Want to travel and see the world? Try farming
There was no passion in pizza for Jake Matilsky. So he left Portland, Ore., in 2002 to pursue his longtime love: photography. Scrounging together the money he had saved while delivering tomato pies, Matilsky, then 19, backpacked around Ireland.
He met an art teacher there who had a darkroom. The two made an arrangement: In exchange for four hours of work on the teacher's organic farm, Matilsky could live and eat with the family for free, and use the darkroom to develop his photos.
"I was traveling as cheaply as I could, and it sounded like a great setup," said Matilsky, now a 24-year-old undergraduate at Columbia University.
Matilsky was quickly transformed from a landscape photographer into a soil-tilling, manure-transporting farmhand, and he spent a week helping to reforest County Claire. But after five days of planting trees, Matilsky's hosts abruptly asked him to leave. He had eaten a loaf of their organic bread without first asking permission, he says. The bread came all the way from Galway.
"I had no idea it was a special loaf of bread," Matilsky said. "The people were a bit crazy, and the whole situation had a weird dynamic."
Matilsky is one of a growing number of young people who travel as working eco-tourists by exchanging their labor for room and board with local farmers. Forget luxury cruises, where attentive crew members remember favorite after-dinner liqueurs and offer mini-massages on deck, these intrepid travelers pick up shovels, get down in the muck and toil in the sun as they wander across foreign terrains.
Wealthier, older tourists have long had a range of travel options, like elaborate spa treatments featuring shiatsu massages and all-inclusive hotel stays complete with chilled champagne and strawberries. Now younger tourists on a shoestring budget also enjoy a wider range of travel choices.
In the past, low-budget travelers were restricted to hosteling, backpacking and Eurorail passes; today many are paying for their room and board by irrigating land and harvesting seasonal crops in remote areas.
"We're seeing more of the old days where people want to backpack and do independent travel," said Deborah Mitchell, a travel agent and a longtime member of the Southern Delaware Tourism Board. Mitchell estimates that spa vacations average $500 a night for a couple, but budget travelers may shell out less than that for their entire vacations.
One organization that caters to this trend is World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), an exchange network operating in dozens of countries. Farmers provide accommodation, meals and education to tourists in return for four to six hours of daily labor.
WWOOF began in the early 1970s in the United Kingdom and its membership has grown by 20 percent each year, according to Andrew Strange, the director of the WWOOF organization in New Zealand.
"If you're a traveler, you give something back to the country you're visiting by planting a tree or building a raised bed veggie garden," said Strange from his cattle farm in Nelson, New Zealand. New Zealand welcomes more than 5,000 itinerant farmhands annually through WWOOF, Strange said.
Some are enamored with this rustic type of travel, but not all. After his tragicomic episode with the ill-fated organic bread, Matilsky said he would never WWOOF again. "The program entails ungodly hours, little food and heavy labor on isolated farms in the middle of nowhere," he said.
But Ryan Leo Goldsmith, who helped bring the WWOOF program to the United States in 1999, insists living and farming with locals is the best way to travel.
"A farm is not a place where you would ordinarily have the chance to have a real cultural exchange," he said. "But when you accept a traveler into your home, you suddenly have an amazing opportunity to compare how your grandfathers grew peas in different countries."
When Goldsmith and his seven friends from the University of California at Santa Cruz started recruiting American farmers to participate in the WWOOF exchange, only seven registered. Today there are more than 800 American farms listed in the WWOOF catalog.
"The whole organic food movement is growing, and people are realizing there's a real need to be aware of how food is produced," said Goldsmith, who owns Sol Food Farm in Occidental, Calif., and is a chef at Bistro de Copains. "People, including tourists, want to support the organic movement as well as the farmers who are growing the food."
Farmers who accept students into their families as itinerant workers tell Strange it's a great way to advance their passion for sustainable agriculture.
"Young people generally come from the city and don't have an interest in farming, but once they've gotten a wee taste of it, they begin to have an understanding of why a farmer is growing organically," Strange said.
Just as golf, beach and spa getaways remain the most popular choices for mainstream tourists, according to Robert Hertzka of Resorts Online, students with money like a bit of luxury, too.
Francesca Hoffman, a travel adviser for STA travels, a student budget travel agency, said richer students still opt for spring break trips to Jamaica that exceed $1,500.
"There's definitely an interest in doing cheaper and alternative abroad programs, but students who have their daddies' credit cards often have no limits on the amount of money they're willing to spend," Hoffman said.
But some travel agents say even their wealthier customers are getting bored with being pampered in posh hotels and corralled through scripted tours.
"I'm receiving more requests for cultural travel such as trips to Buddhist monasteries," Mitchell said.
But there's culture and then there's culture.
"For many people," Mitchell said, "farming doesn't sound like much of a vacation."