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WWOOF for a good cause

Organic farming becomes fashionable as foreigners come to India as free labour, grow crops and plough the land. Tasneem Nashrulla .

india Updated: May 30, 2009 23:16 IST
Tasneem Nashrulla

Sigrid Preimesberger, a young Austrian native loves to WWOOF in India. This doesn’t mean she has an affinity to canine traits, but to environmental causes. For one month Preimesberger grew crops and mulched trees on a farm and a forest in India. She is a WWOOFer, a registered member with wwoof.org – world wide opportunities on organic farms.

The movement started in the UK in 1971 to help people share sustainable ways of living. It is now an international exchange programme whereby WWOOF hosts offer food, accommodation and opportunities to learn about organic lifestyles in return for volunteer help. WWOOF organisations publish lists of organic farms, smallholdings and gardeners that welcome volunteer help. Volunteer helpers or WWOOFers choose the hosts that interest them and make direct contact to arrange a stay. Volunteers usually live as part of the family. Think organic couch surfing.

WWOOF India (wwoofindia.org) was started on 15th August 2007 by Harish Chander Tewari — the founder of Sewak — an Uttaranchal-based NGO that promotes organic agriculture and local handicrafts. While the site started off with only 14 hosts in India, WWOOFers the world over can currently choose to volunteer with any of the 64 hosts in India. Which is how Premiesberger got the opportunity to share cups of tea with farmers at Sukurshi farm on the outskirts of Bangalore.

In a thank you email to Tiwari, she said: “The workers on the farm were very hospitable and I got a good knowledge about the work, vegetables, fruits and culture of India. Even though it was not easy because nobody except one person spoke English, we had conversations without words that were much better than verbal talk and really touched my heart.”

An indication of the growing popularity of WWOOFing in India, Tiwari estimates that in winter hosts receive at least 60-70 WWOOFers per month while the number goes down to 20-30 per month during summer. Five per cent of these are Indians while the rest are from UK, US, Japan, France and other European countries. This year alone Indian hosts have received nearly 1,500 WWOOFers. This has proved particularly beneficial for people who are working to promote an organic way of living.

Says Tiwari: “The labour costs of farmers reduce as WWOOFers work for free, thus encouraging more people to take up organic agriculture.”

Some WWOOFers even donate street lights, pumps and benches to the village they reside in while others help in maintenance work for hosts with eco-resorts. Tiwari says that some WWOOFers have even helped in selling their hosts’ organic products for higher prices while others have volunteered to teach English at village schools. Those with little or no experience of organic farming are trained either by NGO’s or their hosts. “Foreign WWOOFers have learnt weeding and composting and also ploughing the land using bullocks,” says Tiwari.

Aviram Rozin, a 44-year-old Israeli who started a reforestation project in Auroville in 2003, depends solely on volunteers, many of whom are registered with WWOOF. He says: “The objective is not to get free labour but to train and educate people about reforestation. We believe in spreading the message of human unity which is strengthened when people work together in nature. It is a life changing experience for most people who stay and volunteer with us.”