Milk a Cow, Travel the World by Samantha Jakuboski, February 17 2016, 4 Comments

Ask anybody to name his or her top bucket list goals, and I can assure you that “to travel the world” is one of them. After all, everybody wants to be a part of New York, New York, spend an evening in Roma, and spin through the Austrian hills alive with the sound of music. (Okay, maybe the last one is just on my bucket list.) However, for some, such trips may not be financially feasible. Well, I am here to tell you that if you don’t mind getting a little dirt under your nails, traveling the world can become a reality thanks to the growing WWOOF Movement.

Despite its name, the WWOOF Movement has nothing to do with barking dogs—although it does have a little something to do with baaing sheep and mooing cows. WWOOF, or World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, is a network of international groups that connects organic farms and smallholdings to volunteers. In exchange for working on the farm four to six hours a day, a volunteer, called a "WWOOFer”, is provided with free housing and food. Such volunteer tourism, or ‘voluntourism’, can save a person hundreds to thousands of dollars in lodging and food costs depending on the trip length, which can range from a few days to a few months.

In addition to free accommodations, WWOOF provides volunteers with another advantage that would be unobtainable through 'regular' tourism: since all the participating farms are committed to sustainable and organic farming practices, WWOOFers are educated about organic growing methods and greener lifestyles. WWOOFers, therefore, become both culture and environment savvy.

Brief History

It all began in 1971, when Sue Coppard, a secretary for the Royal College of Art in London, longed to get out of the city and find an affordable way to visit the countryside. She came up with an agreement with Emerson College: she and three other volunteers would work on Emerson’s organic farm, and in return for their work, they would receive shelter and food.

The weekend was a success, for Coppard and her companions proved to be very valuable farmhands, and it sparked Coppard’s enthusiasm for organic farming. Shortly after this trial weekend, Working Weekends on Organic Farms United Kingdom, or WWOOF UK, was formed to match volunteers with organic farms.

Over time, farms grew so happy with the help they received, that they began to offer longer stays on their farms for volunteers. Without the time limitation, the organization's name was changed to Willing Workers on Organic Farms. However, the new name implied that WWOOF was a migrant worker agency. Therefore, the name was changed one last time to its current title “World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms”.

Today, there are:

  • Close to 60 national WWOOF organizations around the world, which together form the Federation of WWWOOF Organizations (FoWo)
  • 61 WWOOF Independents: countries that do not yet have a national WWOOF, but participate in the exchange program
  • Around 7,000 organic host farms from over 100 countries and across six continents
  • Over 50,0000 WWOOF members

    What’s it like to work on a farm?

    Depending on the type of farm, chores can range from the conventional cow milking and seed planting, to the more unexpected tasks (at least for a city gal like me!), such as goat herding, bee keeping, cheese making and straw bale house building.

    To provide a more thorough answer to this question, I reached out to WWOOFer Alyssa Trombitas (above), a 2014 graduate of Muhlenberg College who is currently WWOOFing at Serenity Acres Farm, a goat milk dairy in Pinetta, Florida.

    “On a normal day, we all meet in the dairy at 7 a.m. Half of us (there's about eight of us here right now) do the outside chores (feeding, etc.), while the other half do the milking and take care of all our dairy goats," said Trombitas. "Then we take a breakfast break, and we all go out and scoop out the dirty hay, except for two people, who stay in the kitchen to make cheese/yogurt/package milk."

    Following that are the noon chores—more feeding, giving out needed vitamins or medicine, taking care of other animals on the farm (such as cows, chickens, horses and ducks), and any special projects—for example, fixing a fence, making soap, etc.

    In the afternoon, the group has a similar round of chores, eats dinner, does one final check to ensure all the goats are properly settled down for the night, and is then finished for the day.

    After completing a day’s chores, the WWOOFer is free to do as he or she wishes, be it exploring the new country or simply relaxing and enjoying nature.

    "There's also a bunch of us that are really into yoga so we do that almost every afternoon, and in the evening we'll watch movies or play a board game or just make tea and sit in the living room reading because we're exhausted (haha),” said Trombitas.

    Wow! Milking goats sounds like fun! How can I get involved?

    If you are interested in becoming a WWOOFer, browse the list of national WWOOF groups to see which country interests you the most. If the country you have in mind does not have a national WWOOF group, you can check out the list of independent hosts. From Uganda to Peru, Nepal to Thailand, Austria to Greece, you are sure to find a country on your bucket list!

    Once you find the country you like, subscribe to their group, pay a membership fee (which is no more than $72), look through the list of host farms available in the country, and contact the farm that interests you. All contracts are negotiated directly between you and the host farm. Easy peasy. Time to go pack that suitcase!

    WWOOF and Millennials

    Millennials, especially those between the ages of 20 and 25, make up around 70% of those involved in voluntourism. Such popularity among students and recent college graduates may have to do with the fact that some are still trying to figure out what they want to do in life, have yet to land a job after graduation, and want to do something significant in the meantime. Or maybe they want to meet new people and explore the world before settling down into what seems like the mundane patterns of adulthood. Trombitas offered another likely explanation.

    “I think that a lot of millennials are interested in living ‘smaller’, or aren't interested in diving directly into the corporate ladder. WWOOFing is a pretty sweet deal—your living expenses are paid for, and for some of them you're living in a rather isolated area, so you have very few expenses. The appeal of living in a community where you live and work with the same people also seems to be something that millennials dig."

    WWOOF, in particular, also has the added allure of connecting volunteers with organic farms. Since millennials are more likely to eat organic food than are older Americans, it can be very fulfilling for them to see where their food is coming from and to gain hands-on experience in organic practices.

    And then, of course, we can't forget the amazing opportunity to travel around the world, which, as I mentioned before, is on everybody's bucket list.

    Picture Credits in Order of Appearance: WWOOF and Alyssa Trombitas

    Author Bio: Samantha is a sophomore at Barnard College, Columbia University. She hopes that through blogging, she can help change the way people view their actions in relation to the earth, encouraging them to lead more eco-friendly lives. Samantha also maintains the environmental science blog, Green Science, on Nature Journal’s Scitable blogging network.