Friday, January 26, 2007

Thank You, WWOOFers!

Farming, I'm discovering, has its own rhythms - cycles of energy dictated by the land and what grows out of it. The rhythm of the land becomes the rhythm of the farmer. As winter's chill settles into the bones of the land, my blood slows too. The air I breathe is quiet, expectant, laden with the inbreath of creatures asleep beneath the snow. Winter has become this place of pause, a space between inhale and exhale, a time to reflect on what has come into our lives and to imagine what is yet to come.

I want to post soon about Old Man Farm and where it is taking us. But before I can do that, I need to acknowledge some of the incredible people who have helped us evolve to this point. Since June of last year, we have been priveleged to host and to be helped by eleven individuals whose talents and insights have helped us grow. These folks came to us as WWOOFers - Willing Workers on Organic Farms - volunteering their energy in exchange for room, board, and whatever experiences we could share with them.

So, how have WWOOFers helped us? On a practical level, WWOOFers contribute muscle power, and help us get the job done. Keira's impressive muscles moved a greenhouse frame, turned sod, moved wood, planted strawberries - and pulled three children up a grassy hill on a toboggan! Katie and Michael moved truckloads of old hay and manure from the barn to the garden, hauled old barbed wire out of the pasture, and shoveled out the hen house. Ashley applied his muscles to the tasks of limbing trees, loading hay, and mulching, while Kai weed-wacked, mulched, and planted spuds. Bryan, Julie, and Matthew - our intrepid family of WWOOFers - pounded the spikes out of recycled railway ties, weeded the garden, and stacked hardwood stakes. Arjen loaded endless hay bales, hilled potatoes, and pulled weeds. Chrissie built up her forearm muscles by taking over the milking during her stay, and also dug out a spring, set up the greenhouse, and cleaned out the animal stalls. Kristin - who WWOOFed with us after the garden was finished for the year - helped us prepare for winter by loading and stacking tons of firewood, and mulching the strawberries.

In addition to sheer physical effort, WWOOFers have delighted us with their ingenuity and creativity, and helped us solve a wide array of problems. Keira's organizational efforts made the barn shop a much less cluttered place. Michael and Katie set up a new pea-staking system, and designed and built our very first "chicken tractor." Ashley contributed his formal design training and left us with the plans for a new hen house (the building of which may be a job for WWOOFers to come!), and Ashley and Kai worked together to create a stylish, recycled-wood chalet for the broiler chicks. Kai used GPS to note the position of various trees in our woodlot. Bryan, Julie, and Matthew helped us sort through, color-code, and store every last one of our zillion tools (most of which are still in more-or-less the right locations), and Bryan penned the official song of Old Man Farm: "Not for Human Consumption." Arjen and Kristin both displayed a knack for pitching in at just the right time in a variety of projects, and Chrissie applied her artistic hand to creating a detailed map of the newly-planted orchard.

I'm only mentioning the highlights of what each volunteer accomplished, by the way. And when you consider that the average length of stay for WWOOFers has been about ten days, you have to be impressed with their contributions!

But the physical work is only half of the story. Equally (if not more) important have been the conversations, suggestions, and insights WWOOFers have shared with us. All eleven of these people have allowed us a glimpse into their unique life-paths, generously adding their emotional and spiritual energy to what we are trying to create. Although WWOOFers ostensibly come here to learn, every one of them has left us with lessons as well.

Keira's boundless enthusiasm and genuine delight in everyday tasks reminded us that, in any situation, it is possible to choose optimism. Michael and Katie brought gentle spirits, quiet joy in simple pleasures, and an enviable ability to work peaceably together. Ashley - whose dogged attempt to find a new way of living brought him into unfamiliar and sometimes unpleasant territory - showed us that change is possible. Kai's kindness and easy-going nature made the work seem easier. Bryan's eagerness, his ready friendship, and his earnest pursuit of "the good" renewed our faith (on many levels), while his music lightened our spirits. Julie fit into our household like a sister, sharing the child-minding and household tasks, and helping to keep things flowing smoothly. Her practical and compassionate approach to faith were an inspiration. Matthew impressed us with his patience (a single child plunged into the deep waters of temporary sibling-hood!), his sense of comedy, and his peaceful nature. Arjen's openness, and his willingness to jump right in with both feet, made him good company. Chrissie's organized mind and direct approach gave us a helpful lens through which to evaluate our plans. And Kristin (the only WWOOFer whose picture we did not get, regrettably), shared a beautifully open, non-judgmental mind, and an exceptional ability to communicate clearly and honestly.

