In the communal kitchen at Buttercup Farms Garden in Clayton, Calif., two walls are covered with photos of past guests. Jorie Hanson, the farm’s manager, doesn’t know exactly how many people have passed through since the farm’s opening in 1986, but said that a hundred of those people have been WWOOFers that have come in the two years since the farm got a membership through WWOOF-USA’s website.
WWOOF – Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms organizes the trading of agricultural labor for room and board. It can be just part of a full travel itinerary or the final destination. About a half day of work earns accommodations on a host farm, where travelers and farm enthusiasts can experience agricultural work and the back-to-the-land movement while seeing the world.
WWOOF-USA, whose national office is in San Francisco, lists about two thousand host farms throughout the states and territories. A $40 annual membership fee gives WWOOFers access to these listings, forums, and online profiles. Participants can learn a range of skills, including beekeeping, working with animals, or making wine.
“Whatever somebody wants to get skills in, I think they probably could find that kind of farms and focus on it,” said Executive Director Sarah Potenza. “Or they could just get more of a broad education in organic agriculture.”
Although learning about agrarian life is key to the program, the cultural exchange benefits all participants.
According to Samantha Blatteis, Program Manager, the WWOOFers themselves are typically between 18 and 25, though there are plenty of families, couples and retirees WWOOFing too. “It’s a lot of people in a transition part of their life,” said Blatteis. “So either they’ve just graduated high school or college and are taking a gap year – that is often a time when people start WWOOFING – and in between jobs, or even just as a vacation.”
Both Blatteis and Potenza emphasize the importance of community and cultural exchange in WWOOF.
“Ideally there’s teaching and learning,” Blatteis said. “So that’s the ideal, that in any way they can the host is sharing what they know and why and the WWOOFer is learning those things and taking them on with them, either to another farm or the rest of their lives.”
Potenza, noting that “the cultural exchange part is huge,” said “maybe some hosts are looking for a specific skill, but I think more often they’re looking for somebody with a good spirit that wants to exchange information and culture.”
“As long as they have a good attitude, I think everyone can benefit from it,” Potenza added. “Hosts and WWOOFers.”
Buttercup Farms Garden’s motto of “helping others help themselves” has reached an opera singer, doctors, families, teachers and students – all of whom were WWOOFers, Hanson said. She remembers a little boy who came with his parents and had a habit of imitating birdcalls and burying things in the yard. At the farm, WWOOFers are part of the family; they eat meals, work the farmers’ markets, and explore the Bay Area together.
For many WWOOFers, location can be a bigger draw than the farm itself. David Gehrig, a current WWOOFer at Buttercup, said he’s “always looking for farms near things I want to see.” Gehrig, 19, is on a gap year before going home to Germany for college, and just spent five weeks at a winery bringing in the harvest. He calls the work “exhausting” but lights up when he recounts his experiences.
“When I graduated, I thought ‘when would I ever have the time again?’” Gehrig said.
Fellow WWOOFer Belle Reichert, also on a gap year from Germany, said “it’s nice to see the world before you go back to school again. You aren’t exposed to much culture in school and for instance, I want to study culture so I think it’s important.”
“The most fun thing is just to interact with the people,” Reichert said, echoing the idea that WWOOFers may be learning how to tend animals or bring in a harvest, but what they’re taking away is a better understanding of people.