It was 2008 and I found myself almost crying because of her departure, a new friend I’d known for just two weeks.
It’d been an intense fortnight of working, eating, talking, dancing and hanging out in lovely Sweden — Eekerö, to be precise — on a small piece of the world called Rosenhill Trädgård, the very first WWOOF farm on which I’d worked.
My name’s Erwin. I’m not naturally green-fingered, but they quickly became greener (and dirtier!) as I became a more experienced WWOOFer.
I originally found out about this global network of farms through a friend:
“Just try it! It’ll be a great way to spend a free year!”
So off I went to the website of WWOOF Sweden, found a farm that appealed to me and simply called them. Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I was preparing to travel. I packed my freshly-bought backpack and took a 24-hour bus ride to Sweden, arriving at the farm where I was welcomed by 10 young people asking if I wanted to join them for a game of soccer. I hadn’t even had time to put my backpack down.
This is the essence of WWOOF: togetherness. You become a part of the family you stay with, eating what they eat, sleeping on their land and learning the techniques they use to work with the soil, and sometimes even learning a new language in the process!
WWOOFing doesn’t feel like work — it feels more like helping somebody out for a couple of hours a day. There were days when you work 12 hours straight, too. But a great group dynamic makes 12 hours of hard work feel like a nice workout. At that first farm, I’d planned to stay for 2 or maybe 3 weeks. It was in December I realized that 5 months had gone by.
Eventually it was time to move on, and I found another farm, just above the Arctic circle, working mostly with husky dogs. Unfortunately I didn’t get on so well with the people I stayed with, so I lasted just 4 days. But WWOOFing does not oblige you to stay. It’s your time, so you can come and go whenever you want to. It wasn’t easy to make the decision to leave so soon, especially since they’d taken me into their home and fed me, but it just wasn’t going to work out.
The next place I went to was Bulgaria. One of the most exciting things about the network is the fact that you have no clue where you will end up and who you will meet. Will it be hippies in a shack on the edge of the forest? Or will it be a family trying to live in a self-sustainable way? What will the work be? How will the food be? Will there be other WWOOFers? Each and every time I find myself surprised, just by going to a farm or smallholding and seeing how the people live there.
I see the WWOOF movement and long distance bicycle touring as very much compatible, with huge potential for self-sustainability. A bit of weeding, a bit of welding and you’re ready to go again. Last year I cycled back from Hungary to my hometown in The Netherlands, and on the way I passed 5 different farms. I stayed for 3 days at each farm, working, as well as interviewing and filming.
Stopping off at WWOOF farms like this has some great advantages. You can rest, using other muscles then your legs. You get a real bed (sometimes even a double bed!). You get proper food, made on a real stove or in a real oven. You get space and time and proper tools to fix your bike. You have other people to talk to, instead of talking to yourself. And in general you get the feeling of staying in one place for more than just a night. It’s a change to work with the ground instead of just pedalling for miles on end. You emerge recharged and with renewed energy to continue your trip. Connections with your fellow workers are made quickly, too, and you might well find cycling companions with whom to continue riding.
Actually starting WWOOFing is incredibly easy. Simply check online if the country you’re going to (or are already in) has a WWOOF community of its own. If not, check the WWOOF Independents site to see if your country of choice is on their website. You pay a small membership fee in order to see the contact details for the farms. And then you just pick up the phone and call your future hosts. (It’s usually a good idea to call them again a couple of days before you arrive, so you won’t be left standing in front of a locked door.)
The most beautiful thing about my cycling-WWOOFing experience, I think, was the kindness of the hosts. Normally there is a minimum stay of about a week, but at these farms they happily let me stay for just 2 or 3 days. It was still hard work, of course. But when I left the first farm, they gave me a parting gift: 2 pairs of hand-made knitted socks.
And this is really why I WWOOF: the mutual sense of appreciation.
If you’re interested in learning more, check out my own video documentary about my cycling-WWOOFing experience:
Who knows — maybe we’ll see each other on a WWOOF farm in the future…