Permaculture Jobs, Sustainable Living
and Endless Travel
How Vagabonders' Dreams Can Become
Article by Jonathon Engels,
photos by Emma Gallagher
|The boat border
crossing between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. After an
overnight ferry on Lake Nicaragua, we enjoyed the sunrise while waiting for the immigration
office to open. (Photo courtesy of Emma Gallagher.)
One of the ways the world has really
been opening up over the past decade is through farm-stay
work exchanges. With the growing interest in healthier lifestyles
and home food production, as well as an increase in international
living, it’s no wonder that progressive-minded people have
invested in properties abroad with the intention of getting
off the grid, attempting self-sustainability, and living
gloriously green. In turn, such green-minded progressives
have come to seek the help of able-bodied travelers willing
to work for room and board in a natural setting. Cheap labor,
free accommodation: It’s a win-win situation for everyone
and, more importantly, a beautiful thing for the planet.
In the days of old (and even still),
enthusiastic long-term travelers and adventurers could spend
a few weeks doing seasonal
work on big farms, picking fruit or vegetables to earn
menial but valued wages. It was hard, sometimes monotonous
labor but a means by which to earn your keep somewhere and
see a bit of the world to boot. Seasonal
jobs, however, tended to be more commonly available
in affluent countries of regions such as Europe, Australasia,
North America, and often required special work-travel visas.
(Unfortunately, citizens from certain countries aren’t eligible
for many such jobs, as governments often do not reciprocate
working relationships with other countries.)
To deal with this difficult issue and
simplify matters, online volunteering organizations such
as WWOOF have grown in recent years, and thrifty travelers
have found new ways to stay on the move long-term without
draining their savings, but also without having to obtain
work visas. Likewise, clued-up property owners have figured
out how to find and keep enthusiastic workers without breaking
their bank accounts or becoming businesses. After 18 months
exploring the world through farm-stay arrangements, I’m
going to tell you how I’ve done it, and how the experience
has been far better than expected.
Where to Begin? Where to End?
|Harvesting olives just outside
of Grenada was amongst our experiences in Andalusia,
Spain, a region with absolutely stunning vistas and,
among other edibles, a cornucopia of olives, almonds,
citrus, and figs. The olive harvest is in December/January.
(Photo courtesy of Emma Gallagher.)
My wife Emma and I have been living
abroad for about 10 years, mostly as English teachers. Towards
the middle of 2013, we decided we wanted a change of pace.
We were yearning for a good, long backpacking trip, but
having earned a Guatemalan salary for the last few
months we were largely lacking the funds to do so. Both
interested in the
slow food movement, and hoping to grow our own vegetables
at some point in the future, we decided to take our chances,
volunteer our way around Central and South America, and
learn about organic gardening. We set off in October.
We had no schedule, other than visiting
Emma’s family at some point early the next summer. We had
no real itinerary, other than a desire to make it all the
way to Patagonia. We had the backup plan that, if we were
to run out of money, would land us teaching jobs wherever
we found ourselves. It turned out none of those things happened.
In fact, the whole experience became a wonderful series
of twists and turns that eventually led, two years ago,
to sitting in a caravan on a mountain in Andalusia, Spain,
before flying back to Guatemala.
In other words, there are many places
to begin—just about every country on the map. More
often than not, with the exception of places with very harsh
winters, the time of year really doesn’t matter. Farms and
gardens are the same the world over in that they always
have something that needs doing. Likewise, the globe is
full of people chasing sustainable lifestyles, renewable
energy sources, and ecologically adept systems. As for where
it all ends, we’ve found that it’s more a matter of where
we want to stop. It could have just as easily been in Andalusia,
where we’ve been offered half a dozen or more long-term
- The first step is simply getting
a farm or site to take you on, and one can be found just
about anywhere you want to be. Join a work exchange site—WWOOF, HelpX, or WorkAway—and
start sending out requests. We mapped out our whole trip,
moving farm to farm, as we ventured country to country.
You can do so like an itinerary, but I’d suggest setting
up the next destination while still at your current location.
