Over Easter 2019 I stayed home for the school holidays and got the next stage of the food forest happening with the help of our first WWOOFer, Ken from South Korea. I’ve been slowly mulching out the kikuyu on my quarter acre suburban block for two years, and establishing fruit trees, but I can only do so much whilst juggling parenting, working and community work. Enter WWOOFing.
WWOOFing stands for Willing Workers On Organic Farms, or World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. It costs $50 a year to join as a host in Australia if you have a health care card, or $65 standard fee, or $30 if you are a certified organic farm. Recently WWOOFing relaxed their requirement to be a farm, so you can now join as a suburban household, but you still can’t ask your WWOOFers to use chemicals and you need to have sustainability tasks for them rather than babysitting or waitressing. WWOOFers can do 4-6 hours work a day, usually for five days out of seven, up to 38 hours a week, in exchange for organic food and accommodation.
If you’re travelling, it’s a great way to reduce your travel costs and learn new skills that you can bring home to your own permaculture property. Immerse yourself in permaculture, organic farming or biodynamics in action. Like Couchsurfing, HelpX or Workaway, you also experience daily life in a real family and the local language. Membership to WWOOF in Australia is currently $70 for one or $120 for a dual membership.
Ken helped us feed the rabbits and chickens, mulch and fence the food forest, dig the water tank in lower to the level of the gutter, make kombucha and sourdough, dry apples, dig in a kikuyu barrier and pull lots of kikuyu for ten days. We have hosted over two hundred Couchsurfers over the last six years, but the Couchsurfing agreement is to host for free in exchange for the opportunity to travel for free yourself. Couchsurfers generally stay 1-3 nights, are not obliged to do jobs for you, and usually they bring food or help cook/clean up. Some of my Couchsurfers are on HelpX or Workaway, which are similar to WWOOFing but broader as they can do more than just farm work. So the groups overlap, depending which memberships individuals have!
We’ve had four Workawayers stay here. One of them, Tommy from France, installed the garden gate leading into the food forest months ago, which we’ve all been walking around rather than through until Ken and I finally completed the fence. I also tried to set up a loose labour exchange for rent arrangement with my previous tenants, which turned out to be a little too loose.
Because we’re used to having transient travellers in our home, I already have systems set up for this, like providing local brochures, spare keys if necessary (obviously not for all our Couchsurfers, but sometimes for longer staying guests), extra bedding, and an induction on how to use our rubbish bins. If we need more personal space, we all have our own bedrooms. I suggested to Ken that he could use my bike or take a bus if he wanted to explore on his own, but he chose not to. We had a mixture of sunny autumn days and a couple of freezing cold midwinter blasts.
This was our first real WWOOfer. I was expecting to be able to set tasks and get on with something else, but I ended up getting drawn into working alongside in my yard which was fine because I had a week off work over the school holidays anyway. I wasn’t quite prepared enough with gathering materials beforehand; I wish I’d been stockpiling cardboard as I had to go and do collection runs and this took time out of the week. I ran out of woodchips and will need to order another truckload before I get any more mulching work done. I also failed to organise a guest book, which I see reading back is actually a requirement for WWOOFing. Oops.
Having two people working solidly in the backyard for over a week really supercharged the space. I cleaned my gutters, pruned the bougainvillea away from the solar panels and the coprosma away from the rainwater collection, struck cuttings, planted shrubs and herbs, saved seeds and weeded. We shifted awkward animal cages and did some jobs that needed more than one set of hands, like slipping chicken mesh down between the original wooden fence and large rose bushes.
The whole food forest area is now mulched and fenced. Getting this intensive work done in one hit was a relief. Now it’s starting to look in real life how I see it in my mind. I’ve been able to potter since in scraps of time, slipping in bulbs and tubestock, bit by bit. It’s awesome to see such progress, so I’m very grateful.
I used a whiteboard to write a list of indoor and outdoor tasks that we could cross off. I think next time it would be useful to have a calendar somewhere too, as I forgot that Ken’s dates had changed so I had some sightseeing planned that we didn’t end up doing. I had rather haphazard energy levels, due to poor sleep. Couldn’t do a lot about it, but I think I should have explained that better to my guest. We did have a couple of rest days in the middle of his stay.
So my WWOOFing host lessons are: get a guest book, be prepared with tools and materials, and write down the length of stay, events and tasks somewhere visible to both host and guest. And keep talking patiently about expectations and assumptions. Everyone washes the dishes differently.