I recently went WWOOFing in Canada, for about 3 weeks, and I think the best way to sum up my experience would be to say that it was… interesting.
You may be wondering whether its a good kind of interesting, or the it-was-really-weird-and-i-wouldn’t-recommend-it-but-i-shouldn’t-shoot-it-down-too-quickly kind of interesting.
Well, in my case, it was both.
If you don’t know, WWOOF stands for Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms or Willing Workers on Organic Farms. How this whole system works is that you go to the website for the country of your choice (in my case wwoof.ca) and sign up for an account. You’ll have to pay for a membership fee, and this lasts for one year. The membership allows you to view host profiles and lets you apply to the various hosts after you have set up your own profile listing your interests and skills etcetera.
Under WWOOF, you work on the farm for accommodation and food, so it’s a great way to be exposed to a new culture, without spending too much. For a city girl like myself, it was a great chance for me to learn about sustainability and farming too!
Originally, I was set to WWOOF on a farm in Chilliwack for all 3 weeks. But due to some unforeseen circumstances, I left ASAP and WWOOFed on a farm in Vancouver Island (Duncan to be specific) for the next 2 weeks instead.
I’m not one to sugarcoat my words, so here goes.
Upon arriving at the farm, after not sleeping for more than 36 hours, I had to help out with some farm work. Which I’m fine with.
Check out the video of the kittens I mention below.
But then I was told that the toilet was home to 16 kittens and a couple of grown cats, so I had to shower there, without letting any of them escape. That’s absolutely unhygienic, both for the users of the toilet, and the poor kittens. I pity anyone who bought the kittens from the owner.
You can imagine (well you probably can’t since I doubt many of you would have had the same experience) the smell of the toilet that was filled with kitty litter and toilet paper strewn around by the cats.
I’m not going to get into the specifics of the farm, since I believe every farm is different, and I have no right to judge a farm for the way the family decides to run it. And it’s no easy feat running a farm.
In my five days on the first farm, I got to experience a lot of farm work, especially those related to animals. I had to overcome my fear of animals the instant I reached. It didn’t help that there was a rather aggressive dog who was barking at me… this Asian stranger who was intruding her territory. But the dog, Beamer, and I are pals now and I looked forward to greeting her each morning.
I did the usual weeding, which I found rather therapeutic. Especially since it was a chance for me to escape the chaos for the moment. Thank God for ponytails which come in handy to get the bees away.
Every morning, we would begin chores at around 8am, the chores include: Chasing the lamb and goat out of the barn so the cow can come in to be milked, feeding the cow, milking the cow, feeding the pig and mucking her stable. Feeding the cows, horse, and goats and mucking their stable. Feeding the turkeys, chicken and ducks. We also had to make sure that the chicks and baby turkeys (poults) were all there, and had to feed them as well. Water has to be replenished for all the animals too! We also have to check the quails and feed them and add some new grass if necessary. We also refill the water bowls for the 4 golden retrievers, and feed the huge pigs in their pens.
It sounds like a substantial list, but by the time this is all done, probably only an hour has passed, and then we collect the milk from the cow and bring it in to be stored in the fridge. THEN it’s time for breakfast, before we head back to work. (Weeding or gardening and for me, avoiding contact with her oldest son who didn’t really understand the concept of personal space.
I loved how there was no chemicals used in the food. Everything they ate, they grew in the garden or reared from young.
My favorite part would be getting in touch with where my food comes from. Eating cherries from the tree, and watermelon from the garden is a whole new experience. Fresh milk twice a day (almost 4-5 litres a day) is awesome, and it also means fresh yogurt, (it’s really sour and looks curdled and lumpy, but it’s way better for you than the chemically processed ones at home), homemade cheese, homemade ice cream (cocoa powder, cream, milk, honey, avocados = heaven). I loved the fresh eggs too! Definitely free-range haha.
I didn’t really like the idea of eating the chickens and cows, especially after seeing them alive…. But I didn’t want to make it inconvenient for the family. I just tried not to think about it. I really don’t like eating animals. I feel so guilty and sad for them.
Perhaps another one of the best parts was interacting with the people. I loved interacting with the children on the farm especially! They were so friendly and welcoming and the innocent conversations we had made me smile.
There were 5 children on my first farm, 4 boy and a girl, and I got quite close to the little boy and little girl. I loved teaching the girl piano and the hours I spent weeding with the little boy and talking about random things was fun.
I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up and he told me:
“A hunter and a father.”
Isn’t that sweet? He’s only 8 years old, and he knows he wants to be a dad.
Our conversations also made me realize how privileged I am to have an education, and how different our lives were. They were happy just living on a farm and hunting animals and helping with household chores.
