When I stepped onto the tarmac in Durango, I was hit with a dry wall of air. The 4 p.m. sun felt like it was dialed up – brighter, hotter, and harsher. I blinked enough dust out of my eyes to scan the parking lot for the red Dodge pickup truck that had come to collect me.
That morning, I’d left my Brooklyn apartment, and a city recovering from 14 months of a pandemic. I’d flown to a two-gate airport in a state I’d never been to, to get picked up by a stranger who would drive me to his rural farm with no cell phone service to live in a trailer and work for free. The significance of the situation – and everything that could go wrong – didn’t hit me until that gust of hot, dry air did.
I didn’t know it would be one of the most important things I’d do with my life, or that I would begin advising everyone I met who found themselves in the situation I did – unemployed, unsure – to do the same.
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It’s hard to pinpoint when WWOOF first came to my attention; it seems like the kind of thing you always hear about in circles of young, unattached people – an opportunity for college kids looking to fill their summers or gap years, or a backburner activity for a hypothetical future when you have the time. When I, like many Americans, lost my job in early 2020, I started relying on short-term, freelance, and gig work; without a true full-time position, I found myself with rare, exhilarating, and daunting amount of freedom. It (finally) felt like the right time.
WWOOF – Worldwide Opportunities (formerly Willing Workers) on Organic Farms – is essentially a network of national organizations that each facilitate homestays on farms. One-hundred and thirty countries have their own, separate branches of WWOOF, all with the goal of supporting sustainable, ecological farming through an educational work exchange.
The arrangement – at least for WWOOF-USA – is rather straightforward: WWOOFers (as participants are informally called) seek unpaid work on one of nearly 1,700 participating farms across the country in exchange for housing and meals. Beyond that, the details vary wildly. Some farms grow vegetables, while others produce herbs, fruit, flowers, mushrooms, or hemp. Some raise cows, chickens, and other livestock for milk, eggs, or meat. Many focus on value-added products like soap, medicinals, wine, maple syrup, and cheese. Some sites are large, established farms; some are community gardens or homesteads. Some seek WWOOFers for a few weeks of work; others for an entire growing season.
Anyone can search the website for host sites, but to see the names of the farms and contact them about a visit, users need to create an account for a $40 yearly fee. Potential volunteers then set up their profile, answering questions about their capabilities, interests, qualifications, etc.; hosts set up a similar profile, detailing all sorts of information about the farm and their expectations for workers.
Visitors are able to filter for hosts by all sorts of qualities: location, languages spoken by the farmers, farming methodologies, types of animals raised, type of housing offered, whether WWOOFers may bring children or pets, diets that can be accommodated, and preferred length of stay. Visitors can filter for only BIPOC or LGBTQ+-owned farms, or the maximum number of workers allowed at the site. During the pandemic, new filters were added, such as whether a host could accommodate folks working or schooling remotely.
Farmers can be contacted through the website, and, if it seems like a good match, the rest of the details – specific dates, transportation, etc. – are decided from there.
On the website’s map of hosts, I zoomed in on Colorado. I found a farm that grew vegetables and raised chickens, sent a message showing my interest, and heard back from the farmer within a few days. We set up a time to chat, and he called me while driving home to Mancos from Durango, describing the scenery around him and what they were looking forward to on the farm this season. I packed two bags and took the cheapest flight out of Newark.
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From my discussions with other folks who have WWOOFed, I’ve learned that it’s futile to compare experiences; no two will share many similarities besides your purpose there being to farm. WWOOF as an organization has very little to do with the ordeal beyond facilitating that initial conversation between WWOOFer and farmer (although they can provide resources for emergent situations). Once you’re on the farm, it’s your relationship with the host that matters; your experience is entirely in your hands.
For the months of June and July, I lived and worked on a small market farm in Southwest Colorado. We grew vegetables on a few acres of land and in some small greenhouses, raised a couple hundred chickens and a handful of goats and pigs, and then sold the produce, eggs, and sausage at two weekly farmer’s markets. Three Great Pyrenees theoretically kept the animals in check, but would often trot up to you in the fields with a smile on their face after, yet again, escaping from a rogue hole in the fence.
