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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…