Volunteering on farms: the real story

By Laura Cleary and Patrick Hunt

Garden in the French countryside we spotted out walking. Fab veggies!!

As part of our trip campervanning in Europe we were keen to volunteer on organic/sustainable and/or permaculture farms, small holdings and projects. We believed there were many good reasons to volunteer such as, learning a new self sufficiency skill, seeing how others live off the land, how they juggle between their alternative way of life and how they earn money, meeting like minded people, contributing to worthwhile projects, saving a bit of money whilst travelling to name but a few. We didn’t really know how much time we would spend volunteering versus how much we would spend travel but we got the books, signed up to the memberships and booked a small holding for the second week of our trip. Having done much volunteering before and worked in a variety of places we both had mainly very positive experiences here in Ireland. Patrick had volunteered and given his time to eco-projects, farms and worked teaching horticulture in the National Learning Network while I had volunteered in multiple charities for many years mainly in counselling and in the disability sector also. Our experiences were both in professional environments and more informal situations and we found we both enjoyed and learned much from them. We felt respected and in most cases people greatly appreciated us for giving our time and helping out.
However, our experiences volunteering abroad through Wwoof and Helpx were on the whole quite disappointing. Altogether we visited 8 farms but only stayed at 4 . We stayed only one night at 3 others before leaving and the last one was purely organised as a visit just to see the place. We were also in contact with many others and for one reason or another didn’t end up going as it didn’t suit either us or the host but these interactions also gave us a good flavour for what is on offer. Out of all those 8 I can honestly say that only 2 or 3 were really enjoyable and we learned a little. The others definitely had good points but overall were disappointing.
I won’t be naming names as it’s unfair in this forum but I just want to give a flavour to those who might read this and are thinking of volunteering to carefully consider where they go and to find out as much as possible before arriving at a farm. It might also be useful for hosts as it raises common concerns that volunteers might have.
Of the 8 places we visited only 4-5 farms treated us with respect. Others left us feeling quite exploited worked hard with very little to eat. We are not afraid of hard work. We normally were asked to work 4-6 hours which is fine but we did expect, as the deal stated, to be fed properly. We were already providing our own accommodation so all we expected was three meals a day for a fairs days work. Overall this feeling of being exploited for free labour and being made to feel like a third class citizen were the biggest issues we had. We’ve both had a range of jobs over the years from working in shops and abattoirs to working in all sort of organisations and even in our least favourite jobs where you might have an intimidating boss, bully or rude person we were never treated like a third class citizen, certainly not by other staff or employers (maybe customers!).
To explain further I’ll describe each farm:
1.  Small-holding run by an English ex-pat couple:
From the minute we arrived we were made to feel beneath them. When we arrived the man pretended that he was French and we were at the wrong farm, funny a first, but not after listening to a good few Irish jokes (as in jokes about the Irish). There was very little clarity about what we would be doing and it was awkward because we had arrived on a Sunday which was a day off (they could have told us it wasn’t convenient, we could have arrived any day). It’s very difficult to explain this one, but basically there was a lot of verbal and non-verbal signs that came across as very rude. At one stage I asked if I could help with something, the quick reply was “why? are you bored?”.
Another issue was that they claimed to be organic but none of the animal feed was organic and they claimed to be having a home reared chicken for dinner but we spotted it in the fridge and it was wrapped in plastic from the supermarket! Patrick helped the man collect some wood from a neighbour and they had a little joke, “oh yes…organic haha”. If it wasn’t for the put downs we would have stayed happily but after sleeping on it we decided to leave. They had no passion for what they were doing anymore with the man wanting on his mother in law to die (who was cared for onsite) so they could sell up and go travelling themselves. Why would we bother? So we moved on.
Lesson number 1: Make sure to pick a farm where people are genuinely interested in sustainability. Little information at the email stage can be a bad sign.
2.       3 acre organic homestay/garden run by a couple
Overall this was a very positive experience but there were a few major issues. While we had a dog with us we made sure to explain and clarify about the dog’s nature and that he would need to be accepted and he’s well behaved etc. However, in this case when we arrived we were soon to learn that he wasn’t allowed off the lead outside in the garden in case he would chase the cats…surely they could run up a tree and anyway we rarely saw them as they were never around. The welfare of the cats was prioritised, of course I have no issue with that, but they failed to consider the dog’s welfare who was often locked in the van for long periods and then tied up outside. We didn’t want to leave as they seemed so nice (I guess they just weren’t doggie people) so we made great efforts to walk the dog early in the morning and late at night, sometimes a struggle to get away to do this. On the positive side, the place was truly self-sufficient and they made great time for us always, chatting, teaching and working with us which was really nice. Sometimes, as a couple we found it a bit intense as we found it hard to get time alone and another volunteer said she didn’t get much free time either. I think some hosts get a lot out of having volunteers on a social level but they do need to realise it’s important to allow volunteers to have space to themselves. Living and working in someone’s home is stressful at first as you’ve got to learn their specific house rules, and you spend a lot of time getting to know each other which can be draining when it’s all day long.
