In Defense of WWOOF (Worldwide Workers on Organic Farms)

Wwoof, rather than any relation to academia, often elicits images of stinky, broke backpackers, smugly aloof in their rugged ability to brave rural home stays and exchange their labor for room and board while scoffing at the pseudo-culturally-immersed delusions of their stinky, broke hostel-hopping backpacker counterparts: “If only those hostel sluts would open their eyes to the capitalist luxury of their ten dollar dorm bunks!”, they might exclaim, “that they probably found in the newest edition of some Lonely Planet guidebook, no less!”

My first wwoof host family.

My first wwoof host family.

Stinky-broke or not, I’m still a proponent for wwoofing anywhere. But, I do think there are a few political-socio-economic factors that set wwoof in China apart from wwoof outside China, and lend to it’s viability as a rural pedagogic entrée:

1. China’s citizenship is divided between urban and rural. Temporarily suspending judgment on the plethora of political/social/economic hurdles this household registration system has institutionalized, this does mean that every rural citizen is allocated a plot of land through the collective and therefore eligible to register as a wwoof host (wwoof made an exception in China so hosts don’t technically have to farm organically); in no other country is the definition of farmer, and therefore the host eligibility, so broadly cast throughout the countryside.

Meanwhile, should one have an interest in conducting ethnographic research on the political/social/economic challenges this system reinforces (does the hukou ‘tie farmers to their land’?) wwoof is a viable launch pad.

2.  Wwoof was promoted in Dushu. Some of my past wwoof hosts told me it was through this intellectual monthly journal that they heard about the website and decided to register as hosts.

Dushu is a forum for academic discourse on New Left views; the most notable New Leftist, Wang Hui, is coeditor of the magazine. Although a disparate group, they are primarily intellectuals of the younger generation. The New Left has highlighted the rising economic inequalities, social polarization, declining public services, unbridled corruption, environmental degradation and “loss of humanistic spirit” that accompanied China’s economic reforms and opening up to the world (Goldman, 2007: 29)

 New Leftists advocate economic justice rather than economic growth at any cost. They contend that deeper economic reforms could continue to disproportionately benefit employers and agribusiness while undermining the economic and social position of China’s workers and farmers. They have tried to revitalize the role of collective landholding and village-based enterprises as a buffer to the potential insecurity that may accompany further privatization and global economic integration. For further reading I would suggest checking out Dale Jiajun Wen and this article, Wen Tiejun and this, this, this or this article, or any of the articles at (though even with my vpn I can’t access the ladder link, so the site may have been taken down).

That wwoof offers an outlet for foreign students and travelers to hear from and work alongside rural farmers is epic. That it also a channel to hear from grassroots individuals who may have opinions, whether positive or negative, on the the New Left critique is a double-whammy.

3. General access to rural villages is laden with obstacles, especially via direct invitation by a farmer. While access as an outsider presents limitations for nearly any field study, the Chinese elements of political sensitivity combined with the cultural emphasis on personal networks and connections can throw seemingly insurmountable wrenches into project feasibility.

For foreign students/travelers with limited time and social capital, wwoof may be the only means to catalyze a rural experiential learning opportunity.

Meanwhile, for students interested in undertaking long-term rural projects that involve ethnographic or participant observation, wwoof is your best resource for realistic yet low-risk opportunities to learn, practice and discuss how to conduct this type of fieldwork.

The skills critical for the success of rural field studies simply cannot be acquired in a classroom, and unfortunately trial and error is often the name of the game. Yet the pressure one confronts in the field, especially when first starting out, can be overwhelming because the ‘field’ is not sympathetic to blunders and missteps: How do you establish trust? How do you frame your questions without sounding (too) critical? (Contrary to my initial perception, vomiting all of your questions out at once in the interest of full disclosure is not the best strategy.) How do you hand someone a survey? (Likewise, whipping it out right off the bat is also not the best answer.) When should you pull out your tape recorder, and when should you take hand-written notes? How do you write legible notes while keeping up with what someone is saying? etc. etc. etc…

For most of these questions, classroom simulation just doesn’t cut it because there are no straightforward rules, with maybe one exception: people will relate and respond to authenticity. But to be authentic you have to be comfortable, and to be comfortable you have to try different strategies to figure out what works best for you, which inevitably means you have to be willing to make mistakes.

Wwoof offers an opportunity to limit these mistakes when the stakes are high. Aside from just figuring out how to feel (or at least act) comfortable in what can be uncomfortable situations at first, some of my most memorable conversations have been when I discussed with wwoof hosts the challenges I confronted as a foreigner doing research, and asked for their advice. These conversations often take place in a (literal) field, in a kitchen, or around the dinner table, and always without the anxiety of an official or professor within earshot.

Whether you’re preparing a thesis proposal or your image of rural life is synonymous with that of a faceless farmer standing ankle-deep in a rice paddy wearing one of those triangle-shaped straw hats (my initial notion), a wwoof experience will profoundly deepen (y)our understanding, and methods for understanding, China’s vast rural landscape.

Plus, you get to join the elite pack of aloof stinky-broke woofers with their ‘real‘ cultural experiences, and unabashedly scoff at all the pseudo-immersed stinky-broke hostel-hopping bourgeoise-backpackers.

And yet, these methods [ethnography and participant observation] remain marginal…perhaps most important, there has been no real push to build a coalition behind the critical appreciation, application, and teaching of ethnography and participant observation. I believe an appropriate step forward would be for researchers who use these methods – either exclusively or in combination with other methods – to work toward building a coalition or users group within the discipline.” (Carlson et al, 2010: 382)

Carlson, Allen. “More than an Interview, Less Than Sedaka: Studying Subtle and Hidden Politics with Site-Intensive Methods.” Contemporary Chinese Politics: New Sources, Methods, and Field Strategies. New York: Cambridge UP, 2010. 328-420. iBooks.

Goldman, Merle. Political Rights in Post-Mao China. Michigan: Association for Asian Studies, Inc. 2007. 29-49. Print.

About elenakayes

The key to understanding exists at the nexus where self-interest and practice meet power and policy; I explore this nexus through participatory field research.
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