WWOOFers Bring Transient Farming Culture to Alaska

Every summer, Homer and the surrounding area are inundated by a transient population that’s come to work for eco-friendly businesses. They’re called WWOOFers, and they spend weeks in different places around the world learning how to live sustainably.

Lori Jenkins of Synergy Gardens holds garlic scapes her WWOOFers helped harvest - Photo by Shady Grove Oliver/KBBI
Lori Jenkins of Synergy Gardens holds garlic scapes her WWOOFers helped harvest – Photo by Shady Grove Oliver/KBBI

Across Kachemak Bay from Homer, in the small community of Little Tutka, Emma Bauer is setting up kayaks on a beach.

“Today we have a bigger group of guests,” says Bauer. “I think they’re all a big family but it’s seven people. Like the other day we just had a tour of two people. So sometimes the guides and the volunteers outnumber the guests but today we have to take out the majority of our kayaks. So it takes us a little bit longer to get everything ready.”

She’s a college student from Huntington, West Virginia who has spent the last several weeks working for an eco-friendly lodge and tour company as an all-purpose helper. She assists with kayak tours around the bay, washes dishes, collects seaweed for organic soup, and turns down bedding when guests leave. She’s not paid, but in exchange, she gets to stay in a cabin with an ocean view, nestled in a scenic coastal forest, and do things she otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do.

“I had not traveled much before so this is my first big adventure,” says Bauer. “I had never flown commercially so that was a big thing. So this whole trip was a bunch of firsts for me.”

She’s part of the WWOOF program, which stands for Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms. Emma is one of the non-traditional WWOOFers doing something aside from farming.

“I thought it would be really neat to learn about sustainable living,” says Bauer. “I’d like to do another WWOOFing experience where I’m farming because here it’s a little different where I’m doing the kayak tours with them but I’m still learning a lot about the environment and things that go on here.”

Most of the WWOOFers here are like Noel Krasomil. He’s been working at Synergy Gardens on the Homer side of the bay. Today, he’s helping out at the farmer’s market booth.

“Today we are selling our wonderful garlic, first of the season harvest braids,” says Krasomil. “We have scapes. We had tomatoes- they’re about out, cucumbers, flowers, everything. Really great stuff all around.”

He says he’s wanted to learn how to farm organically his whole life. For the past three weeks, he’s seen the inner workings of an independent growing operation from every side.

“Oh it’s different every day,” says Krasomil. “It all depends on the needs of the farm. Some days I’ll harvest kale and arugula. I’ll harvest garlic, hang it to dry. I’ll run around town getting beer waste for the compost. I’ll go grab manure. I’ll dig ponds…any number of things, whatever they need me to do.”

“You know, a lot of people think WWOOFers just weed but it’s just way more,” says Lori Jenkins, owner of Synergy Gardens and Noel’s host. “Each person’s going to have different strengths and different weaknesses. So I ask them every day, what do you want to learn today? And then I have my goals of what I need to achieve, as far as whether we’re replanting, what needs irrigating, what needs harvesting, what needs weeding.”

She says she likes to have WWOOFers in residence for at least two weeks, so they get the rhythm of day-to-day operations. That may sound like a very short time, but quick turnover is one of the ideas behind WWOOFing.

It was started in the 1970s by an English secretary named Sue Coppard who lived and worked in London. She wanted to spend more time in the country without leaving her job, so she coordinated with a farm in Sussex to let her come out for the weekend. Thus began Working Weekends on Organic Farms, its first title.

Since the seventies, it’s spread to more than 50 countries, from Ghana to Poland, New Zealand and Bangladesh. In 2010, the most recent year with WWOOFing stats, nearly 12,000 host organizations filled more than 80,000 positions. Many of the WWOOFers jump from farm to farm every few weeks to spend an entire year traveling and working.

Jenkins says having new people in the house every few weeks has taken some adjustment.

“I’m getting used to communal living. And that’s been a shift. I share my bathroom,” says Jenkins.

It’s also not free. She says she’s done the math and it costs her about $500 per month to house, feed, and provide water for her WWOOFers.

Despite the cost, Jenkins says it’s worth it.

“So here, I have an educated college grad, coming to my place, and then they’re often world traveled. It’s not for everybody. But, with the attitude of give and take, I think it’s awesome,” says Jenkins.

It’s like-minded people coming together for a common cause and mutual benefit. And Jenkins asks, really, what’s better than that?