Can we rethink perfection?

20200331_141919
Lettuce and carrots here and there

I work on a farm, gardening with young adults who live with various learning disabilities and diagnoses such as autism and Down’s Syndrome.  The challenges they face range from limited to almost no speech,  fits, cognitive issues such as difficulty sequencing tasks, focusing and more physical issues such as problems with balance and mobility, poor stamina, and poor hand-eye coordination.  Others have behavioural problems which have resulted in them being excluded from mainstream school.  They come and work in the garden to learn valuable life skills, increase their self-confidence and build positive relationships with themselves and with others.

The garden is a fairly large space which raised beds, an orchard, a berry cage, and two enclosed green houses within a 54-acre working farm.  The challenge in running the garden is to keep it producing food whilst working with the young adults who come here and helping them to do the work.  Things don’t happen quite the way I am used to.

Things can be very slow. Since I started here in January, the primary focus has been to convert the garden into one with raised beds.  In my first week, I must have dug the surface area of a tennis court.  Once the ground was ready, we worked with our young people to build the beds from posts and side rails, sawing and hammering bits of wood together.  What would probably take half an hour to do, would take us a whole day just to build one raised bed.

Vegetables don’t grow in neat rows.  The task of sowing seeds is very difficult for those with poor balance and poor hand-eye coordination.  In spite of repeated reminders to imagine a row of trees all lined up next to each other (i.e.  the radishes) they will be appearing in clumps with erratic gaps in between and definitely not in a straight line.  The same with the carrots, lettuces and spinach that are now in the ground.

Fruit trees don’t grow vertically.  As it is relatively easy to grow fruit bushes from cuttings, we do a lot of it.  However, it is hard for these young people to place the small trees and stand them straight in the holes they have dug.  We try not to correct everything they do, so the trees will grow at various angles.

Sometimes, depending on the ability of those who come on any given day, the only tasks that can be accomplished could be wood chipping paths or digging up and transporting compost from one place to another.

In between the gardening, the days are peppered with rather hair-raising incidents like the microwave catching on fire because someone has repeatedly pushed one of the buttons with their lunch inside; cups of coffee being made with 14 spoons of sugar and cold water; and someone going missing because they had lost their way and ended up in the neighbouring forest.    There is something apparently gratifying about repetition and sensory stimulation.  The same questions or statements could be made every few minutes for the entire day or cups could be dropped for the pleasure of hearing the sound of the porcelain breaking.  None of this of course is deliberate.

The garden exists because of these young people, as does my job.  In spite of the seeming challenges of working in an environment like this, most days are heart-warming and heart-opening.  These young people do not play games, they are no hidden agendas, they are generous in their affections, they don’t pretend anything, they will tell you as it is.  When they are having good days, they will do the best they can; when they are having off days, they will tell you about it but they don’t make it anyone’s fault.  When they succeed in doing something, they are over the moon and so am I.

Over the last several weeks, I have been wondering…

Humanity is diverse – how does each one of us live a life that is purposeful and meaningful when the ‘mainstream’, whether it is work, education, or recreation, is geared for people who fit a rather narrow range of criteria (that which we currently consider ‘normal’).

In our pursuit of ‘perfection’, whether it be in our work, our homes, our products and services, does it not end up pushing ourselves into a corner;  where the criteria are so narrow and specific that we end up cutting so much of life and of ourselves off?  I could have neatly lined radishes and carrots if I did all the gardening myself or greater food production if a handful of gardeners worked around the clock.  I am not denying that well run vegetable farms are vital to our enjoyment of good health and satisfied stomachs on a planet of 7.8 billion people.  However, if we broadened our criteria and replaced perfection with a range of values that we hold dear, we would give ourselves more freedom to be human and to create spaces that allow diversity to thrive, both from the perspective of our offerings as well as to whom we make these offerings to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An unexpected home, thanks to the virus

20200326_181940

In search for my farm, I have traveled between towns, cities, states, counties and countries; and for the last 3 years, I have been on the move, staying in temporary arrangements, thanks to friends and family who have generously opened their doors to me.  Being rootless and homeless is hard work.  Living out of a suitcase, ever ready to move on to the next place whilst doing what I have to do – making a living where possible, cooking and eating, connecting with others, contributing in whatever way I can to my hosts, staying on track with finding my farm and not outstaying my welcome.

