Seven things WWOOF has taught me about the global economy

It’s been 10 years now since we started hosting farm volunteers at Vallis Veg, mostly through the excellent organisation World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. The idea is that the WWOOFer, as they are widely known, works a not-quite-full working week in return for board and lodging, with no money changing hands. We’ve had well over a hundred wonderful WWOOFers contribute to our work at Vallis Veg, and regrettably many hundreds more whose overtures I’ve had to turn down. I’ve learned things both general and particular from everybody who’s visited us. Here are seven general lessons about the global economy that I’ve distilled from their visits.

1. English is still a (the?) global language

Many prospective WWOOFers state that improving their English skills is a prime reason for their visit, including people from China and South Korea who might reasonably expect English-speakers to be keen to learn their languages. English still rules, OK? To be honest, I prefer people who actually want to farm. On the other hand, I’ve learned a lot about language through talking to our international WWOOFers (not quite the same as learning a lot of languages, sadly). And it’s been great for our kids to have people from all over the world passing through our household. Mercifully, honing English and putting in an honest day’s farm toil don’t seem to be mutually exclusive, so I extend a WWOOFerly hand of welcome to English-improvers, so long as you’re able to pass what I call the ‘courgette test’. That is, if I ask you to weed the courgettes you need to have sufficient language skills, gardening skills and/or common sense for me to find the courgettes still intact at the end of the day. If so, you’re in. A final word of advice to French speakers (though as a near monoglot Englishman it ill behoves me to laugh at anyone else’s poor vocabulary): the phrase ‘I am looking forward to your exploitation’ can be interpreted in several ways in English. None of them will be to your advantage.

2. The Spanish economy is in deep trouble

Since the fiscal balloon went up in 2008, the number of Spanish WWOOFers we’ve had has rocketed. And almost invariably intelligent, competent, well-educated and pleasant young people they are too. It’s just that they can’t find any jobs anywhere. What an indictment of the way the global economy works. Yes, market forces will out – but they’re a human artifice, and they exact a human cost.

3. The South Korean economy is in deep trouble

South Korea could hardly be more different, with a steady economic growth rate of around 5% over recent years. Small wonder that Michael Gove, our unlamented former Education Secretary, exhorted us Brits to try to keep up in the global race and match South Korea’s phenomenally successful development path (even though he kept quiet about the importance of the public sector in promoting it). But at what human cost? Those South Korean WWOOFers who are escaped to tell us warn of 18 hour school or work days, suicide nets around high school buildings and a depressing society of regimented automata. After collecting the morning’s eggs, one of them asked us if our hens were all male. Kind of makes you wonder what they’re taught in those 18 hour days.  Another wrote, engagingly ‘I was software engineer at Samsung who worked on best mobile phone in world, but now I leave. The reason? Samsung most workaholic company in world. Now I wish to grow gardens’. Just as compost is the same solution alike for both free-draining or waterlogging soils, so the extremes of the global economy have the same solution. Go WWOOFing, grow gardens.

4. (Western) girls (and boys) just want to have fun…

The phenomenon of the gap year, or the post-university round-the-world-to-find-myself trip, is easy to mock as an indulgence of the over-privileged classes. I say bring it on. Some of our best and most interesting volunteers fall into this category, and I only wish I’d done the same when I was their age instead of falling prey to the got-to-get-my-foot-on-the-ladder-and-make-a-success-of-my life delusion. Maybe I’d have learned to be a better farmer and a better person that way. And anyway, is it so different from other traditions among uncoerced peoples of the world, such as the Native American spirit quest? To the disaffected youth I say give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free – you can start by weeding the courgettes…

