All men were farmers sometime ago...
On this sunny April morning, my husband and I, both software programmers, drove through the rolling spring lands of eastern Ontario, and came to an organic farm with over 100 acres and a big animal barn.
Although the farm does have a B&B, we didn't come for the retreat. It might sound crazy to some people, we took our vacation time and came here to learn how farmers live today and to see if we can help out with some dirty and hard farm work.
We started to plan for this at the end of last year, after my husband found the WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms, www.wwoof.ca) site online. We applied for membership and read through the green book which lists Canadian organic farms that take “woofers”. We found a farm in Price Edward County about 3 hours away from Ottawa, near Picton, with an interesting description: in addition to being a certified organic farm, they live off the grid, being powered by solar and wind only.
We were happy and grateful that the farm owner accepted our request and allowed us to work and stay in the farm for shorter than a week (the minimum that most farms request).
We didn't know what to expect or what to bring, except some old clothes and old sneakers, plus four willing hands and two open minds. We entered the farm with loud greetings (or perhaps warnings) from the sheep, goats, roosters and ducks and under the suspicious stare of two alarmed donkeys. About 300 meters of crushed stone road led us towards the house, and just outside the house we met Achim the owner, a strong man with a big smile, and Jake the friendly farm dog.
Achim and his wife Ute came to Canada from Germany 6 years ago, and started the Reachview organic farm about 3 years ago, adding a B&B last year. Like many new immigrants, they have their share of hard life starting out in a new land, but they love this multi-cultured country. Trained as a mechanical engineer without much farming background before this farm, Achim (and his mother) had a vision about the environment and how humans should live and feed ourselves. With two young daughters (age 4.5 and 16 months), he and his family are willing to experiment, and at times struggle, to see if they can make their living based on the vision.
Part of the vision is to live off the grid with renewable energy sources. They built a house in the middle of the farm, simple but with many energy saving elements: big south-facing windows to take in the sun in the winter, smaller north-facing windows to allow cross breezes in the summer, a large panel containing pop-cans on the southern facing external wall for warm air circulation, and a rain water collection system for most washing needs. All electricity used by the house comes from two 3x4 feet solar panels and a 60 feet tall wind turbine that makes sounds like a bird singing all day along. A family of four, plus guests can live very comfortably.
We are amazed by how much work one person can do on the farm, as that is basically what Achim does: run the farm mostly by himself, 16 hours per day at busy times, with a bit of help from his mother who lives nearby. There are about 20 goats, 30-40 sheep, a dozen or so white rabbits, and probably more than a hundred birds including different types of ducks, chickens, quails, roosters, and two big turkeys, all living in four portions inside the big animal barn. Most of the animals are free to wander around outside the barn into a fair sized fenced in area which includes a small pond. As a certified organic farm, no chemicals or antibiotics are given to the animals, so their living quarters need to be kept fairly clean to avoid any diseases.
On the second day into our stay, the sun was hot in the middle of the afternoon, and after more than 3 hours planting onions in the field under the sun, we were happy that Achim asked us to clean out some of the stalls inside the barn. But boy the smell when we stepped into the stall and started lifting up the wet dirty straw filled with bird urine and droppings, and cleaned the wet floor. I kept telling my husband (and perhaps myself) that we don't mind cleaning for the chickens, but the smell could really send some people away if you are not prepared. On top of that, there was one big rooster which thinks itself as the protector of the barn and launched three vicious attacks on me while my husband was away on his water trip, I had to use a big brush to fight it away.
Before cleaning the chicken stalls I was wondering why Achim keeps so many roosters (about 10?). After the rooster attack incident, I started to think these roosters could be of better use, so I offered to cook a rooster feast. I didn't tell Achim, but confessed to my husband in secret that the meat would be very tasty. Only later on I realized that the rooster slaughter and feather cleaning would take some very valuable time from Achim’s busy spring schedule, and that was probably why he didn't seems interested at my rooster feast idea. To my relief, Achim's mother, a very nice lady, stepped in to clean all dead roosters after the execution the next morning.
Although there are more than 100 acres of land on the farm, Achim told us most of the land is not good for farming as the soil layer is not very deep and not rich enough, that is why most of them are filled with wild Juniper tree bushes. There are 7 or 8 fields that are cleared, some are seeded with hay and alfalfa for the animals, and there are 2 or 3 with better soil for organic vegetables and sunflowers. Being organic means that soil can only be fertilized in two ways: by applying compost made from the animal waste (composted for 2-3 months), or by planting nutrient rich plants (for example red clover) and leaving them in the soil. So the smelly wastes we cleaned out from the barn are really gold to farmer eyes.
