Holidaying on a budget is a classic student conundrum. But if you fancy a thrifty challenge away from the big city rush a volunteering adventure could be for you.
The rain pounded against my skin as I fought my way through of the mud. The nettles on the ground wrapped themselves around my ankles as I felt the full assault of nature taking over. But the goats needed me: giving up was not an option.
Little would you know that I was on holiday. Here I was in a small village in southern Ireland feeding goats and making cheese in exchange for bed and board.
This was part of the WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) programme which provides the opportunity to experience the excitement of farm life, for free.
The right mindset is essential to be a really successful volunteer. According to Pam Boyko, the coordinatior of WWOOF Canada: “Volunteers need to understand that it is about giving as well as receiving. If they are simply looking for a free meal and bed then this is not for them.”
Be prepared to face bad weather and in rustic accommodation — Especially in Ireland, summer doesn’t always show up. It is not five-star luxury unless a small, damp caravan with spider bed fellows is your bag but after a week you’d be surprised by what you can put up with.
I stayed at Millane’s house in southern Ireland. The Millane family make you feel at home by supporting you and getting to know you better (from my own experience). They treat you as a part of their family. John, a cheerful farmer, is helpful but busy with his other businesses. Nicole his Swiss wife, has the rare gift of kindness. I remember spending the evening with her and other WWOOFers, listening to music and talking about everything under the sun.
The family has two children, aged 12 and 8 who embrace the visitors on the farm and are fascinated by any group of foreigners.
Volunteers have to get along with farmers and their family as they become part of their daily life, according to Norwegian host farmer, Tino Schott. “They surround us, our children, our animals. If we are having great people, that is a personal enrichment. If we have people we don’t get too well along with, that is producing bad feelings,” says Tino.
A WWOOFer’s routine and tasks will depend on the host farm’s need and can range from feeding chicken to planting crops. Once committed, the WWOOFer must adapt themselves to a new lifestyle.
And while the experience can be amazing, you walk away having learnt an enormous amount, according to Erin Elizabeth, a British WWOOFer currently visiting New Zealand.”I learnt a lot about a typical ‘farmer’s way of life’ and how important his livestock are. It is a contrasting experience to everyday life meeting people you may not otherwise get to meet,” said Erin.
An average day in Newmarket-on-Fergus (Millane’s place – Ireland) starts with feeding chickens and goats. As an animal lover, that is my favourite part. For the rest of the day until 6pm, I work in the field, planting and transplanting beets, lettuce or tomatoes. I learn plenty of things that I never would’ve been able to learn without the farmer and his apprentice.
Lunch is a way of bringing us all together. In a certain sense, it reduces the feeling of loneliness. The meal at Millane’s place includes the farm’s own vegetables, but no meat since they are vegetarian. With visitors from France, Spain, Germany, Italy and the USA, the meals prepared in the volunteers’ kitchen are mostly a real eclectic mix.
Besides work, there is free time during weekends and after 6pm on weekdays. It is the right time to go travelling around Ireland.
While this all sounds attractive, there are a few things to consider before heading out into the back of beyond. There will be limited wifi, mobile data. Hosts often have limited internet connection. We are only able to connect with the outside world from 6-9pm, and only in a small outer garden, but that would really depend on your host.
Do your research carefully, and make sure you read the host’s criteria before signing on.
“We are living on the countryside. People have to be active here by themselves. There is no shopping mall, but great mountains. There’s no cinema around, no concert hall, but a guitar in the guest house and a collection of dvds,” says Tino.
Making the wrong choice might impact directly the host’s livelihood. “When you get several helpers after each other with little experience or reduced abilities, you may get discouraged. If you have to spend 20 minutes explaining a job you could do yourself in five minutes, you lose the point,” says Tino.
Helping on a farm should not be seen as a hard work but as something new and deeply fulfilling. I remember taking it seriously, desperate to learn, but at the same time seeing it as a fun opportunity away from my regular habits.
According to Pam, “Volunteers should be genuinely interested in and are passionate about organic farming and sustainable living.”
“Farm life is a lifestyle for me. It’s hard to differentiate between work and free time,” says Tino.
Therefore, an outstanding WWOOFer has more chance to take benefits from it, “I felt quite enlightened and it also gave me the desire and drive to be more self-sufficient appreciative of my surroundings,” says Erin
This sort of experience doesn’t leave the WWOOFer or the host indifferent. It left me more aware of how privileged I am in my comfy house. It taught me on how to live in a new community, something that’s become invaluable now, as an international student in Cardiff.
For those who are interested to travel as a WWOOfer across Wales (North to South Wales), a few farmers are welcoming volunteers throughout the year . All you need to do is to register here and choose your host.
The two best places INTERCARDIFF recommends you to go are:
- Newmarket-on-Fergus: Newmarket-on-Fergus is small town located County Clare, southern Ireland. The place is quiet but welcoming. Transports (airport) are nearby, allowing to travel across Ireland. Don’t to look at the starts at night, you will be dazzled . (Pictures 1-6)
- Havelock North: Miles away from Cardiff, it is a breathtaking place in the middle of New Zealand.(Pictures 7-11)
Credit pictures: Audrey Barrier-Guillot, Cloé Jeliazovski, Erin Elizabeth