It allows for easier lingering and more improvisation.
Knowing Little to Nothing
|Totoco Farm on Ometepe Island
in Nicaragua. The first garden Emma and I designed.
The owner wanted to catch and utilize filtered gray
water, so we came up with this growing space and even
built the table and benches out of found wood.
Funnily, one of the biggest concerns
of most would-be adventurers, whether volunteering on farms
or teaching English abroad, is that they are lacking in
some essential quality required to do the necessary work.
In reality, you don’t usually need to speak the local language
to teach English in Korea (or anywhere). Likewise, you don’t
generally need to know much (or possibly anything) about
farming, gardening, or building in order to volunteer on
farms. What hosts are really after, as the WWOOF (Willing
Workers on Organic Farms) acronym conceals, are willing
workers. The skills necessary are not so hard to learn.
What’s more, the more knowledge a volunteer
picks up, the more useful they become. Emma and I knew very
little starting out. I’d helped a friend harvest avocados
a few times and volunteered regularly, basically weeding,
at an organic farm near where we lived the previous year.
We both played with planting a few things here and there,
never too seriously. We knew how to swing a hammer and take
measurements. Mostly, though, we liked to work outside,
weren’t afraid to try, and wanted to learn.
And, learn we did. In a mere matter
of weeks, especially with hands-on experience, a person
can pick up all sorts of specialized information. Soon,
we knew, as if by second nature, the kind of sun exposure
preferred by certain plants, how to harvest tropical plant
leaves for our daily salad. We knew the ins and outs of
making different types of composts depending upon the end
result desired: a compost water heater for a shower, a hot
pile, a cool pile, or a no-turn pile. We learned how to
make different types of garden beds, build with cob, and
create garden guilds. We quickly became wise far beyond
- Get ahead of the game by doing a
little learning before you go, there are amazing free
resources online, including Permaculture
News (for which I now write), and YouTube!, where
a simple “permaculture” keyword search will lead you
to all sorts of lectures,
clips, and even courses.
Earning More than Your Keep
|During our travels it was all
the rage to build huge earthen pizza ovens. We first
became familiar with the trend in Nicaragua, built
our first oven in Panama, helped to make one functional
in Colombia, and built a second in Spain. Nothing
says living it up like a pizza party.
What quickly became apparent is that,
while hosts don’t necessarily require volunteers to come
in with skills, they do hugely value folks that have them.
Because we were on a long trip, the knowledge we were collecting
became a real attribute at each new location. Much of the
time, volunteers come and go, offering little more than
a week or month of unskilled labor. Such volunteers learn
the ropes then go home, and farmers move on to a new crop
of helpers, spending much of their time tending to their
volunteers as opposed to the land.
Almost immediately, at our first farm,
Emma and I realized we had two things really working in
our favor: We had an open schedule, and we’d actually devoted
ourselves to acquiring knowledge about growing food and
living in a sustainable way. The open schedule meant hosts
spotted the opportunity to have long-term workers, providing
stability and significant advancement to their projects.
As a result, our thirst for information often soon equated
to knowing more about what we were doing than even the people
for whom we were volunteering (many are beginners).
It took us about two weeks to start
getting job offers. Hosts would add on perks, wave fees,
and even offer small salaries. Unwittingly (at least at
first), we garnered special treatment like better housing,
personal projects, and the freedom to be creative if we’d
hang around. In turn, what started out as a tentative means
of traveling long-term became quite reliable. To date, we’ve
been offered jobs at more properties than we’ve actually
volunteered, and we’ve never outwardly pursued a position
at any of them!
- One thing that helps us tremendously
is that we’ve learned to take advantage of odd jobs that
we find along the way. We’ve managed to find paid work
with our gardening skills, but we also have other
small streams of revenue from short-term or part-time
jobs such as freelance writing, teaching, and selling
Permaculture and Sustainable Living
|The idea of permaculture is that
it is “permanent agriculture,” without need for constant
tilling, weeding, and replanting. Thus, food forests
of perennial plants are a major part of most permaculture
sites. Here is part of one we started in Panama. When
all was said and done, the site was yielding over
70 different types of edible plants.