5. …and then they want to garden

One small, but I hope significant, new category of WWOOFer that I’m beginning to notice is what might be called ‘gap year redux’ – the thirtysomething graduate who’s spent a few years working in some kind of professional career before realising that they have become a mere plaything of an unjust, uncaring and unsustainable global economy that tries to buy them off with trinkets. There are many good places to go with this insight, but one of them is certainly to start reversing the centuries old propaganda that holds farming in general and working the land up close and manually in particular to be somehow an unbecoming and lowly pursuit. It’s not always completely straightforward hosting such folk, because the good habit of intelligent questioning can very easily slip into the bad habit of knowing-better-than-thouness or of latching onto the received wisdom of soi disant experts able to bridge the languages of agriculture and urban professional smart-talk: a problem that I identified in a previous post concerning the permaculture movement. But taking the rough with the smooth, the gap year reduxers give me more hope for the future than just about anything else. OK, so being one of them myself I’m probably biased, but reconstituting practical agriculture as something that smart people actually do rather than just talk about is critical, I think, to a just and sustainable future.

6. Human capital, or capital humans?

The basic WWOOF package of exchanging work for board and lodging with no money changing hands raises many interesting issues – certainly too many for immigration officers to cope with. Their predilection for deporting WWOOFers arriving on visitor visas must be distressing for those involved, but points to an incoherence in the way contemporary global governance distinguishes between the free movement of money and the free movement of people which I suspect cannot endure long-term. Sometimes I feel uncomfortable about the unpaid labour that goes into my farm, though I suspect our WWOOFers get a better deal than many a graduate intern now under-labouring  in the belly of the capitalist beast in the hope of a brighter future. I won’t expostulate at length on the question of agriculture and money here, but WWOOF at least begins to show a way in which people can come together, work, laugh, and achieve things together that they couldn’t achieve alone without the morbidly quantifying hand of money values interceding. Move over, Jeremy Bentham – people are ends in themselves. There is no such thing as human capital, only capital humans.

7. A woman’s work is never done

We (by which I mean me, Mrs Spudman and all our marriage guidance counsellors) have gradually worked out a marital division of domestic labour over the years that roughly approximates to half each, though if I’m entirely honest I’d probably have to admit that my share still doesn’t amount to that magical 50% figure of which many women through the ages must have dreamed. Not so, however, for 10 hellish days in August when Mrs Spudman abandoned four children and five WWOOFers to my tender mercies and left me with the whole domestic shebang while she swanned off to a wedding in America. Just couldn’t get that darned Kenny Rogers song out of my head all week. Four hungry children and five hungry WWOOFers imposed demands upon me from which, truth to tell, I still haven’t recovered. And yet it was as nothing compared to the burden that many women bear throughout their lives without thanks or pay and often without complaint. Yep, the global economy would be nothing, nothing at all, without the hidden work of women.

35 thoughts on “Seven things WWOOF has taught me about the global economy

  1. The hegemony of English pesters me from time to time. I wonder how it is that on the one hand I have (through no effort on my part) quite fortunately fallen into the language sphere that so totally dominates the planet… and on the other hand still wish I had a greater capacity for other languages. On more than one occasion I’ve had the opportunity to observe Brazilians and Argentinians merrily conversing back and forth in some sort of Portuguese/Spanish hybrid that tends to flow haphazardly and yet effectively enough to be fun. Beer and or wine might be necessary – further research is needed 🙂

    Final sentence point 5, priceless. With your leave kind Squire, I should make a small poster; photo of a fellow human, hoe or spade in hand, working Mother Earth and captioned by: reconstituting practical agriculture as something that smart people actually do rather than just talk about is critical.

    And point 7 is prescient. So perhaps it would be best if the fellow human in the poster inspired by #5 is indeed a woman – and mother – showing her child how to weed the courgettes.

    • Thanks Clem – yep, that’s a great poster idea. And while on the subject of English dominance and courgettes/zucchini, why don’t we have a proper word in English for this plant?

      • How shall we define a ‘proper’ word in English??

        I confess I had to look up courgette to find out it’s a zucchini… which should give away my naming preference for this squash. Hereabouts zucchini is either revered or hated. The productivity is often so overwhelming one frequently finds zucchinis offered up ‘free to a good home’ on lunch room tables at the office. The haters are those poor gardeners who have slavishly schlepped said fruits to the office to give them away lest they pile up at home and go to waste (certainly the larger sin).

