The shortage of skilled farm workers isn't fresh news to those of us in agriculture. But for some farmers - especially in the organic niche - the Great Recession is answering their prayers and sending young workers who are still looking for a job.
The best part? They're willing to work for free. The only thing they expect in return is food, lodging, and a true farm experience replete with tending happy farm animals, fixing fence, digging around in the dirt, and having the freedom to travel the country from farm to farm.
They are all part of an organization called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms USA, which has about 9,000 members. The catch, obviously, is that your farm has to be organic in order to belong to the network, which currently consists of 1,200 farms and ranches throughout the country.
According to the Washington Post, most of the so-called "woofers" (a play-on the organization's acronym WWOOF) are young urbanites looking for a rural experience. And with so many out of work due to the recession, membership has exploded. In 2005, there were only 1,600 registered woofers. Now with more than 9,000 woofers, that increase is nothing to sneeze at.
With so many people willing to work nearly for free, this is a boon for organic farmers whose labor costs are far higher than conventional farms due to increased time spent managing weeds and monitoring pests. Imagine your biggest input cost is now virtually free. Sounds like money to me!
However, we can't ignore the benefits to the rest of U.S. agriculture. Organic farms and organizations like WWOOF are taking up the role of reconnecting urban America to its food supply again and bridging the growing divide between farmers and consumers.
Getting more urbanites in touch with farming is what we've been trying to do all along, but with limited success. What's so fun about sitting on a tractor for 14 hours when you can have a much more diversified and fun experience hand feeding squealing pigs and picking fresh vegetables?
This renewed interest in farming also coincides with USDA's last Census of Agriculture that showed for the first time in decades an actual increase in the farming population. Small organic farms took the credit for most of that growth.
While there are obvious divisions among conventional and organic farmers, we have to recognize that organic farming is doing a service for agriculture as a whole by providing another link to urban America.
They might even be providing a solution to the larger problem the rest of us in agriculture have been struggling with for years - bringing younger people back to the farm, and stopping the brain drain from Rural America.