Maggie is originally from Michigan in the United States and completed her masters thesis at Lund University in Sweden. She has an educational background in statistics, urban planning, and environmental studies/sustainability science with a primary interest in environmental psychology.
After spending a summer WWOOFing in the mountains of Italy Maggie found the concept of living with other families and suddenly adapting to their lifestyle fascinating and wondered how it affected other people. This inspired her to investigate WWOOF for her thesis, with a focus on the psychology of the volunteers and if and how they learn about different environmental ideas during their experience.
Maggie’s survey was completed by 1381 WWOOF members from around the world. 47 of those respondents were then interviewed personally.
The great thing Maggie’s research shows is that 90% of WWOOFers report having a postive experience – so we are getting something right! Of the rest 5% were neutral and only 3% negative. Hopefully the information gleaned from this research will help us all to improve the WWOOF experience and ensure that our WWOOFers take something home with them.
Maggie’s research indicates that the top three motivations for people to volunteer with WWOOF is firstly to live with the locals(at 73%), secondly to learn about organic farming(69%) and coming in third at 63% was the opportunity to travel around the country. (Melin. M. 2012. p21)
From this we can see that the majority of WWOOFers want the opportunity to live and learn local customs, traditions and farming methods. Hosts if you can show that you are actively including these activities in the WWOOFers experience then you will likely have a better chance of encouraging WWOOFers to your property. Try to make the WWOOF experience about play as well as work. Get your WWOOFers out and about of an afternoon, to a local fair, meeting the neighbours, on a walk, to community events, weddings, school activities… Perhaps you could spend an afternoon teaching your WWOOFer a local dish, or engaging them in a traditional festivity. WWOOFers want to experience your life as you live it, not just the weeding! Of course this daily living does include hard work, just remember that their needs to be a little fun, laughter and local interaction going on also.
Atleast 82% of respondents reported adding atleast one sustainable resource or lifestyle practise to their daily lives after WWOOFing(p22). However if you want your WWOOFers to go away with attitudes and skills that they can use in their day to day living it is important to actively engage them in activities and discussions. The survey indicates that “high levels of behaviour change often correlate with high levels of exploration and explanation”(p28). It is the active, hands-on activities, discussions around the dinner table and explanations out in the field that provide lasting impressions with WWOOFers. Get your WWOOFers thinking about the activities by asking them questions, providing them with responsibilities and allowing them opportunities to share their knowledge and ideas. In this way they can integrate their knowledge into the larger environmental understanding, and hopefully change behaviours along the way.
Interestingly while many respondents noted that they already practised many of the behaviours listed in the survey the majority of WWOOFers still reported leaving the experience and making atleast one change to their lifestyle behaviours (p22). So even WWOOFers that have a lot of experience in the field can learn new things, especially as they experience new environments and traditional farming methods(WWOOFers can teach hosts too). The survey also indicates that the WWOOF experience reinforces and strengthens some pro-environmental behaviours, even for those volunteers who go into the experience with a great deal of environmental awareness and experience(p27).
Hosts should be prepared to answer questions from the WWOOFer, discuss your knowledge and values and involve them in as many activities as you can. If possible it is great if you have a few organic living books available for WWOOFers to read, or pro-environmental DVDs for viewing. Personally I now own cook books, soap-making, gardening and chook raising books that were introduced to me by WWOOF hosts. In this way Hosts can pass on their knowledge and spread the good news about organic living. I would also encourage all WWOOFers to take with them a WWOOF notebook, not just as a diary of events, but to write down all the information, recipes, books, websites etc that you gather along the way.
A major focus for change in the WWOOFers lifestyle was in their relationship with food. WWOOFing allows many the opportunity to experience the entire seed to table food cycle. WWOOFers report switching to a more organic and/or locally grown diet as they became aware of all the issues surrounding food, such as animal treatment, health benefits of organic food, supporting local farmers, and all the work that goes into food production. The WWOOF experience brings knowledge and awareness to the WWOOFer and enables them to make more educated food choices in their future. WWOOFing also reinforces the individuals currant sustainable lifestyle practises as they engage in farming practise and can see, feel and taste why it is better to eat local, organic products(p23-24).
