A few years ago, I signed up with WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), an organization that provides an opportunity for people to work on a farm, in exchange for meals and accommodation. I was hoping to learn more about growing vegetables. After becoming a member at wwoof.ca for a fee of $50, I was given a list of host farms with descriptions of the locations, the type of crops/animals raised, and with what type of work the host hoped to get help.
My daughters were eight and six, which seemed like a good age for them to have a new experience. It would get us out of the city and introduce us to a lifestyle unlike our own. We prepared for the adventure by talking about what it is like to be a guest in someone’s house for a whole week, and how we were going to be expected to do some work and to eat whatever food was put in front of us. The girls practised how to deal politely with food they couldn’t bear to eat.
Finding a farm
I chose a farm and then it was up to me to contact them and make arrangements. (WWOOF only provides members with contact information.) The farm I contacted welcomed children – not all WWOOF farms do – and had a small number of farm animals along with vegetable gardens. It was also located on an island in Lake Ontario, which meant we had access to a beach – a definite bonus. We were offered the use of a trailer on the property, but we decided to take our own tent and bedding because of the familiarity it would provide at the end of each day. We also took along books, a few toys, the girls’ bikes, and some groceries that would fill the gaps between meals and ensure that the girls had some food that they would enjoy.
We arrived and settled in, were given a tour and then told what type of jobs we could take on. I was welcome to spend hours in the gardens and invited to help out in the kitchen with meal prep and clean up. The girls were given their own chores; they fed the pig, hens and cows and collected eggs twice a day. But most of their time was filled with bike riding and swinging on a swing that was hung especially for them.
A real change
We went to bed each night shortly after the sun went down (and all of the mosquitoes came out), and got up in the morning when the roosters made a fuss about the sunrise. My older daughter became skilled at driving a golf cart around the property, and my younger daughter bonded with a little black pig.
The experience was a bit like camping, in that the girls had more freedom and fewer showers than they have in the city. However, with the farm backdrop, it was decidedly different.
We all became friends and have been back several times since that first visit. The host is an elderly man who treated my daughters like grandchildren, teaching them, disciplining them, and enjoying watching them play. And because he lives as a bachelor, he appreciated having someone else do the cooking, regardless of the simplicity of my culinary skills!
Our love of the farm, and of the host himself, made us rave about the experience when we returned home. My husband had been unable to come for that first visit but he has come for our return visits over the past couple of years. He didn’t have any gardening experience to offer, but he has helped out with plumbing and some carpentry. On his first visit with us, I was worried that he wasn’t enjoying it as much as the girls and I did. I turned to him as we watched the sun setting across a hayfield, and said, “Do you get it?” He smiled at me and said, “I get it.”
A lifetime of benefits
Over the past few years we have been rewarded with beautiful night skies, the sounds of yipping coyotes, fresh apple juice from the press, the honour of naming an annoying rooster (Otis Spofford, after a Beverly Cleary character), nursing a lame duck, and sharing in community meals. My daughters won’t eat any of the meat we bring home from the farm (although they still eat grocery store meat), but I am glad that they understand where meat comes from. Digging potatoes out of the ground and harvesting Swiss chard also gives them an important understanding of the food we eat.
They love the prospect of going back again this summer.
WWOOFing can be done for a single week just a few hours from home, or for a whole season in another country. I hope my children will WWOOF on their own when they are looking for adventure as young adults, or maybe when they’re parents, too!
Karen Bennedsen lives in Toronto as a landscape gardener. She is eagerly anticipating her next trip with her family.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, June/July 2011.