WWOOFer Ruth Pullan, who organised a WWOOF training day at a host in the North of England, tells of her experience and wonders whether it could become a model for a kind of WWOOF ‘Training Day’ to attract new, regular and local WWOOF volunteers.
I have been a WWOOFer on and off for the last year or so and have really enjoyed the extended stays I have had on small farms. However I am in the fortunate position of being able to take time to visit places as I can take my work with me while I learn about organic and small scale farming. But why should WWOOFing be limited to students and the self-employed? There are many people who cannot take time out of work or who have family commitments which mean that to take time off to WWOOF would really be a bit of a luxury and perhaps not what all the family considers their ideal break. As one of the day’s participants said, ‘Whilst I’d love to go WWOOFing again, due to childcare commitments I don’t have the opportunity nowadays so a one-day course held locally suits me better’.
Most WWOOF hosts have years of experience and a huge range of skills and many, I’m sure, would love the opportunity to pass on skills while benefiting from a few extra pairs of hands at the same time, in a classic WWOOF skills and labour exchange. Many of those attending the pruning day were in a position to apply what they learned directly to their own or community projects, and because of this able to disseminate thoughts and skills to a wider, and most importantly, new audience. I’m sure many people like this would appreciate the opportunity to WWOOF little and often, an arrangement which may well suit potential hosts too who don’t want to commit to having WWOOFers stay in their home but who want to share skills and who would benefit from the help WWOOFers can bring.
And so with this in mind back in January 2017 eleven people, some already WWOOF members, others who had paid a fee equivalent to membership to attend the event, squeezed into host The Nursery’s front room – they are a one acre suburban smallholding on the outskirts of York. The eleven had come from all over Yorkshire to take part in a great opportunity to learn about pruning fruit trees. Similar days had been organised in previous years but this was perhaps the first year that it was run with the thought that this could become one of many such days organised by hosts as a way of attracting a new type of WWOOFer to the membership.
A great day was had by all, tea and fabulous cake making everyone very happy as well as the delicious, home grown lunch washed down with the host’s very own apple juice. Real, tangible learning took place with clear instruction and practical application meaning everyone came away confident and ready to tackle their own pruning projects. The basics of pruning were taught around that prickly nemesis otherwise known as the gooseberry, in this case a delicious Hinnonmaki Red, and provided a great, miniature case study which can then be applied to larger tree fruits, particularly apples.
some of the results of the pruning skills at The Nursery
We then went on to prune a range of different apple trees of various vigour and shapes; a good introduction to the vagaries of pruning! It was great to be able to learn alongside a group of like-minded people from all walks of life and all ages too and with varying reasons for being there. From the RHS student wanting to brush up for their exams to the co-ordinator of a Leeds based Forest Garden and members of Leeds Permaculture Network, all manner of opinions on growing and varying amounts of experience were represented and the day was all the richer for it.
For the hosts, it was a great opportunity to reach people in the area who were keen to come back and they were pleasantly surprised by the amount of work which got done on the day, something, I think, which came from having a clear purpose. It felt like the day reached an audience which I don’t tend to see on my other WWOOF adventures and one which I think it is very important to reach. It can be very easy to get sucked into ‘WWOOF land’ where everyone thinks similarly but I believe WWOOF has a real opportunity to reach that part of society where the alternative meets the ’normal‘ (whatever that is!) and show green and sustainable living as a ’proper’ alternative rather than an idealistic dream incompatible with the everyday 9-5.
Some of my best WWOOF experiences have been when I have encountered those who are not trying to save the world but who like to bring their grandchildren on a family gardening day, or want to know how to take care of their little patch a bit better. This frontier is where WWOOF can really make a difference. The possibilities for skills exchange become heightened too; I hope I give as much back to my hosts through skills I bring as I get in return, however there is only so much I have learnt in my twenty-eight years on this earth compared to someone who has had a career and raised a family perhaps, who can give hugely valuable experience in return for their learning. Being able to pick the brains of an ecologist on the best way of introducing new species to a meadow while they learn about pruning their apple trees seems a fair exchange to me! Not only is there great opportunity for skill exchange but it is a chance to develop strong local networks of WWOOF volunteers which hosts can call on.
I think WWOOF has a great opportunity to reach out to this group and push the idea of one-off training days and that it would be very popular, going on what people said on the day; one lady in particular said ‘I am busy most of the time and not good at planning and researching when and where to go. I also can’t do long visits. Weekends or days are perfect for that. I would love it if other hosts put out that they need help for specific jobs on specific weekends or days so I can book them in my diary’. It’s a perfect physical presence and complement to LLOOF and one which could increase the membership of those put off WWOOF by the idea that it is just for students.
For me personally, when I think back to my first forays into organic growing and someone a bit nervous of just plunging myself into WWOOFing without knowing what it entailed, I would have loved the opportunity to go on a day’s introduction, learn a new skill and see that WWOOFing is great! Of course this is dependent on there being WWOOF hosts prepared to plan and deliver a more structured day of work but in return I think there is the real possibility of a more dependable and long term local volunteer exchange and one which taps into WWOOF ideals of spreading organic and sustainable growing at, dare I say it, a grassroots level!