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Growth Experience

On organic farms around the world, and right here in Western Pennsylvania, travelers are rediscovering the simple life

It was the winter of 1995, and Tama Crisovan was planning a trip to Australia. She'd grown up 20 miles south of Ann Arbor, Mich., and had just finished high school. She wanted to visit a close friend who lived in Brisbane, and simply to travel around a bit. But like most young backpackers, Crisovan had a problem: She was short on cash.

Then, while thumbing through a Lonely Planet guidebook about Australia, she saw it -- a single paragraph about an organization called WWOOF. According to the book, Willing Workers on Organic Farms was a worldwide association of farmers who would feed travelers and give them a place to sleep in exchange for roughly six hours of work a day.

Crisovan figured her financial problems were solved. She liked to think of herself as an environmentalist -- she hoped to one day build a log cabin in the woods and live off the land -- and she liked the idea of staying with locals, instead of being just another tourist in a hotel.

"So I wrote the WWOOF company," says Crisovan, now a mother of three living in South Bend, Ind. "And they wrote me back and said, 'For $20 you can become a member, and you get a little booklet.'"

As a high school student, Crisovan had studied eco-journals like Mother Earth News, which helped her develop a burgeoning interest in the issues surrounding organic gardening. "But only in the abstract," she admits. "I come from blue-collar stock, and we didn't grow anything." In fact, although she claims to have been only mildly apprehensive about becoming a volunteer farmhand in Australia at such a young age, Crisovan's parents weren't entirely convinced that WWOOF was a legitimate organization. "I was a single woman traveling around," she concedes. "My mom was freaked about that!"

But as an environmentally minded city kid with big dreams of living off the land, Crisovan was treading a well-worn path.

The "Back to the Land" movement, during which urban professionals began migrating to farms and reconnecting with nature, had taken place more than two decades earlier. Long before that, Scott and Helen Nearing fled their home in New York City to a farm in the Green Mountains of Vermont, chronicling their 20-year pioneering venture in the 1954 book Living the Good Life. It's still considered a classic by back-to-the-landers old and new -- the bible of self-sufficient living. Wrote the Nearings:

" ... [W]e left a society gripped by depression and unemployment, falling prey to fascism, and on the verge of another world-wide military free-for-all ... The society from which we moved had rejected in practice and in principle our pacifism, our vegetarianism and our collectivism."

Sound familiar? It did to Crisovan, who read the book as a high-schooler, and to the thousands of WWOOFers before and after her -- Brits, Canadians, Australians, even Pittsburghers. Each used the organization to connect with farms around the world, seeking their own version of the good life in the fields of organic farms.

Today, WWOOF chapters worldwide are growing steadily in membership. The British chapter alone has approximately 1,500 names on its mailing list. And luckily for the many small-farm owners who benefit from the volunteer labor that WWOOF provides, the trend of shunning the fast pace of urban living for a slower and more contemplative existence doesn't show any signs of halting.

Still, after arriving in Australia, Crisovan's friend in Brisbane wasn't so sure. "She was really leery," recounts Crisovan. "She was like, 'This is kind of wacky, I don't know about it.'"

"Call me if you get into trouble," the friend offered. "I'll come get you."

The entire history of the WWOOF organization, which began 34 years ago in the United Kingdom, reads something like a corporate office drone's escape fantasy come to life.

Sue Coppard was a London secretary who had tired of spending weekends in the city. The organic farming and gardening movements were in full swing at the time -- as was the Back to the Land movement -- and Coppard wanted to share her enthusiasm for the rural experience with other urban dwellers.

She devised a program, and referred to it as Working Weekends on Organic Farms. For her first outing, Coppard escorted four like-minded Londoners on a trial weekend to an organic farm in Sussex, where they volunteered in exchange for room and board. Word about the program spread quickly, and the idea began catching on among other British organic farmers. Soon, many WWOOFers -- as they were coming to be known -- decided that a weekend excursion wasn't long enough. So the organization changed its name: Now it was known as Willing Workers on Organic Farms.

It wasn't much longer before farmers throughout Europe and abroad began joining WWOOF as well. Today, WWOOF programs exist in more than 20 countries, including such decidedly exotic locales as Turkey, Nepal, Uganda and Japan. The American branch, WWOOF-USA, lists hundreds of organic farms in its quarterly directory. Among them are 30 in Hawaii, one in the U.S. Virgin Islands -- and seven within a three-hour drive of Downtown Pittsburgh.

At the heart of this network is the booklet Crisovan received. Aspiring farmhands are provided a list of eligible "hosts," farms whose addresses and phone numbers aren't otherwise publicly available. Aside from the U.K. chapter, WWOOF does not screen the host farms, and volunteers are never screened. A small donation to WWOOF is the only requirement to be listed as a host, making the proposition somewhat hit-or-miss.