Being organic also means very labour intensive field work, as lots need to be done by hands instead of machines. Achim has prepared a bag of onion seeds (about 25 lbs) for us to plant as that is probably one of the simple jobs on the farm.
On our first onion planting day, my husband and me each planted two rows, one row for regular onion and one row for green onion (same seed as regular onion but picked early for their green tops), on the vegetable field next to the house. The field is really long, probably about 250 feet or more. For some reason, we always seemed just more than half way from the end every time we stood up to stretch our legs and backs. We started just past 9 am (quite late by farmers time), and finished the 2+2 rows only after 12:45pm. We felt quite slow and not sure our work could pay for our living.
But Achim seemed happy with our planting, so we were asked to do more the next day, on part of the good vegetable field next to the barn. My husband came up with the smart idea that we separate the task: one person to lay the onion seeds in the row with proper spacing; the other person to set them root side down and cover the row; kind of an assembly line operation (that did improve our planting efficiently by about 30%). To award my husband, the thinker of the day, I offered to be the cover up person that needed bending down all the time. My back and legs were so hurt at the end of the day that I needed a massage.
I was a bit embarrassed to admit to Ute that I had an emergency treatment of rubbing alcohol in the middle of our first night in the farm. Achim asked us to clean a small field (about 40x50 feet) on the side of the house that afternoon, and I tried to impress everyone with my gardening skills and forgetting about my computer occupation injured arms, that I just kept raking away for a few hours without stopping. Achim probably didn't see my work at all afterwards, but I woke up in the middle of night with my right arm burning and sore at the same time. Dear husband also had sore legs after the onion planting, but felt somewhat better than me, so when he closed his eyes, he only saw onions and fields and dreamed about that all night along.
Life is tough on the farm, especially on the organic farms. Although part of Achim’s vision was to be self-sufficient for his family, they do also have bills to pay. The organic onions sell for a bit more than the regular non-organic grown ones, but not too much, and there is no way Achim can afford to hire help. His organic fed ducks must be checked by a government certified place to which he needs to pay $12 per duck to just get them killed, adding to the cost and time he grows them, so he would not make money even if he sold his ducks at $6 or $7 per pound.
Achim mentioned that although some big food stores have started to carry more organic food, they normally push the price very low when they buy from the farmers. And the stores sell the goods with much higher prices to make bigger profits for themselves. To fight this, Achim and his fellow organic farmers started an organic farmer's cooperative, to exchange produce between themselves and to set up booths in farmers markets (mostly in Toronto now), to sell their produce directly to the customer, so we get fresh organic food, and the farmers get a fair price. Also this gives people more of a sense about healthy eating and living. "Farmers do this for the love of it. It’s something in your blood, even when you’re loosing money", Achim told us. He would be happy to see more people start paying attention to our land and to plant things organically for themselves (even with a planting box if they live in an apartment), and to buy local produce whenever possible. A sustainable lifestyle, including producing and buying more locally grown food will become necessary as we face declining oil supplies in the coming days.
Achim does not know if he will succeed or not, but he will have to make a decision after this year. Beside the busy farm work, he will try to do some independent consulting work and seminars on renewable energy based on his experience and his own home setup. For Ute, even with 2 little ones to care for, she decided to open a B&B to help out with the family expenses, and to give city people a chance to come to the farm and live off the grid, to see the animals, and to eat organic eggs, bacon, breads and cup cakes which she cooks everyday. Their daughters, Leah, the bright 4 year old one who speaks 3 languages (German, Persian and English) and is always thinking, and the 16 month old baby who is always smiling and laughing, will for sure be good helpers for Dad and Mom in a few years time.
We had a big stewed rooster feast on Thursday night: Achim's family, his visionary mother and retired father, my husband and I, even Jake the dog had a big plate of left over rooster bones for a treat. Achim went back to his office right after supper, probably working on his renewable energy course, which left Ute, his mother and father to talk with my husband and me about our lives in Germany, in Iran, in China and of course, in Canada. With our stories and a bit of Tao philosophy, we also knocked down a big bottle of red wine.
Next morning, packed with 5 dozen fresh eggs and a big dead roaster, we hugged Ute and the baby, and waved goodbye to Achim who was up in the field already.
A couple onion seeds dropped out from my husband's pocket that he used for storage during planting. He sighed, "I will never look at onions the same way". Yes, after days (Tuesday to Friday) on the farm, with no TV, no newspapers, no Internet, hard labour work and healthy organic food, our bodies are tired but fitter and our heads are happier, and we will never look at our food the same way.
All men were farmers sometime ago, and all men (and women) will be farmers sometime again, hopefully all green and organic…