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Originally published August 2, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 5, 2009 at 4:22 AM

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European organic farms beckon backpackers

Backpackers pining for European adventure have discovered life on the farm — shoveling manure, feeding pigs and making butter ...

The Associated Press

If You Go

Worldwide Opportunities On Organic Farms: Food and lodging at an organic farm in exchange for volunteering to work at the farm. Annual registration fees vary by country, but are typically around $30-35. Opportunities on every continent. www.wwoof.org

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Backpackers pining for European adventure have discovered life on the farm — shoveling manure, feeding pigs and making butter — as a recession-beating way to sate their wanderlust.

Their ticket to an earthy taste of the Old Continent is an innovative Web site that connects travelers with a network of organic farms stretching from Portugal to Turkey and around the world.

World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), an organization founded in Britain, has been around since 1971, but has lured many more volunteer farmhands in recent years as hard economic times forced people young and not so young to seek a cheap way to take a European vacation.

This year 15,700 of them are scattered across Europe getting their hands good and dirty, compared to 6,400 in 2004, WWOOF says.

The number of hosts is up, too, roughly doubling to 2,240 in that same time span.

The organization also offers farm stays around the world, in North America, South America, Central America, Africa, the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region.

For a few hours of work a day — other chores include milking goats, collecting honey and making compost — volunteers get a place to stay and fresh food to eat.

"I didn't have enough money to stay on any other way," said Alex Mansfield, 21, a guitar-toting philosophy student from Massachusetts who traded in the city life of his study-abroad experience in Salamanca, Spain, for a few weeks on an isolated farm.

Along with three other Americans and an Argentinean, Mansfield spent part of this summer on an ever-changing volunteer force at Centro Ammehula, a hamlet transformed into an organic farm, tucked away in Spain's northwest Galicia region.

The setting was scenic but the accommodations modest: several metal trailers and tents surrounding a bonfire area, all of it 9 miles from the nearest supermarket.

But the volunteers, feasting on fresh lettuce and lip-staining strawberries from the farm, don't seem to mind.

"It feels so good to be right near the food you're about to cook," said former New York schoolteacher Talia Kahn-Kravis, 23, as she squirted milk from a goat's udder into a plastic bucket.

Centro Ammehula's owner, Martin Verfondern, 51, said WWOOF is not just about growing fresh produce. More importantly, he says, it fosters cultural understanding.

"WWOOF is the perfect anti-discrimination device," said the Dutchman born in Germany, who has lived on the Spanish farm for 11 years.

"We have Germans and Israelis sitting at a table together without problems. It's a really great way of getting to know more of a country than only the national prejudices."

Recent graduates and college students make up a significant portion of volunteers, although farmhands come from walks of life, said Chemi Pena, spokesman for WWOOF in Spain.

Julie Bateman, a mother of two, packed up her 10- and 13-year-old children and left her home in Charleston, S.C., for a volunteer farming stint in Italy this summer.

"WWOOFing with the two children is certainly a twist on normal travel," said the 42-year-old Bateman.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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