WRITTEN BY KRISTA BEAUVAIS
What’s it like to WWOOF on an organic farm in Sicily? (What is WWOOFing anyway?) Does it always go the way you expect? What happens when it doesn’t? Here’s one time when making a dream come true didn’t exactly turn out as hoped…
I was soon to turn 30 and had long been dreaming of trying my hand as a wwoofer. WWOOF stands for World Wide Organisation of Organic Farming. It’s an organisation that connects owners of organic farms with volunteers who are willing to work on organic farms in exchange for free room and board.
Not all dreams happen as we hope…
I thought this would be a brilliant way to experience the real Sicily! I love Italian food and I thought this would be the perfect way to not only learn about growing food organically, but also to learn some family recipes that I would forever carry with me into the future and eventually share with my children one day. I wanted to meet local Sicilians. I wanted to be part of a Sicilan family. I wanted to help in a cause that I believe in.
So, with dreams of culture and adventure dancing in my head, I dedicated my precious two-week holiday to becoming a wwoofer. I would love to say that I got what I wanted. But I didn’t. I know that lots of people have goods experiences wwoofing (I would love you to write and tell me about them), and I don’t want to put you off, but I had a disastrous experience. Maybe by hearing my story, you’ll avoid what I went through by taking the appropriate precautions.
How to Arrange a wwoofing Experience
If you think you’re up for volunteering on an organic farm (and my experience doesn’t put you off), then you need to visit the WWOOF website. You have to know which country you are keen on visiting. Then you pay them some money to join (in 2009 I paid about $20-$30 USD, I can’t remember exactly) and they send you a list of organic farms (for the country you select) who have membership with them.
Once you have this list, you review it and try to get a sense of who you want to contact. It took about a week of emailing people to arrange a place so I felt fortunate to secure something, as most people didn’t even write back to me!
Making the Arrangements with the Farm
Once you’ve got email confirmation that a farm is happy to have you, you continue to email (or talk on the phone) to make arrangements about your arrival and specifics. The person I spoke with couldn’t communicate in English well and this is probably where I made my mistake.
Since WWOOF gives you no way of talking to other wwoofers who have been to these farms (at least they didn’t in 2008), it is impossible to know what you’re actually walking into. I really should have spent more time asking more detailed questions. If I had, maybe I would have opted to avoid this particular farm.
Being keen to secure a place in Sicily, I was just happy to be accepted and I trusted that WWOOF vets these places, ensuring that they’re safe and suitable for volunteers. Let’s just say that I have learned my lesson about this.
How much do you know about the farms at this stage?
The list WWOOF sends you is very sparse! It contains the name of the farm owner, the address of the farm, an email address, and phone number. I don’t even think it listed what type of food they grow. It certainly had no photos. It certainly had no reviews from fellow wwoofers who had worked there before!
That was in 2008. It’s possible they’ve changed their approach since then but from what I can see on their website, it looks like they still operate the same way. (Please let me know if I’m wrong so I can amend this point.)
If they can speak English well and you ask the right questions, maybe you’ll learn enough to know which farm to accept and which farms to reject. I didn’t have this luxury as I was (stupidly) arranging this quite last minute and I didn’t do my due diligence!
Arrival in Sicily
After a cheap Ryanair flight into Sicily’s capital, Palermo, I quickly found myself lost and unable to communicate. I had expected people to speak English, but they didn’t!
Finally, after great frustration, and with the help of many elderly gentlemen ready to befriend a lost girl, I eventually made my way across the country by bus to the major city of Catania. The scenery was picturesque, a great deal of which was like the picture below. From there I boarded another bus, guided by yet more elderly men, into the countryside to a small village called Paterno.
Waiting to Meet the Farm Owner
As agreed with the farm owner, I got off the bus as the appointed stop and patiently (yet nervously) waited. Eventually, a tatty truck rolled to a stop in front of me. These two weeks were so beyond reality for me that I am currently working on a book about it – so I think it’s only best to explain this particular part of the journey by sharing a short excerpt.
After thirty minutes of waiting in the sun at a non-descript bus stop on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere (killing time by reading my book), this is what happens:
I am part way through my chapter when a rusted, once-white truck jerks to a spluttering stop in front of me, crunching the gravel beneath its tires, belching as it halts. My eyes lift casually from my book in curiosity, never expecting this to be my ride. Subconsciously I hug my bag nearer; I may need to grab it and run.
