Worldwide organization connects volunteers with organic N.J. farmers

Though its name suggests exotic global destinations, Worldwide Opportunities in Organic Farming (WWOOF) has enthusiastic hosts in New Jersey, including Caroline Phinney’s farm in Princeton.

The non-profit organization connects organic farmers around the world with willing volunteers in an effort to “promote an educational exchange and help build a global community conscious of ecologically sustainable farming practices.”

WWOOF operates in 50 countries and has hosts in all 50 states. The USA division boasts 1,600 registered host farms and over 15,000 members. WWOOF members can browse farm profiles to find operations that fit within their goals and travel destination. Farmers provide food and basic accommodations for volunteers in return for approximately five hours of work each day.

Phinney has been hosting “woofers” at Orchard Farm Organics in Princeton for three years.

Set on over 60 acres, the farm is adjacent to the Waldorf School, founded by Phinney. They grow a wide variety of seasonal vegetables and were recently awarded certified kitchen status. Much of their harvest is distributed through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.

Phinney and her husband Robert, a geophysicist and Princeton professor, have hosted a “wonderful array of young people.”

“It’s generally a wonderful experience” for woofers, said Phinney.

Though most of their woofers are from the United States, some have come from as far away as Scotland, France, Germany, Thailand and Japan.

“It’s amazing the connections that are made across continents,” Phinney said.

In the early spring, Phinney said they tend to have one or two woofers at a time. May through July, however, there are “a lot of people around the table.” Her farm can accommodate eight to 10 woofers at a time.

She places no restrictions on the type of person that is allowed to volunteer, Phinney explained. “The wonderful thing about life is that everyone has tremendous potential.” She said she likes to help each person find that they are “good at something.”

This is not difficult because there are a wide variety of tasks to be completed from planting and harvesting to weighing and bunching produce.

Phinney said she loves when young people come who are clearly very intellectual and not used to getting their hands dirty. They always go through a “gradual transformation” as they realize their hands were made to work at something other than a keyboard.

Often, woofers are recent graduates who want something to keep them busy in the summer. “They like to feel useful and they are,” Phinney explained.

When new woofers arrive, Phinney meets with them to determine their goals, express her appreciation for their help and go over the day’s schedule.

Every morning she rings a bell for breakfast at 7:30 a.m. They have a short meeting to go over the necessary work for the day, the bulk of which is done in the morning. Lunch is prepared and eaten and sometimes followed by a few more hours of work. Woofers take turns making dinner using produce grown on the farm.

Phinney said evenings are for relaxing and socializing. If a long-term woofer is leaving or it is someone’s birthday, they will often celebrate in some way.

Her favorite woofers, however, are those who want to learn and head to the bookshelf when they have free time. A few long-term woofers volunteered especially for the experience, working on professional or educational projects during their stay.

She and her husband have hosted woofers as young as 15 and as old as 75. Phinney notes that her oldest woofer was a schoolteacher from Maine who brought a handful of her students.

“They like to feel useful and they are.”

Most of the woofers who come to Phinney’s farm generally have an enthusiastic and willing spirit, she acknowledged, though she has hosted some who were clearly tourists, looking more for inexpensive travel accommodations and not so interested in the farming side.

Despite the occasional issue, Phinney said she hopes she creates an “atmosphere of good will” because she is just “grateful to be working with the earth and growing lovely food for people.”

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