermarket to get more). Or any other little snack foods that you really need and crave.
Take it away, Wendell Berry: "We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. And this has been based on the even flimsier assumption that we could know with any certainty what was good even for us. We have fulfilled the danger of this by making our personal pride and greed the standard of our behavior toward the world--to the incalculable disadvantage of the world and every living thing in it. And now, perhaps very close to too late, our great error has become clear. It is not only our own creativity--our own capacity for life--that is stifled by our arrogant assumption; the creation itself is stifled. "We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and to learn what is good for it. We must learn to cooperate in its processes, and to yield to its limits. But even more important, we must learn to acknowledge that the creation is full of mystery; we will never entirely understand it. We must abandon arrogance and stand in awe. We must recover the sense of the majesty of creation, and the ability to be worshipful in its presence. For I do not doubt that it is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it."
Those are all my tips! Go get em!!