There are a wide variety of ways to volunteer on farms abroad, but WWOOFing is, perhaps, the most popular. WWOOF is an acronym for Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms; the grassroots organization has been going strong since 1971.
Generally referred to as WWOOFers, the volunteers do roughly four to six hours of work up to six days per week, in exchange for room and board. Through this organization, you can apply to volunteer with hosts all around the world. Currently, WWOOFing is possible in over 60 countries. There are thousands of farms to choose from with an array of offerings, anything from working on a vineyard to weaving.
The majority of options tend to involve manual labor, so don’t expect WWOOFing to be a relaxing month on a bucolic pasture. If you want to be a WWOOFer you have to commit to working hard and living in potentially unpleasant conditions that you're not accustomed to. If you do follow through with this educational, character-building experience, you’ll likely leave with a new perspective on a culture and lifestyle that might otherwise feel totally foreign.
Just weeks after I graduated high school, I got a membership to WWOOF Ireland. After sending out a few dozen messages to hosts, I got a single response and accepted the farmer’s offer. I immediately bought a plane ticket and went to work on a rural vegetable farm in southern Ireland before I started college. Due to my naivety, my experience was ultimately negative, but that doesn't mean I won't give WWOOFing another shot. Through the hardships I faced on that farm, I learned exactly what I need to look for in future hosts. Hopefully, my mistakes will give you some insight on how to choose the right situation for your needs and interests. Always take caution when committing your time and presence to strangers on the internet.
The Benefits of WWOOFing
Volunteering on a farm overseas (or domestically) not only provides you with a free place to stay but with a unique cultural viewpoint from residents of the country in which you are serving. As an individual, you can make a positive impact on the lives of farmers, just as they will to you.
WWOOFing inspired me to turn my brown thumb green. I used to kill cactuses and now I am able to grow my own herbs and keep my small, urban apartment full of lush houseplants. You can practice language skills, learn farming or crafting techniques, and form meaningful bonds with people overseas.
Popular Countries for WWOOFing
It is possible to WWOOF in almost every country on earth, but here are a few of the countries with a wide variety of interesting opportunities.
Sheep, veggies, and green rolling hills all around. Plus, there are around 500 hosts to choose from. Ireland is a pricey country for budget travelers, but WWOOFing can make the trip financially accessible. As an English speaking country, language won't be an issue, but the strong accents in rural areas can be a bit tough to make out at times. The entire country is blanketed with lush greenery and the temperate weather is generally pleasant year round so you can WWOOF during any season without much hassle.
Another hotspot for vineyards as well as olives and beekeeping opportunities. The country is incredibly popular with tourists and honeymooners, but WWOOFing here will give you an entirely different perspective of authentic Italian culture, language, and lifestyle instead of the typical beaten path. You can immerse yourself in winemaking, olive harvesting, or any of the other offerings within this Mediterranean nation.
A country renowned for their organic farming practices among the South/Central American countries as well as rainforests, beaches, mountains and waterfalls in a tropical climate. You can learn about ecotourism in the best destination for it. Costa Rica is a perfect winter WWOOFing destination.
Plenty of vineyards for all you wine lovers out there! There are well over 1000 hosts in France, making it one of the top countries for WWOOFing. Learn how to bake French bread at a boulangerie, or work on a lavender field in the south. France is a romantic destination for WWOOFers. Imagine bringing your new French baking skills home to share.
Deep in the Himalayas lies a little country with innovative farming methods and a mindful culture. Despite the devastation inflicted on Nepal by the earthquake in 2015, the country is recovering and still accepting WWOOFers. Nepal is perfect for outdoor enthusiasts. Mount Everest, the world’s tallest mountain, lies on the border, along with hundreds of other alpine summits in the Himalayas.
Another English-speaking nation with a dramatic landscape and unique farming options. Adventurers flock to New Zealand for the array of outdoor activities. You can bungee jump, hike, swim, kayak, climb, surf, scuba dive, raft, and skydive. On top of that, Lord of the Rings fans can visit the hobbit houses. If you’re particularly interested in working with livestock and don’t mind a long flight, New Zealand is an idyllic setting for volunteering.
