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by Cynthia Ord
M.Sc.Tourism & Environmental Economics, University of the Balearic Islands, Palma de Mallorca, Spain

Abstract: WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunites on Organic Farms) is a non-commercial network of organizations that facilitate volunteer work on organic farms all over the world. This study demonstrates that volunteers can contribute valuable labor, among other benefits, to their host farm destinations.  The study uses data from volunteer and host farm applications to the WWOOF Canada organization, as well as a survey delivered to the host farms.  The results find that this non-commercial volunteer exchange is a form of tourism, and that it overlaps to a certain extent with more commercial tourism activity. The contribution of volunteer tourists to organic farms as human resources is an example of a symbiotic relationship or synergy between tourism and environmental projects.

Keywords: volunteer tourism, farm tourism, organic farming, host perceptions, synergy,WWOOF

Introduction and literature review

Recent trends indicate that a more conscious tourist has emerged who considers environmental issues when making travel-related decisions.  Conscious tourists seek an experience with lesser environmental impact and even the opportunity to contribute time and work to environmental efforts.  This raises many interesting questions about the positive impacts of tourism that reach beyond consumerism. Can volunteer tourists, for example, really contribute labor in a meaningful way?

This research focuses on volunteer tourism on organic farms through a well-established association of organizations known as WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms).  The purpose of this research is to situate WWOOF within the context of volunteer tourism, farm tourism, and organic farming.  Data taken from an online survey of host farms in Canada, as well as information from a database of both volunteer and host farm applications, is analyzed using qualitative methodology to gauge the perceived contribution of WWOOF volunteer labor to the organic farm hosts, and likewise the contribution of more commercial farm tourism on the same organic farms.

The paper is organized in four parts. This introduction and literature review will compile the current knowledge about WWOOF and its relationship to farm tourism, volunteer tourism, and organic farming.  The methodology section will describe the research process, the results section will exhibit the study’s findings, and the fourth section will cover discussion.

The WWOOF exchange can be considered a crossroads of organic farming, farm tourism, and volunteer tourism (see figure 1).  A history and description of WWOOF will be followed by a contextualization of WWOOF into each of these three areas.

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The WWOOF organization.

The original WWOOF organization was founded in the U.K. in 1971. According to the WWOOF International website, its history and structure are as follows:

In the early 1970s, Sue Coppard organized the first Working Weekends On Organic Farms weekend.  A few years later whilst travelling she found that some countries were already operating WWOOF organizations using the acronym Willing Workers On Organic Farms and We're Welcome On Organic Farms. Nowadays some groups use World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.   From these early beginnings WWOOF grew and there are now many WWOOF organizations around the world, connecting thousands of WWOOF hosts with and thousands of WWOOF volunteers. Each WWOOF group is an independent organization networking together.

(WWOOF International, homepage).

Currently, 45 countries and one U.S. State, Hawaii, have WWOOF organizations.  There are 19 in the Europe region, four in the Africa region, 10 in the Americas region, and 13 in the Middle East Asia Pacific region, and new ones form each year. The newest WWOOF organizations are in Portugal, Philippines, Cameroon, and Thailand. Additionally, the WWOOF International association lists host farms in countries that have not yet formed their own organization in a listing called WWOOF Independents.  Host farms in 50 countries are listed through the WWOOF Independents organization.  Some of these countries are in the process of forming their own national organization, such as Guatemala, Venezuela and Sri Lanka.  In total, 95 countries are represented by WWOOF host farms (See table 1.1).

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Because each WWOOF organization is independently operated, there is little centralized control.  Each organization is loosely associated with WWOOF International, whose role is limited to maintaining a website and listing independent hosts.  The association aims to preserve the autonomous and local nature of each organization.

Each WWOOF organization follows the same general premises and guidelines.  A WWOOF farm host should be a part of the organic farming movement.  Each volunteer, often referred to as a ‘wwoofer’ is to work approximately 30 hours each week, and the WWOOF host farm is to provide them with room and board.  WWOOF hosts do not pay their volunteers, and volunteers do not pay their WWOOF hosts.  The exchange is always non-commercial.  The WWOOF organization plays a minimal role as a link of contact information between the volunteers and the hosts. To access the information, both hosts and volunteers must become official members by paying a small annual fee.  This fee covers the maintenance of the network.  The details of the arrangement, such as the length of stay and specific terms of the exchange, are arranged once the volunteer contacts the host farm.

Little aggregate data exists as to the size and growth of the WWOOF movement worldwide.  Through correspondence with each WWOOF organization, a rough estimate of WWOOF participation has been made here.   Of the forty four organizations contacted, twenty responded with information about their age and size.  From this correspondence, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States emerged as the largest organizations by number of farms, and India is arguably the fastest-growing by number of volunteers (see table 1.2).

