© 2023 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
Several years ago, I learned about an organization that connected farmers needing short- or long-term labor, with volunteers wanting to help; however, I'd forgotten all about it. Then early in 2022, I heard about it again on a TV documentary, and I decided to check it out. It's called WWOOF: World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, volunteer workers are called Wwoofers, and the volunteer activity is called Wwoofing! Chapters exist in many countries. Some hosts grow fruit and/or vegetables, some have various kinds of livestock, others have a vineyard. Some are commercial and large operations; others are small and private.
As I live in the US, I went to the US National Chapter website. After looking over the host profiles within 3–4 hours' drive from my place, I paid my US$40 for a 1-year volunteer membership, and set out to find a host. It took quite some effort, and it wasn't until the sixth place I contacted over a 3–4-week period that I had success.
Hosts are required to provide a safe accommodation space and three meals a day. Some hosts invite the volunteers to eat with them while others provide food for the volunteers to prepare on their own. Many hosts are vegetarian and some are vegan. Hosts typically ask volunteers to work 4–6 hours per day over a 5-day period.
This essay is broken into several parts: my membership profile; my first (and, thus far, only) experience as a farm volunteer through this program, during July of 2022; and my efforts trying to find a host farmer along with my observations and conclusions.
Part 1: My Membership Profile
Here's what I wrote about myself on the Website:
Availability: I work part-time, from home, mostly on my own schedule, and have a lot of flexibility. And so long as I have good internet access at least once or twice a day while away from home, I can service my business clients and deal with other important matters remotely. Currently, I'm looking at stays from 2–10 days. I live in the rural west part of Loudoun County in Northern Virginia, and am currently looking at hosts within 1–6-hour's drive from home, but am open to considering places further afield.
Accommodation: By far the most important thing is the bed. I'm 6'4" tall, but can manage to fit into a single- or double bed provided it has no footer; that is, I can hang my legs over the end. I absolutely need a firm and flat mattress. If I can't consistently get a good night's sleep, I won't be staying long, so don't accept me if the bed doesn't fit my requirements.
Quirks: I am not the least bit interested in social media; I have a very full life, thank you very much! I don't do texting, and I rarely have my cell phone switched on, except by appointment! I use it entirely for my (occasional) benefit, and then only as a phone and camera.
Background: I was born in, and lived in, Australia for 25 years, and came to the US in 1979, where I lived in Chicago for a year, and thereafter in the greater Washington DC area. Until age 16, I lived in a 10-inch rainfall, semi-desert area of South Australia, on various farms up to 4,000 acres in size. We cropped wheat and barley; raised sheep, chickens, and pigs; and had a vegetable garden. Being of German descent, we butchered our own meat; made our own sausage, hams, and bacon; and smoked them. We canned fruit and vegetables. When we had a few dairy cows, I hand-milked one each day after school, and I hand-cranked the milk separator for the cream. I trapped rabbits for meat and skins.
I was a part-time university student for many years while working in Chemistry, before discovering computers and programming. Since 1984, I have been self-employed, having at least 3 months off each year, spread over the year. Nowadays, I work about 50 hours per month.
For the 40 years prior to the COVID pandemic, I travelled extensively around the US and abroad, mostly on business, but always adding on personal time "to stop and smell the flowers." [Many of my trip diaries are posted on my blog, as is a series of essays called "What is Normal?"]
I am a prolific writer and reader. I *love* learning and teaching. I am interested in languages, and have basic skills in German and Spanish, and minimal ability in spoken Japanese.
On the volunteer front, I fund and operate a small foundation that serves underprivileged kids and their families, and involves support for reading. I've been a host and travel member of the international, peace-based hosting organization Servas for 35 years. I am also a Couch Surfing host and traveler, and an AirBnB user. I drive (mostly elderly) clients to appointments and take them on social outings. I've mentored high school and university students, and I tutor individual ESOL students. I also read with elementary-school kids.
- I like working with most kinds of animals.
- I'm very comfortable in a vegetable garden.
- I know my way around quite a few hand and power tools, including a chainsaw. I've renovated a house and done a lot of handyman jobs.
- I'm a very practical guy with more common sense than most (which, sadly, isn't saying much). I believe in planning for success!
- Once you've explained/demonstrated to me what you need done, you can leave me to it.
- I'm a self-starter, and put in a 110% effort. If something is worth doing at all, it's worth doing properly!
- I'm an "ideas" person who loves to brainstorm a solution.
