The Guide to Volunteer Work on Farms
Where and How to Combine Cultural Immersion and Enjoying the Local Land
Article and photos by Jonathon
Abroad Contributing Editor and A Life Abroad Columnist
|Volunteer work on a farm and
can involve creating mixed seedlings.
Just about everyone these days have
heard of WWOOF, and without a doubt, the idea of volunteering
on farms is largely on the rise in the world of travel.
In fact, with the development of several organizations
with websites offering similar offerings, opportunities
have increased exponentially as have the travelers (and
hosts) who are taking advantage of the arrangement. It is
a great solution for those on a budget (both travelers and
hosts), but a farm-stay can offer so much more to everyone
If you’ve never traveled in this way,
undoubtedly whether you are the penny-pinching tourist,
the keen adventurer, the outdoors lover, or are interested
for some other reason, you are likely curious how the whole
thing works—from lining up a volunteer position to what
the expectations of both the host and traveler should be.
Here we will provide a guide offering the essential information
to get you started.
How to Find a Farm
|One of my first jobs as a volunteer
was building a chicken coop and roost. It was done
from found materials around the farm.
In essence, sites like WWOOF, WorkAway,
and HelpX are
the global version of the classifieds for volunteers. Posts
can be in the steamy jungles of Amazon, or they can be amongst
the chilly expanses of Canada. In reality, if you are interested
in going somewhere, then it is safe to assume that volunteering
is a possibility at that destination.
However, there is more to think about
than just the location. For example, a vegan may not be
too inspired by the prospect of milking a goat, or an avid
gardener may care less about building an eco-friendly cob
house. Luckily, websites usually provide plenty of information
about each farm. Look for something that you’ll enjoy doing
and learning. That way the work itself is a rewarding part
of the experience.
There are other things to consider as
well. Hosts who put more effort into explaining their projects
will likely put equal passion into the work itself, which
makes it more inspiring as a volunteer. Think about where
a site is in relation to what you are seeking as a tourist: Some
isolated location will probably not be great for architectural sightseeing
or discos. On the other hand, a volunteer post described
in broken English might be a perfect sign for someone wanting
to practice the local language. It’s basic: Consider the
pros and cons of each place, and you’ll get more out of
How to Acquire a Post
| This tipi was at a farm in Colombia
and was my first to ever sleep in. Not only that,
but I was allowed to help taking it down and putting
it back up.
With WWOOFing’s rise in popularity,
many hosts are afforded the luxury of being selective (just
as you have had the luxury of being selective about the farm).
As a result, volunteering has actually become competitive,
especially for those traveling during busy seasons. Therefore,
applicants who put in more effort and show more interest
in their inquiries are the ones more likely to find the
positions they really desire.
If you’ve chosen a farm mindfully, this
should be no problem. Just tell the host why their place
appeals to you. Briefly (and humbly) share any experience
you have (don’t worry if you have none, since enthusiasm goes
a long way). Even go so far as to express in a line or two
why the region is of particular interest in terms of your
travel plans. Be concise but also be friendly and inquisitive.
A host would much rather someone who views the exchange
more than a free place to stay.
There are also some specific strategies
that can help. Be sure to apply to a few different farms,
as if trying to find an actual job. Start sending your queries
out at least a couple of weeks in advance, and better yet
a couple of months. It’s possible to find positions in a
week, but it’s easier to be a little bit more selective if you allow
yourself a longer lead time. Ask for about a 2-week stay at first, as
it prevents potentially feeling trapped should the experience not live
up to expectations. Many hosts follow this rule as well,
feeling out volunteers before granting longer stays.
What to Expect as a Volunteer
|On my first morning at a Totoco
Organic Farm in Nicaragua, I woke up to the sound
of this pig routing around in the open-air kitchen
below my loft.
For travelers, volunteering on farms
often equates to much more than room and board. It provides
access to more remote regions and a
deeper experience of a culture, subculture, and a country.
Farm work as a volunteer helps put us in tune with the weather,
the landscape, the flora, and the fauna. We are likely to
connect immediately with people who know the area well,
who can provide us inside tips on where we should go, the type
of local fare we ought to try, and why customs are as they
are. The experience also teaches
us something new about farm volunteering, perhaps how
to build a mud house or make rich compost.
The typical exchange involves a place
to sleep and food for your work. Accommodations take almost
any form: a dorm bed, a private caravan, a guestroom, a
tipi (seriously), or a loft in a barn. There should also be functional
amenities like bathrooms and an operational kitchen, but
luxuries like heating and air conditioning might not be available.
