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Garry Ainsworth is a WWOOFER
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I'm reading
Garry Ainsworth is a WWOOFER
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I'm reading
Garry Ainsworth is a WWOOFER
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Pass it on
Conversations
20 March 2014

Garry Ainsworth is a WWOOFER

Interview by Susan Murphy
Photography by Susan Murphy

Garry Ainsworth runs WWOOF Australia from the Far East hills of East Gippsland. His office is a mud-brick house perched on the edge of a forest, surrounded by kangaroos, wombats and the occasional goanna. It is a fitting setting for an organisation that promotes organic farming, sustainability, caring for the environment and cross-cultural relationships.

 

WWOOF aims to spread the word about organic food production and to bring people from across the globe together. Each year, 2,500 hosts feed and accommodate 14,000 WWOOFers who work their way from host to host around Australia. Garry and his team make it happen.

I spoke to Garry in the home he built himself on the edge of the Wulgulmerang Plateau. We sit beside the pot-belly stove, sipping tea and talking about the national organisation he has nurtured for sixteen years.

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

Susan Murphy : WWOOF is an acronym. What does it stand for?

Garry Ainsworth: Originally it stood for Working Weekends on Organic Farms. That’s when it first started in the UK. As the concept grew people said, Does that mean we can only do it on weekends? Then it was changed to Willing Workers on Organic Farms. In Australia we still call it that. Most of the overseas WWOOF groups have changed it to Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms. They wanted to get rid of the word ‘work’ in the name because they have trouble with their immigration departments.

How did the concept of WWOOF begin?

The person who first started it was a woman named Sue Coppard who was a secretary in London. That was in 1971. She wanted to get out into the country-side and enjoy being on a farm so she put a little ad in an alternative magazine in Soho and that’s how it first started.

And what about in Australia?

Lionel Pollard started it in Australia. He was one of the founding members of the National Association of Sustainable Agriculture (NASA) which was one of the original organic certifying bodies. He is originally from Yorkshire in the UK. He went back to the UK for a visit and heard about it and thought, “Well, why isn’t this happening in Australia?” so he started a WWOOF group in Australia.

How did you get involved with him?

WWOOF was starting to grow gradually in Australia. It was probably 10 per cent of the size it is now. It was at a time when it needed someone to work in the office. Lionel knew I had an interest in organics and because we’d done a computer course together he knew I was OK with computers. At that point in my life I’d been un-employed for 12 months so Lionel was able to get a wage subsidy for me for six months. That was 16 years ago.

How did WWOOF end up in W-tree?

Lionel moved here from Melbourne and WWOOF moved with him. In the old days all they used was a sheet of A4 paper with a list of the host names. They used to run it off on a mimeograph machine at the end of their bed. Lionel and his wife Valerie were involved in the Murrindal co-op up the road. He worked in the Latrobe Valley and came up here on the weekends. He’s a keen gardener and he kept a large organic vegetable patch up here. They liked the idea of an alternate lifestyle which you can have in W Tree.

W-tree is very remote with a small population.  What benefit has WWOOF had for your local community?

50 people live in W-tree and we employ six people. When I first moved up here there was no employment. Most of the income WWOOF generates gets spent locally including $70,000 per year at the local post office. There probably wouldn’t be a postal service in the near-by town of Buchan any more without WWOOF. That benefits everyone in the whole district. We get our printing done locally too. There is another $100,000 that’s injected into the local community. We do everything we possibly can to shop as locally as we can. Supporting local business is part of the ethos of WWOOF.

Why do you think the WWOOF and the organisation has lasted for so long and grown so much in popularity?

It’s a combination of three factors; it’s almost like a triangle where none would work without the other. You’ve got the WWOOFers, the hosts and you’ve got us doing all the administration. We provide a very good service to our members. For the hosts and WWOOFers it’s a win-win proposition. A lot of the hosts live in remote areas. Their children have very little exposure generally to overseas influences. For many hosts they feel that the world visits them.

Why do you think it is growing in popularity?

People would ask, “What is WWOOF, a boarding kennel or something?”  Now you can walk around with a WWOOF t-shirt on and people have heard of it. We advertise much more than we used to. There is word of mouth and nowadays word of ‘mouse’. People talk to each other. You can WWOOF practically anywhere in the world now and that whole young traveller market that moves around the world has a snowball effect. They love doing it here in Australia because they can get out of the cities into the rural areas. They really do experience the real Australia rather than staying in a back packer hostel populated with people from the same country.

You mentioned before the problems some countries have with their immigration departments and the idea of working. What is the relationship with the Dept of Immigration and WWOOF?

We have a very good relationship with the department. Australia is one of the few places where people can work on a visitor’s visa provided the work they are doing isn’t something an Australian resident would be expected to be paid for.

What do WWOOFers take away with them following a WWOOF experience?

They have a greater knowledge of organics. A lot of them wouldn’t have even seen a carrot growing before they went WWOOFing. One thing the hosts have to watch out for is that the carrots don’t get weeded out of the vegetable garden. They have a greater knowledge of growing food and that’s knowledge they can take home with them. They have greater knowledge of environmental and sustainability issues because most people who are involved in organics are concerned about those issues. Many WWOOFers are only in their twenties and some of them have never been outside their own cities. They go home with a greater awareness and understanding.

What are some examples of types of WWOOF hosts?

There are the extremes from crocodiles and butterflies to everything in between. It depends on the climate as to what a host is going to be growing.

What do the hosts get out of the WWOOF experience? Why would people open up their homes to strangers?

They enjoy the experience. They make lifelong friendships. I’ve heard of so many hosts that get invited to visit their WWOOFers or are invited to their weddings.  The hosts love the fact that the world comes to them. Their children have exposure to different cultures. Cultural exchange and friendships between WWOOFers from different countries too such as Japan and Korea, who traditionally don’t have a good relationship, is invaluable. You can’t underestimate its importance.

What can we learn from the example of the WWOOF concept? Can any of its principals be transferred to mainstream agriculture?

I like to think WWOOF is an inclusive program rather than an exclusive one. I think that’s what WWOOFing is about. We need to be more accepting of people’s different ways. If you can finish the WWOOF experience having a greater understanding and acceptance of people’s differences, that goes a long way to solving a lot of problems.

What about the organic principals of agriculture? How do you think the WWOOF concept can be translated to mainstream agriculture?

I’ve been working with one of the certifying groups in NSW to come up with a simplified form of the organic standards. At the moment it’s like reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica; unbelievably complicated. Conventional farmers when they see it say, No thanks. That’s too hard for me. That’s one of the things that has been happening—I don’t want to damn organic growers but they can be very dogmatic and exclusive. Whereas WWOOF host aren’t required to be certified organic growers because most of them are small growers who are growing for their own use and it’s simply not economically worthwhile for them to be certified. I think the more the message gets spread around the better. The whole concept of sustainability and environmental factors go hand in hand with organics. One of the beauties of the WWOOF program is the transfer of knowledge. A WWOOFer might learn how to solve a problem using organic principles at one property then move on to another host and pass on the information.

Do you believe that the idea of sustainability and organic farming is growing in popularity to some extent?

Definitely. Even the supermarkets have jumped on the band wagon and are selling not just organic produce but their own brand of organic produce that they’ve sourced from various places. There is a demand for organic food. There is a demand for clean food.

I don’t like the idea of eating genetically modified food. In New Zealand they are talking about putting frog genes in potatoes to stop them rotting in the wet ground. Aaagh. I don’t want to eat that. People want clean green food.

And WWOOF promotes it.

Yes. We certainly do.

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