However, the main problem with this place was the lack of food. While meals were always extremely well prepared, tasty and we learned a lot from their way of cooking, there was nowhere near enough food for people who were working physically most of the day. There was no carbs, no eggs, no cheese, no meat and no dairy. Meal times were varied every day so you never knew when you would next eat. I found myself getting very hungry on the first day or two of every farm and I realised it was a psychological effect because of the higher stress levels when starting on a new farm, feeling drained and also the fact that you didn’t really know when you’d next eat which made you more hungry and food aware. Having lived independently for many years we were used to feeding ourselves when we wanted. I think hosts should consider that it isn’t always easy starting off on a new farm for many reasons and each person’s experience will vary but volunteers should be reassured when it comes to food. Older volunteers don’t need to be treated like 18 year olds who’ve never left home.
One day as a treat we had chips in the afternoon for “dinner” but there was nothing other than apple tart at 8pm. The chips were what I’d called a 1-2 person portion divided between 5 people so that night we had to cook in the van. All of the meal times involved a huge amount of preparing because of the nature of the diet so there was always a lot of washing up to do which we did of course but it took quite a while before we’d be let out to bring the dog out walking. One day it was suggested we stay working after the 6 hours but we had to say no. We were also told about the idea of breatharianism, “the belief that it is possible for a person to live without consuming food. Breatharians claim that food, and in some cases water, are not necessary for survival and that humans can be sustained solely by prana, the vital life force in Hinduism” (Wikipedia definition). Coming from a background in psychology this sounded like a handy excuse for either anorexia or food issues or getting away with feeding very little to volunteers who are vulnerable to alternative ideas. If I was to be a host myself I would not impose my own diet on another. I could only imagine what it was like for big strong fellas who have high metabolisms. We felt hungry all week, yes an interesting experience, but it’s not fair when the deal is that you get fed for your work. And when I say fed, fed sufficiently. Patrick claims he didn’t go to the toilet for 5 days!!! Also the other volunteer was sleeping in a cabin and asked if the stove could be lit as she found it very cold at night but she was told no. When asked if I could use the internet I was told “no, not tonight” even though no one was using it. When the hosts went to the shop they asked if anyone needed anything, the other French volunteer said “pain au chocolat” to which they firmly replied “oh no”.
Lesson number 2: Don’t go to vegan farms and clarify further about dog rules and free time.
3. Large farm run by a family aiming to raise organic beef and practice regenerative agriculture and holistic animal management.
No complaints here. Very warmly welcomed, given time to be shown around, fed well, given independence in our jobs which were discussed creatively and negotiated fairly, a sense of fairness and autonomy around free time and cooking was done by everyone taking in turns with washing up. While being given a lot of time in the beginning you were then trusted to be left by yourself to work and also contribute as part of the team. A fantastic experience! Wine was allowed on a Saturday and we were treated to a wild boar in red wine sauce which was brought to us by a local hunter. Having a larger group of volunteers there too made it more social and fun for us also. Everyone else there had said they chose this place because it wasn’t vegetarian!
4.One night at a homestay/organic garden
This place was nice in many ways and I think we would have been fed well and treated nicely but for us it wasn’t going to be enough in regards to learning something new. Having already grown our own vegetables very successfully we were disappointed to see the veg plot which was referred to as our “permaculture garden” covered in weeds with no vegetables growing. In all the places we stayed I never saw vegetables as good as the ones Patrick grew in our garden except for some French houses we walked past. Patrick spent most of the evening giving a consultation to them which I learned lots more from compared to anywhere we’d been! They were very interested and grateful for the advice and also very understanding that it didn’t suit us as Patrick was at a more advanced level. They also had no animals and the house was already built so there wasn’t a whole pile going on. After being shown around we were left with the home schooled boy of 12 not knowing when we were supposed to stop working or when we’d be fed and there were no materials to do the work which was very disorganised. When you come to these places you’re time to the host is valuable but sometimes hosts don’t organise themselves and so it’s just wasted. It’s frustrating when you could get a lot of work done and be productive. Also when a friend came around we were ignored and stood around feeling like spare wheels as we couldn’t partake in the conversation in French. I don’t believe this was done in a malicious way or anyway intended but hosts should be aware of how they’re behaviour can impact on volunteers especially on the first day. After all they are getting free help from very willing, enthusiastic and often more experienced volunteers.
