Our sixteen-day Japan trip was a bit of a whirlwind. By comparison we had very little planned for New Zealand when we touched down at the end of February. Only a flying visit to Auckland followed by a weeklong placement doing farm work in New Zealand’s Northland region. Read on to hear a little about our experiences digging up potatoes, chopping wood and eating the most wonderfully fresh food…
WHY VOLUNTEER ON A FARM?
In planning for our working holiday in New Zealand we wanted to travel as widely as possible. We also favoured travelling slowly, staying in places for a decent amount of time to get a more thorough feeling for the country. All good, right? But also really expensive. The problem was how to do it as cheaply as possible…
One of the solutions I came up with was WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, frequently used as a verb), whereby you work for a given number of hours in exchange for accommodation and sometimes meals as well. The idea of free accommodation was very appealing. Plus I thought we might learn some new skills and meet interesting people while we were at it.
We weren’t so keen to do farming, though, so we actually signed up with a different website – Workaway. A similar premise, but instead of being focussed on farm work the jobs encompass tasks such as child care, cleaning, DIY etc.
A little ironic, then, that our first Workaway placement turned out to be on a farm? Well, yes. They’d advertised it as gardening work, and we thought it sounded quite gentle gardening work at that! Turns out it was more demanding than we had anticipated, but more on the work later.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS ON ARRIVAL
The farm was ten acres set in the sub-tropical Northland region of New Zealand. It was really very beautiful and crammed with fruit: oranges, watermelons, pumpkins, peaches, avocados, apples, nectarines. You name it!
As we walked across the grounds on our first day our host encouraged us to pull fresh figs from a tree. We ate them as we tramped on through vegetation, the sun beating down from a spotlessly blue sky. It was one of those moments where I tried to mentally capture the experience; I felt so lucky to be exploring such an idyllic place.
Our accommodation was very basic but we had our own space away from the main house, with covered outdoor kitchen and bathroom facilities. There were good things and bad things. We had four walls and a roof over our heads. There was a bed and sofa, too, but initially no curtains and never a lock on the door. We had use of the wifi, but we were a bit too far away to use it inside our hut. (Cue mosquito confrontations in the garden if we wanted to be online at night!) There was hot water, but dirt and bugs scattered the kitchen and bathroom surfaces… By and large, though, it was certainly superior to camping. Besides, there’s a lot to be said for feeling disconnected, and a week isn’t too long to live with some minor discomfort.
FIVE MONTHS ON: LOOKING BACK ON FARM LIFE
We only stayed a week doing farm work, but it felt much longer. Like time passed more slowly up there. Our hosts gave us plenty of fresh food to eat and that is absolutely my take away experience. I came to appreciate it afresh after I found out the supermarket price of some of the food we’d had for free! (Avocados can get really expensive.) I cherish memories of having a pot of fresh honey and deliveries of still-warm eggs from the “chooks” (that’s chickens!). Many of the meals they prepared for us were wonderful, too, again using lovely fresh ingredients.
The work varied in difficulty, but as we only had to work for 4 hours per day it never seemed excessive. Besides, our host was very patient with our skill level and often did the work alongside us.
Some days the work was very physical, pulling up tarpaulins or chopping wood (thankfully Ben did the latter, I just had to move the wood to the truck). Other times it was just a little bit tiring or uncomfortable, like picking chillies and finding my fingers stung from the juices getting in my nail beds (my own fault for removing my gloves). Or pulling up potatoes, getting caked in mud and finding spiders’ nests under the soil.
In spite of these momentary discomforts, though, it was a valuable life experience. I’ve visited several farms in my life but I’d never properly experienced the food growing process. I’d bought potatoes in a plastic bag in a supermarket but never pulled up a plant from the soil to see the roots and bulbous potatoes dangling ready to pick. I’d never grabbed a fig or an orange from a tree, or a chilli from its plant. I felt really lucky to have been able to do that! The experience certainly gave me a newfound appreciation for the work that goes into getting fresh produce into shops.
On top of this, our hosts were really generous. They took us to visit parts of the local area and kindly allowed us use of their car so we could explore independently. We visited several fantastic places (including our favourite beach in the world). More about those in a separate post!
WAS THE FARM WORK WORTHWHILE?
New Zealand is a big farming country, with many people owning their own blocks of land. Growing fruit (particularly apples or grapes) is big business. In this context I think even a short stay on a farm is worthwhile. It provides a way of experiencing first hand a significant part of NZ life. There are plenty of other opportunities on such a placement, too, whether gaining advice to help travel deeper, connecting with locals or trying out different types of work.
Saying that, I feel our one week was enough. Even working half days, the work felt demanding and I struggled to align it with the other things I wanted from travelling. Ideally I wanted less stress, and this was hard with limited opportunities to relax and be comfortable outside of work. As an introvert, I also found it hard to recharge fully, during both this and a subsequent Workaway.
In terms of recommending farm work to others, I guess it really depends. I’d advise thinking carefully about your own interests, skills and motivations for travelling. And having a go for a short period of time is always a good idea before committing to staying long term.