For the uninitiated, WWOOFing stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. It's based around the premise that you go and work on an organic farm in exchange for food and board, getting to learn a lot about organic farming and hopefully having fun and meeting interesting people along the way. You're expected to work for between 25 and 35 hours per week, and the rest is 'free time'. In many farms, during your stay you are treated as a member of the family, eating and socialising alongside your hosts a lot of the time.
I've been meaning to go for years, but never quite got round to it. However, I've been thinking about WWOOFing when travelling at some point, and so I thought it was about time I got round to giving it a go in the UK. Added to that I had a week of holiday left to use this year, and am trying to save money at the moment, so it seemed like a good time.
Earlier in the summer I joined the UK WWOOFing network and set about trying to find a host for a week at the start of October. One of the farms I contacted were Park Mill Farm, based in Gloucestershire and only half an hour from Bristol. This appealed, as it meant I could just come home in the evenings if I didn't enjoy it, or keep in touch if I did. I also liked the fact that they were a small holding that had a veg box scheme as well as keeping rare breed pigs, chickens, ducks and geese. One of the owners, Lara, emailed me back very quickly and suggested we have a chat on the phone. As soon as I spoke to her I knew it was the right place to go, and we ended up chatting for ages.
Uncertain still of quite what to expect, I turned up on a Sunday night armed with warm clothes and wellies, hoping for a week where I would learn a few things and wouldn't miss Bristol too much. Immediately I knew the week was going to be ok - I was shown to the amazing converted cow shed where I was going to be staying - a beautiful building with open plan kitchen, dining table, sofa and bedroom, and separate bathroom. It was beautiful and Lara had put out a welcome pack of food including homemade jam and a packet of Minstrels. I was then promptly introduced to her husband Oli and their dogs Morgan and Milly, offered a glass of wine and made to feel so much at home.
The work itself varied so much over the week. I was given the daily task of looking after the animals (feeding the pigs, chickens, ducks and geese in the morning, and putting them to bed at night), and between that I got to do a bit of everything - from taking pigs to slaughter, weeding the veg beds, moving pigs and electric fencing, planting seeds, putting together veg boxes and meat orders, plucking and gutting a chicken, digging in ditches, spreading manure... On top of that, we also found time to drink a lot of tea, bake bagels and homemade hobnobs, and I also got an afternoon off to go and pootle round the local town.
My hosts Oli and Lara bought the farm (with its 20 acres of land) about 3 years ago, and it was almost completely derelict. None of the outbuildings were usable, and only 3 rooms in the house were even liveable in (and that's being generous with the description of liveable in). On top of that, the land hadn't been farmed in years. So far, the Stables has been converted to a holiday let and the Cow Shed to a multi-purpose venue, but they still live in 3 downstairs rooms of the main house while they slowly work on the rest of the property. It's a bit like Grand Designs but without the people having endless bucketloads of money to throw at the place...
Their passion for renovating the house and setting up a sustainable small holding is truly inspiring and a real labour of love - the veg plot is based around a CSA model and currently supplies veg to 10 local families, which Lara hopes will expand to 30 families next year. They have about 30 chickens, 16 ducks and 3 geese who all contribute to the "egg round". One of their big passions is their rare breed pigs, who they breed for meat and also use to clear land around the farm (they currently have 9 four week old piglets! Whilst they're not organic certified (the certificate is too expensive for a small farm), the meat and veg growing is all done to organic principles (and beyond!)
For me it was a really enlightening experience. I learnt a lot of practical skills, but by far the best thing was getting to know Lara and Oli, and talking to them about their experiences. They made me feel so much a part of their family during my stay - from chatting over cups of tea, to going for a walk with the dogs, to going to the local pub for a couple of drinks. It's really re-enforced with me what I feel about growing and eating vegetables and meat too - the pigs are so well loved and cared for, and the chickens they eat are the cockerels that are a by product of raising more hens too lay eggs (see my separate blog post here), and the veg is all seasonal. Life on the farm was a wonderful experience as well - time seemed to move a lot more slowly, and it didn't really feel like work a lot of the time.
For me, WWOOFing is definitely something I'm going to do again, and I'll definitely be back at Park Mill Farm in the not too distant future!