Information Landmine

"The Americans keep telling us how successful their system is. Then they remind us not to stray too far from our hotel at night." - An un-named EU trade representative quoted during international trade talks in Denver, Colorado, 1997.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Jackson 2

I think you can see where I'm going with this. Anyway, this is the first installment of Pete Jackson's Wwoofing article. More to come soon:

“Revolution disguised as organic gardening…”1

In 2006 I was a ‘Wwoofer’. I lived for 10 months in New Zealand, on organic farms, with families, with self-sustainable communities and with everything in between. The experience was amazing and enlightening for a number of reasons, but the two things I was most struck by were a unique worldview and the sense of personal and collective purpose. This is something that’s incredibly difficult to describe, to adequately explain, to those who haven’t experienced it personally. Infused with a sense that change is possible, that human agency really isn’t dead after all, I shouted the benefits of Wwoofing from the rooftops. Cries of, ‘Wwoofing is the way forwards’, were more often than not meet with blank looks, but this got me to thinking I should write it all down! My intention here then is not to just answer your first question, ‘What the hell does Wwoof stand for?’, but also to attempt to explain what it was that got me so excited about it in the first place. I am going to argue that Wwoofing, and my favourite of its ‘ideologies’; Permaculture, represents not merely a much better way of farming and a healthy way of life but also provides us with a framework of how to radically change the long-term direction of public policy away from the unsustainable, wasteful statist model.

So what the hell is Wwoofing?

There are a million different ways this question could be answered, because they are that many different versions of what wwoofing is. I will start as broadly as possible to set the scene before moving onto the different types of farms and theories behind the ‘movement’. I refer to wwoof as a movement, and not an organisation, because as will be argued it’s novelty lies in process, not design2.

There is however something of an organisation to Wwoof, and I’ll now give you a brief organisational history. The present full title of the organisation is, ‘World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms’, though this is only the latest incarnation, of an idea that first appeared in the UK in Autumn 1971, when a London secretary, Sue Coppard, recognised the need to provide access to the countryside for people like herself who did not otherwise have the means or the opportunity, and who were keen to support the organic movement. Her idea started with a trial working weekend, which she arranged for four people at the bio-dynamic farm at Emerson College in Sussex through a contact in the Soil Association ( This first weekend was a great success and similar events and groups soon began springing up through the region showing a great interest in learning about organics and rural lifestyles.

Wwoof has since grown into an international phenomenon with autonomous ‘organisations’ offering a massively wide variety of opportunities for similar experiences, such as those Sue Coppard’s weekend first discovered, across over 15 countries. Before outlining the practical basics of Wwoof it is worth explaining, why I’ve a reluctance to call it a fully-fledged ‘organisation’. Wwoof prides itself on being highly flexible, adaptive and immediately responsive to inputs from its members. It achieves this by having very little formal ‘organisation’ above the level of the direct relationship between the host and Wwoofer, if they want to make the arrangement work in a different way, then most people would say why not let them. It is more useful to describe Wwoof as a movement, whose main focus is above all to provide enthusiastic grassroots inputs and feedbacks into the organic movement via exchange, contact, and practical education. There are very few actual rules or basic standards, or ideology within such a movement based more on unifying concepts than structure. To wwoof, a willingness to learn, develop and constantly renew yourself and society is the only required criteria.

WWOOF’s ethos is definitely one of constant improvement.’ (

There are however some very basic ‘structures’ in place. While Wwoof groups are normally totally autonomous national entities, often with smaller regional / local subsections, there is communication and support between groups, and of course most Wwoofers themselves tend to volunteer in a different country to their nationality forming international grassroots links. After outlining this basic structure I will seek to argue that this a positive benefit of the style of movement rather than structure.

