Sarah Potenza: How WWOOF Did Ecotourism Long Before it was Cool
Ever heard of a “WWOOFer”? Today on Rootstock Radio, Sarah Potenza, executive director of Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, USA—called WWOOF-USA for short, talks about how this organization’s model for educational and cultural exchange on organic farms is connecting people from all over the world through shared values of good food, sustainability and community. Truly, WWOOF was doing ecotourism before that term had even been invented! Sarah is also a director on the board of the Federation of WWOOF Organizations (FOWO).
Tune in to hear about:
- The WWOOF model: how it works, and how many countries have WWOOF hosts.
- How WWOOF organizations have changed since they first began to emerge in 1971.
- How WWOOFing has led many people to organic farming, and showed a few that perhaps life on a farm is not for them—and both are good things. (Here at Organic Valley, we are reminded every day that being an organic farmer is not for the faint of heart!)
- The recent incorporation of urban farms into the WWOOFing experience.
Rootstock Radio Interview with Sarah Potenza
Air Date: May 13, 2019
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Sarah Potenza, who is the executive director of the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, which some of you may have already heard because I have this acronym, WWOOF, and those folks who are part of the program are often called WWOOFies. Sarah, we’re so delighted and honored to have her. She’s the director of the board of WWOOF-USA and also on the board of the Federation of WWOOF Organisations. Welcome, Sarah.
SARAH POTENZA: Hi, Theresa. Thanks for having me on today.
TM: Yeah. And did I get that right, that you always hear about these WWOOFies?
SP: We call them WWOOFers, but WWOOFies, I like that! We might start calling them WWOOFies from now on. Yeah, we usually call them WWOOFers.
TM: WWOOFers, okay, WWOOFers. Anyway, so exciting to think about the fact that there is an organization like WWOOF. And I understand that WWOOF was formed in 1971, so it’s not exactly something that just popped out recently, is it?
SP: No, I would say it’s one of the first ecotourism or agritourism organizations out there. It was formed in 1971. It sort of sprouted from London and the UK. There was a woman there by the name of Sue Coppard, and she was working in London and wanted a way to get out into the countryside on the weekends. She had heard about the organic agriculture movement that was sort of starting up around that time and wanted a way to tap into it. So she contacted a couple of farms and asked if she could come out for the weekend. It turned out to be a great experience. She brought her friends the next weekend, and from there it grew into a worldwide movement where, I think today there’s about 130 countries that WWOOF hosts.
TM: That’s amazing. And if we think about 1971, well, the Organic Foods Production Act, which was actually a legal federal law passed as part of the Farm Bill, was passed in 1990. So even though in 1971 organic definitely did exist and was something—certainly the Rodale Institute was already well established then, as well as different, Soil Association and so on in Europe—as we think about organic today, it just wasn’t like that in 1971. So it’s so interesting that this one popped up.
Sarah, you, as the executive director of the WWOOF-USA and also on the board of what’s called the Federation of WWOOF Organisations, which is kind of fun too, if we think about it, is there something like 30 or there’s 40 different WWOOF organizations across the country—excuse me, the globe?
SP: Right. Well, there’s more than 40 that are around the world, but there’s 40 that have decided to be part of this Federation of WWOOF Organisations. So, because it started in the 1970s and really grew organically—pardon the pun, but it really did grow slowly, from country to country, and it was all based on national organizations at that point, and it was all before the internet and before the way we are able to connect so easily today. It really grew on a national basis since the ’70s, and so it had a very independent feel between country to country for many years. And it’s in the last ten years or so that we’ve [unclear—formed? 4:12] with the Federation of WWOOF groups to work together more closely. We’ve always had a shared mission and shared goals and sort of the same guidelines, but today we’re able to work together in a much closer way and kind of share some of the experiences that we’re having in a more real-time way.
TM: Well, you know, Sarah, let’s just back up just a tad. Tell us what WWOOF is and what it does.
