A helping hand
PUBLISHED: 12:35 10 December 2015 | UPDATED: 12:35 10 December 2015
Many smallholders take on volunteers and find them extremely useful. The experience can also be hugely beneficial for the volunteers themselves. Kim Stoddart investigates
Have you ever thought about all the projects you could undertake if only you had the time, or even better, a little help? I know I have.
I’ve got a whopping great list of things I’d like to get done (and try out) but in reality never seem to be able to get round to, which is why I’ve increasingly been thinking about getting in some volunteers to help.
It was speaking to fellow smallholders and organic veg producers Alicia Miller and Nathan Richards recently that really sold me on the idea. Like me, they moved from cosmopolitan lives in a city and have found working with volunteers to be a hugely energising experience. As well as being extremely helpful to their operation, it also reminds them why they are doing what they do in the first place and their children love hanging out with all the visitors.
So I decided to investigate the different options out there and how to make volunteering work for anyone thinking about doing the same…
HOW TO FIND VOLUNTEERS IN THE FIRST PLACE
Finding people willing to help is actually a lot easier than you might otherwise think.
The day-to-day lifestyle and activities that we take for granted are of increasing interest to people from around the world. Growing your own food and rearing animals and everything else that goes with it – these are skills that others would really like to learn.
There are actually many different ways to go about it and it all depends on how much help you need and whether you have (or can organise) space to house volunteers throughout the year. If you have at least one spare room or static caravan that you are willing to provide volunteers with, along with food and a warm welcome in exchange for their assistance, then there are many options on offer.
The three main organisations that can help you find volunteers in this way are WWoof, Workaway and HelpX. They each work in a very similar way: connecting prospective hosts with individuals, friends and families from around the world who are looking for working holidays in the UK. Each organisation recommends that prospective hosts expect assistance for about five hours a day in this system of exchange.
FINDING WHAT WORKS BEST FOR YOU
You don’t even necessarily need to have spare accommodation available. At Lammas, a pioneering eco-village in Pembrokeshire, they have a constant stream of helpers keen to learn more about the project. With limited accommodation on site, a lot of these bring a tent or campervan and pitch up nearby. The many families at the project advertise for assistance via their website and anyone interested registers online to receive a monthly newsletter which outlines all of the volunteering opportunities coming up.
If, however, you would just prefer to have some help on projects on specific days, then you’ll need to be a bit more proactive, but it’s also relatively easy to organise. It all depends what help you are looking for and what you are prepared to offer. Fellow Country Smallholding writer Jules Moore has a number of volunteer days throughout the year (see page 15).
We don’t have any spare accommodation either inside or outside the house and, as I spend a lot of time writing, having people stay for weeks on end wouldn’t work. So the best option for me will be a regular weekly volunteer day with a gardening focus. I’ve seen it done very successfully at community allotments before, like the excellent Moulsecoomb Forest garden in Brighton. There, locals who would like to learn to grow their own go along for a few hours each Friday and provide assistance in exchange for a free lunch and maybe some vegetables to take home if there are any going spare.
This will be a very nice way to dip my toe into a rather large world of prospective volunteering opportunities and see where it takes me. I’ll spread the word locally by way of friends, neighbours, my local gardening groups and my website. Social media is also ideal for this purpose and would also be a good way of finding an individual volunteer or two if you’d rather work on a one-to-one (or two) basis. Not everyone has a garden, let alone a few acres, so as long as your smallholding is relatively easy to get to, finding people really shouldn’t be a problem.
IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR LONGER TERM VOLUNTEERS , WORK OUT WHICH HOSTING ORGANISATION TO CHOOSE. HERE ARE THE THREE MAIN ONE:
WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms)
This is the original, and perhaps best known, volunteer organisation which has been going since 1971. It was born out of founder, Sue Coppard’s experiences of volunteering on an organic farm in Sussex. What started out as a loose arrangement for Sue and friends soon grew into a global movement. The charity aims to teach people about organic growing and low-impact living, yet you don’t need to be an organically registered smallholding to become a host. As long as you garden or farm to organic principles (I.e. naturally without any chemicals) then it’s worth considering. Joining the network as a host just involves signing up (for a small membership fee) for WWOOF UK.
The organisation has just launched a partnership with the Land Workers Alliance where, if you sign up to one you automatically receive membership to the other. The offer runs until April 1, 2016.