- I love preparing food and cooking, but nothing fancy. (I try not to let my snacks interfere with my meals!)
- I can help with home schooling, in numerous subjects.
- I can teach you how to create better-than-basic Word documents and Excel spreadsheets. I can help you master Quicken for record keeping and invoicing.
Part 2: Trip Diary
The Drive Down
Having stayed very close to home during the COVID-19 pandemic, I hadn't travelled in a long while, and had to get back into travel mode with respect to packing and preparation. But over the past 40+ years I have developed a detailed list for that, and it all came back to me rather quickly.
I loaded up my gear and headed out at 1:45 pm. It was a straight run south on state Highway 15 to the James River. The non-stop, 3.5-hour drive was without incident, although I missed a couple of turns at very busy intersections. Outside, it was 90–95 degrees F (32–35 C), while inside, I had the air-conditioner keeping it much cooler and drier. Although my 2002 Nissan Pathfinder SUV, Norrie, had developed some permanent, fuel-related problems, I decided to take it on this trip to give it a good workout, and I am happy to say that it performed admirably!
I arrived at Dragonfly Farms at 5 pm, where I was greeted by Judi. After unloading my gear, I met her husband, Doug. Both were in their 70's. My room was large and had a big-boy bed that was just right for Goldilocks and me (although not necessarily together); not too soft and not too hard!
Having had a very large lunch, supper involved a small snack of garden-fresh cucumber slices with black pepper and salt, all washed down with a fine bottle of creaming soda.
After a cold shower, I felt much better, and I settled onto my bed with a large fan blowing hard. (The house had no air-conditioning. That was good as I didn't want the room cold, and bad as I would have preferred to not have high humidity.) I'd browsed the hosts' bookshelves and found some interesting titles on numerous topics, and I read bits and pieces from several for an hour. By 8:15, I was yawning, so I settled in for the night. Although the windows had no blinds or heavy drapes and it was still quite light outside, I fell asleep almost immediately.
I slept soundly for more than eight hours, and lay in for another one, finally getting up at 5:15. I was surprised that it was not yet light outside, but the days were getting shorter now. I read bits from a travel book on the US state of New Mexico, especially the area around Taos.
When I connected to the internet for the first time, a flood of mail arrived. Also, my electronic calendar informed me that it was the 43rd anniversary of my arrival in the US in 1979. (I'd only planned to stay a year, but that seems to have been extended considerably!)
My hosts surfaced soon after, and Doug took charge of the kitchen. It was a vegetarian house. I had a bowl of fresh peach slices, a fried egg on toast, and my first-ever plant-based sausage, along with a glass of apple cider. Afterwards, Doug and I washed the dishes.
We spent a half hour walking around the greenhouses getting me educated on the tasks that needed to be done. Along the way, we restored the deer-proof barrier around a tomato patch. It consisted of a thin, white tape at deer-head height, and I wiped it with some sort of egg-based solution, which apparently keeps the deer away.
The farm produced peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, beans, black berries, blueberries, strawberries, and various kinds of herbs. Customers ordered on a website, and deliveries took place each Thursday. This being a Thursday, the day's orders were already in labelled bags in refrigerators, and we packed them into large coolers. We also loaded some herbs and other plants that had been ordered. We set out around 9 o'clock, soon after Judi's caregiver arrived. (Judy had early-onset dementia, so couldn't be left home alone.)
We drove 45+ minutes to the outskirts of Richmond, the state capital of Virginia. In a shaded parking area, growers like us unloaded their goods giving each set of orders to one of about 15 distributors whose trucks were lined up in alphabetical order of destination. My task was to deliver the orders to the correct destination truck, and to initial a form showing I'd done so. After a few hours there, all grower deliveries will have been made and the distributors take their orders to their home area, which is typically 30–60 miles away.
Although it was quite humid, it was nowhere near as hot as the day before, and we drove home via the back roads with the windows down. We passed several county and state prisons, one of which was a working farm where the inmates worked with livestock. A number of inmates were working right next to the road and were dressed in orange tops and blue pants, their prison uniform. We stopped in a large town to lay in supplies from a supermarket, and to get spoiled by the air conditioning. We were home at noon.
We had ears of corn for lunch, and I smothered mine in butter, black pepper, and salt. I very much enjoyed a tall glass of ice-cold, whole milk. Afterwards, with all the fresh air and exercise, it was naptime, and I slept soundly for more than an hour.
