For those of you interested in volunteering on a farm–or hosting volunteers on your farm–the latest issue of Small Farms Canada, features a great series of articles–from the pros and cons of volunteering, to the legalities and liabilities of volunteer farm labour, and even how to optimize an on-farm volunteer experience.
The first in the series, To WWOOF or not to WWOOF, was of particular interest to me as it shared the experience of four farms that have participated in the World-Wide-Opportunities-on-Organic-Farms organization, a network that many friends of mine have used while traveling abroad. The article provided insight into what volunteer farm labour is all about, raising issues of communication, accommodation and expectations.
I concluded that while WWOOFing exists to provide those interested in agriculture with an opportunity to learn, education is not the main focus of the exchange. It is certainly an interesting and low-cost means to travel, but many volunteers are often not 100% engaged with the labour, as they can be more distracted by their new surroundings and their next destination. One farmer found that WWOOFers are generally looking for a “relaxed reconnection with their food”, but that doesn’t always translate into a greater commitment than 4-hours per day (WWOOFers are expected to work 4-6 hours/day in exchange for room and board).
For farms that are looking for greater commitment, free room and board are just the beginning of establishing an attractive volunteer farm position. These days, diligent and efficient volunteer workers may be difficult to come by–especially considering the frequently early rises and long work hours that do not put dollars in their pockets! So there needs to be another incentive:
Education. Free education! With university tuition on the rise and limited job offerings, finding anything for free is still such a pleasure, right?
For some, the idea of exchanging volunteer work for a rich education seems a utopic situation. The opportunity to work outdoors, learn about ecological connections, and to develop a deeper understanding of the earth and how local food systems can really work are elements a typical educational program rarely provides. It is a fine balance though and long days (and patience) will be required from both the farmer and volunteer.
Volunteering (WWOOFING or otherwise) is not for everyone. And unfortunately some don’t realize this until they have signed up for a lonnnggg season, resulting in unhappy experiences for both the volunteer and the farmer.
So the question is: What kind of experience are you looking for?
According to the WWOOF Canada website:
WWOOF is an exchange – In return for volunteer help, WWOOF hosts offer food, accommodation and opportunities to learn about organic lifestyles.
Comparatively, the mandate for SOIL (a national sustainable farm apprenticeship program) states:
SOIL links Canadian farmers willing to take on and train apprentices with folks wanting to work and learn on an organic farm using sustainable practices. We aim to create apprenticeships which transfer lasting knowledge to both the farmer and the apprentice.
With those two statements in mind, your decision to offer–or participate in–an on-farm volunteer program may become clearer.
If you’re travelling and looking for an interesting place to stay and learn, and willing to do some physical work then WWOOFING might be for you. Similarly, if your farm is busy and you’re unable to devote enough time to educate on the agricultural reasons for the tasks being done, but you’d appreciate some volunteer help, you may be an ideal WWOOF host. It’s also an opportunity to meet people from other cultures and backgrounds, without leaving home.
For those seeking more formalized agricultural education (such as ecology, marketing, business management and more), organizations like SOIL exist to provide a farm-based, experiential learning strategy. These apprenticeship-type programs have proven to help volunteers develop and succeed in their subsequent agricultural endeavours (or else determine that farming is not for them!).
Apprentice-based programs offer farmers an opportunity to be empowered in a new role as a teacher, providing knowledge for future farmers. Longer-term programs may also provide you new inspiration, ideas and the possibility to learn new technology and skills from apprentices. Some apprentices may even stay on as permanent staff.
Whatever you decide, make sure that you (as volunteer or farmer) have a clear understanding of expectations. If you are signing up for a longer-term commitment, put something in writing (an email will do). Volunteering on a farm requires a good working relationship–and just like a strong marriage–communication is the key to success.