Want to get off to a flying start on your maiden WWOOFing gig? Read on...
Photo by Amir Shamsuddin
So you've heard me yammering on about WWOOFing (volunteering on organic farms). Maybe you even read that Straits Times article I mentioned. And maybe you've even checked out WWOOF's website. Your curiosity is piqued. You're pumped. You're ready to pitch in, literally.
What's the best way to get started?
Here are my top 10 tips for getting your first WWOOF gig:
- Decide what you want from your WWOOF stint. This will help you filter through a WWOOF country's database faster. Sample questions to ask yourself:
- Are you especially interested in working with vegetables, fruit, grains or animals?
- Do you want to learn how to make products for sale from the farm produce you work with? E.g., jams from fruit, noodles from wheat, sausages from sheep or pigs etc.
- Are you interested only in farming, or would you rather be at a place that had related activities / businesses? E.g., a rural inn, spiritual centre, market stand, restaurant etc
- Would you rather be on a farm where you're likely to be the only volunteer, have 1-3 more volunteers with you, or be part of a large rotating group of volunteers?
- Do you have allergies and/or dietary restrictions? Do animals make you sneeze? Could you stand to potentially go vegan or vegetarian for a few weeks? Or give up your vegetarianism for a few weeks?
- Can you picture yourself living in a tent for a few weeks, or do you need to sleep under a roof?
- Identify what you can bring to the table. Create a reference list for yourself. List any planting or harvesting or building experience you may have. Don't despair if you're a city slicker and have tofu-soft hands. Farmers need all sorts of non-farm help as well. So if you have mad skillz in IT, business planning, marketing, contract drafting and reviewing, photography and copywriting (the list goes on) make sure you have that all in front of you as well.
Case in point: In my last job I spent a lot of time writing bullet-point documents (kinda like this one but more about esoteric business strategy) for clients. When WWOOFing in Japan this past April, I used this skill to assemble a 30-page farm instruction manual for future WWOOFers from notes written on a pile of scrap paper. When our host saw the final document, she nearly cried with joy (none of my clients in my previous life ever reacted like that, that's fer shure!). I got an email recently saying that my manual is still being well used by subsequent volunteers.
- Pick a season. If you were born and bred in the city like me, it takes a while to adjust your brain to think about the year from the point of view of a farm. You're more likely to get a WWOOF stint you want in spring or autumn, because that's when farms are busiest and most need help. Spring means a lot of planting and animal birthing; autumn means a lot of harvesting. Summer can be a busy time as well if your WWOOF host grows fruit and berries, and especially if they dry or can those fruits. Summer is also a time for building projects given the relatively dry weather. Winters are usually quiet times on farms, though I've heard that on pig farms winter is the season for artisans to get together and make salami and prosciutto. (I need to get me one of those gigs)
If you have the luxury of picking the timing of your WWOOF expedition, think about what you'd most like to do or learn about, and position your WWOOF request for that season.
- Decide how long you can / want to WWOOF for. WWOOF hosts usually mention in their listing the minimum and maximum duration they'll offer for any 1 volunteer. I personally recommend committing yourself to a 2 week stint for your first time around. One week is probably too short to really get into the rhythm of things. By the time your host trains you up it's time to go and they have to retrain someone else all over again. I personally don't think you want to commit yourself to a much longer period than 2 weeks from the get go, just in case you find out very quickly that you simply hate it.
- Pick a location. Personally, I think it makes more economic sense to WWOOF somewhere where labour is expensive i.e., a developed country rather than a developing country. Babs and I felt a bit silly working the land in Kenya, when there were a few locals hanging about the demonstration garden every day not doing much. Especially when the average wage of a Kenyan farm labourer is just over US$1 a day. That said, WWOOFing in a developing country and spending time with the locals is a fantastic way to really get under the skin of a place, for better or worse, far away from the glossed and penned up holiday resorts meant only for foreigners.
- Create and organise your target list. Join your WWOOF country organisation of choice, dig into their database and create your long list of target farms. Check if the country organisation has a mailing list (e.g., Kenya) , or host review platform (e.g., Japan) for you to check if your target hosts come with recommendations by or warnings from previous WWOOFers. Use these reviews to help shorten your list.
- Customise your email to each WWOOF host. WWOOF hosts are rightfully picky about who they take into their home, and popular farms get plenty of applications. A well written letter will help the host notice you above the other applicants. Your letter should contain the following components, preferably in the following order:
- You are inquiring about the possibility for the farm to host x volunteers for x days, from x date to y date.
- A short paragraph on who you are (e.g., backpacker / young couple on honeymoon etc), and why you are interested in WWOOFing at all.
- A short paragraph on why you are interested in that host's farm in particular, and what projects / tasks you are particularly keen on getting involved with.
- What immediately relevant skills you can contribute, if you can match it to their published list of tasks and projects
- List any farming, gardening or building experience if any, even if they weren't WWOOFing experiences. After your first WWOOF gig, be sure to list your previous WWOOFing experiences.
- What additional skills you offer (couch this with "if it turns out to be helpful". Stress that you are happy to help out with whatever is needed on the farm.)
- Send out your emails well in advance. On average we sent out emails about 2 months before arriving in the country. The more lead time you set up for yourself, the better the odds are for your top target host having availability for you. WWOOF organisations say you should contact WWOOF hosts one at a time, and write to the next one only after you hear back from the previous one. I confess I don't follow this rule, because many hosts don't actually reply at all, for whatever reason. Instead, I rank my list by my level of interest in them. On Day 1 I'll send off emails to the top 3 or 4, then after 3 days (if I don't hear anything) I'll email the next 3 or 4, and so on. In exchange, I try my best to reply on the same day if I hear back from anyone. And once I commit to one host, I'll send a quick note to subsequent hosts that reply saying thank you, but I've already secured and committed to another WWOOF opportunity. This way they're not left hanging.
- Procure appropriate insurance. You just scored your first WWOOF gig. Huzzah! Get yourself some travel insurance, and check that your travel insurance covers
- The country you'll be WWOOFing in
- Volunteer work
- The tasks you will definitely be undertaking. E.g., there are usually separate insurance policy clauses regarding working with animals and heavy farm machinery, so if you know you will be undertaking this kind of work, make sure that you are covered for it. You may think you can't afford to, but you really don't want to find out the hard way that you actually couldnt afford not to.
- Pack sensibly. Farming is sweaty, muddy work. Pack
- Old t-shirts and trousers
- Waterproof hiking boots and comfortable socks
- A hat or cap to keep off the sun
- Moquito spray
- If you want, a pair of gardening gloves (it's worth checking with your host if you need to)
- If you want to be really nice, a small gift from home for your host
All the best, enjoy, and tell us all about it when you get back!
Did you find this article helpful? What other crucial tips for first time WWOOFers would you add?