Young people from all over
the world are finding ways to combine international
travel with practical farming experience.
Amy Sisti had been working with cheese
for six years in some of New York City's finest restaurants
and retail shops when she decided she "wanted to get back to
the roots of it all."
"I always loved learning about the stories behind different
types of foods," Sisti recalls. "One of the things I liked
about cheese is that it has great stories—but I felt like
I needed to be more directly acquainted with those stories."
Through a group called Women Chefs & Restaurateurs, Sisti learned
about an internship program at the Tenuta di Spannocchia, an educational
center, organic farm and guest house in Tuscany, Italy. Spannocchia
offers three-month internships to young people interested in getting
hands-on experience in organic farming and in what might be called
sustainable agritourism management. Sisti applied, was accepted
and set off on what turned out to be one of the best experiences
of her life. Working and traveling in Italy not only gave her the
connection to the land she was looking for, she says, it also deepened
her understanding of cheesemaking and strengthened her contacts
within the world of farmstead cheese production.
"The Spannocchia program is really well designed," she
says enthusiastically. "We worked hard, but we also had a lot
of free time," she adds, explaining that Spannocchia interns
attend Italian classes twice a week and take regular field trips
to other organic farms in the region. Ten interns are accepted each
session: two to work in guest services, two in the vegetable gardens,
one as a shepherd, two with the other animals, one in the wood lot,
one in the vineyard and one as an all-rounder.
The Spannocchia internship is becoming increasingly competitive,
says Carrie Curtis Sacco, the organization's education director—and
not just because people have romantic images of life under the Tuscan
sun. Sisti and her fellow interns are representative of a growing
group of young people from all over the world who are keen to enrich
their knowledge of sustainable food and farming systems by combining
international travel with practical farm work. Fortunately, the
range of opportunities for international sustainable ag training—formal
and informal, practical and theoretical, short-, long- and medium-term—is
increasing as well.
The WWOOF model
In the early years of the organic movement, one of the few ways
to gain international organic farming experience was through WWOOFing—short-term
work in exchange for room-and-board arrangements made through a
membership network originally known as Working Weekends on Organic
Farms. Founded in 1971 by Sue Coppard, a London secretary looking
for inexpensive, rewarding short breaks in the countryside, the
WWOOF name was later broadened to Willing Workers on Organic Farms
(to reflect farmstays longer than a weekend) and more recently to
on Organic Farms (to soothe the concerns of some countries'
The WWOOFing movement has spread to some 60 countries,
with hundreds if not thousands of farms and volunteers
participating each year. These days "the sun
probably never sets on WWOOF."
From those modest beginnings, the movement has spread to some 60
countries, with hundreds if not thousands of farms and volunteers
participating each year. At least 17 countries now have their own
national WWOOF organizations, while another 40 or so are grouped
as "WWOOF Independents." While some of the latter have
just a single participating farm (Cameroon, Estonia, Singapore),
others, like France and Spain, have well over a hundred farms on
their lists. As the WWOOF UK website puts it, these days "the
sun probably never sets on WWOOF."
The popularity of WWOOFing seems to have been expanding faster
in the past decade or so, keeping pace with the extraordinary growth
of the organic sector generally. WWOOF Italia, for example, has
grown from 23 host farms in 1999 to 230 in 2005, according to its
coordinator, Bridget Matthews. (The Tenuta di Spannocchia is one
of them.) Fran Whittle of WWOOF UK, which also administers the WWOOF
Independents, reports that the first international WWOOF conference,
held in 2000, attracted participants from 15 countries. New WWOOF
groups have recently been formed in Turkey, Mexico, Slovenia and
the Czech Republic.
(Past issues of The New Farm have featured columns by WWOOFers
traveling in Costa Rica, India, and beyond. "Jason
and Derek reflect on their travels," for example, includes
an informative summary of the ups and downs of WWOOFing.)