My latest stint has been on a farm just outside greater London, in county Essex.  I was hired as a gardening instructor for vulnerable young people with mental health issues and disabilities – a temporary job for 9 weeks.  Due to the short term nature, I was given a room in shared accommodation on the farm, sharing with two 19 year old male apprentices.

Cleanliness and hygiene were concepts alien to these young men.  On my first weekend, I spent hours cleaning, rearranging things to make the kitchen more user friendly and removing odd items like liters of car wash out of the cupboards.

The following Monday evening, as I was cooking dinner, I found myself on the receiving end of a tirade as one of the young men started shouting at me, telling me it was his house and that I shouldn’t have moved anything and that I should never speak to him again.   After half an hour of failing to engage a civilised conversation and being yelled at, I felt like I had been assaulted.  It was the start of feeling like I was constantly walking on egg shells.  I reported the incident to management who made a weak attempt to tell this man he had to behave.  I learned from other staff that others too had had similar experiences of being yelled at.

The only clean space was my room.  Everything in the kitchen was covered in a layer of congealed bacon fat; rubbish poured out of the bins and empty wrappers and plastic bags were left lying around the communal areas; dirty dishes were constantly left in the sink; spilled food remained spilled; mud from dirty boots marked the floors and furniture.  The one who had had the tantrum earlier took delight in peeing all over the toilet seat and muddying the bath mat.  Complaints to management fell on deaf years.  They gave me access to another toilet but did not make any attempts to manage the harassment.

On my part it was a test of patience and managing my anger and stress levels.  I was constantly on alert waiting for the next violation, ready to make yet another complaint, knowing it would go nowhere.  After several weeks of tolerating this situation, a miracle occurred.  The young man was suspended for possession of drugs and I was left with the other one who was equally useless in the cleaning department but was at least quiet and polite.

At this point, the Corona virus entered our lives.

The remaining apprentice went into self-isolation after spending a weekend at home with his mother who had symptoms.  This meant he had to leave the accommodation in order to keep the rest of us safe.   A week later the entire farm was closed to the public.  Clients were no longer able to come, permanent staff were told to stay at home and I lost my job.  The lockdown meant I had to stay on the farm, because there was no time to find anywhere else to go.  Thankfully, in exchange for voluntary work, I could stay here rent-free.

By the end of day 1 of the lockdown, I had cleaned the entire accommodation, rearranged the furniture, decorated the place with plants taken from the garden and created a home.  All my food supplies came out of my room and went into the kitchen cupboards.  I started sprouting beans and lentils in jars and set up pots of herbs on the window sill. I had fresh flowers on the dining table.

With no idea when the lockdown will be lifted, for the first time in a long time, I no longer feel the need or pressure to work out where to go next.

For the first time in a long time, I feel like I can be somewhere and not have to consider anyone else.  I can arrange  my things wherever I please and not have to worry I am taking up space.

For the first time in a long time, I no longer bother to look for jobs or look at real estate sites for farms.

Instead, I spend hours in the garden, tending to the garden beds, sowing new seeds, watering and weeding and continuing to grow food.  I can go back ‘home’ any time and have a cup of tea or listen to music.  The weather is glorious and spring is definitely here with flowers and blossoms everywhere.  I now have a house instead of just a room and in the evenings, I can relax in the living room or connect with friends online.   I don’t think I could have wished for a better place to be in lockdown.

 

 

 

Pray for Rain

fire photo

Selfishly, I am grateful that I did not buy a property in Australia. I don’t know that I would have the resilience and the fortitude to start again on a land burnt black and bare.

For some time now even before these fires, I’ve felt a sense of loss that has now been magnified.   The loss of life as it was even just five years ago, ten years ago. The loss of innocence and naivety – the unthought expectations we held in the back of our minds that life would continue as it had always done.

From today’s vantage point, the endless summers at Bondi or on any of the coastal towns seem like a luxury gone forever. The full, carefree days spent at the beach swimming, surfing, catching waves, walking barefoot in hardly more than a bikini, stopping by at the local fish and chip shop on the way home seem as if from another time.  The threat of more soaring temperatures; the risk of more fires and pollution; the loss of more lives seem never far and lurk in the shadows.

I grieve for the apparent never-ending loss of our ecosystems, our biodiversity, our climate, and clean water.  I grieve for the ongoing degradation of the only home we have.  I grieve for the loss of time we seemed to have. Perhaps, it was only an illusion but it seemed there was more time for things to evolve and change in a way that we, humans, could adapt to and cope with.