To all of the WWWOFers of 2006: Thank you for the hard work, the sharing of good food, the honest feedback, the interesting ideas, the fun and silliness, the connecting with our children, the insights and suggestions, the music, the support, and the encouragement. We could not have done it without you!

Monday, December 18, 2006

New Growth in the Heart of Winter

When I started this blog last summer, I was longing for many things - connection, a creative outlet, a place to share the story of our work here at Old Man Farm. I imagined that blogging would bring me closer to friends and family, encourage other people striving to live more lightly on the earth, and give me time to reflect on our experiences.

What I did not anticipate is that the nature of our "work" would require me to transcend mere chronicling of events - would in fact lead me to share intimately about my own development and that of my family. For farming is not just about tilling the soil and tending the plants - it is ultimately about the
the growth of the farmers, their journey into rootedness, their own cycles of dieback and new life, the regeneration of the human spirit.

If anyone is still visiting this poor, neglected site, you'll have noticed a rather long hiatus. For a while, we needed to focus all of our efforts on the challenges at hand, and I didn't have much extra energy for reflection. But a small, pestering voice has continued to remind me that writing fully about our experiences is the best course - both in terms of helping me reflect on our journey, and in terms of faithfully sharing that journey with others at a time in human history when having discussions about sustainability is crucial.

My New Year's resolution is to re-commit to this space, to this work: to chronicling the fragile, messy, glorious, riotous, painful, ecstatic experiment in sustainability that is Old Man Farm.

Thursday, September 28, 2006


I've been feeling a lot like this baby meadow vole this month: as if I'm a tiny, vulnerable being in the grip of an incomprehensible giant.

As an analogy, I guess, it's hopeful, considering that I rescued the vole from certain death in our laundry basket and released it back into the wild. I'm hoping that my giant intends something as benevolent, even if I can't see it right now through the layers of anxiety and exhaustion.

Part of me is tempted to try and write the following as a comedy. Perhaps, in another month or two (or year, or decade), it will even FEEL funny... but at the moment, I think I'm going to be honest and say that it's been one hell of a month.

It all started when a moose squished our car. The Farmer was driving at the time, and had just come down from the Highlands, where moose rule the road. He had just, in fact, chided himself for feeling relieved to be "out of moose territory" (because around here, there's really no such thing), when a dark shape loomed up out of the ditch. He hit her at knee level. She hit the car at windshield level. Thank whatever deity exists that the moose did not go through the windshield and squish my dear husband. She did, however, wrinkle the car too badly to repair, before getting up off the pavement and loping into the woods.

We dealt with the event philosophically. After all, my husband was unhurt, and we had a backup vehicle we could call into service. That's "had" - past tense. We drove the 1980-ish van to the "big city" to acquire some school supplies at the mall. While we were inside, experiencing deep culture shock and trying to block out the relentless music blasting in every store, the van was springing a massive gas leak out in the parking lot. Apparently, mall management paged us, but we didn't hear a thing. So... the van got towed to an impound yard, and we were stranded with two children, an hour and a half from home.

On the positive side (and believe me, I am treasuring all the positive sides right now), we encountered incredible help and compassion from a police officer called to the scene, and from some of the staff at Zellers. They helped us find a way home and, more importantly, offered encouraging words and steadying hugs.

Their kindness stayed with me during the following week, as we went through the maddening experience of trying to retrieve our van from its $20/day prison. The vehicle needed a lot of work, and it seemed to make sense to have it done by the company that had towed it, since they are also a repair facility. But it soon became apparent that the "grease mafia" wasn't interested in dealing squarely with us. They promised repair estimates, then didn't get back to us, then refused to tell me the name of the business owner... and meanwhile the daily charges were mounting. Finally, we had the van towed back to the village nearest to us, where it is now being tackled by someone we know and trust.

Being without a vehicle this far out in the country is a bit inconvenient, but we tried to be philosophical. After all, we're only making trips to town every week and a half or so. The bus picks the children up for school, and we grow more than enough food, so being carless isn't so bad. That is, until your water pump dies.

Yes, they say bad news comes in threes. Our number three was the demise of the water pump, and the attendant difficulty of getting someone - ANYONE - to help fix it. The Farmer gritted his teeth, rolled up his sleeves, and descended to the basement, determined to learn how to do it himself. After dismantling, testing, jigging, and fiddling, he decided that the best course of action was to replace the old pump. Which, of course, meant a trip to the big city, an hour and a half away.

Meanwhile, we received a call from school. My dear daughter was found to be harboring illegal aliens, and was to be sent home from school until the situation was resolved. So - a lice infestation, in combination with a lack of water. And, of course, we discovered the critters on the youngest's head as well. So much for bad news coming in threes.

