Why You Shouldn’t Volunteer At For-Profit Farms

I got started in farming through an organization called WWOOF: World-Wide Workers on Organic Farms. The organization is de-centralized, which means that every regional WWOOF has it’s own variation on the basic organizing principle: a work-for-trade arrangement in which WWOOFers are provided room and board on a farm in exchange for (typically) five and a half days of labor, where each “day” of labor is counted as five hours.

For me, participating in this program allowed me to travel on the cheap (paying only for transportation between farms), while developing my skills and experience, and seeing very clearly what’s possible.

Since no money changes hands, people like to think of this arrangement as “volunteering.” But in reality, it’s not. You’re being paid with food and a place to stay. So technically, and legally, you’re working. Which is why, if you ever end up WWOOFing and you have to cross an international border, never ever say that you are going to go “work” on a farm. Say that you’re going to visit and “stay” at a farm. Because labor laws.

Labor laws exist for very good reasons. We may not always agree with them fully or their exact implications, but we can rest assured that these assurances they provide in society were hard won by people who worked under far far worse labor conditions than you.

Now, I wouldn’t change anything about my time WWOOFing. It was pretty much this perfect ideal time in my life. It lasted about six months: I started in Greece, and came back to North America to drift through New England on up into Quebec before settling into other arrangements.

Since that time, I’ve continued vagabonding, or “job-trotting” as I heard one associate call it once. I admit that I always order the sampler platter when it comes to jobs. Give me a good job with good tools and materials and good working conditions (appropriate pay for the skill level, adequate breaks, access to facilities, etc), and I’ll give you excellent work in exchange, happily and without complaint. That said, I’ve seen enough to know now that this is rarely the case. It makes me feel jaded and old to have to say any of this, but it’s one of those “benefits of experience” things that I feel it’s important to share with the larger community — whether or not anyone actually ever reads this.

But what I want to say is: if you’re a worker and you want to learn, don’t work for free — unless it’s for a non-profit organization.

That does not include WWOOFing. WWOOFing is an exchange. You are not a volunteer. You are paid in food and housing.

What I’m talking about is the, sadly, large number of new, small, startup, usually organic (usually not certified), for-profit farms who rely heavily on volunteer labor in order to stay afloat.

I’m not going to say that it’s easy for anybody starting or running a farm. The pressures and demands of the job are tremendous. The financial woes sometimes seem insurmountable.

So if a bunch of friends want to come out and “pitch in” and “get their hands dirty” for an “afternoon in the country,” what’s the harm in that?

Well, let me ask you a question: if there was a McDonald’s or a Walmart near you that was threatening to go out of business, would you go down there first thing in the morning with your gang of loving city friends sporting brand-spanking-new overalls and offer to “pitch in” to save them?

Of course you wouldn’t.

So why this double standard with farms?

Is it the “mom and pop” angle?

Again, look around your community for a small business run by “ordinary” folks, like a VHS rental shop that isn’t able to sustain itself because it’s being elbowed out by “big video” and people just aren’t willing anymore to pay the higher cost for watching videos reproduced “the old way.” Are you going to go volunteer at another kind of business in your community just to help them keep going?

I highly doubt it.

Obviously, we all think farms are “magical.” Especially, the less exposure we’ve had to the actual reality of how farms operate, and what farm labor physically entails on a day-to-day basis, the greater is the likelihood that we will cling to a romantic ideal of what “working on a farm” really means. We basically think it means running around barefoot in the fields laughing, with a piece of straw sticking out of your teeth, dropping a line on a cane pole into a babbling brook… That kind of crap.

Don’t get me wrong. Farms *are* magical or else I wouldn’t be starting one myself. And all of those fantasy elements are possible but the reality looks much more like: kneeling or crouching for eight hours a day in the super hot sun and cold rain so that you can pluck weed after weed out of the ground by hand.

Don’t believe me? Go volunteer on a for-profit farm for a few weeks, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Weeding is the #1 job for volunteers, because the farmers and paid workers have “better things to do” and you don’t ask volunteers to do hard things — you have them do the things that are brutal, repetitive and awful.

Let’s face it, organic farming anyway is all about hand-labor. If you can’t use chemical controls, you have to use mechanical (physical). You can’t just leave the weeds, or you basically end up with no crop, or plants that are too under-developed to be able to sell.

It’s a hard problem, but I personally don’t think employing volunteer labor is the answer for new small farmers. It’s not just a question of ethics either, but of practicality. Sure, if you have a good network of friends, chances are good you can round up half a dozen once a week (give or take) to come out and lend a hand early in the season. But unless your friends are either very stupid, or very devoted to you and your for-profit business (from which they themselves are seeing no economic benefit), sooner or later they are going to get wise to the fact that weeding sucks. They will come out for a few weeks to breathe the “fresh country air” until their backs are sore, and then realize they could have just stayed home, watched TV and gotten high instead. Then they will stop coming out, little by little, remembering all the “important” things suddenly they had to do back in town on their “only day off” and so on.

Until the volunteers stop coming and the weeds get away from you altogether. I hope for your sake that won’t be until late enough in the season that you’ll be able to handle it.

So for farmers, what’s a better answer then relying fully on volunteers as an essential part of your business plan? Write a better business plan. Scale back your operation until it’s a size that only you and your paid employees can effectively manage on a day-to-day basis. If you can’t do it without volunteers, don’t do it. Or, better yet, find a way to make it into a non-profit — so that when your volunteers are tired and hungry, they remember it’s for a “good cause” and that they are actually building community, and not just lining the pockets of one or two people. Likewise, if you want to “gain experience” do it volunteering for non-profits, or through at least the compensatory structure and culture set up by something like WWOOF.

For my part, my business plan (fully-detailed here and here) is written so that it can be executed by one person working part time. It is not an enormous operation, but then neither does it run on the backs of people who aren’t being paid in wages nor compensated with room and board. It’s just me. And of course, maybe I will fail. It’s small and unglamorous because gangs of people won’t be coming by the busload to help me out the hole I’ve dug for myself. But hopefully it will last the rest of my life. It won’t be another small farm that burns out from unrealistic expectations and cracks under too much pressure from customers and partners. It’s mini, for sure, but it’s human-sized. It’s me-sized.

And that’s going to be good enough because it’s got to be.