Refreshed from my sleep, I went up to one of the greenhouses and trellised tomatoes by tying the plant tops to thin, plastic strands hanging down from the roof. It was easy work, but soon my shirt was completely soaking wet with perspiration. (That morning, I'd borrowed a belt from Doug for my new work shorts, as they were too loose. Later, I had to tighten the belt even more; I figured I was getting thinner with the perspiration loss.)
After an hour of work, I headed back to the house for a cold shower, and then to work on this diary with the fan blowing at my back. I had a quiet evening, reading, and eating a light supper. Lights-out around 9:30 after more than five hours work throughout the day.
I took ages to get to sleep and didn't get my full quota. At 5:15 am, I was at my laptop handling email and then revising a seminar I'd created more than 20 years earlier. After a couple of hours in business-work mode, I had breakfast, which consisted of a bowl of cereal with fresh-picked blueberries and milk, and a glass of apple cider.
By 7:15, Doug and I were out working. One of the large, semicircular-shaped greenhouses had two ends, each with doorframe and door. The greenhouse was about 100 feet (30 m) long. Our task was to remove both ends, so Doug could get his tractor in there to plow up the old strawberry beds, and to prepare them for some other kind of crop. The challenge was that the ends were not complete units; they were built onto the main frame, so we had to disassemble them in pieces. That took some physical effort with various electric and hand tools, sometimes up a ladder. And although we were mostly working in the shade, it got quite hot and very humid. That task took two hours.
Some months prior, a very strong wind had lifted the roof up in places such that a number of the roof hoops separated from their pipe bases, and our next challenge was to lift those hoop ends back up and onto their corresponding bases. We studied the problem for a good bit before figuring out the best and simplest solution, which required two guys to have the same strength as the original windstorm! Anyway, after much grunting and groaning, we succeeded! By then, I was dead on my feet, and I collapsed on the wet grass in the shade of a large tree, drank a lot of water, and poured the rest over my head. I then lay there for a good while until my heart rate got down to somewhere near normal. I knew then that I surely didn't work that hard for money! After a rest on my back, I took the tools back to the shed, took off my shirt which was soaking wet from perspiration, and jumped into a cold shower. Although I felt like I'd done a day's work, my clock told me we'd only been at it for 2:15 hours! I had a mid-morning snack, lay on the bed, and closed my eyes, but no sleep came, so I got up, had a can of ice-cold Coke to get some caffeine in my body. I then sat down and worked on my seminar-revision project.
My hosts headed off to a town nearby to visit the library and do some shopping, so I had the place to myself. I rested, drank, and read.
Late afternoon, when it was cooler, Doug and I ventured out and I re-attached the plastic sheeting roof on a greenhouse with special spring-wire strips. By the time we'd quit for the day, I'd put in more than three hours and had perspired a lot.
After my second cold shower for the day, I had a light supper and read away the evening before lights-out at 8 o'clock.
I slept well and long, getting up around 5:30. After a steaming mug of Twining's finest Earl Grey tea and some crackers with cheese, I watched some of the weekend's Australian Rules football game highlights on my laptop.
Around 7 am, Doug surfaced, but having slept in some strange position, he was disabled in the area around his neck. As a result, I was quickly promoted from watcher to doer! We unhooked from the tractor the bush hog slashing device Doug had used the previous afternoon, and attached a cultivator with two rows of tines. It had been a very long while since I'd driven a tractor, but it all came back to me quite quickly. There was a hand throttle, and a tractor clutch can take a while to master. And one must be in neutral gear to start and stop various attachments, and to start the tractor to begin with. I backed the tractor into the shed, we attached the new implement, and I drove down to the greenhouse where we'd worked the day before.
My task was to plow up the ground inside the greenhouse to clear the weeds and old strawberry plants, and that was straightforward. However, there was still a row of cantaloupe melons (AU: rock melons) growing down the center, so I had to avoid running over the vines and fruit, and getting the tractor wheels or plow tangled up in the netting supporting them. The melon row was a little off center, which meant it was easy to go down the wider side, but a challenge going back on the narrower side. After that task was done, I lay on the damp grass in the shade for a good while to regain my strength. Due to the curvature of the walls, I couldn't plow too close to them, so a row of tall weeds remained. To those, I took a heavy, long-handled hoe and started to hack them out. I then raked the trash into piles and loaded that onto a large 4-wheeled wagon I found in a shed, and dumped that in the woods. After 2½ hours, I was well and truly spent, and I'd finished about a quarter of the weeding and raking. I had to leave something for later, right? Besides, as Nietzsche famously said, "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger!" I guess I'll find out later on!
