A WWOOF Weekend

Iris Coates
Saturday, 11th January 2014

For over 40 years, WWOOFing has provided a wide range of farms to visit and work on across the globe, creating a work in many exotic places. Iris Coates explains how WWOOF UK are encouraging more local WWOOFing, connecting people to farms closer to home.

WWOOF started as a Working Weekend On an Organic Farm in 1971 and 42 years on, it is going back to its roots with a working weekend in Todmorden, West Yorkshire.

On the 15th October 1971, Sue Coppard and three other Londoners decided to arrange a trial weekend at Tablehurst Farm, East Sussex. They helped out with any work that needed doing on the organic farm in exchange for food and accommodation, and Working Weekends on Organic Farms (WWOOF) was born. The weekend was so successful that it became a regular trip and news gradually spread of 'Sue Coppard's Land Army', and other organic farms got in touch, all keen to offer their hospitality in exchange for help from willing volunteers.

Today, WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms: a global phenomenon with over 12,000 hosts in more than 100 countries and in excess of 560 hosts in the UK. The UK branch became a charity in 2008 and membership is rising sharply year on year.

Most of the WWOOFing work undertaken nowadays is through longer-term arrangements. However, on 16-17th November it went back to its origins of being a working weekend, giving its eight participants a chance to have a taster of what life is like on an organic farm local to them and with a shorter time commitment. The group split their time between three local host farms as well as a visit to guerilla gardening Incredible Edible [Todmorden Unlimited www.incredible-edible-todmorden.co.uk/projects ], which coincidentally also has its birthplace in Todmorden.

Farm owner and anthropology lecturer at Durham University, Ben Campbell, was one of the the WWOOF weekend hosts. At his seven acre mixed farm in Todmorden, people from different walks of life teamed up to rake up leaves from the tracks in his woodland glade and plant a willow hedge. The leafmold was then used to create compost for the Himalayan terraces he has created on his farm with the help of a Nepalese friend.

Ben Campbell spent several years working and living with indigenous communities and learning how they farm in inhospitable environments, including the Himalayas, whilst studying for his PhD in 1990-1991. The farm he owns today could be considered difficult to farm and grow vegetables, however he has tried to work with the land - a mixture of woodland, meadows and in his own words 'Wuthering Heights' - and adapt the crops and food it can produce. He believes the non-monetary reciprocal labour systems (where labour is exchanged for services or goods rather than cash) which indigenous groups operate, is a feasible model for our society too, and the success of WWOOF growing year upon year in times of a recession could be considered proof of that.

He said: "I wanted to show what can be done in a patch of seemingly non-useful land, inspired by my work in the Himalayas where communities depend on each other."

"The group [working on the farm] reached a collective momentum, and it was a positive, fun and sociable weekend. Seeing a group form out of strangers, into a gang providing mutual support by the end of the day was one of the highlights," he added. He also found meeting fellow WWOOF hosts a benefit, highlighting the advantages of a WWOOF community aside from the obvious practical work undertaken. 

Kate Berry, a 36 year old photographer from East Lancashire was one of the people volunteering at the weekend, as work and commitments meant that she would not be able to attend during the week. She explained how the gathering proved to be a good opportunity for WWOOF hosts and WWOOF volunteers to meet and share experiences of growing plants and talk about new ideas for developing a more sustainable future. She said: "By meeting together we are able to share knowledge, experiences and techniques for sustainable living and organic farming with like-minded people.

"The sharing sessions provided the perfect opportunity to discuss new ideas and the ups and downs of trying out new green farming techniques. Topics included water preservation, wildlife conservation and eco-friendly organic farming techniques - all subjects I would like to learn more about."

Amanda Pearson, Volunteer Liaison for WWOOF, who has been recently appointed in part to encourage more local WWOOFing, explained why they re-initiated the local working weekend: "When WWOOF started in 1971 it was all about working weekends on organic farms; in 2013 the majority of volunteers will have travelled considerable distances, with many having flown into the country and so, understandably, staying a week or longer. We are keen to reverse the trend and remember our roots by encouraging local WWOOFing once more."

"From a sustainable and economic perspective it seems appropriate to be encouraging more local WWOOFing right now, by which we mean connecting hosts and WWOOFers who are within a 50 mile radius of one another," Amanda said.

She described the event as a real success, and the group has already been discussing a spring get-together. She added: "This was a pilot project, a toe in the water. Given the response we have had, we are keen to support the creation of more local WWOOFIng opportunities, perhaps with an educational theme such as "bee/chicken keeping" or "organic principles", so that we can skill up as many of our WWOOFers as possible so they can grow their own food and help others to do so too."

WWOOFing weekends could be the environmentally and socio-economically sound answer to short-breaks, whereas long-term WWOOFing could be seen as a sustainable and financially viable alternative to gap-years or even holidays, especially in times of a recession and environmental crisis. The rewards seem endless; WWOOFing can give you new skills, knowledge, new friendships, fresh air and excercise as well as free meals (whoever said there was no such thing as a free lunch?), while the farmer benefits from free labour.

The success of the weekend in Todmorden will hopefully set the stage for many more Working Weekends on Organic Farms, so that people around the UK can have their own, and free, taste of the Good Life.

To find out more about any local WWOOF farms near you where you could help out and become part of a growing revolution, visit www.wwoof.org.uk 

Iris Coates is a freelance journalist who writes about green issues. Visit www.iriscoates.co.uk for more.

All images by Kate Berry.

Further resources

Why not learn about six UK WWOOFing places to visit in WWOOF UK: forty years of inspiration, education and perspiration

Learn how an education project at WWOOF farm Tang’neduk,  lifts children out of abject poverty

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