Need Help on Your Farm? Try a WWOOFer

Reader Contribution by Julia Shewchuk and Serenity Acres Farm
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Need Help on the Farm? Try A WWOOFer! Try What? What is a WWOOFer? Some kind of Dog?

WWOOFers are enthusiastic young people, who want to spend time working on farms and who have signed up with World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms or WWOOF to volunteer time to help on farms in exchange for a roof over their head, food, and education. WWOOF is an international host organization that matches up WWOOFers and farms via an on-line or print directory. There is a small, annual membership fee involved for WWOOFers, $25, and a small, annual donation from WWOOF Host Farms.

Both wwoofers and host farms post profiles and pictures on the WWOOF site. Any WWOOFer looking for a host farm can search all member farms by geographic location, type of farm, whether they are open, need help urgently, or any other factor a WWOOFer may consider. WWOOFers and hosts can leave ratings for each other, never anonymous, and slamming is rare. WWOOFers or farms can and should also be contacted directly for references.

Forums open to both WWOOFers and hosts and only to hosts or only to WWOOFers can help with advice, recommendations or answers to questions. First contact can be by email or phone and is usually initiated by the WWOOFers. How it proceeds from there is very different and unique to each farm.

Serenity Acres Farm now has been a WWOOF host for about six years and we have hosted well over 300 WWOOFers from all over the world. We typically host 5-6 WWOOFers at a time and stays vary from 1 week to 6 months. Our longest-term WWOOFer has been with us for 3 years, the second longest time is 2-1/2 years. Due to the diversity of Serenity Acres and the steep learning curve, we always recommend at least staying four weeks.

If you are a non-industrial homestead, ranch or farm, if you need help juggling farm chores, if you enjoy teaching, and if you love people around you, then consider becoming a WWOOF host farm. The help is indispensable for the investment of including the WWOOFers into your farm family and team. Yes, you will have strangers on the farm; yes, your privacy will never be the same; and yes, there can, no, there will be some not so pleasant encounters of the WWOOF kind, but overall hosting WWOOFers will be an immensely rewarding experience.

How to Be a Successful WWOOF Host Farm

Here is how we are able to have such a good track record:

1. Detailed Wwoof Profile – Clear Expectations. Serenity Acres Farm’s profile on WWOOF is very detailed in work description and expectations, which shows WWOOFers right up front what and who we are looking for.

2. Farmstay Application – help us get to know you. Once contacted by a WWOOFer, we very quickly send them a farmstay application to fill out and email back to us. It contains about 15 questions to be answered by the WWOOFer. This enables us to find out a bit more about the WWOOFers expectations, background, desires and personality.

We are very clear about not allowing illegal drugs. This weeds out all of those WWOOFers who have a glamour idea of farming or want to relive their hippy days. Not that we don’t empathize with them, but we are a working farm and alone for safety reasons and Florida State Laws we cannot allow illegal drugs on the farm.

You can find our farmstay application on Serenity Goats. Feel free to download and customize for your own farm. We have only a couple of times waived filling out the farmstay application and that was for “rescue” WWOOFers who needed a place to stay unexpectedly.

3. Phone Interview – questions, questions, questions. As a next step, we follow-up phone call or skype/facetime. We also never skip this step. The phone call will give us and the WWOOFer the opportunity to ask and answer questions about each other, talk more about expectations and reasons for WWOOFing or being a WWOOF host.

Red flags during the conversation sound like this: “I want to improve my track record for following through on projects. How often can I take a break? I don’t work more than 3 hours a day. I always need to take Saturdays off. I just had major surgery on my back. I am a vegan, you need to buy me soy milk.” Mind you, these are red flags because we are a working dairy goat farm. We cannot guarantee 3 hour days or every Saturday off and a huge part of our food are goat milk products. A vegan might be perfectly fine on another farm and people who don’t want to work on weekends might be better off staying in suburbia.

During the conversation we also try to discern enthusiasm, a willingness to learn, ability to communicate and a passion for animals. We talk about time frame for a stay, expectations, the average day on the farm and the fact that there are very few average days on the farm. We discuss what’s included in the food we provide (a lot, just nothing fancy or expensive unless we are celebrating), the housing, living in a community, possible homesickness, missing a boyfriend/girlfriend, or financial concerns. We do not discuss or consider religion, race, or age and do not consider any of those in the decision to invite someone onto the farm.

If we feel that the prospective WWOOFer is a good fit, we invite him/her to stay on the farm. We ask for a confirmation email with fairly precise dates and how they will travel to the farm. Once we receive that confirmation email, we put the WWOOFer on the schedule.

