Sam Schlesinger can't tell beet seedlings from spinach. But he knows that after only a week on Rogue River's Runnymede Farm, he may never return to New York City.
"I just got so sick of urban living," says the 21-year-old philosophy student from New York University. "Everybody here seems to need a lot less."
Forfeiting their summer vacation and even the possibility of earning some money, Schlesinger and his roommate, Alex Steinberg, are volunteering as unpaid farmhands for the next couple of months. Members of Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), the pair joined the ranks of more than 70 such workers who tend fields and animals at Runnymede.
"We used to have to turn people away," says Runnymede co-owner Teri White.
But as the organic and, more recently, eat-local movements have picked up speed, the number of WWOOF farms — more than 1,500 in the United States — also has grown. WWOOF farms in Oregon tripled in number to 92 over the past six years. More than a third of those are in Jackson and Josephine counties.
"I've never heard about one farm twice," says Steinberg, who WWOOFed previously in New Hampshire. "There's just loads."
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, WWOOF chapters in other countries.
The movement was soon embraced by young adventurers as a cheap way to travel and receive room and board. All they had to pay was their transportation to the farm. Neither volunteers nor hosts are vetted by WWOOF, which warns both to check out comments and ratings on its website, www.wwoof.org.
"You never really know who you're going to get," says White. "For the most part it's been really good."
Some of the Rogue Valley's larger or more established farms, such as Applegate's Whistling Duck and Pennington farms, stopped taking WWOOFers because it's too much work to organize and keep track of them. Others, such as Ashland's Restoration Farm, became so specialized that they needed longer-term interns like those coordinated by Rogue Farm Corps.
But farmer Ken Muller, co-owner of Rogue Valley Brambles and a former WWOOFer, says the organization has become even more important in a challenging economy. Some farms, particularly start-up operations, rely on free labor, he says, while recent college graduates are looking for any kind of work. His Talent farm houses at least one WWOOFer at a time through October.
"There are some families who go on vacation WWOOFing," he says.
"We meet people from all over the world, so it's kind of neat," says Muller's wife, Susan.
Runnymede's 10 acres have hosted WWOOFers from as far away as Italy, the Czech Republic and Singapore. But the most desirable laborers hail from closer to home, says White.
"We've had really good luck with people from Pennsylvania," she says. "We had kind of given up on New York girls for a while. Some people just can't do it."
The only WWOOFer in eight years to return to Runnymede for a second full season — March through October — is 23-year-old Bert Collins, from Lake Tahoe, Calif. Although last year was her first WWOOFing experience, Collins so impressed White that her role was expanded this year to paid intern, which includes manning Runnymede's stand at Rogue Valley Growers & Crafters Markets.
"I loved it here," says Collins. "I want my own farm eventually.
"Ever since I was little, I've always sort of dreamed about this lifestyle," she adds. "It just makes sense to me, this kind of life."
Life on the farm starts at 8 a.m. for WWOOFers, who work half days. On a diversified property like Runnymede, they'll likely learn to plant a large variety of crops, harvest them and prepare them for markets and the farm's community-supported agriculture shareholders. Gathering eggs and tending animals is the next step for farming novices.
"We teach everybody here how to milk," says White.
In between other chores, WWOOFers can expect to spend the majority of their time weeding rows of vegetables. Because they don't use herbicides, organic farmers wage an almost constant battle against weeds.
"This time of year, it's a nightmare," says White.
"We definitely will spend full days weeding sometimes," says Collins.
Grateful for the shade of evergreen trees over Runnymede's beds of greens, Collins, Schlesinger and Steinberg comb through seedling carrots, beets, sweet potatoes and herbs for weeds. Inching along, they'll spend about an hour hunched over the rows before lunch.
Then there are melons and okra to plant, trays of lettuce seeds to start and weed cloth and shade cloth to lay out. Goat pens need cleaning, fences need fixing and a swarm of honeybees needs to be retrieved from a tree over the chicken yard. The reward, as Collins is quick to point out, is eating food fresh from the farm.
"I think everybody should try it at least once to see where their food comes from," she says.
It's one lesson that lured Schlesinger and Steinberg from the East Coast. Neither are seriously considering careers in farming, but their efforts so far are a "nice change."
"It's a lot of work, but it's fulfilling work," says Schlesinger.
Almost 15 years after buying Runnymede with her husband, Art, White agrees. The "young energy" that WWOOFers have supplied since their two teenage sons left home renews the couple's outlook on farming.
"We keep in touch with quite a few of 'em," she says.
And even if WWOOFers only gain appreciation for farming, White says, "that means we did a good job."
Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.