WWOOFing and beyond


By Laura Sayre
Originally posted on September 1, 2005

Amy Sisti had been working with cheese for six years in some of New York City’s finest restaurants and retail shops when she decided she “wanted to get back to the roots of it all.”

“I always loved learning about the stories behind different types of foods,” Sisti recalls. “One of the things I liked about cheese is that it has great stories—but I felt like I needed to be more directly acquainted with those stories.”

Through a group called Women Chefs & Restaurateurs, Sisti learned about an internship program at the Tenuta di Spannocchia, an educational center, organic farm and guest house in Tuscany, Italy. Spannocchia offers three-month internships to young people interested in getting hands-on experience in organic farming and in what might be called sustainable agritourism management. Sisti applied, was accepted and set off on what turned out to be one of the best experiences of her life. Working and traveling in Italy not only gave her the connection to the land she was looking for, she says, it also deepened her understanding of cheesemaking and strengthened her contacts within the world of farmstead cheese production.

“The Spannocchia program is really well designed,” she says enthusiastically. “We worked hard, but we also had a lot of free time,” she adds, explaining that Spannocchia interns attend Italian classes twice a week and take regular field trips to other organic farms in the region. Ten interns are accepted each session: two to work in guest services, two in the vegetable gardens, one as a shepherd, two with the other animals, one in the wood lot, one in the vineyard and one as an all-rounder.

The Spannocchia internship is becoming increasingly competitive, says Carrie Curtis Sacco, the organization’s education director—and not just because people have romantic images of life under the Tuscan sun. Sisti and her fellow interns are representative of a growing group of young people from all over the world who are keen to enrich their knowledge of sustainable food and farming systems by combining international travel with practical farm work. Fortunately, the range of opportunities for international sustainable ag training—formal and informal, practical and theoretical, short-, long- and medium-term—is increasing as well.

The WWOOF model

In the early years of the organic movement, one of the few ways to gain international organic farming experience was through WWOOFing—short-term work in exchange for room-and-board arrangements made through a membership network originally known as Working Weekends on Organic Farms. Founded in 1971 by Sue Coppard, a London secretary looking for inexpensive, rewarding short breaks in the countryside, the WWOOF name was later broadened to Willing Workers on Organic Farms (to reflect farmstays longer than a weekend) and more recently to Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (to soothe the concerns of some countries’ immigration authorities).

Nathalie (wwoofer), Mariana and Ulrich (hosts) in Alto Adige, northern Italy.

From those modest beginnings, the movement has spread to some 60 countries, with hundreds if not thousands of farms and volunteers participating each year. At least 17 countries now have their own national WWOOF organizations, while another 40 or so are grouped as “WWOOF Independents.” While some of the latter have just a single participating farm (Cameroon, Estonia, Singapore), others, like France and Spain, have well over a hundred farms on their lists. As the WWOOF UK website puts it, these days “the sun probably never sets on WWOOF.”

The popularity of WWOOFing seems to have been expanding faster in the past decade or so, keeping pace with the extraordinary growth of the organic sector generally. WWOOF Italia, for example, has grown from 23 host farms in 1999 to 230 in 2005, according to its coordinator, Bridget Matthews. (The Tenuta di Spannocchia is one of them.) Fran Whittle of WWOOF UK, which also administers the WWOOF Independents, reports that the first international WWOOF conference, held in 2000, attracted participants from 15 countries. New WWOOF groups have recently been formed in Turkey, Mexico, Slovenia and the Czech Republic.

Aspiring organic farmer Hope Temple, a native of Virginia who went WWOOFing for the first time in New Zealand in February and March of 2005, says her primary goal was to learn more about medium- to large-scale, grass-based sheep and cattle production—sectors in which New Zealand excels. She’d also heard “phenomenal things about the land itself—mountainous, undeveloped, rural, and beautiful.” She wasn’t disappointed. She worked on four farms, ranging in size from 150 acres to 70,000 acres, for a total of six weeks—three weeks on one and a week each on three others. “My experiences included mustering 3,000 sheep from a 900-acre ‘block’ in the early morning, shearing sheep using clippers, and driving sheep through the working pens to sort lambs from mothers, sick from healthy, young from old,” she recalls.

Temple’s advice to prospective WWOOFers is to “research carefully and reach out, early, to a large number of farms. I have a significant farming background, so this helped me get selected for stays in some more competitive places.” As with any type of travel, she adds, you need to ask yourself what you want to get out of it: “education, vacation, a diversity of experiences, or a more grounded, in-depth experience. Working on a large number of farms will give you less knowledge, but you will see more examples of farming and probably, literally, more of a country.”

One complaint occasionally heard about WWOOFing is that at least in some countries, the farms that accept WWOOFers—read, put up with unpredictable and at times unreliable volunteer labor—include a disproportionate number of “lifestyle” farms run by ex-pats, as opposed to production-oriented family farms more typical of the host country. But programs and participants vary widely. In New Zealand, for instance, according to Temple, WWOOF listings included everything from small yoga retreat centers to vast sheep ranches, not all of them organic. WWOOFing demands flexibility and open-mindedness on the part of both host farmers and farm volunteers, WWOOFers say, and can lead to many wonderful as well as occasional not-so-wonderful experiences.

