WWOOF UK: Forty years of inspiration, education and perspiration

Katherine Hallewell
Monday, 3rd October 2011

2011 is WWOOF's 40th birthday. For those who haven't heard of them before, WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) connects willing volunteers with host farms and smallholdings around the UK in a hands-on educational exchange. It's now a truly global movement, but it all started in deepest Sussex back in 1971.

To mark the 40th birthday of WWOOF, they have interviewed 6 of their 500 hosts, their 'hosts with the most'. It's a fascinating insight into the joys and challenges of being a WWOOF host, as well as offering a tantalising glimpse of the huge range of WWOOFing experiences on offer to members of the organisation.

Smallest host: Phoenix Woodcrafts, Kate Fox and Andy Gill, West Sussex

Kate and Andy describe their 120 square feet of garden as their 'micro-holding'. From this diverse patch they are almost completely self-sufficient in vegetables, fruit and eggs. They became WWOOF hosts last October. "We were WWOOFers ourselves and always chose to visit places that would inspire us, that we could learn from. What we have created here is exactly what we wanted to see – essentially a normal house with a garden."

The row of terraced Victorian cottages where Kate and Andy live were built with big front gardens, "...so that the railway workers living here could grow all their own veg and keep pigs, chickens and goats." Today they are the only ones in the terrace growing for self-sufficiency. "We live in quite a conservative area, there's not really an alternative culture at all. But people are very open-minded. Our neighbours probably think we're a bit mad, as we're a bit elaborate in our design and layout of things in the garden, but they generally seem impressed."

The garden makes creative use of the available space to produce 16 different kinds of fruit and up to 40 different kinds of vegetables at the height of summer. Fruit trees are fan trained up against the boundary fences and even the roof of the summerhouse is used for producing food. Somehow, there is still room for wildlife areas and a small pond.

"We do lots of bottling and preserving. One third of everything we grow is stored for the winter. By March-April we're living on parsnips, leeks, salsify, chard and spinach, plus any wild greens we can harvest. We don't buy anything if we can help it."

The most challenging thing about becoming a WWOOF host has been learning how to successfully share the tiny house with volunteers. "It's been a massive learning curve – not a bad thing, it just takes some getting used to. By the time we had our third WWOOFers we decided to write some house rules!"

"We get at least 2 emails a day, people seem to really want to come here. We try to choose those who are really looking to learn from us, as the best bit about being a host is when people leave us excited and inspired."

Their hopes for WWOOF 40 years from now? "More of the same please! I'm sure WWOOF will continue to grow, but hopefully the organisation will stay much the same."

Largest Host: Claire and Andrew Fletcher, Ardlussa Estate, Isle of Jura

Claire and Andrew moved from Glasgow about 4 years ago to live full time in their family home on the Isle of Jura. The house is on the Ardlussa Estate, and at 18,000 acres this is the largest WWOOF host property. "We'd heard about WWOOF from a few people, and then I picked up a hitcher on the island who was actually WWOOFing at the time, and he convinced me. Our first ever volunteer was a nice French guy. He came for 2 weeks to start with, but we got on so well that he came back again and stayed for 6!"

Around 6 or 7 WWOOFers visit the estate each year. "We'd like to take more, but we don't really have the space as we're also running a bed and breakfast. WWOOFers get the same accommodation as our B&B guests which is a nice surprise for them."

Most people who travel to Ardlussa are interested in experiencing life on a Scottish island, rather than having a particular interest in the size of the place. "We're managing 18,000 acres and we're very isolated. We stipulate that people make their own way here so that they understand how far away from everything it is! It is very beautiful, but also very remote."

"In our first year as hosts we took everyone who applied. Now we get a couple of hundred enquiries each year so we really seek out people with relevant experience. We keep pigs, highland cattle, sheep and deer, as well as having a walled garden and polytunnel and growing as much food as we can. We've also got a lot of forest to manage, so people who have chainsaw certificates or mechanical experience are especially helpful. We had a Canadian lumberjack who was just brilliant. I don't think he stopped eating the entire time he was here! When he went back he got himself some highland cattle." It's also been a two-way exchange of knowledge – "I've learned plenty from our WWOOFers about growing food."

The best bit about being a host? "The camaraderie when you're getting on well with someone. You're teaching them something new, they're enjoying learning it, they're enjoying a taste of your life and you're getting help. We like good company, and having WWOOFers is something we as a whole family really enjoy." Andrew has marked every WWOOFer's home on a Google earth map, and they're still in contact with many of them.

"In another 40 years, I imagine WWOOF will be full of old people who did it when they were students going round again! No, seriously, I think it will be going strong, be more mainstream. More and more people are growing their own food or are interested in where their food comes from – even the B&B guests want to know where their food comes from, let alone the WWOOFers. I'd like to do it myself, but I can't see it happening for 20 years."

