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Taking the road less traveled Spending a year in five continents to embrace my "inner turtle", to live simply, and to avoid being shark bait!

Farmer gal

CANADA | Thursday, 20 September 2012 | Views [561]

Ella and Elsa with their mom Violet, who was sold to another family during my stay.

Ella and Elsa with their mom Violet, who was sold to another family during my stay.

I know I've become a full-fledged farm gal when my fingers and fingernails are persistently stained with dirt, and all my clothes smell like goat. Also I've learned the true meaning of "back-breaking work". I knew farming is labor-intensive, but now I have experienced first-hand and am much, much more appreciative of food producers, whose "to do" list never seems to end.

My host farm, Elvendale, is an organic farm in Hills, BC. The area isn't full of farms but it is rural and sparsely-populated; the combined population of Hills and the two nearby towns is only 500. The food grown and animals raised on the farm are mostly for consuming at home by my host family (married couple K and M, and their 10-year-old daughter B), while the rest are sold at the local farmer's market or food store. It is amazing the variety of fruits and vegetables grown: chard, kale, broccoli, eggplants, all kinds of bell peppers and chili peppers, two varieties of beets, different kinds of squash, cucumbers, many varieties of tomatoes and potatoes, carrots, string beans, corn, onions, garlic, melons, raspberries, cherries, and strawberries (and K has plans to add more). My stay coincides with the harvest of several vegetables and preparation for winter, so there is much to be done and plenty for me to learn. Like the motto of my alma mater, this is true "learn by doing":

  • Weeded strawberry beds of weeds and nutrient-grabbing "daughters" (parts of the plant that try to take root and thus depriving the main or "mother" plant of nutrients) -- back-break degree: very high, actually yelped when I tried to stand up that same afternoon.
  • Pruned tomato plants so air can flow and circulate easily (the plants were so overgrown with leaves they toppled over, and fruits in the middle of the plant became moldy from the moisture and lack of circulation) -- back-break degree: medium, lots of getting up and crouching down, but so glad all the tomatoes can breathe now.
  • Picked baskets of string beans (can't be lazy and try to pick with one hand, would yank out too much of the vines ) -- back-break degree: low, most beans were up high which I couldn't even reach.
  • Dug potatoes, then prepared the soil by laying compost and hay on top for reseeding -- back-break degree: very high, but I was rewarded with beautiful red-skin and yellow-skin potatoes, with skin so thin and fresh, I don't have to peel them.
  • Trimmed and separated baskets of garlic and onions to dry -- back-break degree: low, but a very boring and tedious task.
  • Pruned and secured raspberry bushes so they won't fall over from the weight of the snow in the coming months -- back-break degree: medium, but my forearms were mutilated by the branches! I got to enjoy the raspberries picked during the summer though (now frozen), delicious in smoothies, desserts, and oatmeal.
  • Turned the compost pile (K makes his own compost from food scraps, goat's manure, dead plants, used hay, etc.; they are piled high and allowed to "cook" outdoors until they become fertilizer, which requires turning the pile every few days) -- back-break degree: high, the compost pile is almost the same height as me, so it is a workout to shovel the damp and heavy compost from one pile into another, but it feels great knowing this is what completes the lifecycle of our food on the farm, back into the soil to supply nutrients.
  • Loaded logs onto the tractor then piled into neat piles (behind the farm and still part of the family's property is unused land in the woods, full of trees which K may saw off in order to clear the land of dead trees and to make firewood) -- back-bread degree: high, the logs aren't all heavy, and throwing them off the back of the truck into a big pile is way fun.
  • Made salsa and plum sauce then canned them for storage (once harvest is done, a lot of the food must be prepped for storage so they can be eaten during the coming months until the next harvest) -- back-break degree: very low, I get to spend time cooking in the kitchen and learned to can, what a treat!
  • Made goat cheese (my #1 goal as a WWOOF'er) -- back-break degree: none, unless I count the milking which is "low". K taught me to make a simple cheese that has texture similar to fresh mozzarella, and I dare say I aced it on my first try! It was not that difficult but took a lot of time. K's cheeses have had different outcome, one became too soft (ate it like cream cheese), another was a bit tough but grated well (boiled the milk for too long).

