WWOOFers and Workawayers of the Willamette

MaconeMushroomeryFor decades, farmers and homesteaders across the globe have been hosting volunteers in exchange for labor. WWOOF and Workaway are registry sites available for interested parties to navigate and choose from accommodations—global locales that offer room and board for a dedicated four hours or more of work each day. WWOOFers and Workawayers are typically adventurous, thirsting for hands-on experience and social learning. Hosts tend to be community-driven, reaping the rewards of shared labor,  knowledge, and experience.

Contrary to dog-related deductions, WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, its decided acronym after a handful of other not-so-working titles. WWOOF started in 1971, when English secretary Sue Coppard realized, while living in London, she did not have accessibility to the countryside to work in support of the organic movement. Now, for a registry fee of $40 or more (on the U.S. registry page), anyone can sign up to WWOOF, though criminal histories are queried and each country of interest requires its own separate sign up.

Comparatively, Workaway reaches worldwide and offers one-year registration for just $38 for pairs or couples, and $29 for singles. Workawayers are also given more room to boast broader skill sets—from childcare to carpentry, language tutoring, etc.—as the site is less centered around organic farming and gardening than WWOOF.

The WWOOF and Workaway websites don’t do all the work; it is up to each volunteer to create a winsome profile, make travel arrangements, and acquire visas. But you don’t always have to travel far to reach a WWOOF or Workaway destination. These two hardworking, nearby hosts are well worth any WWOOFer or Workawayer’s time, and as luck has it, each has vacancies.

Alice Fairfield of Fairfield Farm
Most of us who’ve heard of Alice Fairfield know her for her scrumptious U-pick organic strawberries. This is Fairfield’s “niche,” the reason her small farm has kept afloat.

“Small farms have an uphill battle,” said Fairfield. As the single proprietor of her 17 acres of land, Fairfield has found it difficult to find labor, and this year is considering hiring an official employee.

“As much as I love the WWOOFers and Workawayers, they make other plans and they sometimes don’t get back to you,” she said. Last summer, Fairfield went three months without help, a long time to wait for a farmer already “eeking by,” while working up to 10 hours a day, six days a week.

“Farming is hard work,” said Fairfield, noting the common misconception WWOOFers and Workawayers make by equating gardening with farming. Fairfield’s most recent WWOOFer, Laura Corichi, agrees the work can be unexpectedly backbreaking, but spoke warmly of her time spent at Fairfield Farm.

“There’s no other opportunities that allow you to learn from someone with 20-plus years of experience for free,” said Corichi, who has since moved to Portland for “more focused” work, helping private landowners in identifying and removing invasive species, a job suited to her background in wildlife biology. Corichi’s experience at Fairfield Farm has aided her in better identifying between annuals and perennials—plants with life cycles of one year versus two or more.

Corichi found the tasks of collecting eggs and tending to the animals most rewarding, along with witnessing the relationship between Fairfield and her U-pick regulars. Most grueling, as Fairfield agreed, was the incessant hoeing and weeding—including having to manually pull out bulbs of wild garlic, an invasive perennial rampant this time of year.

“I don’t make anyone do anything I don’t want to do,” said Fairfield. To mix things up, Fairfield’s workers bounce between a number of tasks, each taking no longer than an hour and a half. Fairfield is  not your average up-at-dawn farmer, either; her team usually meets around 9 or 10 in the morning to map the day. Fairfield keeps a “WWOOFer log” for the recording of each day’s work. This way she can be sure the work is getting done and track each person’s progress.

Sprawled over her 17 acres are some woods, a small orchard, home garden, greenhouse, blueberries, gooseberries, her U-pick strawberries, 23 chickens, a pet pig, three goats, five cats, and a single horse. Though she only farms a few acres, Fairfield’s property in its entirety is peaceful and picturesque, her “big, old house” open and welcoming.

Fairfield keeps her WWOOFers and Workawayers mostly in her house or in a trailer on her property, though some have opted to camp out in her woods or barn. They often cook together, though she’s known for giving “an hour off for good behavior” for willing chefs. “If you cook for me, I love you,” she said with a laugh.

When asked if she had any fears over leaving her home and property in the hands of near strangers, Fairfield confessed some concern, one reason she has “all kinds of insurance.”

“It does kind of make for a perfect underground,” Fairfield admitted, as the WWOOFers and Workawayers are provided food and accommodations “and no one needs to know where they are.” One thing she’s realized is that just one person with foul intentions puts everyone at risk—not just her, but the other occupants.

The relationship between WWOOFers, Workawayers, and their hosts can be “very intense,” according to Fairfield. Unlike an ordinary job where you are able to go home, take space, and recharge, “When you’re with your WWOOFers [and Workawayers], you’re with them all day.”

