Two years ago, I began a journey to learn more about where my food was coming from, with the hope of finding a tangible way to support the sustainable farming movement.
I was hoping to learn more about the “organic” farming practices (standard or small scale) that I had been led to believe were environmentally beneficial and sustainable. Instead, what I found was that there are many holes in these practices, created by their reliance on animal inputs such as blood and bone meal, which are not only not sustainable, but not ethical either.
The more I learned about where my food was coming from, the more I wanted to start growing my own, but without the use of any animal inputs.
Thankfully, at this point in my journey I found Gentle World, where they have been growing veganically for over 40 years. As I walked through the beautiful gardens, the vitality and health of the plants was evident. I saw that it was not only possible to sustain the fertility of the land without animal inputs, but it was also beneficial for the soil and the crops they were growing.
Since that day, I have continued to seek out new information about veganic farming practices and I have become a veganic grower myself. If you’re interested in learning more about these sustainable farming practices and supporting the growers that are using these methods, there are a number of organizations that can help. These include the different WWOOF networks, HelpX and Growfood among others, all of which provide volunteer and exchange opportunities worldwide. Although the number of veganic or stock-free farms listed is currently small, the movement is expanding.
After spending a year volunteering on different farms and subsequently helping to host volunteers as a grower, I’ve learned a lot about what make a “good volunteer” and how to find the farm that is right for you. So here are some tips to help you do just that.
The tips below often mention your “host(s),” which refers to the farm or other location you would be volunteering at. Many programs, including WWOOF and HelpX, often provide accommodations and food in return for your service, but be sure to clarify beforehand what is expected of you in terms of working hours and other contributions. Whichever program you decide to go through, these volunteering essentials will help make your experience enjoyable for both you and your hosts.
Read through your host’s profiles or website thoroughly: Each host and volunteer experience is different; learn as much as you can about your host before you arrive. This will insure that it is the right match for both of you.
Notify hosts immediately if plans change: Let your host know immediately if your plans change before your arrival date or if you wish to leave the farm early. This will allow for adequate time to fill the space left in your absence.
Your attitude will shape your experience: The best volunteers are those who demonstrate a genuine positive attitude and are willing to help wherever needed. Sometimes the place you can be of most service is not the garden, but in cooking, cleaning or helping maintain the farm. Keep an open mind and help where you can.
Be prepared to do physical labor: Small-scale organic farming consists of a good deal of weeding and other physical labor. If you have health restrictions that prevent you from doing 4-6 hours of labor a day, be honest with your host beforehand. There may be other work available, but often weeding, cleaning and other physical labor is what is most needed. With this is mind, it is also important to take care of your body while volunteering; stretch often, drink plenty of water, and be responsible for your own sun protection if you are outside during the hottest part of the day.
Try to evaluate the level of peace and quiet beforehand: Most places will be located in the countryside so it is important to be comfortable in a quiet setting, although some farms are very busy and may appear a bit hectic at times. When you are searching for a host, keep this in mind and pick a situation that suits your needs.
Take an active interest in learning: Volunteering is an amazing way to learn new skills that will benefit you and the community you live in for years to come. Many hosts have been farming or working towards living sustainably for many years, so humility and a desire to learn are important. Make sure to balance asking pertinent questions along with using your own power of observation to learn.
You should be comfortable working alone: Sometimes your host or other helpers will be able to work alongside you, but often you will need to work on tasks alone. Look for internal inspiration to keep you working hard, even if left unattended for the majority of the day.
Volunteering Tips Continued:
Keep a good sense of humor: In life you never quite know what the day will bring, and the same is true for volunteering. Having a good sense of humor is important and will make your experience all the more enjoyable.
Keep your eyes and ears open: Many people appreciate volunteers who take initiative. This is best done by looking for where there is a need on the farm and listening. Always ask before beginning a job though, unless directed to do so.
Take time to look at the bigger picture: Many hosts began their farms with a larger vision of sustainability in mind. While you may only be on the farm for a couple of days to a couple of months, take the time to connect with the larger vision.
Be conscious of resources: It requires a great deal of resources and energy to maintain a farm or educational center. Be conscious of how you use any resources on site, including fertilizer, water, food and electricity. If you have a “special diet” (gluten-free, raw, etc.) speak to your host ahead of time to discuss whether you need to bring some extra supplies with you. While you may be exchanging lodging and food for your volunteer time, don’t assume that this entitles you to everything in the pantry. Hosting volunteers can actually be a drain on resources, especially in the case of small farms or non-profits.
Try to address any issues directly: Having an open line of communication is important. If there is something that is bothering you, find an appropriate time to address the issue.
Remember you are not staying at a resort: Be mindful to take short conservation showers each night and to keep your living space clean during your stay, as well as cleaning up after yourself when using shared spaces such as the kitchen or dining area. It is also respectful and considerate to clean your lodging before you leave so the space is ready for the next person to arrive.
Leave feedback: Many online volunteer networks allow you leave feedback on profiles, which will help future volunteers find good positions. If you have a negative experience, try to address this before you leave, if possible, so that you have the opportunity to hear the other side of the story. If you have a positive experience, leave feedback on your host’s profile that reflects this.
While the individual lessons each volunteer learns will be different, the potential to connect with the earth, your food and the greater global community is there for all. From beets and broccoli to kale and lettuce, there is a story, a farmer and an opportunity to learn. Get out there and get growing!