Now the world feels like an unsafe place. Great uncertainty is the new normal. The next natural disaster or the next political upheaval flashes across the papers and screens on a daily basis. Leaders that seem so disconnected from the needs of the people they represent, from the needs of the land they govern continue to make decisions that take us on a trajectory towards greater suffering and a movement away from allowing life to thrive. Some may be better shielded by wealth or privilege but at this rate, we will eventually all fail to thrive.

Meanwhile, the sales in the shops continue to scream ‘Buy! Buy! Buy!’. It all came from somewhere, made of plastic and other materials taken from the earth, using someone’s time, effort and energy. Where does it all go? And where does it all go if no one buys the stuff? Shipped to poor countries? Thrown into a hole in the ground somewhere?   Where does all the food go that exceeds best before dates? How is it that we can blindly continue to buy more than we need and throw away? Some may argue that they don’t throw things away but inevitably, when things break or our cupboards are bursting, these things all have to find somewhere else to go. Excess in all sorts of ways marks our experience. The same excess assaults our senses so that it becomes easier not to see; or it numbs our perception so that we don’t see at all.

A Whatsapp message appears at 3.45 pm – a global call to prayer at 4.00 pm– pray for rain in Australia.   Tears fall as I pray for ongoing, steady, heavy rain across the country – rain that would break the drought, soak the land, fill the dams, put out the fires and ultimately save lives.

I also pray for the healing of the land, of our planet, of our minds and hearts in every corner of the world.

 

Day 17

feed bag

Last full day at the farm.  Thursday – a day when a volunteer or two normally turns up.  I drive down to the vegetable garden with Jess and find the gate wide open, the electric fence around the chickens turned off, but no vehicle or person in site.  I do not know if the eggs have been collected so take a bucket and start collecting what is there although, strangely, there are only a few.  As I put the egg bucket on the ground, the chickens manage to tip it over and I have broken eggs and chickens feeding on their own eggs.  And just at the same moment, I find Jess in the enclosure – she has somehow got in and has a mouth full of feathers and more feathers flying around and chickens scattering everywhere.   It may be my imagination, but it appears she has something else in her mouth and I have a limping chicken.

I gather up the spilled eggs and place the bucket outside the enclosure, and I go after Jess.  She knows she is in trouble and runs away.   I corner her and manage to get her out of the electric fence and put her back in the truck.  I return to the chickens, hoping I do not have to kill an injured one or one with a missing leg.  I check each one and, to my relief, find they all have two legs and no injuries.

The low egg count worries me, so I walk around the farm to see if the volunteer has left any somewhere.  I eventually find an old bucket with a towel covering it, and when I check to see what is inside, I find two dozen eggs or so.

The pigs haven’t been fed yet.  Yesterday was acorn day, so today is feed day.  The pigs have an alternating menu of acorns and feed.   As I release the feed out of the bag which hangs on a hoist from a gantry, the dispenser that opens and closes a hole at the bottom falls out and feed comes pouring into the bucket.  I quickly place both hands in the opening but now I am stuck crouching next to a huge feed bag, a full bucket of feed with more feed about to pour out.  I manage to place another bucket on top of the full bucket which soon fills up and blocks the hole.

I do not know how to lower the bag from the hoist which would be the obvious way to stop more feed spilling out.  I ring Jess and she says she will send Emrys over to sort it out because he has taken a day off work to prepare for a holiday he is going on (without Jess).

I am curious to know how Jess (the dog) managed to get in the fence.  I discover rips in the fencing leaving a gap about a meter wide that would let any small animal in or out.

Emrys arrives and lowers the bag down for me.  I show him the hole in the fence and he just says it’s an old fence and I could close the gap using some string.  I show him the broken irrigation but he doesn’t seem too concerned and leaves.

I am left with the buckets of feed to load into the truck.  As I climb into the driver’s seat, Jess from the passenger seat raises her eyes at me with her head down, looking subdued.

Despite my best efforts, I feel like I am constantly sliding down the mountain, making no progress.  I close the gate to the vegetable garden behind me with all the rubble and broken bits of equipment lying around.  I wonder to myself that this is no different from major corporations that degrade and exploit the planet, leaving a mess behind.  It’s just on a smaller scale.

