How can "woofers" stay on the farm?

 

This summer, my eyes were opened to a new movement.  My teachers were a bunch of young adults who worked for free in exchange for learning and a place to stay -- interns, but interns of an unusual kind.

My partner and I co-direct a sustainability education program in a small town in western Colorado, and we had to finish a straw-bale building and put together a composting toilet, among other jobs. We knew that many of the local organic farmers brought in interns to help them. Why couldn't we try the same?

The local farmers advertised at Wwoof.org, which stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. This is the site where thousands of organic farms from around the world look for "woofers," a word that's becoming universal for farm interns. Our needs involved education and we didn't have a farm, but we thought why not? So we placed an ad.  We had low expectations.

Two days later, we had our first application. And the phone kept ringing. By the end of the summer, we had received over 25 inquiries and almost as many applications. They came from the United States and France, from college students, graduate students and from people in the workforce. Most applicants were in their 20s, and most seemed competent and came with strong references.

We accepted five early on, and they all proved to be good people and good workers.  We got our buildings built, ate peaches and went swimming after work, shared potlucks with the neighbors and generally had a good time. We paid them nothing, and they seemed grateful for the experience.

Our interns socialized with other interns from organic farms, and over dinners of homegrown beets, homemade pesto and recently gathered eggs, we had conversations that I found fascinating. In a nutshell, here's what I learned: Interning through wwoof.org is a big, big thing. Our small rural area hosted at least 30 woofers this summer.  If all the farms advertising on the website got interns at this same rate, we're talking tens of thousands of young people in the world, working for free in order to learn about building a more sustainable society.

What motivates these young people?  Many of the interns I met already had college degrees. But they considered their college experience almost irrelevant and definitely over-priced, though they enjoyed it. What these young people said they really wanted to learn was how to live a life that lined up with their values and helped create some sanity in the world -- while also paying the bills. They did not want to eat unhealthy food imported from around the world or waste hours every day commuting to some cubicle in an office. They did not want their children to grow up surrounded by videogames.

But the alternative? Most were still searching for one. Many woofers said they loved working on organic farms and would like nothing better than to do more of it. But they had little idea how to earn enough money to pay back their student loans, much less to buy land, build a house and become an organic farmer.

So they hoped for a break -- a generous farmer who would ask them to become a partner, or the discovery of a super-cheap piece of land and friends to buy it with, or maybe a way to convince their parents back in Iowa to transform their yard into a garden and their shed into a chicken coop.

Meanwhile, other interns acknowledged some freshly earned cynicism about the sustainability of organic farming.  They'd met farmers whose generous inheritance purchased their farms and who broke even now only after driving long miles to ski-resort towns to sell vegetables at high prices to the wealthy. They'd gotten to know farmers who would never make it without the free labor of interns and who, even with that labor, exuded stress and desperation.

The bottom line?  Organic farming seems to be high in appeal but low in its ability to offer a sustainable life to young people. Yet when I'd ask about other vocations, such as becoming a teacher, they turned the subject right back to farming.

"Some farmers do it right," they'd say. "Hopefully, I can be like one of them." The majority of food is still mass-produced and sold at Safeway, they'd complain. Until that changes, they were eager to learn more about Biodynamics and Permaculture.

It's odd, but I've yet to meet a woofer with a business degree; I've even noticed that some interns cringe at the word "business." Yet business skills can often make the difference between organic farms that survive and those that go under.  It makes me wonder about the consequences of separating educational disciplines the way we do: ushering those students who care about things sustainable to environmental studies classes, while their friends who care about things financial or practical end up in different departments across campus.

Regardless, all of these woofers shared a desire to heal what, in their experience, is a broken world.  It's a beautiful movement, one full of hopeful, hard-working interns who often admit to being utterly stuck.

Dev Carey is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He co-directs the High Desert Center for Sustainable Studies in Paonia, Colorado.

Max Hoagland
Max Hoagland
Oct 24, 2011 02:09 PM
this is a pretty depressing article. A solution that comes to mind is still having a "cubicle" job, but working part time, living in an urban area, and practicing as much farming as possible on the small urban areas of land. We can all make our homes more of production centers, solar panels, chickens, and gardens. The interns are great, but maybe they'll realize that there is no ideal life on a farm with chickens and goats. The future is a compilation of the past; urban and argicultural life rolled into one - the argi-urban.
Mary Alvarez
Mary Alvarez
Oct 26, 2011 03:55 AM
Hi Dev, Thank you very much for this article. I am student at University Oslo. I am looking for WWOOF volunteers to interview for my thesis on expectations. May I ask for your assistance on this matter? You may contact me at wwoofstudy@gmail.com Thank you, Mary Alvarez
Magda Sokolowski
Magda Sokolowski
Nov 12, 2011 10:20 AM
Dev,
I want to believe that what you write about in your article points to a growing trend: more and more younger people are seeking alternative ways of living productive, successful and enriching lives in newly defined ways.

Last May, my husband and I spent 6 months on 5 newly acquired acres in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristos building a tiny little eco-hut in the same spirit of the young folks you mention here. And while so often money is the barrier to allowing oneself the opportunity to lead a sustainable life (cost of land, building materials, tools etc), it truly needn't be, as we discovered. Ingenuity can go a long way. We've recently begun thinking about what it would look like if we welcomed a community of similarly-minded and driven people (like those you write about) to our plot of land in an effort to grow food, practice green building and share in progressive practices of sustainability. It's an idea we are beginning to embrace more and more, and your article inspires us further. Thanks.
PS - Square Foot Shortage (the website and FB page) chronicle our building project and vision.
Andre Lehmann
Andre Lehmann Subscriber
Oct 16, 2013 02:09 AM
It's hard, but what I've read here boils down to this: our current societal organisation makes it very hard, if not impossible to lower our dependency on the dollar god.
Why should an organic farmer have to rely on 'free' interns, sell food at high prices and still worry about coming expenses? This is crazy, a real sign that something is wrong.
OK, bring in a business youngster. Which value will (s)he bring in? efficiency? advertising, marketing? organisational changes? Perhaps, and this could be a great team/group effort with complementary skills.
I would like to get money on a regular basis, so that I don't need to worry about it, and hence focus on what I can do for the community with my skills. Now however, I waste so much energy and thoughts on getting the money I need to pay my bills. Am I more efficient because I have all the time $$$ in sight? The opposite experience would tell.
My observation at this point is that working sustainably implies working together as a group, each with our own skills, towards the needs of each AND the community created. But the current model makes it very hard, because however large the community, it still needs to interact with its 'outside world' based on the 'outside world' rules.
Let me finaly say I'm not pesimistic, but just trying to find a way to live my values without being an ermit of some kind. Further comments welcome!