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WWOOF Founder Sue Coppard: Peer-to-Pier Interview

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In 1971, a London secretary with a dream of a different kind of vacation launched a global movement called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF).

It is now a network of over 50,000 volunteers working on 7,000-plus host farms in more than 100 countries. Meg Pier sits down with Sue Coppard.

Meg Pier: In reading about WWOOF, I learned that it is a worldwide cooperative network, which offers members the opportunity to stay as working guests on organic farms, smallholdings, gardens and other rural enterprises. Can you explain WWOOF finances?

Sue Coppard: No money changes hands. In return for your help on the land and with other tasks you receive bed and board, and a lot more. Beyond farming and agricultural experience, WWOOF offers training in rural life, contact with nature and animals, access to beautiful countryside, physical exercise, friendships with people from many different cultures and nationalities, and the chance to experience different ways of life, regions, or continents.

WWOOF Host in Japan With Sunflowers  - photo courtesy of WWOOF

WWOOF Host in Japan With Sunflowers

You can also learn other skills like bread making, weaving, cheese making, bee keeping, cider making, or running a farmers market stall. You can constantly try something new or  you can visit the same place regularly and get to know the region throughout the seasons––leaving a considerably lighter carbon footprint. On top of all this, you have the satisfaction of knowing you are helping the stalwart but not overwhelmingly rewarded people who make up the organic movement around the world.

MP: Can you describe what led up to WWOOF’s creation?

SC: When I started WWOOF I was secretary to the Textile Research Unit at the Royal College of Art in London. I loved it, but I missed the countryside. I used to stay on my cousin’s farm as a child, which was pure bliss for me.  However, in 1971 I had no ‘country seat’ where I could invite myself to stay.

Sue Coppard Planting Trees - photo courtesy WWOOF

Sue Coppard at a Tree-Planting

I wondered whether I could find a farm which would let me stay? Perhaps in return for my help with their work? I thought it would be lonely without companions and I wondered whether anyone else would like to do the same thing? I’d just heard of organic farms and it occurred to me—correctly—that such places might be more inclined to use unskilled labor than a big, commercial farm.

With help from a contact at rural Emerson College,  I set up a trial weekend that I advertised in Time Out as “Working Weekends on Organic Farms.” After a brilliant weekend doing what I can only describe as rural housework (clearing brambles and ditches), the farmers said to us, “Yes, you’ve done quite well, would you like to fix another weekend?” And so it began.

MP: Wouldn’t a night at a country inn have sufficed? How did your first idea grow into something bigger?

SC: A pub stay would not have done the trick. My original goal was to get myself into the countryside in a meaningful, affordable way with good company.  It wasn’t long before we began to learn more about the Organic Movement and became keen to help. From then on, it had a dual function: nourishing ourselves and helping the planet.

The way I see it now is that WWOOF was hanging about in the stratosphere looking for a way to manifest, and picked on me as a suitable channel: a London secretary with modest organizational skills who needed to get out into the countryside!

MP: When you set out to formally establish WWOOF did you lay out any ground rules? What were your original goals for the organization?

SC: The ‘general ideals’ of WWOOF are as listed in one of our earlier brochures:

  • To get first-hand experience of organic farming and growing
  • To get into the countryside
  • To help the organic movement, which is often labor-intensive and does not rely on artificial fertilizers for fertility or persistent poisons for pest control.
  • To make contact with other people in the organic movement.

As far as I know, these remain the main motives of WWOOFs around the world.

MP: It has no central management and many different branches. How vast is the current scope? How does it work?

Sue Coppard WWOOF Founder with accordion

WWOOF Founder Sue Coppard, with accordion - photo courtesy of WWOOF

SC: Nowadays the sun never sets on WWOOF. It spreads right round the globe and the number of countries with their own organization is constantly expanding. Fifty countries have their own national and autonomous organization, and 58 countries are available via the WWOOF Independents organization.

MP: Why would I want to join? What sort of people does it attract?

SC: Individuals have assorted reasons for joining. Many have a need to get back to nature. Others wish to learn how to grow their own food or tend animals. Some hope to move to the country, find rural employment, or find out if communal life is a good fit. It’s an excellent way of dipping a toe in the water. You can explore different regions and countries, and step into different cultures by ‘going native.’ Whatever the motive, it seems that once they learn what’s involved the majority of WWOOFers become convinced of the need for a universal move to organic methods.

WWOOFers are anybody who wishes to try it. They range from ‘aged’ (in years but not in spirit) to extremely young. Even children can go WWOOFing with their parents––in fact, some farms welcome visiting children as playmates for their own sometimes isolated youngsters. WWOOFers are of many nationalities and from many walks of life. When I was a host I was visited by a policeman, a lighthouse keeper, students, teachers, computer experts, jobless, off-duty mothers, an army major––to name but a few. It doesn’t matter who or what you are so long as you are willing to help and keen to learn.

By Meg Pier. Meg Pier is a travel writer for the Boston Globe and other publications. Visit her on the Web at www.viewfromthepier.com. Photos courtesy of WWOOF.

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