Stuffed inside the truck is an impossibly fat, sweaty man of indiscernible age, probably between 50 and 60 is my best guess. He is an imposing man with a doughy bald head. Triple chins cascade in waves onto the top of his erupting girth. Images of the grotesquely obese and fleshy Jabba the Hut immediately flash through my mind. My immediate reaction is one of intense disgust and revulsion.
He is tanned to the point of looking dirty. Veins of sweat trail down his skin, clumping the hair on his arms into thick dark worms that wiggle along the salty rivers. A thin carpet of long straggly white hair stretches around the back of his head from ear to ear, leaving the hairless top of his head sunburnt and leathery, glistening with sweat.
He wears a stained white tank top – what I’ve always called a ‘wife beater’ – and dirty jeans. Dark straggles of kinked hair escape from under his arms, staining his white shirt yellow. The lower portion of his hard, hairy belly is protruding from the bottom of his shirt, battling with the steering wheel. The sheen of sweat on his forehead is now collecting into rivulets and dripping into his yellowed eyes, causing him to drag a dirty paw across his face, streaking himself with mud.
This is the man on whose farm I’ll be working for the next two weeks! You can imagine that it’s not uphill from here. I want to lie about my identity and throw myself into the unknowns of Sicily for the next two weeks. But I don’t. For some stupid reason, against my better judgement, I get in the truck with him.
Arrival at the Farm
When we drive through the ornate metals gates of the farm, I see the huge family house and I think that maybe everything will be OK.
But then I’m shown to my living quarters. I will not be sleeping in this house. I will be sleeping in the barn next to the donkey’s room.
This isn’t so bad, I tell myself after shaking off my shock. I like camping. This is a step up from camping!
But at least in your own tent, you get to control what mattress you sleep on. Wires don’t poke into your back when you tent. The mattress doesn’t sag, giving you a sore back. Stray animals don’t bring fleas into your bed!
Family Life in Sicily
On this particular farm, there is no family life. There is the owner and his equally charming granddaughter, Isabella, who visits daily. Other than that, there is just me, the animals, and the occasional visitor for the odd hour here or there. They usually come to collect produce from the garden to sell at the local market.
Life on the Farm
Again, I think I can best explain with a little excerpt from the book I’m working on. Every day is the same, and they all look like this:
I rise, let the chickens out of their coup, and give them breakfast. This is the happiest part of my day. I drag the hose around the dirt driveway to water the plants before the sun gets too hot. I go to the kitchen and pour myself a bowl of cereal with milk. I eat alone.
I don’t know where Pedro is; I rarely see him, which I suppose is a blessing. Once he explained my jobs, he basically vanished. Occasionally I see him, and when I do, he’s eating or drinking. At first I tried to make conversation but, after a few failed attempts, I now keep to myself. He is clearly not interested in me. I am here to work so that he doesn’t have to.
I put on the huge rubber boots that I’ve been given and trudge down the hill to a terraced plot of land, lugging with me the shovel and the hoe. I then start digging trenches in the dirt to usher the water from the ancient irrigation troughs, through the dirt, to eventually collect around the base of each orange tree. After dozens of trees have been fed on one portion of a terrace, I then start the same thing all over again on another terrace.
It is backbreaking work, for a trough needs to be dug to each tree and then around each tree. The only reprieve is that I have the shade of the tree canopy over me. When my arm and back muscles have been exhausted from bashing the hoe and the shovel into the rock-hard dirt, I move to my next job of weeding in the garden behind the barn.
When I am hungry, I can find some food in the kitchen. There is normally bread and butter available. There are also some soft cheeses in the fridge and maybe the occasional slice of salami. Nobody offers to make me lunch, to replenish me after the morning’s labouring. Nobody even bothers to ask if I eat bread – or butter – or soft cheese – or salami.
While I toil from sunrise to sundown, I almost never see Pedro. If I do, he’s never beside me also hoeing away. He’s never working. He’s never moving things to and fro. He’s never feeding chickens. He’s never tending the garden. He’s never cooking food. He’s never cleaning up. No. Those are my jobs. He’s seated at his table, drinking his wine and eating his food. He doesn’t even have the courtesy to look up and wave, or ask how it’s going, or even suggest I take a break and share some wine with him.