I realise that all these photos can hardly show the mess that the house and farm was in. The sink was perpetually filled with dirty dishes. (Imagine flies hovering over them every morning. Eeyer.) and the layer of dust all over the house, and the dirty/clean clothes strewn all around. I would say the house reflects the state of the farm.
The messiness continued outside, and the farm had random planks of wood lying around. The animals lived in pretty nasty conditions, with 3 huge golden retrievers kept in a small cage for the most of the day. The pig’s stable barely had enough straw, and her milking cow was so skinny you could see her ribs. In addition to kittens who were kept in toilet? I was so upset. I was, and still am, tempted to report the farm. For the good of other WWOOFers and for the sake of her farm. Authorities need to regulate such farms if not more animals will suffer. If a farm can’t be managed, they shouldn’t be given the right to own a farm.
While I was only on this farm for a couple of days, it was definitely eye-opening. Having the handle so many animals despite having zero experience with them prior to this still shocks me. I’m so thankful for the german girl I met on the farm who guided me through. Haha, I used to freak out if one cat came near me, and on my first night, I had to cast aside all my fears.
The Inbetween (Victoria)
Ah, Vancouver island is absolutely beautiful. We took the Pacific Coach to Victoria from Vancouver. It was a two hour bus ride and a two hour ferry. The ferry ride was brilliant, you wouldn’t want to miss it! The people here are so warm.
We stayed at Ocean Islands Inn which was wonderful. The staff are on the ball, the hostel and toilets are clean. The only downside was that our room (a female 6-bedder) was so hot and stuffy. But otherwise, I would definitely stay there again. We paid $31.50 for one night in a discount dorm, but they do offer discounts for longer stays.
In Victoria, we walked along the Victoria Beach and also explored pretty much the whole of Victoria! We saw the Legislature, the horse-drawn carriages, the thrift shops, the churches, the museum and more.
We had breakfast at John’s Place Restaurant along Pandora Avenue which was absolutely delicious. We ordered the Greek Eggs Benny which was Eggs Benedict with real butter hollandaise, spinach, tomatoes and feta. It was divine. I chose cornbread for my base (You have the option of an English Muffin, a sesame seed bagel or savoury cornbread) and I’m in love with it. It tastes like a spicy butter cake! Extremely yummy.
On our way back from the beach, we bumped into a Victoria PediCab Tour guide who started talking to us. Before we knew it, we were on our way to his house for lunch! He even offered us some amazing chocolate. (Sounds creepy, but he was so sweet)
Turns out he used to play in a Rock Band in the 1990s, and he toured Germany, Switzerland, France, Czech Republic and more. He was from a band called Red Eye Express. Their music is awesome. Sadly, you can’t find it online cause it’s all from casettes. But it was an honour to meet him. His name is Ian Ross! He even played some of his music for us and we ended up dancing to it in his house. Imagine that. Total strangers. I’m amazed by how open minded and welcoming Canadians are.
Ian also told us about his sailing adventures and misadventures (His sailboat is at the bottom of the sea now) and ended up whipping up a tasty lunch for us before we left for Duncan. He cooked up a spinach and cheese omelette on fresh bread for us. Mmmmmm.
We bumped into another lady when we boarded the Duncan Commuter to our next farm, and she started telling us about the Dogwood, which is BC’s national flower. She was a lovely lady, and shared with us about her experiences in farming, and introduced us to the sights of Vancouver Island. Ahh, everyone in Canada is so sweet.
First impressions always count, so I thought I would share some of my thoughts that I penned down on the first day:
“Alison picked us up from the bus stop and we headed off to fetch her niece, Charlotte from tap class, and to meet her brother-in-law and sister.
When we reached her farm, Tim, her husband was cooking dinner. I still remember: Salmon, cream and capers pasta. With buttered bread and a side salad. And homemade vanilla ice cream for dessert. YUM. The family was so nice and welcoming and made sure that we were settling in fine. Our first day of farming was great, and weeding and checking on the animals was splendid.
Lunch was Smoked Salmon with a pesto garlic spread, and homemade wild blueberry jam on toast. Her farm is so well-maintained and planned out, it’s so enjoyable working. I would definitely come back.
I was in-charge of cooking dinner, so I made a Chicken Curry and Rice dish with Maud, with Chocolate Brownies for dessert.
That’s just Day 1, and I know this is where I want to be. It’s a 180 degree turn from the first farm. Even the animals are friendlier here! Bert and Toby are the friendliest dogs I’ve met, and the cats are so cute too. Misty jumped on my lap as I was preparing this post and started purring. I think working on a farm has made me love animals more!”