Perhaps most importantly, WWOOF UK’s Whittle points out, as a movement the organization has contributed thousands of hours of labor and innumerable exchanges of insight and good will to the collective force of organic stewardship.

MESA goes reciprocal

At the other end of the time-commitment spectrum, the Peace Corps has long served as an introduction to international sustainable agriculture work—and, anecdotally speaking, has prompted many a former volunteer to pursue organic farming upon their return home. A handful of other organizations, such as the Foundation for Sustainable Development (http://www.fsdinternational.org/), sometimes described as the “alternative Peace Corps,” organize similar service opportunities for Americans abroad.An exciting recent development in the world of international sustainable ag training is that the nonprofit Multinational Exchange for Sustainable Agriculture (MESA) (http://www.mesaprogram.org/), which for the past decade has been helping young people from developing countries find apprenticeships on organic farms in the United States, has established a reciprocal program for U.S. citizens interested in working on organic farms overseas.

Based in San Francisco, MESA is, according to executive director Lauren Augusta, the only U.S. State Department-recognized agricultural exchange program with an emphasis on sustainability. (State Department recognition permits the group to arrange one-year J-1 visas for participants coming to work on farms in the United States.) Its stated mission is to “cultivat[e] sustainable farming communities around the world through farmer-to-farmer exchange.”

This year the group is sponsoring its largest group of foreign trainees “by far,” Augusta says: 44 interns from five different countries training on about 35 organic farms and research centers across the United States. To select trainees, MESA partners with local sustainable agriculture organizations in countries like Ecuador, Peru, Thailand, and Mexico; over the years, Augusta explains, those relationships naturally led to the idea of arranging for trainee exchanges in the other direction.

Preparing fava beans for dinner at Spannocchia. Photo by Carrie Curtis Sacco

MESA’s first overseas sustainable agriculture program, beginning in January 2006, will be an eight-week work-and-training experience on organic farms in the Galápagos Islands of Ecuador. The program is the result of a partnership with FUNDAR Galápagos (the Fundación para el Desarrollo Alternativo Responsible para Galápagos) and is being coordinated by a former MESA volunteer who grew up in the islands, Byron Fonseca.

The Galápagos are a unique, exciting setting for an opportunity of this kind, Augusta notes. Because of the fragility of the island’s biota, access to the islands is tightly regulated, and most tourist expeditions only stay for three or four days.

“People don’t think about there even being farms in the Galápagos,” Augusta comments. “But they have a big impact on the environment there, and so some groups”—including FUNDAR Galápagos—”are promoting sustainable farming there. There’s also a big emphasis on getting the farms to be more productive, so they can import less from the mainland,” she continues.

The Galápagos program will cost participants around $2,500, including everything but airfare, for eight weeks, Augusta says. Academic credit is possible on an independent study basis. In the future, MESA hopes to organize similar opportunities in mainland Ecuador, Argentina, Thailand and Kenya.

Potentially, MESA’s reciprocal exchange and other programs like it could fill a niche between long-term Peace Corps stints and short-term WWOOFing experiences, Augusta suggests. “WWOOF is very ad hoc—it has almost no central administration, and offers no support in terms of visas or longer stays,” she points out. On the other hand, the fact that a number of reciprocal exchanges have already developed out of individual MESA trainee experiences (and without formal MESA’s assistance) suggests that the ad hoc approach may, in many cases, be a perfectly satisfactory way to for these kinds of interactions to develop.

“Frequently, MESA trainees form such strong bonds with the participants and the partner organizations and the host farms that setting something [additional] up, either formally or informally, is definitely an option,” Augusta concludes. “[So] that’s something I grapple with–how much does MESA need to coordinate this?”

Junior (farm) year abroad

Another potential route for gaining international sustainable ag training lies through university exchange programs, or by applying directly to overseas academic institutions. A number of undergraduate (conventional) agriculture programs at U.S. universities do offer study-abroad opportunities, and presumably, as the number of sustainable ag-oriented degree and certificate programs increases, so too will the number of study-sustainable-ag-abroad programs.

Study-abroad opportunities consistently rank high among the program features sustainable ag students say they want, says Albie Miles of the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, which operates a six-month organic farming and gardening apprenticeship at the University of California in Santa Cruz and has taken a leadership role in coordinating discussions about sustainable agriculture education in the United States. (The Santa Cruz apprenticeship is open to international applicants as well as to U.S. and Canadian citizens.)

The first National Sustainable Agriculture Education Conference will be held in January 2006, in Pacific Grove, California, just prior to the annual Eco-Farm Conference, Miles notes, and although the conference is focused on U.S. sustainable ag education, a few participants will be coming from overseas, including representatives of the Nordic School of Agroecology/Ecological Agriculture (AGROASIS), a joint project of universities in Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Iceland.