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The WWOOF movement has been covered in journalistic publications such as environmentalist magazines, but has only recently emerged in academic research literature, despite its size and momentum. Only three academic papers have been published about WWOOF.  The first study focused on the WWOOF host farms of New Zealand, their relation to and contribution to farm tourism, and the motivations and environmental values of these farms (McIntosh and Campbell, 2001). The second was a complementary study of the WWOOF organization in New Zealand, focusing on the volunteer experience.  The study concludes that the volunteer experience is distinct from the traditional commercial farm stays in that the experience includes elements of personal meaningfulness, sincerity, and opportunity to learn (McIntosh and Bonnemann, 2006).  Finally, a paper introducing WWOOF appeared in an agriculture journal, noting that the WWOOF exchange program appeals to the increasingly popular “gap year” form of travel, and that many factors “indicate a strong likelihood that organizations like WWOOF will grow in popularity over the coming years” (Maycock, 2008).

The WWOOF organization is also used as an example in several papers on other tourism and environmental topics.  In a study on sustainable tourism as a means of sustaining biodiversity in Panama, the WWOOF volunteer program is described as a “well-established international volunteer program” with the “potential for volunteers to share new ideas with local farmers, and vice versa.” (Schloegel, 2007).  WWOOF is also mentioned as an example of a potentially new form of ecotourism called “eco-organic farm tourism” based on the emergence of tourism activities on organic farms in South Korea.  This form of tourism can be “employed as a strategy for facilitating sustainable agriculture, local development, socio-cultural environmental conversation, wellbeing, and learning” (Choo and Jamal, 2008).  Another study gives WWOOF as an example of a market synergy between tourism and development. The paper notes that “tourists can be seen as more than just customers, they can be seen as human resources for regional development” and that “the ability to access low-cost labor can be an important benefit for regions where this form of agriculture is seen as an option for development” (Moscardo, 2008). Most recently, WWOOF was cited as a form of volunteer tourism that could benefit from more backpacker tourism participation (Ooi and Laing, 2010).  These potential benefits of WWOOF deserve further investigation.

In the existing literature, attention is paid to WWOOF New Zealand for its size and well-established reputation as a WWOOF destination.  In contacting all WWOOF organizations worldwide, Australia, the United States, and Canada also emerge as the biggest and most dynamic WWOOF organizations.  This investigation focuses on WWOOF Canada because of its size and availability of data. WWOOF Canada was unique in its willingness to share data-based information from the membership applications of both its farms and volunteers.

Is WWOOF tourism?

Because of the non-commercial, values-based nature of the WWOOF exchange, examining it from a tourism perspective is met with hostility in some cases. In correspondence with WWOOF Spain, for example, the organization was reluctant to be associated with tourism.  “The truth is that we would not like to be related so much with tourism as with ecological volunteerism.  The difference is important for many reasons” (correspondence with WWOOF Spain, 2010). Other organizations echo the concern that tourists misuse the network as cheap way to travel for a long term.

According to the UN World Tourism Organization, the definition of tourism is “the activities of persons travelling to and staying in places outside their usual environment for not more than one consecutive year for leisure, business, and other purposes” (WTO, 2005).  The WTO definition is used in other volunteer tourism literature, where “those volunteers performing work lasting longer than one year, such as Peace Corps workers, are not being considered” (Guttentag, 2009).  Although it is possible that WWOOF volunteers are close enough to home that they could be considered within their “usual environment” and/or volunteering for over a year, the instances of this are uncommon.  This study aims to identify how closely WWOOF volunteers fit into the definition of tourism by examining their length of stay and place of origin, as well as host attitudes toward WWOOF as a form of tourism.

Likewise, the WWOOF volunteers are also tourist demographic group that is reluctant to identify itself as tourism.  McIntosh and Bonneman (2006) profile the WWOOF volunteers in New Zealand, finding that they “may share more similar demographic characteristics with the profile of long-term budget travelers, such as backpackers, than the profile of commercial farm stay visitors.”  The majority (93.5%) of volunteers were international visitors, average age was 26.7 years, they intended to stay in New Zealand for more than three months, and were “interested in socio-cultural learning experiences.”

These WWOOF volunteer characteristics match some “anti-tourist attitudes” identified by Steen Jacobsen, such as a tendency to condemn superficial experiences, experiment with local food, and privately explore new places.  Anti-tourists tend to be more independent and relatively experienced travelers.  His profile of the “anti-tourist” is young (mean age 29) with a higher-than-average education.  This traveler type is discussed as a “kind of vanguard representing the initial demands necessary for the further development of tourism infrastructure” (Steen Jacobson, 2000).  Similarly, Plog has mapped the psychographic positions of destinations and their lifecycles, with the “venturer” and “near-venturer” (similar to the anti-tourist) on the forefront of destination development (Plog, 2009). This study will examine WWOOF volunteer demographics in order to sketch a basic profile.

