I heard of the WWOOF, (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), program a few years ago when a friend of a friend participated during university. It started in England in the 1970’s and has since spread throughout the world. Now there are programs everywhere, from Indonesia to Togo. WWOOF is a non-profit organization that connects organic farms to volunteers.
How it works:
Volunteers fill out an application for their prospective country. They are then provided with a list of approved farms that host volunteers. The volunteers contact the individual farms, and the two parties make an arrangement that works for both schedules. The duration of time one volunteers varies, it can be anywhere from a few days to a few months, depending on the specific situation. In exchange for labor the volunteer is provided with food and a place to stay. You can check out the website here: http://wwoof.net/
Why I wanted to spend my summer vacation working on a farm for free:
- I think it is a great program and beneficial for both the farmers and the volunteers. I’ve never heard of any negative experiences or horror stories. The organization itself is not-for-profit, so there is really no ulterior motive than connection between people.
- I want to learn as much about crops and farming as I possibly can. In order to run my own self sustainable farm someday. This is a free way to learn.
- I’m poor. It was a way to travel to a different part of Taiwan and do some site seeing while getting free food and a place to stay. It saved us a lot of money.
I had been contacting farms for a few months prior to August, trying to find one that would take two volunteers at the time that fit with our schedule. I finally found one that would host us for the first week in August, and would accept the two of us as a couple, and even pick us up at the train station. It was in beautiful Hualien County, home of Toroko National Park. So with the offer of transportation from the train station and the hope of seeing some of Hualien, we went in pretty much blind to our first WWOOFing experience.
We took the train from Taipei Main Station to Hualien, about a two and a half hour ride. When we arrived at the Hualien station we sat and waited for a phone call while watching everyone who went by, not knowing who or what to expect. After a half an hour of waiting I got a phone call from Deng. Our contact from the farm.
I was surprised to see how young he was. In my mind I was expecting an old couple that needed young strong hands to do some heavy lifting. Deng looked to be about our age, and was dressed in a plain black t-shirt and khaki shorts, not exactly the rice-hat-plaid-shirt get up I expected. In the car were two other girls about our age. They were classmates of Deng’s from University who now worked for a company in Taipei that they were trying to get to buy some of Deng’s products. The farm was a 30 minute drive from the train station.
We pulled up to a small-ish house on about an acre of land.
When we got out first thing we said hello to the rest of the family. A few uncles were sitting around drinking tea and smoking cigarettes, while some Aunties were buzzing about washing out large baskets (that I later found out contained soy beans). There were teens in the living room watching cartoons, and construction workers in the side yard welding together a roof for a new guest house. None of the family spoke English, except for Deng, who kept checking the translation application on his phone before everything he said. That was my first indication of “Oh shit what did we get ourselves into”. It was going to be Deng’s choppy English and my less than preschool level Mandarin to get us through the whole week, I thought we were in major trouble.
We never really had a formal introduction with names and who everyone was (that came much later), we just kind of popped out of the car said hello and Deng whisked us away on a tour. The first thing we noticed was three medium-sized greenhouses in the back yard. As we went inside, we saw that each contained a different kind of crop.
Near the greenhouses was a chicken coup, and a duck coup( is that a thing?) and bushes of chili peppers, turmeric, and even coffee beans. The side yard contained a few fruit trees, and across the street were a few bare un-tilled fields.
After the tour we sat down at the outside table with the uncles where everyone had gathered. It was about 4 PM when we sat down, we “socialized” until about seven when we had dinner. By “socialized” I mean I could say the basics, my name is… his name is … we are from …. and then Deng and his phone took over translation. Deng brought his classmates back to the train station and we were left to our own devices for a while, which meant sitting silently listening and drinking a lot of green tea. When he got back we gathered inside for dinner. There were eight of us left by dinner time. Deng’s mother, father, younger sister (about my age we guessed), and himself who all lived in the house. They had an older sister who lived away from home, and Deng ran all of the farm operations while his father supervised, his sister worked in town and I’m still not quite sure what his mother did. They had a nineteen-year-old college intern there living with them for the summer and helping Deng on the farm. A cousin or auntie (we actually never figured out who she was) was staying with them also helping with the soy bean project.
We had a delicious family style meal, with large plates of different vegetables, fish, some questionable looking meat, and of course, soup. After dinner we helped to clean up and showered. Deng told us we were going to sleep in the community center for the night. Unsure of really what that meant we nodded happily and said O.K.
We gathered our bags and walked down the road to what looked like a community hall. Deng opened it up with the key, and we were in fact in a hall with folding tables and chairs (and a karaoke machine in the corner) we were kind of confused until Deng and the intern started breaking down the folding tables and made them into a little square before laying a thick quilted blanket on top. He gave us some sheets and told us to be back to the house at 7 AM for breakfast. And that is when we had our second “Oh shit” moment.