Again, counting our blessings, we have good friends who loaned us their van, so my patient husband was able to acquire a new pump. He spent part of a day installing it, and it worked beautifully... until the defective switch gave out. At this point, having heard nothing from the plumbers with whom we had left desperate messages, we called a local furnace repair person, who was able to confirm that the switch was the problem. Back went the "old new pump," and home came the "new new pump." This time, the installation went smoothly, and water once again flowed in the little homestead.

With water flowing, we set about tackling the lice. I'll spare you the details of the ten day long comb-fest (except to note that the biggest obstacle, initially, was the Newt's deep ethical concerns about taking the lives of the innocent creatures who were, after all, only doing what Nature intended them to do...) The boys immediately got sporty buzz cuts, while the Newt chose to endure hours of combing and picking in order to save her beloved long locks.

All of this has been a diversion from the farm work we're supposed to be doing, of course, and it's felt a lot like treading water madly, but sinking anyway. The series of breakdowns and barriers and bugs has been more than inconvenient - it's been psychologically challenging, because it has thrown into sharp relief for us just how finely our lives are balanced here. As we struggle to create and model a more sustainable way of life, we also open ourselves up to more risk, because full time farming creates lots of food, but not (yet) much cash.

When you have the cash to "buy" repairs, or "buy" solutions to problems, breakdowns are irritating and inconvenient. When you make the choice to learn how to do your own repairs (or when finances force you to do so), breakdowns become a psychological testing-ground. The responsibility of "fixing it" for your children becomes all-consuming. Your own shortcomings, or perceived shortcomings, loom large. You realize that some people actually treat you differently - with less courtesy, or with outright derision - if you do not have the money to throw at a problem. You make decisions in reaction to crisis, rather than on desire (i.e. the need for a new water pump trumps the need to finish fixing the roof).

Thankfully, our series of breakdowns coincided with the arrival of our income tax rebate, so we were able to cover the costs of the water pump and tank, the towing, and some of the car repair bills. We have also received a bail-out from my Dad and his spouse, who have been steadfast in belief of our vision. We are all too aware that our efforts at "sustainability" have only been made possible by acts of generosity like theirs. We can only say that we are determined to use these gifts to create a true model of sustainability, and to work for systemic change that will enable greater sustainability for more people.

Once again, it's been the acts of kindness (small and large) that have given us something to cling to as the water rises. As things stand now, we're free of lice, replete with water, and on the road to being on the road. We've benefitted from the kindness of strangers, the generosity of friends, and a helping hand from loved ones, and grown in compassion for the countless people who are struggling WITHOUT any of those blessings.

May October bring better things!

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

What's Being Preserved

The first time I canned beans, it seemed like a miracle. In the Spring that year, my husband and I had hillled the soil, trading off the backpack containing our sleeping youngest child. I'd planted the smooth, oblong beans, not quite trusting that they would amount to... well... a hill of beans. When the little plants broke through the soil and began to unfurl themselves, I was jubilant. And when, many weeks later, I lifted the leaves and found long, brightly-colored beans where none had been only a few days before, I felt an absurd sense of accomplishment.

Pride turned quickly to dismay, as I carted laundry baskets full of yellow, green, and purple beans up to the house. I'd planted "a few extra beans, just in case some don't come up", only to have every blessed plant produce like crazy. And now, they were taking over the kitchen, piled in baskets and buckets and boxes, tumbling out of bags. The problem was, I'd only ever eaten them steamed, with butter. The entire family and half the community would have to eat steamed beans three times a day for the next month, to deal with this bounty!

And so, the pickling began. After the first few jars, I hit on a rhythm: put the jars in water to sterilize; wash the beans and boil water to blanch them; prepare the brine solution; blanch, rinse, and pack the beans in jars; add heads of dill and cloves of garlic; pour the brine, and seal. It was labour intensive, but pleasant - the kitchen was filled with a pungent, comforting steam. Pots hissed on the stove; jar lids popped.

When it was all done, I had a table full of beautiful food that I knew would help see us through the winter. And that, for me, was the miracle - the thought that I knew where our food had come from, and that we had been involved in it from seed to table. I knew exactly what the weather was doing on the day the seeds went in the ground. I'd felt the beans slip from my fingers into the soil. We'd kept the weeds at bay by hand, and knew that the soil and the growing plants were free of pesticides. I knew how the beans had travelled from the garden to my kitchen, and how they found their way into bottles in my cupboard. And I knew that, when winter came and the garden was barely a memory, those beans would taste like ambrosia.

Friday, September 01, 2006



Old Man Farm has a lot of virtues: fresh, clear air; abundant, sweet spring water; a soul-changing landscape. It is a breathtakingly beautiful haven. It is NOT, however, the technological center of the universe.

