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Slavery Makes a Comeback: Eco-Activists Voluntarily Enslave Themselves as Manual Laborers

The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in the United States — but the authors of that amendment didn't take into account how to cope with people who want to become slaves as a political statement.

Absurd as it may seem, self-enslavement is now a growing fad among privileged white eco-activists, who happily "volunteer" to do unpaid manual farm labor, to alleviate themselves of civilizational guilt and to get in touch with the Earth.

It wasn't long ago that lower-middle-class kids would spend summers working on farms in order to earn money. Now upper-middle-class kids labor in the fields for no pay simply in order to be cool. Their parents are supporting them, after all. It feels hypocritical to spend your life as a "food justice" activist if you've never actually grown food, so why not enslave yourself for a while to earn some political credibility?

A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle approvingly describes the latest mania:

[Brian] Blosser grew up in a suburb of St. Louis. But he was in graduate school and had become particularly curious about food, how it was grown and where it came from.

The 27-year-old's search for answers has turned him into a perennial WWOOFer (pronounced like the sound a dog makes). The acronym has become part of the vernacular in the farming exchange program, which has become a cultural phenomenon and is especially popular in Northern California.

WWOOF originally stood for Working Weekends on Organic Farms, a loose-knit organization founded in 1971 in England to help place volunteers on farms in exchange for free room and board and an opportunity to learn about agriculture.


This month [Blosser]'s working at Bobcat Ridge Avocados in Watsonville.

"I was intrigued by avocados, which we don't see too many of in St. Louis," Blosser said, adding that he will use his experience to start an urban farm when he gets home.

His host, Nancy Faulstich, her husband and three children have been participating in WWOOF USA for more than two years, taking in two volunteers at a time year-round. They've come from as far away as New Zealand and India to help with the Faulstich family's avocado orchard - about 200 trees - and their large garden, doing everything from watering and planting seeds to mulching and unloading manure.


Erin Tormey of Irish Ridge Ranch, a 48-acre apple orchard and home to 180 laying hens in Half Moon Bay, says those looking for good surfing or a yoga retreat need not apply.

"I only want people who want to farm," said Tormey, 52. "I think some have the impression that we run around in gingham dresses going to barn dances. Farming is a huge amount of physical labor."


Tormey said the experience for her has been extremely advantageous.

"I can't run the farm myself," she said. But besides getting labor, "I have learned from every WWOOFer I've had stay here. Sometimes it's as simple as doing something the same way forever and having someone with fresh eyes say, 'Why don't you move that here instead of there?' The level of optimism these volunteers bring is inspiring. To bring about change by getting down in the dirt - well, it's amazing."

It's "amazing" alright — amazing that voluntary indentured servitude has become the "in" thing to do among the über-privileged eco-hipster dilettantes of the modern environmental movement.

If the European colonialists had justified slave-trading as merely "giving Africans an opportunity to learn about agriculture," would that have made it OK?