Living on the wwoof

AUDREY Petiot, a young Frenchwoman, came to Ireland to volunteer for four weeks on Annie King’s 5.5 acre organic farm outside Bantry in west Cork but she stayed five months.

With rich and productive soil, King’s farm is a great place to be for a wwoofer — the nickname for volunteers who avail of World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. It’s an exchange of bed and board for farm labour.

“I heard about wwoofing from a friend and first tried it in Italy,” says Petiot. “Then I thought Ireland would be great.” Petiot grew up in Dijon but was a summer visitor to her grandparents’ farm in the country. “I sent them parsnip seeds from Ireland. We don’t really grow much parsnips so it will be new for them,” she says.

The experience is also a cultural exchange. Annie King is the administrator of WWOOF Ireland and has 350 organic farmers on her books who take volunteers. The organisation has 2,000 volunteers representing 36 countries registered with WWOOF Ireland.

King has been taking wwoofers for years. “There was a time when I had to get out of my own house because it was so crowded,” she says. “Then someone offered me a caravan for them. Now I have five caravans and it gives us all a bit of space.”

There is something fundamental about working with soil that appeals to people. Wwoofers can be students, retirees, families, people on career break, or Australians on their gap year. “The longest a wwoofer stayed with me was for two years. He had some learning difficulties and was struggling to fit into society. This was a place where he could work at his own pace and that helped him find his way. Now he’s planning on going to university as a mature student. Being here has turned his life around,” she says.

Wwoofing works best when communication is good between host and volunteer. The system is open to abuse on both sides. If you regard your volunteers as cheap labour, they won’t return in a hurry. Likewise, if you treat your host as free bed and board and fail to pull your weight, it will lead to problems. It is all about pulling together.

Dublin-based Declan, 24, has wwoofed on farms around Ireland, because he studied environmental science and developed an interest in farming. He volunteered in Cork, Kerry and Mayo and learnt more skills than he could have imagined. “I’ve done lots of brickwork and woodwork — I’ve made shelves and carved things. The things that need to be done on a farm are very varied,” he says.

“There were places where I felt like free labour and I wouldn’t go back but there were others where I was made part of the family and it was really nice to see the place grow. My advice to anyone thinking about it is not to have any expectations. It could be very strange or it could be the best thing you’ve ever done in your life.”

Mike lost his job in Dublin, went back to the family farm in Kerry and now works it with the assistance of wwoofers. “Farming can be a solitary business and it’s great to have them around,” he says. “Some of them want to do a bit of exploring, so I have found myself up on Carrauntoohil for the first time ever with them.

“Some wwoofers want to learn English so I keep some kids’ schoolbooks where they can fill in the sentences. I also keep a guitar — even though I don’t play myself — because you’ll always get musicians.

“What I like most is that they come to Ireland with a very positive attitude. They see lakes and mountains; they don’t talk about the economy. It is also great to get the work done because trying to do things organically is a lot of effort.”

Mike finds women take to wwoofing more than men because men often calculate that they are labouring for little money. “Women are more holistic,” he says. “They see the bigger picture.”

King says most hosts are concerned about their wwoofers. “It’s a very paternalistic kind of thing,” she says. “Or maybe maternalistic. If you are an organic grower, you want to nurture things.”

She puts her phone number on the website so that anyone who has difficulties can contact her.

“I think I had four complaints last year. Usually it is to do with a communication difficulty,” she says.

Communication is all-important. Christine Brewer has hosted wwoofers for more than ten years in west Cork and recalls one wwoofer who fed rhododendrons to her goats, not realising they were poisonous. “Fortunately none of them died but they were very sick for a few days and he was very upset — as were we,” she says.

Her most notable wwoofers were a New Zealand couple who had been hosts themselves but then decided to take a year out and travel. “It got me thinking I might go myself sometime, particularly when I realised you can wwoof in India.”

King would like to see more Irish people volunteering on Irish farms. “It’s more sustainable for one thing and even if it is only for a weekend, maybe that’s enough. It began as weekend working, so why not?” she says.

King began with the self-sufficient dream of the 1970s, leaving behind a teaching career and working in theatre festival organisation. Now she finds that her administration skills from her early career are being put to good use in running WWOOF Ireland. With the help of a host farmer, Peter Clarke, she got the website up and running. Helped by a staff of five part-timers, she tackles all issues relating to insurance, visas, organisation and communications.

Her dreams of self-sufficiency have been re-prioritised. “I used to believe in independent living but the older I get I am more aware of the benefit of community. It’s a philosophy I’d like to see spreading. Maybe it’s what we learn through wwoofing,” she says.

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