Photo: Egan Snow
A friend of mine told me about an incredible experience she had had volunteering in a paradisiacal farm in Australia, where, in exchange for some light work like feeding a few chickens and watering the garden, she “received one of the most delicious food in the world, learned about organic farming, had amazing culturally enriching conversations with the host and even got to hang out with locals in the nearby town.” She cried when she said goodbye.
The farm was a member of WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms), a movement “linking volunteers with organic farmers and growers to promote cultural and educational experiences.” In exchange for work, farms offer accommodation, food and opportunities to learn about organic lifestyles. A person who wants to volunteer on such a farm has to subscribe him- or herself to one of the 60 WWOOF organizations, depending on the desired country. By becoming a member one gets an access to a list – and all other accompanying details, like description and contact — of all hosting farms of this particular group.
Shortly after hearing my friend’s story I started a Central American adventure. Without a clear traveling plan and infected by the enthusiasm of my friend, I subscribed to WWOOF Costa Rica and headed to a ranch in the middle of the rainforest, where I would volunteer for a month.
I was overwhelmed by the scenery the moment I arrived at the ranch. Blooming exotic flowers, wild animals freely moving around and fruit trees laden with papayas and bananas ready to be harvested — it was a true balsam for my eyes. With a mission to become fully self-sufficient, the ranch recycled used oil from the kitchen into soaps and laundry detergent, turned animal waste into methane gas, which was used for cooking, and generated electricity using two river hydroelectric onsite generators. The enormous garden was full of organic lettuce, tomatoes, cabbage and other vegetables. It all looked perfect.
But when I was showed my room, that image of perfection started to fade away. For the next month, I slept in a wooden cabin on a moldy mattress with a pillow that gave me a constant sore throat and cough, both of which only went away after I left the ranch. I had to shower with freezing water while outside temperatures were just reaching 50°F. Instead of learning about organic farming – as promoted on WWOOF’s and the ranch’s websites — I was ordered to do the same monotone work day after day: plucking weeds. After finishing my 6-hour work shift, I mostly did nothing. The bicycles that were available for exploring could only be rented, and for a ridiculously high cost. The nearest village was at least three miles away. It felt like a prison.
It soon became obvious that the ranch volunteers who did the less exhausting work — like teach yoga or give English lessons — were more valued. They slept in much better conditions, showered with hot water, ate organic fruits and vegetables, home-made yoghurt, cheese and honey, and even visited the nearest town on several occasions because one of the workers from the ranch would offer to be their driver.
The ranch was an eco-lodge with fairly high prices. In just one month, two weddings took place there and we, the volunteers, had to arrange everything — from the decorations to serving the food until late in the night. We were used as a cheap labor force.
Because of my own negative experience, I started to investigate what other volunteers’ experiences had been like on other farms. I’ve found that long hours of hard work and a feeling of being exploited are fairly common complaints among WWOOFers. I spoke to one man, David from U.S., who remembers two different farms, one in Ireland and another in Turkey, where he was required to toil for up to 8 hours daily, 6 days a week.
“Not only was the work brutal but when the owner of the farm left to go to Dublin to sell his goods, the wife would harass me and show me every little thing that I did even slightly wrong,” David explained.
And David’s experience of being humiliated for not performing a task correctly seems to be another common practice. Ian, also from the U.S., remembers a similar experience:
“I was given a run-through once in each task, then expected to perform at their practiced level, alone, each following time. I was given a quick run-down of farmer’s market procedure literally minutes before we arrived to market, then shamed and scolded for needing to ask questions once it was actually happening. When I was anxious and having trouble with mental math, she mocked to a customer ‘he used to be a computer science major.”
Ian ended up volunteering on two U.S. farms, but both experiences were unpleasant.
The third negative characteristic of some of the farms is inappropriate alimentation. While I had to be satisfied with the same plain plate of rice and beans twice a day for a month, David complained about the scarcity of food. His daily menu consisted of two slices of feta cheese, two tomato slices and about a tablespoon of honey for breakfast, a few pieces of bread and very watery soup for lunch. Dinner was a bowl of pasta with a little bit of oil on top.
“On the fourth day I even had to tell him [the owner] that we had to stop working because our bodies have been shaking really badly.”
And then there’s the accommodation. I’m certain that no Wwoofer expects a 5-star hotel with silky sheets, however basic rules should exist and these farms should be required to comply with them. Damp and dark spaces with moldy mattresses and pillows, or “a tipi, constantly littered with spiders and rats” — like in Ian’s room on a U.S. farm — is just not enough.
Many volunteers are driven to leave their host farms earlier than planned, yet it’s extremely rare to see a negative comment about a farm that would warn a future volunteer away. Although one of Ian’s hosts admitted that past Wwoofers had terminated their stay early, that farm had only positive feedback online. The same applies to the Costa Rican ranch where I volunteered. All the praise from previous volunteers made it look like a paradise, yet during my stay there was a girl who after only a week ran away in tears because of all the suffering she had been put through. I wasn’t the only one dissatisfied.
After leaving the first farm, Ian decided to abstain himself publicly announcing his discomfort: “Part of me felt bad because the woman was in such a fragile emotional state. Another part feared that a negative farm review would be met with a negative review on my profile. I have to imagine those are common reasons why negative reviews are so rare.”
It’s worth mentioning that not all national WWOOF organizations have a feedback or reference system. Instead, the majority have strict complaints procedures, according to WWOOF rules. “If they get a complaint about a host it is investigated. If the complaint is upheld they are removed from our lists and cannot join again,” says the page. Nevertheless I’ve found internet posts of quite a few bloggers, arguing that the organization hasn’t responded to their complaint at all.
According to the information published on its website, WWOOF organizations only act as contact agencies between farms and volunteers. While some of them do visit each host before they are accepted, others do no checks at all — leading to situations like Ian’s, where the chickens are only fed table scraps, sheep are left to starve to death and raccoons are shot to death and thrown to a dog as a toy.
Considering that WWOOF membership isn’t free – it costs up to $ 72 USD per year, depending on the group – it should guarantee that farms comply with some basic standards. This would prevent hosts with inappropriate conditions from becoming a member of WWOOF and rebuild Wwoofer’s trust in the organization. When I left the farm I’ve sworn that I’d never volunteer on one of these farms again. And there are a lot of former Wwoofers with similar resentment — despite the organization’s positive intentions.