SP: So WWOOF is a way to connect visitors, or WWOOFers, with organic farmers. And the basic exchange is that WWOOFers help out on the farm for half of each day that they’re there, receive education about organic farming from their hosts, and also receive free room and board while they’re visiting the farm.
TM: So they don’t just visit the farm though. Aren’t they generally pitching in and helping the farmer?
SP: Yes, for sure. Yeah, for sure. It’s an exchange, so people are helping out and getting education about what’s going on on the farm. And there’s no money involved in it. It’s a nonmonetary exchange, really focused on trading education for helping hands, and getting people out onto the farm and participating in organic agriculture around the country, and around the world too.
TM: And I’m just curious, of course, Sarah: what is it in your background that kind of got you interested in doing this and interested in organic and this whole movement of the organic lifestyle?
SP: Well, I grew up on a small family farm in Massachusetts, so I’ve always been interested in farming and food production. And when I went to school I studied agroecology, so I finished my undergraduate degree and was looking for a way to put into place some of the things that I’d learned about. And that’s when I heard about WWOOF, and it was just a perfect opportunity for me to spend some time after college traveling before getting a job, and then also learning about something that I was really interested in.
TM: So, Sarah, I’m going to have to guess that you actually got involved because you became a WWOOFer.
SP: Mm-hmm, I did. Yes, exactly.
TM: Yeah. Tell us about your experience.
SP: Sure. I went WWOOFing in New Zealand around 2000 and had an amazing experience, learned so much about all sorts of different types of agricultural production, met some amazing people, and really it was a life-changing experience for me. Came back to the U.S. and realized that there wasn’t a WWOOF group in the U.S. at that point. You know, as I was saying earlier, it really spread from country to country kind of with people going and WWOOFing where it was already established and coming back to their home and getting it started there. So that’s what I did in 2001 with a group of other people that had all gone WWOOFing also around that time. And so we came back and began WWOOF-USA here in 2001.
TM: Yeah, wow, I’d love to hear—New Zealand. Tell us what your experience was like. It was a while ago, but I bet you remember it well.
SP: Oh yeah, I definitely do. It was wonderful. You know, New Zealand is a really interesting place, very diverse ecologically and in terms of the types of farming that they’re able to do as a result. But at the same time it’s small, and people know each other, and there’s a real sense of community within the country, because I think there’s more sheep than people, at least at the time I was there.
TM: I’ve heard that!
SP: (Laughing) Yeah. So people really know one another, and especially within the organic farming community there, which is very strong. They have a really green attitude in that country, so lots of organic farming going on. So it was a great way to visit the country and really get to know people there, instead of just visiting it as a tourist. I felt like I was a part of what was going on and had people on the ground that were there to welcome me to their homes, and I was able to pitch in with them and learn about what they were doing and also provide assistance to them. Ate great food, because of course you’re on farms, and so you’re getting farm-fresh meals, and there’s other people visiting the farms that are in sort of similar circumstances, traveling and meeting people. So really, it’s an educational exchange program but it’s also a way to travel and meet people that are interested in similar things as you. So it has a double benefit of being educational but also being a great way to travel and meet people.
TM: Well, you know, after your experience on the New Zealand farm, did you ever feel like, gee, I’m going to come home and become an organic farmer?
SP: You know, I did for a while, yeah. I came home, and my experience has been a little bit of a facilitator in organic farming and supporting organic farmers through educational experiences. So I came home and worked for a nonprofit called the Ecological Farming Association and really helped to get more educational conferences going to teach people how to transition into organic agriculture. But I also was an organic farmer for two years in Honduras, and that was an educational farm program there too. So I’ve had a taste of both worlds, and today I have a pretty big garden but I’m not on a farm anymore.
TM: Yeah, and you said the Ecological Farming Association—isn’t that the group that does the Asilomar event?
