Volunteerism and Community

Author(s): 
Thom Foote

My wife and I (I’m 68, she's 64) came to the Spokane area 6 years after buying land here with the idea of starting a small farm. We made a bargain that because she has a much better resume than me that she would find work in town and I would stay on the land and do everything else- build the farm infrastructure, plant the plants, tend the animals, cook and clean. For the first 3 years I did this pretty much alone except for her help on the weekends and days off. We accomplished a lot in a relatively short amount of time. However it became apparent that I would not be able to keep up this pace especially with several large projects in our “5 year plan”.

I became aware of WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) in 2014 and registered as a host farm shortly after. WWOOF is an organization that facilitates volunteers who travel around the world to work on organic farms in exchange for room and board. We were uncertain about how it was going to work out for us but we had two advantages in our favor: 1) We were both from military families so we had traveled around the country our entire lives. This made us outgoing people who can easily meet and make new friends. 2) We both had “grown up” in village Alaska from our 20's until our late 30’s living among the Yup’ik eskimos of southwest Alaska.

While you might easily understand the first advantage, you might then wonder village life in Alaska has to do with accepting volunteers into our house. I’ll explain.

When you live in a small village in Alaska, in an environment that can at times be brutal and you need help, you ask for it, if others have not already offered to help. To do otherwise is a dangerous thing. When it is -50F and something is wrong, your pride or determination to live “self-sustainably” can literally cost you your life. When you are a small farmer, even in such a temperate climate as eastern Washington, when things go wrong, there is very little difference. We often have to swallow our pride and ask for help. I know several people for whom this is an extremely difficult choice. It is as if they view it as an admission of failure or something.

Asking for help and accepting volunteers into your life for a period of time is also a great way to build community. The barn raisings of old were community events and a collective recognition that they could not do everything by themselves. They were also community events that cemented relationships and forged bonds that were not easily broken. In our area of eastern Washington, neighbors can still be fairly far apart so it becomes more difficult to form communities and maintain ties.

The other aspect of asking for help, especially when deciding to host volunteers for a week or more, is the change they bring to farm and family dynamics. Strangers are suddenly living with you. They do not know you and you do not know them. The habits that all of us develop in our daily lives are upset. Every job has to be explained. The locations forks, spoons and plates must be shown. For some people this is just too much. But for those who decide to use volunteers, the benefits far outweigh any inconveniences. The amount of work volunteers have helped me accomplish over the past 3 years is phenomenal! From weeding to house painting to major construction to making our CSA deliveries, our volunteers have helped with it all. When they leave, I wake up the next day with the realization that all the myriad jobs they did I now have to do – by myself again.

About the Author

Thom Foote and his wife Torie are retired teachers from Alaska and lifelong gardeners. Both are “military brats” and have moved around all their lives. They have two children, a dog, a cat, 25 laying hens and, soon, 20 meat chickens, 3 pigs and 15 turkeys. Their farm website is footehillsfarm.net. They can be reached at (509)-596-0950 anytime. They often organize tours and welcome visitors anytime during the spring, summer or fall.

Edition: 
September 1, 2017