The idea that you can dig a hole in the earth and make it to the other side has been theorized by many, but what if you found out that that was actually possible? No, you can’t tunnel your way to your destination, but you can dig, pull weeds, sow seeds, plant, garden, and more in exchange for a place to stay, meals, and a knowledgeable guide to all of the best kept secrets in your dream travel destination. This was possible for Brie Johnson, who was able to work and live in three countries through her involvement in a program called, “World Wide Opportunities On Organic Farms” also known as WWOOF. The organization which was originally called “Working Weekends On Organic Farms,” was started in 1971 by Sue Coppard, a secretary in London who was looking for a way to see the countryside and participate in the organic movement. She was able to find a farm willing to host her in exchange for labor. Soon, the organic farmers became interested in the concept of providing accommodations to others in exchange for a few hours of work during their stay.
The organization has grown into farmers in several countries all over the world. WWOOF allows for farmers, and perspective volunteers (WWOOFers) to connect. The length of a volunteer’s stay on a farm is determined by the volunteer and the farmer, and can last a few days or several months. Though the cost of living is provided by the host, volunteers are responsible for a small membership fee, their visas as needed, and travel expenses to and from the host country. Many, consider it a small price to pay for the experience, the chance to learn new skills, and be of assistance to those who are committed to producing organic foods. In addition to traditional farms, WWOOFers can also choose to volunteer at locations that make wine, cheese, and bread. Brie’s first WWOOFing experience, allowed her to assist organic farmers in Japan. Her decision to become a WWOOFer came from her interest in being more fluent in Japanese. The icing on the cake was that she would be able to make a positive impact on the country while immersing herself in the culture. After three months in Japan volunteering on a rice farm, a strawberry farm, and a bathhouse, Brie was able to communicate with Japanese natives without the help of a translator.
After Japan, Brie spent time WWOOFing on a traditional farm for three weeks in France, and a garden for two weeks in a temple in India. In France, her tasks included tending to the animals. She milked cows, collected eggs, groomed the horses, and “chased down chickens.” In India, Brie worked in a small garden that was used to support the hosts, the temple, and was also a source for their personal food. Her host family helped her to turn her self-described “black thumb,” a tad bit greener. Brie returned back to the states after volunteering with more than just a firmer grasp on a language she was interested in. Her experience allowed for growth in both her personality, and her palate and cooking skills. As a “terrible cook,” she made a conscious effort to learn her way around the kitchen. Her host in India made it a personal mission to teach her how to cook in order to “get a husband.” Of course she was happy for the lessons for the purpose of being able to feed herself better home cooked meals, but she now proudly lists on her dating profile that she can cook. Her skills came in handy on a recent date, though according to Brie, the Indian spices may have been a bit much for him.
The opportunity to grow her own food changed her eating habits and naturally, her shopping habits as well. Brie now frequents farmer’s markets for her food, only visiting grocery stores for items she can’t find at the market. An international market she loves to visit, allows her to continue to make the foods she grew to love abroad, which include almost every variation of rice due to her time in Japan, and spicy food recipes she learned in India. “You learn the impact of shopping with smaller farmers as most of them are struggling and being pushed out by bigger farms that may use other unknown methods to grow their food.” She goes on to say, “It makes me feel good knowing that I’m buying food from people who feed the same things to their families.”
She recalled that her own experience accompanying her host in India to the farmer’s market to sell the extra vegetables they grew at the temple, helped her understand the industry, but also helped her to understand more about herself. “It was quite competitive. We had to get in people’s faces in order for them to buy the food, which was the opposite of my personality.” Also, being an African American in another country with a “curly afro” meant that she couldn’t necessarily hide as she could do more easily at home. In many of the small areas where she stayed the people have not met many people who looked like her. Not being able to hide helped her to assert herself more at home.
Also, learning how to communicate in places where she spoke little of the language helped her to be able to better express her needs. Though WWOOFing allows travelers to stay in non-traditional spaces while they visit other countries, it is not to be confused with Airbnb or similar companies. As Brie explains, “If you are looking to get into it, make sure your letter to prospective hosts describes who you are, your skills, highlights why you want to WWOOF, and states that you are a hard worker.” Brie goes on to stress that “they are looking for someone who is hardworking, and not just looking for a vacation.” WWOOFing is ideal for those that would like to become a part of the culture in the countries they visit. They can literally get their hands dirty, and get knee deep into the foundation of each land they choose to visit. For foodies, the opportunity to help cultivate food takes the term “organic food” to another level. Brie’s future plans to WWOOF may include visits to New Zealand, Australia, and some countries in Africa including Cameroon. To get more information on WWOOFing, visit www.wwoof.net and follow them on Instagram at @wwoof.