let me tell you a story…

Feb 25, 2017

Fresh from the Oxford Real Farming Conference, Scarlett Penn wrote a first-impressions article, which was in our January electronic newsletter . These are some follow up thoughts around the theme of storytelling.

A few weeks ago I wrote these words:

The message which stood out for me is the importance of storytelling if we’re to change the narrative around what is considered normal farming practice. I once heard someone describe organic certification as a tool for globalism. If an ethical farmer shared the story of their beliefs and practices, illustrated how their farm is part of the well-being of the community and the landscape, displayed how welfare is at the heart of their mindset, the people are much more likely to trust, understand and buy.

But without the back story, it’s just another lettuce, another egg, another lamb chop, and much easier for a consumer’s focus to be on beating the price down. Small farmers need to educate in order to change minds. It’s only through consumers paying a fair price for ethical produce that we’ll return to a situation where a realistic livelihood can be derived from the land.

Naturally this got me thinking about WWOOF, and the dip we’re seeing in membership. WWOOF is a charity with a strong benevolent focus and 45 years of stories to tell. There are thousands of tales of friendships made and adventures had, yet we know there are many people still sitting behind their desk, or struggling on alone on their farm, because they can’t imagine what WWOOFing is like.

So here’s the question I’m asking myself: how do we find our stories; how and where do we best re-tell them; how do we display our uniqueness to reach those that haven’t heard of us, or want to have a go but haven’t found the courage to have a go?

Soon after this, during our fortnightly staff meeting, someone asked if they could read aloud an email recently received at the office. That email was from a WWOOFer, Hazel Murphy, and as we listened to her chronicle, a picture emerged of how immersion in the world of WWOOFing had helped her though a deeply upsetting life event, and has even given her the confidence to move away from town life and into the countryside.

As we listened, the emotion of this beautiful, authentic sharing stirred us; our spirits lifted by the happy ending, our hearts gladdened because what we do had such a positive and powerful influence in someone’s life. We resolved to read it again at the start of the next full Council meeting, to remind us to put folk as well as farm at the heart of whatever business and admin decisions we might make.

Towards the end of Hazel’s email she says ‘I feel WWOOFing is seen as a fringe thing and a bit alternative, when in fact it is something that many people can benefit from.’ We agree, so sought to send her story further, asking her if we could feature it in this newsletter, to which she agreed; it’s here.

But Hazel has hit on something big here; many really could benefit from WWOOFing…but only if they’ve heard of it, understand the concept and have the courage to have a go. So how do we reach out and expand those take-up numbers?

There’s no doubt WWOOF UK offers something unique in the world of volunteer exchanges; it’s ethical, it’s a charity, it supports the organic sector, there’s an experienced in-country team to support all members. It’s true we could do better in promoting those facts, but our narrative needs to be about more than environmental credentials. We need to bring WWOOFing to life in the mind’s eye, through stories, pictures, spoken word, so people who have never had an exchange can envisage what it might be like.

Spoken word, in the era of social media, is often overlooked, but can be the best way of creating a meaningful and trusting connection. Talking to a team member, I’m told about a Scottish smallholder who has heard of WWOOF many a time, but did not sign up to be a host until she met a regional host contact (RHC) at a smallholding event near Lanark.

And that’s another important point; it’s proven that people have to hear things several times over before they will understand, relate to, or even remember, a new idea or concept. It’s unlikely a (sober!) festivilian encountered at a main stream event, upon hearing about WWOOF for the first time, will just sign up.

So not only do we have to breathe life and colour into the narrative of WWOOF, creating a mental image and broadcasting it far and wide, we have to do so repeatedly, and in with multi media, including real people who actually speak and can relay their tale with authenticity.

That seems like quite a task for a few (office-based) people! So if you – host or volunteer, RHC or events rep, director or staff – agree with Hazel and believe WWOOF to be a potent opportunity to expand your mind, body and soul, the invitation is to join us on this journey creating WWOOF UK’s autobiography. And consider this; by sharing your own story, you may even create the conditions for someone else to live happily ever after.

Tell us your tale: info@wwoof.org.uk

photos: Scarlett Penn and blog.visme.co

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