Like a typical goat farmer, Jeremy Foust is up early on crisp winter mornings to bottle feed some kids — roughly 7-week-old babies — while others cry out from their pens waiting their turn.
But Foust isn’t your grandma’s farmer. He works another full-time job and uses social media and a workforce of strangers to do business.
The 36-year-old is part of a growing international movement that inspired his operation at Left Foot Farm in Eatonville. He moved to the 25-acre property in December 2010 and spent about a year exploring what to do with it.
“I didn’t want to just be a standard, traditional farm experience,” said Foust, who also is general manager of Whittaker Mountaineering in Ashford.
After raising goats and eventually running a certified grade-A dairy farm, Foust decided to merge his education training with his passion for organic farming and turn his own learning experience into a group effort.
He serves as a host for WWOOF, which is short for Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms and is pronounced the same as a dog’s bark. The loose network of organizations helps place volunteers on organic farms across the globe. It welcomes any farm or community garden project that uses organic methods, even those that aren’t certified organic, such as Left Foot.
Nearly 100 countries have WWOOF hosts. The U.S. affiliate has more than 1,600 recorded hosts nationwide, according to the organization’s website, including more than 100 in Washington. There’s another host in Eatonville, one in Roy and two in Olympia.
“It’s a combination of a lot of different people from all walks of life,” said Foust, who welcomes strangers from all over to live and work at Left Foot Farm. The work is unpaid, but visitors get free food and lodging in exchange for 30 hours of labor a week. Tasks range from feeding and milking about 100 goats to trimming hooves and cleaning up around the farm, which is also home to chickens, pigs, alpacas and a horse.
The so-called “WWOOFers” stay at host farms anywhere from a week to years. Typically, a Left Foot WWOOFer stays about a month.
“The dynamics of the farm are interesting with comings and goings,” Foust said.
He hosted 45 WWOOFers in 2013, and gets about a dozen calls a week from people interested in working at Left Foot. Despite all the turnover, he said, “I haven’t had one bad apple.”
Visitors come to WWOOF for a variety of reasons.
Some want a food-to-plate experience for culinary purposes, others use it to find themselves after college, and some just want a break from busy desk jobs. For example, this month Foust is expecting a Bellevue woman who typically works 75 hours a week. She is using five days of vacation to WWOOF at Left Foot.
Foust said WWOOFing offers experience for those who lack the means to run a farm but want to gain knowledge for the future. It’s also a good excuse to travel, Foust said. People of any age or experience level can do it, he said, but “know that it’s not a glamorous thing all the time.”
Kerri Costello, who recently was promoted to farm manager, has been at Left Foot since early July. The 22-year-old Boston native graduated from New York University with a degree in political science and had wanted to try WWOOFing since her sophomore year of college.
“I knew that I was so disconnected from my food source and I wanted to experience my food in real time,” she said. “I had no idea the time and effort that goes into producing quality food.”
Costello spent most of her life in big cities, so the change of pace is refreshing. She said she loves spending most of her time outside getting dirty. Adjusting to a slower lifestyle was challenging, she said, but she enjoys the quiet.
“There is and there isn’t a lot going on,” she said. “It is a very different kind of busy than I’m used to.”
WWOOF experiences can vary significantly, and Foust said anyone interested needs to do their research and have their finances in order.
“You have to come for the right reasons,” he said. “You are living, breathing and working with these WWOOFers 24 hours a day. Those who want to WWOOF definitely need to have an open mind.”
Foust has to have an open mind, too. He said a big part of his job is maximizing the experience for visitors.
“The WWOOFers and interns are doing a tremendous thing for me,” he said. “It’s not just free labor.”
Foust said the Pacific Northwest is a popular destination for traveling WWOOFers.
Costello applied to about 30 host farms statewide. She initially planned on staying until December, but said she loves it too much to leave. She eventually hopes to apply for food policy jobs, but plans to stay at Left Foot until at least spring.
“Obviously I can’t do this forever,” she said. “I’ll know at a certain point that I’ve gotten everything out of it that I can.”
Foust doesn’t care about the level of experience an aspiring WWOOFer has, as long as there’s a willingness to have a positive experience.
He said he’s also learning as he goes and is often trying new things along with the WWOOFers.
Sometimes new techniques work and sometimes they don’t.
“We’re all kind of learning together,” he said.
IF YOU WWOOF
WWOOF-USA is the U.S. affiliate of the international organization. Its website, wwoofusa.org, has a map of host farms nationwide. A membership is required to get detailed information about individual farms. A membership gives access to a directory of photos, comments and host ratings. The cost is $30 for the online directory and $40 for online and print.