SALT LAKE CITY — Paige Mandy was wrapping up her last year of high school in Lexington, Virginia, this past March, and like many 18-year-olds across the country, she had an important decision to make. Would she attend college this fall, and if so, where? 

Mandy chose a different option: She’d spend the next year working on a farm. 

“It was because of the pandemic that I had a lot of time to really sit back and consider whether or not I wanted to go into a full four-year track degree,” Mandy said. “I decided that I wanted to experience things out in the field before I went and did a traditional education anywhere.”

She connected with a farm through the non-profit World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. The program — often referred to by its acronym, WWOOF — was founded in 1971 in the United Kingdom and began in the United States in 2001.

Mandy is one of thousands of recent high school graduates across the U.S. who are opting to take a gap year because of the coronavirus pandemic. One poll found that 16% of students said they planned to take one, compared to under 3% in past years.

And while the actual enrollment numbers for the fall semester are still up in the air, by one estimate they could be down anywhere between 5%-20%.

Since the coronavirus was officially declared a pandemic in March, WWOOF has seen about a 20% increase in membership, said Tori Fetrow, the organization’s outreach program manager. 

Fetrow said the majority of new members are students who, upon learning that their college courses would be online, started asking if it was possible to complete their studies while also learning how to work on a farm. Many of those students are choosing farms close to home.

In exchange for working for about half a day, volunteers — or, as the group calls them, WWOOFers — receive free room and board. Students looking to learn about sustainable agriculture, travel or just enjoy a change of pace have been WWOOFing for decades during summer vacations or gap years. (A friend of mine spent a summer on a farm in Ecuador. In some circles, saying you’re taking a summer to WWOOF is as common as a semester abroad.)

For three weeks, Mandy worked at Bio-Way Farm in South Carolina while taking classes online at Oregon State. At Bio-Way, there are about 19 acres of functioning farmland, while the other 80 acres are kept as a forest, Mandy explained. 

Mandy wants to go into a career in agriculture and is hoping to get into the Allegheny Mountain Institute to pursue a farm food fellowship in May. Prior to her stint at Bio-Way, she had no farming experience and had only worked in a backyard garden with her grandma and took care of a few indoor plants in Lexington. 

She saved up enough money working as a sales clerk at a chocolate shop back home to spend this year working on farms across several states.

“It’s exactly what I wanted without knowing it,” she said. 

Next, she’ll head to a cherry farm in Albany, New York, where her living situation has been described as “glamping.” She’ll live in a small cabin without electricity. After that, she’s planning on working in North Carolina for a month. 

“I’m trying to see how different places run their business and what would work for me if I were to do it in the future,” Mandy said. 

“You can read all the books you want and it’s not going to teach you how to be a good farmer. Talking to other farmers is how you become a good farmer.” — Tyler Hoyt, owner of Green Table Farm

Green Table Farm, based in Mancos, Colorado, is situated on a 72½-acre plot of land. Fifteen of those acres are used for growing fruits and vegetables and raising hens, goats, and hogs. The rest is a rolling, scrubby woodland filled with pinyon junipers.

This summer, more students have been interested in working on the farm while taking a gap year. “This year has most certainly been a watershed moment,” said Tyler Hoyt, who runs Green Table Farm with his wife. 

They’ve gone from getting around 10 requests a month from prospective WWOOFers to come live and work on the farm to around 100. “Nine out of 10 of them are students that are not going back to school this year,” Hoyt said.

In the last several years, he’s seen a growing interest among young people to learn how to grow food and live a more self-sufficient lifestyle. He includes himself in the generation of millennials who have looked to pursue sustainable agriculture as a way to make a living.  

Hoyt, who’s 34, grew up in the suburbs of Boise, Idaho, where his family had a backyard garden, but pursued farming more seriously in college, and later got his master’s degree in agro ecology in Prescott, Arizona.

He then taught history and English classes at a middle school and later a high school before saving up enough to put a down payment on the piece of land in Mancos seven years ago.

Throughout his years as a student, he worked various stints on farms in the southwest.

“You can read all the books you want and it’s not going to teach you how to be a good farmer. Talking to other farmers is how you become a good farmer,” he said.

Hoyt still enjoys teaching, so bringing in WWOOFers with varying levels of experience has allowed him to pass on what he’s learned about running a farm, just as others taught him when he was in his 20s.

Most of the farms participating in the WWOOF program are small, sustainability focused operations. For farmers like Hoyt, teaching younger generations how to be self sufficient is part of the appeal of hosting.

“Most people don’t know how to physically make anything, and I think thats really bad for our country,” he said. “It’s not just growing crops — it’s a lifestyle of doing things yourself.”

One year, a software engineer came to live at Green Table Farms for a few months after his house in Tennessee burned down in the Great Smoky Mountains wildfires. “He probably gained the most out of anyone I’ve ever seen in rudimentary skills,” Hoyt said. “I mean, how to swing a hammer, how to plant things, how to care for things, how to live on your own a little bit more.”

In Bozeman, Montana, Berthold Albin, 51, owner of the 4-acre Black Robin Farm & Orchard, also got involved with the WWOOF program to teach young people about running a farm. He describes his farm as “a homesteading, permaculture, sustainable agriculture operation.”

“Really one of our goals is to teach people those skills, you know, teach them how to use a chainsaw, chop saw, skill saw, a table saw,” he said, tasks range from construction work to planting trees to animal care.

“We’re seeing students who want to do something different because maybe they want to change their life or they want to consider other vocations. Or they just want to do this because they know that will be their last chance before they enter that workforce,” Albin said. 

In South Carolina, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., Paige Mandy spent her days transplanting sweet potatoes, harvesting zucchini, tomatoes and squash, and trimming garlic. Then, in the evenings after dinner and on weekends, she took courses on small farm business management and organic vegetable gardening. 

The owner of the house she lived in would make dinner each night for Mandy and the three other WWOOFers that were working at Bio-Way. Mandy, who is vegan and gluten free, said their main sources of food were vegetables picked on the farm that very day.

On her last night, her host made her favorite meal: a big tray of roasted vegetables with a little bit of garlic, onion, and salt and pepper. She remembers the tomatoes especially fondly — from cocktail to sungold varieties.

They were so good, she took a pint back home.