A thriving aquaculture industry for those of you who have a passion for fishing. Located in the southern hemisphere, the seasons are reversed. Our summer is their winter. Thus, if you want to WWOOF in the summer without sweltering temperatures, South Africa provides a mild climate during our summer months. Going on a safari on an off day sounds pretty neat too.
Hawaii alone has almost 400 hosts! Who wouldn’t want to go to Hawaii?! The other benefit of WWOOFing domestically (if you live in the U.S.) is that you might get by without having to pay for a flight. Having access to a vehicle while WWOOFing is also a tremendous luxury. There are a variety of climates and landscapes. With no language barrier to over, the U.S. is an ideal location for a first timer!
What to Consider Before WWOOFing
Before you grab a plane ticket and take off on a WWOOFing adventure, there are a few logistics to keep in mind. If you consider each of these important criteria while browsing destinations and WWOOFing opportunities, you’re far more likely to have a positive experience during your time overseas.
1. Where to Go
First, consider language. If you cannot verbally communicate with your hosts, learning from them will be difficult. You’re better off volunteering on a farm where at least one of the hosts can speak a language in which you are proficient. If you’re an English speaker dead set on WWOOFing in Chile, but can’t find an English speaking host, start studying now! Language immersion is incredibly beneficial for acquisition.
You can learn more from WWOOFing than just farming. If you have a country in mind or travel plans already booked, subscribe to that country’s WWOOF organization and see what’s available. Decide what type of environment you prefer: near or in a city, suburban, rural, or remote. Check the location of each farm before messaging the host.
2. What Type of Work You Want to Do
What are your primary agricultural interests? Do you want to work with animals? Do you want to learn about organic produce, cheese making, bread baking, permaculture?
Solidify your goals before you start messaging hosts. There are so many farms offering unique learning experiences such as fermentation, woodworking, baking or animal rescue. Look into what’s out there before you make up your mind. If I had known that I could have gone to France to learn to bake bread, trust me, I would have.
3. Living Situation, Surrounding Area & Other Amenities
In my opinion, WWOOF should enforce some standard rules for living conditions on their hosts’ farms. In the absence of these standards, the burden of ensuring the quality experience will fall on you as the WWOOFer.
Communicate with the host. Find out where you will be sleeping and living. Will they have a bicycle for you to borrow? Is there a bed? Do you need a tent? Is there heat? Electricity? Running water? Can you walk to a grocery store, restaurant, bar, or cafe? Go with low expectations. You may have to share a room and bathroom with other volunteers. You won’t be pampered, but you shouldn’t be suffering either.
During my experience in Ireland, my living quarters consisted of a rusty old camper shell with no running water, phone, heat, internet, or bathroom. All I had was a moldy mattress that was too wide for the narrow camper so it couldn’t lay flat. There were no sheets, just some scratchy, chewed up blankets and no pillow. On top of that, I was totally alone. The farmers lived in the small town a few miles away and commuted. I didn’t have a phone at the time, nor did they. The situation was painfully isolating.
Moreover, I was only fed white bread and lunch meat for every meal with the occasional piece of lettuce, but I was a vegetarian so I became quite weak from the lack of protein and nutrients. If you have allergies or dietary restrictions, state them when you contact hosts. Make sure they are able to provide you with nutritious meals that can sustain you through each day’s labor. If I had asked the hosts these questions beforehand, I would have chosen a different farm.
4. Work Schedule & Duties
The hosts shouldn’t be exploiting you, but again, it may fall on you to ensure this doesn’t happen. Make sure that you clarify your work schedule and responsibilities before you commit to volunteering with them.
Ask what type of work they would like for you to do, how many hours per day, and how many days per week. WWOOFers often complain about being overworked or not gaining any skills. Unfortunately, the organization is unlikely to assist you out in this case. You shouldn’t be working over six hours per day.
When I WWOOFed, the farmers had me weeding nettle and mowing fields for eight hours straight, but I’ve also had friends who worked leisurely four-hour-days planting seeds and picking fruit on weekdays that had a wonderful time. They had time to explore their communities or even take weekend trips. Your situation can go either way. Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst (just to be safe). If you are being taken advantage of, leaving early is always an option.
