If you want to gain new skills, see the world on a budget or get a taste of life on an organic farm, then a work exchange might be for you. The premise is simple: swap a few hours of work a day for food, accommodation and training. Organising a work exchange placement on a sustainable farm has never been easier, thanks to websites such as World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), Help Exchange (HelpX) and Work Away. Yet, while finding a placement may not be difficult, finding a placement that’s right for you can prove more of a challenge.

Before you go

It pays to do a bit of soul searching before doing anything else. There are placements to suit every taste, but you need to be clear in your mind what you want to gain from the experience before you start looking. So have a think about the following questions:

  • Why do you want to work on an organic farm? Do you want to gain experience and training? Are you just interested in seeing where your food comes from? Or do you want to combine volunteering with travel, and use it as a means to be immersed in a foreign language and culture?
  • Are there specific aspects of farming that you’re particularly interested in? Perhaps you have long harboured a desire for beekeeping, or have always had a passion for permaculture. If so, now’s your chance to learn more.
  • How many hours do you want to work? Will you want weekends or afternoons off to explore the local area, or are you happy to spend every day in the fields?
  • Are you up for physical labour in all weathers? Or would a less hands-on placement suit you better?
  • Would you rather be the only volunteer, or part of a larger group?
  • Regarding sleeping arrangements, do you want to share your host’s home, or sleep in separate accommodation? Would you be happy to sleep in a tent? Are you a light sleeper or, conversely, is your snoring liable to keep others awake?
  • Do you have dietary requirements that need to be catered for? Would you rather pitch in with communal meals, or be responsible for preparing your own food?

Be honest, both with yourself and your potential hosts – they’re looking for a good match too.

Choosing a host

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Once you’ve got your thoughts straight about your likes and dislikes, it’s time to start searching for a host. You can search the lists on WWOOF, HelpX and Work Away for free without registering, but you have to be a member to contact hosts. It’s worth noting that WWOOF membership is country specific, meaning that if you want to volunteer in more than one country you’ll need to pay for membership for each new place you visit – a cost that can quickly add up if you’re travelling extensively. This is not the case with Help Exchange or Work Away.

Once you find a prospective host, the next step is to get in touch. Communication is important, as Alicia Miller, SFT website editor and regular host of workers at her Welsh farm Troed y Rhiw Organics, points out: “We always try to lay things out clearly to people before they come,” she explains. “My partner makes a point of speaking with volunteers first, ideally through Skype but, if not, at least over the phone.”

Conversations like this allow you to get a sense of your potential host, and also ensure that both parties have a clear understanding of what the other expects from them. Before you commit to a placement, you should always have an idea of the kind of jobs you’ll be doing, the hours you’re expected to work, and the sleeping and eating arrangements.

In addition to speaking to your hosts, you should also do a little digging: check their website if they have one, and read testimonials left by previous volunteers. It’s important that you do this background research because although the majority of hosts are dedicated to a fair exchange, there will always be some unscrupulous individuals who are more interested in unpaid labour.

Finally, always be polite and prompt when communicating with potential hosts. Often they’ll be fielding applications from multiple volunteers at once, and won’t appreciate being left hanging. It would be a shame to miss out on the perfect placement because you put off replying to an email.

Once you’re there

Of course, even the best laid plans can go awry, and there’s always the small chance that you’ll arrive at a placement only to find it doesn’t meet your expectations. Ellen Rowland, who is currently participating in work exchanges while travelling around Latin America, advises: “You have to stand up and say what you want to gain from the experience and push your skills. Sometimes the coordinators are very busy and can’t always pinpoint how best to use you as a volunteer.” Use your initiative, she adds. “Tell them what you want and can do. You will be glad you did.”

10806252_10152493247520841_4769330024712874243_nIn most cases, though, a work exchange will be a rewarding, if challenging, experience. For some, the training and know-how gained can help them pursue a career in sustainable farming. For others, the takeaways are less tangible but no less significant. Many experienced volunteers report a deeper appreciation and understanding of the farming process, while working travellers often rave about the in-depth insight it gave them into a different culture. For many, the friendships that were forged in the fields last long after the placement is over.

Overall, the key to enjoying a work exchange seems to be an open and enthusiastic attitude. Volunteers who are happy and flexible when it comes to pitching in with whatever work needs doing are usually the ones who gain the most from the experience. This is the advice given by veteran WWOOFer Andy Melhuish, who spent four years volunteering on farms around Britain, France and Bulgaria. “Don’t treat it like a free holiday,” he urges. “The work should be the reason you’re there, so grab that axe/scythe/hose/shovel and take a deep breath!”

Photographs: Steph French and Troed y Rhiw Organics

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