Sue Coppard / WWOOF

Peer to Pier: Conversations with fellow travelers

Susan Coppard - founder of WWOOFSue Coppard is founder of WWOOF, a worldwide network that serves as a conduit linking volunteers with organic farms. In return for volunteer help, WWOOF hosts offer volunteers food, accommodation and opportunities to learn about organic lifestyles. Created in 1971 and one of the world’s first voluntourism organizations, WWOOF was borne out of Sue’s desire to periodically escape her life as a London secretary and spend time in the countryside. Today WWOOF is a global movement, with over 50,000 volunteers working on 7,000-plus host farms in more than 100 countries. I first learned about WWOOF from one of its host members and another “Peer to Pier” subject, Claudia Scholler, proprietor of Cortijo El Saltador, a traditional Andalucian farmhouse in the foothills of Spain’s Sierra Alhamilla.

In getting acquainted with Sue I learned not only a great deal about organic practices but also got an education on a wide range of other areas–from the basic tenet of anthroposophical philosophy to the potentially huge and positive impact of simply following your own heart, and the wisdom of not needing to have all the answers before embarking on a new endeavor. Not to mention, I remembered all my own reasons for seeking adventure and being out-of-doors! I hope you enjoy this conversation with Sue.

This above all, – to thine own self be true;
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
William Shakespeare, 1564–1616


Meg: Can you explain what WWOOF is?

Sue: WWOOF is an acronym standing for World Wide Opportunities On Organic Farms. It is a cooperative network, now worldwide, which offers members the opportunity to stay as working guests on a wide variety of organic farms, smallholdings, gardens and other rural enterprises. Sue Coppard is founder of WWOOF - Organic gardeningNo money changes hands, it’s an exchange. In return for your help on the land and with other tasks you receive bed and board, and a lot more besides: farming and agricultural experience – even training to change to a rural life; contact with nature and animals; access to beautiful countryside; good physical exercise; learning a host of other skills such as bread making, weaving, cheese making, bee keeping, cider making, or running a farmers’ market stall; friendships with people from many different cultures and nationalities; and the chance to experience entirely different ways of life, regions, or even continents. The world is your oyster! Alternatively, you could visit the same WWOOF place regularly and get to know your own region throughout the seasons – leaving a considerably lighter carbon footprint!

On top of all this, you have the satisfaction of knowing you are helping the stalwart but not overwhelmingly-rewarded people who make up the Organic Movement around the world – which will surely be the salvation of the planet.

I wish to acknowledge the immensely hard and inspired work by so many WWOOF organisers which are responsible for WWOOF’s extraordinary growth. Many countries now have their own WWOOF organization, all quite different as each is independently self-governing and has evolved in its own individual way. Those WWOOF Hosts in a country without a WWOOF organization belong to WWOOF Independents, an internet network.

Meg: Can you describe what led up to WWOOF’s creation?

Sue: In 1971 when I started WWOOF I was secretary to the Textile Research Unit at the Royal College of Art in London.

I loved London and my life was interesting and fun, but I did miss the countryside. When I was a kid my brother and I used to stay on my cousin’s farm where we ran wild – exploring the woods, picking flowers, playing by the stream, tree climbing, watching the animals, collecting the eggs and sliding down hay stacks in the barn. Bliss! However, by 1971 I had no friends or family living in the country – no ‘country seat’ where I could invite myself to stay. Watching from my window the leaves bowl along the London pavement one sunny, windy day, I just knew I had to find a way back.

I wondered whether I could find a farm which would let me stay? Perhaps in return for my help with their work? But maybe it would be lonely without companions to chat to. I wondered whether anyone else would like to do the same thing? I’d just heard of organic farms while doing some administrative work for ‘RESURGENCE’ magazine and it occurred to me — correctly — that such places might be more inclined to use unskilled labor than a big, commercial farm. So I set about finding a place to try out the idea.

A couple of contacts (Andrew Singer, who published the booklet ‘Making Communes’, and Michael Allaby, who edited ‘SPAN’, a journal published by the Soil Association, Britain’s leading organization promoting organic farming) put me in touch with Emerson College, which teaches Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophical philosophy {Editor’s Note: A system of beliefs and practices that maintain that through training and personal discipline one can attain experience of the spiritual world.} Emerson College is in deepest Sussex, where students study biodynamic agriculture–organic agriculture with additional homeopathic and planetary influences. The three farm managers were distinctly dubious when I was introduced to them — clearly thinking ‘what use could townies be?’ However, John Davy, the very helpful vice-principal at Emerson (and also science correspondent to the ‘Observer’), leaned on them gently and they had no choice but to agree to a trial weekend.

