this post comes to you from southern Ontario – that’s right, my WWOOFing trip has ended (for now) and I’m back at home, happy to see my friends & family, and a little stunned at returning to the rat race that is the GTA.
After spending 5 months almost entirely away from cities, I have to say I’m almost in a state of grieving for the lifestyle I got to experience while I was away (the same thing happened last year after I moved off the farm when my internship ended). Living close to nature and being able to do work that I love is very important to me. I felt different almost as soon as I got off the plane, though I couldn’t put my finger on exactly how. But every once in a while I’ll notice something that I hadn’t given any thought to at first. For example, I woke up in the middle of the night a couple nights ago and my room was bright from the streetlights outside on the street. I could see the pattern on the curtain with the light shining through it, and see items across the room from my bed. I had started taking for granted the darkness that exists in places that are far away from densely populated areas. One thing I did notice right away is the water quality here. After months of drinking delicious, clean well water that was largely supplied by glacial runoff, the treated water here just tastes like chlorine. Unfortunately that means I haven’t been drinking enough of it since I got back, but I guess it’s just something to get used to.
Another interesting thing I’ve noticed is my own attitude towards other people. In the Nelson area especially, I was very comfortable around strangers (everybody was…probably because they’re smoking something green). But seriously, the vibe there was generally friendly and relaxed, and the vibe here, even in a suburb of a small town, is very different. Many people who live here commute to larger places for work, like Toronto or Mississauga, so the traffic is more hectic and people seem more rushed and stressed about driving. There is no public transit within the town, so anyone who has to get groceries or run errands faces this traffic (or risks biking, but not many people here bike except for pleasure. The roads aren’t very bike-friendly). Folks seem to have that “tunnel vision” that happens when they just want to do their thing, not talk to anyone, and get home. I can understand that, because living here for so long has often caused me to do the same thing. Sometimes we call it “putting your Toronto on.” As well, being exposed to so much more media is overwhelming (I just heard a radio commercial advertising a show called “Canada’s Wost Drivers” on the Discovery channel…boy, have they one gone downhill. I’m glad I haven’t wasted my money and life on cable over the last 6 years).
The point of me mulling this over here is that it’s easy to get swept into this kind of mentality again when it’s the only one that seems to exist around you. I may just be having withdrawal after leaving farms nestled in the mountains or at the edge of the sea, but life here feels much more stressful, even though my first days back have mostly consisted of me sleeping late and relaxing and visiting loved ones. There are also very few truly natural or wild areas to spend time in, and that’s contributing to the stress as well I’m sure. As I mentioned in a previous post, the main reason I’d have to leave the house in a place like this would be to go shopping, and I don’t have the money or the need to do so every day, and it doesn’t satisfy that need to be close to nature.
Anyway, having people ask me about the trip has helped me reflect on it and realize what I’ve really gained from doing something like this – traveling alone in an unfamiliar place, living, eating and working with people I’ve never met before and trusting and relying on them because I have to, being in all kinds of farm settings with different crops…I got so much more out of this experience than I’d expected to. I suppose it’s hard to really know what to expect. I had specific goals when I planned the trip, as you may remember from previous posts. Here are some examples of things I wanted to learn about:
- permaculture (forest gardening, gray water collection and water conservation, etc)
- natural building
- perennial plants like asparagus, fruit trees, nuts, berries
- growing grains
- cover crops (to add to my existing basic knowledge)
- minimizing the use of fossil fuels for farm tasks
Given that I only spent a couple weeks at most of my host farms, things weren’t quite as in-depth as I’d hoped for sometimes, but I did glean alot from my stays when I made an effort to engage with my hosts, and they were usually very happy to talk to me about what they were doing. As well, there are lots of things I learned that I wasn’t expecting to, for instance:
- I liked the permaculture hosts I visited, but missed being in a larger commercial farm setting, and missed the rhythm of harvesting from a market garden made up mainly of vegetables. I had previously thought I might like to focus on permaculture one day on my own farm, but after spending time immersed in it, I realized it would suit me better to have a market garden in which I could incorporate permaculture principles, such as rainwater catchment and cultivation of perennial plants like asparagus, berries and nuts, as well as veggies, beans, flowers and herbs that would provide yields while the others were getting established. So I came back with a much clearer vision of my own future farm.