This practical experience also enables WWOOFers to draw on more practical experience when engaging in discussion on environmental issues. One WWOOFer explained,
“As far as debating goes I have more personal experiences to draw from which goes further than ‘I read this here’, or ‘saw this on the news there.’ I can say ‘I saw with my own eyes’, or ‘I personally worked on this.’ “(p26)
Maggie’s thesis goes on to explain that WWOOFers who are able to spend time with their hosts and engage in discussion reported a more positive WWOOF experience and a higher degree of behaviour change from their WWOOF experience. Those WWOOFers who had to work and eat on their own, had limited discussion time with the host, and who felt like they were just invited to stay for their labour reported no behaviour changes. Engage your WWOOFers in discussion around the dinner table, allow them the opportunity to experience a variety of jobs on the farm, make time for each other so respect and trust can develop and you will get the best out of your WWOOFer. In addition hosts may leave a lasting impression on WWOOFers facilitating positive behavioural changes and life long friendships into the bargain(p34-37).
In conclusion Maggie(p88-89) lists some suggestions for WWOOFers, Hosts and Organisations that could lead to more positive WWOOF experiences and great pro-environmental change in WWOOFers when they return home.
For Hosts this includes suggestions as;
* asking WWOOFers what they want to gain from their experience.
* letting them know if you have areas of knowledge/interest that you are keen to teach.
* providing WWOOFers with a variety of tasks to avoid a monotony.
* discuss why farming tasks are important, share your knowledge, explain reasons for farming organically, share personal stories about your reasons for having a farm.
* spend time with your WWOOFers.
* share books, DVDs and other information sources.
*Encourage longer stays.
*Show WWOOFers how they can transfer some techniques and practices back to their homes.
*Ask WWOOFers to share their ideas, give them responsibilities to encourage critical thinking and problem solving. Be open to learning from your WWOOFer.
*Provide WWOOFers with feedback and appreciation for their work, give them tips for improving.
For WWOOFers to enhance their experience Maggie suggests;
*searching for hosts that can provide you with an experience of interest.
*discuss all aspects of your stay before arrival to ensure a good match.
* understand your motivation and goals for WWOOFing and take a little time to understand what organic farming is about before WWOOFing.
*Be willing to try new things and withhold judgements in the beginning.
*Share your WWOOF goals with your host, discuss thoughts and knowledge and be open to learning.
*Ask your host questions about their background, why they farm organically, any other areas of interest.
*WWOOF at more then one farm.
*Take time to reflect on your experience and what you learned, keep a journal, talk to others about your experience.
*Try to integrate atleast on activity or behaviour learned into your life at home.
*ENGAGE with your host.
Finally to the WWOOF Organisations, what can they do to improve the WWOOF experience for all members? Maggie’s studies conclude that;
*WWOOF organisations need to encourage members to share their WWOOF experience and knowledge with others, thus allowing for reflection and the spreading of the WWOOF word. This may be done through WWOOFers speaking at schools, universities, community groups etc. WWOOF hosts could holding ‘hosting’ workshops to share ideas and knowledge on both good hosting practise and practical farming knowledge. WWOOF members may also encouraged to write articles and blogs on their WWOOF experience to be shared via newsletters and websites.
*WWOOF members may also be encouraged to more reflection on their experience through a questionnaire for completion at the end of their WWOOFing experience. This would also enable organisations to gain a greater insight into where improvements and changes can be made.
*Many members also concluded that a reference system for comments on members is vital to maintaining the integrity of the WWOOF system. WWOOF organisations around the world are working hard at creating and maintaining a reference system that keeps the majority happy. It can be tricky to get it right, but the reference system plays an important role in improving the WWOOF experience for all members.
Studies into the WWOOF experience, such as those conducted by Maggie, are a vital part of WWOOF. They enable us all to reflect on what we are doing, where we can improve and how we can get the most out of our time as a WWOOF member.
WWOOF in its scope is truly multi-national and multi-cultural. For many members it is a life-changing experience where we can openly discuss and practise new philosophies and lifestyle behaviours, trying on different cultures for a while and piecing together all the little experiences to make up an entire suit that fits us as an individual.
WWOOF is an important player in the planets bid for better environmental practices. WWOOF brings people closer to the land, allowing them to explore behaviours and activities that are planet friendly and develop their consciousness of the natural world around them. Anything WWOOF organisations and its members can do to encourage and improve this relationship can only be a good thing, right?
If you would like to read the entire study, Once Experienced, Never Ignored – Active Learning as a Tool for Behaviour Change: A Case Study of World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms you can contact Maggie Melin by email at firstname.lastname@example.org