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City slickers take to the land

Bed and board, fresh air and hard work. Mike Gerrard reports
Will you be Wwoofing this weekend? A few hundred people probably will, volunteering to be Willing Workers On Organic Farms throughout the United Kingdom. In return for working Saturday and Sunday, Wwoofers receive their bed and board. It's a simple idea. Organic farming is labour intensive, yet there are enough people around who believe in its principles - and its products - and are willing to get their hands dirty in exchange for getting their stomachs filled with wholesome food and their lungs with country air.

There are 2000 Wwoof members in Britain today, and others in Argentina, Israel, Spain, Portugal, Ghana, Italy and France. They owe their existence to a London secretary, Susan Coppard, who decided in 1971 that there ought to be some way that men and women like herself, who lived in the city but supported the organic movement, could get out into the countryside and do their bit. She organised a trial through a contact in the Soil Association, arranging for four volunteers to stay at a bio-dynamic farm in Sussex, and the idea took off.

Wwoof runs as informally as possible. A bimonthly newsletter tells members which of the 150 host farms are looking for volunteers on which weekends, and leaves them to make the arrangements direct. Regional organisers gather information and spread the word in their own area.

Sarah Gowland is the organiser for the eastern region. "A typical weekend begins on a Friday night," she says. "You'll have a meal and meet the other people. On Saturday and Sunday you'll work full days, doing whatever's seasonal. You could be planting, weeding, harvesting, doing maintenance, looking after livestock."

Is it not just a cheap way of getting a weekend in the country, though? "No, you definitely work for your bed and a few meals. A lot of Wwoofers are from urban areas, and they don't realise how hard the work is. It can be a shock to the system. I've done my share of turning compost, digging up comfrey to separate the roots, changing the soil in greenhouses, weeding, planting out, digging in compost, tree-pruning.

"You don't have to be skilled. However, you do get occasional problems, where people don't know what they're doing - I've known someone to pull out a row of onions when they should have been pulling out the weeds."

Denis and Paule Pym have 17 acres near Colchester, and have been in WWOOF for a year. "It's about people, and not just about providing labour for the likes of us," says Denis. "We've met some very pleasant people through Wwoof. When they've been a few times we can leave them to get on with what needs doing. There are people who have been here three or four times in the past few months, and that gives them a sense of the continuity of what we do. They see the sheep through lambing, then watch the lambs grow. But we enjoy having new comers, too, because you get insights then into other people's perceptions of the way you choose to live."

Jackie Mason has also been in Wwoof for a year, and embodies the original idea put forward by Susan Coppard 26 years ago. She's a single parent living in Tower Hamlets, and Wwoof provides a way for her and her seven- year-old daughter, Saskia, to get out of London and do something Jackie believes in.

"I've become increasingly concerned lately over what we eat," Jackie says. "I'm trying to eat more organic food, and since joining Wwoof I've got my own allotment, so I grow my own veg. I'm worried about environmental pollution from all the pesticides that get used, and one way you can help is to support organic farming.

"It's important for Saskia, too. She gets a chance to play with the animals, which she loves. On one place she was collecting the eggs from the hens as soon as they'd laid. I can't say that she contributes much by way of work, but at least she's learning about the countryside and food production. It's exciting for her, as well. At one place the accommodation was in a caravan, so she loved that.

"To be honest, a lot of the work is unskilled and pretty laborious, but the main thing is the social side: meeting like-minded and interesting people."

Denis Pym confirms that some of the work is fairly rudimentary. "Last weekend we were planting some cherry trees. If you're doing that kind of job on your own it's a sweat, but with three or four people together it's fun. We use music and food as a way of celebrating what we've done. The evening get-togethers are all-important to us."

Wwoof's annual subscription is pounds 10. More details from 19 Bradford Road, Lewes, Sussex BN7 1RB.