Still, the program appeals to shoestring-budget travelers such as Crisovan as much as it does to organic agriculture enthusiasts such as Coppard, and to corporate types with fantasies of escaping the urban jungle and reconnecting with a slowed-down life. Many backpackers, in fact, have explored huge regions of the world at almost no cost by taking advantage of the volunteer WWOOF network. The savvy WWOOFer could, technically speaking, travel much of the world for free. After the initial investment of membership fees -- most countries require about $25 -- all WWOOFers need is enough money to travel between farms. [See "How to Put Down Roots As a WWOOFer."]

But WWOOFing is about much more than bare-bones budget travel. It's also an agent of educational and cultural exchange. "It seems like everyone who's into WWOOFing is trying to find a way around the status quo," says Liz McClunnin, who co-owns a WWOOF farm in Latrobe, Pa. "They're trying to find a way to make a difference, they're trying to learn more about the system, they're trying to learn how to meet new people or just make connections. I think it's about so much more than just going and helping a farmer. It's about community, and human social acts."

Pittsburgh resident Dana Killmeyer was searching for such connections herself in 2001. She was surfing the Internet and researching what was supposed to be a traveling honeymoon in New Zealand when she came across the WWOOF Web site.

Originally, Killmeyer and her husband's plan was much like Crisovan's: See the country on the cheap, by WWOOFing from farm to farm. And then Sept. 11 happened. "We thought, wouldn't this be a great time to see our own country?" recalls Killmeyer.

So she and her husband, Joe Turnbull, did even more research, and settled on an avocado and micrograin farm in Homestead, Fla., about 90 minutes south of Miami by car, and close to the Everglades.

Originally, the couple had planned to stay for only five weeks. But they weren't counting on the people. "At one point," she recalls, "Joe and I were the only Americans there. We had a girl from Ireland, a girl from Germany, a guy from New Zealand, a guy from France, a guy from England."

In other words, the farm in Homestead was something of a micro multi-culti community. It was a British WWOOFer, in fact, who shared with them an important traveler's credo, just as they were planning to move onto a blueberry farm further north.

"I've been traveling for two years," he told them. "And I've found that if you find a place you like, stay there. Because you never know what the next place is going to bring."

Killmeyer and her husband finally left the following April, after a seven-month stint in Homestead. "There was always such an influx of new people coming and going," she explains, "that it never really got boring. Everybody there was really passionate and had a lot of integrity, and [they] were really connected to what was going on there."

For example, there was Dan from New Zealand, who would always finish the job he had started, even if his four-hour shift had ended. "There were a lot of people who did that," Killmeyer insists. "And we did back-breaking work." And there was Andy, the German traveler who arrived at the farm with no English, but was fluent after volunteering for just three months. (After leaving Florida he did the same in Guatemala, where he learned Spanish, and then in Canada, where he learned French.)

For Killmeyer and her husband, living the simple life clearly had much to do with becoming closely entwined in a supportive community, especially one that made conscious food and lifestyle choices. "I met a lot of raw foodists," Killmeyer says, "and I read a lot of literature about the way that agribusiness is taking over, and that most of the companies that produce seeds are the same companies that run pharmaceutical businesses."

In fact, when Killmeyer eventually returned to Pittsburgh, she took a job in the produce department at Whole Foods, thanks to her newfound interest in organic foods and healthy eating.

"It changed my life drastically," says Killmeyer. Among the most important lessons she learned during her time as a WWOOFer was the significance of bartering.

"There were so many times when the electrician came out to the farm, and we would trade vegetables for electrical work. Or if we went to concerts, we'd get an extra ticket free for having brought something. It just opened up a whole other world of how to get by.

"But as much as I learned about other people, I learned equally, if not more, about myself."

"[WWOOFing] opens up your mind in so many ways," says Fran Whittle, the program's U.K. administrator. "It isn't a single-issue thing. I don't think you can say what benefit anyone gets, because every WWOOF experience is different, and it may be that you go to a place and it isn't very nice."

You don't have to tell that to Andy Wingard. On the other hand, he could say the same of a lot of conventional jobs as well.

In the winter of 2004, Wingard was just another zealous environmentalist starting a telemarketing job in Boston, raising funds for a public-interest non-profit.

The position required Wingard to call households that hadn't donated money to the organization in years; the group was soliciting funds to have an environmentally unsound power plant torn down. But Wingard found their "rap," as the telemarketers' script is known, somewhat dishonest: Wingard and his co-workers were supposed to explain that the plant needed to be removed before terrorists could get the chance to fly planes into it.