        But on to the matter at hand – defining a proper English word… This matter of English picking up the various flotsam and jetsam from other tongues so willy nilly and with small care for consistency and proper approbation is to me a double edged sword. On the one hand I imagine one of the powers of English is that it (or, we who use it) so readily adopt other words. The other edge of the sword being the bloating of the lexicon.

        I like the mongrel or hybrid nature of the tongue. It can be tedious for some, but in the right hands it offers the chance for some fascinating prose.

        • Yes, likewise I don’t have a problem with creolisation when words from other languages find their way into English. It’s just that I’m not sure why there isn’t an English word for this particular plant…though if I remember rightly it’s a relatively new thing hailing from Italy, so maybe that’s explanation enough. But then why do the French have a different word for it, and why do the English use their word, and the Americans the Italian one?

          • This is only a guess, but if the English adopted courgette first – then Americans may well have gone for zucchini just to be different. As for why the French had to have a different word than zucchini – well, that should go without saying.

      • baby marrow! only mine aren’t so baby. I need a word for something that’s too big to call a courgette and too small to call a marrow.

  2. Our own experience with WWOOFers has been much more limited. I guess the cultural allure of East Tennessee is somewhat less than that of rural England. My general off the cuff observation is that any one woman is worth about five men. Most men show up and want to spend most of their time talking about what they want to do with their lives. Where the women tend to want to dive right in to the work and get it done.

    • Yep, inclined to agree with you Brian despite the calumny to my gender. Actually, I don’t mind men telling me what they want to do with their lives so much as them telling me what I ought to do with mine, or at least what I ought to do with the farm, whereas as you say the women tend to dive in and get the work done. Then again, we’ve had some great male WWOOFers. How about a paraphrase of Benjamin Franklin: a good male WWOOFer is worth two good female ones, for the scarcer things are the more they are valued?

      • If one believes the economic data, here in the States a male is worth approximately one and one quarter females based on wage disparity for equivalent positions. And now that I’ve written it that way it appears worse to me than the number it comes from: that women earn 81 cents for each dollar a comparable male earns. The gap has been shrinking (too slowly) and by the same logic the number of females that a male is worth will also fall back.

        Before all this sexist rambling gets us in trouble, let me divert some attention to a couple of our domesticate plants. There are a handful of dioecious plant species used for food, asparagus and hops being two examples. For asparagus the technical gardener would do well to raise all males. And for hops you have to get rid of the males – they are worse than useless.

  3. Post-script: I recall very clearly giving instructions to one young man about the herb garden. Here are the herbs and here are the weeds. He did a very thorough job of removing all of the herbs and leaving all of the weeds.

  4. Actually, while only about 60% of international bodies in the “Western” hemisphere use English as their official language (though many use it more often than the official percentage out of convenience), Asian international societies in over 90% of cases use English as their official language. Why? It’s easier to learn, its already used in science and business and they have incompatible calligraphic elements to depict their languages to boot. That you learned a lot from those visitors I can imagine. In a less formal way, these travelers are like the journeymen in the mediaeval ages roaming Europe after their apprenticeship in crafts as diverse as carpentry, tiling, roofing, stone-masons, bakers etc. And this way they learned new things but also brought news of “how it’s down elsewhere” to far-off lands. Today, with only few students studying abroad, that tradition has become but a trickle.

    • Interesting points. I’m especially taken by the journeyman point, which I was thinking about today – I’ve certainly learned useful lessons about the way things are done on other farms via the spoken word from WWOOFers as the intermediaries

    • Journeyman means being paid by the day does it not and not someone who journeys? Yes I have completed my apprenticeship but am not yet a master of my own workshop. After the french for ‘day’ because we don’t have an english word for day-worker but we do have a word for courgette as pointed out above. I ate marrows boiled long before I ever heard of a courgette. We ate ratatoille because we don’t have an english word for ‘vile boiled mess’

      • Yes I think you’re right on the etymology, though ‘day’ and ‘journey’ have the same root. But Darragh’s larger point is still pertinent. On marrows, the term seems to be becoming a bit obsolete. Do you folks in the US talk of marrows? For me a marrow is a courgette that I didn’t spot in time, and ends up feeding the chickens or the pigs. But perhaps there are specific cultivars that are intended to be eaten that size? Still not convinced they’d taste too good though…

        • Perhaps Brian should assist on a view from the US, but for me – marrow in reference to an oversized zucchini is a novel usage. To me, marrow is the fatty and VERY nutritious stuff on the inside of a bone.