SP: Yeah, they have the Ecological Farming Conference, which is at Asilomar in Pacific Grove, California, and it’s a really great gathering of organic farmers from around the country each year. And then they also do regional, smaller, daylong or weekend-long conferences on specific topics. And in the beginning, before WWOOF-USA formed its own nonprofit, Eco-Farm was our sponsor as well. So we really had a strong connection with them in the beginning.
TM: Well, you know, it’s so interesting to think about how here is an organization that’s been going since 1971, but it’s an exchange, it’s a nonmonetary exchange. So do you still have to raise money just to manage it, or does it all just feed itself?
SP: You know, it feeds itself. So I should say there’s no money exchanged between the hosts and the WWOOFers; that part is nonmonetary. And the way we run the organization is that we ask members to contribute annually to our organization. So the membership fee is $40 for a year for WWOOFers, and that’s a one-time thing that they pay when they sign up. So it’s pretty minimal, but it keeps our organization running and helps us to be able to create the services, the connections, the website, and keep everything going that way. And for farms, we ask them to contribute. We have a sliding scale fee of $20 to $50 and they pick whatever feels the most appropriate for them to pay.
TM: So you know, Sarah, farming—we’re here in the Midwest, and certainly all of us who live and work and actually work for farmers know that farming is sometimes long days and hard work. If you’re just saying, “Well, I’m really interested in going someplace where I get to know someone who lives there, I get to see what they’re going to do,” and so on, is it surprising though for some of the WWOOFers who go and all of a sudden they find themselves working pretty hard?
SP: You know, I think everybody has their own experience with that. But I wouldn’t be surprised if many of them have a very rosy picture of what farming is. And I think a lot of the people that sign up with us sign up because they want to…you know, they’re interested in becoming organic farmers themselves and this is a way for them to get their foot in the door and get some experience on the ground to see if it is in fact what they want to do. And we hear from some of our WWOOFers that they have gone on to become organic farmers themselves.
For others, it’s a way for them to realize what hard work it really is, and maybe for them this taste is enough, and they go home and don’t become organic farmers themselves, but maybe they do start to support local farming and farmers’ markets, and maybe they have their own gardens. But for them, being an organic farmer themselves isn’t the answer.
TM: Yeah, I just was so curious about it, because I’m thinking, do you track, and do you know how many people have actually become WWOOFers, and just how many people’s lives do you think that you’re impacting through this program?
SP: Oh, it’s such a hard question. I wish we were able to better assess how many people it really affects. We anecdotally hear from a lot of people that have had really impactful experiences through WWOOF. And I know of several WWOOFers that have gone on to become hosts themselves in our program. You know, they started off as WWOOFers and got their own farms and now they’re hosting WWOOFers themselves. So I know it is changing lives for a lot of people, whether it’s that dramatic where they go out and get their own farms and become hosts themselves, or whether it’s a different direction where they were down one career path and because of WWOOF they changed their minds and started in a new direction. I do think, though, that it’s impacting a lot of people that way.
TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio, and I’m Theresa Marquez. I’m here today with Sarah Potenza, who is the executive director of Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms USA, or WWOOF-USA. And she’s also the director for the board of the Federation of WWOOF Organisations. I bet many of you out there listening today didn’t know that there was such an organization. Sarah, if folks out there listening are saying, wow, maybe I might want to do that, I did read that one criterion for sure is you have to be 18 or over. How else would people get involved or learn more about it?
SP: If they’re interested, they could go to our website. If they’re interested in WWOOFing in the U.S., either as a host or a WWOOFer, they could go to our website, which is WWOOF-USA.org. They would sign up for a membership, they would get a profile, and then they would start to find farms or WWOOFers that they want to interact with.
If they’re interested in WWOOFing in another country, they should go to WWOOF.net, which will lead them to the right place to sign up there. And they could go all over the world WWOOFing.
TM: So anyway, it’s WWOOF-USA.org. And did I read that there was over 2,000 farms in the directory?
SP: There’s 2,000 farms for the USA. I think at last count there were over 10,000 farms for the world, so we’re growing quickly. It’s amazing to see how many people are interested. Two thousand farms in the U.S. and about 15,000 WWOOFers who sign up annually to go visit those farms, for the U.S. alone.