"I told them that was bullshit, and it was just scaring people into giving them money," remembers Wingard. "And they said, 'Well, if you don't read the rap then you don't have a job.' And they fired me."

Wingaard had worked as a WWOOFer before, though that experience too had involved less-than-forthright management. During a permaculture course he'd taken in Hawaii, he'd met someone who was traveling with a WWOOF-USA booklet. After leafing through it, he found an address of a farm in New York that seemed promising. He ended up spending more than six months on the farm with six other WWOOFers, even though, as Wingard recalls, "I had no idea what I was getting into. I just figured organic farming was always good."

The owner of the farm, it turned out, was a less-than-ideal boss. Wingard soon found himself "laying down fields and fields of plastic," a chemically risky weed-deterrent method often used on non-organic farms.

"He was kind of exploiting his land to a certain extent," asserts Wingard. "And he exploited us to the degree that we would work 60-plus hours a week, and he stated that we would only work 45 to 50.

"Some of these farmers are completely honest," Wingard asserts -- but his doubts about his boss only increased after Wingard discovered he often shopped at Wal-Mart, and ate meals at McDonald's.

Wingard left the farm, and the program. But shortly after becoming disenchanted with his job as a fund-raiser, he returned to the idea of raising crops for a WWOOF farm.

He sent a page-long e-mail to Liz McClunnin of Latrobe's Full Circle Farm, which sits close to the base of the Laurel Highlands, about 50 miles east of Pittsburgh. McClunnin, whose 42-acre farm has been certified organic, responded almost immediately, and Wingard drove down to see the farm for himself.

That was 14 months ago. Today, Wingard is less a volunteer than a full-season intern at Full Circle, where he lives year-round, even during the non-growing winter months. Every other morning, he collects eggs from two henhouses that sit on a small ridge. He spends hours each week pulling weeds in the vegetable patches, and he's recently constructed a bee colony. He hopes to harvest the colony's first honey in the coming months.

He sleeps in a converted barn loft that faces McClunnin's farmhouse, which she shares with husband, a woodworker and computer systems analyst who also acts as the farm's repairman.

Has his time at Full Circle changed him? "I'm not as judgmental, I guess," he offers. "My Dad's a hardcore right-wing Republican, and that used to cause a big rift between us. But after doing this stuff on the farm, it makes you realize how unimportant that stuff is in the whole scheme of things.

"I don't know how farming's helped do that," he continues. "I guess it's just a great growing experience in general."

Wingard is unlike many WWOOFers, in that traveling from farm to farm and from country to country doesn't hold much appeal. For him, working at Full Circle has largely been an exercise in proactive career counseling. That's something he hopes to show firsthand to his dad, who'll visit the farm for the first time in July. "I don't know what his feeling is," Wingard says of his father. "I think sometimes [he] thinks it's a phase."

Organic farming, though, almost seems to be a form of activism for Wingard, one with more environmental and philosophical purity than his stint at telemarketing for non-profits.

"I can see the fruits of my labor right here, before my own eyes," he says during an afternoon spent planting flowers between rows of sugar snap peas. "I want to have pigs and cows and make food that's good for me, and good for other people. And have fun doing it."

For Tim McGuigan, who now works in the same produce department at Whole Foods where Dana Killmeyer was once employed, having fun was what compelled him to go WWOOFing in the first place.

He had just graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with an English degree, but because of his concentration in computer science, he'd landed a job at a software company. "I was making a lot of money," he recalls, "but I was super-miserable. I was working really long hours."

McGuigan had a close friend who had WWOOFed through South Africa and India, but it wasn't until he was on a short vacation in Berkeley that the idea of becoming a WWOOFer himself began to germinate.

"I ran into these girls who were talking about WWOOFing in Hawaii," he remembers. "They said how amazing it was, how cool the people were who owned the farms. So at that point -- after hearing my friend and these girls talk about it -- I was pretty psyched."

After doing some Internet research, McGuigan landed first on the Big Island, where he stayed at a coffee farm outside the town of Captain Cook. As he remembers, it was literally paradise on earth -- regardless of the farm's owner, with whom McGuigan didn't get along. Regardless, too, of the eccentricities of the farm's handyman, who, through an odd coincidence, was from McKeesport. "It was nice for me," says McGuigan with a slight laugh, "because I'm coming from so far away and I feel like I'm back in Pittsburgh. He had the yinzer drawl like no other."

The Kuaiwi Farm was three weeks from coffee season when McGuigan arrived, and his job description was simple. "Basically," he explains, "you'd get a satchel and you'd get a stick. With the stick, you'd pull down a tree branch, and you'd pick coffee beans. That's it. That's all you do. A lot of people would call it really boring, but for me it was amazing, because it was like this Zen thing: You're out in this beautiful weather, and a parrot would fly by and there'd be an iguana in the tree looking at you. And all the bananas you could eat. So as far as I'm concerned, it was awesome. It was amazing."