          But we do have those BIG zucchinis, and what to do with them?? Well, you can run around the garden chasing your little brother as if you’re a cave man… (until you are about 10). Past puberty you’re better advised to try another tack.

          Split the monster in half lengthwise and scoop out the seed cavity (keep cavity contents for compost – regardless of what Steve Savage thinks). Scoop in some tuna salad, or other concoction, wrap in foil and bake. With adequate practice you can actually make a nice meal from this.

          Split as above (same use for seed cavity contents) then scoop out the flesh for zucchini bread.

          If you have an oversized zucchini and you starve… well – its really your own fault.

          Now – your point about different cultivars may be spot on. But I’m not aware that folk on our side of the pond will deliberately leave zucchinis to get 16″ long and a foot in diameter (unless the plan is for these ‘rescue’ meals).

          • Err.. .I believe I intended that monster zucchini to be a foot in circumference. A foot in diameter sounds more like a Hubbard squash. My geometry teacher is SO disappointed about now…

          • Thanks for those recipes, Clem – I’ve tried something similar before with courgettes/zucchini but not with marrows. May have to try marrows baked with a stuffing of meat (and marrow)!

          • Yep, marrow is a new one for me, gives a whole new meaning to “sucking the marrow out of life.” My favorite recipe for over-sized zucchini is to make pancakes out of them: a bit of bisquick, chives, garlic pepper and plenty of butter. Just make sure to sauté the zucchini first.

  5. All this WWOOFing here and yon makes me wonder how much progress is being made teaching folk to cultivate. Before hearing of it here I would have suggested the world is fast losing its cultivating human capital (or capital cultivators 🙂 ). This is certainly true in the West on a % basis, and I’d suppose even in absolute numbers. Ever greater machines to accomplish planting and harvest get most of the credit for this phenomenon. And with ever increasing mechanization displacing human hands it brings me to this next question:

    anyone in the audience looking toward a read of Nicholas Carr’s newest offering: The Glass Cage??

      • Rough Type… Carr’s blog.

        Nicholas has linked to a couple of places that have excerpted from his book. The article in The Atlantic is the link I followed and concluded this may be worth a closer look. So my question above comes from curiosity around whether anyone else in this space has heard of it. Not that I want to pile onto Chris’ workload, but from the excerpt I saw he might find it worthwhile.

        Do you have an opinion on it?

  6. Thanks for the tip on The Glass Cage – not heard of it, but just googled it (not sure how appropriate that is, really) and it looks interesting. I was also interested in your points about male plants – hadn’t really thought about asparagus. As with livestock, I guess you usually want to maximise the females. But it’s good to know that there are some useful male examples out there. One of my new ventures this year is a breeding flock of sheep – plenty of lessons there about sexual difference I’ve learned already.

      • Shropshires – on account of their reputation for not eating trees, of which we have quite a few. A distinctive browse line has quickly appeared on the trees in their new paddock, but I’m hoping that leaf-eating isn’t a gateway crime to ring-barking.

        • I grazed a flock of Hampshire’s each fall in one of our apple orchards without any damage for two seasons. The third season they girdled the whole orchard in 24 hours. Not sure what the difference was and why then? But the orchard was destroyed. Ben Falk in his “Resilient Farm and Homestead” relates a similar story. We still graze our flock of Kathadin’s in the remaining orchard; but only in the summer and on days when we are about. My theory is that they will browse bark when they are nutritionally deprived as the forage dries out. But that is just a guess. Good luck.