I won’t go into too much detail for each day, as much as I would like to, since the routine may bore you. (It is far from boring actually, but this post would never end if I wrote about every single day. You have to experience it for yourself!)
To sum it up, it’s pretty much: Good homemade food, beautiful farm, wonderful family and breathtaking scenery. We wake up to a sumptuous breakfast (Eggs and toast + homemade yogurt with fruits), do farming till we can’t bear the heat, and come in for a nice lunch. Then we probably do a little more farming or cooking depending on the heat. Dinner is always homecooked, and then we start to wind down for the day.
Of course, it wasn’t all work and no play (unlike the first farm which was literally work the whole day, even weekends). We got to see the fun parts of Vancouver Island, and had card games, movie nights and outings with the family!
In the two weeks that I was there, we became part of the family. We met the uncles and aunties, and grandparents and cousins and everyone! They hosted us and took time off their schedules to bring us around, either for a walk in the forest, a swim in the river, and even to the farmers market and to see a lacrosse game!
We also got to meet John’s mother, who drew amazing portraits of all her grandchildren. She started drawing and painting after she was retired, and she’s in her 80s now, and she’s an amazing artist. This shows that as long as you have a heart and willingness to learn, you can do anything, and continue to improve yourself regardless of your age.
I loved how everyone here has their own unique interests, and don’t conform to a certain ideal. Like Isabel put it, “There are different kinds of smart.”
John loves vintage trucks, and Isabel is a chicken nut with a whole chicken hotel going on in her farm. My host, Alison loves discovering new ways to build a sustainable farming system and loves bird-watching and her husband, Tim, loves cooking and plants. Pat’s an artist at eighty, and Isabel still does ballet even in her forties. And they all help out around the farm and care for their lovable dogs and cats, in addition to their various hobbies. Now that’s living life to the fullest.
The family has been amazing, going out of their way to show us around Victoria and Duncan, and making sure we have enough rest and food, and that we aren’t too tired. Isabel and John even hosted us for tea a couple of times!
Like the first farm, their family and household mirrored the state of their farm. A happy, organised family leads to a happy, organised farm. It’s not that difficult to see why!
I really liked how they would take time to sit down together as a family and have a meal together while actually talking about their day!
Alison was a wonderful host, and taught us how to do things including gardening, weeding, moving gravel, making yogurt/bread, milking a cow, mucking and a tons of other things. She’s always trying to improve her farm, and experimenting with ways to create a new ecosystem on her farm.
Tim also showed us a bunch of recipes and we tried making everything from spaghetti bolognese and thai curry to tomato risotto and rhubarb pie!
He also taught us about loads of plants during our short walk in the forest.
And we even tried fresh berries along the way!
Appreciation is something we tend to overlook these days. We tend to mutter a simple thank you without really genuinely expressing our gratitude to the person. It’s such a small gesture, but saying a genuine “Thank you for ______ , you guys did a fantastic job.” with eye contact and a smile is all it takes. On the farm, our hosts would always thank us for what we had done in the day, be it cooking or farm work, and it made us feel good, I mean who wouldn’t want to feel appreciated? Even if it was our job.
A genuine thank you is more rewarding than anything else. I’ll make it a point to thank people more often!
It was sad to leave. But I’m glad I even ended up on that farm with my german friend, Maud. We were like soul sisters. We talked about everything and it was amazing how well we connected. That’s why I’m dedicating a whole post to her. There is so much to say! If she hadn’t planned to go to this farm, I wouldn’t even have known about its existence. She saved me from the first nightmare farm.
I saw a chicken, or rather, two chickens being slaughtered today. It was my first time witnessing the killing of an animal. My hosts were doing it for the right reasons though, to end their suffering – One chicken was sick, and the other had some illness so it’s feathers were falling off and its bottom was raw and infected. It’s so they keep in line with their motto, which was something along the lines of “Only one bad day.”
It was difficult to watch.
I’m extremely squeamish when it comes to things like this, but I forced myself to watch since I feel that it is important to see the reality of life and death. The first chicken was struggling so much. It was so hard to see the very first one being killed. When the head was off, the headless body continued to flap its wings and move about, cause all its nerve endings were on fire. The body was dumped into the bucket, but the crazy thing is, it hopped right out again and went about in circles hopping and flapping around. It’s rather disturbing picturing a bloody decapitated chicken hopping around again. I’m never going to forget that.
The gore wasn’t over, and we had to watch another chicken being killed. It was not any easier watching it the second time. The second chicken was sick, and it didn’t struggle so much. It did flap around a bit, but the illness made it weaker, so it didn’t have as much movement after being beheaded. The chickens had to be beheaded, since it is the quickest way to kill them and end their suffering.