"Keep on WWOOFING!"

Most remote host: Andy and Sabina Holt-Brook, North House Croft, Papa Stour, Shetland

The journey to Andy and Sabina's croft on Papa Stour is an adventure in itself. "Most WWOOFers are not rich, so they get the overnight ferry from Aberdeen at 7pm, docking at Lerwick at 7.30 a.m. They then spend the day in the town and catch a bus at 5p.m. as far as Bixter. Here they pick up a minibus feeder service. This takes them 10 miles down a single-track road to the ferry at West Burrafirth. It's a 40 minute journey across to Papa, and we meet them at the pier and drive them round the bay to our croft." Between 4 and 8 intrepid WWOOFers make this journey each year.

Andy and Sabina have been on Papa Stour, a designated SSSI, for 38 years. "We dropped out in the 60s and wanted to move to somewhere by the sea, with land, clean air and clean water for our children. Us moving here, along with a few other hippy families, prevented the island from being emptied of its population." The small organic vegetable business they started didn't last long. "The shops wanted a year-round, regular supply from us, but the short growing season coupled with the unreliable transport links back then made it impossible. Once, we had a batch of freshly harvested cauliflowers stranded here for 3 weeks during a particularly bad storm. Nowadays we mostly rear a Shetland-cross lamb for the Scottish market."

The croft still produces a good range of fruit and vegetables for home consumption. "We grow lots of brassicas in the walled garden, including Shetland kale for the sheep." Broad beans do well, as do raspberries and currants of all varieties. Surprisingly, strawberries are incredibly abundant: "It must be something to do with the long daylight hours, as it can't be the heat!"

Initially life on the island was fairly primitive. "We drew our water from a well, lighting was done by Tilly lamps, we didn't get electricity until 1990. No-one would travel here to WWOOF just for a weekend, it was too far, so those who came simply stayed longer."

Today the population of the island is down to just 10 people. In the winter, otters outnumber people. "The hut that WWOOFers stay in has a family of otters living beneath it. We often watch them playing and fishing from the kitchen window. We are also usually visited once a year to by the orcas."

The best bit about being a host? "Meeting lots of people of many different nationalities. And being OAPs it's great having the physical help. It's wonderful to see that so many young people are interested in self sufficiency these days." And the most difficult bit? "Language is sometimes tricky with WWOOFers who have limited English – it can take lots of ingenuity to communicate!"

And finally, a birthday greeting for WWOOF: "May it go from strength to strength. We need lots more hosts so that young people, who are so urbanised these days, can get in touch with where their food really comes from."

Most Urban Host: Tania and Mike Ross, Tooting Veg, London

Mike and Tania signed up as WWOOF hosts at their home in south London 1 year ago. "We managed to buy an unused piece of land that backs on to our garden, after trying for several years. Six months later we got an allotment – we'd been on the waiting list for 5 years. All this at the same time as having a new baby! My sister in law was a WWOOF host in Scotland for a while, and one day we realised that we could do that too."

The house is 10 minutes away from the nearest tube station and 50 minutes from central London. Its urban location seems to be a great draw for WWOOFers. "It's quite rare I think that you can come and WWOOF in an urban setting – we certainly get a lot of requests! Our WWOOFers can spend the morning with us in the garden and head into London in the afternoon. It's a great combination." And they can't imagine swapping their city smallholding for a rural idyll. "We love being able to visit the Tate, or go to see some amazing performance at the Barbican. At the same time, our children learn about where their food comes from and have a chance to get their hands dirty, which I think it very important. We're so lucky that we haven't had to move house in order to grow our own." And being surrounded by people does have its advantages: "One of the neighbours will usually pop in to water things if we go away which is great."

The garden and allotment provide Tania and Mike with most of their food during the summer months and well on into the winter too. Last year's tomato crop kept them going until April this year. "We had to install a new freezer as we just didn't have space to store all our produce." And the WWOOFers bring much more than helping hands: "It's been very stimulating, meeting interesting people who have often done a lot of travelling, something I did when I was younger. And it's lovely sharing our lifestyle with people – it sounds like a cliché, but it's true, they really have just fitted in! "

Tania loves taking good care of their WWOOFers, cooking delicious meals during their stay. "It's something I enjoy doing as it feels like giving back for the effort they put in." And the tricky bits about hosting? "None! We've found that the most important thing is good communication before they arrive, so that they know what to expect."

Tooting Veg are really just at the start of their career as hosts. "I hope that every year I'll become more organised and make good use of the support that we get from WWOOF. Getting our hands on that extra piece of garden has really changed our lives. I would love to think that in the next 40 years, more and more people in our sort of situation will be growing their own produce and that WWOOF will play a big part in spreading that message."

