Network gives urban volunteers a taste of organic-farm living

organic farm products on a table in front of a farmhouse
Großansicht des Bildes mit der Bildunterschrift: After a hard day of work, volunteers can relax and eat

A group that goes by the acronym WWOOF connects urban volunteers interested in natural food production with organic farms in need of help. Business is booming.

Ezster Matolcsi and her huband Fabrizio Romagnoli, a couple with two small children, run an organic farm called the Azienda Agricola Angirelle. It lies in the hills outside Bologna, Italy.

The two have been hosting volunteers from the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farm, or WWOOF, for the past four years.

The WWOOF network was set up in England in 1971 by a London secretary named Sue Coppard; she wanted to create a way for city people to experience the countryside and support the organic farming movement at the same time. Volunteers - called wwoofers - offer their services in exchange for free board and lodging.

woman digging a piece of asparagusBildunterschrift: Großansicht des Bildes mit der Bildunterschrift: Jobs on the farm inlcude working in the fields...

For young people travelling on a budget and interested in learning about the organic lifestyle, it's an opportunity to see the world, meet new people and gain a very practical, non-academic education.

"If you go as a tourist in a foreign country, it's difficult to know how people live. So in this way they can really understand our lives. And of course we get a lot of help, but also company. It's nice to have people around here," Matolcsi said.

Italy a popular destination

Today there are branches of WWOOF all over the world. Just as people's awareness of organic foods has grown in recent years, so too has their desire to learn more about it, resulting in the network's booming popularity for over 40 years.

One of the most popular WWOOF destinations in Europe is Italy, where there are over 300 affiliated farms. According to Matolcsi and Romagnoli, the region is popular among young people who want an experience abroad that offers an alternative to monuments and museums.

New Zealand wwoofers Anton Skerlj-Roversand and Rhonwyn Halstone are staying with Ezster and her family; so far they have pruned chestnut trees and built a new fence. After a heavy snowfall, they spent their time helping Ezster sort herbs to make infusions and peel chestnuts to make jam.

"We do try to go places where we'll hopefully learn something," they said. "We've learned cheese making, we've learned how to make bread with natural sourdough, we've even done a bit of construction."

black and white cowsBildunterschrift: Großansicht des Bildes mit der Bildunterschrift: ... or caring for cattle

Halstone and Skerlj-Roversand chose the farms they have stayed on from a list provided by WWOOF, according to the area they want to visit, the types of farms they are interested in, and whether the hosts speak some English.

They have volunteered on at least ten farms over a period of several months; two them were in France. One had a traditional old farmhouse and just one hectare of land; they planted new-season potatoes, garlic and onions, which was "really hard work," the pair said.

But in exchange they were served good, traditional French food, and the hosts took them on weekends to visit restaurants and cheese farms. The second French farm hosted them for a month, and they spent their time building eco-houses.

"I like the work because you're hungry at the end of the day and you're a bit tired but it's not exhausting," Halstone said.

Halstone and Skerlj-Roversand come from the outskirts of Auckland, New Zealand, but said they felt right at home at Ezster and Fabricio's farm.

"You always eat with them. You have to fall into their familial rhythms because if you don't it doesn't work. That's part of the beauty of the whole thing - experiencing the rhythms of the country life and stuff," Skerlj-Roversand said.

Searching for exotic experiences

Matolcsi said most of the WWOOF volunteers come from an urban, not an agricultural background. Sometimes people are search for an exotic experience.

"Like a girl from Las Vegas cutting firewood. It was incredible for her. We had to take photos because she said to us 'my friends won't believe me,'" Matolcsi said.

And indeed, Halstone and Skerlj-Roversand say there is no need to have grown up on a farm to be a good volunteer. The hosts explain what needs to be done, and tasks aren't usually very difficult.

Friendships forged

In addition to learning about the organic way of life, one of the aspects the WWOOFers and their hosts appreciate most is forging friendships through the exchanges.

"I'd consider all of our hosts friends now, for life. There's always invites to come visit us in New Zealand and for us to go back and see them again. Sometimes there are tears. When you live in someone's house for a few weeks you're going to really connect with them," Skerlj-Roversand said.

Now, Halstone and Skerlj-Roversand say they hope to buy a patch of land in the future, so that they can maintain a self-sufficient life style.

And Matolcsi refers to a book that she keeps where the volunteers write about their experiences.

"Sometimes they write very nice things like 'Now we can go home and begin our organic farm because we saw that yours really works.' So it's a very nice experience to know that you gave something to these people," she said.

Author: Dany Mitzman (ad)
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn


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