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Travelling the world working the land - and meeting people, too.

The letters W W O O F may cause you to imagine a missile whizzing overhead, or the sound of a mastiff barking a squirrel up a tree. But to more than 500 Canadian host families and 1,500 volunteers annually, WWOOF means "World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms," or as it was called in Canada for many years, "Willing Workers on Organic Farms." It's a program that enables volunteer workers from around the world to travel and learn by offering a helping hand to organic gardeners or farmers, in exchange for room and board. And the Canadian branch of what is now a worldwide movement started right here in the Atlantic region.

The roots of the program go back to 1971 in England, when a London-based secretary named Sue Coppard founded "Working Weekends on Organic Farms" as a way of getting people out of the city, into the countryside. By 1980, when young Canadian John Vanden Heuvel visited Nova Scotia from his Toronto-area home, the program had made its way here.

John was so impressed with the down east pace of life-not to mention the availability of reasonably priced land-that he and his wife bought a 100-acre farm near West Dalhousie on South Mountain, overlooking the Annapolis Valley. The couple soon became involved in a local food co-op, where they met Hillary Yoeman, an English woman in her 30s. Knowing about the UK experiment, Hillary was helping a handful of organic farmers in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and PEI to attract and share  volunteer labour. They named their loose co-operative "WWOOF Maritimes." But Hillary was returning to the UK, so she asked John if he would take over the co-ordinating role. "And the rest is history," says John who, 25 years later, is still the enthusiastic Canadian co-ordinator of a much-expanded program, though he now lives in BC.

The idea is beautiful in its simplicity. Anyone operating an organic garden or farm may apply to join. Then, for a $35 fee the name, address-and a brief description of the setting and type of farming or gardening-are listed in a booklet, updated annually. On the other side of the equation, anyone over the age of 16 interested in becoming a volunteer purchases a copy of the booklet with an individual registration number, listing the names and addresses of the hosts in all 10 provinces and the Yukon. The volunteer then selects a destination, gets in touch with the host and, if it's convenient, both parties work out an understanding about dates and duration of stay. In exchange for an average of five or six hours of work per day, six days a week, the volunteer receives free accommodation and meals and an opportunity to become acquainted with the local area. Volunteers stay anywhere from a few days to a couple of months; some hosts request a minimum of two weeks-so volunteers have time to become oriented.

Since organic farming and horticulture tend to be labour-intensive, providing  volunteer help has always been one of the organization's primary aims. Even in a small home garden, a pair of willing hands to help rake the leaves, turn over the compost or weed the lettuce patch can make an enormous difference. But for commercial farms the contribution of the volunteer workers may be crucial. Nancy and David Roberts own and operate Four Seasons Farm in Hants County, NS, where they produce certified-organic herbs and salad vegetables, which they sell to restaurants and at the Halifax Farmers' Market.

"The volunteer help is definitely significant for our operation," says Nancy. "And it's appreciated," she adds.

But the program involves more than  providing inexpensive labour-education is an equally important aspect. Distin-guishing between broad-leafed dock and young spinach may come as second nature to regional gardeners, but to someone who grew up in a high-rise apartment in Seoul, Korea-or Montreal, for that matter-the challenge may be baffling. "Wwoofing" provides volunteers with opportunities to learn a variety of skills, to acquire knowledge about growing practices and to foster care of the environment. Volunteers in Atlantic Canada may find themselves feeding the goats or grooming a pony at Points East overlooking Pouch Cove on Newfound-land's east coast; helping with a potato breeding program at Springwillow Farm on PEI; or perhaps extracting honey and picking apples in Knowlesville, NB. The experiential learning opportunities are endless.

The program also facilitates safe and inexpensive travel. Volunteers range in age from 17 to 70; however the majority of workers are in their 20s, and don't have domestic responsibilities or feel locked into a demanding career. Some may have decided to step out of a job for a while. That 65 per cent of volunteers are women may be related to the fact that women in many countries don't have the same career opportunities as men do-and they have less to lose by taking their foot off the corporate ladder for a year or so.

In Canada, volunteers come from every corner of the country as well as from a range of other countries-Japan, Korea and the US being the top three. John Vanden Heuvel believes that although generating a source of volunteer help for growers and providing learning opportunities for volunteers are still very important, the program has evolved to the point where the most significant aspect now is cultural exchange.

"It started out giving Canadians a chance to explore their own country-Quebecers spending time in Alberta, someone from  the Yukon visiting the Maritimes, a young  person from Toronto experiencing Newfoundland," he says. "And it still does that. But then more and more people started coming from abroad. Today we have visitors from over 30 nations participating in any year. It's a great way to meet new people and to foster appreciation of different cultures."

The volunteers echo what John says. Michi Mabuchi, a young woman from near Mount Fuji in Japan, worked for several weeks on the East Coast before seeking a different type of experience in Ontario. When asked how she liked being a wwoofer her response was: "I like to meet other wwoofers from many countries."

Even when the host can't accommodate several volunteers at the same time, volunteers appreciate the opportunity to share in the life of the family and to become acquainted with the community. Many hosts will take their volunteer guests on tours of the local area on their days off, or involve them in social events. Bonds of affection and lasting friendships are often formed.  One young Japanese wwoofer who visited Nova Scotia 10 years ago still keeps in touch with her former host, and refers to him as her "Canadian Dad." Now she is married and has a child, and he's called "Canada oji-san," Canadian Grandpa.

In a world where Marshall McLuhan's "global village" is a reality, opportunities for international understanding through human interaction at this basic level may indeed be one of the program's most  profound contributions.

Hugh W. McKervill has been a WWOOF host in Nova Scotia for the past 10 years.

Will work for travel

WWOOF International has programs in more than 20 countries-including Uganda and Turkey, New Zealand and Denmark-and there are dozens of additional independent hosts in places where there is no national co-ordinating body. They form an extensive network of lodgings in faraway places for anyone interested in combining a little elbow grease with travel, and learning organic farming or gardening practices. Each national organization is independent and charges its own membership fee, but the movement forms a worldwide community of like-minded people, linked by similar values. For more information go to www.wwoof.ca/canada/ or www.wwoof.org/.

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