Most national Wwoof organisations offer very little to Wwoofers and hosts beyond updating and distributing ‘The Wwoof Book’ (a list of wwoof hosts with brief description and contact details) once a year, occasional newsletters to hosts and the maintenance of the national website. Organisers of national wwoof groups are commonly volunteers more like club secretaries. At it’s most basic the idea of Wwoof is merely that those attempting to live their lives along organic (or other similar alternative) principles can get a regular supply of help in the form of volunteers interested in similar topics (the Wwoofers). Wwoofers get to experience rural life, learn about organics and a range of other topics, as well as gaining vital life skills by working 4 – 5 hours a day in exchange for food and board. On of the many reasons that Wwoof is flexible and works better than ‘gap year exchanges’ is that this arrangement, a few hours work for food and board, means no money changes hands. Both parties are freed from modern life’s constrains. Periods stay vary from weeks to years though a week or two is more common and the actual type of work you do varies massively. Personally, as a wwoofer, I was a gardener, dog walker, puppy minder, child minder, house cleaner, mulcher (feeding trees with organic materials), roof painter, builder, trench digger, kitchen hand and hostel worker. At points I performed almost all of these jobs at a single farm. Everything from the type of work, living conditions and who the hosts are remains very vague until you arrive and there is a wide range of possible ‘types’ of Wwoof host and ‘farm’.

I lived in family homes were I was the first Wwoofer in months, in a separate house with six other Wwoofers where we cooked our own meals separately and interacted with the family as required, and totally alone in a bird sanctuary. Even a quick flip through the Wwoof book would demonstrate the movement’s broad nature, including everything from everyday families to far out hippies on communes, fundamentalist Christians and Wicca worshippers. I stayed with a university lecturer who believed in wicca and sang to her trees (she could also her them ‘cry’ when mistreated by Wwoofers), a young family of Rudolf Steiner followers who didn’t believe in injections, planted by a lunar cycle and where very strict vegetarians, a very down to earth farmer type who had me skinning a wild bore on the first day, a women who thought alcohol was evil and three gay men in a three way relationship who got me drunk every night. Thankfully this was not all at once! Morality, lifestyle, outlook and basic beliefs can vary greatly then within the movement but the basic framework – work for food and board – remains. This is the critical point were many people misunderstand what Wwoofing can truly represent, we shouldn’t stop here and believe Wwoof to be an assortment of people using this idea.

Some see Wwoof hosts as trying to escape reality to live in a world without watches and traffic jams that they can only remain in via the exploitation of young travellers, and view Wwoofers as just cheap gap year students. It is worth noting at this point that, in New Zealand at least as the idea has gained popularity, those wanting cheap labour that know nothing about the movement have exploited it. It is very common to arrive at hostel and see signs advertising for ‘Wwoofers’, when what they really mean is that you can work cleaning the hostel for a few hours in exchange for accommodation. There is even a ‘rival’ organisation, called ‘Help Exchange’ that operates in this way. How then do you tell the difference between a Wwoof and a copy-Wwoof? This a complex, yet important, question. In every Wwoof home I found a certain something most easily described as a hopeful, productive, positive energy. It did not matter what Wwoof hosts focused their attention on as the negative points of modern life (urbanisation, modern medicine, climate change, mass food production, global political games and so on) their defining common feature was that every single one believed in forming genuine democratic co-operation between well informed citizens as a way to fundamentally change their lives. Someone who wants to take control of their live, get involved and change as much as they can about their part in the system without being defeatist, or negative, about their efforts is the best example of a Wwoof member. Most in the Wwoof movement recognises that they can not be perfect, be separated from the mainstream of society in a meaningful way, nor would they really want to be – more often than not they simple want to change as much as possible and serve as an example to others. The movement is once again all about education and inspiration. Far from being hippy wasters and rejectionist Wwoof supports those who want to do rather than just complain.

To the perspective of someone who spent most of his time at university reading (and writing myself) about the politics of why we could not save the world in this way, or that way, and why the latest co-opted charity fad was just that, it is my opinion that Wwoof provides a rather refreshing worldview.

1 The title to this piece is a quote from ‘Permaculture: A Beginner’s Guide’, (Burnett, G. 2000, 4)

2 It is this fundamentally ‘non-statist’ approach that gives Wwoof a novel perspective. Without the common institutional bias towards grand, industrial solution it begins to provide a different set of local and sustainable solutions.


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