SP: And 100,000 for the world.
TM: Well, that gives you some idea of just how popular it is. And even though probably going to work on a farm might not always be easy work, what do you think the attraction is?
SP: I think people are really keyed into the importance of organic agriculture today, and whether it’s because they want to become organic farmers themselves or they want to get a taste of it at least, or just learn more about how to feed themselves, there’s a lot of interest in it. And you know, when we started the WWOOF-USA program in 2001, organic as a movement was definitely known and definitely important, but I think was a little bit still of a niche thing where not everybody understood that it was…not everybody understood the importance of it. And I think today it’s just something that everybody knows we should be doing. And so I think because of that there’s more and more interest in learning on the ground what that means. And whether it’s becoming a farmer or, like I said, just learning how to grow food for themselves, people are interested and want to do it.
And it’s also a way for people to have…you know, it can be used as a way to have a meaningful vacation or break from school or jobs, and so I think people use it for that experience as well, instead of just… You know, like when I went WWOOFing in New Zealand, I wanted to go and see New Zealand, but I was also interested in the farming culture there, so this was a great way to like marry those two interests together. And I think that’s another reason that there are so many people that sign up to do it, because you get to go and stay on farms, you help out for half a day, but then you have the other half of the day free to explore that area, get to know people, go hiking, go fishing—whatever it is that you’re interested in, there’s time to do that as well. So it kind of works for both things.
TM: Well, it sounds like such a remarkable and lovely experience. It seems almost custom for someone who is either just getting out of college or just getting out of high school, they’re not sure what they want to do, and they want to take some time off. But I’m assuming that there’s a large range of ages who become WWOOFers. Do you have an idea of the ages of the kinds of people who, those 100,000 people a year who become WWOOFers?
SP: For sure, yeah. We do see that a lot of the people that go WWOOFing are recent college graduates or in that 35-and-under age range, but by no means is that only the age range. And we do ask that everybody that goes WWOOFing on their own is 18 or over, but we also say that if you’re WWOOFing with an adult you can go. So we have families that go WWOOFing, and then we have people all the way up to, I think, 75, 80. I think I’ve heard of somebody going WWOOFing at 80, so retirees as well. A lot of people, in the U.S. especially, they like to, there’s people that drive their own RVs around in retirement and they’ll use WWOOF as a way to kind of go between places and have a farm to land on for a couple of months at a time, and then go on and visit another place.
TM: It sounds so versatile and kind of not that difficult to do, as long as you can scare up a ticket to get somewhere, I think is the requirement, and have the time. You know, on the side of the educational and training opportunity, when you get these farms and farmers to enroll, do you talk with them much about trying to educate people on gardening and farming? And what kind of expectations do you give the farms that enroll in the program?
SP: Yeah, we do have some materials that we make available to hosts that are signing up with us so that they can have resources available to kind of help them teach about what they’re doing. But also I think a lot of hosts, it comes naturally to them to share what they know, especially when people are so interested in learning about it. That spark of excitement gets other people excited to teach too. So we have resources available, we are happy to share them with hosts when they’re needed, but we also find that a lot of hosts just naturally get excited about sharing what they do with people that want to learn about it.
TM: You know, I’m curious: As we talk about agriculture, and it’s so exciting to think about all the thousands of farms involved, and I’m assuming most of them are small farms—is that right?
SP: Yeah, I would say that’s right. Our farms can range from commercial-scale farms but on the smaller side of that—you know, farms that usually are working with farmers’ markets or direct-to-consumer situations. And then we go all the way down to, some of our hosts are homesteaders or a large family farm or a garden. So there’s a range of sizes, but definitely on the smaller side. Once they get to be larger farms that use more mechanization, it doesn’t make as much sense to be bringing WWOOFers into that sort of scenario, because there’s so much that gets done by machine at that point.
