Elisabeth Kosnik from Austria received a doctor’s degree at the University of Wellington (New Zealand) in 2013 for her thesis “WWOOF, Environmentalism and Ecotopia: Alternative Social Practices between Ideal and Reality”.
Elisabeth, in your thesis you explore the origins of WWOOF. There is an interesting chapter on Sue Coppard who invented WWOOF in the 1970s. What was her motivation to do so?
I met Sue in 2011 and she kindly invited me to stay with her for a couple of days. It seemed to me that when Sue, who lived in London at the time, invented WWOOF she really longed for those days she spent on a farm as a child. So she came up with this idea of a country escape for city people, but in a way where you can actually get involved with life on a farm, do some work, get your hands dirty. Sometimes the WWOOF exchange is perceived as an inexpensive way to get food and lodging. But really the point of WWOOF has always been the opportunity to do some fun activities! What surprised me was how WWOOF became organic. There wasn’t much of an organic movement in the UK in the 1970s. It was more of a lucky coincidence that Sue found out about organics and immediately liked it. I do think that WWOOF played some part in the early organic movement, connecting farmers and consumers, and spreading the word about organics.
Why does a Cultural Anthropologist study WWOOF?
I was always interested in human-nature relationships and environmental issues. WWOOF has tens of thousands of members all around the world, but not many researchers were interested in studying this phenomenon. So I produced the first ethnography of WWOOF.
In your thesis you compare your experience with WWOOF in New Zealand and WWOOF Austria. What are the major differences between those two?
My only criterion for choosing WWOOF hosts for my research was that they had to be signed-up members of a WWOOF group. In Austria, I largely encountered family farms, most of them certified organic, living in mountainous areas. These hosts typically produced some regional speciality on a small scale, like organic ice cream, or organic goat cheese. In New Zealand, on the other hand, the majority of hosts I met were self-provisioning growers, providing their own families with home-grown fruits and veggies. Some lived in really remote areas; others had a suburban or even urban home and garden. Two of my hosts in New Zealand didn’t grow anything at all, and one was a conventional farm, which surprised me. I wasn’t sure how to incorporate these experiences into my research until I found out that national WWOOF groups operate completely independent from each other and it is up to the directors (sometimes the owners) of a WWOOF group to decide who they accept as members.
What about similarities between the members of WWOOF?
Despite outward differences most members – hosts, volunteers, and directors – share similar values. They have a holistic concept of nature, a positive attitude towards living in the country, keen to live a sustainable lifestyle. But there is also a mutual dislike for consumerism, materialism, industrial food and big corporations, including agro-businesses. Of course, real life often falls short of ideals, for many reasons. What I found interesting is how people negotiate between their values and the necessities of their everyday lives.
Where can I find your thesis?
It is freely accessible and can be downloaded here: E.Kosnik-WWOOF&Environmentalism&Ecotopia-Alternative_Social_Practices_between_Ideal_and_Reality.
Are you still researching WWOOF?
I am still interested in alternative rural lifestyles and I am still using the WWOOF network to get in contact with interesting people. And I am also still a member of WWOOF, for 15 years now, and counting.
The interview took place in April 2017 at the Karrenmühle in Germany.