WWOOF and farm tourism

Agritourism, also called farm tourism or rural tourism, is a broad topic that has already received a good amount of research attention.  The economic benefits of agritourism for struggling small-scale farms in terms of entrepreneurship (Cloesen, 2007) and diversification (Sharpley and Vass, 2007) are well-documented. One study followed the transition from tourism on farms as a supplementary sector to farm tourism as a sector in its own right, specifically in certain European countries, Canada, and New Zealand (Busby and Rendle 1999).  Another identifies tourism as a mechanism for farm survival using a region outside of Sydney, Australia as a case study (Knowd 2006).  The book Agritourism comprehensively examines the prosperous economics of the agritourism phenomenon and its potential for the future (Sznajder, et al. 2009).

Social science research has also addressed agritourism.  The ideological roots of farm stays have been examined and identified as romanticism and social tourism (Nilsson 2002).  More recently, agritourism has been sociologically modeled within Weber’s classic dichotomy of formal vs. substantive rationality to describe the needs and motivations of agritourism’s stakeholders: the tourists, the providers and the destination management organizations (MeGehee 2007).  Further, Sims (2009) proposes that search for authenticity and local food, such as items from a farm shop, has the potential to enhance the visitor experience by connecting consumers to the region and its perceived culture and heritage.

In Canada specifically, rural tourism represents an important share of the tourism industry.  A study combining data from the Canadian Travel Survey and the International Travel Survey found that around half of all tourist-visits in Canada were in predominantly rural regions.  Also, predominantly rural regions have more than double the tourism visit intensity of predominantly urban regions, with about 11 tourist visits per rural resident (Statistics Canada, 2002).  Indeed, Canada’s rich rural culture and natural beauty offer themselves as resources for a vibrant rural tourism experience.  The area of Prince Edward Island in Quebec was used as case study to develop a framework for analyzing “cultural rural tourism” (MacDonald and Jolliffe, 2003).

Can WWOOF be considered a form of farm tourism?  The initial research on WWOOF addresses this question.  The earliest study calls WWOOF a “neglected aspect of farm tourism” but distinguishes the host farms from traditional commercial farm stay accommodations (McIntosh and Campbell, 2001).  Similarly, a study of WWOOF volunteers distinguishes their experience from traditional commercial farm stay experiences (McIntosh and Bonnemann, 2006).  For both the tourists and the hosts, the difference between WWOOF and a more commercial experience is in motivation, meaningfulness and sincerity of the experience, opportunity to learn, and stronger commitment to environmental values.  So WWOOF is related to farm tourism but distinct and “alternative” in important ways.

A look at various WWOOF host farm listings reveals, however, that many of the farms also offer commercial agritourism services such as tours, accommodations, etc. to paying guests.  This suggests a possible symbiotic relationship between WWOOF and more commercial agritourism.  Can WWOOF be employed to help sustain commercial farm tourism? This study attempts to identify the overlap between WWOOF and commercial farm tourism and the contribution of WWOOF labor to commercial agritourism enterprises.

Volunteer Tourism

Volunteer tourism has been identified in recent academic literature as a distinct sector of tourism.  Based on the studies of the Association for Tourism and Leisure Education (2008), the volunteer tourism market has experienced rapid growth, with a current yearly total of 1.6 million volunteer tourists contributing a value between USD 1.6-2.6 billion.  Its growth and increasing popularity has attracted much-needed research attention.

The term ‘volunteer tourism’ has been shortened to ‘voluntourism’ and nicknamed ‘mini-missions’ in various texts. Definitions of volunteer tourism vary, but most turn to Wearing, who has written a seminal book on the subject.  Wearing describes volunteer tourism as a form of tourism that “makes use of holiday-makers who volunteer to fund and work on conservation projects around the world and which aims to provide sustainable alternative travel that can assist community development, scientific research or ecological restoration.” Volunteer tourists, then, are “persons seeking a tourist experience that is mutually beneficial that will contribute not only to their personal development, but also positively and directly to the social, natural, and economic context in which they are involved.” (Wearing, 2004).

Initially, research concentrated the volunteer tourist as a market segment and traveler type, looking for its relationship to the broader ecotourism category (Wearing, 2001), (Coghlan, 2006) and trying to understand the motivations and expectations of volunteer tourists. Motivations identified are a combination of personal and interpersonal.   For themselves, volunteer tourists seek authentic experience, express an interest in travel, and a desire for personal growth. Interpersonally, they show a desire to help, to interact with locals and cultures, and to meet new people. (McIntosh and Bonneman, 2006), (Chen and Chen, 2010).  Volunteer tourism has also been linked to social movements by providing tourists with the social networks and a consciousness-raising experience that are important to participation in a movement (McGehee and Santos, 2005).  The literature also suggests that the volunteer tourism experience continues to influence the tourist post-trip (Lepp, 2008).

The earlier research on volunteer tourism focused on the volunteers and the positive benefits of volunteer tourism. As volunteer tourism grows and becomes more widely known and practiced, researchers acknowledge the need to cast a critical eye on its impacts and intentions.  McIntosh and Zahra (2007) examined volunteer tourism’s claims as ‘’alternative’’ and ‘’sustainable’’ by examining the guest-host relationships of a volunteer tourism project involving the indigenous Maori tribe of New Zealand, with largely positive results. Attitudes of residents in host communities such as Tijuana Mexico have been examined, finding both positivity and negativity in perceptions, and a resistance to the faith-based aspect of volunteer tourism among residents (McGehee and Andereck, 2009).  Further studies have questioned the motivations and the value of the performance that volunteer tourists offer, asserting that volunteer tourists are most interested in fulfilling objectives related to the “self” (Sin, 2009).

