The history of WWOOF

How it all began…

by Sue Coppard, Founder of WWOOF

WWOOF is an exchange network operating in many countries where accommodation, meals and learning are given in return for help to hosts. A WWOOF host invites people to come to their place to help out for around half a day in return for their daily food, boarding and the experience of sharing daily life with the people who live and work at the host. Stays of varying lengths are possible.

Each WWOOF group is a separate and independent organisation. There is no head office of WWOOFing in the world. 

The acronym “WWOOF”

The acronym “WWOOF” originally stood for Working Weekends On Organic Farms. These days some call it Willing Workers On Organic Farms or World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. Organic farming is the primary activity hosts do, however there are sometimes variations of this. In an effort to provide access to a greater diversity of experience, where it could be possible to learn and experience what might be called an organic lifestyle was recognised and in response some WWOOF groups have hosts that are for example, places like health and healing centres, pottery and arts, building and restoring buildings, organic restaurants, dealing with animals, eco villages, brewing and production of foods, nature guide centre, centre’s for the environment. To find out what kind of hosts the WWOOF group in the country you are going to has, check their website and write to the coordinator of that group to ask them.

Autonomous WWOOF groups

Autonomous WWOOF groups operate in different countries, all of whom have their own ways of organisation. Fees for membership are about the same, ranging from about 20 US dollars to $50 US dollars for a one year membership, access to the list of hosts, sometimes a newsletter at certain intervals. Some offer discount fees for two people WWOOFing together, some don’t. The same with insurance, some memberships include it, and some don’t.

WWOOF groups around the world are recognised for the role they play for organic growers, tourism, and importantly the vehicle it is for people to travel and learn.

How WWOOF began

WWOOF began in the early 1970sin the UK, when a woman named Sue Coppard began the first WWOOF group. In 1973 Sue took a year off from WWOOF to explore the Far East. WWOOF continued to expand under the team which had taken over from her, and new WWOOFs began to spring up in other countries. In her words..

When I first dreamed up WWOOF, back in 1971, I hadn’t the remotest notion it would one day become a thriving, worldwide network with members from so many countries criss-crossing the globe! But WWOOF answers the needs of so many people it had to happen; contact with nature is the psychological equivalent of vitamin C. I feel that WWOOF chose me as its channel – a London secretary with no rural friends or family but pining for the countryside as I watched the autumn leaves blowing along the pavement.

Working Weekends On Organic Farms

WWOOF originally stood for Working Weekends On Organic Farms, and that’s how it started. I had learned about the organic philosophy while helping on Resurgence magazine, and it seemed to me that organic farms would be much more likely to use willing but unskilled townie labourers. A friend suggested that Michael Allaby, editor of the Soil Association journal, might know of a suitable farm, and he put me in touch with Emerson College in deepest leafy Sussex, the training college for the application of Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophical philosophy – including bio-dynamic agriculture on their 200-acre farm. Helpful vice-principal John Davy ‘persuaded’ his sceptical farm managers to give us a trial weekend, and I hastily put an ad. in London’s Time Out magazine – which produced the first fifteen enquiries.

WWOOF’s early success

On a Friday evening three of us took the train down from London with our work clothes and sleeping bags and spent a blissful weekend in wonderful countryside, working hard at clearing brambles and unblocking ditches, listening to birds, watching the sunset, and chatting with the students at meal times. The high point was a fabulous strawberries-and-cream tea in the barn with pigeons cooing aloft. Magic!

The farmers were pleased with our efforts and said Yes, you can come again if you like. Michael Allaby wrote an article entitled ‘Coppard’s Land Army’, and this brought both would-be WWOOFers and invitations from Hosts to help on their land. It also led to a request for an interview with Portobello-based SEED magazine run by Ken Sams (father of Craig Sams who is currently Chairman of the Soil Association). SEED was a delightfully quirky and informative ‘alternative’ magazine. Not only did I end up writing the WWOOF article myself (subtitled ‘Rent-a-Serf’), I became SEED’s secretary for the next year and acquired more organic education and farm contacts.

