As our bus driver expertly weaved around the bends and curves of the Tuscan countryside in Italy, I found myself totally transfixed by the rolling hills that surrounded us. Looking out, I felt that the scenery was almost too beautiful, that if I blinked I would suddenly wake up back in my bed in New Jersey. But there I was, in the heart of Tuscany, backpack at the ready and best friend at my side. Our decade dream of backpacking through Europe during our college years was coming true, and we were finally at the Italian portion of our journey.
WWOOF Opened the Door for a Dream Culinary Trip to Tuscany
Given that we were backpackers on a budget, we were constantly looking for new ways to travel on the cheap. While researching hostels and couch surfing hosts in Italy, I stumbled upon the WWOOF website. WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunity on Organic Farms and in exchange for volunteer work on a farm, the traveler is normally given free food, housing, and an education in sustainable living. I was intrigued. Here was an opportunity to experience Tuscany in a completely unique way. We thought we’d give it a try and sent in our €25. A couple days later we were emailed an enormous 99 page list of every participating farm in the entire country.
After a few hours of feeling completely overwhelmed, we managed to narrow down our search to the Tuscan region and eliminated the farms that didn’t match our criteria (for example, some required minimum stays of one month, could only house one WWOOFer, etc.). We decided that working on a vineyard would be perfect, given that we’re both allergic to certain farm animals, the animal farms were a little out of the way, and…ugh….ok, fine, we just really love Italian wine. Alas, we emailed about five farmers and waited patiently for their responses.
Almost immediately we received two rejection emails. The farmers either already had WWOOFers staying or were going to be on vacation themselves during the time that we were going to be there. A week went by and still hadn’t heard anything from the remaining farms. I started to panic slightly, envisioning us wandering the country streets, homeless and cold. As my daydream began to get slightly out of hand, I luckily heard the ping of the email notification sound coming from my inbox. Seeing that it was from one of the farmers, I nervously clicked on it. To my relief, we had been accepted to work on a beautiful vineyard in Poppiano that sold organic wine and olive oil. I couldn’t wait.
Ready to Work at the Farm’s Restaurant Week
As our bus came to a stop, I practically sprung out of my seat. However, due to a miscommunication with the bus driver, we had been dropped off at the wrong stop. Luckily, we weren’t too far away from our correct destination and a very kind local woman offered to drive us to the right bus stop. Quick word of advice: Buy an international phone if you’re WWOOFing outside of the US. Coordinating via email is great, but once you’re in the country and don’t have access to Wi-Fi, notifying your farmer of your whereabouts can be quite tricky (especially if you’re accidentally in the wrong place). Needless to say, our international phone saved us many a time throughout the trip. Back to the story – after being dropped off in the correct town, we waited patiently for a couple minutes, until we saw our farmer making his way down the street in a large pickup truck.
“Ciao!” He exclaimed, as he got in and threw our massive backpacks in back of the truck. “We need to get back to the house, we’re running late!” A little bewildered, we hopped in the back and he began to explain to us what exactly we were tardy for. Apparently, every farmer in the region is designated a week per summer to promote his/her farm. They do this by holding events on their farm that get everyone in the community involved. By sheer luck, we had chosen to WWOOF during our farmer’s week. He explained to us that he planned on holding a ‘restaurant week’ for his farm, and wanted to cook all authentic Tuscan cuisine for local guests and pair the meals with his different selections of wine. He also slipped in the fact that once we got back to the house we would be helping to cater for 60 people that night.
Given that we had just come from a 36 hour travel day, we weren’t exactly mentally prepared to start cooking large amounts of food for Italians we didn’t know. But we were immediately thrust into the kitchen and greeted by hundreds of tomatoes that needed chopping and frittatas that needed flipping. Without much time to think or adjust to the culture shock, we found ourselves elbow deep in Pappa al Pomodoro, still slightly unaware of what was going on. I yearned to sit down and stuff my face with all of the spectacular food that we were preparing, but I knew that we had a job to do. So I put my hunger to the side and picked up the first course dishes and brought them out to our guests.
So Remarkably Happy to be Alive
Having not been outside since getting to the house, I didn’t have time to explore my surroundings. I was immediately confronted by the absolute beauty of our farmer’s property. Nestled in the middle of a vineyard, low round tables with rectangular haystacks as seats had been scattered around the property, and the only source of light came from candles, twinkling white Christmas lights, and small lanterns. Although the sound of clinking wine glasses and animated Italian chatter filled the summer air, I felt as though everything went quiet. For that moment, I was so remarkably happy to be alive, so utterly content with my life that I would give anything to bottle that scene and save it forever.
Big Differences between Organic and Non-Organic Vineyards
Our WWOOFing experience only got better from there. As the days went on we were truly able to connect with our farmer and his wonderful family and learned a new recipe every night. He took us out to the vineyards to weave the vines through the wires so that vines would grow straight up and showed us the difference between organic and non-organic vineyards. It was interesting to note that the organic vineyards had an abundance of flowers and shrubbery growing in between the rows, whereas the non-organic were completely barren. The organic ecosystem in which the vines are allowed to grow in is what I believe to be a contributor to the taste. Although some can’t tell the difference, I find that the organic wine adds a certain earthiness to the flavor, and isn’t as heavy when consumed. It’s also comforting to know that what you’re drinking hasn’t been hosed down with pesticides.
Along with learning specific farming techniques, we also discovered the significance of buying local produce and building relationships with the farmers in the region. WWOOFing was able to show me how easy it was to take what I learned about organic and sustainable living and apply to my life at home. This year I have found myself more willing and excited to discover local farmers markets and talk to the farmers about how they produce and grow their products. I feel that a lesson should be learned from every travel experience, but I wasn’t expecting to take as much as I did out of this volunteer opportunity.
Tips for Your WWOOF Experience
Of course, everyone’s WWOOFing experiences are different though. Be sure to do your research on the farm and make sure that you get a clear understanding of what the farmer is expecting of you. If you are planning to WWOOF in the US, read the ratings and comments WWOOFers leave on the farm’s page. There are definitely some farmers who are looking to take advantage of their workers, and the WWOOFers are not afraid to say that on the website, so read carefully. Italy, however, did not have a comment section on the farms, so try and gather as much as you can about the farm before making your decision. You can do this by emailing your farmer and googling the farm. If you chose wisely and cover your requirements, you should have no problems in having a great time while completing your volunteer tasks.
Ultimately, if you’re looking for a unique, educational, and sustainable experience while traveling domestically or abroad, I highly recommend WWOOFing. I guarantee that it will be one of your most memorable travel experiences.