A number of institutions of higher education across Europe—including the University of Wales at Aberystwyth, the Scottish Agricultural College, and the Institute of Organic Agriculture at the University of Bonn, Germany–have established degree programs in sustainable and organic agriculture. Many of these programs accept applications from international students, although proficiency in the relevant language will be a prerequisite. A partial list of undergraduate and graduate (BSc and MSc) organic agriculture programs in Europe can be found on the website of the European Network for Organic Agriculture University Teachers (ENOAT).

A diploma in biodynamic farming

One of the most distinctive new international training courses in organic agriculture is found at a small school called Emerson College in East Sussex, England. Founded in 1962 by Francis Edmonds, Emerson is dedicated to the teachings of Rudolf Steiner and has been offering various levels of training in biodynamic gardening and farming for decades. (Some of the oldest and most successful biodynamic farms in the United States were started by farmers originally trained at Emerson, and—small-world fact—Sue Coppard’s first WWOOFing weekend back in 1971 took place at the college.)

Emerson students making horn manure preparation.

In 2000, the college was approached by the Warmonderhof Training Center at Groenhorst College in the Netherlands about creating an English-language version of Warmonderhof’s vocational training course in biodynamic agriculture, which dates back to 1947. The Warmonderhof course is taught in Dutch and primarily serves Dutch students in their late teens and early twenties. By partnering with Emerson, explains course co-leader Juergen Schumacher, the Dutch college sought to meet a growing demand for formal, hands-on training in biodynamic and organic farming among a much broader demographic.

Supported in part by a grant from the European Union’s Leonardo da Vinci II program for vocational training, the collaboration between the two schools resulted in the creation of a three-year course in biodynamic agriculture leading to what’s known as a Level 4 diploma, a vocational qualification recognized throughout the EU. (The college is looking into obtaining BSc accreditation as well.)

“We’re the only English-language training course of this kind,” says Ian Lawton, marketing and short-course manager for the college, which also offers Waldorf teacher-training and has up to 200 students in residence at a given time. “Here you’re totally immersed in organic and biodynamic philosophy, and you’re part of a community. It’s not like going to a regular university.”

An emphasis on internationalism

Students in Emerson’s biodynamic agriculture course come from all kinds of different backgrounds, Lawton and Schumacher note. Most are in their late twenties and early thirties, but some are as young as 18 or as old as 50. Some have farmed all their lives; others may not even have extensive gardening experience. Some arrive well-versed in the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, having attended Waldorf schools or worked in a Camphill community; others come with experience in organic farming but with no real knowledge of biodynamics.

The first group of students, admitted in the fall of 2001, included two Americans; other students have come from Brazil, Israel, and Scandinavia, as well as Britain and elsewhere in Europe.

Schumacher, who received formal training in both conventional and biodynamic agriculture and managed his own biodynamic farm in Germany for 20 years in addition to working as an accountant and tax advisor before coming to Emerson, says that he values the diversity of the student population enormously.

“It’s not so easy sometimes at the beginning to get everyone together,” he admits, “but it works out before long. I’m very, very happy to have this kind of variety,” he continues, noting that frequently the less experienced students ask fundamental, challenging questions that may not occur to those who have been farming for years.

The course of study embraces everything from tractor operation and maintenance to bookkeeping, personnel management, botany and soil science. Tuition is £3,750 (about $6,800) each for years one and two and £2,500 ($4,500) for year three; room and board runs another £2,500 to £3,000 ($4,500 to $5,440) per year. Students spend six semesters at Emerson and do a five-month placement between their first and second years working on another biodynamic farm of their choice. In their final year, students contact a local conventional farm and do a comprehensive study of what it would take to convert that farm to biodynamic management, from production to marketing.

By training at the college, says Schumacher, students gain a rigorous theoretical grounding in biodynamics as well as a comprehensive set of practical farming skills. “Here it is combined–half is practical and half is theoretical,” he explains, noting that exclusively on-the-job training for young farmers can sometimes lead to practical proficiency without a full understanding of underlying agroecological principles.

To foster that balance between classroom and field, Lawton says, Emerson has constructed new facilities and established a 5-acre biodynamic market garden at the college. Additional training takes place at the 250-acre Tablehurst Community Farm, a diversified biodynamic grain-and-livestock farm located adjacent to the college, and at Bore Place, an organic dairy farm 15 miles away. Field trips are also made to other organic farms, including Warmonderhof.

Emerson students with the beetroot harvest.

Perhaps the best measure of the need for a course like this is the wealth of job prospects open to its graduates, Schumacher says. Whereas the number of conventional farm manager positions has been declining for many years, openings in organic and biodynamic farming are rising steeply. Every week, the college receives job postings from throughout northern and western Europe, the United States, Canada, and even as far away as New Zealand.

“The world is short of qualified people—people who really want to do the job; not consultants but practical people,” Schumacher emphasizes. “We have a huge pin board [for posting job announcements] and it’s full all of the time–it never gets empty. All of our graduates have a choice of what to do.”

And although the Emerson program is small—to date it has graduated two classes of about a dozen students each—before long, it and other nascent training opportunities of its kind will help shape the future of organic farming worldwide.

As Schumacher puts it—in an observation that could apply to any of the programs described here–”If all [our graduates] become good farm managers, that will have an impact.”

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