Why hosting WWOOF or HelpX volunteers has nothing to do with free labour

Sophie-Ann, Denmark.

Volunteer schemes are not a way to get things done for free around your block, but Sheryn has still found it very profitable.

Words: Sheryn Dean

As a teenager, I wanted to save the world. I wanted my life to mean something. I investigated volunteer and charity organisations, supported many, joined
a few, became cynical about others.

I looked hard at what it would take to achieve the goal of creating a better world and realised I could only control – and only had the right to control – my own little part of it. I didn’t have to change the world to improve it. I just had to change how I affected the world.

I got my then-flatmates onto the idea of recycling rubbish, especially when the scrap man gave us a dozen beer for our scrap metal. Hitchhikers were astounded when I stopped the car and asked them to pick up the rubbish they had thrown out the window. Neighbours saw vegetables growing over the fence and accepted spare seedlings. Friends brought me their excess shopping bags, jam jars, water bottles, and ice-cream containers to re-use.

Pablo with our cows.

These aren’t changes that change the world. However, they make everyone I meet think about their actions. They realise it is possible to easily integrate environmental considerations into their daily life, no preaching, conversion, or laws required.

As our patch of land has grown and our lifestyle has become almost entirely self-sufficient, I have been able to share more and more. I started hosting volunteer helpers (we call them WWOOFERS) when my husband broke his back, and I couldn’t cope with all the work on our property.

The WWOOF, HelpX and Workaway schemes help to match travellers and hosts. Travellers email to ask if they can visit, then you negotiate for how long and what work they will do in return for board.

Hilary, Wisconsin, USA.

“Oh,” say my friends. “Free labour. I could use some of that.”

Most travellers on these programs are wonderful, hard-working people. None are free labour.

Almost all come from overseas. There are cultural differences. Apparently, in Mexico, they sleep all afternoon (I must go there, it sounds like my sort of place) and don’t use bath mats. No-one from the northern hemisphere uses sheets. I gave up in the end and just wash the duvet covers. Their family and friends are many time zones away. The result is our dogs barking at 2am because visitors are outside, skyping home under the stars.

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Most are young so there are generational differences. ‘Smartphone deafness’ is dangerous when you are working nearby cutting down trees or coming up behind them on the tractor. They want to shower at 11pm and sleep until five minutes before they are scheduled to start work.

Din, Tim and Lennart, Germany.

Although work can be a completely unknown concept to an 18-year-old just out of school, they know it is part of the deal. Almost everyone we’ve hosted has been keen and enthusiastic.

There is almost always a language barrier. Even when you work out a fork is a gabel (German), tenedor (Spanish) or fourchette (French), you might be talking to an apartment dweller from the city who has no idea what a garden fork looks like, let alone how to find it by the back shed. It is easier to get it for them.

Sylvian, France.

Then you have to show them how to use it. How to stand on it to push it into the ground.

You have to be very clear to distinguish weeds and plants. I give instructions that anything they are not sure about is to be left in the ground for me to check later, not dug up and bought to the kitchen window to be identified. Energetic, enthusiastic, and anxious-to-please workers can remove all the yams – which look like oxalis – before lunch.

Theodore, France.

You need to demonstrate how to shake the dirt from the roots, or your compost bin ends up full of dirt, and your garden is full of holes. You need to show them the wheelbarrow, where the compost bins are, make it clear the weeds only go in the left-hand side – even when it looks full, don’t put the weeds in the other bins – and clearly state the limits of where they are to weed.

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Afterwards, I praise mightily. I’ll hunt in the compost for the missing trowel, only to find it two weeks later in the gumboot bin. I’ll cook them dinner, accept their help with the dishes, and won’t find the potato peeler for a week. I’ll enjoy an evening discussing the European Union’s recycling practices.

You could weed the garden yourself, not break your best spade, and do it better. You could enjoy the tranquility instead of sweating over a hot stove and then join the end of a long line for the shower. It won’t be as enriching.

Our 2015 WWOOFer intake.

You can delegate or roster someone on to help or take over the kitchen duties, but there are risks: be prepared to have your stick blender burnt out, the special truffle oil you paid $50 for used for frying eggs, and the fancy non-stick frypan to be scratched beyond repair. Don’t get me started about the burn mark on the bench.

But the drawbacks turn out to be little things compared to the gains. I have been taught a vast range of dishes from a wide variety of countries and cultures: raspberry butter and smoked duck, fried milk and home-made chorizo, chestnut butter, lamb tartare, chicken feet soup, easy cheesy, flaky pastry, and a chocolate sauce recipe to die for.

This cultural exchange does enrich your life. You learn other ways of thinking, and different ways of doing things, how to communicate better, how to organise and plan. How to say no. How to be assertive and still kind. How to discuss opinions that wildly differ from your own. How to accept negative judgements. How humour is so hard to translate, but a smile is universal.

Victor, Mexico.

You get dots placed all over Google Earth from people saying ‘come visit us, come stay with us, come to our wedding’.

Regardless of where in the world they come from, most of these travellers come from the same socio-economic group. They are almost all highly-educated or from affluent families. Most have good work ethics, are motivated, independent, and environmentally conscious. Most are young, still forming themselves and their life opinions.

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Since we are only a couple of hours south of Auckland, we often get wwoofers in spring who are just beginning their odyssey in New Zealand. They arrive as shy boys and girls at the start of their adventures. Often, they call in again in autumn on their way home. You meet men and women who have matured and developed through their travel and experiences.

Leo, France.

Over the past decade, I have hosted hundreds of guests, WWOOFers, homestays, interns and workshop participants who wanted a taste of my life. These people have shared my home, my lifestyle, my food, and my family.

They bring new perspectives, entertainment, assistance, and knowledge. They make you look afresh and question aspects of your life. They bring new ideas and enthusiasm. Most come as strangers, some leave as friends. Many keep in touch through Facebook. Some return years later with other friends or send members of their families to stay.

Many say something simple I did, like teaching them to make bread or yoghurt, is something they still do. This is the best part. It makes me feel I am making a difference to the world.


Kelvina and Joannie.

Start times need to be spelled out very clearly. The 10am start time is not when you wake up and get breakfast, it’s boots on, gloves, sunscreen, and water bottle ready. These things – and going to the toilet – can take over half an hour for four people.


WWOOFers: This acronym – pronounced woofers – used to mean Willing Workers on Organic Farms, but I’ve now seen it as World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, We’re Working on Organic Farms, and a few others.

HelpX is an online listing of host organic farms, non-organic farms, farmstays, homestays, ranches, lodges, B&Bs, backpackers hostels, and boats. Volunteer helpers can stay short-term in exchange for food and accommodation.

Workaway promotes volunteering, family exchanges, homestays, farmstays, working holidays, travel buddies, language learning and cultural exchange.

NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Lifestyle Block Magazine.
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