WWOOF: How I Traveled Hawaii for Three Months on $1000
The WWOOF program began in England in 1971 when a London-based secretary named Sue Coppard wanted a means of accessing and supporting the organic movement. The organization has now grown to include over 50 countries worldwide, linking organic farms with people looking to experience life in the countryside. WWOOFers are generally offered food and accommodation in exchange for hours worked on the farm.
Have a look at the WWOOF website to learn more about the organization and how it works. Each country has its own membership and listings, so you must decide where you want to take part, then sign up, pay the fee, and you get a directory of contact information for all the participating farms in your country of choice.
Every circumstance is different depending on the farm. Some will provide a place within their home for you to stay while others offer only a place to pitch your tent. The food given and working hours vary as well and should be pre-negotiated before the work exchange begins.
The application process is much like applying for a job. Look up which farms you would like to work on, then send them an email detailing a little bit about yourself, your interest in the movement, and some like to receive a resume as well. You don’t necessarily need any experience, though some farms do prefer it. It’s also great to add what special traits you can add to their community. Perhaps you are a trained chef, a yoga instructor, an event coordinator, or a musician – anything that can offer value and show that would be a valuable asset to the farm family could increase your chances of being selected for your preferred farm.
Some farms are more competitive than others, and all take anywhere from 1 to 15+ workers at a time, it all depends. Generally you should try to book your stay 3-6 months in advance, some even further, as they can book up quickly if they are in a preferred location. The amount of time you need to commit to your stay varies as well, usually a minimum of three weeks is mandatory as they need to spend some time showing you the ropes. Usually there is no pay for any of the work so you still need to save up money for your weekends and free time, though WWOOFing is an excellent way to travel on the cheap.
I had the pleasure of working on three organic farms, two being on the Big Island (Hawaii Island) and one on Maui over a period of three and a half months.
My first work exchange when I first left home in 2010 was on Kona Farm on the Southern Kona Coast of Hawaii Island. It was about one mile down the Miolii Road, leading to a fishing village and the beautiful Honomalino Beach. The farm had a ton of macadamia nut trees, about 100 free range chickens and was in the process of being converted into a dragon fruit farm.
I was traveling with my partner at the time and we were given an amazing private yurt on the property to live in. It had solar panels, a small outdoor stove top, a compost toilet and a water catchment system with an outdoor garden shower. Our hosts provided us with rice and beans, some fresh fruits and veggies, plenty of eggs from the farm, and delicious banana-macadamia nut bread made using their nuts and sold at local farmer’s markets.
We worked for a few hours in the morning, usually harvesting macadamia nuts which entails crawling around on your hands and feet, collecting nuts that had fallen from the trees. We had lunch provided which was always delicious, given a nice break to relax, then returned to work for a couple of hours of sorting the nuts we had collected. The work was not particularly thrilling, but it was easy and we had plenty of free time to explore.
The downside this farm was the location. It was about an hour or so drive from Kona, the main town on that side of the island, and since we didn’t have a car, often had to hitch hike or take the (twice daily) Hele-on bus that goes down that way. It is generally pretty safe to hitch hike on the island and locals are likely to pick you up as long as you don’t look like a crazy person. They are often very friendly and will give you insider tips on where to go. Usually we didn’t have a problem getting around, but did get caught in a couple of sticky situations.
Unfortunately after two weeks of being there, our host’s daughter and boyfriend decided to unexpectedly come live with them from the mainland and we felt obligated to find somewhere else to stay because they wanted the yurt we were staying in. We packed up a week later, rented a car, and took a week-long road trip around the island before heading to our next exchange.
I had a much different experience at my second work exchange, a place called Compassion Gardens, a beautiful piece of land in the lower Pahoa district. It was across the street from the ocean and a 10-minute walk from the famed Kalani Retreat. Our host drove us to the property and showed us around. There were two jungle huts, each bearing a bed and dresser, and one jungle hut serving as the kitchen. There was a water catchment system (though you can’t drink the water) but no power or electricity whatsoever.
After being shown around, our host left, as she lived in Hilo which is about a 45 minute drive away. It wasn’t actually a real farm. It had a few papaya trees, a small crop of (unattended) veggies and some very young citrus trees which were not yet fruiting. Our daily tasks involved mostly watering the trees and weeding.
We saw our host once or twice in the first week and then she didn’t return for another three weeks. We were the only people staying there at the time so it was our own secluded jungle oasis. We weren’t carrying a phone and since we had no electricity, had no method of contact with our host and were left a little bit bewildered by our abandonment. This also left us with no food or water so we had to hitch hike to Pahoa to buy groceries every 4-5 days. The bright side was it left us with tons of free time to explore and relax, we even left for a few days to hike to Waimanu valley.
We booked a ticket to Maui as soon as we got accepted to work on Greenleaf Farm.
Greenleaf Farm is owned by a passionate couple, Marta and Bill Greenleaf, in the Makawao district of Maui. Their farm sits on a small property, but they make use of every last bit of land. They grow a massive variety of fruits and veggies with their majority crops being yacon (native food of Peru), taro (ancient food of Hawaii), bananas, cherimoya, and lots of citrus.
They have built a platform under a big kukui nut-tree for their WWOOFers to pitch a tent and have a separate facility with a shared kitchen and bathroom and one sleeping area for whoever has been there the longest. There were two other volunteers there at the same time as us and two other people renting apartments on their property. We were provided with basic food – beans, rice and oatmeal and some fresh produce from the farm. We also had a weekly “family” dinner with our hosts and anyone staying on the property where we all pitched in to harvest and cook our meal. It was always lots of fun and Marta used to own a restaurant so her cooking is superb.
We worked four hours a day in the mornings, five days a week so we had the afternoons and evenings to do as we pleased. Makawao is much more residential that anywhere I stayed on the Big Island so it was harder to get picked up if you tried hitch hiking. I tried a couple of times but ended up having to walk quite far to get where I was going. Luckily, one of the apartment renters Diane had bought a car and was full of adventure so she often piled us in to explore the island with her.
We had a lot of fun times here and formed a little family. We had many great adventures road tripping to Hana, finding cliff jumping spots, doing yoga on the beach, dancing at drum circles on little beach, discovering an abandoned pineapple farm, watching the sun rise above the clouds from Haleakala and much, much more.
Each of my experiences WWOOFing were very different but they were all wonderful learning opportunities and full of adventure. After Hawaii I decided to stop working on farms because I wanted to be more mobile and free without a work commitment, though when I think back at my travels Hawaii definitely holds some of the memories dearest to my heart.
This type of work exchange is very fulfilling and gives you a very authentic and off-the-beaten track way of exploring different countries and meeting locals who give you great advice on what to see and do. I highly suggest trying it if you’re interested in learning about organic growing, cultivation, sustainability, permaculture or just living in the countryside. It has definitely changed the way I look at the food we consume daily, and opened me up to so many new and exciting flavours I never knew existed. Plus, it is an extremely cheap way to travel. I only spent about $1000 in the three and a half months of staying in Hawaii, which is a very expensive place to visit.
If you’re interested in trying this for yourself, you can sign up at their website to gain access to a directory of all the farms.
After saying all this, I’m still not sure if I would do it again. I had an amazing time and think it’s a great program, but for me kind of feels like one of those things you do once and then move on to other things. But who knows where life will take us… never say never!
Have you ever tried WWOOFing? If so, what kind of experience did you have and would you do it again?
Let me know in the comments below!