Lesson number 3: Make sure you know what you want to learn, be specific, ask questions and don’t bother if you don’t think you will learn.
5. Herbal and aromatic farm run by a young family
Overall this was also very positive. We learned something new and interesting and were well fed. On our free day we went walking and brought our own packed lunch and so missed the dinner which wasn’t saved for us as the lunch sized meal was then had at dinner time. The French do it differently!
6.A visit to the rudest person I’ve ever met in my life-175 hectares
This farm is belonging to an academic animal behaviourist long involved in ecological farming and volunteering. We made an enquiry only to find out they had enough volunteers but their website, which showed a research centre said they accepted visitors and provided meals and allowed camping. The email response was very superior with a “have you read my book?” attitude and a lecture on how permaculture doesn’t cover animal welfare and basically only works in cities. Ok… so we thought we’d learn something being a research centre and finally delighted to visit a place that actually relied on science/critical thinking with people who didn’t believe in unfounded woowoo and quasi religions. Patrick read up on some scientific journals that she’d written which made some big claims. Having done research and having quite a lot of training in statistics and research methods I was surprised to see the figures. She explained in great detail how much food they grew and the methods used, but then multiplied it up to claim it was possible to feed 20 families as if she’d proved it. She didn’t even grow enough to cover herself and the family. I’m sure it was possible but it was all a bit jumping in its conclusions. We also read some highly critical reviews of her work. Anyway we went along as she said if we brought a bottle of wine we could stay for dinner to have a chat but she would not be available to see us before this so we were to look around ourselves and read the posters. We read them and learned about some previous projects. We bumped into some helpers and the man who also lived there. We understood they were busy and let them get on with their jobs while we looked around the site. After having a look we came back to the house for dinner as agreed. We couldn’t find anyone and didn’t know where to go so I wandered up a stairs to find someone. I found the woman sitting watching the TV so said hello…no reply…I said hello again…still no reply. On the third attempt she heard me and I introduced myself. She didn’t seem too happy that’d I walked in. I asked if she needed help with the dinner and she said “no” very firmly. So advised me to go down to the girls (her two volunteers) and help them. Luckily we got chatting with them and they were very nice. Eventually she and he came in and Patrick on first meeting her was asked to get another plate. No hello. When we sat down to boiled parsley (as it was the hungry gap) and white beans she enquired about Patrick’s background. When he said he taught gardening she shouted “what do you know about gardening? You need to be doing it forty years! What you should be doing as an architect is vertical gardening in cities”. She didn’t give any time to listen and made assumption after assumption. She was blatantly rude, very angry and bitter. Here we were young people who actually care about these issues she’s been striving to publicise for decades, eager to learn, willing to help and all she could do is put us down and make it all a competition a sort of but don’t you know who I am. The invite for dinner was really because she wanted an argument because of Patrick’s reply through email which politely enquired about her research and showed and interest. She believes most people should live in cities in urbanised, stressful environments while people like her who are landed from birth and know what they’re doing should do the real farming. She did have a good point when she observed the amount of holiday homes, second homes and people wanting to be self sufficient in the countryside actually waste a huge amount of fuel driving back and forth to work. But as we hiked up a hill above her valley that she owned all to herself we noticed her using the tractor instead of the horses…and that doesn’t use fuel? Nobody is perfect. This way of life is highly challenging and near impossible but you can only try your best. I’ve no doubt she has tried her best and met many a critic but she transferred her anger and resentment onto us and thought we were no different to anyone else who comes volunteering with “very little practical experience”. We tried to understand it from her eyes but it’s disappointing that people are hypocritical and assuming, turning young enthusiastic people off with bitterness and anger probably because she feels unheard and criticised. Anyway I’ll rant no more. The worst part was her rudeness and vicious attacks. Her volunteers are up at 6am and work all day. They get fed boiled parsley and are left to do the washing up as “the older people don’t wash up”. I wonder in her claims that she can farm ecologically on mass scale does she mention that most of the work is done by volunteers.
Lesson number 4: If you get bad vibes through first contact in email or just don’t feel enthusiastic don’t go!! This could definitely be said for all the experiences…your gut really does say a lot before you even meet them.   
