Dispatches From the WWOOF Capital of Alaska

  • Anna Drew helps prep a raised bed for potatoes. (Photo by Jennifer Tarnacki)
  • Feeding chickens. (Photo by Jennifer Tarnacki)
  • WWOOFer Elizabeth Neil Lewis loading kayaks at A Seaside Adventure, Tutka Bay. (Photo by Jennifer Tarnacki)
  • A WWOOFer crew at C& D Peonies. (Photo by Jennifer Tarnacki)
  • A guided kayak trip with WWOOFers at A Seaside Adventure, Tutka Bay. (Photo by Jennifer Tarnacki)
  • Ron Wilhoit with WWOOFer China Mayo at Alaska Draft Horse. (Photo by Jennifer Tarnacki)
  • A peony field at Homer Gardens. (Photo by Jennifer Tarnacki)
  • A high tunnel at Homer Gardens. (Photo by Jennifer Tarnacki)

Of the 80 or so farms, homesteads, ranches, hatcheries and homestays that make up the Worldwide Workers on Organic Farms, or WWOOF, network in Alaska, Homer has a whopping 40 of them. From aquaponics to pig farming to permaculture design to cold hardy garlic breeding to survival bushcraft skills, Homer has a wealth of knowledge to pair with incoming helpers.

For those unfamiliar with WWOOF, it is a work-trade program designed to be a cultural and educational exchange between host and helper.

Participants, called WWOOFers, work an agreed up on amount of hours at their host’s operation in exchange for room and meals, which are often fresh from the farm.

The idea was originally conceived in the United Kingdom in the 1970s as a way for London workers to get out into the countryside, and has since expanded massively to over 50 countries, with more than 2,100 host farms in the U.S. alone and thousands more registered WWOOFers.

From well-established old timers like the Kilcher’s Homestead and Diamond View, who were taking in “wwoofers” long before there was WWOOF, to the freshly broken ground of newer farms like Blood, Sweat and Food Farm, Homer farms and WWOOFers from around the country and world are connecting. It’s not only farms and homesteads on WWOOF — Howling Husky Homestead down on East End Road seek out WWOOFers to care for their sled dogs, while over at Seaside Adventure across Kachemak Bay they prep kayaks and help guide naturalist tours.

People join as helpers for a myriad of reasons, ranging from wanting to learn more about sustainability, to picking up homesteading skills, to seeing a new place, to meeting new people, to learning commercial vegetable production to start their own small farms.

Often it is students who are attracted to WWOOF, precisely because it offers something different than the classroom experience.

In general, millennials care about food culture; they care what food says about them as consumers and as individuals, and they want to make ethical consumer choices that protect the environment. Learning what goes into growing our country’s food can be a powerful, eye-opening experience, and with the issue in the U.S. of a “graying” farmer population, an initiative that introduces younger generations to agriculture is a useful link.

Anna Drew, a college student in sustainability at Ohio State University, explained why she came to Alaska to work on a farm.

“I started WWOOFing because I’m very interested in learning how I can live a sustainable lifestyle and inspire others to do the same, and I thought this was a great way to meet people who are also passionate about this initiative,” she said.

Over in Tutka Bay at Seaside Adventures, Elizabeth Neil Lewis helps guide kayak tours and says she’s learning how to be a human interacting in a non-human world, something she said she could never have gotten anywhere else.

“I started WWOOFing because I wanted a summer experience while I was in college that was more enriching than sitting behind a desk all day, so I came out here and now I sit in a kayak all day,” she said. “I get to be out and learn so much about not only the plants and animals of southern Alaska, but also just what it means to be a person and what it means to be a human interacting in the world, in more than just a human-to-human sense.”

For Jack Demaine, from Delaware, Ohio, learning is also an important aspect of participating in WWOOF.

“I chose to WWOOF because I saw the beauty in growing a plant that provide sustenance for the body, and seeing that process through,” he said. “The more I learn about the growing centralized agriculture system and its effect on the globe, I feel a calling and a duty to nourish the soil. I’ve learned so much here, not only about how to grow food but also how to get water, how to live off-grid, how to build my own home. It’s given me the opportunity to live outside the bounds of our over-stimulated culture and showed me how to find happiness in simple things like a hot meal and pure water, and I’m so grateful for what WWOOF is doing for me and for many people around the world.”

Hosts join for a number of reasons as well, often feeling compelled to teach and share as well as get work done.

“I’ve had a really great experience meeting new people who are also interested in sustainable living and farming,” said Jenni Medley of Blood, Sweat and Food Farms. “Everyone that has come to work here has been fun to work with and brought new perspectives on what we’re doing. We have a lot going on, and it’s great to have that infusion of energy and new ideas.”

Up on Diamond View, Samantha Cunningham has been hosting for over 20 years.

“It gives our family a chance to interact with people from all different cultures and walks of life,” she said. “We are a very inclusive WWOOF site; we’ve been hosting since 1995 in Homer, before there was even a WWOOF USA. And at the same time we have the chance to introduce people to organic gardening, which is something I’ve been doing since I was born. It’s a lot of fun sharing that adventure with people and showing them what works for people in Alaska”.

Mossy Kilcher of Seaside Farm, one of the oldest farms in Homer, says she is on WWOOF because a place like Seaside Farm needs a lot of hands.

“I love sharing what I know about farming in Alaska and homestead life, sharing the knowledge of what I grew up with,” she said. “Harvesting wild greens, growing in this particular climate, what it takes to be able to live on the land and also with the land here. Coexisting with the place you’re on, rather than just using it you’re also sharing it and living side-by-side with all the creatures that were here first.”

It is not only hard skills like planting, harvesting, building raised beds, wood splitting, construction, and gardening that hosts often provide, but often softer skills like cultural sensitivity, ecological awareness and self-efficacy.

As Laura Hendricks put it, “We like to teach people that it’s possible to put their own signature on their life.”

There are also many ways in which it can challenge and infuriate those involved.

Sometimes hosts see their educated visitors as liabilities, but as Kathy and Greg Simpson over at Anchor River Llama and Alpaca Ranch put it, it’s important to keep perspective and always have a sense of humor.

They told a story about a highly educated man from a prestigious university on the East Coast who came to the ranch. The first night, too afraid to sleep by himself in the tent, Kathy chuckled as she recalled him calling her on her cell phone in the middle of the night, scared of the noises he was hearing outside. By the end of his visit on their ranch, though, he had hunted moose upwind of bears, caught fish, learned to bake bread and use a chainsaw, as well as made a lifelong second family of friends.

It doesn’t always come up roses, WWOOFing is based on mutual trust and there can be mismatches or just plain bad fits, but one thing guaranteed is that participants will encounter others, those with different cultural values, different belief systems, different skill sets and natural aptitudes, different perspectives and passions.

Anytime that link is created, an opportunity arises; a creative space opens up and in that space is room for innovation. As they say, a change of perspective is worth 80 IQ points.

That’s what makes WWOOF relevant as an organization and as an idea: its power to connect people.

This is the work of our time, to bridge cultural gaps, to rethink our relationship to the natural world, to protect the environment, respect other creatures for the unique role they play in the world. And just as importantly, to nourish ourselves and use our creative collective wisdom to do what humans do best — adapt to a changing environment.

For an organization whose mission is about connecting good people, sharing skills and gaining insights, Homer has all three in spades.

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