WWOOF – volunteering on organic farms
Earlier this year I had an absolutely unique opportunity to travel for 3 months across South America (here you can read more on this topic). Of course, the entire trip was an unforgettable adventure, but probably the most interesting part of it was our two-week volunteering experience on an organic farm in Argentina, in the region of Mendoza, through an organization called WWOOF. Would you like to find out how it works? Then this article is for you!
How does WWOOFing work?
WWOOF – World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms is a network of organisations connecting organic farmers with people interested in volunteering on their farms. Local WWOOF organisations exist in most countries. Each country has a separate website where people can look for volunteering opportunities. There is a one-time fee for accessing the database – for Argentina, it was 30 EUR, but prices may differ slightly, depending on the country. After making the payment, you will receive an e-mail with a complete list of farms registered in the given country. The list contains a description of each farm, its location, information about the hosts, their families, their habits and the tasks involved when working on the farm. Some farmers require a minimum length of stay, some are more flexible and that was the case of our farm. We wanted to stay there for no more than two weeks and there was absolutely no problem about it. Farmers provide volunteers with accommodation and food in exchange for some help with their daily tasks. We chose a farm in the region of Mendoza, famous for wine production. We hoped that this would allow us to visit some of the local vineyards & wineries and taste their delicious wines.
Why did we decide to participate?
There were two main reasons. First – when travelling for a few months, you need to be careful not to go over budget. We wanted to visit Mendoza anyway, so WWOOF seemed like a great option to save on accommodation & food. Then, we wanted to spend some time in an unconventional way. Apart from ticking typically touristic places off our list, we felt like visiting a less known, provincial town, where people live according to their own rhythm, undisturbed by crowds of tourists. We also thought it would be a good idea to spend some time with a local family and find out how life of Argentinian people look like in a rural area.
Our volunteering in Mendoza
We easily found a “less known, provincial town”. It was called General Alvear and did not have any tourist attractions (other than being located in the very heart of a world-famous wine region). Approximately 30,000 people inhabit the town and the closest city is San Rafael (around 100 km from General Alvear). Upon our arrival, we expected to meet old, experienced farmers. This did not happen. We were welcome by Carlos – 31 years old, his 25-year old wife Ayelen and their 9-month old daughter Aneley (who is by far the most adorable, easy-going baby we have ever met).
Until quite recently, Carlos used to work in a factory in Buenos Aires, but he dreamt about a completely different life. That’s why he bought a piece of land in General Alvear where his parents in-law and Ayelen’s brother with his wife and son had lived already for some time. With some help from his friends, he built a small hut and started running a farm. Although in this case, “farm” is probably too big a word. It is simply a small garden, in which Carlos and Ayelen grow fruits, vegetables and herbs – exclusively for their own use, not for sale. They also have 6 hens, which they keep only for eggs, not for meat, as they are both vegetarians. Thanks to this little garden, its owners are almost completely self-sufficient. 80% of the products that land on their table are their own. Sometimes they also exchange with their neighbours who grow different types of plants. They buy only such items as bread, flour, grains, pasta and so on. And wine, which in this region is extremely cheap.
You might want to ask where they get the money for shopping, since the farm does not bring any profit. Well, apart from being farmers, they are also craftsmen – they make their own jewellery and dishes, mainly mates and bombillas, used for drinking yerba mate. They sell their products at local markets, mostly in the summertime.
How did our daily work look like?
Our main task was to prepare a winter garden. Carlos showed us a piece of land and asked us to dig up grass and remove weed so that in the future he could grow some fruit and veg on this terrain. Sounds like an easy task but you have to consider the fact that our stay on the farm took place in February – which is the middle of summer. At this time of the year, temperatures in Mendoza reach almost 40 degrees Celsius. Therefore working in the garden was only possible very early in the morning or in the evenings. Actually, it was our own decision when and for how long we wanted to work. Carlos didn’t control us at all and he didn’t give us any instructions or orders. We had to organize our own work. As we really wanted to provide some help to our hosts and make our short stay on the farm worthwhile, we tried to wake up as early as possible and started our work when they were still asleep.
Other tasks involved cooking from time to time or helping Carlos and Ayelen when they made their jewellery and dishes. Apart from us, there were a few other volunteers on the farm – one German girl, one American and a French couple with their dog. Everyone had their own tasks. When we were working in the garden, the other people were planting seeds, feeding the chicken, building a dry toilet or cooking.
Is WWOOFing only about work?
Absolutely not! During the two weeks spent on the farm, we had quite a lot of free time. Among other things, we visited a small local winery called „Cavas del Artesano”. We were shown around the place by its lovely and helpful employees. They organised a free tasting of a few different types of wine and then offered us a lift to the town centre. I can’t express how grateful we were for this gesture, as we didn’t fancy to walk back to town in the extreme heat.
However, for us WWOOFing was above all about getting to know other people. We spent plenty of time with our hosts, their parents, siblings and kids. Also very often Carlos and Ayelen’s friends dropped by to pay an unexpected visit. At those moments, work became less important – everyone had to sit at the table and drink some yerba mate, which is quite a ritual in Argentina. Together we prepared meals, drank a delicious and cheap local wine, which in this region is sold in 5-litre containers. In his garden, Carlos has a clay oven, in which we cooked our suppers while having long conversations. Our hosts are very intelligent and curious people. They asked us about all aspects of living in Poland, about which they knew very little, but wanted to find out as much as possible. In turn, we learnt a lot a about the problems that Argentinian people have to deal with on a daily basis. The evenings spent in the garden were very pleasant and the starry skies over Mendoza were an unforgettable view.