Once home I hastily put a brief advert in London’s trendy ‘Time Out’ magazine: “Working Weekends on Organic Farms: Reply to Box No.” It brought 15 replies, to whom I speedily sent the proposal. In the end, just three of us, together with sleeping bags and work clothes, travelled down on the Friday evening from Victoria Station, were met at the other end and transported to the College. I had been a little apprehensive as to what the others would be like, but they turned out to be real kindred spirits and a pleasure to be with.

We had a brilliant weekend doing what I can only describe as housework: hacking back encroaching brambles from a field, and clearing out blocked ditches so they ran freely again. The sun shone, the birds sang, we had some interesting conversations, and they gave us a strawberry and cream tea in the barn, with pigeons cooing aloft and the odd moo from a neighboring cow. My bedroom was in a small cottage with herbs hanging to dry from the rafters, the moon shining in, and owls hooting from beyond. It was heaven.

We must have done OK because at the end of Sunday afternoon the farmers said to us: “Yes, you’ve done quite well, would you like to fix another weekend?” And so WWOOF began.

Meg: What were your goals in those early days?

Sue: My goal when I first thought up WWOOF was to get myself into the countryside in a ‘meaningful’, affordable way with good company. A pub stay would not have done the trick. Events from Emerson that glow in my memory are: haymaking – feeling much like a Constable painting; swimming in the wild pool in the woods after toiling in the sweltering sun; coming across glow worms one balmy twilight; laughing and joking as we threw turnips into the cart; being taught how to clean and grease tools once the day’s work had finished; and a happy trip down to the pub in the village after supper.

It wasn’t long before we began to learn what the Organic Movement was all about, and the more we learned the more enthusiastic and keen to help we became. On one of the early WWOOF weekends, Soil Association director Hugh Coates sat us down after Saturday dinner and gave us a long discourse on the how’s and why’s of Organic, and we became total converts to The Cause. From then on, WWOOF had a win-win dual function: nourishing ourselves and helping the planet. The way I see it now is that WWOOF was hanging about in the stratosphere looking for a way to ‘manifest’, and picked on me as a suitable channel: a London secretary with modest organizational skills who needed to get out into the countryside!

Sue and friend Judith at Priddy Sheep Fair, Somerset

Sue and friend Judith at Priddy Sheep Fair, Somerset

An inspiring, funny journal at that time was quirky ‘alternative’ little magazine ‘SEED’, run from a tiny office in London’s Notting Hill by Ken Sams, an American who had come through the Korean war and was now bent on offering people more enlightened values. (He was also the father of Craig and Greg, who first brought organic food to London). Ken had read an article about WWOOF, ‘Coppard’s Land Army’ written by Michael Allaby, and contacted me for an interview. We met over coffee and chatted, and as I was now between jobs and they needed a secretary I joined ‘SEED’. I wrote the piece myself, subtitled ‘Rent-a-Serf’. I learned a lot about health, nutrition and spiritual matters typing all those articles, and would contact the organic farmers I read about, offering them weekend WWOOF help. I was thrilled when they accepted.

As the weeks went by and more people got to hear about WWOOF, membership increased. People, especially the town-bound, were dying to get into the country for their fix of Green ‘Vitamin C’. Fortunately, farms and smallholders also heard about us and invited us to come and help them, so both sides of WWOOF – Helpers and Hosts – expanded gently. We realized we had joined a very important wider movement which had immense power to transform the world.

3 thoughts on “Sue Coppard / WWOOF”

  1. An inspiring interview in the very good style.

    I’m very much into organic (not my favourite word, prefer natural) farming and to me this is the only way to have fresh and healthy food. Assuming, no air spraying (chemtrails) happen we can have the real food back 🙂 The food which smells and have a taste.

    The idea of volunteering combined with traveling and learning about natural farming, food making, environment and how to preserve our Earth is one of the best things we can for all of us.

  2. It is really great to read this interview with Sue. I remember her from more than 30 years ago. I lived in London then and started wwoofing. Soon I came to work for a weekend in Sue’s cottage garden in … -on- Tyne (I forgot…). I had lost all my money in the bus and it kept raining the whole weekend. Yet I enjoyed my stay; Sue played the accordeon and her nice big dog kept me company in the evenings wen she worked in the pub. Now I am living again in my native country Holland. I find it wonderful to learn that Wwoof has expanded all over the world! I send her my greetings.

  3. Hi,

    I’ve wwoofed in more them 10 countries in the Caribbean for helping farmers to dehydrate the crops that get to rot, and I loved it.

    Thanks to WWOOF that was possible, and a bit of world hunger has been reduced thanks to that.

    I’m still volunteering/working for in the Caribbean and I believe that WWOOFers can really help farmers to grow, here, in Africa, etc…

    By the way, does anyone has Sue Coppard’s email or phone number?
    I realty need to talk to her about how and could have a good informal partnership.

    Thank you in advanced,
    Joao Amado
    [email protected]

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