HelpX (Help Exchange)
This organisation describes itself as primarily a cultural exchange for working holiday makers who would like to stay with local people and gain practical experience. It’s an online list of potential hosts and any smallholder with a project in mind can apply to register and invite volunteers in exchange for food and accommodation.
It’s free to sign up as a host and is very popular. At the time of writing there were 159 hosts listed in Wales alone.
This site describes itself as having been set up to promote fair exchange between budget travellers, language learners or culture seekers and families, individuals or organizations who are looking for help with a range of varied and interesting activities.
It says many its volunteers are students on a year out, while others are skilled professionals on a break and others sometimes want to practice a language. The organisation recommends that helpers should be made to feel part of the family as this is a cultural exchange in which both parties benefit and not just an excuse for cheap labour.
Some typical examples of exchanges have been house painting, weeding, tree planting, babysitting, doing the school run, cooking, shopping, general maintenance, fencing, office work, help with building, language tuition etc.
- Nathan Richards and Alicia Miller, organic veg producers - Troed y Rhiw Farm, Ceredigion.
Nathan says: “For me, volunteering has to be very much a two-way relationship. I wasn’t sure about it at first because I didn’t want people to feel used, but then I tried it out and realised that by teaching (and skilling them) I’m giving something really valuable back in return for their time. We find it such a rewarding experience both for us and those coming through. ”
“WWOOF would have been my natural go-to organisation and I feel it still is, but they haven’t really moved into the internet quite so smoothly, so we tend to use Workaway and HelpX nowadays.”
The couple find they get inundated with requests and vet each prospective volunteer really carefully before deciding which to go with. They have found this investment in time well worthwhile and they’ve had some amazing volunteers over the years as a result. It’s not just about the help they provide either. They sometimes get young farmers from other parts of the world with different ways of doing things which can help feed in ideas and they once had an environmentalist who showed them wildlife they didn’t even know they had.
Nathan always asks for a picture and as much information as possible from applicants. “I’ll always look more at those who have done their research and shown genuine interest in our farm. Anyone that we consider we’ll always speak to beforehand. It’s as much for them to get a sense of us as anything. Some of our potential volunteers are very young - 17 or 18 - so I think it’s important for them to be able to see us and where they would be coming to, truthfully. I always let them know what we’re likely to be doing on the farm at that time of year and feel it’s important to mention that the countryside is beautiful here and full of wildlife but the nightlife is absolutely non-existent.”
Nathan and Alicia have also benefited from the social aspect of having volunteers coming to stay. Their volunteers stay in the house with the family so become part of the household for the time that they are there; working, cooking and eating together for sometimes weeks on end.
-The Vincent family, Trehale Farm, Pembrokeshire
Adam Vincent works with WWOOF and says: “Having WWOOFers is amazing. Everyone should do it. We’ve only been part of this scheme for a few years now because I had always assumed you had to have an organically certified farm to take part. You don’t. As long as you are farming along organic principles it’s fine. I only wish I’d known about this years ago.”
The family have two static caravans which they use for their volunteers and find that this separate accommodation enables them to have some space as a family during evenings and weekends. Then if they really get on well with their helpers they’ll invite them round for a barbecue in the evenings. They find that setting clear boundaries from the outset is essential, as is carefully vetting your volunteers before they arrive to make sure they are actually interested in farming and to find out what they are able to help out with.
A COMMUNITY EXPERIENCE
Country Smallholding editor Simon McEwan lives at Beech Hill, an intentional community in Mid Devon, where they take volunteers from WWOOF and Help-X to help on their six acres of land. This summer, the community also took a group of six people from the group Volunteers for Peace.
Simon says: “We love having volunteers. They are invariariably a huge help, and it is a really rich experience having them. Many are from abroad, and it is so interesting to get to know them. We now tend to have a group of up to six volunteers together for one week. They get so much done, and they usually bond really quickly and enjoy socialising together. They also tend to find it fascinating to stay at an intentional community and see how this works.
“We arranged to have a group of eight young people from Volunteers for Peace (www.vfp.org/). This organisation offers placement in more than 1,800 short-term international voluntary service programmes in 70 countries. Our group, from seven countries, was given a lot of responsibility to survey our walled garden, come up with a report on suggested repairs, and carry out some of the work. They achieved all of that during their eight-day stay and we had a celebration with them at the end. It was brilliant.”