When we moved here a few years ago, we still - inadvertently - shared a telephone line with our next door neighbour. Our Internet connection is limited to "cold molasses dialup". There's way too much to do around here to bother with cable or satellite television. And we long ago gave up our cell phone package, after discovering we could only get the thing to work from the top of the barn.

We said goodbye to a lot of technology in our first year here, and only realized how dependent we had become on it all once we'd weaned ourselves from it. So we had quite a bit of sympathy for recent visitors from the city, who had to relinquish their technological habits "cold turkey" during their stay with us.

The thirteen year old probably had the worst time, at least initially. Cut off from a few favorite telivision programs, and unable to chat with friends back home via MSN or cell phone, she seemed to go through a few days of techno-DTs. But youth is resilient. Before long, she had risen to the challenge and learned to drive a farm truck, pick fresh beans, contend with goats, and make a wicked blackberry jam. By the end of her visit, she conceded that she might like to be a farm girl - at least for a few weeks a year.

Her father had his own techno-deprived pain.

"I should have realized my Blackberry wasn't going to work here," he mourned.

I tried to console him by pointing out that there's a whole patch of blackberries at the top of our hill. And, when you think about it, my blackberries have some advantages over his:

1. My blackberries are free
2. They're more nutritious
3. You won't get in trouble for taking one on an airplane

Of course, his Blackberry doesn't attract bears...

Monday, August 07, 2006

The Little Things

I wanted to find a beautiful picture of a jellyfish for today's blog entry, but there aren't too many of those on Old Man Farm (unless you count ME at the end of a long, long day). I chose another of the Farmer's stunning photos instead, hoping it will convey something about the beauty, the fragility, and the value of seemingly lowly creatures.

I've been thinking about jellyfish since last Friday, when the Farmer and I took our three children to an "end of swimming lessons" beach party down the shore. The Island Boat that ferries people over to the public beach was delayed, and soon a boisterous crowd of children and parents was lining the dock. The water sparkled. Newt and the Fireman were on their bellies, peering over the edge at a small school of fish. I looked around for Farmer-in-Training, and spied him trudging towards me, a dark look on his face. He planted himself in front of me.

"Mom," he said, "they're killing the jellyfish."

"Who is?" I asked.

"Those guys."

One of my son's good friends, and another boy of about the same age, were down at the end of the dock, trying to drop huge rocks on the jellyfish floating by.

"Kill him!"

"Gotcha, sucker!"

One rock connected with its target, smashing the jelly's surface and plunging it to the bottom. My stomach heaved. I looked around for the parents. Were they noticing this?

The parents - a teacher, and a teacher-in-training, were not close by, so I stepped in to talk with the boys. "It takes a village," and all that.

"What're you doing to the jellyfish?" I asked, trying to keep my voice neutral.

"Killing them!" came the excited response.

"Why would you do that?" I asked.

"They sting, and they're stupid."

"But they can't sting you now - they can't jump up on the dock and sting you. Don't you think they have a right to live, just as much as you do?"

Apparently, the boys did NOT think so. After slinking away from me, they found fresh jelly targets at the opposite end of the wharf.

This time, the Farmer tried using a bit of humour and empathy-creation. "Okay, boys - why don't you two jump into the water, and we'll throw rocks at you and see how you like being a jellyfish."

By this point, everyone on the wharf has to have noticed the conversations we were trying to have with the two young boys. Not one other parent intervened. Some, in fact, rolled their eyes.

Now, I know those jellyfish weren't quaking in fear. I realize that they are literally brainless and that, as far as we can tell, they can't feel any pain. That's not the point. The point is that jellies are living beings with a role to play in the larger ecosystem. They are part of a complex food chain. And they're another unique and beautiful manifestation of creation. Their lives are worthy of respect.

Of course, it's true that we humans kill our fellow creatures under a variety of circumstances. Here on the farm, we take the lives of the animals we eat, for example, and we do so mournfully and with thanks to that animal for its gift to us. We may also, reluctantly, take the life of a creature that is threatening our livelihood, if there's no other way to deal with the problem. But we never, ever take a life "for fun".

What those little boys were being allowed to do on the wharf the other day was reinforcing the time-honored (and disastrous) notion of man having dominion over the rest of creation. And that experience will translate into increased distance between those children and the natural world. Perhaps you think I'm over-reacting? The same boys, after arriving on the Island, set out to hunt down a harmless garter snake in order to "chuck it down the outhouse hole."

Next time, I'm not lecturing the children. Next time, it's their parents who will get an earful.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Just wanted to clarify that the School Gardening post was actually posted on July 23. Blogger does not seem to want to let me change the date...