A couple of young women pitched up at our place recently. We fed them, gave them a twin-bed room and they worked for us for six hours every day, mostly weeding and cutting back brambles on the edge of the orchard. If they had to pay for a B&B it would cost them £700 a week at this time of year so they’re earning, for a 30-hour week, nearly £10 an hour.
And they’re not tourists; they’re immediately part of the community. That’s ‘wwoofing’ for you.
WWOOF was founded in 1971 by the wonderful Sue Coppard, who was also the editor of Seed Magazine, the Journal of Organic Living that we Samses published from 1971-1977. She wrote to an organic farmer in Sussex and asked if she could come and help out for a weekend. She had a transformative and exciting time and friends said they’d like to do it too, so she took them on a second visit. That was the beginning of an organisation called Weekend Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF). Then people started staying for weeks, not just weekends, so it became Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF). Now people in 61 countries are wwoofing. Globally there are more than 10,000 organic farms and gardens that are WWOOF hosts, so now it is Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (still WWOOF). A person who ‘wwoofs’ is known as a ‘wwoofer.’
Wwoofers can be any age or nationality. It is refreshing to reflect on the people we have met who we would never otherwise have encountered: the American honeymoon couple wwoofing round England on a tandem bicycle; Andre, the French engineer in his fifties who got all our generators, strimmers, brushcutters, rotovators and everything else electromechanical running perfectly; the Italians and the dinners of pasta and brown rice risotto they would prepare for us. Then there is Chris from Oxfordshire who is happiest working alone in the woods, clearing brambles, creating nice spaces among the trees and making charcoal. He’s a regular now.
Every time a wwoofer stays with a host they get a cultural immersion. An organic farmer or grower is living a lifestyle and a philosophy; that’s why they’re organic. Living with them for a few weeks helps the wwoofer to absorb the ethical rationale for farming in harmony with nature. It’s a rationale that infuses one’s whole life. It’s ‘ecotherapy’. So, after a season of wwoofing they will return to their regular lives with an irreversible change in their attitude to all the environmental and social issues that have their roots in the way we produce our food. When they go shopping they will unhesitatingly choose the organic option when it is available. They have become part of the movement.
When Attlee’s Labour Government in 1947 passed the Agriculture Act an important part of it was subsidies on mechanisation, chemical fertilisers and pesticides, aimed at moving agricultural labour off the land and into factories. Farmers who didn’t comply could have their land confiscated by the State, so small farms and rural employment crashed. Growers became dependent on casual labour from abroad, weed killers instead of hand-weeding and chemical fertilisers instead of manure and compost. This commitment to industrial agriculture was cemented into Britain’s farming and has been a burden on the taxpayer and on the environment ever since. Organic farmers were left at a permanent disadvantage, as chemical pesticides are cheaper than manual labour and there are few controls on the resulting poisoning of the environment. Nobody really measures the cost to the NHS of farm pollution. Nobody really measures the impact on biodiversity. Nobody measures the carbon footprint. So when a farmer has a steady supply of wwoofers to help with their labour-intensive chores it is economically
transformative and makes organic food much more competitive. Readers of my column know that carbon pricing would tip the pricing balance in favour of organic. That, plus wwoofers, would mean organic food would be consistently less expensive than non-organic.
Once a wwoofer always a wwoofer. The global community of wwoofers is ever-expanding and is an important pillar of the organic movement.