7.  Organic sheep farm and Chateau
In some ways this was a terrible experience. Keen to work with animals we decided on this place run by a family with a B&B chateau. Through emails she offered certain dates. I responded that we couldn’t come then and offered an alternative. She agreed. When we arrived we were met by the husband who quickly delegated us to the volunteer who’d been there a month to show us around. The lambs were gorgeous and the place seemed ok. The owners didn’t make much effort to welcome us or chat. While being shown around by the other volunteer he told us that as of from today the host had decided there’d be no food for dinner provided and we’d need to go to the shops for dinner because there would be two more volunteers arriving so there’d be six volunteers in total. We were very disappointed as at this stage we were starting to see a trend, feed the volunteers barely anything, use them as much as possible and treat them like third class citizens. The vibe here was very exploitative. We had just watched the films “The Help” and “The Butler” and honestly I felt like I was living in those movies without the violence of course! There was an older volunteer there for two years and he told us “you’re in France, you speak French”. Fair enough but that was not was agreed with the owner when I first emailed. We always explained we don’t have much French and only enquired to farms that stated they spoke English. He also proceeded to show Patrick how to wash up…he may not be great with housework but most men of 34 know how to wash up!! This was how it was going to be, getting bossed about by the second in command, a Kapo! The younger volunteer didn’t seem to have a clear idea of the hours of work after being there a month and he said he was just on call at all times. We decided to ask the lady, when she was free to speak to us, about the dinner situation. We’d just spent a week at a vegetarian farm and were feeling a little tired so we weren’t prepared to not get fed properly. She said she’d provide lunch but we’d have to manage on leftovers and buy our own extras. The kitchen was also filthy and she instructed us to organise the farm having only just arrived with no idea of how things are run. She explained she had 6 children and couldn’t afford food. Then why agree to have us? She then said we arrived too early and also that I had insisted we come on the dates I mentioned in the email. There is such a word as NO. Why can’t people use it? We suggested a date, it didn’t mean she had to say yes! She was acting like she was doing us a favour by squeezing us in. After trying to negotiate the meals, she said “you know what? I think it’s best you just leave, it doesn’t feel very nice anymore”. She then back-peddled and said “oh but stay the weekend or the night if you have nowhere else to go”. I think she must be used to having younger travellers with little money and no transport.
Having seen what it’s like to be a host I must say we feel much more reluctant to hosts ourselves in the future. She said she had to show one volunteer how to boil pasta! And we have met all sorts of lost and wayward souls volunteering. If having volunteers is more troublesome than it’s worth and costs you more than you receive then don’t do it! She made her problems feel like our problems. How were we to know she felt like this before even meeting her? A simple email saying “you know what? I’m too busy” would have been fine. We could have gone elsewhere quite easily. In fact we drove a big distance out of our way to get there.
Lesson number 5: Clarify you’re going to get fed for your work?
8. Small site owned by a person we met on another farm
This was an enjoyable week spent with good food, being well looked after and given plenty of time but also space to ourselves. Reconnecting with two people we’d met on another farm was fun and we joked and laughed a lot about our shared experiences of being under-fed as they also had these experiences in many places.
In conclusion, it seems there’s definitely exploitation of free labour going on. And we heard through one host that it’s being suggested that contracts are agreed on before starting work so as to manage expectations, as clearly there have been a lot of complaints to the organisations involved. We were surprised to be so consistently disappointed and we felt the worst aspect of all (only on some farms) was the lack of respect for another human and their time. The host always has an advantage as it’s their place, their rules and they can potentially get a lot more than the volunteer gets or potentially take advantage. We’ve also experienced hosts sneakily eating at other times while making out as though they eat the same as the volunteers. Also, worryingly is the amount of so called “organic farms” which either don’t practice organics, or try to, but with a lot of mis-information. Obviously we don’t expect organic certification as many are just people’s homes of course. But they should have an interest and certain level of knowledge or be open to listening to someone with skills in a particular area otherwise things are not designed well and won’t work. Another volunteer will come in and there’ll be no continuity.  Sometimes your skills and what you can offer are undervalued for fear that the host is shown up for knowing less.- This is just silly because everyone has something to share and offer. It should be an exchange. It’s not a competition.

Overall we wouldn’t recommend volunteering if you want to learn about Organic Gardening/Permaculture as there’s a lack of quality hosts and you’d be better off paying for a decent course or just learning from books and having a go yourself.

Garden we spotted in French countryside while out walking. Fab veggies!!

Garden we spotted in French countryside while out walking. Fab veggies!!

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