Jeff is a buddy of mine from college. I met him at SFO as we were boarding our flights to Sweden – coincidentally, we were both on our way to our study abroad program! What were the chances!? Since then, we’ve bonded over our love of travel (or it is our inability to settle down?) and have since met up in a hodgepodge of cities around the world: Berlin, Minneapolis, Gettysburg, Washington DC, New York, San Diego, San Francisco, Buenos Aires, Paris, Cabo, and Siena.
We also both decided to do some extensive traveling this summer so when I found out that his travel plans entailed spending a month in Japan (on a budget) I was curious how he managed that feat. It turns out, he barely had to spend a dime since he chose to do a farm stay in exchange for work – also known as “WWOOFing”. I sat down with him to get a run down of WWOOFing. After hearing his replies, I only wish I knew about WWOOFing sooner!
What in the world is “WWOOFing”?
WWOOFing provides travelers an alternative way to see the world and at the same time gives them the chance to get hands-on experience working on a farm and learning more about organic farming. WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. Basically, in exchange for working on a host family’s farm, you will be provided meals and a place to stay during your time on the farm.
Why did you decide to try it out?
I learned about WWOOFing from someone who was in a career transition class with me. I mentioned to that person that I was going to take some time off to travel around the world before transitioning into a new career and they shared with me their experiences with WWOOF.
I thought it would be an interesting experience to have in addition to my normal sightseeing itinerary. Also, during my travels, I wanted to somewhat settle in and spend more than a few days in one location and experience more than the standard touristy sights. WWOOFing allowed me to do this without breaking my budget.
I decided to WWOOF in Japan, and it was a great way to see a side of Japan that travelers normally don’t experience and to eat home-cooked Japanese meals without having to stay in expensive Japanese hotels.
The home-cooked meals would definitely be a treat for any traveler! What was a typical day like on the farm?
A typical day in the household where I was staying began at 7AM with breakfast served by our host. Some other WWOOFers and myself would usually finish up around 7:30AM and we would head out the door at 8AM to start the farm work. In Japan (or at least in this locality), a farmer’s fields are spread out within the small town and are not necessarily adjacent to the host’s home. The type of farm work varied depending on the season and the needs of the local community. I arrived at my host’s farm in late summer, so harvesting tomatoes was one of the first tasks I did. These tomatoes were then pooled with the harvests of other local organic farmers. We took everyone’s tomatoes and delivered them to a juicing plant that produced organic tomato juice that the local farmers would then sell.
Some other tasks included using a mechanical reaper to harvest rice stalks and drying them prior to separating out the grains, manually harvesting and drying perilla seeds which would be later used to make oil, seeding a perilla field, harvesting carrots, and creating a compost heap with discarded grape skins from a nearby winery.
We would usually work from 8AM to noon with a break around 10AM. Once we completed the work for the morning, we would return to the host’s home for lunch. We would then have free time until 3PM when we would resume work until 5PM. Upon returning home, we would also prepare feed for chickens in the coop located next to the house and gather some grass for the guinea pigs that the host was also raising.
Then we would shower/freshen up prior to having dinner at around 6:30-7PM. After that, we would just relax for the rest of the evening.
We worked for six days out of the week, with the seventh day free for exploring the nearby city. Our host graciously provided us with a ride to the local train station. We typically wouldn’t leave the farm during evenings after work, but occasionally, the host would invite us to go out to a nearby onsen for a dip in the thermal waters during weekday evenings. I don’t think the host would hesitate to drive us, either, if we needed particular items out in town, such as toiletries, or to get cash.
What types of travelers did you meet doing this?
Whether or not you run into another traveler while WWOOFing is dependent upon the host family’s schedule. I stayed at my host family’s farm for a month and met six different WWOOFers during that period. Two were from France, two from Germany, and two from Japan. My host family hosted at least one WWOOFer in their house going back 6 months straight and was finally coming upon a time period where they wouldn’t have any volunteers in the house; it was only short-lived, though, as another WWOOFer was due to arrive 5 days after that period.
As far as the types of travelers that I worked with, the majority were students of some type, though not necessarily studying agriculture. Another WWOOFer was in the middle of a career transition like myself. But the host said that people from all walks of life come through and work at the farm. One group that the host mentioned consisted of some retirees from Taiwan who were also empty nesters and were looking for a different experience while traveling through Japan.
Most of the WWOOFers that I saw on the host’s schedule were only scheduled to work only a week, but one WWOOFer stayed for a month, like myself. Another one was just a weekend warrior and returned to their home city on Monday.
What were the accommodations like?
You are essentially living in the host’s home while WWOOFing, so don’t expect anything like a hotel. There are, however, opportunities to work at hostels through WWOOF, so that might be the closest thing to staying in a hotel. My host had a four-bedroom house, and we had—at most—four WWOOFers at one time during my stay there. Two of the WWOOFers were a couple, so we all had our own room. The house only had one bathroom with a separate room for the toilet, so we all had to share, but there was never a time where I had to wait for very long to use either the shower or toilet.
Bedding was provided; albeit in Japan, it consisted of a foldable futon mat placed on the tatami floor. Our host family was also extremely accommodating and did our laundry for us (wash and fold!) while we were out working.
What are the advantages of WWOOFing over staying in a hostel or hotel?
The main advantage of WWOOFing is having your food and lodging provided in exchange for work. My total expenses for staying a month in Japan were only about $60 USD. About half of that was for an English-language book that I picked up at the major bookstore in the nearby city. The other half was spread among transportation costs, dining out, and souvenirs that I bought during my days off.
Also, you benefit from a different travel experience while WWOOFing, rather than staying in a hostel/hotel. You feel as if you are part of an extended family while you are traveling and experience certain nuances of a culture that you might otherwise miss out on if you stay in hostel/hotel or are just out for sightseeing. You also learn about organic farming and agriculture in general and learn about community initiatives that promote organic farming and protect farming interests. And you literally get to eat the fruits of your labor!
It sounds like a great way to really immerse yourself culturally! Would you do it again?
Absolutely. Especially if you just need to get away for a while and do something that breaks your routine. It’s also good if you need to practice your language skills since WWOOFing essentially immerses you in the culture of the place you are staying at. Plus, it makes staying in Japan easy on the wallet.
How would someone find WWOOFing options?
Google “WWOOF” or go to www.wwoof.net and you should find the international WWOOF site. From here, you can go to the individual site of the countries that host WWOOFers. Once you’re at the individual country’s site, you can preview the hosts and see descriptions of what opportunities are available and who is looking for WWOOFers ASAP.
If you find a host you would like to work with, you’ll have to register on the website and pay a once-a-year membership fee to be permitted to work with hosts. The fee differs from country to country, but is between $0-$72 USD, according to the international WWOOF site. In Japan, it was about $50USD. You’ll have to pay separate fees if you want to work in more than one country.
Also, remember to make sure you are in compliance with a country’s visa requirements before you go—some countries consider WWOOFing a “cultural experience” and don’t require you to have a working permit/visa.
Thanks, Jeff, for that insightful Q&A!