Most hosts will provide blankets and pillows, perhaps even
towels; others will be surprised that you don’t have a sleeping
bag. Often a volunteer’s first duty is to clean up the living
space in order to be comfortable.
Food will be provided. Most hosts spring
for all three meals, but some scrimp (just ask them if it’s
a worry), and might skip one out. More often than not, cooking
duties will be a DIY affair with the occasional team effort
for host-volunteer bonding. The food is usually basic (often
vegetarian) fare such as beans, rice, vegetables, fruit,
bread, cheese, and pasta. Most hosts are obliging to dietary
restrictions, but if not, they typically shout about it
in the ad: “No vegans allowed!” or “No meat allowed!”
What the Host Will Expect
|After holding out for cheese
made “the right way,” it was this experience, milking
a goat in Costa Rica, that fully converted me to veganism.
Nevertheless, I very much respect this farmer for
how she loves her animals.
For hosts, volunteers bring a lot to
the equation as well. Sometimes, without volunteers, a host's
project wouldn't be possible. Often the work will be physically
challenging, hot, wet, or repetitive. Nevertheless, good
hosts won’t ask that volunteers do anything they themselves
wouldn’t. Jobs can vary greatly, ranging from childcare
to digging ditches, harvesting apples to planting seedlings.
Some hosts are very loose about it all, offering options
and opportunities for personal creativity. Other hosts have
a more precise goal in mind in terms of the work to be completed.
Whatever the individual situation, what
all hosts seem to seek are self-motivated volunteers
who dive into tasks rather than waiting for constant instruction.
Hosts like people with their own ideas and a genuine interest
in what they are doing. Volunteers who can share, not just
in the work, but also the communal task of living, such as cooking
or cleaning up, are all the more welcome. In general, the
less a volunteer appears to be someone simply there for a cheap
place to stay, the more such motivated individuals make
a host feel comfortable and confident.
Otherwise, the nitty-gritty of the arrangement
is that hosts expect about five hours of work, five days
a week. The details may vary somewhat depending upon the
farm and site (WorkAway has strict rules about five hours and
no more), but this is standard practice. Sometimes, fees
are required (WorkAway has strict rules against such a practice),
which more or less covers the cost of feeding you. Nevertheless,
while asking fees for food seems to be a regional and often
common practice in some countries, like Costa Rica, it is
more unusual in other regions, such as Spain. Again, the
more information the host provides in their write-up about the volunteer
position, the better idea you’ll have about what is expected.
Generally, if there isn’t much documented about what you’ll
be doing, anything
can and may happen.
What Else Might Help
|My wife and I propped against
our caravan in Alozaina in Andalusia, Spain. It’s
amazing how quickly places start to feel like home.
For every volunteer post, there seems
to be a sweeter deal available for those contributors have
who have open schedules and personal drive. Often when hosts discover
that good people can stay indefinitely, they offer them
small salaries or increased perks—such as personal projects
or improved housing—to influence them to stay for a longer
period. It’s common to see a 2-week stint
turn in two months or even two years in some cases. For
a traveler, that equates to real adventure, often at little
or no extra cost. There is the potential to travel in this
manner for a long, long time.
Another option is to
seek out actual paid work, usually something along
the lines of picking seasonal fruit and vegetables. Paid
seasonal work opportunities seem more common in affluent
countries, such as Australia, New Zealand, Europe, and
the U.S. In such circumstances, the position will be
much more like a job, with a schedule (typically long
hours) and a paycheck (typically meager). These types
of positions will likely require visas and paperwork.
The experience will still be rich and eye-opening, but
it may allow for far less free time to do what you enjoy.
Whichever option you choose, or a combination
thereof, farm-stays can most certainly add something unique
when it comes to experiencing a country and traveling. There
is a remarkable and almost instant camaraderie amongst the
people you’ll find in such farms around the world, as well
as a wealth of information available about other spots to
volunteer or to visit. You can pick up all sorts of interesting
skills, learn about new ways of living, and develop friendships
that span borders and ages. The biggest challenge is simply
finding the courage to do it the first time. After that,
the whole process just makes sense, and you will ask yourself
what took you so long to start this unique and rewarding
way of traveling.
Engels has been an EFL
expat since 2005, just after he earned an
MFA in creative writing and promptly rejected
a life teaching freshman composition. He
has lived, worked and/or volunteered in seven
different countries, and visited many others
between them. Currently, he is traveling
through Central and South America. For more,
check out Jonathon
Engels: A Life Abroad.