WWOOF — no, we?re not barking at you — this funny acronym stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, the title of a global network of organizations that gives people a chance to travel, stay and work on an organic farm in one of the hundreds of countries that have registered hosts. This way, they have the opportunity to see a different side of different countries through eco-volunteerism.
Like many young people, 22-year-old Dolly Laninga, a recent college graduate from Michigan, wanted to embark on something new, spontaneous and culturally enriching for the summer. She was also interested in soaking up the Mediterranean sun and sampling the local cuisine.
Unlike many visitors to Greece, Laninga?s goals were met not on the Acropolis nor in the nightclubs of Myconos. She did not set foot in any Plaka tavernas or even a hotel. Laninga instead worked on an organic farm in Evia, volunteering up to six hours a day, six days a week of unpaid labor in exchange for room and board.
?I?ve wanted to see Greece for a long time,? Laninga said. ?There?s no question that I?ve been exposed to more Greek culture than the average tourist.?
Her inspiration? She joked about about being a ?pretty lazy person? in the US and wanted to challenge herself and learn about organic farming and self-sustenance.
?I had never made any serious effort to grow my own food, which I think will become increasingly important,? Laninga said.
?There is a certain satisfaction to be derived from being physically exhausted at the end of the day.?
With 34 independent hosts, Greece is one of WWOOF?s most active countries. Although initial Greek involvement is not recorded, WWOOF organizers believe Greece joined the project roughly two decades ago.
?I would guess Greek hosts started in the late 1980s with [the original] overseas list WWOOF UK. But I do not have clear records that far back,? said Carl Rogers, a WWOOF organizer. ?There were definitely Greek hosts on the early WWOOF independents list in 2000.?
These 34 independent hosts are scattered across the mainland and islands. As WWOOFers promise hard work and a positive attitude, WWOOF hosts promise free, clean rooms along with plentiful meals.
Marcie Mayer Maroulis, owner of Red Tractor Farm on Kea, said that her experience as a WWOOF host, since January 2006, has been ?95 percent excellent? and has enormously benefited her final product of olive oil, gourmet preserves and wine.
?We could never accomplish the amount of work we have done here in the last three years without the help of volunteers,? Maroulis said. Without the use of pesticides and chemicals, organic farmers must use traditional methods to keep fruit and vegetables safe from harmful insects and disease, which often requires more work.
Charles Holden White, owner of the Olive Farm at Kato Samiko in the Peloponnese, said that with the help of volunteers, the land is constantly being improved. ?It would not be economically viable to pay people to do the work our volunteers do. We have been a host for two years now and our experiences have been excellent? we tend to work our volunteers pretty hard. They seem to love it. So far, lots of enthusiasm, keenness to work and no complaining,? he said.
A WWOOF volunteer?s experience in Greece depends on the farm, season and task at hand. Leah Cunningham worked on a farm in Cephalonia and was responsible for training and taking care of three horses. She also took care of the farm?s dogs and cats and learned about sustainable energy and organic farming at Katerina Kapatou?s vegetable farm at Chavriata.
Tara Kelly WWOOFed in June 2009 on the Kotsifas Estate in Amaliada, Arcadia. Having grown up with a compost heap and a garden in her backyard in California, then going on to become president of an enviro-business nonprofit organization at San Diego State University, Kelly was interested in seeing how people in Europe lived off the land.
?Life was simple, peaceful and so fulfilling,? Kelly said.
Midday meals were made by her host, a former chef, with fresh, seasonal ingredients and allowed the WWOOFers and hosts at the Kosifas farm to bond over conversations, food and wine.
?We would have two-hour lunches. We?d sit and talk about Greek history, while [their hosts] George and Jennifer?s two little girls would teach us Greek words,? Kelly said.
WWOOF was established in the UK in 1971 by Sue Coppard, a supporter of the organic movement who recognized the inaccessibility of the countryside to city dwellers. Coppard conducted a working trial weekend with the biodynamic farm at Emerson College in Sussex. Smaller organic farms then began taking on volunteers, which helped the movement gather momentum. Now, 38 years later, Coppard?s trial project has blossomed into a worldwide venture, with 24 countries having national organizations and 50 countries listing up to 900 independent host-farmers.
WWOOF volunteers do not have to be experienced gardeners or farmers nor are they required to have previous agricultural experience.
?The hosts will show you how to do things and by the end you?ll be a pro,? Tara Kelly said.
For some, the experience can reconfirm prior awareness. ?I now know that I?m not just a bad gardener — I?m a danger to all growing things!? Dolly Laninga joked. For others, it can surpass expectations. ?In deciding to WWOOF, I felt that living with a family in Greece would give me a perspective that other visitors miss out on. The travel experience can be so artificial sometimes but living with a Greek family and learning their way of life and culture was truly enlightening,? Leah Cunningham said. ?I loved every minute of it and would recommend the experience to anyone.?
Visit www.wwoof.org for more information on WWOOF, how to volunteer or to register your organic farm as a host.