Aspiring organic farmer Hope Temple, a native of Virginia who went
WWOOFing for the first time in New Zealand in February and March
of 2005, says her primary goal was to learn more about medium- to
large-scale, grass-based sheep and cattle production—sectors
in which New Zealand excels. She'd also heard "phenomenal things
about the land itself—mountainous, undeveloped, rural, and
beautiful." She wasn't disappointed. She worked on four farms,
ranging in size from 150 acres to 70,000 acres, for a total of six
weeks—three weeks on one and a week each on three others.
"My experiences included mustering 3,000 sheep from a 900-acre
'block' in the early morning, shearing sheep using clippers, and
driving sheep through the working pens to sort lambs from mothers,
sick from healthy, young from old," she recalls.
Temple's advice to prospective WWOOFers is to "research carefully
and reach out, early, to a large number of farms. I have a significant
farming background, so this helped me get selected for stays in
some more competitive places." As with any type of travel,
she adds, you need to ask yourself what you want to get out of it:
"education, vacation, a diversity of experiences, or a more
grounded, in-depth experience. Working on a large number of farms
will give you less knowledge, but you will see more examples of
farming and probably, literally, more of a country."
One complaint occasionally heard about WWOOFing is that at least
in some countries, the farms that accept WWOOFers—read, put
up with unpredictable and at times unreliable volunteer labor—include
a disproportionate number of "lifestyle" farms run by
ex-pats, as opposed to production-oriented family farms more typical
of the host country. But programs and participants vary widely.
In New Zealand, for instance, according to Temple, WWOOF listings
included everything from small yoga retreat centers to vast sheep
ranches, not all of them organic. WWOOFing demands flexibility and
open-mindedness on the part of both host farmers and farm volunteers,
WWOOFers say, and can lead to many wonderful as well as occasional
Perhaps most importantly, WWOOF UK’s Whittle points out,
as a movement the organization has contributed thousands of hours
of labor and innumerable exchanges of insight and good will to the
collective force of organic stewardship.
MESA goes reciprocal
At the other end of the time-commitment spectrum, the Peace Corps
has long served as an introduction to international sustainable
agriculture work—and, anecdotally speaking, has prompted many
a former volunteer to pursue organic farming upon their return home.
A handful of other organizations, such as the Foundation for Sustainable
sometimes described as the "alternative Peace Corps,"
organize similar service opportunities for Americans abroad.An exciting
recent development in the world of international sustainable ag
training is that the nonprofit Multinational Exchange for Sustainable
Agriculture (MESA) (www.mesaprogram.org),
which for the past decade has been helping young people from developing
countries find apprenticeships on organic farms in the United States,
has established a reciprocal program for U.S. citizens interested
in working on organic farms overseas.
Based in San Francisco, MESA is, according to executive director
Lauren Augusta, the only U.S. State Department-recognized agricultural
exchange program with an emphasis on sustainability. (State Department
recognition permits the group to arrange one-year J-1 visas for
participants coming to work on farms in the United States.) Its
stated mission is to "cultivat[e] sustainable farming communities
around the world through farmer-to-farmer exchange."
This year the group is sponsoring its largest group of foreign
trainees "by far," Augusta says: 44 interns from five
different countries training on about 35 organic farms and research
centers across the United States. To select trainees, MESA partners
with local sustainable agriculture organizations in countries like
Ecuador, Peru, Thailand, and Mexico; over the years, Augusta explains,
those relationships naturally led to the idea of arranging for trainee
exchanges in the other direction.
Frequently, MESA trainees form strong bonds with
participants, partner organizations and host farms.
MESA's first overseas sustainable agriculture program, beginning
in January 2006, will be an eight-week work-and-training experience
on organic farms in the Galápagos Islands of Ecuador. The
program is the result of a partnership with FUNDAR Galápagos
(the Fundación para el Desarrollo Alternativo Responsible
para Galápagos) and is being coordinated by a former MESA
volunteer who grew up in the islands, Byron Fonseca.
The Galápagos are a unique, exciting setting for an opportunity
of this kind, Augusta notes. Because of the fragility of the island's
biota, access to the islands is tightly regulated, and most tourist
expeditions only stay for three or four days.
