Married couple Steve Barrish and Carly Habenschuss wanted to spend some extended time abroad, but they weren’t sure how to go about it affordably. Then friends told them about World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), a network of international growers in 100 countries that hosts visitors in exchange for volunteer labor.
“We weren’t seeking an education in organic farming, but it still sounded appealing,” says Barrish, a Cleveland native currently living in Columbus. “We thought it would be a good way to travel on the cheap and get a unique cultural experience at the same time.”
After quitting their jobs, they bought plane tickets to New Zealand in September 2010 and spent the next eight months going from farm to farm, living with local food producers and working odd jobs on their properties, such as tending beehives and pulling weeds.
“There was such a wide range of work and we learned a lot,” Barrish says. He has fond memories of thinning trees in an apple orchard and harvesting kumera, a variety of sweet potato. “Before that time, I had maybe one season of backyard gardening and I didn’t know what I was doing. It was all pretty new to me.”
In New Zealand, there were plenty of experiences they won’t be adding to their resumes any time soon, such as shoveling horse manure and chasing a horny bull from a neighbor’s cow pasture. However, they did gain a greater appreciation for the amount of work it takes to produce food.
“I will never, ever, ever work for, or manage, a vineyard,” Barrish exclaims. “That was some of the toughest work, but it made me appreciate wine and what goes into making it.”
A Farmer’s Work Is Never Done
In Northeast Ohio, many farmers welcome WWOOFers with open arms, even if they don’t have extensive farming experience.
“Many don’t know anything before they arrive,” says Eric Stoffer of Bay Branch Farm in Lakewood. “But that’s okay. Since it isn’t a paid relationship, my expectations are different. At minimum, I want to know if they can tell the difference between a weed and a carrot before I turn them loose on the beds.”
Timothy Smith, the founder and executive director of Community Greenhouse Partners (CGP), runs a commercial greenhouse in Cleveland’s St. Clair-Superior neighborhood. For him, agricultural education is part of CGP’s mission.
“I do send everyone who wants to come here a questionnaire that gives me an idea of how much they know before they arrive, and then we base our work with them on their level of experience,” Smith says. “That being said, most of the day-to-day chores are actually quite simple, and anything more complex would be done with the help of an experienced farmhand working side by side with them.”
The education goes both ways. Smith admits that WWOOFers have enriched his own understanding of farming practices around the country and the globe.
“I have learned a different way to fix a fence, a better way to catch a loose chicken, and an easier way to turn a compost pile,” he says. “It’s been a great way to share ideas and concepts, and to practice these new ideas in real ways.”
Volunteer experiences abroad can give us a better understanding of cultures that differ from our own. With that knowledge comes a broader understanding of the social, political, and economic divides that separate us. Barrish and Habenschuss may never have their own farm, but their experience in New Zealand has forever changed their connection with the food chain.
“There is a gap between people and food,” Barrish says. “WWOOFing opened our eyes to how food is grown and cultivated.”
After returning from New Zealand, the couple went to work for Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams in Columbus. Barrish used his WWOOF experience to help launch a sister company to Jeni’s called Eat Well Distribution, where he negotiated contracts to provide grocery stores and restaurants with regional natural food brands.
Since their WWOOFing experience, the couple has changed careers, moved into their own home, and had a little girl. But their commitment to good sustainably grown food is unwavering.
“We have developed a love of cooking that’s different from how we grew up,” Barrish says. “Whether you choose organic, local, GMO-free, or fair trade, at the very base, it’s about eating real food that grows in the ground.”
In the past, the couple might have cut corners at mealtime by buying frozen pizzas and pre-packaged foods, but now they take the extra time to plan out healthy, home-cooked meals. They also grow some vegetables in their backyard garden, and have recently started a beehive.
“Over time, we’ve gotten better and it has solidified our dedication to eating real,” Barrish says. “And to think, it all started with New Zealand.”
Smith agrees, saying that WWOOF is about reconnecting with the earth. “Being involved with WWOOF has been about becoming a part of a larger community of folks that share a love of the earth, of nature, and of doing things a simpler way,” Smith says. “It’s about reconnecting with the earth.”
It only took flying halfway around the world to feel more grounded.