I lived in a trailer along the edge of a creek, downhill from the main house, accompanied by an old blue school bus, a few other stationary trailers, and a green VW van, all home to other farm folks and a few surprisingly friendly cats. We shared a firepit, some indoor-turned-outdoor furniture, and an open-air kitchen with a propane stove that would singe your eyebrows clean off if you weren’t paying attention.
We started working after 7 a.m. – before the sun got too strong – and ended the day between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m., or whenever the task at hand got done. During the early part of the season, we did a first pass at weeding all the beds that had already been planted, the greens and turnips in full swing and the onions and squashes just beginning to grow in earnest. There were raised beds and a new greenhouse to be built, eggs to collect and wash, compost to be spread, and crops to be harvested and cleaned and weighed for market on Thursdays and Fridays. As the summer carried on, harvest days became longer, and late-season crops were transplanted – and, of course, there was more weeding to be done.
While I retreated mid-afternoon to hike, or read, or cool off in the river, the farmer continued working; when we finished dinner in the evening, he went back into the fields with a headlamp. Work on a farm was never finished, I soon learned; it didn’t happen between set hours, but all the time, until the work was done – which, of course, it never is.
When you search for a host on the WWOOF website, the farm profiles display photos of lush pasture, wicker baskets of cherry-red tomatoes, smiling goats and bins of freshly-harvested produce. It’s true that the buckets of kale and lettuce looked almost suspiciously lush, and watching the sunset from the hill overlooking the farm and valley felt practically ethereal, but to live and work on a farm is to dispel a bit of that pure idealism – to learn the reality of a place that grows things without industrial machinery or pesticides that allow for such neat, uniform rows of crops.
You learn the reality of weeding the same acre for three months for two short weeks of harvesting; of black widows crawling from the piles of pulled bindweed and wild amaranth that you kneel on between the beds, and no-see-ums biting the tips of your ears until they swell. You learn how dry dirt gets into the crevices of your overalls and never seems to come out, and on the first day of monsoon season, you learn that your trailer isn’t as watertight as you’d expected. Your body learns to wake up when the sun does, and go a little longer between showers than you’d prefer.
If you’re lucky enough to WWOOF in Southwest Colorado – and if you’re an east-coaster, like me – you’ll learn for the first time what drought really feels like. The cracks in the ground were wide enough to drop quarters into. The creek running through the farm was hardly more than a trickle, the crawdads dragging themselves towards the last crevices of water, which became mere patches of mud as the weeks went on. Most of the Southwest has been in a chronic drought since 2000, and climate change is the unmistakable culprit; farmers in Colorado and the rest of the region have been forced to make painful changes, including major cutbacks on crops for lack of water.
Our days were almost entirely dictated by weather. A heatwave rolled through during my first week as we were erecting a new greenhouse; the temperature dial on the side of the tool shed had crept to nearly 100ºF before noon, and we retreated into the shade until the sun began to set and the temperature to drop before returning to the task. The irrigation water was shut off towards the middle of the summer, and all we could do was wait for monsoon season. Evidence has suggested that, even when the rains do come to offer some relief, climate change has made them less helpful. They came in late June, and I learned that the smell of it is different – stronger, and more metallic – and that the ground sucks it up within seconds, the dirt as dry as if rain had never come.
But you also learn about a different way of life.
WWOOFing – or any experience that takes you out of your own world, and what you view as the norm – opens a window into the everyday lives of other people; it allows you to see a world that exists outside of your own. I learned when it feels like to live in a town of 1,000 people and know the majority of those you pass on the street by name. I learned how jobs like farming aren’t just careers, but an all-encompassing way of life. I learned about the culture and attitudes of people in a different part of the country. I learned how it feels to live in nature, away from the city that moves a million miles a minute, even during a global pandemic.
There are a lot of different lives to live, which we can’t truly understand until we see them.
While every WWOOF experience will be different, they will all have this in common.