As uncomfortable as I felt, I’m thankful for the opportunity to witness this firsthand. I think its important not to turn a blind eye to the reality of death.
New found animal friends
Before I end, I thought I would show you some of my new animal buddies!
Meet Bert, the sweetest attention-seeker.
The other cat, Misty is quite sneaky, and woke me up from a nap just so I would pet him.
Bella and the other cow whose name suddenly slipped my mind. There’s Phoebe and Martin too, but I forgot to take a photo with them!
and see the big black dog? That’s TOBY! He’s more like a bear than a dog cause he moves so slowly and is so steady. But he’s a sweetheart. Don’t try to take his blankie from him though. Haha. He’s protective about that.
I’m glad to be able to study and live in such comfort. I realize that I take so many things for granted, and I’ve never really been put out of my comfort zone (till now), and I’m so glad that I went WWOOFing. I realized how well-behaved we are and how tame we must seem to foreigners.
Life is about balance, not just studies and work, but about gaining new experiences and meeting new people and learning about the world and different cultures. So I would definitely recommend WWOOFing to everyone, especially the city kids like me.
It is definitely an experience, but that’s what I would like to keep it as, an experience, but not a lifestyle.
Not a lifestyle for me at least. (I don’t want to end up with a farm like the messy first farm if I can’t manage)
That said, I would like to incorporate the whole idea of fresh and unprocessed food into my life in future, maybe have a small garden of my own. But I could never do this on a full-scale.
I genuinely enjoyed my WWOOFing experience, and I would highly recommend it to you. Just make sure you do your research beforehand (I’ll do a post on tips so you know what to look out for).
My hosts not only taught me about farming, but also about life and family. They showed me the importance of family, not just being a family but actually spending time as a family… going out to watch a movie or swim in the river or cooking together or being a support system for each other.
They taught me that being in a relationship is not about how ideal you look together or how suitable you seem as a couple. It’s not just whether he loves you or you love him, and whether you can picture a life with him. It’s about having similar goals in life, and a similar attitude towards life and raising your children. After all, you are in it for the long run together, so if you don’t have the same endpoint in mind, it’s not really going to work out right?
To last long, it’s important to be on the same page. Or perhaps a better analogy would be this: Imagine your life as a super long running track, that you can’t see the end of…yet. It’s important to be on the same track as your spouse. You don’t have to be in the same lane or at the same pace, but as long as you are working towards the same goal, you’ll find a way to catch up with each other or pace each other so that you’ll finish the race hand-in-hand.
It’s not so much about being a couple as it is about being a team. It’s about supporting each other and taking on each other’s loads. It’s about being there for each other, and having open communication. It’s about having special time together even when you have kids.
They also taught me to stop and smell the roses. Quite literally. I’m someone who’s always on the go, packing my schedule back-to-back so I don’t waste time. My schedule is usually filled for at least the next two weeks at a time, so my closer friends know that they have to make plans way ahead with me.
But with them, I learnt to stop work and take a break for tea, and talk to the people around me. I learnt to look around and observe my surroundings, to stop and smell the roses, to listen to the birds, to climb through a giant drainpipe just because. (We actually did this hahaha… It was filled with cobwebs and algae, but I mean, how often do you see a humongous drainpipe in the middle of the forest?)
Probably one MAJOR lessons I learnt from my WWOOFing experience here would be not to go to a farm where the host emails you to come. It shows that the host is incapable of managing his/her own farm and desperately needs an outsider to help keep things under control. Even for normal farms who need help, like on my second farm, you should be able to wait for applicants, rather than actively searching for help. The very first thing about owning a farm is that you should be able to have it under control. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but some form of order should exist.
There will be a followup post soon, on the valuable lessons I’ve learnt from WWOOFing which I’m sure will be of much use for those of you who are planning to WWOOF your way around the world. (I’m certainly planning to! Japan, Italy and Greece are next on my list). AND there’ll be a post on Canada too (travelling tips etc, with a small feature on Richmond)
So stay tuned, and I hope this post gave you a glimpse of my WWOOFing experience. You’ll have to experience it for yourself though… I can barely convey how alive and enriched I felt the past month through a few thousand words and a couple of photos. 🙂
The past month was by far the best month of my life! I learnt a tremendous amount, met so many wonderful people, and tried so many crazy things I never imagined myself doing. It was meant to be a time of self-discovery and self-reflection, and along the way, I was blessed with more than I could have imagined. I’ve made so many new friends and gained amazing experiences that I’ll never forget.
Take a leap of faith, travel alone, see the world. Make your own memories!
The adventure lies just beyond your comfort zone.