Organic farm volunteers: the new beat generation?

"Woofers" travel the world, exchanging manual labor for meals, a bed, and a chance to discover the meaning of life

Published April 30, 2010 2:01PM (EDT)

The morning sun lights up blue lupin and magenta owl's clover as Erik Ramfjord and Andrew Riddle scoop soured milk into a trough, drawing delighted squeals from a dozen free-range pigs.

A month ago, Ramfjord was an unmotivated biology major in Oregon, and Riddle didn't know what he wanted from Humboldt State University in northern California. Now they are energized, toiling from sun up to sun down for meals and a bunk on an organic ranch in central California, hundreds of miles from home.

"I consider myself extremely lucky to have stumbled upon this," says Ramfjord, 20.

Ramfjord and Riddle each paid $20 to become part of World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms USA, a group with 9,000 members known by a variation of its acronym, woofers. It's kind of a new millennium version of the traveling hobo willing to work for a meal.

The website allows willing workers to negotiate a non-paid work stint with nearly 1,200 U.S. farmers and ranchers. Every farm could use an extra hand, but the hosts also benefit from the parade of characters who become a part of their lives, if only temporarily.

"When I was younger, I used to hitchhike; it's not the same, but it is that idea," said Ryan "Leo" Goldsmith, executive director of WWOOF-USA, founded with former classmates at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "You have to have faith in humanity and that showing up at someone's house is going to be OK. The tie that binds is a shared interest in sustainable agriculture."

Most are young people from urban areas who want to experience rural life. Some are newly jobless, or don't have prospects. Membership has skyrocketed as the economy has plummeted, soaring from about 1,600 willing U.S. workers in 2005. More than a dozen other autonomous branches match workers with farmers around the globe.

After a year woofing across the U.S. with her boyfriend, Jennifer Makens of suburban Detroit plans to ditch her teaching career to farm for a living. But first the couple will woof on a farm in Pennsylvania, then California and Oregon, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Argentina, Japan and New Zealand.

"I had no idea we'd do this for so long," said Makens, 29, who travels with Charlie Ryan in a Saturn with 150,000 miles on it. "We're getting proud of all the calluses on our hands. It has really changed the way I feel about material possessions, as well. If it won't fit in my car, I don't need it."

Ramford heard about woofing while a student at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, so he signed up while awaiting a guide job on the American River in California. Riddle will work this summer with the California Conservation Corps.

On the Douglas Ranch, about 75 miles south of San Jose, they start their day with the pigs, move to milking Bonnie the cow and feeding horses and lambs, then take on whatever owners Don and Rani Douglas need done. It ends at sunset with the cow's second milking and another round of feeding.

The Douglases have hosted woofers since 2005. They've made connections with people from Italy, France, Belgium, South Korea, Scotland and England, and across the United States. Forty in all.

"Besides all the hard work that they do for us, it's been a wonderful experience meeting them all," Rani said.

At South Carolina's Utterly Awesome Goat Farm, the owners need someone to tend Nubians and build a barn addition. West Elk Ranch in Colorado wants help with a garden and vineyard.

Having woofers at Butternut Farms has allowed Patricia West-Volland to hang onto the 20-acre farm in Glenford, Ohio, since the death of her husband a year ago.

"I truly could not stay on this farm without their help," she said.

Not all experiences are good, so Goldsmith encourages woofers to make sure expectations are clear, including how long the visit will last. One left a Georgia farm when an emotionally unstable neighbor joined the crew. One host said a worker broke candlesticks when she asked him to leave.

But usually it works out.

"The first night I was sketching out," Ramfjord said. "I was with people I never met. I thought, 'I'm a dead man.'"

One day an outbuilding needs a new roof, or Ike the pet buffalo has broken a fence, or the cow's eye infection needs medication. They talk excitedly about what they have learned.

"Oh, man, how to drive a tractor, how to use a chain saw, how to roof a house," Ramfjord began.

"How to milk a cow, how to brand, how to dehorn a cow," Riddle continued.

"How to fix a barbed wire fence," Ramfjord added.

"I've extracted a dead pig from Vicki, which was different," Riddle said, and they stop briefly because Vicki did not survive and left two orphans, a harsh reality of ranch life.

"Just being around a pig," Ramfjord offered, then adds: "How you can use a tractor for anything."

Both said they have a better understanding about the labor that goes into food production, and a new awareness about its origins.

"I definitely want to eat meat from a place like this, not a factory farm," Ramfjord said, then he paused and surveyed the green hills around him. "I consider myself extremely lucky to have stumbled onto this ranch."

By Tracie Cone

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