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Like most life-changing, view-altering experiences, WWOOFing really is a giant leap of faith. You read the reviews, look at the pictures, zoom in on the closest town on Google Maps, talk to the farmer and ask all your questions – but you’ll never know exactly what will happen. It could be a disaster, or it could be wonderful. It does take a great deal of courage, and a willingness to live in less-than-glamorous circumstances. It requires meeting entirely new people, doing physically and intellectually demanding work, and launching yourself into an entirely unknown situation.
I didn’t really know what the next few months of my life would look like when I got off that plane and into that red pickup truck. I didn’t know what people I would meet on the farm and in Mancos, or that they’d become such staples and joys in my everyday life. I didn’t know that I’d go to a wedding of ex-WWOOFers on this very farm where they met, or learn (the hard way) that I’m a terrible mountain biker, or climb up to 13,500 feet on a mountainside of scree. I didn’t know that I would learn how to properly throw a dart, or form unexpectedly meaningful relationships. I certainly didn’t know that I would fall in love with farming, but that happened too.
You build a new life from the ground up – especially when you’re planning to stay for a significant amount of time – that you eventually have to leave, which is far harder than all the rest.
Many WWOOFers – as I learned from other transient types in Colorado, and from the farmers who had a slow-moving, revolving door of WWOOFers come work for them – will set up a schedule for themselves, booking short, back-to-back visits on farms as they travel across the country. While taking advantage of this unique opportunity for housing and companionship is great, I advocate for the way I did it: staying in one place long enough to become a part of the community, and form some real, lasting relationships with the people there.
Another major consideration for many when choosing a host site is the number of WWOOFers housed at a given time; the difficulty of moving to a strange, faraway place is eased knowing that there will be others there to share it with. I had the experience of being both a lone WWOOFer and one of a group, my time split in half. Working alone with the farmer for my first month, I was able to get a lot of individual mentorship, learn about the things I was interested in, and form a closer relationship with him and others on the farm than I might have if I shared the time with lots of other workers.
As my second month rolled around, two other WWOOFers joined me, and besides the benefit of having more hands as the harvests got bigger, we formed a special kind of friendship: we shared a life experience together – one that no one could ever really understand besides each other. I have no doubt that they will remain a part of my life, even after going our separate ways.
In the end, togetherness was the crucial piece to the puzzle. We all worked together, cooked together, ate together, took weekend hikes and swims and played Tuesday night bar trivia together. Of all the wonderful benefits of WWOOFing – working outdoors, exploring the mountains, traveling – the community you form is the most important part.
For many, WWOOFing is a way to support yourself on a shoestring budget, with your food and living expenses paid for. But it’s also clear why the majority of participants are young, unattached people: without an income, making student loan, rent, or mortgage payments is extremely difficult, and only possible if you’ve been able to save money for some time beforehand. Most people can’t just step away from their lives and dependents to move away and work for free. It’s yet another example of how privilege factors into our ability to have certain experiences.
Our lives have changed a lot in the past year and a half – in ways that, hopefully, might make experiences like this possible for more people: student loans payments are on hold, remote work and school are prevalent phenomena, and for some – myself included – stimulus payments and enhanced unemployment benefits have granted more financial freedom to pursue different kinds of work.
After losing my own job in 2020, I shuttled between temporary and part-time gigs, trying to find something that would stick. As COVID dragged on, I’d started to give up on finding passion and joy in anything. The days and months blurred together, and it felt like the “most important” years of my life were quietly slipping away. I lost all sense of what I wanted from my life, and found myself looking around, wondering how I got here.
During that time, when I needed something to hold on to – some hope for a pre-pandemic future – I pictured a different kind of life: working away from a screen, somewhere in nature, doing something with my hands. I didn’t know what kind of life I wanted to live, but I needed to find out – and WWOOFing gave me the chance to.
Linnea graduated from Skidmore College in 2019 with a Bachelor’s degree in English and Environmental Studies, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Most recently, Linnea worked at Hunger Free America, and has interned with WHYY in Philadelphia, Saratoga Living Magazine, and the Sierra Club in Washington, DC.
Linnea enjoys hiking and spending time outdoors, reading, practicing her German, and volunteering on farms and gardens and for environmental justice efforts in her community. Along with journalism, she is also an essayist and writer of creative nonfiction.
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