Local Mobs Gone Global: World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms

One of the best ways to experience a different culture is through its food, and one of the most fun ways of doing so is to travel to its place of origin. But that does not simply mean flying to Naples and enjoying an authentic pizza margherita in a real Italian osteria. If you truly want to get your hands on the roots of local food during your explorations, then get ready to dig in the dirt … literally.

Tapping into travelers’ insatiable appetites for gastronomic vacations, holiday tour companies offer everything from hawker stall hopping in Singapore to vineyard adventures in the Loire Valley to mole-making classes in Oaxaca. For many people, however, good food is not just about authentic flavors and traditional cooking techniques – it is also about the sustainable practices used to produce the ingredients that make up these regional cuisines. Now, there is a way for them to know exactly where their food is coming from, even when they are on vacation.

Local Mobs Gone Global

You may already be familiar with or have even participated in crop mobs – groups of volunteers who gather via online word-of-mouth (in the Twin Cities, the blog Fair Food Fight often posts alerts) and descend on local farms to donate an afternoon of labor, such as harvesting crops and clearing out brush, in return for the satisfaction of giving growers hands-on support. Now, take that principle, magnify it hundreds of times all over the globe, and you will have World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, affectionately known as WWOOF.

Like crop mobs, WWOOFing allows people to participate directly in organic farming by connecting them with host farmers who provide room and board in exchange for their labor (unlike crop mobs, these stints may range from a few days up to several weeks). Both volunteers and producers have the opportunity to share knowledge and experience, and to spread awareness of the importance of organic and sustainable food production. The movement began 40 years ago in London, England, when its self-explanatory acronym stood for Working Weekends on Organic Farms. Decades later, the original organization now helps to establish global guidelines for the program and serves as an online clearinghouse for independent WWOOFs on almost all continents.

WWOOFing doesn’t have to involve a passport: according to WWOOF-USA, there are more than 1600 registered farms in nearly every state waiting for volunteer-guests. But with over 50 international organizations and many more members in countries without formal groups yet, WWOOFing offers a wide range of choices for those who would like to combine their volunteerism with travel abroad.

A Personal Journey

That’s how WenLin Soh spent a good portion of her honeymoon in 2008. When the Singapore-raised, London-based urbanite and her new husband decided to embark on an epic 15 months-long backpacking tour of the world, they searched for ways to incorporate volunteer opportunities. For WenLin, who blogs about her global travel and food experiences at Going With My Gut, WWOOFing meant delving deeper into a growing interest in organic food, which began when she read Taras Grescoe’s Bottom Feeder, an unflinching look at commercial fishing. “It sparked all sorts of questions about the rest of the food I eat, and I started plowing into books by Pollan [and others],” she recalled in an email exchange. “Reading about it all was great, but I really wanted to go out and learn about food and organic farming in the field, as it were.”

By the end of their world tour, the couple had notched three WWOOFs in three different continents – building an outdoor oven on an olive and orange finca (farm) in Spain, constructing a chicken coop for a community garden in Kenya and helping to prep fields and sow seedlings on a rice farm in Japan. The experiences, wrote WenLin, “confirmed some hypotheses I had going into the process: It’s hard but really rewarding work [and] there are real challenges around making good healthy food accessible to all and providing positive reinforcement and help for organic farmers.”

WenLin and her husband plan to continue WWOOFing during future travels and she has become an enthusiastic supporter of the organization through her blog. In addition to writing about her experiences in Spain, Kenya and Japan, she has also posted an excellent guide for likeminded travelers who might be interested in a working holiday. For WenLin, the time spent WWOOFing it up during her honeymoon provided an invaluable lesson: “I have massive respect for anyone who spends the time, effort, muscle, sweat, and endures the economic and political stress of growing good, tasty, sustainable food for a living.”

Interested in WWOOFing? Start by checking out WenLin Soh’s “10 Tips for Getting Your First WWOOF Gig” on her blog, Going With My Gut.

To learn more about how to arrange a volunteer vacation on organic farms around the world, please visit the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms website for membership information and links to national WWOOF chapters in your destination.

For alerts and updates about Twin Cities-area Crop Mobs, see Simple, Good and Tasty’s Events calendar or check out the blog Fair Food Fight and follow them on Twitter (@FairFoodFight).

[All images courtesy of WenLin Soh]

Tracey Paska lives, eats and writes in Manila, Philippines, where she revels in the fact that she can wear flip-flops outdoors in January. When she's not exploring Manila's foodscape, she freelances for a national food magazine and writes about the complex and fascinating connections between food, culture, and society on her blog Tangled Noodle.