There she was, standing inside a massive steel tank. Around her, the water was rising higher and higher as she was cleaning the walls with a pressure washer. It was pitch black and she couldn’t see a thing. She knew it was full of rust – she’d seen that when she had entered the tank. On her feet, she wore only a pair of flip flops.
‘My WWOOFing host told me and my friend we had to clean the walls of the tank. They hadn’t given us any protective equipment’, says Patricia Leistner, who does a research master in international relations and modern history. It took them eight hours to clean the whole thing. ‘I cut my toe. It was pretty deep and took a week until it was more or less healed’, she says. It could have been prevented if they had just been given the right gear, Patricia says. ‘I really felt used’.
Patricia is one of thousands of students who decided to go WWOOFing. World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (also known as Willing Workers on Organic Farms) is a worldwide movement that started fifty years ago. It links organic farmers to volunteers who, in exchange for light work, get free accommodation in the countryside.
In the Netherlands alone, there are forty-seven organic host farms. And there are host farms in over 130 countries around the world. This makes WWOOFing an attractive way to travel while keeping expenses to a minimum.
There are places where they take advantage of free labour
‘When you stay in a hostel, you only meet other travellers and we really wanted to be immersed in the local culture’, says Patricia. ‘We wanted to see how Australians really live.’ The network now includes approximately one hundred thousand volunteers.
Nothing to lose
Journalism master student Kian Seara Rey bailed on his studies in the United States to go WWOOFing. He decided to go to Spain, where his dad is originally from, to learn about agriculture. ‘I only had a small amount of money which I wanted to make last for as long as possible’, Kian says. ‘I was just a teenager with nothing to lose. I was sick of being stuck in the city and just wanted to get out to somewhere very different.’
The idea behind WWOOF is that volunteers help out on the land for four to six hours a day in exchange for food and accommodation. However, the reality can turn out quite differently.
Kian volunteered on several farms across Spain and France and has had some rough experiences. ‘There are places where they take advantage of free labour. In some hostels you’re cramped inside of a room with lots of people to work for them’, he says.
At one farm, Kian was set to work cutting wood with a chainsaw. But he had to keep up with the pace of his boss and was therefore incredibly sore all the time. ‘In some places, they really work you to the bone’, he says. He decided to leave after a week, tired of being exploited and in need of an intermediate job where he could actually earn some cash.
At yet another farm, Kian had a sad encounter with the owner’s dog who he describes as ‘half-dead’. ‘The dog was super skinny and just lying there. The owner didn’t care at all’, Kian says. And then a fellow WWOOFer turned out to be a former heroin addict, who was still struggling in a bad way. ‘He and his girlfriend would get into these huge fights all the time. The guy was horribly depressed and drinking all day. He got into a lot of fights with other people as well.’
Patricia and her friend also felt exploited on their Australian farm. She had to sleep in a house that was part of a shed. ‘When we arrived it was very dirty, there was dust and spiderwebs everywhere. Also, the roof was partially open so all kinds of animals including mosquitoes and spiders came inside’, she says. Eventually they slept in their van because Patricia has a severe phobia of spiders.
The mother of the family they stayed with always mentioned Patricia’s fear of spiders when something went wrong. ‘We really tried our best, but she made us seem like we are people from the city who had never worked in their life. I really tried to challenge myself’, Patricia recalls. As a result, they always felt a bit left out, as if they were ‘intruders’.
She had a very toxic personality, asking a lot of us but not really giving anything back
Pre-master student of development economics Cristina Zabolotnic travelled to many places around the world to volunteer. She mostly used a similar platform, Workaway, instead of the WWOOFing platform. The idea is the same: free accommodation and sometimes food in exchange for light labour.
Even though she had a lot of great experiences, she also experienced being used several times. When she was in Mexico for example, she ended up with a woman who really wanted to build a theatre for kids with disabilities, the problem was just that her host wasn’t able to organise herself.
The work came down to Cristina and the other volunteers. ‘She rented this huge house and wanted to make an Airbnb out of it to pay for the other project,’ Cristina says. So eventually the travellers ended up putting in a full forty-hour week of work.
Ultimately, Christina decided to leave early. ‘I cared about her project, but she couldn’t handle it and that wasn’t our problem’, she says. ‘Also, she had a very toxic personality and was super negative, asking a lot of us but not really giving anything back.’
After their first unpleasant encounter, Patricia stayed at a farm with a sweet elderly lady and her daughter, where they had a great time. ‘You can’t always be lucky. You live with strangers who you are suddenly very close with. That’s the nice thing about WWOOFing’, she says. ‘We got a chance to get a different insight into Aussie life through our trip. We learned where the food comes from, and it made me realise that resources like water are not unlimited and that we have to be more careful with them.’
Kian is not sure whether he will go on another WWOOFing adventure anytime soon. ‘I would have to be in a particular mindset. I think I maybe got it out of my system, I got to travel through Spain, learn about agriculture and I know it sounds cheesy, but I also learned about myself.’
The official WWOOF website says that most of the organisations that act as a contact between farms and volunteers have ‘strict complaint procedures’ for both volunteers and farms. They investigate hosts when they receive complaints about them and as a result these hosts can be removed from the list. Yet, it also says that volunteers must take all precautions when visiting someone they don’t know. Many WWOOF organisations operate on a non-profit basis, and they don’t always have the resources to visit host farms before they are accepted to join the network.