Further critical studies have attempted to lay a framework for volunteer tourism’s negative impacts and best practices.  Guttentan identifies five possible areas of negative impacts of volunteer tourism. They are:  a neglect of locals’ desires; a hindering of work progress and the completion of unsatisfactory work; a decreased labor demand and a promotion of dependency; conceptualization of the ‘other’ and poverty rationalization; and cultural change and the demonstration effect. However, projects can be managed so as to avoid these impacts, and NGOs often exhibit best practices as sending organizations (Guttentan, 2009). Further, it is argued that supposed benefits such as cross-cultural understanding are not automatic results of volunteer tourism, that the opposite could actually occur, and that these benefits should be seen as an active goal of the programs (Raymond and Hall, 2008). The same paper lays some ‘best practice’ guidelines for volunteerism, including a) developing programs that will be of genuine value for the local communities, b) approaching the volunteer programs as a learning process rather than simply an ‘experience’, and c) opportunities for interaction with other cultures should be deliberately facilitated.

Studies on volunteer tourism emphasize the need for further research in a greater variety of contexts and settings.  Because the volunteer program being studied here is mutually voluntary and non-commercial, it avoids much of the common criticism raised against volunteer tourism.  Because the location is a developed country such as Canada, it does not address criticism about volunteer tourism in the developing world.  Further investigation of the WWOOF program in less developed countries is called for; however, this research tests the hypothesis that the WWOOF program is an example of mutually beneficial volunteer tourism.

Also, this study attempts to address the research gap about the value of volunteer tourist labor to the host community.  While the positive literature suggests that volunteer tourism contributes valuable labor and the negative literature questions the value and effectiveness of this labor, no attempt to evaluate the labor has been made.  Some effort has been made to find the economic value of volunteer labor in general, for example Handy, Mook and Quarter (2006) estimated an average of ten dollars per hour for volunteer labor in Canada.  However, the research highlights the difficulty in evaluating such a non-market good and concludes that different methods of valuing volunteered time yield considerably different results (Bowman, 2009).  This research approaches the question of value from a more socio-cultural perspective, using qualitative methodology to gauge the perceived value of WWOOF volunteer labor to the organic farms that host them.

WWOOF and the Organic Farming Movement

Organic farming is best understood within the broader context of the sustainable agriculture movement, which emerged as a reaction to the “conventional” industrialized method of food production and distribution that characterized the 20th century and the challenges it presents to health and the environment.

Organic farming has become a highly regulated industry, with institutionalized standards in the form of rigid certification processes by region or country.  In Canada, certification was implemented at the federal level on June 30, 2009. Mandatory certification is required for agricultural products represented as organic in import, export and inter-provincial trade, or that bear the federal organic logo (Martin, 2010). The Canadian General Standards Board Committee on Organic Agriculture is the federal certification body. Their general principles include: protecting the environment, minimizing soil degradation and soil erosion, decreasing pollution, optimizing biological productivity, maintaining long-term soil fertility, and maintaining biological diversity within the system. They prohibit substances such as genetically engineered materials, synthetic pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers (Canadian General Standards Board, 2008). Organic markets in Canada are growing quickly.  The federal government's agriculture department estimated the growth in retail sales of organics at 20 per cent a year for the past five years (Armstrong, 2001).

Organic farming is both an objective method of farming and a subjective ideological orientation (Hill and Macrae, 1991). The historical origins of organic agriculture are connected to a countercultural movement that embraced an alternative, utopian model of society and the food system, where the ultimate goal was an ecologically balanced, radically decentralized, humanely pastoral society (Shreck, et al, 2006). A study of the ideological orientations of organic farmers in Ontario, Canada finds that the top three motivations for farming organically are environmental concerns, soil quality, and dissatisfaction with conventional farm work (Hall and Mogyorody, 2001).

The differences between the labor input needed for organic farming versus conventional farming have been discussed.  Organic farming presents a tradeoff of higher labor requirements and a more desirable kind of work.  From an economic perspective, the organic system requires 35% more labor, but because it is spread out over the growing season, the hired labor costs per hectare are about equal between the two systems. Some organic systems require more labor per hectare than conventional production.  On average, organic systems require about 15% more labor but the increase in labor may range from 7% to 75% (Pimentel, et al, 2005). Often the farming family absorbs the additional labor requirements rather than hiring additional help (Darnhoffer, et al, 2005), and the cost of labor is listed as a constraint of converting to organic methods (Locke, 2006).

