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A Willing Worker

The WWOOF organisation, a loose collection of organic farms around the world, provided Nina Doyle with a way to live and work in New Zealand.

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Tell someone you're a WWOOFer and the chances are they'll cast you a dubious glance and tell you, quite unashamedly, that you're barking mad.

You may well be.  But there will be folk who know exactly what you're referring to, and who will happily vouch for your sanity.  They'll be aware you are part of a network that's becoming more and more popular with travellers worldwide who want to experience living in a country without breaking their budget.  And you don't even need a work permit to get involved.

So just what is this WWOOFing?  It's an acronym that stands for Willing Workers On Organic Farms, and involves simple co-operation from both parties involved - the 'willing' and able worker, and the host farmer/smallholder.

England, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Hungary, Canada, Uganda, Ghana... when it comes to countries in which to WWOOF, you're spoilt for choice.  But the beauty of the scheme is that no farming experience is required. You don't even have to be an organic enthusiast. 

The WWOOF organisation began in the UK in 1971 and has many aims.  The main ones are 'to enable town-dwellers to experience living and working on a farm'; and 'to enable people to learn first hand organic growing techniques'.  From personal experience the scheme achieves both these aims, but also something else - the chance to live as the locals do while saving yourself an awful lot of money.

So why get involved in WWOOFing?  Well, apart from the money saving element, it opens up a whole new way to work your way around a particular country, or indeed the world. You simply pay the small joining fee in the relevant country (usually the equivalent of £10 to £15), and you'll receive a WWOOF book, packed with details of all the farms and smallholdings which are part of the scheme in that particular country. 

You then decide in which area of the country you want to work, and phone a host farm of your choice to arrange your stay.  It's as simple as that.  Normal procedure is to work around 5 hours a day doing a variety of chores, and in return you'll receive meals, lodgings, and cooperate with the family's day to day activities.  No wages are involved.  So for those who relish in different cultures, WWOOFing is a perfect opportunity.  And for those who don't have a work permit, it's even better.

But it's not just the worker who benefits - the host farmer/smallholder also benefits greatly.  They receive the skills and efforts of the worker, and learn about different cultures and ideas.  All that's required is that some aspect of the host's land is organic, and there is room enough to accommodate the worker. 

And when it comes to these host farms, workers are spoilt for choice. Pig farms, dairy farms, sheep farms, fruit farms, everyday smallholdings - name the farming activity, and as you leaf through the WWOOF book it'll be there.  And because it's a case of 'no experience necessary', you can be as adventurous or timid as you like in your choice.

But for all its benefits and virtues, WWOOFing is not as widely known as it should be.  My discovery of the scheme came purely by chance.

I had spent almost a year travelling and working around Australia.  With only weeks until I was due to leave, I realised I'd missed what could have been a wonderful experience.

A fellow traveller told me of her plans to head to Darwin for a two week WWOOFing stint.  "WWOOFing?" I queried.  "Is that some sort of dog impersonation competition held in those parts?"  I was swiftly corrected, a copy of the WWOOF book was thrust into my hands, and I read about numerous farms on which to willingly work.  From Tasmania to Toowoomba, Alice Springs to Adelaide, the choice was, or could have been, endless.

But all was not lost.  My next destination was New Zealand where the scheme also operates.  Within hours of stepping off the plane I obtained a WWOOF book, and immersed myself in one of Christchurch's quieter phone boxes in a bid to get my WWOOFing career underway.

It was a career that started well, and just got better.  Not bad considering my previous organic farming experience was pitiful, and my green fingers were even more pitiful.

My first stop was with a host family situated on the East Coast of the South Island.  Their home could have been lifted fresh from the glossy pages of Hello! magazine.  A palatial abode in which I had my own wing, and was given the role of tending to their vast, colourful, and partially organic garden.  Not easy when there's a picture postcard view to constantly distract you, a beckoning beach at the bottom of the garden, and Rosie the garden sheep whose efforts at being my personal shadow could only be described as comical.

From there I spent a week with a small family whose organic status was questionable, as were the waking hours of their eight month old child.  A joy though he was, his early morning shrieks and cries were not welcoming to a weary WWOOFer! 

But there I learnt how to preserve apricots, I was coached (and coaxed) into cooking vegetarian meals, ingredients of which I never knew existed, and I realised I would never again take a modern-day lawnmower for granted when I was presented with the unenviable task of mowing the family's lawn with a mower that, were it presented on the Antiques Roadshow, would emit one of those surprised gasps from the owner upon being told it was worth a fortune because it's as old as the proverbial hills.

But from then on things got better.  I headed over to the wild and rugged west coast of the South Island to the Greenslade-Yeats family.  10 days I arranged to stay with them.  Four weeks later I was still there. 

They were a family that can only be described as joyously manic, with a home in a setting that could only be described as amazing.  Sprawling fields and woodland on one side, a thrashing and tempestuous coastline on the other, and all around two acres of a superb organic garden. 

It had flowers and trees of all varieties, along with a group of contented free-range chooks.  It also featured a wonderful organic vegetable patch with some of the most succulent and delicious pumpkins I've ever tasted, leaving me vowing never to carve, desecrate and thrust a candle into that particular vegetable ever again. 

No artificial sprays or fertilisers were used on their land, and as a result a healthy, happy garden was in full bloom.  On sunny days I'd be weeding, mulching, and chook tending. On rainy days I could be teaching Hannah the eight year old daughter to bake cookies without licking the entire contents of the bowl, or helping Rosie the sixteen year-old daughter paint her entire bedroom black because she was entering the early stages of a Gothic phase.  Not particularly organic chores, but excellent and memorable fun nonetheless.

My final WWOOFing stint was with Paparoa Horse Treks, a small company run by the Dickson-Mouat family, in a small village called Punakaiki.  Once again I was situated on the stunning west coastline, and once again an arranged stay of two weeks turned into much longer.  This time three months. 

But while the original intention was for me to tend to Karen's organic garden, my knowledge and passion for horses meant I was offered the role of Trek Guide. I accepted without a moment's hesitation. 

So when not weeding, spreading compost or planting vegetables, I could be found taking nervously eager groups of novice riders for half day treks through some of New Zealand's most picturesque and secluded valleys and beaches, virtually on our doorstep.

"We've had WWOOFers from all over the world staying with us here at Punakaiki," explains Karen Dickson-Mouat.  "Some have stayed for up to three months over the summer season, and as a result we've made many friendships.  We really value the input WWOOFers have to offer, both work wise and on a personal level," she adds.

From conversations I had during my travels with other WWOOFers and hosts, I realised I was not alone in benefiting greatly from the scheme.  It's a system in which everyone can benefit, but just how much is up to each individual, whether they are WWOOFer or host.

Throughout all my experiences travelling the Southern Hemisphere, my days as a WWOOFer will be the most memorable.  Not only did I learn to appreciate the benefits of organic methods and learn some useful gardening techniques, I also had great fun joining in the family's everyday activities, and being given an insight into a different culture, something I'd probably never have found had I followed the normal, routine traveller's trail. 

WWOOFing gives you a chance to step off that trail, live as the locals do, while ripening and nurturing your organic green fingers along the way.

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