Work Exchange on a Dairy Farm in Spain
“The baby just came!”
The words burst excitedly from the lips of my host, Josep, who had doubtless seen this dozens of times but still maintained excitement at new life.
“Where?” I exclaimed, my heartbeat kicking up a notch in my chest.
“Down in the lower field,” the words had hardly passed Josep’s lips before I was tearing down the dirt path to the field in question. My chore of cleaning the milking equipment was long forgotten as I flew through muddy patches and paid little attention to dung piles littering the fresh grass.
I beelined for a copse of trees where a black-and-white cow nestled into the grass. Next to her, a small white bundle shivered. I stopped short, eyes wide with wonder. An impossibly tiny calf eyeballed me with distrust as her mother’s long tongue swooped over her grey and white fur.
I waited as long as I could, then slowly edged toward the baby. The mother cow let out a low warning noise, but I made a reassuring sound in my throat and held my palm to her nose. After a couple of huffs, she turned away indifferently. The calf tried to get away, but she was exhausted after the trauma of being born, plus she hadn’t mastered the use of her limbs. Which is why, after about five minutes of maneuvering, said calf’s head was resting on my knee and I was on cloud nine.
How did a former advertising executive from California with zero agricultural experience end up on a dairy farm in Catalunya cuddling a minutes-old calf? Welcome to the beautiful world of work exchange.
What is Work Exchange?
Work exchange is a simple transaction. You swap your time and muscles (and sometimes your skilled labor) in exchange for a place to sleep and food to eat. Those “in the know” (which I guess is me, now) have long said that it’s an excellent way to extend your travels, since two of your biggest expenses are suddenly wiped off the table.
I decided to do a work exchange because I had a pipe dream to test out. I’ve always wanted to own a small dairy farm and make cheese. But coming from the land of suburbia and white collar work, I had no idea if I’d actually like the daily grind that is farming and food production. What if I worked for years to buy a plot of land, then found out that I actually can’t stand cows, or can’t operate basic cheesemaking equipment? I needed to try before I bought, and that is where work exchange stepped in for me.
For some people, they just want to reduce their expenses, or connect with locals, or learn new skills. And you will do all of these things on a work exchange. Even if you are deathly allergic to the idea of working while traveling, I still highly recommend trying this out!
Where Can I Find Work Exchange Opportunities?
There are several sites with different approaches to work exchange. I’m covering off on the ones I have personal experience with, but if you have used a service I haven’t covered and recommend it, let me know in the comments!
Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOFing) is the OG work exchange experience. Here, you are expected to be a full farmhand, pulling as much weight as everyone else on the farm. This means you may experience 8+ hour days and leisure time may be limited (though each volunteer opportunity is unique). In return, you will learn the precepts of permaculture, organic farming, and more. The downside to this one? You need to sign up for each individual country, and pay the fee associated with that country.
This was the service that ultimately led me to that incredible moment in the field in Spain. I signed up for HelpX because I feel it has the best balance between work expectation and leisure time. After all, I quit my full time job to travel, not to slave full-time for (basically) free! In general, the work hour expectation is 20 hours per week (just be sure to read the ad thoroughly to be sure). Work is on much more than just farms and can include things like hostel work, marketing help, nannying, even English tutoring! The focus is primarily on farming, but other opportunities do exist. There is a fee to join, but once you’ve paid you have access to opportunities all over the globe.
This is one of the newer options in work exchange, and it has the widest variety of work options beyond farming. When I first looked at the site, it was still pretty basic. It looks like they’ve now added things like availability calendars and a volunteer rating system, which is important to stay safe and know what to expect. There is a focus on language exchange here as well, so if learning a language is a goal of yours this may be the site for you.
What Can I Expect from a Work Exchange?
The short answer: It depends! A good host will be very clear about expectations, and should outline these on their profile.
The longer answer? Expect to do some physically challenging work. Expect to learn a lot of new skills. Expect to become ingrained in a community or family. Expect to experience things you’ve never experienced before. Expect to love it (if you did your homework).
I picked and ate wild strawberries, I spent hours wiping down and turning cheeses, I fixed fences, I hauled huge buckets of milk from one side of the barn to another. I filled up water bottles from an actual well that was actually more like a waterfall. I crashed an anniversary party at the one restaurant in the tiny agricultural village I lived in. I watched Barcelona win the Champions League at the local bar with the town vet and his sons. I was invited to the English class at the town hall and ended up meeting half the town there. I watched baby cows be born, both alive and dead. I handpicked bugs off the leaves of the kitchen garden. I spread out a blanket and read a book in the grass under a tree. I had dirt underneath my fingernails, every muscle in my body ached at the end of each day, and I had never felt so satisfied.
You can also expect to have very minimal expenses: I only spent $50 Euros the entire three weeks I was in Northern Spain. I bought a train ticket, a SIM card and plan, and a few cheap bottles of wine that I insisted on buying for my host. Again, the expectations for this should be clear in the profile, but they aren’t clear then make sure you establish what’s covered and what isn’t when you correspond.
What Should I Look Out For?
Most hosts should have this info in their profile. If they don’t you should establish these things in writing. These are the most important:
- Work Duties: You should get a clear idea of what kind of work you will be performing. Specifics or a list are helpful here, and many hosts will explain a specific project they have coming up that they want help with, like building a barn or planting a new garden patch. When you get in touch, explain to the host what excites you about their opportunity. They can let you know how likely it is that you will actually be doing that kind of work.
- Hours: Every host should put this out there upfront. Make sure this is clearly defined! You may love the work and end up spending more hours than agreed, but it’s better to protect your leisure and travel time if you need them.
- Definition of Room & Board: This is something else that can vary from host to host. Some will include all three meals plus snacks and anything else you may want. Some will include two meals per day. Your room may be shared with other volunteers, or it may be a trailer without a functioning toilet, or it may be a palatial master suite. Get all the details you need to feel confident you can comfortably live temporarily in the home.
- Reviews: Most sites will have reviews from past workers. This can help you get a feel for a hosts personality, and it can fill gaps in their own profile. Try to stay only with hosts who have all positive reviews, but also know when to take someone’s complaining with a grain of salt. If you love a profile but they don’t have any reviews because they are new to the site, ask for a phone number or business website (a lot of farms have these nowadays) so you can verify the legitimacy of the place.
Leaving the Farm Life
By the time I left the charming little dairy farm in the foothills of the Pyrenees, I knew one thing for certain. I had validated my pipe dream. I had also learned how to make traditional Catalan cheese (plus a few other varieties). I struggled to bid farewell to Maribel and Marigold, the twin cows who were the biggest, most affectionate troublemakers in the herd. And the little calf I had dubbed Penelope was weaning from her mom and getting more steady on her feet.
A brilliant sunrise lit up the eastern sky, beckoning me toward the unknown lands of the Balkans, my next destination. I felt rooted and ready to fly at the same time. I closed my eyes, took one last long inhale of the grass and dew, and moved the only way we can ever go: forward.
Would you consider a work exchange? Does the idea of working the land appeal to you? Let me know if you’ve done this or would consider it in the comments!