Organic farmers see their work as both a business and a way of life, reporting that the quality of life and work that it offers is very important to them.  They like the independence, the skill requirements, the diversity of tasks, and the physical work, and disliked “sitting in a machine all day” (Hall and Mogyorody, 2001).  The WWOOF program is a good complement to organic farming because it offers a satisfying kind of work experience and addresses the additional labor burden on the farming family. This study attempts to gauge the extent to which host farms can rely on WWOOF volunteer labor.

Data and methodology

Sources of data

The data for this study comes from two sources.  The first is a survey that was delivered via email to all 932 host farms currently registered in the WWOOF Canada organization.  The survey was delivered in mid-April of 2009 and farms were given a response period of three weeks. 271 total surveys were completed. The survey contained several kinds of questions. Open-ended questions asked about their subjective definition of ‘organic’ and perceived value of volunteer labor. Multiple choice questions asked about the farms’ relationship to commercial tourism and the WWOOF program. Finally, a five-point scale question was used to measure hosts’ supply of volunteers during each month of the year.

The second source of data is a database of information from both host farm applications and volunteer applications.  The database was provided by the WWOOF Canada organization. The data included all current members (registered between March 2008 and March 2009).  Data from 932 current host farms can be used to determine statistical information such as percentage of host farms with websites and average number of years host farms have been WWOOF members. Data from 3766 current volunteer applications is used to determine descriptive statistical information about volunteer demographics such as place of origin, age, and gender.

Methodology

For numerical data and responses from multiple choice questions, basic descriptive statistical analysis is used to find frequency, percentages, averages, etc.  To avoid a rounded answer bias, the answers to some survey questions were given in ranges, precluding the finding of an exact numerical value in some cases.

In the qualitative method, a human is the instrument used to collect and analyze data.  The researcher uses content analysis to find the key themes or patterns.  Content analysis typically allows for the identification of patterns in qualitative data (Patton, 1990).  In a qualitative study, content analysis focuses more on “the frequency and variety of messages,” and on the communication of meaning (Merriam, 1998, p. 160).  Based on Merriam (1998), content analysis “involves the simultaneous coding of raw data, and the construction of categories that capture relevant characteristics of the documents’ content.”

Content analysis is used here to find themes in the open-ended survey questions about the meaning of organic farming and the perceived value of volunteer labor.  One possible drawback of the methodology is that determining appropriate categories for themes is ultimately somewhat subjective and will vary based on each researcher’s way of categorizing, but on the plus side, predetermined categories do not influence the respondent’s answer to an open-ended question.

Results

The results of this study support three main findings.  The first is that WWOOF is indeed largely contained within the definition of tourism, but in a form that exhibits distinct characteristics: it is volunteer farm tourism that is non-commercial and organic values-based.  The second is that WWOOF tourism does, to some extent, overlap with commercial tourism.  The third is that host farms perceive the volunteers’ labor to be valuable, but the labor may be secondary to other perceived benefits such as intercultural exchanges and learning experiences.  Each of these findings will be elaborated in the following sections.

WWOOF is a form of tourism with distinct characteristics

The results of the study indicate that the WWOOF program is largely contained within tourism as defined by the UNWTO.  As the volunteer and host profiles in tables 3 and 4 demonstrate, the volunteers are largely contained within this definition. The profile of WWOOF volunteers confirms that they are young, with an average age of 25.8 and about 72% between age 19 and 28. They are longer-term and mostly international travelers.  A profile of the farms indicates that they have an average of 3.6 years as hosts accepting volunteers, and that the most popular self-description was “family home and garden,” but that many of them are engaged in organic farming enterprises and/or tourism enterprises. Further, WWOOF can be considered a form of tourism with special characteristics such as voluntary, non-commercial and organic values-based. 

According to the host farms surveyed, the WWOOF program is indeed a form of tourism.  Of the 275 responses to the question “Would you consider the WWOOF program to be a form of alternative tourism for the volunteers?” 89.9% said yes, and 4.7% said no.  5.4% left open-ended response to the “other” option.  One theme of the open-ended responses is that WWOOF volunteerism goes beyond tourism, such as “no, I would describe it more as an alternative to tourism,” “tourism/education/self actualization,” “work experience,” “more of an educational stay than tourism” and “It is more than tourism. Many wwoofers are interested in organic farming for practical reasons.”

The length of stay of each volunteer is difficult to measure from the host farms’ perspective, since some volunteers visit a series of farms during the course of their trip.  A previous study on the WWOOF volunteer population of New Zealand indicates that WWOOF tourists are long-term low-budget tourists with a profile similar to that of backpackers (McIntosh and Bonnemann, 2006).  This survey of host farms also indicates that volunteers are medium- to long-term travelers. Of the 267 farms that responded to the question about the average length of stay of their volunteers, the most common answer (34.8%) was the ‘2-3 weeks’ category.  24.7% responded that their volunteers tend to stay 2 weeks or less, 21% responded that volunteers stay 3-4 weeks, and 16.4% answered that volunteers stay a month or longer. 3.4% gave open-ended responses, often indicating that volunteer stays range from several weeks to several months.

