Stephanie Donaldson was one of the first WWOOFers; she tells us how WWOOFing changed her life and influences it still.
In 1971 I was in my early twenties and working for a design company in London when I picked up a copy of Time Out and saw an advert offering weekends volunteering on organic farms. It was just what I was after, I needed to get out of the city and breathe some country air, so I rang the number. That phone call changed my life in many ways. Working Weekends on Organic Farms was the brainchild of Sue Coppard who has watched her idea grow from five people squeezing into a Mini to go and dig potatoes to a thriving international organisation now known primarily as Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms. WWOOF provides organic farmers and market gardeners with valuable volunteering help in return for board and lodging and gives young people the opportunity to travel to different countries and get involved with rural life in a way that would never happen if they followed the usual gap year routes.
So how did WWOOF change my life? The very first weekend I went on was to a cottage in the middle of the Ashdown Forest. Jenifer, the owner, needed help with her vegetable garden and as we worked I talked to her and we quickly became – and remain – good friends. I went on other WWOOF weekends and realised that I wanted to move out of London and become an organic gardener. I returned frequently to stay with Jenifer and met her circle of friends.
Several of us decided to set up a commune, initially close to the Ashdown Forest, before six of us moved to Wales where we bought a farm and established a dairy herd. I grew the vegetables. The farm has outlasted the commune and is owned by one of the original group, while the rest of us went in different directions.
I married a farmer and went to live on his family farm, where once again I gardened organically. When we went our separate ways I continued to work as a gardener, but with two children to support, I returned to an early love of writing and began to write about organic gardening. Over the years I have written many books, including co-authoring The Elements of Organic Gardening with the Prince of Wales and until recently I was the garden editor of Country Living magazine. I now divide my time between writing freelance features for national newspapers and magazines and spending time in my garden – gardening organically. I often ponder how different my life might have been if I hadn’t answered that ad. Thank you WWOOF and thank you Sue for a truly brilliant idea.
photos: ’45 in tomatoes’ by Scarlett Penn
other images from Stephanie Donaldson