Back in the house, I had my first shower for the day, and around 10:30, ate a large bowl of fresh blackberries with cereal, along with some cold apple cider. With the high heat and humidity, lethargy was the order of the day!
At noon, I decided to go for a drive. I started with the windows down, as there was a decent breeze, and there was tall forest, forest, and more forest on both sides of the local roads, so I was in the shade. (One of the main industries in the county was logging, for lumber and paper pulp.) There were occasional cleared patches where small houses stood. The few cleared fields had soybeans growing, and there was a goat farm. Eventually, I got onto a state highway, and there was a bit of traffic. I stopped off to browse in a couple of discount stores and a thrift shop. On the way home, I rescued a half-gallon container of whole milk, and at home I mixed into it a whole lot of Milo chocolate powder I'd brought with me in my "travel kitchen box." It was just the thing for a growing boy.
Mid-afternoon, I lay on the bed and had a very deep sleep for more than an hour. Then at 5 o'clock, when it was quite a bit cooler and the large trees provided shade as the sun dropped down, I sprayed several rows of edamame beans with a hand-pumped container, to keep the deer away. The spray was made from hot peppers, so Doug told me to not get it anywhere near my eyes. (That reminded me of my visit to the Eden Project in Cornwall, England, where I learned about Scoville Heat Units [SHU], which measures the hotness of peppers.) After I finished that task, I thoroughly washed the equipment and my hands and arms. I specifically avoided wearing gloves, as I figured if some of the liquid got inside them, it would be there forever!
Next up, I tightened some screws holding the greenhouse roof to some poles. And then I weeded a section and raked up and disposed of the debris. After nearly two hours, I collapsed on the grass in the shade, and lay there for quite some time, until some enterprising insects decided to start eating me.
After my second shower of the day, I had a great supper of lentils, onion, peppers, and various other things, which I washed down with several large glasses of chocolate milk.
When outside my house, my most common footwear is hiking boots, and I have four pairs in various stages of wear. The two good pairs get used a lot just as shoes-with-great-ankle-support. The two oldest are somewhat worn, but still serviceable for heavy duty activities, and those were the ones I took along for farm work. The soles on the oldest pair had come adrift at the front, so I wrapped some duct tape around the boot toes as "running repairs."
At the end of the day, I'd accomplished a good amount. Lights out at 9 pm.
I slept soundly for eight whole hours. YES! I eased into the day by watching the final three game highlights of Aussie football. At 6:45, I was in work mode in a greenhouse, hoeing weeds, raking then, and hauling them out into the woods. Just as I finished and was resting, Doug and Judi arrived to inspect my work. After some discussion of "what next?", we unhooked the implement we'd used the day before and hooked up a disk plow. I then pulled that up and back a few times with the tractor, getting the greenhouse bed ready for planting in late August, for kale, Brussel sprouts, and broccoli.
After two solid hours of work, I took off my sweat-laden shirt and my boots and socks, and enjoyed a cold shower, followed by a big bowl of blackberries and cereal.
I was surprised that all my hard physical labor hadn't resulted in any soreness or cramps, but that morning, I was feeling a bit run-down. I prepared hot-and-sour soup for lunch, which included bamboo shoots, carrots, celery, onions, and mushrooms. As that is one of my favorite dishes to make, it likely would restore my physical powers for more work later on.
I rested up all afternoon and evening. It was a short workday. I barely managed to stay awake until lights-out at 8 pm.
I was up at 6 o'clock, and had a bowl of cereal with fresh blueberries. It was just the thing for a growing lad! By 7, I was at work in the greenhouse removing some rusty bolts and rotten boards. I also picked cherry tomatoes for house use. At 8 o'clock, worker Chris arrived. (He helped out two half-days each week, and he lived in a basic cabin in the woods not far away, and was slowly making it his own place.) He and I got along just fine and we re-attached plastic sheeting to one side of a greenhouse, and then replaced the rotting boards I mentioned earlier. Then we picked some cucumbers, and trellised tomatoes. After 4½ hours, I headed back to the house for a long cold shower.
Lunch involved a sandwich with the tomatoes I'd picked a few hours earlier, along with an ear of corn, and several tall glasses of lemon-lime-flavored Gatorade.
