Almost every time we chat with somebody new about our farming adventure their response is almost always “Oh, so you’re WWOOFing.” My response is “Well no, we’re apprenticing actually”, then my brain cranks start turning as I try to figure out the best way to explain the difference.
If this is the first time you are reading the word “WWOOF” you may think we are taking part in some sort of dog show. Allow me to ease the confusion. WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, and people that participate in WWOOF programs are “WWOOFers” that are “WWOOFing”. Clear as mud, right?
WWOOF started in 1971 in England when Sue Coppard was looking for a way to access the countryside and support the organic food movement. She organized a small group to spend time on a farm in Sussex, which spawned 44 years of WWOOFing. Today there are WWOOFing opportunities in over 50 countries around the world.
Here’s how WWOOFing works: volunteers are typically provided a full day’s food and accommodation in exchange for approximately 4-6 hours of labor on the farm. Visits can range anywhere from a few days to a few months, but generally fall in the 1-2 week range. Volunteers help with a wide range of farm tasks such as seeding, weeding, harvesting, fencing and small building projects. The terms of each WWOOF arrangement are defined by the farm host, so the volunteer is responsible for seeking the right WWOOFing opportunity for them.
In the spirit of full disclosure I must say that I have never done any WWOOFing. I am, however, a fan of the program and have come very close to WWOOFing in the past, so I feel as though I can compare WWOOFing to farming apprenticeship with some degree of accuracy. Here are some of the points I am able to differentiate between WWOOFing and organic farm apprenticeships:
1. While WWOOFers can spend anywhere from a few days to a 6 months with a host, the average length of stay is about 1 to 2 weeks. Apprenticeships also vary in length, however most, including ours, span at least the length of the summer growing season. Our particular apprenticeship is 7 months in length, which allows us to experience the early prep and late wrap up work that goes into starting and ending another farming season, as well as the standard “seeding through harvest” experience. By spending this much time on the farm we have found that we have become deeply invested in both the day-to-day operations of the farm as well as it’s long term success (i.e. without our hard work at the beginning of the apprenticeship there will be little to reap at the end of it!).
2. WWOOFing attracts people from all walks of life, however many WWOOFers are travellers taking part in the program in a country other than their own. WWOOFing offers travellers a great way to experience the “working” side of the country they visit, as well as free food and accommodation in return for their labor. On the other hand, apprenticeships tend to attract individuals within the same country, likely because these folks are keen to participate in the organic farming industry close to home in the near future.
3. The exchange between WWOOFer and host is well defined: labor for accommodation and food. An apprenticeship focuses on “education” as much as it does “experience”, so apprentices often get to delve deeper into the world of organic farming. This may include the business, political and ethical sides of organic farming, as well as the “why” behind the multitude of labor related tasks that an apprentice may be involved in. While I don’t doubt that many WWOOFers have developed a life long relationship with organic farming through their WWOOFing experience, I feel as though organic farming apprenticeships cater to this more specifically than the WWOOFing program.
Before we even started looking at spending time on an organic farm, whether through an apprenticeship or WWOOFing, the overarching question in our minds was always “Can we do this? Can we be farmers”? It seemed to us that the most obvious way to attempt to figure this out was to give it a go. Remove ourselves from life as we know it (urban jungle dwellers) and plunk ourselves right down into the organic farming world. So we did our research. We looked for months for the perfect opportunity. We explored every avenue of the internet for opportunities on organic farms and what we came upon was a website for people like us. People seeking long-term trials in the organic world. This website, called SOIL (Stewards of Irreplaceable Land) was a listing service offering farm apprenticeship opportunities across Canada. Finally, we thought, this is it.
We printed off 2 copies of all the listings that existed in BC and each went through them separately with a highlighter and pen, making notes as to which ones were our favourites, and highlighted the things we liked about them. We then sat down as a couple and reviewed our selections, seeing if any of our top listings matched the others’. These were the farms we contacted. That is how we found Middle Mountain Mead.
Here we are, 9 months after our search for an apprenticeship first began, and 3 and a half months into our actual apprenticeship. I hope that we get to become WWOOFers at some point in the future so we can experience how those in other countries experience the way of life we enjoy so much, but for Aaron and I, our apprenticeship has come to fit like a well worn glove.