"People don't think about there even being farms in the Galápagos,"
Augusta comments. "But they have a big impact on the environment
there, and so some groups"—including FUNDAR Galápagos—"are
promoting sustainable farming there. There's also a big emphasis
on getting the farms to be more productive, so they can import less
from the mainland," she continues.
The Galápagos program will cost participants around $2,500,
including everything but airfare, for eight weeks, Augusta says.
Academic credit is possible on an independent study basis. In the
future, MESA hopes to organize similar opportunities in mainland
Ecuador, Argentina, Thailand and Kenya.
Potentially, MESA's reciprocal exchange and other programs like
it could fill a niche between long-term Peace Corps stints and short-term
WWOOFing experiences, Augusta suggests. "WWOOF is very ad hoc—it
has almost no central administration, and offers no support in terms
of visas or longer stays," she points out. On the other hand,
the fact that a number of reciprocal exchanges have already developed
out of individual MESA trainee experiences (and without formal MESA’s
assistance) suggests that the ad hoc approach may, in many cases,
be a perfectly satisfactory way to for these kinds of interactions
"Frequently, MESA trainees form such strong bonds with the
participants and the partner organizations and the host farms that
setting something [additional] up, either formally or informally,
is definitely an option," Augusta concludes. "[So] that's
something I grapple with--how much does MESA need to coordinate
Junior (farm) year abroad
Another potential route for gaining international sustainable ag
training lies through university exchange programs, or by applying
directly to overseas academic institutions. A number of undergraduate
(conventional) agriculture programs at U.S. universities do offer
study-abroad opportunities, and presumably, as the number of sustainable
ag-oriented degree and certificate programs increases, so too will
the number of study-sustainable-ag-abroad programs.
Study-abroad opportunities consistently rank high among the program
features sustainable ag students say they want, says Albie Miles
of the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, which
operates a six-month organic farming and gardening apprenticeship
at the University of California in Santa Cruz and has taken a leadership
role in coordinating discussions about sustainable agriculture education
in the United States. (The Santa Cruz apprenticeship is open to
international applicants as well as to U.S. and Canadian citizens.)
The first National Sustainable Agriculture Education Conference
will be held in January 2006, in Pacific Grove, California, just
prior to the annual Eco-Farm Conference, Miles notes, and although
the conference is focused on U.S. sustainable ag education, a few
participants will be coming from overseas, including representatives
of the Nordic School of Agroecology/Ecological Agriculture (AGROASIS),
a joint project of universities in Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland
A number of institutions of higher education across Europe—including
the University of Wales at Aberystwyth, the Scottish Agricultural
College, and the Institute of Organic Agriculture at the University
of Bonn, Germany--have established degree programs in sustainable
and organic agriculture. Many of these programs accept applications
from international students, although proficiency in the relevant
language will be a prerequisite. A partial list of undergraduate
and graduate (BSc and MSc) organic agriculture programs in Europe
can be found on the website of the European
Network for Organic Agriculture University Teachers (ENOAT).
A diploma in biodynamic farming
One of the most distinctive new international training courses
in organic agriculture is found at a small school called Emerson
College in East Sussex, England. Founded in 1962 by Francis Edmonds,
Emerson is dedicated to the teachings of Rudolf Steiner and has
been offering various levels of training in biodynamic gardening
and farming for decades. (Some of the oldest and most successful
biodynamic farms in the United States were started by farmers originally
trained at Emerson, and—small-world fact—Sue Coppard's
first WWOOFing weekend back in 1971 took place at the college.)
"Here you're totally immersed in organic and
biodynamic philosophy, and you're part of a community.
It's not like going to a regular university."
In 2000, the college was approached by the Warmonderhof Training
Center at Groenhorst College in the Netherlands about creating an
English-language version of Warmonderhof's vocational training course
in biodynamic agriculture, which dates back to 1947. The Warmonderhof
course is taught in Dutch and primarily serves Dutch students in
their late teens and early twenties. By partnering with Emerson,
explains course co-leader Juergen Schumacher, the Dutch college
sought to meet a growing demand for formal, hands-on training in
biodynamic and organic farming among a much broader demographic.
