I have a brown thumb. Brown, in case you don’t have an art-loving preschooler at home, is the opposite of green on the color wheel, and it’s also the product of pouring a bunch of paint onto the kitchen floor then swirling it together when your mom is putting lasagna in the oven.
Dumping a bunch of seeds into a planter then crossing myself was my main gardening strategy. I’m so bad at keeping houseplants alive that I’m not even supposed to breathe near my husband’s vast assortment of philodendron, cacti, spider, and snake plants. So when I told Ben that our next family vacation was to Mancos, to live and work on an organic market farm in southwest Colorado, he was flabbergasted.
No-no, I explained. That’s the whole point. I’m supposed to be terrible at gardening. The WWOOF program was built for people like me.
Planting the Seed
When Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) was founded in the United Kingdom in 1971, it was a modest operation linking “anybody, regardless of age or experience, with organic farmers,” explained Tori Fetrow, WWOOF-USA’s outreach manager.
Sue Coppard was a London secretary looking for an affordable, meaningful way to spend weekends in the English countryside with other like-minded Brits. As agritourism emerged across the globe, Coppard began organizing small-group trips to organic farms.
Visitors got a weekend away from the city, in nature, in return for their labor, and word of Coppard’s grassroots farming program spread like edible weeds, completely organically by word of mouth. Today, urbanites can “WWOOF” on tens of thousands of farms in 130 countries.
“Countries operate their own programs, but we all collaborate through an overarching network sharing a mission,” says Fetrow. That mission is to build a global community dedicated to sustainable agriculture. Eco-friendly travel and unforgettable experiences are bonuses that grew out of the model.
Select a Variety
Families interested in volunteering first need to create a WWOOF-USA account. There is a small annual membership fee of $40 for an individual or $65 for a couple, two friends, or a family. After updating a profile, search through the organization’s network of 1,708 organic farms, ranches, gardens, and homesteads. Reading about the sites—“…acres of land with abundant oak and redwood forest, maritime chaparral, and wild huckleberry!”—it’s easy to get caught up dreaming about all the places you and your family could land.
Colorado currently has around 52 hosts, 17 of which are family-friendly. “Some people assume it’s impossible to WWOOF with young children, but that’s not the case,” Fetrow says.
Filters will narrow even more options. After selecting “Colorado” and “WWOOFing with Children,” families can get more specific, searching by dietary restrictions, preferred accommodations, et cetera.
A handful of Colorado hosts welcome weekend visitors—a great option for families and first-timers. “We’ve recently added search filters to ensure mentoring opportunities for people of color, women, LBGTQ, and veteran WWOOFers in the U.S.,” adds Fetrow.
There’s been a huge uptick in interest in the program since the emergence of the pandemic last March. “In the past, WWOOFing was an affordable way to travel to a new area,” Fetrow says. “This year, though, more people than ever are WWOOFing closer to home, trying shorter experiences, all to gain knowledge about organic homesteading.”
WWOOF-USA has been a pandemic-proof option for college students earning off-campus credit, as well as high-school graduates taking a gap year. “We also have parents who want to get their kids off screens and onto the farm,” says Fetrow.
Every WWOOF-USA arrangement is unique since participants and their hosts coordinate trip details on a case-by-case basis. People spend anywhere from a weekend up to several weeks or a growing season living on a host farm, working about four hours a day in exchange for room, board, and the host’s know-how.
After settling on Green Table Farm, I emailed the host, Tyler Hoyt, and we set up a preliminary phone call.
Like my 10-year-old, I’m a leap-before-looker. So during the call, I didn’t think twice when Tyler described the living arrangements as a converted Volkswagen van and composting toilet shared with Tyler’s brother and a college student from Boulder.
My second thoughts surfaced a few weeks later, around 10 p.m., after a daylong car ride from Denver to Mancos that ended with me staring at a cramped converted van a few feet from a drop toilet and rigged solar shower. The place would have been fun a decade ago, when Ben and I were newlyweds, but it seemed impossible with three children, including a baby, and the looming threat of a pandemic. With two grad school friends living in Mancos, just a few miles south of Green Table Farm, we didn’t have any trouble finding last-minute lodging for our weeklong adventure.
“We highly encourage clear communication between farmers and WWOOFers,” Fetrow says. “Ask what the accommodations look like. Ask for photos; try a video call.”
Many hosts have RV hookups available. An RV is an easy, self-contained option for families. Weekend WWOOFing is also a rewarding opportunity for families. Typically, overnight accommodations aren’t offered for weekenders. “You’re going to farm for a morning, maybe sharing lunch with the host, taking home some of the harvest as a reward,” Fetrow says.“These day trips are much easier to line up.”
We spent our mornings working on the farm, from about 8 a.m. until noon, and spent the afternoons as tourists, exploring the tiny, artsy community of Mancos, visiting Mancos State Park and Mesa Verde National Park.
On a WWOOF farm, parents work alongside their children. It’s a bonding experience, and pretty good exercise, too. At Green Table Farm we weeded vegetable patches (cathartic), cleaned a barn filled with hay and chicken poop (yowza), and harvested and processed a sizable amount of red and white onions to sell at the Mancos Farmers Market on Thursday afternoon, the culmination of our work.
Cultivating the Experience
Several people have asked me what I did to prepare my kids for the experience. “Did they know in advance that they’d have to work?” While some aspects of farming definitely felt like work to me, for my kids the experience was pure fun. Kids are built to be active, and mine didn’t complain once. Mostly they were fascinated by the opportunity to experience, firsthand, an unfamiliar way of life.
It helped that our host, Tyler, has a family of his own. His wife owns and operates a local food truck, and they have a very friendly preschooler. Whenever my boys grew bored with weeding or harvesting, they’d take breaks to play with our host’s son or explore Green Table Farm or collect eggs. (Tyler keeps hundreds of free-range chickens, as well as pigs and goats.) My boys didn’t realize it, but they got quite a few hands-on lessons in ecology and economics, and Tyler was a patient teacher to all of us.
When our 12-month-old wasn’t sleeping on my back, she practiced walking in the rows of vegetables while Ben and I weeded and harvested. We brought our own energy bars, baby food, and reusable water bottles to refill on the farm. Hosts will usually provide food, but if kids have specific snacks they enjoy, bring those. Packing for our WWOOF trip was similar to packing for a camping trip, and when we ran out of energy bars, we restocked at a natural foods store in Mancos.
While we worked, Tyler rattled off all sorts of useful tidbits about crop rotation, harvest techniques, and beneficial insects. But the best advice was this: “You don’t have to go home and launch your own market farm,” he said. “Start with one or two vegetables you know you’ll eat, and just see what happens.”
The majority of WWOOF members are people who want to learn how to grow their own food or live sustainably. “A lot of WWOOFers go home and plant their own kitchen gardens,” Fetrow says.
That’s exactly what we did. I’m still not allowed to breathe on Ben’s philodendron and most of my family’s food still comes from the store, but since August I’ve grown and harvested Lacinato kale and microgreens. Over the holidays, we began experimenting with a wheatgrass hydroponics garden, inspired by our memories on the farm.
Our experience will definitely not be the end of WWOOFing for my family. This summer, I plan to return to the fields and learn even more. Then maybe, someday, a dream WWOOF in Hawaii.
Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based mother of three, author of Hiking with Kids Colorado: 52 Great Hikes for Families, and an emerging green thumb.