When I was prepping for my self-care sabbatical, I did A LOT of research on destinations, long-term traveling, what to pack, etc. But one of the most interesting things that I learned about was WWOOF: World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. This global organization pairs organic farmers with volunteers from all over the world who are looking to get their hands dirty while traveling. In exchange for their work, volunteers are given meals and accommodation during their stay, or in some cases, volunteers can camp or bring an RV to the farm for their lodging. There are over 100 countries offering WWOOFing opportunities!
Once I learned about WWOOF, I knew this had to be part of my trip. I immediately imagined myself working on a farm in France, practicing my French skills and learning something about sustainable agriculture. And I was pretty sure I wanted to work in a vineyard, getting to see the winemaking process from the very beginning. The benefit of not having to pay for food and lodging during my experience was an added bonus! This would be a great way to save some money while traveling in Europe. And as a solo traveler, it would be an awesome way to meet some new people.
Finding a Farm
The first step was to narrow down where to do my WWOOFing – France was an easy choice because my French language skills were good enough that I would be able to communicate regularly with my hosts or other volunteers. While I was intrigued by doing a WWOOF experience in Spain or Germany, I knew language could be a bit more challenging. Most of the farm profiles are clear about what languages are spoken there; I’d recommend going somewhere where you will be confident in your communication with your hosts. Also, make sure you check visa requirements for whichever location you choose.
Once I chose France, I had to register on the WWOOF France site and create a profile, outlining what I was looking for in my experience (most countries have their own sites – for those that don’t, there is a separate WWOOF International that combines the countries). There is an annual fee which will give you access to view farm profiles in detail and message the farms – before you pay the fee you can still see limited information for the farms (this may vary by country, ranging between $0-72). I then had to determine approximately where I wanted to work within France (there were so many profiles to look through!) and what timing I was considering. After narrowing it down to about 10-15 farms around Southern France, I started contacting hosts. At first, I got a lot of rejections. Hosts were either all booked up with volunteers, didn’t have enough work to offer, or the timing wasn’t lining up. I started to get a little worried that I wouldn’t find something I was interested in and would have to compromise for a farm experience that wasn’t the vineyard or jam-making fantasy I had played in my head.
Fortunately, I received a YES from a host named Jimmy who was quick to invite me to his home for les vendanges (grape harvest) if only I could adjust my timing slightly. He asked that I commit for a full three weeks (rather than just two) and to let him know when I would arrive so he could come to get me from whichever train station I arrived in. Though it meant I had to change my plans around a little, I was thrilled to have found a host willing to take me on and, even better, I would get to work the grape harvest!
I couldn’t have asked for a better first WWOOF experience and, I quickly learned that there are some not-so-great WWOOF stories out there which may have scared me off had I known about them beforehand. Jimmy and his wife Charlette were so warm and welcoming! I immediately felt like I was at home, like they were my French parents. Because Jimmy and Charlette have a very large home, they are able to take on quite a few volunteers which is perfect for les vendanges when you need all the help you can get! There were a few other Americans, as well as some British, Russian, Italian, Chinese, and Belgian volunteers. Jimmy and Charlette’s family and friends also helped out from time to time. We spoke mostly French though with so many English-speakers around in the house, we probably spoke more English than we should have! After weeks of traveling on my own, it was such a pleasure to be living in a home and making new friends.
The work was tough but incredibly rewarding. Schedules for WWOOFing will vary based on host and what type of work is needed. We cut grapes for 10.5 days, but on a few other days we helped at other farms or did work around the house or fruit trees that were adjacent to some of the vineyards. On the days we were working, we left the house around 7:30 after a quick breakfast, worked for a few hours before taking a pause (with refreshments of course), then went home again for lunch around 11:30. Following lunch, we’d head back to work around 1:30 or 2 (sometimes we could squeeze in a nap after lunch), have another pause partway through the afternoon and finish up before 5. Once we were done working, we could relax in Jimmy’s sister’s pool or just hang at the house with a cool beer before dinner. We always had plenty of wine, cheese, and delicious homemade food. I was thrilled to be able to help in the kitchen sometimes after traveling for a while – I had really missed cooking.
On the days we weren’t working, we had free time to just bum around the house or go to the aforementioned pool. Some days we had group trips to nearby towns such as Carcassonne so we could see a bit more of the region and, on a few days, we went out to the beach for some sun and a picnic.
Those days off were so wonderful, especially after working outside in the sun all day, stooping over to cut grapes. It is not easy work, but the soreness goes away after the first day or two. And there is just something so fulfilling about working with your hands, working your way through the rows of grapes and watching the truck fill up with bunches of grapes. The sooner the truck was full, the sooner we could go home! I was dirty and scratched up and so hot, but I was so much happier being out in the vineyard than sitting on a conference call in an office!
I loved this WWOOFing experience so much that I decided to do a second one straight away after leaving Jimmy and Charlette’s home. I spent another 9 days with my next host, Sylvaine, where I helped her prepare for the olive harvest and got to press some wine. Here, there were two other volunteers and everyone, except me, were native French speakers. Suddenly I was speaking 100% French! Working at Sylvaine’s was a totally different experience, which I also loved. She was an incredibly welcoming host and I was able to experience more local cultural experiences while staying with her (French movies, a music festival).
After leaving Sylvaine’s I knew that I would do WWOOFing again somewhere soon – with invitations to come back to her home and Jimmy’s in the future, I could picture myself volunteering in France again. And I even considered doing WWOOF (or Workaway) while in Asia.
What to know if you want to do WWOOFing
Do some research on a potential host – Like anything, you need to feel out if the host will be the right fit for you and if you will have the kind of experience you are looking for. Look for profiles that have reviews, and read both the profile and the reviews carefully to get a sense for what this host is like (and if there are any red flags). When contacting hosts, ask questions about what the work will be like, as well as about the lodging, how many volunteers, etc. Many of the horror stories I heard or read about seemed to be from people who went in a little blindly into an experience. And if a host seems a little weird, then trust your gut and find someone else. It will only get weird once you are in their home!
Know what to bring (and what to leave at home) – You can definitely ask your host about what you should bring, but there are also other resources online from WWOOFers about packing. Because I was traveling for a few months, I didn’t really have a lot of clothes packed for WWOOFing. And I soon found out that the running pants I intended to wear would NOT be appropriate as the branches would be poking me through the material. Fortunately, Charlette and Jimmy had a full closet of clothes left by previous WWOOFers and I was welcome to help myself to anything in the closet. I found a pair of jeans that fit and even took them on to my 2nd WWOOF location (then promptly left them for the next volunteer who needed some pants). Also, if you are going to be working outside most days, you probably don’t need a lot of fancy clothes!
Over-communicate with your hosts – Make sure it’s clear what your expectations are and when you will be arriving/leaving. I saw a few instances of confusion and misunderstanding at my first farm when things were not quite clear and people left. This is also a great chance to confirm what you need to pack (and what you don’t need to bring).
Be Respectful – This seems obvious, but probably still needs to be said. This should go both ways between hosts and volunteers and will make a huge difference in the overall WWOOF experience. Respect also applies to the culture and to the work that you are doing – this should be a cultural immersion, not just a way to live for free in someone’s home (translation: This is not Couchsurfing).
For more information about WWOOFing, check out their FAQ page.