Whether you’ll need a visa depends on the country you are going to, and the length of time you plan to stay. Do ample research to better understand the visa requirements in the country that you choose. For some countries, like Japan, you can stay up to 90 days without a visa if you are from the United States. Do your due diligence so you don’t get in trouble with immigration.
Top Questions about WWOOFing
How Do I Find the Right Farm?
Apply to many hosts, but don’t overstate your experience to get ahead. WWOOF hosts get tons of emails from eager participants. They may not have time to respond to everyone, much less accommodate them. Cater your search to your particular interests and location preferences.
Read reviews of hosts, make sure they aren’t negative. Even one or two negative reviews is not a good sign. Sometimes hosts will have a dozen positive reviews, but the conditions on their farm will be abysmal in real life. On the flip side, there could be a host without any reviews that is truly excellent. Go with your gut and hope it plays out in your favor.
Finally, cement your arrangement with your host and pack according to the weather and work environment. Keep in mind that some things will get lost in translation when one end isn’t corresponding in their native language.
What will be Expected of Me While WWOOFing?
While each WWOOFing experience will vary based on the type of work you’ll do, there is one common expectation: hosts expect you to honor your commitment. They expect you to work hard and be somewhat flexible.
Tell your host what you want to gain from the experience. A good host should help you learn the skills you want to acquire, in return, you should be engaged in the work. Some tasks can be extremely strenuous while others may be rather sedentary. Understand how early or late the hosts would like you to work, how physical the work is, and set a tentative weekly schedule.
Your hosts might also want you to help them table at a market or spend time with their pets or children occasionally. These are tasks that let you peek into their lives, communities, and families. Take advantage of these authentic experiences and become immersed the culture.
How Much Does WWOOFing Cost?
This is subjective to where, when, and how long you are WWOOFing. For example, if you are flying from New York to New Zealand, your flight will cost a lot more than someone going to Mexico from California. You are responsible for your own travel arrangements. Here are a few costs to consider when making a budget:
- WWOOF membership/subscription fee (around $40 per country per year)
- Ground transportation to site
- Food & drink costs
- Activities outside of WWOOFing
- Visa processing (if you need one)
- Travel and/or health insurance
- Phone and/or internet services
What is the Age Limit for WWOOFing?
For the majority of WWOOF countries, participants must be 18 or older. In Ireland and Portugal, you can WWOOF at 17, but a letter of parental permission may be required. In Turkey, you must be 20 to WWOOF. There’s not an upper age limit, but you have to be physically capable of doing potentially strenuous work all day.
While WWOOFing, Can I Bring My Partner? Kids? Dog?
The answers to these questions are up to the individual hosts. Finding a host that will accept you as a volunteer is significantly harder if you’re planning to bring a pet or young children. Specifically, there may be safety issues for kids. A partner shouldn’t affect your search much, but the host must be able to accommodate your situation if they want you both to volunteer.
What to Pack for a WWOOFing Trip
While WWOOFing, you’re going to get dirty, sweaty, and you might not get a chance to launder your clothes for weeks or months.
Pack neutral clothing that suits the climate of where you’re volunteering. Cotton becomes stinky when you repeatedly sweat through it and it doesn’t wick moisture. Wool and certain synthetics require less washing and hide your body odor better than cotton. Bring utilitarian shoes, sunglasses, raingear, a hat, sunscreen, lots of underwear and socks.
If the sleeping arrangement is unclear, bring a lightweight sleeping bag and packable pillow just in case. Take a backpack instead of rolling luggage if possible. Attempting to roll a heavy suitcase through a field is no fun.
WWOOFing can be unpredictable; the best advice I have is to go in with an open mind. This may be the most amazing experience of your life or the absolute worst. You will learn something, whether it’s about farming, culture, language or about yourself as an individual, and you will ultimately benefit. Regardless, you can add WWOOFing to your resume!
This article was originally published in April 2011, and was updated in May 2018.