Supported in part by a grant from the European Union's Leonardo
da Vinci II program for vocational training, the collaboration between
the two schools resulted in the creation of a three-year course
in biodynamic agriculture leading to what's known as a Level 4 diploma,
a vocational qualification recognized throughout the EU. (The college
is looking into obtaining BSc accreditation as well.)
"We're the only English-language training course of this kind,"
says Ian Lawton, marketing and short-course manager for the college,
which also offers Waldorf teacher-training and has up to 200 students
in residence at a given time. "Here you're totally immersed
in organic and biodynamic philosophy, and you're part of a community.
It's not like going to a regular university."
An emphasis on internationalism
Students in Emerson's biodynamic agriculture course come from all
kinds of different backgrounds, Lawton and Schumacher note. Most
are in their late twenties and early thirties, but some are as young
as 18 or as old as 50. Some have farmed all their lives; others
may not even have extensive gardening experience. Some arrive well-versed
in the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, having attended Waldorf schools
or worked in a Camphill community; others come with experience in
organic farming but with no real knowledge of biodynamics.
The first group of students, admitted in the fall of 2001, included
two Americans; other students have come from Brazil, Israel, and
Scandinavia, as well as Britain and elsewhere in Europe.
Schumacher, who received formal training in both conventional and
biodynamic agriculture and managed his own biodynamic farm in Germany
for 20 years in addition to working as an accountant and tax advisor
before coming to Emerson, says that he values the diversity of the
student population enormously.
"It's not so easy sometimes at the beginning to get everyone
together," he admits, "but it works out before long. I'm
very, very happy to have this kind of variety," he continues,
noting that frequently the less experienced students ask fundamental,
challenging questions that may not occur to those who have been
farming for years.
The course of study embraces everything from tractor operation
and maintenance to bookkeeping, personnel management, botany and
soil science. Tuition is £3,750 (about $6,800) each for years
one and two and £2,500 ($4,500) for year three; room and board
runs another £2,500 to £3,000 ($4,500 to $5,440) per
year. Students spend six semesters at Emerson and do a five-month
placement between their first and second years working on another
biodynamic farm of their choice. In their final year, students contact
a local conventional farm and do a comprehensive study of what it
would take to convert that farm to biodynamic management, from production
By training at the college, says Schumacher, students gain a rigorous
theoretical grounding in biodynamics as well as a comprehensive
set of practical farming skills. "Here it is combined--half
is practical and half is theoretical," he explains, noting
that exclusively on-the-job training for young farmers can sometimes
lead to practical proficiency without a full understanding of underlying
To foster that balance between classroom and field, Lawton says,
Emerson has constructed new facilities and established a 5-acre
biodynamic market garden at the college. Additional training takes
place at the 250-acre Tablehurst Community Farm, a diversified biodynamic
grain-and-livestock farm located adjacent to the college, and at
Bore Place, an organic dairy farm 15 miles away. Field trips are
also made to other organic farms, including Warmonderhof.
Perhaps the best measure of the biodynamic agriculture
course's potential is the wealth of job prospects
open to its graduates.
Perhaps the best measure of the need for a course like this is
the wealth of job prospects open to its graduates, Schumacher says.
Whereas the number of conventional farm manager positions has been
declining for many years, openings in organic and biodynamic farming
are rising steeply. Every week, the college receives job postings
from throughout northern and western Europe, the United States,
Canada, and even as far away as New Zealand.
"The world is short of qualified people—people who really
want to do the job; not consultants but practical people,"
Schumacher emphasizes. "We have a huge pin board [for posting
job announcements] and it's full all of the time--it never gets
empty. All of our graduates have a choice of what to do."
And although the Emerson program is small—to date it has
graduated two classes of about a dozen students each—before
long, it and other nascent training opportunities of its kind will
help shape the future of organic farming worldwide.
As Schumacher puts it—in an observation that could apply
to any of the programs described here--"If all [our graduates]
become good farm managers, that will have an impact."