Out of the 116 people Fairfield has hosted over the past five and a half years, “There are probably 10% [I] could have done without.” Her assessments are not always indicative of poor morale, work ethic, or personality, just a matter of someone being the right fit for the farm.

“I feel like I’m always trying to fine-tune [the experience] to make it a win-win situation.” For Fairfield, “judging where you have to start with somebody” is one of the hardest parts of hosting, given the variation in individual skill and learning aptitude.

Fairfield guarantees her guests will leave “having learned a lot,” especially in introductory farm skills needed to find future work. Only five or six of Fairfield’s WWOOFers or Workawayers have further endeavored in farming. Most of them, she suspects, were simply seeking adventure, or after the beauty of the Pacific Northwest.

One pet peeve of Fairfield’s are emails from people seeking self-gratification, detailing what they want to gain from the experience. “This is my life,” she said, a life she’s offering to share along with her knowledge.

“I’ve met some incredible, incredible people,” Fairfield mused, recalling moments shared—campfires and big, vegan dinners, people picking up instruments to play on a whim. Corichi endorses the experience all the same, passing along the message that everyone should have the pleasure of at least meeting Fairfield and picking her strawberries. (Seriously, they’re delicious.)

Jennifer Macone of The Mushroomery
As told by partial owner Jen Macone, The Mushroomery is rare for its indoor mushroom-growing facility, allotting her WWOOFers the unique experience of not only wildcrafting—hunting mushrooms in forests and along the Coastal Range—but growing the fungi on substrate made from scratch. Currently The Mushroomery is striving to be a no-waste facility, and all of their medicinal and gourmet mushrooms are organic. Macone grows about five edible mushroom varieties indoors, and wildcrafts between 15 and 20 varieties.

Macone has been hosting WWOOFers for eight years, and generally houses two at a time in a cozy room under the same roof as her growing operation. She will sometimes make an exception and open her home to WWOOFers returning to her 14 acres. This adds an advantage of them being able to teach the newbies.

Macone is most thankful for her experience with WWOOFers for how it’s affected her children, who’ve gotten to see and know people from all walks of life. Due to a few bad experiences in the beginning, Macone is now extremely thorough in her approval process, spending long hours on the phone with each potential WWOOFer before offering up her property.

“I’ve learned really good communication skills,” said Macone, her reason being that her operation is very detail-oriented. Her facilities require constant cleaning and upkeep, and Macone usually works side by side with her WWOOFers to ensure proper procedure.

Macone and her WWOOFers disperse onto the property at about 9 a.m. each day, after making their list, which varies. “It’s usually a mix of mushroom cultivation, which involves actively making spawn or growing the mushrooms, making the substrate to grow them on and cleaning. Then there are outdoor tasks.” Usually, there is some type of building or maintenance project underway at The Mushroomery.

Lunch is made according to a rotating schedule between Macone and her WWOOFers, and there is leisurely time after for everyone to mingle and relax. The days typically range between six and eight hours of work, depending on factors like when the substrate is ready to inoculate (ready for the fungus to be transferred).

Along with hands-on experience, Macone’s WWOOFers have the advantage of regularly traveling to the Corvallis, Portland, and Eugene farmers’ markets. Community and social interaction is important to Macone, a reason she appreciates and continues to host WWOOFers.

“When they’re not here, it’s not just the help I’m missing.” To Macone, sharing her skills and space is enjoyable. “Sharing what I know and teaching other people is one of my goals in life, and getting that from other people [in return].”

The relationship between a WWOOFer or Workawayer and host is surprisingly similar to the one Macone describes between some mushrooms and garden vegetables, when planted as companions. Companion planting is used to enhance the health of both species.

“A plant’s root only goes so far down in the soil, but the mycelium, the roots of the mushroom, spread out far, and some of them form relationships with the plant’s roots.” Macone went on to explain how the plant’s ability to photosynthesize allows it to make and share sugars with the mushroom, while the fungus “can spread out and pull in moisture and nutrients from the soil that the plant can’t reach.”

The plant and the fungus, Macone explained, “have this relationship where they’re sharing and helping each other survive.” Such is the relationship between a WWOOFer or Workaway and host, sharing healthy heaps of knowledge and experience day in and day out, and ultimately growing together. And though this is not an analogy Macone said or implied, an appreciation of shared knowledge and growth is one distinct commonality to all involved.

To learn more about The Mushroomery, search for “The Mushroomery” on Facebook. For more information on Alice Fairfield and Fairfield Farm’s WWOOFing and Workaway opportunities, visit http://www.fairfieldfarmcorvallisoregon.com/wwoofworkaway-opportunities.html. The strawberry fields are open for U-Pick now through the end of June, Wednesdays through Sundays, 12 to 5 p.m., and available by appointment July through November.

By Stevie Beisswanger