Volunteering on organic farms catches on as a new travel experience
Thirty-year-old Sylvain Tuffet introduces himself as an “ice-cream waala”. He has been travelling across India for over two months now, but is not your regular gora tracking the Lonely Planet list of must-see destinations, neither is he your soul-searching hippie “tripping” at cafes in old Manali. Instead he roughs it out for five to six hours a day, weeding fields or reaping crops at organic farms. And usually, in return for his labour the host farms provide for his food and lodging.
Tuffet, who sells organic ice-creams – with ingredients like sugar, fruit and cream produced without the use of fertilisers or pesticides – in France, is among the many “wwoofers” who come to India to volunteer on organic and bio-dynamic farms.
“Wwoof”, or World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, is a network of organic farms, small holdings and gardeners that welcome volunteers to live with them. Volunteers typically stay for a month and get a hands-on experience of farming and organic production. In return for their help, the host farms provide board.
Wwoof originally stood for “Working Weekends on Organic Farms” and was started in England in 1971 by Sue Coppard with the aim of providing city dwellers a getaway in the countryside, while promoting the organic farming movement. The idea soon became popular with backpackers and now more than 50 countries across the globe have their autonomous wwoofing networks. Tuffet who has wwoofed in Saharia Organic Amla Farm near Jaipur, thinks it’s a great concept. “I have wwoofed in Nepal, Ecuador and France, and think its great way of meeting people apart from being an economical way of travelling,” he says.
The wwoof network in India was founded in 2007 by Harish Tiwari, who works with an Uttarakhand-based NGO called Sevak. A consultant in organic agriculture, Tiwari says, “With just a few hosts to begin with, we now have almost 200 farms across 16 states listed with us.”
The farms are spread across Karnataka, Kerala, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir. “Some of the farms are certified organic, but we also welcome small farmers, who cannot afford the process of certification. We usually conduct an interview with them on the organic practices they implement,” he says. Farms have to pay a fee of Rs 500 to be listed as a host. However, small and marginal farms (below five acres) need not pay.
Volunteers pay an annual fee to the wwoof organisation of a country (in India it’s $25 for foreign citizens and Rs 1,125 for Indians). The subscription comes with a booklet with a list of organic farms volunteers can chose from. Even as wwoofing has become a popular way for discerning travellers to see countries, its aim is to generate an understanding of sustainable agricultural practices. Nicole Klein, who has wwoofed in France and is currently volunteering with Navdanya, environmental activist Vandana Shiva’s NGO, says, “For a city-dweller, working on land helps you get ‘closer to your plate’ and understand what goes into the food you eat everyday. It’s an enriching experience.”
The popularity of the idea is reflected in the numbers. “From just 10 to 15 wwoofers in the peak season, we now get almost 40 to 50 in a month during winter,” says Tiwari. Most of the volunteers are from France, Canada and the US and help with activities ranging from making compost to weeding to harvesting.
Although only ten per cent of the wwoofers are Indians, the idea is catching on with them too. Take, for instance, Mahesh Margabandhu (35) who left his job as a software engineer in TCS to wwoof along with his wife. He is currently in a farm called Sadhana Forest, 6 km north of Pondicherry. “I have always wanted to farm and travel, this is a great way of combining the two,” he says.
Host farms, too, are more than happy to have volunteers as it helps them cut their labour costs. Karen Uppendahl, who works for the NGO Saha Astitva Foundation, which is working at restoring infertile tribal land in Ganeshpuri near Mumbai, says, “We have a small farm. We haven’t gone into producing organic food for commercial purposes yet, hence the help we get from wwoofers is very important for us in managing costs,” she says. And many times it’s not just farming but other skills that come in handy for small farms. The foundation, for example, is currently hosting a wwoofer from Slovania, who is a theatre set designer. “With his experience he helped us make eco-constructions like bamboo platforms in paddy fields,” says Uppendahl.
Some small farms that can’t afford to host volunteers for a long time charge a nominal fee. “Depending on their financial situation and skills, we ask wwoofers to contribute between Rs 100 to Rs 200 a day for food,” says Uppendahl. Most are happy to give the money, “I’d rather give money to farmers working on the land than a middleman,” says Tuffet.
The wwoof network in India earns a revenue of around Rs 60,000 a month in peak season from the subscription fees, which is used to maintain and develop the network. “We recently bought five acres of land in Khajuraho to make a wwoofers retreat, where volunteers can come and share their experiences. Working on the farms is not easy and is not your typical vacation, this retreat is for volunteers to relax and unwind after all the toiling,” says Tiwari.