During our stay on the farm, we experienced a lifestyle completely different from our own. We, Europeans carefully plan every day: in the morning we go to work, then we do our shopping, cooking, extra classes, meet family and friends. Of course, all these activities are usually scheduled ahead. People that we met in Mendoza don’t have strict deadlines or precise timetables. They wake up, work, eat, go to bed, when they please. They always find time to meet their friends, receive unexpected guests, spend a few hours at the table with their family. They live from what they produce on their own. Of course, this lifestyle has its consequences – namely, they have very little cash. Life’s little pleasures, such as going to a restaurant, cinema or on holiday are unavailable for them. Even travelling to the closest city to sell their products at a marketplace is a burden on their budget – they always worry if they will sell enough to cover expenses and make a profit. Is this lifestyle better than ours? I don’t know. Certainly it’s different and very interesting. I probably couldn’t live this way – as a very organized person, I appreciate stability and a sense of safety. However, what I envy them is living slowly, in their own rhythm, close to nature, friends and family.
Is WWOOFing an option for everyone?
I would like to say “yes”. However, the answer is definitely: “no”. This is not an option for those who enjoy comfort and luxury. During our stay on the farm, we slept in a tent. The temperatures outside rendered its interior insupportably hot, so whether we wanted or not, we had to wake up quite early. Coming back to the tent was only possible late in the evening. Therefore, we did not really have a place to relax during the day. Another problem was hygiene. Sharing a small, makeshift bathroom with 7 other people, we couldn’t exactly allow a lot of time for long showers or meticulous body care. If on top of that you work in a garden… you can only imagine how our nails looked like after these two weeks! Furthermore, on the farm there is no Internet connection, TV or radio. To get Wi-Fi you have to go to the closest petrol station (around 20 minutes walking). That’s why people addicted to Facebook or those who constantly check their e-mail inboxes should avoid this type of adventure. Otherwise, they might get very frustrated. Besides, the work tends to be hard, so you need to be healthy and physically fit.
In that case, who is this idea meant for? Definitely, for all those who enjoy meeting people, are open to new perspectives and interested in what’s happening in the world. Also those who love being close to nature, value inter-human relations and like to cut off from civilization from time to time. And those who like travelling, learning new languages, doing something useful. If you don’t mind modest living conditions and physical work, I guarantee your WWOOFing experience will be a memorable adventure.
Ecological aspects of WWOOF
Our stay on the farm was one of the most eco-friendly experiences in our lives! Why? Here are a few reasons:
- First, respect for food. Like I have mentioned already, our hosts eat mainly things they grow on their own, sometimes they also receive items from their friends or neighbours. This is why they are anxious and worried every time they see some dark clouds on the sky, as they are aware this is a threat to their harvest. They also have very limited financial resources to shop for food. This is the reason why they treat all alimentary products with a huge respect. They never throw them away. They are even happy to collect from the ground some “ugly” fruits that we, the spoilt Europeans, would not even touch.
- Second, limiting waste. Carlos and Ayelen are real champions of zero waste lifestyle. Looking from their perspective, there is no such thing as trash – there are only resources. For example, their house, as well as the little house for volunteers and the dry toilet are constructed, among other things, of empty glass bottles. In their kitchen you can find furniture retrieved from a garbage dumpster. Whenever I had an item I wanted to get rid of (for example, an empty cream packaging jar), I knew I could simply ask Carlos and he would figure something out to give a second life to what I would simply throw away. Of course, they have also implemented a smart recycling system on their farm.
- Third, vegetarianism. Our hosts never eat meat. When it comes to animal products, from time to time they eat some eggs from their own hens (by the way, the birds were rescued from a very unpleasant farm where they had experienced some cruel treatment). This is why our hosts considered eggs (and so did we) as some kind of a luxury. Their diet is mainly plant-based, yet delicious. We were full of admiration for Ayelen’s creativity in inventing different dishes. The food that she prepared was simple, but very tasty. Stuffed courgettes, aubergines, homemade preserves, basil and quinoa pesto, Argentinian empanadas with different fillings… Our daily menu was definitely far from boring.
Is WWOOFing worthwhile?
In my opinion, absolutely yes! For us, it was one of the most interesting, unique adventures in our lives. We have learnt a lot, met fascinating people and I think that we also broadened our horizons. On top of that, we have visited a beautiful region. Of course, you need to consider the fact that for us it was the only contact with this kind of volunteering. I don’t know how WWOOFing looks like on other farms. Our experience was positive thanks to our hosts who very kind, intelligent, open-minded people, knowledgeable on history, politics and ecology.
- WWOOF’s official website where you can search for volunteering opportunities: http://wwoof.net/
- An article on WWOOF published on BBC website: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-23683298
- Carlos and Ayelen’s Facebook website where they publish pictures of their products: https://www.facebook.com/pachartesano/