Eco-Adventures: Volunteering on an Organic Farm in Italy
Patti Booterbaugh's Italian sojourn was not nearly as glamorous as Julia Roberts' foray in Eat, Pray, Love. There was no wine tasting, no slurping up pasta at a little bistro in Rome and definitely no basking under the Tuscan sun.
Instead Booterbaugh spent two months on two different farms, where she pulled weeds, picked vegetables and helped prepare meals. She loved it.
"My friends were all worried about me going so far from home; they thought I was crazy," says Booterbaugh, who is 67. "But I felt really good about it."
The Manhattan Beach, Calif., mother of four and grandmother of seven traveled to Italy last summer as a volunteer for Worldwide Opportunities in Organic Farming, or WWOOF. The U.K.-based nonprofit sends volunteers called "woofers" around the globe to lend a hand to organic farmers who otherwise might not be able to afford the extra help.
In exchange, volunteers get free room and board and a chance to immerse themselves in another language or culture.
Booterbaugh, who is single, retired in 2010 from a career as an information technology department manager for a major grocery store chain. She discovered WWOOF after her twentysomething granddaughter signed up to volunteer. Her granddaughter eventually dropped out, but Booterbaugh was hooked.
The nonprofit lets volunteers choose where they want to work and gives host farmers a say in which woofers they get. Booterbaugh chose Italy, exchanged letters with five farmers and eventually made arrangements with two of them.
She spent the first month on an organic farm about 10 miles outside Bologna, where she weeded, harvested crops and took vegetables to the local farmers' market. She was the oldest volunteer during her stay, though she says woofers in their 40s and older are common, as are couples who bring their children along.
"They knew I wasn't 20 and I wasn't going to build a barn," Booterbaugh says of her host family. "But they said they like mature people, and they were beautiful to me."
During the second month, Booterbaugh worked at an agriturismo, a farm-based bed-and-breakfast that, according to Italian regulation, must grow at least half the food it serves. She helped with cooking, cleaning and laundry for the six-bedroom inn located six miles outside of Siena. "I got very close to the people (owners Sergio and Lorena, shown right) and felt like part of their family, and now we stay in touch," she says.
Booterbaugh enjoyed her farm stays so much, she's ready to sign up again. Since she's now keeping an eye on her 94-year-old parents, though, her next stint may be on a farm somewhere in California instead of overseas.
Since WWOOF started in 1971, the organization has grown into a worldwide network of national organizations in 50 countries that place volunteers in farm jobs. Depending on which country's organization they join, volunteers pay a membership fee of about $20 to $70 to cover website and other communications costs.
WWOOF is just one of many organizations people can use to find farm or other eco-tourism experiences. Here are four other groups that offer similar opportunities:
1. Farm Sanctuary. Volunteers pitch in at weekend work parties in New York and California shelters that the organization runs for rescued farm animals.
2. GrowFood. The Seattle-based nonprofit connects sustainable farms in the United States and abroad with people interested in learning about farming for short-term volunteer stints, season-long internships, paid work and educational programs.
3. HelpX. The online matchmaking service for organic and nonorganic farms, ranches, lodges, hostels and B&Bs in Australia, New Zealand, Europe and North America provides people with room and board in exchange for their unpaid help.
4. VolunTourism. The website serves as a virtual clearinghouse of eco- and volunteer tourism opportunities around the world.
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