Ca' del Viva in Arezzo, Italy

WWOOF: Cultural Diplomacy through Farming

World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (better known as WWOOF) is an organization linking volunteers to organic farms in over 100 different countries across the globe. In exchange for food and housing, volunteers help around the farm as needed. Through this program, volunteers spend time with their host family while learning about farming, sustainability, and culture in that particular country.

In March 2011, I found myself “WWOOFing” on a sheep farm in rural Germany for a month. Shortly after, I was working with a German farmer in the middle of Tuscany. Growing up in the suburbs, I was never truly exposed to farming. My experience on these farms really opened my eyes to the hard work that goes into farming and showed me a seldom explored side of Germany.

Paulus Schäferei in Neudorf-Platendorf, Germany
Picture from my experience with WWOOF at Paulus Schäferei in Neudorf-Platendorf, Germany.

This cultural exchange allows for exposure to foreign communities at a very low cost. WWOOF is a form of cultural diplomacy, which can be mutually beneficial to both the volunteers and the hosts. The volunteers act as ambassadors from their home countries, while the hosts share not only their home, but their insight and culture.

There is no strict definition to cultural diplomacy. As we heard through Aimee Fullman’s presentation and read in our March 5th readings, there are many different facets of cultural diplomacy. In the passage by Jessica Gienow-Hecht, “Searching for a Cultural Diplomacy”, she states cultural diplomacy is “a tool and a way of interacting with the outside world” (2010, p. 11). Although it is not a typical mode of cultural diplomacy, WWOOF is a tool that may be used to interact diplomatically with others from foreign countries.

8 thoughts on “WWOOF: Cultural Diplomacy through Farming”

  1. Thanks for sharing, Elizabeth! Great post and photos.
    I remember looking at this kind of exchanges when I was considering taking a semester off before grad school, I was looking at places in South America thinking I could double this up as a language program and become fluent in Spanish once and for all. I cannot remember the website I was using, but this one is definitely much better! This is relevant to a lot of other topics I’m looking at but I’ll stick to a specifically PD concern for this post.
    In this week’s reading “‘Building Ideas:’ Making Korean Public Diplomacy Work”, Nicholas Cull writes: “Just as a corporation has to ensure the integrity of its products, so the nation-state has to manage its own people and society to ensure than they do not undercut diplomatic initiatives, hence public diplomacy begins at home” (2012, p.17). I read this with in mind the recent result of the French municipal elections which gave off strong right wing vibes (about 50% abstention rate), and the common perception that most xenophobia is entrenched in rural areas. I wonder if this would have any impact on the people participating in such programs. It could be either extremely positive (changing xenophobic perceptions) or extremely negative (no change at all in xenophobia and the participant returns to his/her country traumatized). I wonder if WWOOF addresses such potential issues at all? Also it sounds from the website like a few countries dropped out of the agreement because they were dissatisfied for some unclear reason, and are going though the IWA instead, it would be interesting to find out what happened there. Lastly, you mention Aimee Fullman’s presentation which brings up another question: were you asked for any feedback that they could have used for monitoring and evaluation purposes?

  2. Thank you for your comment, Maëlle!

    While my experience on the farms were all positive, I cannot speak for other WWOOF participants. I do, however, have several friends who have “WWOOFed” around the world, and they only had great things to say regarding their experience.

    Addressing the xenophobia issue, I did not experience any disdain from either host families. In fact, it was quite the opposite. They were very interested in learning about my American culture as I was learning about theirs. Both families were very understanding and patient while I practiced my German with them.

    Also, the hosts themselves must sign up to be listed on the WWOOF website and the volunteers must be in contact with the family prior to their arrival. The decision is ultimately up to the host to allow the volunteer to help on the farm. If the host had any prior xenophobic tendencies toward foreign volunteers, they are allowed to decline the request.

    You bring up a great point in regards to Aimee Fullman’s talk. The WWOOF organization itself does not play a huge role in matching volunteers with hosts. That is entirely up to the volunteer to coordinate via email. Since there is no way of knowing who has volunteered where, it would be difficult to monitor any feedback. In my opinion, WWOOF could easily find a way to begin monitoring these exchanges and I strongly believe the results could be of great value.

  3. Elizabeth and Maëlle,

    I haven’t WWOOFed yet, but this kind of cultural exchange is definitely on my bucket list and is also definitely an instance of citizen diplomacy. It seems to also be an example of cross-cultural internationalism (which has no government involvement), e.g., the selling of Mark Twain’s books in a bookshop in, say, Bangladesh.

    Thanks for this lively discussion thread.

    -Debbie Trent

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