So WWOOF was a success: I was getting into the countryside, and more and more people were enjoying their WWOOF experiences and learning organic skills. As with organic folk everywhere, they turned out to be really interesting, lovely and fun people. A year and a half later, however, my leisurely Sunday mornings reading the newspaper had vanished. Unable to see how the workload could be shared, both desk and I were groaning under the weight of all that admin! It so happened that I had read of the Japan Kibbutz Association and decided this would be the way to see something of the Far East, a longstanding ambition. So we all assembled to consider how WWOOF might continue. Four members agreed to take over the various tasks – and I went off on my travels (the second best thing I did for WWOOF!)

WWOOF continued to grow

 The take-over went remarkably smoothly and WWOOF continued to grow. The big surprise for me, arriving at Dick Roberts’ farm in New Zealand a year later, was meeting three WWOOFers from England who had followed up Dick’s invitation in WWOOF News and beaten me to it! Two of them were Rob and Sue Lea, who went on to form New Zealand WWOOF, the world’s second WWOOF. From then on, individuals from other countries who had enjoyed WWOOFing in the UK would take the idea back home and, with a little help from UK WWOOF, set up a national WWOOF, each quite distinct from its brethren as all are autonomous and tailored to suit local needs.

There is even an internet WWOOF (called WWOOF Independents) to look after those hosts with no national organisation of their own. WWOOF had expanded considerably by the time I returned to England and joined the team of organisers – a page-long list by this time. So many excellent people contributed their efforts and inspiration, and interesting articles and glowing reports of WWOOF visits filled the pages of the newsletter.

Growth was organic: whenever a job became too much for one organiser the work was divided into two and someone suitable would turn up offering to help. Most organisers were unpaid but eventually increasing workloads led to payment for the heavier jobs, Newsletter Editor and Main Office among them. Two stalwarts who ran Main Office for many years were Don and Maureen Pynches, eventually succeeded by their neighbour/assistant, the Herculean Fran Whittle, who held the fort until recently. The ‘government’ of UK WWOOF has evolved yet further since those early days in order to cope with the increased complexity – improvement and flexibility being the watchwords.

WWOOF was a success

The number of WWOOF hosts had also increased, varying from farms, smallholdings and herb nurseries to communes and fruitful kitchen gardens, some of them overseas.

One of the hosts was the unforgettable Lawrence Hills, founder of HDRA (the UK organic gardening/horticultural research centre), who used to recommend WWOOF as the ideal starting point to all those members of the public who wrote in asking how to become organic farmers and growers. The ‘Fix-It-Yourself’ booklet for direct contact and longer stays with hosts was brought out and eventually replaced scheduled weekends.

‘Grass Roots’ feedback and offers of help were encouraged and considered at our annual meetings, and bright thinking from members led to a variety of projects and solutions to problems. Not all were successful but it was dynamic and exciting. One scheme which promised much but sadly failed due to publishing logistics was a well thought out, informal organic training scheme. (Nowadays, I guess computer home publishing would have taken care of all that.) A success was the WWOOF “Directory of Organisations & Training in the UK Organic Movement’, published in the mid-1980s, which included details of every single organisation we could track down (whether or not they paid a donation!). There was nothing similar at the time, and it sold widely for just £1. Libraries, universities and even government departments purchased it, as did individuals, and it actually made WWOOF a profit.

WWOOFer’s and hosts help one another in other ways

WWOOFers and hosts help one another in other ways as well. One kind couple took an unemployed lad under their wing, taught him to work hard, and encouraged him to study until he managed to find and hold down a job. A young woman who had always wanted to lead the religious life used to WWOOF at a convent, where she eventually became a nun. The same convent also took in an extremely depressed young WWOOFers and cared for her until she was restored to an even keel. Two American lasses WWOOFing in Cameroon were able to design a website for their Host’s project SYFA (‘Save Your Future’ Association) and help him apply via the internet for grants to further his organic work.

WWOOF International conference in Turkey

The 1st international WWOOF conference

A WWOOF conference was held in England in 2000, when representatives of many WWOOF organisations first met together. Over a long, inspiring weekend we heard about WWOOF developments, experiences and difficulties in Austria, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, India, Italy, Kenya, Korea, New Zealand, Switzerland, Togo and the UK. It was delightful meeting kindred spirits from around the world, and a lot of exciting, constructive thinking took place – as well as delicious meals and outings to the pub! When we parted, it was agreed we must continue to work towards an inclusive network with shared values and standards.

A stronger and more unified WWOOF will surely add immensely to the health, happiness and sanity of the world, and help bring about the much needed change of consciousness. Everybody who wishes to help is invited to join us.