  7. Re grazing sheep in an orchard, any experience with them in tree coupes? We own a block in Sth Gippsland about 2 hours drive from Melbourne. We’re developing the property as an agroforestry demonstration site. Managing the grass at this time of year is something of a challenge. We can have grass grow to over 1.5m by mid-December in areas where stock are excluded. Young trees and stock don’t mix at all well. Tree guards are very expensive. Some local agroforestry types say that stock can be put in with trees when the trees are around 4 years old. But there are also sad tales of sheep and cattle enthusiastically ringbarking young trees.

    If anyone has experience with successfully managing stock with trees younger than, say, 8-9 years or so, I would be very interested to hear what management practices you have developed.

    • Interesting question – our trees are now exactly 8-9 years old and, other than browsing the leaves, the Shropshires don’t seem to have ring-barked any yet…but I’ll get back to you! I’ve heard that Shropshires are used quite routinely in Christmas tree plantations with good results, but evidence is thinner on how they perform among deciduous trees. I gather that there’s a study underway here in the UK to assess this – I’ll try to find out more information and report back.

      • Look forwards to hearing what you dig up. Some of the species we’re planting are northern hemisphere conifers and deciduous so any UK/European/North American studies might be specifically applicable as well as indicative.

        What fences are you using for the sheep? We have what’s locally called ringlock on one long boundary which should be sheep proof except the wombats dig under the fence which can give access to smaller, determined sheep. But the other boundary and internal fences are for cattle: 5 strand barbed wire and similar. I don’t think this will hold sheep. We could refence some coupes.

        We have high rainfall for SE Australia – next door measured 1400mm in 2013 from memory. Coupled with very fertile but heavy soil this means cattle can do a lot of pugging in winter. We take the cows off the steeper slopes from May to October. I’d like to graze sheep in at least some of the coupes as they cut the ground up less, they can possibly be run with younger trees than is the case with cattle and I think they cause less compaction than cattle.

        • I’ve fenced with stock netting and two strands of either barbed or plain wire on top. Seems to have worked so far, but fencing is a lot of work, huh? No problems here with wombats, but we do have badgers which I guess can have much the same impact – I noticed a badger trail running alongside one of my fences today in fact, but not crossing it fortunately. Interesting to read about cattle vs sheep – our ground also gets wet in winter and my thinking was along similar lines. Poaching not too bad so far, though I also have a pretty low stocking density. I wonder if cattle are better suited to agroforestry? Still, the sheep seem pretty happy wandering among the trees. I’ll see if I can find anything else out about Shropshires and trees – I think there’s also been work in Denmark on this. Thanks for posting.

  8. Compaction is an interesting issue with respect to growing trees. My wife and I stayed in the Sequoia National Park back in the 90’s when there were still cabins amongst the redwood groves. The cabins were scheduled for removal as a measure to reduce foot traffic between the trees damaging surface roots. I think there has been some work done locally on compaction from stock in Pinus radiata plantations. But perhaps stock compaction differs in its effects on tree species depending on how their below ground biomass is distributed. We have some steep gullies where the cows probably haven’t spent much time in the 100 years or so that the property has been cleared. The soil in these gullies is noticeably different than the paddock soil. For example, it’s a lot easier to pull out blackberries in the gullies 🙂 I should do some more formal measurements. Some traditional agroforestry regimes such as the pig-oak forests in Portugal I think only had stock in for a relatively small part of the year. And if they were using pigs these are smaller animals than cattle. ‘Twould be interesting to know how compaction has fared in these long-term stock-tree management regimes and, if it could be measured, what effect this has had on the tree growth.

    On a related note, I don’t think pigs would do well with young trees unless very carefully managed. My sister had some Wessex Saddlebacks on a property with a blackberry infestation in some of the paddocks. The pigs dealt with the blackberries very effectively, ate all the grass and then reworked the top 30cm of the soil for her as well. I think young trees would have taken some collateral damage.

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