During the course of our trip, permaculture
became a major influence on how we live, how we travel,
and how we see our future. Amongst the planters and pioneers
we stayed with, the practice of permaculture seemed a perennial
byword. Everybody wanted to be doing it, even if not everyone
fully understood what that meant. Was it using raised beds?
Was it aquaponics? Was it companion planting? Catching rainwater?
Everyone seemed to be attaching the term to something different
but there was no agreement about a firm definition.
The interest and excitement, even if
confused, was most definitely contagious, so Emma and I
were soon spending our free time reading textbooks, scrolling
through websites, and watching documentaries about permaculture.
We discovered that permaculture was even more than all of
the things we’d seen people practicing to date. It was more.
It was a variable concept basically open to incorporating
any system that improved things for the planet, fed and
sheltered people in a sustainable manner, and promoted equal
opportunity sharing over elitist hoarding. For us, it was
a rather eye-opening discovery that we’d become permaculturalists
without even knowing it.
Once we became enamored with the concept,
we soon had the ability to discuss it aptly. We could explain
to people how the garden beds we’d chosen to install worked,
why they would be well suited for a climate, and how to
maintain them with low energy output and even less financial
cost. We understood how to think about water catchment systems,
from the simple use of gray water to storing rain for greener
daily household consumption. Without pause, we uttered specialized
terminology—hugelkultur, swale, sheet mulching—and somehow this garnered a certain amount
of respect and appreciation from our hosts and their friends.
Soon, wherever we went, it seemed they
wanted us to stay. Within a month or two of volunteering
with people, they saw what could happen and believed in
what we could do. In essence, traveling around as “volunteers”
became a sustainable means by which we could continue our
adventures, living and eating for free on the lands that
we tended (the typical volunteer arrangement), often earning
enough money from our newfound knowledge to pay for the
next step of the journey. For us, traveling this way became
sustainable as we could do it indefinitely without ever
draining our bank account. In fact, we could actually improve
- Two of our personal favorite sources
for permacultural inspiration are Geoff
Lawton, star student turned colleague of Bill
Mollison, one of the two originators of the practice,
and a couple called Val
and Eli, who have a remarkable site in Florida and
fun YouTube! tours.
From Point A to Somewhere Different
|One of the great perks of the
site we ran in Panama were stunning views, sunsets,
and sunrises over Lake Gatun, formed during the construction
of the Panama Canal. We took up the offer to live
in a small lakeside house, “the Bahia," with a patio
stretching out over the lake for nearly seven months.
For us, this all happened rather quickly.
Point A was Guatemala, and by Nicaragua, our adventure was
playing with new twists and timelines. We stayed a month
longer than planned and could’ve easily stayed longer than
that. Originally, we were pushing for that final goal of
reaching Patagonia. By Panama, our plans dissolved into
something unrecognizable, greater than our original goals.
We had wanted the freedom to pursue whatever came along.
We’d just never imagined how many options we would have.
In Panama, we ended up flipping the
script entirely, running a site for two property owners
who just wanted to be a bit more eco-friendly, loved the
idea of breathing energy into their vacation home, and needed
someone to look after the place (and dogs) while they enjoyed
retirement. We became HelpX and WorkAway hosts, utilizing
volunteers to help us develop the site, and in doing so,
we learned that this type of adventuring isn’t at all unique.
Within a couple of weeks of posting for volunteers, we had
more interested parties than we could accommodate, with
even more reservations made by keen helpers covering the
following three months.
Many people are traveling in the way
described above these days. They are spending summer breaks
farm hopping across continents. They are taking gap years
to explore sustainable lifestyles. They are interning on
farms, padding resumes with interesting experiences, and
stumbling upon odd jobs they’d never considered before.
They are taking permaculture courses in remote locations.
They are looking for a land of their own. For those open
to them, the opportunities are nearly as vast and varied
as the world in which they are setting out to explore. And,
anyone can do it.