Even though I've witnessed tons of amazing animals all year (manta rays, whales, whale sharks, other types of sharks, devil rays, iguanas, penguins, tortoises, sea turtles...) it's the goat that stole my heart.  The most fun I've had on the farm is caring for them, seven in total: one buck (named Buck), two adult does (Daisy and her daughter Coco, who is herself a mother), and four juvenile does (sisters Echo and Emme, daughters to Buck and Daisy, and sisters Elsa and Ella, whose dad is Buck and whose mom, Violet, was recently sold to another farm). These goats are very pampered and deservedly so, because their milk is delicious! They are walked daily before sunset, which serves as their exercise, plus there's "free food" on the route; moreover, as a result of their eating on the walk, it helps to graze and maintain the size of the trees, bushes, and wild grass in the area. Buck is a handful, so K always has him on a leash; the adult does are leashed up until we leave the farm, then it is removed and they are free to roam, and the baby goats simply follow them. From these walks, I've learned just how smart goats are. Their sense of direction is amazing, always know where to turn, where the good leaves are, and places to avoid (they are somewhat frightened of strange dogs but get along fine with the family dog, Mica). The two adult does know their name, and Elsa also learned hers. If I say "c'mon Coco, let's go home", she'll look at me for a few seconds, and then walk in the direction towards home. Coco is also a fantastic "tree toppler" -- if the leaves are high and out of her reach, she will stand on her hind legs; sometimes she may even pull down a branch with her foreleg and then hold it down, and all the goats will rush over to eat. Daisy is the "lead goat" since she's the oldest of the herd, and seems to have a mind of her own. Once she started walking down the hill when all of us were headed home in the opposite direction; she must have walked almost 100m before she listened to our calling her name, turned around, and unwillingly followed us. The four baby goats are simply a joy to watch; they can gallop up and down any steep terrain with no problem, they hop and leap sometimes for no reason, and they also play "fake head-butt" with each other. I can watch and be entertained by the four of them for hours!

Coco and Daisy are milked twice daily, early morning and early evening after the walk. I've tried my hand at milking, and I'm terrible! Coco is the easier of the two to milk, yet I still have a hard time positioning my fingers to produce a good enough squeeze and thus flow of milk, so it takes me a long time to finish one milking. Usually K is with me when I milk to hold Coco's hind legs in case she kicks; however, once I milked her alone, and she got impatient and kicked her hind leg so it landed inside the milk bucket. We scolded her even though she continued to give me the evil eye, and lucky Mica got to enjoy all the milk that night. The female goats sleep inside the barn at night (the barn has two pens, one for adults and another for juveniles), and Buck sleeps outside the barn within the pen (if inside, he will harass them too much). During the day, the female goats are free to roam the barn and the pen, while Buck is tethered to a tree outside the pen but always within sight of the herd, or else he starts to whine.

I could not have picked a more appropriate host family for my first WWOOF experience! Both K and M are ardent environmentalists. On the side, K owns a solar panel installation business (the farm uses only solar power), and M is an environment conservationist who contracts with several local conservation groups on land stewardship. Their daughter B is such a confident and independent 10-year-old girl; she is extremely comfortable outdoors (on her class canoe trip, she was able to kayak her own kayak for three consecutive days), around animals (she can milk the goats better than I), and is quite handy in the kitchen and around the farm (she can safely cut a melon using a big kitchen knife, and for her treehouse, she pulled a piece of sheet metal and two tarps so she could work on the "roofing"). There's no television in the house; we listen to the radio while we cook or take our meals, and watch movies from the laptop after dinner (just like I did in Tofo!) It's great to see B's mind not tainted by commercial goods and gadgets; instead, she role-plays (once I had to play the role of a goat buyer), plays the violin, and loves to ride the bike to her friend's house or take Mica for walks.

To M, my biggest contribution as a WWOOF'er may not be the work I did on the farm or my cooking, but what I did in Photoshop and (gulp) Acrobat! It was truly a case of "being at the right place at the right time": M was helping to organize a conservation group's annual conference during my first week's stay, and had a long to-do list, including making posters, fliers, and conference agenda. She wanted to use Photoshop but had limited experience, so I offered to help; not that I'm a Photoshop expert, but I can use it to make simple "artwork" of JPG's and colorful text. For three mornings, she and I sat together and designed the conference sponsors "thank you" poster, fliers, and table tents, the conference agenda, and a slideshow. The following week, I created an application form that non-profit groups can complete to request funding for conservation projects (seriously, can I ever get away from "form"??) It was honestly fun, and I even learned something new in both applications. Nice to be flexing my Adobe alumni status!

So far my first-time WWOOF experience has been excellent, hopefully my next host will give me a whole new experience, or at least just as good. Sometimes I have to pinch myself though, how lucky can one gal be, to have such a grand time with such great people, throughout the year? I must thank my lucky star!

Tags: acrobat, cheese, compost, farm, fresh vegetable, goat, organic, photoshop

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