There is nobody to help me. There is nobody to talk to. There is nobody to visit me while I work my way though my list of jobs. I am the hired help. And I should be grateful; I’m getting room and board in exchange for my efforts. In truth, I’m trading my soul – or what’s left of it – for a saggy bed in the barn and food that I scrounge and cook myself from whatever I can find in the kitchen or the garden.
What I do about it
This is my life for a full week. Honestly, I’m quite proud to say that I stuck it out this long! Before the second week begins, I work up the courage to tell Pedro I will be leaving.
‘Pedro…’ I begin.
His impossibly large, reeking body is standing in the doorway of my room in the barn. He is standing in my only escape route and the breeze from outside is wafting his stench in my direction. My stomach begins to turn, both in fear of this moment and in response to the assault on my nostrils.
‘…um…’ I continue. I look at my bag. It is only half packed. There are still things hanging in the wardrobe. There are still items sitting on the bedside table. If this doesn’t go well, will I be OK with having to abandon these items?
A scowl is developing on his already angered face. I suspect he knows what is about to happen. I also suspect this is not the first time this has happened.
I somehow find my nerve: ‘I am very sorry, but I can’t stay any longer. I need to leave. This work is much harder than you suggested it would be and I need to recover. I only have one more week before I have to go back to work and if I stay here, I won’t be rested for work.’
His frame grows larger, if that’s even possible, and the fear in me mounts. I divert my eyes from his as he moves toward me. Anger bubbles from the depths of him and I can see it in the determined way he is now closing in on me.
I am almost frozen to the floorboards with fear. He is now only a couple of steps from me – and he shows no signs of stopping. Instinctively, I back up. I don’t look where I’m going; I simply back up to escape the bulldozer coming my way. I hit the wall of the barn, unable to move any further away.
He is now towering over me. I am pinned in the corner of the barn, his fleshy midsection just inches from my trembling frame. There are just the two of us. I have nowhere to run. My fear is palpable. My heart is beating in my chest. He is screaming in Italian and I don’t know what he’s saying. I close my eyes and lower my head to protect my face as I see his fist rising above me.
‘I’m very sorry, Pedro. Please understand,’ I sob. His fist is poised above me and he’s pulling back to get leverage on his swing. He is going to punch me.
‘I say no to other WWOOFer so you can stay here,’ he yells into my face. Now nobody for work! I report you to WWOOF!’ The words sail from his mouth with great volume. I should imagine he can be heard as far away as Palermo. Possibly England.
I am now cowering in the corner, my head only coming as high as his knees. I am crouched with my head between my knees for protection from the force of the blow I see coming towards me. And then I hear Isabella in the doorway. And then he is gone.
Before he has a chance to come back, I grab my things and make for the huge gates, relieved to find them unlocked.
But I am in the middle of nowhere and an entire adventure ensues during my escape to freedom. It is a trying time for me and it’s not an experience I would wish on anyone else.
Advice for those thinking of WWOOFing
I think it’s important to share my story to highlight the need to do your due diligence before accepting a WWOOF posting. I know there are lots of fantastic WWOOF farms out there because I have heard of people having great experiences. I just got unlucky. Maybe if I had done a bit more research, I could have avoided this situation.
I didn’t report him to WWOOF because I was too focused on getting to safety. I also though that maybe this is what wwoofing was all about. Maybe this is how it’s supposed to be. By the time I got back to London and started work again, life took over and I didn’t pursue it. I was also afraid he may have reported me for walking out on my contract and I was, I suppose, afraid to find that out.
I should have reported him. And, in my opinion, if they haven’t already done so, WWOOF should be ensuring that there is some form of review system in place so that farm owners and volunteers can comment on the experience. The farms pay them money and the volunteers pay them money. Surely some of that can be spent on something like I’ve suggested. If this is now in place, please let me know so I can amend this post accordingly.
ALSO SHARED BY KRISTA
- See the full list on her profile page
- Written, formatted and edited by: Krista Beauvais
- Experience date: July 2008
- Photos: all photos are courtesy of Krista Beauvais
- Note: the names of the farm owner and his granddaughter have been changed
Did you go WWOOFing in Italy again then?