- My first host had been a carpenter for most of her life, and taught me how to use a skill saw, as well as some roofing how-tos (which would come in handy at a later host farm). At another place I learned how to use a table saw and how to square the pieces of wood we were cutting. I gained this experience by building raised beds, sunken cold frames, and cloches (like mini-greenhouses), so I got to know the ins & outs of those useful structures as well.
- BC has a huge abundance of edible wild plants! In Ontario, if you see a wild berry, it’s safe to assume it’s not edible. In BC it’s almost the opposite – just about every wild berry I encountered was scrumptious. I learned to recognize salmon berries (both kinds), huckleberries, salal, and thimble berries. I also had the chance to hunt for edible mushrooms during a day off with some experienced wild mushroom collectors, so I brushed up on some mushroom identification too. It’s amazing what you can eat from the wild! Speaking of mushrooms, I also learned about growing oysters and shiitakes – what conditions they do well in, and the kind of care they need.
- I was able to observe and sample different cultivated berry varieties, learn which ones do well in which climates, and see the contrast in yield, size and taste between different varieties of the same berry. I also observed different varieties of other crops, noting things like which ones grew more slowly, which bunched best, and which ones tasted better.
- Being exposed to an array of methods for getting tasks done, I could evaluate which ones were the most efficient and/or the best in terms of comfort and morale (both the techniques, and whether a task was better done by a single person or a group)
- Throughout the entire 5 months, but especially during the trip to Ucluelet and Tofino, I was challenged to throw off my excessive suspicion of others (maybe it’s a southern Ontario thing?) and learn to follow my intuition and common sense while also trusting others more. It’s because of this that I had such a great time there – being welcomed into strangers’ homes simply because we needed somewhere to stay, or being given a ride when we were trying to get somewhere and getting to know the stories of people who lived there, were amazing experiences.
- Working and living alongside so many different people helped me notice successes and glitches in this kind of relationship – for example, what kind of communication was effective, as well as things to consider when taking on wwoofers or interns (ie. has the person lived away from home before? are they genuinely interested in farming?) and when WWOOFing or interning yourself (what is expected of you? how to deal with problems if they arise?).
- I became familiar with some basics about off-grid/solar-powered homes, natural building techniques, and other structures like yurts.
- I learned how to bake delicious vegan, gluten-free bread, among many other things.
- It kind of goes without saying, but I met a huge number of incredible people! Some of whom I’m still in touch with.
- (I’m a little embarrassed to say this, but at 26,) I learned how to use a lawnmower!
Anyway, there are probably many more things that I’m not remembering, but the point is that the scope of experience was far beyond what I expected. If you’re considering WWOOFing for whatever reason, I would recommend it!
Farming is challenging, stimulating, meditative and therapeutic. In this photo you can see the thick mat of clover, undersown in the kale and cabbage patch, which keeps weeds away and improves the soil. Watching the crops grow and seeing the results of your work is very rewarding; dealing with pest problems or identifying ways to improve your crop yields keeps you on your toes, and working in this kind of setting is really wonderful!
Since I got back, to combat my farm withdrawal, I’ve visited the farm that taught me so much during my internship in 2011 for the annual pot luck. Although the farm suffered greatly (as did many others in the area) due to the drought this summer, they’re receiving lots of support from the community in developing their Resilience Fund which will help them deal with such conditions more effectively in future, and keep providing top quality food to people. Take a look.
I’ve also been looking ahead at how to get where I want to be. I enrolled in a free course offered by OMAFRA about managing farm profits. This will also help me obtain cost-sharing for a farm business planning course next fall.
In other farmy news, a study was done by Iowa State University which determined that relying on crop rotations is the best way to get consistent and higher crop yields when growing things like corn and soy beans (very widely grown here in North America, mostly to feed animals). Conventional agriculture relies heavily on pesticides and synthetic fertilizers because rotations are not sufficient to allow the soil to recover. As well, corn and soy beans are mostly GMO crops, and many of those rely on pesticides in order to grow (for example, RoundUp Ready soybeans). Simply changing to a more effective crop rotation can mean this huge amount of chemicals is not needed, and thus results in less pollution, cleaner ground water, healthier working conditions, and less contaminated foods. Check out the article here.
Now that I’ve returned to Ontario, the challenge becomes maintaining the positive energy I carried with me throughout my trip, and taking steps to achieve what I want to achieve over the next couple of seasons. When I need a pick me up, all I have to do is look back on my time out west for inspiration.