Wwoofing has nothing to do with dogs, dogging or doggy. I mention the last two for reasons that will become apparent later. No, WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. If you haven’t heard of it – it’s essentially sustainable farmers who seek help with their land/forest/vegetable patch/pigs/cattle/sometimes children. In return, those who go and help get to stay in a new location anywhere in the world, for little or no expense.
‘’What an amazing concept, it sounds right up my street!’ Well, if you’re savvy about it, it probably is right up your street. The best thing about WWOOFING is your destiny’s in your hands. You do need to know which country you want to be in, so you can’t just sign up and go the next day; that’s just a warning to anyone whose perilously close to running out of money and fancies a WWOOF to dodge their woes. For those sane people who know which country they wanna WWOOF in, congratulations. For a small fee you can become a member of that country’s WWOOF website and then off you go. Well I say off you go, that opens the gateway to a huge list of contact details for farmers who need help, then you have the task of dealing with a huge breadth of options.
I WWOOFED in Italy. For me, WWOOFing was a segueinto a lot of things. Meaning, I’m not much of a tree-hugger but I take a fashionable interest in sustainable living and completely alternative lifestyles. I was hankering to get out of London, sick of wittering away hours of my life on needless journeys to work, so I wanted to throw myself headfirst into something new. I left said job, flew to Rome and ended up right in the heel of Italy on a farm in deepest, sunniest, Salento.
Having spoken to a lot of those who are on the WWOOF trail, some do it once, some make a life out of it for many years. No two experiences will ever be the same. So, while mine consisted of five weeks with an incredible family and a great work/life balance: five hours work each morning, many afternoons spent on breathtaking beaches, jumping off rocks into the Adriatic and learning how to cook, with ingredients they’d grown, like an Italian boss. There is really no telling what you’ll get.
The big DON’T is: don’t expect your time to be your own. While I was lucky in landing a pair of hosts who I got on incredibly well with (they were three years into it, ex-city dwellers. Incredible parents and farmers by day, swingers by night), all of my time, pretty much, was spent near them. For some people, this is just a big oh-no-no. Which I understand. The five weeks WWOOF was a big ask, I felt like I was in an alternate universe. I really did feel like the world consisted of me, the farm, my ‘family’, my bike and the 10 km radius surrounding me. While I know a lot of hosts will be in all kinds of locations, what I’m saying is WWOOFING ain’t a holiday. It’s not a way to pick a place you want to see and go chill there.
The big DO is: do try everything that’s thrown your way. I’ve never felt as good as when I was stood in a forest in the pouring rain with a swarthy Italian man in a JCB shouting at me to ‘pick up those logs and throw them in’ – those logs were each the size, and weight, of a teenage boy (possible exaggeration) – but, I did it. I really didn’t think I could but I had no choice and afterwards I felt like Wonder Woman. Really.
As always with anything travel related. Use your instinct. When you’re in touch with a few farms and are discussing dates and lifestyles, remember that this is just as much for you as it is for them. They are getting free labour and you are getting free board and food. This also means both parties are entitled to be happy and comfortable. Of the WWOOFing community I’ve met, they’re pretty open-minded and straightforward. Make sure that, before you say ‘yes’ to a host, you’ve asked them the right questions. For instance, it’s not embarrassing to care whether you’ll have WIFI or not but; they might not tell you that upfront. ASK. It’s all those little prep things that will make sure you wind up somewhere you like and enjoy. In the end, that’s what everyone wants.
I didn’t know I’d wind up with such an awesome, if outlandish couple, but all three of us got on like a house on fire. And they weren’t afraid to sit every night with me and answer ALL of my questions on their alternative activities, often leaving me open-mouthed and feeling like I’d only just been born – so tame are my sexy experiences compared to theirs. Whatever, we struck up a great, if slightly odd relationship. I knew we would because I had sent him lots of emails beforehand. Seriously, I can’t stress this enough, get to know them as much as you can through your contact before you arrive.
What I got in return for said preparation were beautiful sunsets on tap, a whole new way of life was shown to me and I made lifelong friends.
By the way, Salento, Puglia is Italy’s last laugh. I’d never really heard of it before I arrived and my god – it’s a rough, tough paradise! Only Italians seem to know it exists, for now, which makes it all the more beautiful. If you can get there (fly to Brindisi airport from all over Europe) it’s so worth a car and a week of coastline hopping.
I did feel like I had Stockholm Syndrome when I left (for two days, then I got to Rome and partied like a maniac) so perhaps I should have struck up a healthier balance between leaving the farm and exploring Salento. Like I said be a little assertive when you’re working out what you’ll be doing on your farm.
If you’ve got this far and you’re still interested, here’s the all-important WWOOFing list (by no means extensive):
DO wear a hat or wet your head a lot. I hate this one but if you’re out in the sun all day…neither are sexy but neither is sunstroke
DO be open-minded, say yes to things. I mean this in the working/farming environment…we don’t have to say yes to everything
DO ask questions, not all farmers are hugely outgoing, cabaret-sorts
DO take clothes you don’t care about. I ruined everything
DO take time to consider your country/location
DO your research.
DO ask for rides on the heavy machinery
DON’T expect to wear makeup.
DON’T ever tell a host (especially an Italian one) you can cook
DON’T feel you have to offer yourself to work just because you’re free time is spent on site
DON’T sweat the small stuff, my feet were dirty for five weeks. Get over it
DON’T feel obliged. If both parties are unhappy, nothing’s contractually binding
DON’T bite off more than you can chew. Five weeks for a first time was pretty nuts. I’d probably do two first, if I had my time again
DON’T expect all WWOOF hosts to be swingers
Jenni Midgley is a 20-something writer. She left her 9-5 editorial role in London to reinvigorate her lost sense of adventure and to take more naps by the sea. She currently resides in Bologna, enjoying good food, better wine and writing about what happens whenever she leaves her apartment at jennimidgley.com. She loves Instagram.