McGuigan hadn't given much thought to agrarian living -- the simple life -- while he was volunteering at Kuaiwi. But after staying on the Big Island for four months, he headed off to Maui, to a farm he'd heard was even better.

Ali'i Hono Hu'aka is a bed and breakfast and a spiritual retreat located on the island's north shore. McGuigan recalls the retreat's farm being well structured; there was even a farm manager from the Netherlands who worked as a roadie for rock bands in Europe during the summer.

"The guy who ran the place was into walking around nude," says McGuigan. "And primal scream therapy. You'd turn the corner and there'd be a naked screaming man. But it was pretty amazing, because it was built on a cliff above the ocean, and they had a fresh spring that filled the pool and the hot tub. On chance occasions, there were no guests staying there, so you could use the pool."

Throughout his time on Maui, McGuigan began thinking more and more about how far removed he'd been from the food-production cycle his entire life. "To be honest," he says of the experience, "it really invigorated me. I felt reconnected to what it means to be on this planet. For me, that process is something we've spun so far away from."

Also, the B&B on Maui was far removed from the power grid, which gave McGuigan his first true opportunity to rise and sleep with the setting of the sun. "You'd go to sleep really early, and wake up at 5:30 in the morning," he remembers. "And just to get on that biorhythm felt really good. It felt natural. It felt almost like a psychological cleanse."

In the end, becoming a WWOOFer changed McGuigan's life too, just as it had Andy Wingard's. "It gave me so much time to think," McGuigan offers, nodding his head. "I'm picking coffee for 12 hours a day! You have a lot of time to sit there and do the math on your own psychology."

"Everyone takes something different away from it," says Jessica Miller, the co-founder of WWOOF's American chapter. "It kind of depends what your background is, and what your experience is, and what your expectations are and what you end up doing."

Until Miller and her friends -- a group of environmental studies majors at the University of California Santa Cruz -- launched the U.S. chapter in 2001, the program in this country was a kind of orphan. Farmers in countries with no official WWOOF program can still become part of the organization known as "WWOOF Independents." That loose network was the only kind that existed here for nearly three decades.

"Several of us had gone WWOOFing in other countries," explains Miller, who is now a pre-med student at San Jose State University, as well as a part-time WWOOF administrator. "We were talking about it, and someone said, 'Why isn't this here?'"

After graduation, Miller and a fellow U.C. student took jobs with the Ecological Farming Association, a group that educates farmers on sustainability issues. It was during their time at the EFA, says Miller, that developing an American chapter of WWOOF seemed more pressing. She and her former WWOOF circle "got together and had a big meeting," Miller remembers. "We started out [organizing farms] just in California, but within a couple of months we were like, 'No, we need to do the entire U.S.'

"I think one of the basic things we're hoping people take away from it is a stronger connection to the land, and to the food cycle and how that all works."

Maybe so. But even today, 34 years after the concept was conceived by a restless urban secretary, and four years after the organization became a legitimate part of the American farming landscape, the experience of WWOOFing seems more about personal discovery than almost anything else.

Just ask Tama Crisovan, the woman whose friend was worried she'd find trouble on the oyster farm in Australia. She ended up being just fine -- though she still suspects her farm hosts only joined WWOOF for the free labor. Still, she ended up volunteering on seven different farms throughout Australia within the space of two months.

"It definitely changed my direction," she says with a laugh, "because I decided that I'd rather be an urban person -- a person who works on fostering a larger community."

Crisovan's second-biggest revelation? Abandoning her dream of living in a log cabin and living off the land. "Basically, [WWOOFing] really talked some sense into me," she says. "I was like, 'This is a lot of work!'"

How to Put Down Roots as a WWOOFer:

1) Decide the country, or countries, in which you'd like to WWOOF.

2) If you'd like to WWOOF in more than one country, you'll have to pay more than one membership fee. Once you've paid a particular country's fee, you'll receive a directory that lists addresses, phone numbers, e-mail addresses (if available) and descriptions of every WWOOF farm in that country. (Some countries offer access to a members-only Web page in place of a directory.) Visit, and then locate the Web site of your country of choice. Each chapter maintains its own mailing address, and membership fees vary.

3) If you'd like to volunteer in a WWOOF Independents country, you must become a member of WWOOF Independents. The good news: One membership fee grants you access to the contact information of every farm on the WWOOF Independents list.

For information about volunteering on non-WWOOF-affiliated organic farms, visit