“Gap years and other experiences can change us without realizing it, or we notice the effects years down the road. I am grateful for my gap year experience WWOOFing as it helped me develop a strong work ethic and gave me a passion for farming,” said Abby Colby, a former Oyster River High School student who took advantage of WWOOF, or World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, prior to college.
According to the Federation of WWOOF Organizations, there are WWOOF chapters at more than two-thousand organic farms all over the nation and in more than fifty-five countries. The program aims to send its participants around the world to explore the ins and outs of organic farming. Colby, a former ORHS student, and Milo Drum, a former student at Lakeridge High School in Oregon, both decided to explore what WWOOFing had to offer, leaving their home states to farm in Europe and South America, respectively. Both individuals WWOOFed for an extended period of time before attending college, gaining experiences and learning lessons they consider vital.
“Farming catalyzed my interest in sustainable agriculture and gave me the independence I was craving at that time. It let me travel and interact with people in a unique way that someone might not traditionally get as a tourist.” Colby continued, saying, “working on farms also gave me a work ethic that I really appreciate having now as I enter the workforce.”
This educational program began in 1971, giving young adults a chance to travel around the world, spend time on organic farms, better understand sustainable agriculture, and experience new cultures.
According to the Federation of WWOOF Organizations, WWOOF intends to, “join organic farmers and growers with volunteers in an effort to increase cultural understanding.” Feeling that this mission statement could apply to them, both Colby and Drum decided to take advantage of the experience.
With the freedom of being able to choose the country in which they would like to farm and the amount of time they would like to spend at each farm, Colby spent her six months farming in Ireland, France, Portugal, Germany, and Spain, while Drum WWOOFed for four months in Peru.
During Colby’s experience, she grew vegetables, landscaped, and performed a lot of other small projects around each farm. Colby noted that, “WWOOFing offers a variety of farms that you can usually find something that fits your interests. I was able to stay on a vineyard, a goat farm, and a chicken farm.”
Similar to Colby, Drum grew vegetables, but he also focused on fruit trees and herbs during his trip. Along with this, Drum mentioned that he was responsible for “feeding chickens, gathering eggs and watering the nursery and beds, building terraces, preparing land for cultivation, and clearing these gnarly plants called penka which were basically giant agave plants that were super sharp and mildly poisonous.”
Even though both Colby and Drum participated in different activities in separate parts of the world, they were expected to fulfill their hosts’ expectations on the farm. “I had some hosts who pushed me really hard in ways I struggled with at the time. Other hosts were more relaxed, and I was treated like visiting family more than a volunteer,” said Colby.
All of the duties were completed during Colby’s and Drum’s four to eight hour work days.
Despite the fact that some of the days felt long, both Colby and Drum expressed that they were able to enjoy other activities as a WWOOFer as well. Drum said that he, “backpacked around the area, hung out at the hot springs in the area, hiked into town, and ate with the locals or just relaxed at the farm.”
Along with being entertained by other pastimes, Colby and Drum were able to grow close with their hosts in their free time. Colby said that she became good friends with one of her hosts, and even traveled through France and WWOOFed at another farm with her. Drum also highlighted that his “host family was incredibly friendly and taught [him] a lot.”
In addition to the varying relationships that the WWOOFers had with their hosts, the accommodations the hosts provided in exchange for the volunteer work differed as well. Colby mentioned that, “some hosts provided me with a private room, food, a car to use, and plenty of leisure time. Others worked us really hard and we stayed in tents.”
Drum, like Colby, lived in a tent for the majority of his stay, however he said that, “we were supplied with a basic cooking and eating area. We basically got a propane stove, some counter space, and a table.”
Looking beyond the challenges, Colby added that, “the best part about WWOOF is that there is such a variety of hosts. You can choose what sort of experience you want.”
Because of the wide range of opportunities that WWOOF has to offer, both Colby and Drum mentioned that they are grateful for their WWOOFing experience. Colby highlighted that, “the most important thing I learned was to be able to look to myself for reassurance, and to be able to tell myself — and believe in myself — that I am capable and I am good enough.”
Because the experiences Colby and Drum had, WWOOFing is something they highly recommend to others. “The best advice I can give [to someone who interested in WWOOFing] is to do plenty of research on your hosts and communicate with them to find out exactly what is to be expected of you and the commodities you are to be given,” said Drum.
Along with doing some extra research, Colby emphasized, “to do everything with an open mind, and expect a routine very different from your own. Farming is hard work, but it’s also incredibly rewarding and I hope anyone who has the opportunity to work on a farm can and will appreciate that.”
“One of my intense days while WWOOFing happened in November on a Portuguese farm. I was there in their rain season, and it had been a consistent 50 degrees and rainy for the past two weeks. I was staying in a leaky, run down caravan and the only “indoor” space we had was a built up lean-to that had no insulation or heating. The best place to go warm up was a bar that was a 40 minute walk from the farm. I was cold and all my gear was permanently soggy. My boots were so soaked that it made more sense to pick tomatoes in bare feet than to wear my cold, wet boots. I remember being homesick and tired and tired of being soaked and uncomfortable.” – Abby Colby
“One day, I was in town looking for a pair of sandals when I came across a dude who happened to be one of the only English speakers in town. We talked for a while and he invited me, as well as my traveling buddies, to a yearly celebration that was the following week. We showed up around 6 or 7 and the whole town was gathered in the square playing music and lighting off fireworks. Then, we paraded down the streets while a band followed playing music. We made our way to the top of this hill and then some women shouldered this giant religious statue. We started hiking back down into town. For a while, my traveling buddy and I were at the front of this massive parade of locals all dancing and just being incredibly happy. Looking around, it was kind of a surreal moment; I’m in the middle of the mountains in Peru, leading a parade of people throughout the town. It was just an amazing night of dancing, fireworks, eating, while trying to communicate with our weak Spanish skills.” – Milo Drum
Written by Abby Schmitt
Photos by Milo Drum