Three tips for starting a trip ahead
of the game:
- Clear the schedule. Allow yourself
the chance to while away the hours, days, weeks and months
for as long as you choose. For us, this also presented
hosts with the prospect to have us stay for longer, even
before we realized it could provide this advantage.
- Learn what you can about gardening,
rudimentary sustainable energy systems, and ecological
construction. Pick up some know-how online or via volunteering
before you set off. Being instantly useful immediately
endears you to hosts and elevates you from volunteer
- Have a plan for basic funding beyond
using savings. I write. Emma sells crafts that she makes.
We are both qualified
EFL teachers (our easily attained, ever-available
backup plan). You don’t need to earn a lot of money,
but having some does make a massive difference.
|Most certainly, this adventure
has completely weaned us off of guidebooks for our
purposes. By the time we arrived in Spain in January,
we had no idea regarding the particulars of where
we would go or what we might see. We’d learned that
the connections we made on farms were a far better,
dependable, and more intimate source of knowledge
for what we could do.
Our Trip Timeline
2013: On Ometepe Island in Nicaragua,
after about a week of showing initiative,
using very basic knowledge to build, garden,
and speak Spanish, the owner asked us to
stay longer. Needing to return to Europe,
he asked us to stay and watch the
farm and its adjoining hotel for him
for a few weeks. So, we lived in his cool
eco-house, gardening, and hanging out with
farm volunteers, local employees, and guests
of the lodge.
Week 2013: Costa Rica is more expensive
than other spots in Central America, so we
decided to make a short visit of it. We worked
for a week on
a small farm, a couple of acres, owned
by a couple in their early twenties. It was
pleasant enough, and we learned a bit about
foraging. In the afternoon, we’d walk to
the beach a cool off in the Caribbean, and
we were happy to press on when the week was
2014: We ended up at a retired Canadian
couple’s summer home. They had decided they
wanted to grow organic vegetables, but neither
one knew much about how to do so. Emma and
I used what we’d learned along the way to
help them get started. They loved the farming
we taught them and asked if we would stay
for six months, build up a volunteer program,
and develop the property. We did, with the
stipulation that we could travel two months
in South America before starting
2014: A farm-stay near Bogota turned
out to be a massive turning point. We’d been
hearing about permaculture on our travels,
Juanita Finch Verde was practicing it.
There was a variable and extensive design
being put into place. Our knowledge of garden
systems grew exponentially during our month
there. We actually couldn’t wait to get back
to Panama and play with these new concepts.
2014: We worked with an NGO, doing
farming, reforestation, and eco-tourism development
in the cloud forests of Ecuador. For a small
fee, paid directly to our hosts, we were
offered to stay with a local family, make
a garden, plant some trees, work on a bird-spotting
trail through the jungle, make jewelry from
local seeds, and allowed to experience rural
life in Las
2014-October 2014: We spent six
months back in Panama, earning a small cash
stipend to explore gardening options, create
food forests, build innovative garden beds,
and start a communal garden. We hosted a
steady stream of volunteers from around the
world (about seven countries in all) and
ate daily from what we were growing. We had
the option to stay on but felt it was time
to continue our adventure.
2014-December 2014: A family emergency
back in England, Emma' s home country, put
a quick halt to continuing our journey through
South America, so within one day of returning
to Colombia, we were booking a flight to
Manchester. We remained in England for three
months. On the positive side of things, we
left without heavy hearts. While there, we
did discover several permaculture sites.
2015-March 2015: Not quite ready
to head back to Latin America, we hung out
in Spain for three months. We helped to harvest
olives. We cleaned up a permaculture site,
having been massively pruned after being
abandoned for four years. We supped up an
eco-property, introducing all sorts of sustainable
agricultural know-how we’d picked up. We
also built a cob pizza oven (our second).
31, 2015: We are flying back to
Guatemala, a place we’ve decided is now “home,”
and we are hoping to find a piece of land
of our own. We have plans to build a cob
house, run the site off of completely renewable
energy sources, and grow as much of our own
foods as possible. We hope to welcome volunteers
to help us with these projects. We also hope
to work with local schools while piloting
some community garden projects.