It snowed for what seems like eternity, your day job is going nowhere, and you’re so ready to grab a one-way ticket outta here. I’ve been there! I don’t recommend my exact plan (read: don’t quit until Starbucks calls you for an interview; it could be a while), I do suggest WWOOFing as an atypical getaway. Forget hostel fees and the thought of surviving on a pastry and coffee till dinner: World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms is an international network of farmers who host volunteers and share sustainable living tips in return for help with chores. For the price of a plane ticket and some manual labor, you could be herding goats overseas and eating leafy greens until your heart’s content. Once you’ve settled into your tepee on a farm in the south of Portugal, 20 euros could last for weeks: I mostly spent cash on just beer and ice cream.
Last July, I resigned from my full-time writing gig; sublet my apartment and set off for the Alentejo region of Portugal where I stayed with a German family who decided several years ago to trade in the city streets of Berlin and give farming a try. Farm owners Nils and Esta never looked back. They view WWOOFing as a way to connect with people around the globe since it’s nearly impossible to up and leave a farm with animals and veggies that demand full-time TLC.
My take on WWOOFing is that it’s an experience like no other. For better or worse, it will expose you to a lifestyle that is radically different from your everyday routine in Brooklyn, guaranteed.
WHAT TO EXPECT
When you first arrive on the farm, wherever you chose to visit, it feels like day one at overnight camp. You meet the other volunteers and no one quite knows what to expect. The only sure thing is that you’re all stuck miles away from civilization together. My first day, I had to chase a pig out of the camper I was assigned to sleep in. As I shooed my new pot-bellied friend away I couldn’t help questioning whether I was cut out for this. By the end of my two-week stay, I hardly wanted to leave.
I found it refreshing to let go of some things that I’d come to rely on, like electricity. The farm was powered by solar energy, so at night we lit candles and spent hours lingering around the dinner table. As long as the wine held out, so did the stories. I also found it remarkable that my host family, who often cooked for 10 or 12 people, sufficed with a mini fridge in their outdoor kitchen. Yogurt and milk was simply not refrigerated, only the essentials (eh hem): cheese and beer. When you cook what you grow and hungry volunteers clean their plates at every meal, there’s not much to keep cold.
Most importantly, WWOOFing is what you make of it. Itching to make your own wine? Limit your search to vineyards. Ready to give horseback riding a try? You know what to do.
Here are five tips that will help you get started.
Step 1: Visit the WWOOF website: It publishes lists of organic farms that welcome volunteer help. Most sites are country specific and require a small fee in exchange for a list of contact information for local farms. Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Lithuania are some organizations that do not require a membership fee. Typically, annual fees range from 5 to 15 euros ($14-$20 American).
Step 2: Plan ahead: Arranging a WWOOF stay takes some time. Start reaching out to host families a few weeks, or a month, in advance of your travel date. Also, think about how long you’d like to stay. A minimum commitment of two weeks is standard. When packing, bring a comfy pair of jeans, some hardy shoes (ladies, this is not a trip for the high heels), and ditch the computer. Chances are your time off will be spent swimming in the local watering hole, concocting recipes for chocolate-coffee pancakes and reading on a hammock.
Step 3: Seal the deal: Like finding a roommate on Craigslist, connecting with the perfect host family can be tricky. Narrow your search. For example, if a family has kids, don’t be surprised if you’re asked to baby-sit now and then. I would recommend breaking up your farm stays rather than farm-hopping from one to another. After two weeks of weeding, painting and collecting rocks for a shower drain, I was excited for a few days of city-life in Lisbon. Remember, a WWOOF stay is work. You will be physically tired from your chores and may want some R&R between farm visits.
Step 4: Get all the info: Key questions to ask your host family include: How can I get to the farm using public transportation? What languages do you speak? Where will I be sleeping? What supplies/clothing will I need? (I was told to bring a “torch,” also known as a flashlight.) How many volunteers do you host at once? What type of chores will I be expected to do? Will there be time to explore the local town/ areas outside the farm? When in doubt, ask.
Step 5: Go with an open mind. And shhhh … don’t discuss too loudly. Let’s keep the MTV cameras away. WWOOFing attracts people of very different backgrounds, but of a similar mindset. I volunteered with Danny, a guitar-toting post-college traveler from Colorado; Linde, a “uni” student from England who grew up in a farming village; and Melanie and Christian, a 20-something German couple. Melanie, an elementary school teacher, had never even camped before.
At the expense of sounding cheesy the people I met were the highlight, hands down. Happy WWOOFing!