WWOOFers getting ready to transplant vegetables on Patch Farm in Denmark. Credit: Courtesy of BrennaMae Thomas-Googins

There is a lot to do on A Wrinkle in Thyme Farm in Sumner. Besides tending to and shearing their flock of nearly 30 sheep, owners Mary Ann and Marty Haxton gather sap from hundreds of maple taps, host spinning and felting classes and attend about a dozen fiber events around the country every year.

“It’s very labor intensive work,” Marty Haxton said. “And we’re getting older.”

They get a little help from an unexpected source: travelers, who sign up to help in exchange for room and board through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or WWOOF.

By joining the network, WWOOF travelers are given the opportunity to stay on farms in exchange for a few hours of work during the week.

WWOOF was started in 1971 in England and now has branches in countries all over the world. Today, there are 2,119 farms that host participants in the program across the United States, 61 of which are in Maine.

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The experience at A Wrinkle in Thyme Farm is even unique among the farms in the network. Mary Ann Haxton said that A Wrinkle in Thyme Farm is one of the few WWOOFing experiences that offers work with sheep and fiber, which attracts artists who are interested in the materials but have no farming experience.

“Having a young body around with many of the tasks that need to be done is really helpful,” Marty Haxton said. She added that sometimes WWOOFers will even teach the Haxtons web and social media skills.

“They are sharing with us as much as we’re teaching them,” Marty Haxton said. “They learn a lot and we learn a lot.”

With shortages of farm labor across the state, many Maine farmers are wondering where they will get help for their farms. Programs like WWOOF have helped fill some of the gaps of farm help in exchange for an educational experience, but the complex legal landscape and uncertain expectations of travelers complicates its place in the spectrum of labor.

The legality of WWOOF

Bob Jones, co-owner of Sweet Dog Farm in Brooksville, farmed with WWOOF in New Zealand before he started hosting travelers with his wife, Doris, in 2013.

“We knew we needed the work,” Jones said. “We liked the work-trade idea. We provide room and board and instruction on how to grow food organically.”

Though some Maine farmers like Jones joined WWOOF for the extra hands, legal landscape surrounding WWOOFing and its relationship to labor is complex because it involves international travelers. In order to comply with the United States’s labor and immigration laws, the guidelines on the program’s website are explicitly clear that WWOOFing is not considered “work” or even “volunteering,” even though participants are expected to spend 4 to 6 hours a day conducting chores around their host farm.

The WWOOF website reads, “Please keep in mind that WWOOF is NOT [sic] paid work or volunteering. WWOOFing is an educational experience, and WWOOF members are guests of their hosts…If you are traveling from another country, please be aware of this important distinction: as a WWOOFer, you are a TOURIST [sic], NOT [sic] a WORKER [sic] or VOLUNTEER [sic].”

Jones emphasized that he believes such protections are essential for the WWOOFing experience.

“We’ve had some feedback from some WWOOFers where hosts will abuse that and work them six to eight hours a day,” Jones said. “There are commercial farms just trying to squeeze the life out of them.”

But even though Sweet Dog Farm is a not a commercial farm, the WWOOFers are often essential to helping the growing season go successfully.

“There’s a fine line there. We need their work, we need their efforts,” Jones said. “This last summer when we didn’t have [WWOOFers], we had to hire people to get the help we needed.”

The logistical challenges of WWOOF

Though WWOOFers are not paid wages, there is still a cost to the labor they provide. Besides the time commitment of vetting and speaking with potential WWOOFers, host farms also need to provide adequate room, board and meals. Plus, WWOOFers need to be taught farming skills, as the program is designed as an introduction to the lifestyle for those with little to no experience.

After nearly five years of participating in the program, Amanda Provencher and her husband Paul Schultz, owners of King Hill Farm in Penobscot, stopped hosting WWOOFers on their farm in 2014 and started using paid laborers instead.

“It was really a matter of the time and energy that we put into WWOOFers and apprentices versus employees,” Provencher said. “[WWOOFers] are here to learn, and we were spending a lot of time teaching when what we really needed was to be getting the work done.”

When it comes to WWOOFers versus paid employees, Provencher said there is “no comparison in terms of labor.”

“There is a shortage of farm labor, and I don’t think that WWOOFing is a good source of farm labor,” she said. “As a farm that’s farming for profit, I wouldn’t count on that as this is my labor source for the season. I think it’s great for homesteads and I think it’s great for extra hands, but it’s not great for farm labor.”

Patti Hamilton, owner of Hamilton Farm and Barred Owl Creamery and Catering in Whitefield, who has been hosting WWOOFers since her family started farming around 2000 but has stopped hosting in recent years, said she used to rely more on WWOOFers for farm help.

“It doesn’t really work out in my experience,” Hamilton said. “It’s more like farm camp, which I think is important, but I definitely don’t rely on them.” Hamilton said she thinks it is “really important to provide that learning opportunity for people,” but she learned to “manage expectations” when it comes to the help that WWOOFers can provide.

This is further complicated by the fact that WWOOFers can cancel last-minute and have the ability to leave if they do not feel the experience is a good fit, which can leave farmers in the lurch.

“We’ve definitely had situations where they don’t actually want to do the work,” said BrennaMae Thomas-Googins, owner of Patch Farm in Denmark, Maine. “I think a lot of people have this very pastoral view of a farm. It’s far different than they expected.”

The transitory nature of WWOOFing

Travelers with WWOOF generally stay a few weeks or months, which is not especially conducive to proper training.

“You train somebody and then they go,” Provencher said. “It’s such a volatile labor source.”

Most farmers said that only a few WWOOFers come back to the farms as apprentices or paid laborers after their WWOOFing tenure. While Provencher and Thomas-Googins both said they had WWOOFers who wound up going into food policy or non-profit work, many do not continue in the agricultural field.

“A number of them have indicated that they grow a lot of their own food but whether they’ve actually gone on to become a farmer, go commercial and take it to next level, very few have,” Jones said.

Some WWOOFers do go on to start their own farms, but they are often the exception that proves the rule. Mary Ann and Marty Haxton’s first WWOOFers wound up working with them for five years and went on to start their own neighboring farm, The Friendly Ewe.

“That’s what we’d love to happen,” Mary Ann Haxton said. “Those are the only WWOOFers that are still local. Everybody else has been from away and went away.”