In New Zealand, the human population is about 3.5 million--and the sheep population is estimated at more than 50 million, 13 times that of the people.
So agriculture is crucial, and the country is one of the greenest places on the planet. But all that emerald space needs someone to till it or tend its livestock, and that's where we tourist volunteers come in. Kiwi farmers have taken a page from the Israeli kibbutzim and invited foreign visitors to flock to their homesteads.
Some New Zealand farm stays just require your relaxation. Once you've finished lifting your teacup, you won't have to raise a finger. Other farms expect you to trade accommodations for a little elbow grease by slopping pigs, herding sheep or hosing down the cows.
Recently I wrote about an air-fare-included package to New Zealand that gives you a two-night stay at a working farm. What if you want more than two nights? And how about people who prefer to arrange their own air fare, such as tourists who stop in Auckland on their way back from Australia?
Here are two resources:
Log on to the New Zealand branch of Willing Workers on Organic Farms, http://www.wwoof.co.nz, to plug into the network of New Zealand farms that will put you up. (Alternatively, e-mail a&j@ wwoof.co.nz, or call/fax WWOOF at 011-64-3-544-9890.) Membership in the organization costs $20, which gets you a booklet listing more than 500 participating farms, each of them specializing in organic (nonchemical) farming and most of them itching to introduce foreign tourists to their country and to their traditional methods.
You can contact any farm on the list to negotiate a future stay of between a few weeks and a few months. In most cases, lodging and food won't cost you a thing. In exchange, you simply have to help out for a few hours each day, leaving you the rest of the time to hike, explore or just mellow out.
If you'd like the pastoral Kiwi experience without the work, try New Zealand Farm Holidays, http://www.nzaccom.co.nz. In business for more than 26 years, it lists 300 farms that will sell you accommodations and home-cooked meals. And because you're paying for the respite, you won't be expected to shovel muck.
And you won't get fleeced: Rates, which are converted to U.S. dollars and include all local taxes, are $80 per couple, $48 single per day. That includes bed, breakfast, dinner and a farm tour. (Because of a concentration of adventure tourists and trekkers, prices run about $5 higher for farms in the southern lakes region near Queenstown.)
You can either book ahead or buy open-dated vouchers, which let you drive around the country and drop in on farms along your route. New Zealand Farm Holidays also can hook you up with home stays, which are essentially B&Bs in a city or town, for even cheaper rates: $50 per couple, $26 single. The organization is reachable by phone at 011-64-9-412-9649.
Here's an example of its offerings: One farm, 30 minutes from the Yellowstone-like geyser resort of Rotorua, boasts an indoor pool, a separate triple unit, fishing in a lake, 330 cows and 100 calves. Guess what's for dinner?
All in all, for extraordinarily reasonable costs, you'll be treated to a real back-to-nature experience.