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WWOOF is values-based in the sense that host farms espouse organic principles and values.  But is ‘organic’ an expression of values? To determine the farms’ relationship to the concept of organic, an open-ended question asked respondents to define “organic.”  The content of the answers was then analyzed by coding into themes. Themes in the answers were categorized as objective farming methods and subjective values or ideologies.  This confirms research that has found “organic” to mean both objective adherence to specific farming methods and subjective ideological orientation.

Of the 262 open-ended responses, the majority of responses included themes about objective farming methods. The most common theme was the non-use of chemicals, which included chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, and hormones and antibiotics in the case of livestock.  168 responses included this theme.  The second most common theme was certification.  24 responses included official certification in the definition of organic, and certification appeared in another 25 responses of farms that were either in the process of becoming organic certified, close to certification, or abiding by certification guidelines, standard, or principles without having obtained certification status, for example “100% organic but not certified at the moment,” and “we follow organic principles but are not certified due to the expense”.  So it appears that the principles of organic methods as presented by certification authorities, i.e. the non-use of chemical inputs, are about equally as important to the farms as the official certification status itself.  Other frequent themes in responses pertaining to objective farming methods were composting (39) building healthy soil (22) and the use of organic and/or non-genetically modified seeds (15).  Another 10 responses included other organic methods that were employed.

In the 262 open-ended responses about the definition of organic, further themes emerged in the subjective values, ideologies and lifestyle category. 30 responses mentioned the word ‘nature’ or ‘natural’, 28 responses talked about purchasing organic for personal consumption, 12 responses mentioned sustainability or sustainable practices, 8 responses dealt with valuing species diversity, and five mentioned recycling.  Other responses about organic as a way of life included “think small and interdependent”, “living symbiotically with nature”, “honest”, “living simply”, “giving back to the earth”, “asking the earth for advice and inspiration,” “just respect life”, “choosing human and animal power over petroleum”, “self sufficiency” and “local.” So, many of the farms consider organic as a reflection of environmentalist values, ideology, and lifestyle choices.

WWOOF host farms are also, to some extent, commercial tourism destinations

All WWOOF host farms can be considered non-commercial tourism destinations for their volunteers. Many of them also offer commercial tourism services to paying guests. In the WWOOF Canada directory, the farms offer descriptions of themselves to potential volunteers.  These descriptions, as well as the self-description question of the survey, indicate that at least one third of farms offer tourism products and services commercially to paying guests.  Of surveyed host farms, 8.47% described themselves as agritourism destinations, while others left open-ended self-descriptions that indicated other, highly-specific  or boutique tourism products, such as “wilderness resort” “whale watching” “artist residency program” and “bed and breakfast.”

To determine the WWOOF host farms’ overlap with commercial tourism activity, the survey included three questions.  In response to a question “Does your farm depend on revenues from tourism activity?”  29.2% answered yes, and 70.8% answered no, where sample size n=281.

Almost half of the host farms offer one or more kinds of commercial tourism activities, at least as supplemental income for the farm.  In a question, “Does your farm offer any of the following services commercially to tourists?” hosts were instructed to check all that apply.  Only 133 of 283 respondents (47%) answered “none”. The results are shown in the following Table 5.

 

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Open-ended responses to the ‘other’ option exhibited a large variety, such as horseback riding, retreat services, archery lessons, boat rentals, and fire walking.  Three responses indicated plans to expand into commercial tourism activity in the future.

WWOOF volunteers contribute valuable labor to host farms

The survey of WWOOF farms indicates that volunteers provide a valuable source of labor to their hosts.  One indication of satisfaction with volunteer labor and the exchange in general is the level of growth and retention.  WWOOF Canada has grown impressively over recent years, showing an annual increase in host farm membership of 10% in 2006, 14% in 2007, 24% in 2008, and 4% in 2009.  So, a good number of farms join each year, and the existing members tend to remain members.  According to the application data, he average number of years as a host is 3.6, and according to the survey, 98.9% of farms will continue to host this year, where n = 270.

Also, WWOOF farms surveyed report that they receive numerous volunteers each year and that they receive the desired amount of WWOOF labor all year long. Almost 55% of host farms received more than 5 volunteers in 2009 (see table 6).  Also, the surveyed farms were asked about the supply of requests to volunteer during each month of 2009 given a five-point scale where 1 = much less than desired, 2 = slightly less than desired, 3 = equal to the amount wanted, 4 = more requests than could be accommodated 5 = more requests than could be responded to.  The results were very close to 3 each month, with an average of 2.9.  Based on the number of respondents for each month, there is some seasonality in way that farms receive volunteers, with fewer farms receiving volunteers in the winter months than in the summer months.  However, this nearly parallels the seasonality of volunteer labor supply, which is also greater during summer months than winter months, with winter months receiving a slightly less-than-desired supplies of volunteer labor and summer months receiving slightly more-than-desired supplies of volunteer labor (see table 7)

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Additionally, the surveyed WWOOF farms indicated that they do, to some extent, rely on volunteer labor.  In response to the question, “Does your farm depend on WWOOF volunteer labor for any particular activity?” 36.94% indicated “yes” and 63.06% indicated “no”, where n = 268.  So, over one third of the farms find the volunteer labor so indispensible that they have come to count on volunteers for certain activities on the farm.