TM: So just the thought I had was, you know, we all hear today a lot about urban agriculture. Any farms that are kind of more urban, and urban-agriculture-oriented?
SP: Yeah, we do have quite a few farms that are in cities that are signing up with us. And we have a different scenario for those farms, because the general exchange with WWOOF is that you receive room and board from the farm that you’re helping out with, so for urban farms that doesn’t always fit with their model. A lot of those farms may not have housing available. So we have another option that’s just called local or one-day WWOOFing, and so that’s a great way for people that live in a city to be able to visit farms in their area just for the day. And usually that involves just helping out for half of that day, and then maybe having a meal or taking home some produce from the farm, instead of the full meal and lodging that normally takes place.
TM: Well, that sounds pretty exciting, the one-day WWOOFer or the local WWOOFer.
SP: Yeah, it’s a great, easy entry into whole idea.
TM: Yeah, it sounds lovely. What cities are participating? Like do you have like New York City, for example?
SP: There’s a few in the New York City area—in the greater New York City area, I should say, including the boroughs. There’s some in San Francisco. I think there were some in Austin last time I checked. You know, it always is fluctuating a little bit here and there. But we’re definitely interested in getting people out to farms, especially when they live in the city, because a lot of times those are the people that really want to be participating and out in nature the most. So we’d love to have more opportunities for them to participate as well.
TM: Well, all of you listening out there, you could be a WWOOFer too. And it looks like you certainly won’t be alone, and it sounds like a wonderful experience. And it looks like all you really need to do is be able to afford a ticket somewhere, maybe have a computer to be able to figure out where you want to go, and you have to cover your own cost of travel. And probably, for some nationalities, you probably need a visa. Are there some countries where there are some restrictions?
SP: Normally you just need to have a tourist visa to visit the country you’re interested in going to.
TM: So it sounds like something that could be open to just almost all citizens. What do you think the average amount of time people become WWOOFers? Probably not eight months, I bet.
SP: Probably not. I think the average is a couple of weeks to a month or so. A lot of people use it for their vacation time or their summer break if they’re in school.
TM: So as a former WWOOFer and also as someone helping to manage the program and a director, what is your hope for those people who sign up to be WWOOFers?
SP: I hope that when they visit the farm, it’s a way for them to feel more connected to where their food comes from, and feel like when they go home they have the knowledge to either support farms in their area or maybe even have their own gardens or small farms themselves. So I hope it’s a way for people to feel more connected to organic food and farming.
TM: And if you are interested and like saying, gee, I’m going to try that, is there a blog or places that people can post about their experiences so people could go on and say, “Gee, I’m curious about this, but I’d like to hear what other people have to say”?
SP: Yeah, definitely. So a couple of things: On our website, the profiles that are for farms and hosts have reviews from other WWOOFers, so you can go and look and see how the experience was for them. And then we also have a forum on our website that is for people just to share ideas, post about their travels, ask if they can get rides going places, get feedback from others about what to bring or what to expect. So we do have a number of resources once you become a member, to kind of help you get going and get started.
TM: Wow, that’s great. So it looks like you’ve got everything that anyone might need to try and figure out, “Gee, I wonder if I’m going to do this or not.” So today, fast-forward: You’ve been to New Zealand, you’ve been managing this program for a long time. Where would you go if you were to go WWOOFing today?
SP: Well, if I had my choice of anywhere to go in the world to go WWOOFing, I think I would choose WWOOF-Italy. My background is Italian, my family is Italian, as you might know from my last name, Potenza, and I would love to go there and just eat some good food, learn about how they farm, and meet some amazing people.
TM: Yeah, I think you’ve convinced me—I’m ready to go to Italy!
TM: Well, Sarah, thank you so much for sharing with us today, all about WWOOF and becoming a WWOOFer. It just sounds like so much fun, and gee, I’ve been hearing about this for so long, so it’s really fun to hear from somebody who really is in the know here.
SP: Thanks, Theresa. It’s been great talking with you about it today.
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