The premise of WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) is simple. You get to stay on someone’s farm just about anywhere in the world in exchange for four to six hours of work a day — a great way to meet people, have new experiences, and get to check out a new place on the cheap.
And if you look at #wwoof on Instagram, you’d get the idea that WWOOFing is a universally loved experience. The hashtag is filled with pictures of 20-somethings posing in greenhouses, holding sexy-looking tomatoes while sporting cute overalls, and bottle-feeding lambs. All of the photos are vibrant, everyone seems happy and cool, and every scene look like Passion Pit should be playing in the background.
My personal WWOOFing experience was slightly different than what the carefully selected pictures from Insta tell.
I first met Sunny* over the phone. She explained the rules of her farm to me. I couldn’t use my car while I was there, so I should bring a bike if possible. I’d have my own room in exchange for four hours of work a day. She would feed me vegetarian food from her garden and other local farms. In my downtime, I could write. It all sounded great to me.
When I arrived, I saw her place was not a farm by any stretch of the imagination. It was a tall, skinny house within walking distance of downtown. It was surrounded by overgrown bushes and weeds. There were all kinds of makeshift structures out back — a bike garage, a greenhouse, and a creepy shed.
Sunny showed me around. She expressed to me her interest in living off the grid. For now, certain regulations wouldn’t allow her to live in a house without power, but that was her desire. She paid $50 a month for thirty minutes of internet a day just to check WWOOFing inquiries — somehow paying way too much for an early ‘90s internet service provider agreement.
For my first task, she had me cut back some vines to clear a path in her yard. As I was doing it, I immediately got the sense this WWOOFing trip was going to be more like helping my crazy, old neighbor do household tasks than the Instagram shots had led me to believe.
After a few hours, she came out and told me I should also pick greens from her garden for dinner. She invited me in and had me cook them over a hot plate. She didn’t have a refrigerator, so she kept perishables in a cooler in the basement. She went down there and brought up some cheese. She proudly said it was homemade as she cut it up over the sauteed greens I was dishing out.
After the meal, she announced it was time to do dishes. I was pretty sure this didn’t mean with a state-of-the-art dishwasher, but up until this point, I hadn’t realized she didn’t even have access to hot water. To do the dishes, I’d need to put a kettle on the hot plate several times and bring it back and forth to the sink. All of the leftover water had to be recycled into a big bucket that would eventually be used to flush the urine-only toilet (this was separate from the bathroom’s humanure collector, which smelled like a well-trafficked porta-potty on a hot day).
To get ready for the next day, she wanted me to grind up some kind of grain into flour using one of those hand-cranked grain mills. As I did this, she told me a little bit more about her life. A few times a week, she worked in the neonatal intensive care unit 40 miles away. Biking there was tough, she told me. It usually took around eight hours. If she ever had to work two days in a row, she would stay overnight with a friend, because otherwise she wouldn’t be able to make it back and forth in time.
Hmm…I thought to myself. Too bad the modern world doesn’t have a really simple solution to this problem.
She peered inside my hand-grind to see I’d made very little progress on the heap of grain. “That’s enough for tonight,” she said mercifully.
I’d done little odd jobs for her for about eight hours since arriving, and I had certainly worked up a sweat, but I was too scared to find out what showering at this place entailed. I sat on her porch trying to write for an hour and eventually went to sleep in my sweaty clothes.
The next morning, she went down to the basement cooler to retrieve some homemade yogurt. We ate to the tune of NPR and, for just a moment, things felt normal. We were getting ready to head out to a farm eight miles away, but as we were cleaning up breakfast, she kept staring at her empty yogurt bowl. All sizable globs of yogurt had already been consumed — only residue was left. “I can’t let it go to waste,” she said. She took some cold water from the faucet, swished it around in her bowl, and then drank the yogurt water.
The eight-mile bike ride took a while. This was partly due to the difficulties of navigating her bike with a makeshift trailer through the hilly Pennsylvania terrain and partly due to the fact that she kept stopping to eat plants.
“These are nature’s Skittles!” she said, gesturing to clovers with little yellow flowers. She started popping them in her mouth, and told me I should, too. They did taste sour, but comparing them to a beloved candy was a bit of a stretch.
Later, she had us pull over to try little round violet berries. These were a natural way to caffeinate, she said (and here I thought coffee was already a natural way to caffeinate). I was not a fan of these, but I figured I needed all the energy I could get.
Her plant obsession started to be annoying later that day, when I had about twenty mosquito bites and went to my bag to reach for cortisone. “No!” she urged. “Just chew this grass and spit it out on your bites!”
The farm was probably the closest to traditional WWOOFing I ever got. We weeded onions for a few hours until lunch time when Sunny pulled out a tupperware container of last night’s dinner from her bike trailer. It had been out baking in the late June sun. The greens were mushy and the cheese was off, but I was starving and it was the only food option available. What really unsettled me, though, was the fact that what was left was packed back up so we could eat it again later.
Her refusal to indulge in modern conveniences was extremely time-consuming. Biking to and from the farm, cooking with camping tools, washing dishes with a kettle — none of these things counted toward my four hours of work.
I was so disgustingly dirty and sweaty by the time we returned to her place that I was willing to accept whatever kind of shower was available to me. She was very proud to show me her “gravity shower,” a complex mechanism made of bamboo where water would flow down after being poured from a bucket. The water came from an outdoor barrel of collected rainwater that I would go fetch.
It was on my trip upstairs to the shower when I started to notice the art. In the bathroom, in the stairwell, in the hall — now that I kept an eye out for it, there was bad art everywhere. “I make art so I won’t die” was scrawled across one of the walls in black paint.
When it was time for dinner, she produced the same Tupperware of greens and cheese, this time so sad and watery-looking that part of me wanted to illegally take my car out to the nearest McDonald’s. She also called Al to come in for dinner, who I hadn’t even heard of until this moment.
What I remember most about Al was that he wore a really dirty white T-shirt and that he was a jerk.
“Al makes all of the art in the house,” she said. This made all of the sense in the world. “He lives in the shed out there.” She explained that, per WWOOfing rules, he wasn’t allowed to live on her property full-time, but the shed technically straddled the property line.
Who was Al? Her lover? A man that was homeless? Someone who started WWOOFing one day and got so far down the rabbit hole that he couldn’t figure out a way to reenter society, with its dishwashers and refrigerators?
“So I hear you’re a writer,” Al said. “You know what they say about writers.” He then proceeded to quote every famous negative quote about writers he could think of.
I continued my nightly grain-grinding task as he just sat there mocking me. This much was clear: he wasn’t doing anywhere near four hours of work a day. And property lines be damned, I was a little concerned about how close he was to my unlockable sleeping quarters.
I didn’t sleep that night, constantly worried that if I did, I’d wake up to grimey Al standing over my bed.
Ultimately, I went home early and canceled the other WWOOFing trips I had planned for the summer. I felt a little embarrassed about how easily I’d bought into an Instagram ideal without taking into consideration the human element of WWOOFing.
I’d been hopeful that WWOOFing would commit me to a greener life, but if anything, it pointed out to me the absurd.
WWOOFing is kind of like Craigslist. You have to vet the opportunities and go with your instincts. If the words “humanure collector” scare you as much as they scare me, then it’s probably not for you.
*Names have been changed