Most Dispersed Holding: Ceri and Dave Galloway, Ceri and Dave's Place, Cambridgeshire

Ceri and Dave live in a small council estate on the outskirts of Cambridge. They describe their place as a 'virtual smallholding'. It consists of their 140 foot garden and an allotment plot, plus 4 other community growing projects that they are heavily involved in: an orchard, a chicken cooperative, a hazel coppice and an edible nut planting.

When they moved from London almost 10 years ago they were specifically looking for somewhere with interesting bits of land near by. "Cambridgeshire is London prices, so we couldn't afford to buy the space we wanted in order to be self sufficient. I thought at the time that we'd end up moving to Scotland, but we've managed to get access to land in other ways."

Ceri gave up her day job in 2006. "I became so concerned about climate change and peak oil that I felt compelled to devote more time to food production." The range of experience now on offer here to would-be WWOOFers is impressive: "There's coppicing, hedge laying, chicken keeping, vegetable growing (in a permaculture style, though we're quite new to that), orchard management, alternative technologies, bee keeping, setting up and running community growing groups – lots! And really importantly, we can show that you don't need to own land to do this. "

A certain amount of determination has been required to get the community projects going: "It took 6 years to get our hands on the chicken plots for the cooperative, even though chicken keeping is what the land was always intended for from the start, in 1947! They were lying unused for years. The community orchard took time too; the land was there, unused – potentially threatened by a housing development – when I started meeting regularly with just 1 other woman. Gradually we started pulling in grants to make things happen, and now we often run events and training courses there."

Ceri and Dave are hosting increasing numbers of local, part-time WWOOFers. "One woman lives about 20 miles away and is keen to start her own smallholding. She comes here after dropping her 4 kids off at school in the morning, spends the day with us 'til 3pm, then can be home to meet them after school." They most enjoy passing on their skills and seeing people gain the confidence to go out and do it for themselves. "We love meeting people who share the vision, and who give us their input into what we're doing too."

"Happy Birthday WWOOF!"

Longest standing hosts: Jan McMillan, Postlip Housing Association, Gloucestershire

Jan McMillan has been a member of Postlip Housing Association from the start. "I have a photo here dated 23.11.1972. It's a picture of one of our work weekends, and there are 7 people on it that I don't recognise. Some of them will have been our first ever WWOOFers!"

Five families took Postlip Hall on in 1971, the same year that WWOOF started. The grounds were derelict and the house itself needed quite a lot of work. "We had a friend visit in the middle of our frantic clear-up, and he said 'What you need is some WWOOFers!' So we joined."

For the residents in those early days, every weekend was a working weekend. "At that time, WWOOF was running weekend groups. We didn't always get WWOOFers joining in, but whenever we could get the extra hands we were glad of the help." They still use a similar format today. "Now we only take WWOOFers 1 weekend each month, usually 2 at a time. We strongly believe that WWOOFers should have someone from Postlip working alongside them, so that they always have the option of company, and it's only possible for us to do that on weekends."

Jan has noticed a definite change in the reasons that people come WWOOFing over the years. "When we started it was mostly people getting away from the city and into the countryside. Now it's people coming to learn in order to set up their own smallholdings – alongside a tremendous number of foreign students!" She senses there has also been a change in the host demographic. "People are often surprised at our laid back way of doing things. I think there are more WWOOF hosts that are commercial enterprises these days, which we are not. We get some very positive feedback, so I think people must enjoy our approach."

Postlip is now mostly self sufficient in vegetables and entirely in eggs and meat. "We used to keep goats for dairy, but the children had a walk out protest and refused to drink it!" Today there are 8 families sharing the house and the land and WWOOFers can get involved in the garden, with the livestock (including bees) or perhaps do some stone walling. "Other than reducing the number of times we host WWOOFers, I don't think our attitude has changed since the beginning. It's an exchange where WWOOFers can be part of our lives for a short time. They come and help out; we treat them well and feed them well." And perhaps there is something special in the air at Postlip: "We've been responsible for at least 2 weddings between WWOOFers who met here."

Jan has yet to go WWOOFing herself – "I did some when I attended early WWOOF meetings, and we spent the afternoons WWOOFing." – and has only met 1 other host in the area. "I'm just amazed at how much the organisation has grown! It was so tiny when we started; the fact that it's now worldwide is amazing. I think it will just keep on growing – I certainly hope so."

"I just want to say well done WWOOF – it's a fantastic organisation, keep on with the good work!"

Further Information

If you're committed to to the principles of sustainability and organic farming, find out more and join online at www.wwoof.org.uk