4. References. We don’t often ask for references, but we check out Facebook and Instagram and read reviews on the host and WWOOF forums on the WWOOF website. Reviews both for wwoofers and farms are very helpful. Sometimes we call for references and if we are asked by other hosts for references, we are happy to provide references.

5. Follow-up prior to visit. A couple of times before the scheduled visit on Serenity Acres Farm, we contact the WWOOFer to ensure they are still coming. This way we can minimize no-shows and still have time to find a replacement. Even so, there are always those who don’t follow through or let us know on the date of their arrival that they changed their plans.

Red Flags here are repeated change in arrival date, most of them short notice, and failure or long delay in sending a confirmation e-mail. Advice for potential WWOOF hosts: the same goes for you: be reliable and reply promptly. A couple of our rescue WWOOFers ended up on our farm because the host didn’t follow through on their commitment and gave their spot away. Not following through with your commitment without notice is not acceptable from either WWOOFer or WWOOF host.

6. Expectations and Teaching. Once the WWOOFer is on the Serenity Acres, we team the newbie up with a senior WWOOFer to learn their way around the farm, the animals and the rules. On Serenity Acres Farm it takes about two weeks for the “deer in the headlights look” to go away. And it usually doesn’t take much longer to figure out if the WWOOFer and WWOOF host are a good fit for each other.

Any knowledge can be acquired, but attitude, willingness to learn and folding into the community is most important. We notice the following signs when things aren’t going so well:

• Consistently being late for chores in the morning
• Counting time to the next break
• Complaining that the work is too hard
• Ignoring rules or advice
• Personality Conflicts
• Not participating or skipping several farm dinners
• Giving the senior wwoofers an attitude about instructions such as rolling eyes, not listening, not paying attention
• Frequent headaches, stomach aches or tears (used as an excuse to go back to bed)

We know things are going well when we observe the following:

• Smiling faces all around
• Eager participation in chores and projects – initiative
• Lots of questions
• Huggable behavior towards the animals and the farm team
• Not missing any meals
• No second guessing
• Successful projects
• Increased skills and knowledge

7. Ground Rules. We have clear ground rules and expect them to be followed:

• Think next – always be mindful of the consequences of your actions to your fellow wwoofers, hosts and animals,
• Be respectful, it doesn’t cost you a thing to be nice,
• Clean up after yourself. No dirty dishes in the sink.
• Don’t lie. Accidents can happen, we won’t yell, just make sure you let us know.
• Volunteer and offer help, but don’t be shy about asking for help either
• When a supply is low, let someone know or write it down
• No illegal drugs
• Don’t get drunk

These rules, by the way, are not just for WWOOFers, they apply to us as well. We also recognize that nobody is perfect. We are all human, we go through a rough spot in our life, and it can happen that someone doesn’t feel good or is stressed out, or had bad news from home. Here is the last and most important ground rule:

Communicate, communicate, communicate and communicate.

8. Don’t delay resolving a bad situation. We have learned consistently, that if a person doesn’t work out for one reason or another, it is better for all concerned to ask that person to leave sooner than later. We rather be a person short than having to deal with negativity and resulting conflict. Discontent breeds negativity and one negative person can bring the mood down on the whole farm very quickly.

If it’s a personality conflict, we ask the person to leave. If it’s an attitude problem, we have a one-on-one talk and a grace period of about one week. If it resolves, the person stays, if not the person is asked to leave. Unacceptable or willfully unsafe behavior results in immediate departure from the farm. But these are not the rule, they are the rare exception.

9. Enjoy your Wwoofers and remember, they are volunteers. We have hosted over 300 WWOOFers and more than 95 percent have been a delightful experience leaving us with many friendships long after they departed. A few we have had to ask to leave due to incompatible behavior and only a handful of them have caused us much heartache. There are some regrets where we would have done things differently.

And, with every WWOOFer who comes across our farm and touches our hearts, we strive to become better hosts and better humans. All of our WWOOFers have taught us and continue to teach us patience, tolerance, acceptance and community, the importance of communication and most of all, that we couldn’t and don’t want to work Serenity Acres Farm without those wonderful, enthusiastic and fun young and older WWOOFers.

Happy New Year and Enjoy the Farm

Julia Shewchuk owns and operatesSerenity Acres Farm on 80 acres in Florida. Serenity Acres runs on solar, is Animal Welfare Approved-certified, houses anywhere from four to 10 WWOOFers and interns, and is the home to 58 dairy goats, 16 Black Angus cattle, 278 laying hens, 3 horses, 3 cats, 4 house dogs, 6 livestock guardian dogs, and 6 ducks. Read all of Julia’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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