Finally, the surveyed host farms were given an open-ended question asking them to provide a statement about the perceived value of the volunteer exchange.  Many indicated the labor/work/help that the volunteers provide, but this was only a part of the overall perceived value.  A content analysis of the responses reveals that the labor benefit might be secondary to other benefits that the host farms perceive.

To determine the value that host farms perceive, the survey included an open-ended question asking for a statement about why they choose to accept volunteers and the value they perceive in the exchange.  Of the 250 usable responses, the content was analyzed using thematic coding. Typical responses contained more than one theme, for example “The opportunity to meet interesting people and get needed work done on the farm” is one response with two themes, or mentions. Four major categories emerged from the data.  The most common themes were in the category of learning opportunities, which was mentioned 173 times. This category included both cultural exchanges and other learning exchanges such as sharing knowledge of organic farming skills. The second most common theme was the actual labor, with 143 mentions. Included in this category were any references to labor, the work, help, chores, etc.  The third most common theme was social interaction, which included any mentions of meeting people, enjoying the company, forming friendships, considering volunteers as family, etc.  This theme was mentioned 113 times.  Finally, most other themes fell into the category of general life enrichment, which included mentions of sharing, fun, benefits for the family and children, etc.  So, based on an analysis of the frequency of each of the themes in all the responses, non-labor benefits of the volunteer exchange were mentioned about 2.5 times more often than labor-related benefits.

The responses suggest that the greatest value perceived in the volunteer exchange is the intercultural learning opportunities that it offers.  The responses in this category were 1.7 times more likely to mention the international and cultural learning than other kinds of learning, such as organic farming skills.  Some mention learning farming methods from foreign volunteers, but most were mainly interested in exposure to and exchange with other cultures.  One stated a preference for international volunteers. “I enjoy having volunteers from other countries; they bring more to the table than people from our own country, like different perspectives.”  Another 18 responses considered receiving WWOOF volunteers as a form of traveling the world without leaving home. “Since we’re committed to the farm and can’t travel, hosting WWOOF volunteers brings the world to us.” Several responses also mention having traveled as WWOOF volunteers themselves and wanting to offer a similar international experience to volunteers.

Other responses emphasized the skills-learning value of the exchange, such as “sharing my experience and knowledge with young people interested in agriculture and sustainability” and “we trust that wwoofers leave with some useful skills that they couldn’t learn anywhere else.” Some refer to learning opportunities such as “organic practices” and teaching about “where their food comes from”, but more common were general responses along the lines of “exchange of ideas” and “mutual learning experience.”

In the labor category of responses, most mention appreciating and even needing the help. The 143 labor-related responses are overwhelmingly positive, with eight that mention the completion of projects that would not have been possible and ten that consider the labor as an alternative to hired help.  Some older hosts mentioned that volunteers were very helpful with heavier manual labor and even mention “muscle power” and “strong backs.” Another common theme was the helpfulness of volunteers during the busiest parts of the year.  Of the responses that commented on the quality of volunteer labor, most were positive, such as “they learn fast and work with intelligence and enthusiasm”, “high energy”, and “very good work ethics”. One states that “WWOOF volunteers are volunteers.  That makes them the most respectable, most highly motivated workers anyone could have.” Most indicate that exchange for room and board is “even” “fair” “reciprocal”, and “win-win”.

However, a few responses implied that not all volunteers offer quality labor.  Some examples:  “they are for the most part very helpful” “they usually work very hard” and “it is the luck of the draw.” “Sometimes it’s great and sometimes it’s not much help.” Others echo the possibility of uneven trade-off: “if we get sufficient ‘labor’ out of the wwoofer to cover our time ‘educating’ and expenses, then it’s worth it” and “it actually may not help an operation like ours especially if they do not commit to a longer stay.” Another estimates that “About 40% of wwoofers are good and give a fair exchange.” Two agree that the work itself is a secondary benefit. “In actuality, for me, being a WWOOF host costs more money than volunteers bring in – I do it for the pleasure of meeting vibrant new people” and “I value their help but help is secondary to meeting new people.”

These themes constitute the third category of responses: the social and interpersonal benefits of hosting volunteers.  This category included all mentions of meeting new people, enjoying the company of volunteers, building lasting friendships, and considering the volunteers as a part of the family. These mentions are in addition to themes of learning and intercultural exchange that are already covered by the first category.  There were 113 total responses that mentioned these benefits. “Meeting new people” was the most common, with 90 mentions. In this category, certain characteristics of WWOOF volunteers are repeated continuously, for example that they are young, enthusiastic, international, and share similar values.  As one response observes, “these are young educated adults with a very positive outlook and knowledge of the world uncommon in North American young adults.” Others mention becoming attached to their volunteers, going on trips to visit them, and tearful goodbyes. 11 responses compared volunteers to family members, for example “we describe the as being like grown grandchildren that like us” and “we have no kids, so having folks here makes us cook dinner and breakfast and not eat cereal.”

