Kelly Bayer took a vacation from her job in a sleep laboratory by toiling in a vegetable patch in Santa Barbara.
The sun beat down on her back as she worked a garden hose over a collection of tomatoes, peppers, carrots and onions that would eventually be consumed on the organic farm.
“I’m kind of interested in farming and sustainable living,” Bayer said, before giving away a bit of her real motivation for working on the farm: a quick and cheap way to visit the West Coast.
Bayer, 26, was part of an itinerant crew passing through the one-acre property that included a nursing student from Korea, an engineering student from France and a free-spirited 18-year-old fleeing the East Coast before starting college. In exchange for a few hours of work each day, they got a free place to sleep and two meals a day.
They’d found their way to Santa Barbara by way of a movement known as WWOOFing, which stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.
Over the years — largely by word of mouth — WWOOFing has grown into a loose global network that hooks up those willing to work with farmers eager to take them for a few weeks, or even a few months.
Through the WWOOF network, would-be vagabonds find their way to a farm in Hawaii perched on a bluff overlooking the Pacific, a fruit orchard in the Bakony Mountains of Hungary or a rice farm in the tropical rain forests of Malaysia.
Hundreds of farms are located in the United States, including at least a couple dozen spread across California. They range from backyards with a single volunteer to large-scale organic operations with as many as 100 workers.
Some focus on teaching sustainable living; many others have a more casual approach, allowing youths to dabble in artistic pursuits while contributing some work. A few others, including one boasting family-sized yurts as accommodations, have the granola-infused spirituality of a flower child’s commune.
Bayer, her short hair still tousled from sleeping under the stars, has traveled to Italy using the WWOOF network and planned to move on to a farm in Washington before returning home to Rochester, N.Y. — and her regular job.
WWOOFing began in the early 1970s in England as a way for farmers to get weekend help. Back then, the name stood for Working Weekends on Organic Farms. It was started by a London secretary who thought city people needed a convenient way to enjoy the countryside and learn a little about the organic movement.
A trial weekend of work in Sussex quickly led to others and, eventually, chapters in other countries.
The movement was soon embraced by young adventurers as a cheap way to travel. All they had to pay was their transportation to the farm. Because they only had to work half days during their stays, they had plenty of time to enjoy themselves in a new locale.
The growth of the Internet has unlocked the potential of the network, providing the adventuresome with a cheap gateway to the world. The American branch has a small staff, with headquarters in Laguna Beach.
WWOOFers are encouraged to purchase travel or medical insurance, and many hosts have homeowners insurance that may cover them, but there’s an implicit understanding that workers are there at their own risk. Neither the volunteers nor their hosts are subject to background checks, so the organization warns both to check out comments and ratings on the WWOOF website.
Bayer, a technician in a sleep lab, said she first heard about WWOOFing from a friend right after she finished school at the University of Delaware.
She was interested in living in a more eco-friendly way, as well as experiencing other parts of the world — not as a tourist, but by immersing herself in a new place.
After trying it overseas, Bayer wanted to go stateside, preferably on the other side of the country. With a friend, she found the farm in Santa Barbara — just a bike ride away from crystalline beaches, rugged hiking trails and shops on a downtown strand.
ArtFarm, owned by Madeline Gordon Jackson, wasn’t exactly what Bayer had imagined. It’s more like an overgrown backyard.
It’s an acre or so of land with vegetables, chickens and two goats (Bella and Taco), situated in a modest neighborhood just off U.S. 101. Bhutanese prayer flags out front wave newcomers in to a maze of brush, fruit trees, ramshackle buildings and off-the-wall art projects, maneuverable by way of dipping under branches and squeezing through narrow corridors carved into the miniature jungle.
Janna Powell, an 18-year-old who began her freshman year at Hampshire College this fall, was taken aback when she arrived last summer at the farm, which was recovering from years of being nearly abandoned.
She saw a blue foam sculpture that included melted doll heads (Jackson calls it “Wave of the Future”) and stockpiles of dark blue glass water bottles from Trader Joe’s for a future art project. In the back, on the porch of Jackson’s abandoned art studio, sits a mountain of old computer monitors that Jackson envisions as birdhouses.
Soon, though, Powell became a believer.
“There’s something special,” Powell said. “This place has so much potential. It doesn’t look like there’s much here, but we’re rebuilding so quickly.”
On a crisp morning, the crew of eight finished breakfast and wandered over to an expansive deck in the center of the yard. One of the volunteers led them through a yoga routine.
Then the work began. Simon Saaid, 21, from France, drilled holes in a compost box he was building so worms could wiggle through. Thomas Enne, 18, who grew up on a farm in France with WWOOFers, worked on finishing a chicken coop. Chris Mudge, 22, from England, balanced himself atop an old shed, wielding a chain saw to trim back a tangle of tree branches.
“The more involved you become and the more you put into it, the more you take with you,” Mudge said.
Some of the volunteers at Jackson’s farm have been letdowns — the occasional sour attitude, and a few didn’t have the work ethic Jackson finds necessary. The volunteers say Jackson can be difficult or demanding. And having to spend so much time with the same people can sometimes lead to quibbles.
In many ways, matching volunteers and farms is a bit like a blind date.
“Not all farms are created equally,” said Jess Sullivan, 24, a graduate student at UC San Diego who runs a one-acre WWOOF farm with her boyfriend in southeastern San Diego County. Sullivan worked on farms in Maine and Belize during her undergraduate days at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.
In recent months, they have been flooded with applications. She has received as many as 110 in one month alone; she takes only about three volunteers at a time.
She said applicants fall into several categories. The confused — those who have finished college and are avoiding figuring out what to do with their lives; the wanderers — the ones who blithely travel the world with a hunger for exploration; and the ambitious — those who are hooked on the trend of community farming, with a genuine interest in agriculture.
A wide range of them have passed through the San Diego County farm, known as Tanglezone. Adam Tinkle, Sullivan’s boyfriend, remembered the writer who wanted to work on his novel and the photographer who wanted to hone her skills. Most, though, have been young people trying to find their way.
Essentially they’re asking: “What’s something I can do that’s outdoors, allows me to travel and to meet people?” said Tinkle, 25.
At Jackson’s farm in Santa Barbara, after volunteers have finished their half-day of work, they’re free to do as they please: a bike ride to the beach, a trip to the city or just lounging around the farm.
Danielle Strom, 23, Bayer’s traveling partner and a student at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, worked on a sculpture of a woman, with limbs of chicken wire and a deflated soccer ball for a head. Others helped stuff body parts with crumpled newspapers.
The workers gathered around a picnic table for the lunch they had just earned: grilled chicken slathered in barbecue sauce, potato salad and fruit.
They shared stories about where they came from and laughed at what they’d been through so far. They also recounted the progress they’d made.
Still, so much was left to be done.
But Mudge shrugged. “That’s what tomorrow’s for.”