After a stint with the U.S. Air Force Academy, an accounting degree from Indiana University and a few years in corporate America, Mike Hicks felt the need to travel and get more in touch with the world around him.
Through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, he learned about the benefits of organic farming. Now he shares his philosophy with apprentices and WWOOFers on his own farm, Living Roots Farm and Sustainable Living Center.
“I got to have these completely new experiences that helped me grow as a person, figure out what I want to do in life and learn farming,” Hicks said.
WWOOF links visitors with organic farmers around the world to promote an educational exchange and build a community of ecological farming practices. The organization was started in England in 1971 by Sue Coppard, who had the idea to create agreements between urban dwellers who wanted to escape to the countryside on the weekend and farmers who were looking for free labor.
It has spread to 210 countries around the world, including the U.S., and to 14 farms in Indiana, including Living Roots. WWOOFers apply to stay on host farms through wwoofusa.org. Most hosts expect visitors to work four to six hours a day, four to six days per week in exchange for accommodation and meals. Stays can range from one to two weeks to up to six months.
Hicks has owned Living Roots Farm and Sustainable Living Center in French Lick for the past 17 years.
He said there is a renewed interest in growing food and in the farm lifestyle because people have been disconnected from how food is grown and now want to explore it.
“They’re not paying any money, and that allows more people to participate in this. There’s a work exchange for their room and board and their educational experience,” he said.
Joe Wynina who now lives in Bloomington, has been a WWOOFer at five different farms over the past few years. He began in Canada, working on two farms before returning to the U.S. to work on three others.
He became interested in the idea of WWOOFing because he was wanted to move away from his life as software engineer and toward something more sustainable. He thought food production was a good place to begin, but had never gardened before.
“I was looking for ways to test if the agricultural life would be something that would be a good fit for me or if I was going to hate it,” Wynina said. “The program turned out to be the perfect avenue to do a sort of life trial. I was doing it for a variable period, in an environment of my choosing, and it turned out to be a confirmation that this was for me.”
Tasks vary and depend on the type of operation and the time of year. Duties may include seeding, making compost, gardening, planting, harvesting, weeding, feeding, fencing and cleaning animal pens.
Accommodations vary from private rooms in the hosts’ home to separate structures on the property. Some hosts allow people to bring children or pets.
Juan Carols Arango and Robert Frew co-own Sobremesa Farm in Bloomington, another WWOOFing site. Frew said a farmer needs to be think not only about the space in which the WWOOFer would stay, but also about meals and other issues that might come up, such as provisions for doing laundry.
“In our experience, offering home cooked meals is really a good idea, especially since we don't have the accommodations for them to have their own refrigerator and kitchen,” said Frew.
WWOOFing has become popular in recent years because it offers a cheaper way to travel and an opportunity for a unique experience. Most farms are located in rural areas, which allow WWOOFers to see parts of the country or state they might not have seen on a traditional trip. It also allows them the chance to meet new people, immerse themselves in a new culture and possibly learn or practice a new language.
Another benefit of WWOOFing is learning organic and sustainable farming practices. This might inspire future career goals or simply allow a person to understand more fully where food comes from and everything involved to produce it.
The main benefit for farmers in this program is free labor. Most of the participating farms aren’t large-scale commercial operations and utilize more human labor than mass machinery.
Arango and Frew said there are many reasons they like hosting WWOOFers, but the main is fostering a sense of community.
“Being a permaculture farm, we are very focused on community. It's important to us to bring people here and exchange knowledge either way from what we could offer to them or they could offer us,” said Arango.
Wynina said he had many enjoyable times sitting around a table eating lunch or dinner with his host and fellow WWOOFers.
“Also conversations in the field, as I was getting into that new environment and just learning more about people who already knew about farming and hearing about other people's paths to it,” he said.
The experience isn’t always positive. Hicks cautioned that new farmers would need to understand hosting WWOOFers takes a lot of work.
“Most people don't grow up in this lifestyle, don't grow up doing this work,” he said. “Some people can jump right in and really help out on the farm and do their part of the exchange. Other people have a hard time. It's not an easy program for farmers to start, and it can be more work for the farmer than help. It just depends.”
Hicks did say his experience has been about 90% positive, but he also knows farmers who have stopped their programs because it hasn’t worked out well for them.
It’s important for WWOOFers to research which host they think would be best for them, what duties they would be expected to perform, how many hours each day they would need to work and whether the accommodation offered is acceptable, Wynina said. It is also important for visitors to tell the host what they would like to learn.
Wynina said each farm will have people who loved it and hated it, but the key is open communication with the host and detailed research to see which is the best fit for each person.
“Even within the ones that I had, there were some that I really enjoyed and some that I found really difficult,” he said. “Some were for reasons that were maybe not obvious. But I think, overall, the experiences I had were very positive because I scrutinized all of the content on the site and really made sure that the environment sounded like one that would be a good fit for me.”
Shane Hansen has owned Rainfield Farm in New Carlisle since 2012. Two years after beginning the farm, Hansen started a WWOOFing program to mixed results.
He said some visitors were really interested in farming and doing the work, while others just wanted to take a gap year and travel across the U.S.
“We're looking for someone that wants to learn about farming and to be able to help with farming,” Hansen said. “We don't do one or two weeks — there's really nothing to learn. We want someone that's going to be here six weeks or longer, so they can at least plant the seed and see it start to grow and what it can become. Also learn the business. In one week, you've only figured out where things are located on the farm.”
However, Hansen said he would recommend WWOOFing to other farmers.
Wynina said his experience in WWOOFing made him aware of how detached he was from the life cycle of food. He said there is a lot of value and knowledge lost when shopping at a grocery store or through conventional modern methods.
“I think it gives such a greater understanding and profound value to how things work on earth,” he said. “We don't realize when we're not living on it and working directly in it.”
Hicks said that his experience as a WWOOFer was life changing.
“We've had hundreds of people go through the program here over the past 10 years, and I know for many of those it’s changed their life and is creating new farmers, for sure,” he said.
Farms all over the world and in Indiana currently have openings for wwoofers. If interested, please check out wwoof.net/destinations/