WWOOFing to See California on a Dime

The first farm asked us to leave and the second was a marijuana farm that was raided by the feds while we were there.

Photo credit: Iain Buchanan, CC BY 2.0.

Asa junior in college and 20 years old, I shocked my parents with my determination to bust out of my home state of Michigan in pursuit of the West, to California, to volunteer on farms in exchange for food and shelter for a summer.

The year before, I had spent a semester studying abroad in Cameroon. The culture shock was two-fold: there was the experience of being in Cameroon itself, but I also experienced the culture shock of being with a group of other college students who had come from vastly different backgrounds than I did; that is to say, a liberal background in contrast to my conservative and sheltered one. Their brilliance, liberal viewpoints, and life experience made such a powerful influence on me that it was the first great change of my life.

Nearly all of these students had traveled extensively, several of them camping, hiking, volunteering, or using work-trade programs which I thought sounded way more adventurous and exciting than anything I’d ever done before. I wanted to live with other families or travelers, I wanted to join a community lifestyle on a farm, and I wanted the freedom to roam at will. But I only had a few hundred dollars in my bank account. So I signed up with WWOOF.

I wanted to live with other families or travelers, I wanted to join a community lifestyle on a farm, and I wanted the freedom to roam at will.

WWOOF stands for World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, and it is a work-trade network for anyone who is willing to volunteer on a farm in exchange for room and board. I paid $40 for a thick yellow packet with “WWOOFing Handbook for the United States” printed on the cover; inside, there were lists of farms looking for WWOOFers like me. The lists included the name of the farm, sometimes a short biography of who lived there and their intentions for their farm, a description of the work needed to be done, any experience desired, the hours, what meals and shelter they had available, and a way to contact them.

World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms – WWOOF

Typical work schedules ran around 20–35 hours a week. In return you might receive all three meals a day (or just one or two), plus either a small cabin to live in, a room in a house, or, quite commonly, space to pitch a tent. On very rare occasions a farm might mention that they could have opportunities to earn money by working extra hours, when available. For me, money wasn’t the deciding factor. I chose my farms based on their willingness to provide three full meals — plus I was looking for community, a beautiful property, and interesting food to grow.

That summer of 2009 I ended up on two farms in California with a boyfriend who had even less savings in his pocket than myself — but he had a car, a rickety, old, 1989 maroon Buick that we stuffed full of bikes, camping equipment, extra pillows and blankets, lacrosse sticks (because you never know), and food. Using my incredibly amateur skills to calculate our gas mileage, I figured we could afford the four-day drive there and four days back, plus the groceries in between farms. No emergency fund, no eating out, no extra detours. If all of our food and rent was taken care of, we could live simply and just make it.

All my previous summers I had responsibly worked to save money, like my siblings before me, usually waitressing at the same Big Boy restaurant for $10–15 an hour in tips. My parents didn’t know what to think of me; winging a cross-country trip was not something done by anyone they knew. (Later I learned that my mom had worried herself sick that I was going to drop out of college, a fear that I had never hinted at or even considered.) They handled it in bafflement but did not attempt to force me to stay. Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to share with them the whole truth of my experiences because the first farm asked us to leave and the second was a marijuana farm that was raided by the feds while we were there.

The first farm asked us to leave and the second was a marijuana farm that was raided by the feds while we were there.

The first farm, and my introduction to WWOOFing, was a charming place near Salinas, California that had boasted in their WWOOF book bio, “Let’s make music together and hang out in my wood fire hot tub.” The place was high on a hill and smelled of the wood chips that lined all the pathways. There was a quiet outdoor kitchen under a greenhouse roof with a small fish pond, lilies growing on the surface. We peed in buckets, pooped in a composting toilet that had an impressive foresty view, and showered under an outdoor faucet in a bathtub nestled into orange trees that made me feel like Eve.

The farm was owned and run by “Vincent,” a very tan, forty-year-old guy with a few messy grey dreadlocks and a workaholic personality. There was only one other WWOOFer at the time, a nearly-silent girl of eighteen from Canada named “Susanne” who had been there a month or two. It was immediately clear that the two were a couple, a fact that shocked me at the time in my naïveté. Now, maybe I wouldn’t care as much, and it’s hard to look back and know if my feelings were justified. Was he giving an air of “hey, let’s all hook up” or was that just my imagination? He did decide to trim the orange trees surrounding the shower so heavily that you no longer felt any privacy.

We had only emailed with Vincent before we arrived, not even knowing what questions to ask. We were supposed to work 25 hours a week, and we were in charge of keeping track of those hours ourselves. We could work five hours a day, five days a week, or we could do three long days and take the rest of the week off to drive to the ocean if we wanted, a suggestion we took Vincent up on. The work varied; there were large fruit trees which needed harvesting and mulching with a wheelbarrow on steep, hilly, wood chip paths. There was a small vegetable patch to be watered, communal meals to make, wood to chop for fires, and other projects decided by Vincent such as chainsawing down trees and making them into more wood chips. Our meals were vegetarian and plain unless Susanne cooked. My boyfriend and I drank a lot of milk and later we debated whether this was one reason why we were asked to leave.