Finally, three other themes fell under the category of general life enrichment, totaling 72 mentions.  First, 32 responses mentioned sharing, in reference to the excitement of sharing their homes, lifestyles, and locations with others.  These responses often reflected a deep pride in the experience the host had to offer, for example “I like to show folks around our beautiful island,” “I am lucky to live in a beautiful part of the world and like to help visitors enjoy it too” and “we are proud of where and how we live” and “share our clean, fresh, big sky”. Secondly, themes about life enrichment that included “fun” “adventure” “good times” “laughter” “stories” and “memories” were mentioned 21 times.  Thirdly, 19 responses considered volunteer presence to be good for their children, for example “it enriches our children’s lives” and “the kids love it”.

Conclusion and discussion

This study attempts to identify the WWOOF volunteer program as a form of tourism and to describe the kind of tourism it is.  Because it involves volunteering on farms, it is part of both volunteer tourism and farm tourism.  However, it goes beyond this by its association with organic movement, where the meaning of organic is understood as both an espousal of principled farming methods as well as a way of life. For this reason, it is organic values-based tourism, with further emphasis placed on educational and intercultural values. It is also unique tourism in the sense that it a non-commercial, non-monetary exchange of labor for room and board, which contributes to a more decommodified experience.

This study also indicated an overlap with a more commercial form of farm tourism, where around one third of farm hosts also offer products or services commercially to visitors.  This indicates a potential market synergy between hosting volunteer tourists and more lucrative forms of tourism activity, such as a boutique bed and breakfast.  An additional part of the host farm sample indicated commercial activity not related to tourism, often related to commercial organic production.  So, WWOOF volunteer tourism can be seen as a supplement to a variety of small-scale rural enterprises.

The profile of the WWOOF volunteer in Canada provides more interesting information about the kind of tourism that WWOOF is.  WWOOF volunteers are generally young, with an average age of 25.8, and they are a highly international group.  As the previous literature suggests, the socioeconomic profile of the WWOOF volunteer is related to the ‘gap year’ tourist and the backpacker.  Although this market segment may not be very high-spending, it is still a fast-growing and desirable form of tourism to attract, as it is often on the vanguard of tourism development in an area.  Although the daily expenditure of the volunteer tourist might be low, this study demonstrates that farm hosts consider the volunteer labor, as well as other benefits of the exchange, to be a very valuable asset, and that many of them even rely on the labor.

The present literature on WWOOF places it within awkwardly-phrased and poorly defined categories such as “eco-organic farm tourism” and “alternative tourism”.  One could also make the case that it is a form of “sustainable tourism” or “responsible tourism”.  Rather than give this form of tourism an eco-label that serves mostly for its high marketability, it is more useful to understand WWOOF as a possible symbiotic relationship, or synergy, between tourism and sustainable development, as suggested by Moscardo.   This view includes tourists as more than merely consumers.  They can also be employed as a human resource for environmental and development projects.

The sample population of host farms came from the Canadian organization, which provided high quality data as well as one of the largest host farm populations in the world.  For this reason, results were similar to those found in research on WWOOF New Zealand, another well-established WWOOF network in a developed country.  Results from the organizations in the United States, Canada, and England, for example, would probably be comparable as well.  Although these countries represent the biggest and oldest WWOOF organizations, they do not represent what is arguably the most exciting and interesting area of growth in the WWOOF association, which is involvement from less-developed countries.  There is a need for research about the impact of this kind of volunteerism in some of the WWOOF association’s newest country organizations, such as India, which is experiencing rapid growth. As much of the volunteer tourism literature indicates, potential negative impacts are often associated with the delicate economics and heightened socio-cultural differences existent in less-developed countries.

The findings of this study have some policy implications.  This paper concludes that tourism, organic farming, and environmental sustainability can all be linked through organizations such as WWOOF that facilitate market synergies and symbiotic relationships. Therefore, government subsidization of organic farming processes such as organic certification can also be subsidization of tourism entrepreneurship and sustainable development in rural areas.  Likewise, public and private grants to the non-profit organizations such as WWOOF would be beneficial to stakeholders in the inter-related areas of organic farming, tourism, and sustainable development.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank all of the WWOOF organizations worldwide who expressed their interest and encouragement by contributing information to this study.  I especially thank Becky Young of WWOOF Canada, whose unmatched enthusiasm and contributions have made this research possible. My heartfelt thanks to Dr Joan Amer, Professor of Sociology at the University of the Balearic Islands, for his constant support and guidance

About the Author: Cynthia Ord is originally from Denver, Colorado, USA.  Having just completed a Masters degree in Tourism & Environmental Economics, she is currently working in Albania in the field of sustainable tourism.

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