Dirty hands, clean air

Volunteering at a network of organic farms has evolved to become a form of slow travel, writes Lissa Christopher.

If you're not one for passive sightseeing and like to get a bit of dirt under your fingernails, then "wwoofing" - becoming a "willing worker on organic farms" - might make for a rewarding travel experience. The deal is essentially this: you work for four-to six hours a day on someone's organic enterprise in exchange for meals and board. No skills required.

It clearly has something to offer because about 12,000 people give it a go in Australia each year, according to the office manager at WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), Traci Wilson-Brown. It's particularly popular with young European tourists, but about 10 per cent are Australians of all age groups.

"The oldest wwoofer I've met was 80," Wilson-Brown says. People get involved for all sorts of reasons, from wanting to learn about permaculture - skill-sharing is a big part of the wwoofing ethos - to taking an extended break without breaking the bank.

"We have some wwoofers who love it so much they spend any time they get off work wwoofing. They use it to explore Australia. It's a really good way to meet people," Wilson-Brown says. "Some people can afford to take six months or a year off work because it's not costing them too much for food and accommodation. So wwoofing is a way to extend a holiday. It becomes a form of slow travel, like slow food."

Some, of course, wwoof for a week and say "never again".

"Work on farms can be pretty hard," Wilson-Brown says. Wwoofing is "not a free lunch". Hosts who live in remote areas and have children are often keen to welcome wwoofing families. Wilson-Brown has encountered a number of families who have taken a year off work and school to wwoof their way around Australia.

Some people wwoof as a way to research a tree change. There are about 2500 hosts registered with WWOOF Australia, ranging from big, commercial, certified-organic farms to "really small, hobby-farm-type tree changers", Wilson-Brown says. Many are permaculture specialists having a go at self-sufficiency who have a host of skills to share, from beekeeping, goat husbandry and alpaca-raising to aquaponics.

A 12-month WWOOF membership costs $65 and includes a copy of The Australian WWOOF Book, which lists hosts and describes their properties and approaches to farming.

Hosts are plentiful along the eastern seaboard and around tourist hot-spots such as Byron Bay, Wilson-Brown says.

But there are also gems off the beaten track.

"There are some quite near [capital cities], too, so you can dip your toe in the water and see if it's something you want to do. You don't have to go to the other side of the country to do it," she says.

Travellers can, however, head to the other side of the planet. WWOOF is a world-wide network with offices from Kazakhstan to Taiwan and the US.

See wwoof.com.au.

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