We arrived in the late afternoon after days of driving (eating a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and smoking cigarettes in the hopes of curbing our appetite) and were immediately asked to start working, wheelbarrowing compost to the avocado trees. We lasted a little under two weeks when, with an attempt at a sympathetic smile, Vincent asked us to leave, giving us no notice. We were to pack up and depart immediately. I felt awful about it and still feel ashamed when I tell people; this is the only time anything like this has ever happened to me.

The reasons Vincent asked us to leave were 1.) we hadn’t worked enough hours because we went to the beach, which is strange, since he had suggested doing that and we were meeting a good account of our hours, and 2.) we had taken a nap one afternoon and overslept, missing a group project, which is true. Perhaps we weren’t the workaholics that he and Susanne were. I think mostly that the real reason Vincent asked us to leave was that he didn’t like us personally — and I agree, we did not mesh well. To his credit, my boyfriend at the time was really quite socially awkward and strange.

Ina bit of a pinch, now that we unexpectedly needed a new place to go, we referred back to the yellow WWOOF book, now slightly tattered. We were in search of farms in northern California to find pot, which this soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend could not live without. We spoke on the phone with one family located in Mendocino county, part of the marijuana triangle made from three popular weed producing counties in NorCal, who would appreciate help with their little kids, had horses, goats, chickens, and cows to care for, in addition to vegetables and fruit trees. We drove all night, stopping to sleep in the car outside a donut shop where we splurged on day-old rolls. (In retrospect, I have always regretted not stopping to camp in national parks, but I felt strapped for cash and didn’t know as well as I do now how to find free federal land to camp on.)

The first week at the farm felt like a dream come true — it was the solstice and they had a feast with delicious food, including meat (Vincent didn’t mind serving us straight up, stripped down, rice and beans for every meal). We were able to learn how to ride their recently broken horses, I learned to milk goats and butcher chickens, goats and cows, I tried cow testicles (chewy on the inside and cooked to a crisp on the outside), and yes, they grew and smoked excellent weed. I felt like I was gaining a lot of knowledge and the ability to experience farm life in a unique way. Where else could I learn to ride horses without paying for it?

And there was weed! Everyone smoked a lot and openly, sharing spliffs together. There were three plots of thirty plants outside and an underground operation with another hundred and fifty or so plants, plus some baby clones starting out. Over time there were whispers about another plot somewhere on the 300-acre property, but I never saw it and can’t imagine it was more than another hundred or two hundred plants. This brings the grand total to approximately five hundred plants, which no one thought would be tempting enough for a bust. Raids were published in a local paper and were typically excluded to farms with over a thousand plants.

Our work gradually became limited to just the weed plants, watering and feeding them nutrients, pruning and a little trimming. I had no idea at the time how much a weed trimmer gets paid, but it’s around $100–$150 per pound of cleaned up, trimmed buds of marijuana. They offered to pay us for extra hours we worked so we began clocking an extra three to four hours each day after our required 20 hours a week, and they promised to pay us $10/hour for those hours. Of course they were taking advantage of us and our youthful ignorance.

After two weeks of a great situation, things deteriorated drastically. A big drunken party may have been the moment where the tides turned: the owner of the farm flipped a quad while drunkenly riding it in the dark and broke a couple of his ribs. The delectable diet withered, consisting more commonly of plain pasta with butter, we weren’t being paid upfront anymore, and the couple began to fight bitterly in front of everyone, screaming, even telling the children — ages 1, 3, 5, and 7 — that they had to choose which parent they wanted to live with because the woman was leaving at that moment. It was bad. Somehow we stuck it out to witness the following catastrophe three weeks later.

One early morning I came out of the RV we were staying in to begin my work day and there were men in bulletproof vests pointing guns at us. A team of thirty men, one in particular with a thick, mysterious Australian accent, placed everyone (except the kids) in handcuffs and interrogated us all about how much weed was growing and where. They told my boyfriend and I to “get the fuck out of California and never come back.” I actually pointed to the yellow WWOOF book to explain how we had come there as vegetable farmers; the men confusedly browsed through it, probably expecting it to be a guide to find pot farms.

For marijuana busts, they tend to not press charges or arrest you. Instead, they just rob you blind, leveling you down to nothing. They cut out the generator, which we needed for pumping our water, and hauled it away. They took the family’s phones, computers, and cash. They called child protective services and wrote tickets for trees cut down without a permit. They destroyed all the equipment needed to grow and cut down the plants, piling them in their trucks. We left a few days later without being paid the several hundred dollars the the farm owed us. We snatched a few bottles of wine as “payment,” and limped back home using our last dollars on gas, toll roads, and more peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Even after all of this, I still prefer the freedom of traveling with a backpack and stumbling into other travelers or meeting families who invite you into their home for a meal, seeing how people in other places live their daily lives. I WWOOFed two more times in Hawaii five years after this, with mixed results. It’s hard to work and live with other people, especially when they’re strangers, so finding the best fit for a WWOOFing farm takes time and open-mindedness and flexibility and maybe a trial stay.

Farms want free labor, even if it is inexperienced youngsters looking for weed.

If you’re thinking about WWOOFing, I suggest doing it, but with the extreme caveat that no matter what questions you ask, the farms will probably tell you what you want to hear so that you come work for them. Farms want free labor, even if it is inexperienced youngsters looking for weed.

Molly Boersma is the pseudonym of a girl who no longer smokes so much weed but still believes in traveling without a program, having recently quit her job to travel through India and Nepal as a solo backpacker.

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