Labour of love

Fresh air, healthy food, country living - toiling on an organic farm is a rural retreat with a difference, writes Luke Wright.

In Melbourne, James works long hours as a graphic designer and earns a six-figure salary. Out here on the farm, he works for roughly six hours a day as a farm hand and earns his food and board.

Although he's on holiday, James rises early to collect the eggs - a task he tackles with a great sense of duty. He trudges through the wet grass, breathing the snappy air and talks to the hens like they're old friends. "This is the life," James yells from the bird pen."Keeping these girls clucking is my biggest concern here," he says as he fills a tray with warm eggs.

James is one of many across Victoria, in places such as Yuulong, Samaria, Euroa, Yackandandah, Venus Bay and Bendoc, taking part in a quiet and uncomplicated holiday adventure called WWOOF.

Willing Workers On Organic Farms started in England in 1971. Back then it was called Working Weekends On Organic Farms and, quite simply, provided an opportunity for people to travel and give their time and labour on an organic farm in exchange for food, lodging and a nice slice of the quiet life. Not much has changed since then except the name (why limit it to just weekends?) and it has grown to include more than 30 countries.

The word organic has taken on myriad meanings - from a label on an apple to a label on a lifestyle - and in this age of eco-awareness it's growing in importance.

WWOOFing fits neatly under the organic umbrella. It encourages participants to take a wholesome holiday, to share time and conversation, to eat together and to eat well, to breathe quality country air and to get their hands dirty.

WWOOF Australia (motto: a unique name, a unique experience) began in Victoria in the early '80s and, more than 25 years later, is still going strong. Based in W Tree, East Gippsland, WWOOF Australia publishes a directory of more than 1500 host properties around the country, with more than 230 in Victoria. Garry Ainsworth, WWOOF's managing director, is enthusiastic about the movement and the holiday opportunities it offers in Victoria.

"I could go on forever about the variety of experiences available on host properties in Victoria," says Ainsworth. "There are lavender farms, fruit farms, sheep farms, dairy farms, beef farms, goat farms and even wildlife refuges,

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"Practically every type of rural experience and lifestyle can be enjoyed through the WWOOF program."

Joining the program and travelling to work on a farm is as simple as buying the WWOOF directory and browsing for a suitable host. The directory lists the where, when, who, what and how for each property, and workers can choose appropriate hosts according to location, farm description, duties required and the food and accommodation provided.

Once an agreement has been made, workers make their way to the farm, roll up their sleeves and get to work.

The minimum stay for any WWOOFing experience is two days (there's no maximum) and a typical day might involve four to six hours of work with an array of duties.

"I've done everything WWOOFing, from digging holes, to pruning trees, to herding cows," says Kelly, a veteran WWOOFer and permaculture enthusiast from Carlton. "I've even been the bloody babysitter."

The work is, more often than not, hard yakka, and a far cry from a relaxing break by the beach. Yet most adherents readily agree the rewards usually outweigh any hardship.

Ainsworth is keen to point out that WWOOF is an experience built on a model of positive exchange and growth. The underlying aim is for the exchange between host and traveller to go beyond a simple labour-for-lodging transaction and to include personal interaction, to cultivate friendships, to learn, and for the organic movement as a whole to take root worldwide.

Across Victoria, itinerant travellers, organic aficionados, weekend wanderers and city folk are taking time off to visit friendly farms with charming names such as Oak Hollow and Whispering Winds, to take part in a unique experience.

For many it's a healthy and cheap vacation; for others it's connecting with a way of life that harks back to a simpler time; for some it's merely a chance to chat with the chickens.

Fast facts

WWOOF Australia, 2166 Gelantipy Road, W Tree, via Buchan; phone 5155 0218.

See wwoof.com.au or email writewwoof@wwoof.com.au.

Cost to join the program and visit properties is $55.

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