Five Lessons Learned from Organic Farm Volunteering in Central America
"WWOOFing" Options are Rapidly Growing
|WWOOFing in the many beautiful regions of Central America.
Like many independent travelers, I harbor a loosely rooted fantasy of one day disappearing from the grid and settling somewhere at the end of a dirt track in the jungle. I will carve out an acre or two to fill with fruit trees and grow an organic garden, learning by textbook and pirated Internet signal. I will build thatch huts, make my own wine, and harvest a cornucopia of food year-round.
1. You Can Easily Get Some How-To Before Buying a Farm
This year I’ve even gone so far as to begin “WWOOF-ing” to hone my skills. WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) and WWOOF-ing started off as volunteering on the weekend for registered organic farms in Britain. But, as the idea has caught on, the acronym (now a verb as well) has mutated into an umbrella term for doing farm work—building, permaculture, milking animals—in exchange for room and board, and the concept has spread to just about everywhere.
Funny thing about WWOOFing: Through the years, I’ve heard so many phrases to explain the acronym—Willing Workers…Working Weekends…whatever else—and strangely enough, all of them were true. The name of the organization has changed several times since its inception in England 1971. Who knows what will happen now that sites such as HelpX are jumping into the mix.
With the rise of the website HelpX, (and other sites like it) volunteering on organic farms via Internet arrangement is no longer exclusive to the vast WWOOF organization. HelpX also posts hostel work exchanges and NGO positions and only requires a one-time fee for access to opportunities around the world, whereas WWOOF asks for dues in each individual country. So, I found my first set-up at Totoco Organic Farm, on a little island called Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua, via HelpX.
2. It’s Not Crazy. There Are Lots of Other Dreamers Doing It, Too
Fading into the tropical steam seems such a solitary, renegade act. Tell your Mom you’re going to live off the land in Central American and she’ll likely break into some form of temporary shock. But, truth be told, such bold moves are becoming commonplace in the international community. In fact on Ometepe alone, there are at least three organic farms—Bona Fide, Totoco, and Zopilote—accepting volunteers.
Are you interested in going somewhere else? Check out
Transitions Abroad’s lengthy list of organizations putting people in places all around the world: Farm Work Abroad
And, that’s not to mention the organic lettuce farm or dozen other smaller holdings I’ve heard of. In other words, the word is out on disappearing into the tropics to live a different kind of life. It’s becoming harder and harder to responsibly cut a reasonable, sustainable swath out of the forest and not discover someone else has done it a mile down the path. The good news is all these people are happy to share their wisdom and woes with newbies and WWOOFers. (Perhaps the phenomenon is a rebirth of the latent Henry David Thoreau in many of us.)
3. It Takes a Lot of Time, Work, and Persistence to Live Off the Land
Just because people are doing it doesn’t make starting an organic farm with an attached eco-lodge and sponsored NGO a cakewalk. Martijn, the owner manager of Totoco, has learned a lot through various failures along the way. These days the hotel is gaining momentum and the Totoco Foundation has morphed into its own chasm of goodness, but the farm is just puttering along, still looking for footholds.
Even though it’s been around since 2008, Totoco Farm still gazes longingly (and from a long way away) at sustainability. Much of my time here has been spent building new stuff and rebuilding the old. I started by constructed a chicken roost and nighttime coop out of found wood. I joined other volunteers in refurbishing composting bins so that they’ll work more efficiently. Now, I’m on to making a new section of garden, projected to have passion fruit, herbs, a local super food called katuk, and galangal, an Asian spice that works well in soups.
The Eat the Weeds site is simply amazing. Not only can you learn about nearly any plant you run across on your adventures, but also you can learn what you might be able to eat from your own backyard. While on the farm, it provided me with so much information it deserves its own special mention.
But, I won’t see any of these projects come to fruition. I planned to be here three weeks then extended to just over seven. Going into the last one, there are still no chickens hence no farm fresh eggs. Even the fast-acting hot compost pile has five months to go. And, the new garden—I’m just hoping to see a few seedlings planted before I leave. Farming is a slow process, even when things are going well, and it’s never done.
|Composting at an organic farm produces great produce, but is hard work.
4. Books are Great But Not Like Experience, So It Won’t Go Right the First Time.
Martijn came into his project having read a lot about it, formulated foolproof plans, and brought with him little to no actual experience. And, while books can tell us a lot and Wi-Fi (even in the jungle) provides a fingertip reference to whatever info we need, nothing really prepares a budding farmer for hordes of gigantic insects, six months of torrential rains followed by six months of bone-dry sunshine, or the difficulty of procuring things—food, nails, tomato seeds—when living in the middle of the jungle.
Incidentally, one of those books, John Seymour’s”
The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency: The Classic Guide for Realist and Dreamers, will be making it to my future bookshelf for sure. It taught me all I ever wanted to know about composting, not to mention great gardening tips and more than I ever wanted to know about do-it-yourself animal slaughter.
In the beginning, Martijn did exactly what I would have: He gathered packets of heirloom seeds from back home (where heirloom seeds exist), planted them here, and watched the local wildlife have a pretty exotic picnic. In the end, he’s been left with less than twenty successful varieties of crops, most of which provide no real bulk on the dinner table: One can only eat so many spinach and hibiscus leaf salads with mint-lemongrass tea before looking for a supermarket.
5. One Must Realize that this Lifestyle Means Starting Over and Over Again
Which brings me to my final lesson of the WWOOF: This whole farming experience requires starting over, repeatedly. Martijn has developed many new plans, new angles: The current ones are to use the 20 or so successful crops to make marketable products (Totoco organic herbs and spices), try out hydroponics (a “sustainable” and highly technical fish-plant farming method), and let locals and local produce take the lead in the garden. What he has not done, and I’m not sure any farmer of this variety ever does, is reached or even neared the finish line.
If you’ve not tuned in to permaculture yet, a term and style of farming and living that’s getting around more and more these days, then it’s worth checking out. The idea revolves around working in harmony with nature rather than hard plowing. It’s a very interesting, not-so-new (1970s) approach to growing produce.
You see, for every compost bin you fill, it’ll eventually need emptying. For every seed that actually takes, it’ll inevitably need planting, harvesting, and re-planting. Chicken coops always need cleaning and repair, especially in the retched, rotten humidity of the jungle. Between crops, soil must be replenished, tilled in—likely by hand—with manure and compost, and ridded of weeds. Somewhere between it all, you have to eat.
Then, it’s back to work. That’s farm living, even in paradise.
Jonathon Engels has been an EFL expat since 2005, just after he earned an MFA in creative writing and promptly rejected a life teaching freshman composition. He has lived, worked and/or volunteered in seven different countries, and visited many others between them. Currently, he is traveling through Central and South America. For more, check out Jonathon Engels: A Life Abroad or visit The NGO List.