Today, I ate all my snails at breakfast.
Normally, I might have balked at the idea, since there were a few dozen tiny, round, green-gray bodies floating in a bowl of murky broth, partly hidden by a thick layer of cooked greens. But today, at this table, with this Korean drumming troupe, I ate every single one. I finished the last of the broth with an exaggerated slurp to show I’d enjoyed it, which is what you do when you don’t know how to say you did.
I’ve eaten everything offered to me since I arrived three days ago at the Nanumteo farm in South Korea: countless bowls of chicken, stuffed with dates and rice and garlic, and boiled in a ginseng broth; pork hooves; and dried squid in sweet sauce. I’ve eaten, of course, because I’m hungry, and when you’re in a place where you can’t communicate, you eat when and what you’re given. But I’ve also eaten because I’m deeply, profoundly grateful to have a place at the table.
I’m here because in 1971 a British secretary named Sue Coppard thought it would be nice to get a group of people together to visit organic farms on the weekends. Because the group she founded became the sprawling grassroots organization called Worldwide Opportunities in Organic Farming, or WWOOF. And because a WWOOF branch was founded in South Korea in 1997.
A world of WWOOF
With members and hosts in almost 100 countries, WWOOF has very little international oversight. Instead, it is truly grassroots, with national WWOOF organizations in over 50 countries, and 45 more countries with independent hosts who are willing to take on volunteers. For a national membership fee, volunteers get access to anywhere from a few dozens to over 2,000 in-country hosts. After that, no money, not a single dollar, changes hands.
Volunteers trade four to six hours of labor per day for free room and board. They can practice permaculture in Peru or assist with reforestation in Kazakhstan. They can visit far-flung locales, accessible by only the most ardent explorers, and find a sense of instant community. Or they can sign up for a quick day trip out of the city.
Anna Liu, a WWOOFer from Hong Kong, was inspired by her time volunteering on farms in Japan, so she started a Meetup group in her home city. She now organizes day trips for urbanites who want to get their hands dirty:
“Usually for WWOOF they only accommodate two or three WWOOFers overnight, but if it’s just a day trip they can do 10 people together and work on some huge projects,” she says.
Liu remembers her first trip to a Hong Kong farm, when she and other volunteers helped move fish from one pond to another. “It was really fun, and after that, all of us smelt fishy and we all had to take the subway,” she says. “It’s an hour back to downtown, and everyone smelt like fish.”
Nanumteo, the sharing place
Liu has just arrived at Nanumteo, a name that translates to “the sharing place” and a place that lives up to its name.
Nanumteo began as the vision of retired high school physics teacher, Gab-soo Kim. He created the building where groups of visiting musicians now sleep, and also an enclosed square building, which houses instruments and hosts twice-weekly samulnori drumming classes for community elders. He built the swales and the stone walls, and, with his wife, planted every one of the gardenias that line the property’s many pathways.
Now they host WWOOFers, maybe a dozen a year, folding them into the swirl of life that starts at 5 in the morning and never slows down, never gets boring.
As WWOOFers at Nanumteo, we hike, make music, drink too much soju and struggle through a small shared vocabulary of English and Korean. We explore and rest, and sometimes we work. We mop floors by hand with wet rags; we weed, and weed, and weed, leaving liberated plants in our wake. It is work that leaves the body sore and the mind rested.
Nanumteo is one of 62 farms in Korea registered to host volunteers. In a country connected almost entirely by high-speed rail, people in Seoul are just a few hours from wine-making, harvesting green tea and parasailing, an additional activity offered by one intrepid host.
Volunteers come to WWOOF in Korea from all over the globe: the U.S., Hong Kong, Singapore and Europe. But “the number of Korean WWOOFers is bigger than any other countries, and the rate of Koreans is about 30 percent,” says Kota Fukuyama, manager of WWOOF Korea. “The increase of Korean WWOOFers is also remarkable this year.”
WWOOF Korea serves as a connection between the overwhelmingly urban Korea of today and its agriculture-dominated past. Fifty years ago, over half of Korea’s population was made up of farmers, a number that has shrunk to around 6 percent today. As Korea’s economy developed, young people left the countryside in droves for Seoul and other urban areas. It’s a familiar tale in a globalizing world.
Living standards have risen, and the profitability of farming has become almost impossible as Korea has signed free trade agreements with the West. Still, some farmers work to maintain a rural livelihood, and some urban dwellers seek to connect to the sources of their food, and their past.
But for Fukuyama, most young Koreans see no interest in agriculture itself. “Many people don’t have hope in agriculture here in Korea,” he says. “And for those interested, they desperately say it’s just too difficult to live in the countryside because there are few jobs with which they can achieve a reasonable standard level of living.”
Nonetheless, as farm size continues to grow and the number of farmers continues to decline, another undeniable trend is occurring. Of the 55 national WWOOF organizations, nearly 80 percent are 21stcentury creations.
“WWOOF hosts prove [the] success of living in the countryside—living on the ground with nature and more down-to-earth culture,” says Fukuyama. “The existence of WWOOF is very important to connect those who live in the city and those who practice country life.”