Erica Crompton visits a unique organic farm and retreat in Scotland to discover how young volunteers are finding their way into employment
A place of calm in the modern world can be a magical find. I found mine through WWOOF, World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, a scheme where ‘wwoofers’ help out on farms for four to six hours a day in exchange for all food and basic accommodation.
The long, meandering road that leads to the Krishna eco-farm at the Karuna Bhavan spiritual community in Lesmaghagow – a small village 40 minutes drive from Glasgow – opens up a new path in life for many who arrive there.
Take Kevin McKay, 21, from Amsterdam. When I meet him in the on-site canteen on the morning he’s leaving to work in Pitlochry, Perthshire, he tells me that he’s finally found work in retail. Prior to seeking refuge through a wwoofing stint on the farm, he’d been unemployed for seven months.
Wwoofer Kevin McKay
“I’d been in the UK for a month looking for work but hadn’t found anything, so I decided to be a wwoofer here in Lesmaghagow,” Kevin explains. “I’d been busking on the streets to make money – really living hand to mouth – and one of the Hare Krishna monks approached me and told me about the scheme. Farming has taught me new skills and seen me working while looking for a more suitable job.
“What’s been nice is that it’s kept me active socially. It might not be my ideal line of work, but working with people every day and sharing accommodation with those I might not necessarily get along with too well, has kept me in check for work. It’s been nice working outside too,” he said.
Beyond being an option for students or those who wish to take a break to experience a life closer to nature, it seems that wwoofing is becoming, and has the potential to increasingly become, a genuine means of survival or route to employment for those struggling to find work or housing.
There are thousands of places to wwoof all over the world, all offering routes into different types of employment. In the UK alone opportunities are diverse, including animal care on a Scottish island or organic permaculture close to the sea in Cornwall.
“Wwoofing is becoming a genuine route to employment for those struggling to find work”
For one teenager I meet, 18-year-old Tim Solman from Cardiff, his decision to wwoof was based on his dream of becoming an environmental activist.
“Before this, I worked in a coffee shop for six months,” says Tim. “But towards the end of last year, I decided I wanted to do a retreat – to work more on the land, for a simple life, to meditate,” he tells me.
“Now I’m here, my skills in permaculture and sustainability have developed and I’m working on the farm on a more permanent basis. This work gives me practical experience in the field of work I want to go into.”
Head gardener, Bhakti Vinode, now manages up to 20 wwoofers at a time. “I’m very passionate about what I do here and feel I make a difference in people’s lives,” he says. “For me, work on the farm is a career.”
Head gardener, Bhakti Vinode
The Hare Krishna devotees who run the farm call the work Bhakti yoga (from which Bhakti Vinode gets his name). This is one of the highest forms of yoga, they say. When they plant marigolds for example, they do so with devotional love, which, say the monks, is great for reaping your spiritual blessings, not to mention good physical exercise too.
Some of the farmers have even gone on to become monks, or as they’re known in Sanskrit, Brahivachari. The delightfully friendly Steve Shaw, 31, started out working on the farm and stayed for two years. The monks then asked him if he wanted to get more involved in the spiritual side of the farms – like studying and organising youth work – which he’s now been doing for a year.
“This is a great charity to be involved in. I love meeting a variety of people and helping them develop,” says Steve.
As I leave the farm it’s heartening to know that there are employment opportunities outside of mainstream culture. The digging has been good, but the real find was unearthing this oasis of calm itself – a place that not only provides plentiful work but doubles as a spiritual retreat to boot.