WWOOF stands for Willing Workers On Organic Farms. It is an international organization with branches all over the world set up to bring together farmers and people who wand to live and work on an organic farm.
I had heard of organic farm work through a friend of mine who had worked on an organic farm in Australia and I decided to try it out for myself on a recent trip to Bulgaria.
The idea is that you work for food and board (usually half a day, it depends on the arrangements you make with your host) and live with the family. There are different ways of getting in touch with farmers depending on the country you want to work in.
Many national organizations publish a book with all contacts for organic farm work that you receive when you become a member for a small fee.
I had already made arrangements with my organic farm hosts prior to coming to Bulgaria. It proved to be quite easy and quick to get in touch with them and agree on a date.
Linda and James were a British couple who decided to get out of the rat race and leave the fast-paced, consumerist society of England behind them, instead opting to start a small organic farm in a rural village in the heart of Bulgaria.
I was a bit nervous coming from the train at the run-down train station of Gorno Bote, seemingly abandoned by all but a limping dog and a cloud of mosquitoes.
Anxiety filled my body and brain. I didn’t know these people at all and suddenly I was going to live and do organic farm work with them 24/7. Was this going to work? It didn’t sound like a good idea, but my fears quickly withdrew when we met. Linda and James were very warm and welcoming from the start.
Their house was a beautiful old lime and earth building on the outskirts of town. We had a traditional Bulgarian meal that evening before we went to bed. There was a separate bedroom next to theirs that I had completely to myself. The next day we set to work.
An organic farm, even if it is a small one, always provides work. The beans and the tomatoes needed sticks to keep them upright, a new plant bed for sowing herbs had to be dug, the blueberries needed to be picked, and there was always weeding to be done… Even though we agreed I could take time off whenever I wanted, I ended up doing a lot more work than planned.
Not because they forced me to or because I felt morally obliged, but because I enjoyed it so much. Work and life intertwined here, it never felt to me like I was doing a job. We were always working together, so it was a good thing we got along so well. I realized it could have been completely different, but this was perfect.
The weekends I spent going to the nearby city or exploring the surrounding valleys. I was learning a great deal about living a sustainable life and organic farming. A couple of times I even went with some of our neighbors to help them out in the fields, turning the hay or milking their goats. I learned some Bulgarian and I made friends in the village.
I got to see what it was really like living in the countryside. I was not a tourist only there to admire the landscape and to witness the folklore. I was an actual part of the community.
People knew my name and asked me to come to the bar in the evening, or come to church with them on Sundays. I found my way into the local gossip circuit, which proved surprisingly exciting. More than anything else, it was this feeling of healthy, honest, simple living that made me stay in Gorno Bote two weeks longer than I had planned.
I found organic farm work to be a great alternative to ‘normal’ backpacking because it gives you the chance to really experience living in a rural setting, which is more difficult as an itinerant traveler. For a city person like myself it was ideal: I could live a green and healthy lifestyle and I could actually do something useful that didn’t involve a keyboard.
I sowed peppers, watched them sprout and eventually ate them; it felt like such an achievement to me. At the same time, I have to recognize that I was very lucky meeting two people who I got along with so well. It is a drawback that you are never sure if you will like your host. But it’s worth the risk.
For more information on supplementing your trip with organic farm work, visit http://www.wwoof.org
You may also find work on sites such as Helpx.net.