I rested all afternoon and evening. The rain that was forecast to start at noon finally arrived at 6 pm, with a lot of thunder. Although there was very little rain, the temperature dropped more than 20 degrees, which was most welcome. During the short storm, I sat out on the front porch in a large swing chair and read the Richmond newspaper and a news magazine. I barely managed to stay awake until lights-out at 8 o'clock.
Heading Back Home
With the large temperature drop, I'd left the bedroom windows open all night, and did not use the fan. Unfortunately, the humidity stayed very high, and I was quite damp when I woke. I was up around 6 am, and I packed my gear and got my last email fix. For breakfast, Doug scrambled eggs with peppers and goat cheese, which we washed down with apple cider.
At 8 o'clock, I said my goodbyes, loaded up my Nissan, and headed out in light drizzle. It wasn't at all hot, but the humidity was high enough that I ran the air-conditioning all the way home. It was overcast and an excellent day for driving. Traffic was light, and I made good time, getting to my home area in under three hours. I stopped at a supermarket to lay in some supplies.
At home, I unpacked, started a load of laundry, went through the mail, and planned the next few days-worth of meals. Then it was naptime!
For supper, I had a large, lettuce-based salad. After having had very little green-leaf vegetables for nearly a week, I needed that. And I smuggled in pieces of ham, not having eaten meat for a while. Fortunately, the humidity at home was much lower. After an hour session tutoring English at my local library, I read until lights-out at 8:45.
As is usually the case after a trip, I was very happy to be back in my own home, with my own kitchen, and in my own bed!
Part 3: Follow-up and Reflections
Filing and Receiving a Review
At the end of a visit, hosts and volunteers are each asked to submit a review of their experience, but neither gets to read the others until both are posted, or some submission period expires.
Here's what I wrote: This was my first time as a Wwoofer, and it went very well. Doug and Judi were very welcoming, provided me with a very comfortable bed, and plenty of good food and conversation. The internet connection was fast and reliable. Overall, I worked about 4 hours per day. These are the main tasks I performed during my 5-day stay: • Unloaded produce at a distribution hub • Trellised tomato plants • Sprayed edamame beans • Removed the ends from a greenhouse • Re-attached plastic sheeting on a greenhouse wall • Repaired wooden baseboards on a greenhouse • Hand-hoed and raked weeds • Used a tractor to cultivate and plow in preparation for fall planting.
Here's what Doug wrote about me: Excellent person of high character. Hard worker, self-motivated, can-do attitude. Willing to tackle any job even with no prior experience. Highly recommended.
So, we both concluded that the visit was a success!
Regarding my WWOOF experience, it was a good trip; I was very productive, and the host was very happy with my work. I enjoyed his company and conversation. We had no real schedule, and made things up as we went, which suited me just fine.
After Day 1 and again on the drive home, my big question was, "Will I ever do this kind of volunteer activity again, and if so, with what changes?" To be sure, the novelty and romantic attitude of helping someone while getting fresh air and exercise evaporated by the end of the first day. (To be fair it was very hot and very humid, but I limited my main working hours to early morning and late afternoon.) I'll need to sleep on that question for a week or two, but the answer may very well be "NO!" especially as many hosts ask for five, six, or more hours per day. And one downside I hadn't thought about in advance, is the possibility of bites from deer tick, which can lead to the very debilitating Lyme Disease. (I can also get a bad reaction from touching poison ivy.)
When I first joined, I was very enthusiastic, but over the next four weeks, that faded. First, a number of hosts whose projects interested me never replied to my enquiry, and another replied many weeks later, by which time it no longer worked for me. Then more than a few hosts didn't keep their availability calendars up to date; they said they were available when they weren't, and vice versa. And as I was close to locking in one place, the host announced she had downgraded the accommodation to a very primitive and, to me, an unacceptable level. Of course, she hadn't updated her profile to say this! That said, some hosts replied promptly, but almost all had all the labor they needed, but would keep me on a list. None ever got back to me later, not even several who seemed very interested in having me.
Along the way, I made numerous suggestions to the website organizers, especially regarding how to filter out the hosts I had no interest in. Unfortunately, there was no way to do that.
In the end, I decided that this program was best suited to young travelers who wanted to learn some skills, improve their English, meet people, live cheaply, and use their time off to look around to experience something of rural America.
As for me, now nearly a year after I joined, I don't see myself renewing my membership. Besides, after 10 years of trying to find a local farm where I might help out, I finally made that connection and have helped butcher chickens, remove large thistles, clear brush along fence lines, and worked with sheep and cattle.