The organic food movement is well underway with a growing number of consumers prepared to pay extra for chemical-free products. Some, however, are willing to go further and embrace sustainability by directly engaging in organic food growing. An increasingly popular way to do so is through the WWOOF – an international organisation that promotes sustainable agriculture by connecting environmentally enthusiastic travellers with organic farmers who seek a spare pair of working hands to work on the land. Initiated in England in 1971 as an opportunity for capital dwellers to spend a weekend on a rural farm, it has grown into a worldwide network comprising self-managed national organisations and independent hosts in over 100 countries all over the world (the most popular wwoofing destinations include Australia, USA, New Zealand, Canada, France, Italy and United Kingdom (Kotulek, 2011)). Originally named Working Weekends on Organic Farms, the organisation later switched to Willing Workers on Organic Farms due to the rise of demand for longer periods of stay and, finally, in 2000 was renamed Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms in order to get rid of confusing associations with migrant workers. The scheme has become popular among those committed to the idea of sustainable living, travellers looking for low-cost holidays and urban dwellers longing for rural experiences. In return for their manpower (usually 4-6 hours of physical work on a hosting site which can be a garden, an allotment, a vineyard or a smallholding) volunteers receive free accommodation and food, but also cultural experiences, opportunities for experiential learning, and a chance to connect with the land and sources of food.
Thus, wwoofing is claimed to create unique possibilities to combine travelling, sociocultural exchange, education, and promotion of sustainable ways of living. But what does research have to say on the subject? Studies conducted into the field offer some valuable insights into the WWOOF phenomenon. Firstly, academic sources quite consistently conceptualize the practice of wwoofing as a specific form of tourism. It is variously classified as agritourism, rural, farm, volunteer, soft, or slow tourism, all of which can be thought of as a part of the so-called sustainable tourism. Unlike conventional “mass” tourism which largely produces negative environmental impacts (Kotulek, 2011), sustainable tourism “is envisaged as leading to the management of all resources in such a way that economic, social and aesthetic needs can be fulfilled while maintaining cultural integrity, essential ecological processes, biological diversity and life support systemsˮ (Lu and Nepal, 2009, p. 6). Wwoofers themselves are often classified as ‘interactive travellers’ – those “who seek out new, authentic experiences that involve engagement with natural and cultural environments … and they are very interested in interacting with people” (Ministry of Tourism, 2007, p. 20 cited in Mosedale, 2009, p. 25).
Other dimensions of the wwoofing practice addressed by research include the motivations of hosts and volunteers for engaging in the movement. For hosts, volunteer help and encouragement of sustainable farming appear to be the major reasons for hosting wwoofers (Kotůlek, 2010 cited in Kotulek, 2011). Lipman’s (2011 cited in Kotulek, 2011) study from Australia found volunteer help being the most important factor for hosts, while McIntosh and Campbell’s (2001) research in the New Zealand context reports promoting environmentally based values and sharing knowledge of organic practices to be an essential motivation for welcoming volunteers. As far as wwoofers’ incentives are concerned, those vary from learning about organic growing practices and supporting farmers in their struggle for healthy ecosystems, to low-budget travel, to cultural and social experiences (Kotulek, 2011; Mosedale, 2009). Apart from upholding sustainable ways of living, WWOOFing is argued to contribute to ethical life by replacing conventional commodified labour exchange with non-monetarised exchange relationships (Mosedale, 2009). Indeed, McIntosh and Campbell (2001) found the sincerity and non-commercial nature of socio-cultural exchange between hosts and guests to be one of the four key dimensions of the wwoofing experience.
For those longing for hands-on experience in organic farming, this Guardian article reviews the best ten wwoofing destinations in Europe. There are also plenty of wwoofing reviews by both hosts and volunteers on YouTube, and the organisation’s official website provides all essential information for wanna-be wwoofers.
Kotůlek, J. (2011). WWOOF–Sustainable tourism scheme: An interdisciplinary issue. In 3th International Society for the Social Sciences of Sport Conference. In Jirásek, I., Kosiewicz, J., and Roberson, DN (Eds.) (pp. 131-139).
Lu, J., & Nepal, S. K. (2009). Sustainable tourism research: An analysis of papers published in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 17(1), 5–16.
McIntosh, A., & Campbell, T. (2001). Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF): A neglected aspect of farm tourism in New Zealand. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 9(2), 111-127.
Mosedale, J. (2009). Wwoofing in New Zealand as alternative mobility and lifestyle. Pacific News, 32.