Woofers: modern day farm hands

Before technology and electricity, farmers would rely on instinct or the skills passed on by their parents, and sometimes hire a farm hand to help out.

However, modern-day resources, such as volunteers from around the world, are changing the way farmers interact with land and animals.

Heidi Weisman, a Calgary-area farmer, businesswoman and entrepreneur, has taken full advantage of the resources available in today’s agricultural society.

“After suffering from things like carpel tunnel, arthritis and back pain for the last decade, I didn’t know how long I would be able to continue running my farm,” she said.

Weisman is an independent, hardworking woman who has spent much of her life doing physical labour, which after nearly 30 years is taking its toll.

Along with running an interior decorating business and selling Hunter Douglas blinds, hay, firewood and raw soaps, she has spent the last 22 years raising sheep as part of her professional endeavours.

It had become increasingly difficult to juggle such a large workload, until she discovered Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF).

“Woofers” are volunteers who participate in WWOOF. They are typically young adults who travel from foreign countries to work for room and board and, in turn, provide support for people like Weisman.

“It changed my life,” Weisman said. “After helping me in countless aspects of my daily routine, I can say that I’ll have this farming lifestyle and my businesses for much longer than [I thought] before.”

Aside from looking after her many animals, the woofers have been able to build fences, chicken coops and feeders, look after the barn and other outbuildings, trap rodents and pests, shear and sort sheep wool, and care for the sheep while they were having lambs.

Hanna Thamm, 19, is from Paderborn, Germany and has been with Weisman for over a month. She agreed to stay with Weisman until the lambing ends.

Along with assigning their duties, Weisman is a mentor for these young men and women, often helping them grow and learn skills they had never heard of.

“Heidi pushes us to think for ourselves,” Thamm said. “She explains why we are learning something and then lets us figure out how to apply what we’re taught.”

The animals are a vital part of Weisman’s entire operation, making it essential for every woofer to learn how to act around them and care for them.

“I have a new level of patience because of the sheep and have become more detail-oriented just from watching their behaviour,” Thamm said.

Over the last four years, Weisman has had over 90 woofers pass through her farm. Each one presented a new challenge, but provided a solution to many projects she could not complete on her own.

It changed my life. – Heidi Weisman

Coming from places like Australia, Korea, Sweden, Spain and Germany, the WWOOF program has allowed the woofers to experience a new culture and, in some cases, learn a new language.

“It gives me peace of mind knowing these kids leave with a new skill set that could help them succeed in the future,” Weisman said.

When the work is done, she spends her free time in the mountains on horseback and camping with good friends, knowing that her world is taken care of.

About Madison Uchytil 3 Articles
As a writing and communications major in the journalism program at SAIT, Madison Uchytil worked as a reporter for The Press during the 2015-16 academic year.