 

 

 

 

Beyond Words

chaos

Day 16 – With two more nights to go, I realise the animals on the farm have been the least of my problems.  It is becoming evident that they are just as much to be used as I have been and the volunteers, who are here propping up the farm.

When I came as a wwoofer, I did not see the extent of the dilapidation, decrepitude, degradation and waste that is here.  As a wwoofer, I tended the garden in exchange for food and lodging.  I wasn’t responsible for keeping the farm running in terms of ensuring irrigation, basic systems and ongoing power and water to the house.

Everything seems to have been designed to create more work and none of the designs or systems make any sense.

There is well over $150,000 in equipment lying around the farm, exposed to the elements, rusting, uncared for – a truck, a tractor, tractor parts, trailers, fencing, plastic tubing, equipment for slaughtering animals, the list goes on and on.  The generator leaks coolant and fuel and doesn’t look like it’s been ever serviced.  One day, it will catch on fire, and  there are no fire extinguishers to be seen.  The irrigation system and the sprinklers are broken, only trickling water rather than spraying.  The taps which I had been instructed to turn on cannot be found or do not work.  The pigs do not have proper troughs for food and have to eat off the ground which is often muddy.

Being off grid doesn’t necessarily mean it’s sustainable or considerate of the environment.  The cost in fuel and relative carbon emissions must be high considering the productivity of the farm.  Water pumps are being run on petrol and diesel but seem ineffective as tanks constantly run dry, indicating the likelihood of leaks.  In spite of the solar system on the roof, the generator must be turned on for a couple of hours each night to ensure continuous power.  There is no hot water unless I light the fire.  Apparently there is underfloor heating, but it was never connected, so the house is freezing.  It is only the beginning of winter, and temperatures are already falling close to 0º C each night.

The fireplace is three foot deep and one foot high in ash.  Who knows when it was last cleaned.  The wood that has been chopped is too big for the wood fire stove, so I have learned to use an ax to chop it into smaller pieces.  I must say it is a highly productive and effective anger management tool.

On about Day 7 the gas ran out.  I had been shown where the gas bottles were, so the empty one was replaced with a full one, but the gas did not come.  All day I waited, thinking it must take a while as the bottles were quite far from the kitchen.  At the end of the day, I had to ring for help as I still had no gas.

Apparently they were not the right gas bottles, and the right ones were located elsewhere which I hadn’t been shown.  Joyce’s son, Emrys, connected the bottle for me, and shortly after, Jess (the daughter-in-law) turned up saying not to forget to reignite the gas fridge.  As the initial gas bottles that had been swapped over were for the kitchen down the other end of the house, that fridge also had to be reignited.

The next morning the fridge in the main kitchen was not cold.  Google said a gas fridge needs to be serviced every year.  Looking at the dust around it, it has probably never been serviced in the last 30 years.  Google also said it could take up to 12 hours to cool, so I waited.  By evening, it was still not cold – luckily I had moved the few items that were mine into the other fridge.

The following morning Jess turned up at 7 saying she had been up since 4am worrying about me in the house.  Although it was a gas fridge, Joyce , some months prior, had switched it over to electric because the gas was no longer working, but hadn’t told anyone.  Emrys had somehow still managed to light the pilot light when it wasn’t supposed to work.  Jess had been worried that something would happen to the fridge and to me.  She switched it back to electric but within a few hours it was clear that the fridge was well and truly dead.  It, too, belonged in the cemetery down the hill.  I told Jess if the other fridge stopped working I would be leaving the property.

It saddens and angers me to see the lack of respect or care for the land, assets or animals.  As Emrys said to me, everything keeps falling apart here.

I am also paying for my own food and petrol to be here.  I had accepted to look after the farm, because I was only trying to be helpful, but I did not realise I was propping up a broken system where freely offered help from many are being taken for granted.

On a more positive note, Jess, the dog, is now my best friend.  She keeps wandering off but always manages to return.  With a daily regime of ball fetching, home cooked food and lots of cuddles, she is no longer throwing up and is tending to stay close by.  Whenever she hears the pots and pans going, she comes running into the kitchen and sits patiently ever hopeful of getting more food.

She  has a tendency to roll around in something putrid, so I gave her a second bath for the week.  She desperately tried to get away, as I struggled to keep hold of her collar and we both got soaked with the hose.  She looked at me as if I had totally betrayed her.

Farm Minding

Jess dogJoyce asked me to mind her farm for two and a half weeks so that she could visit her son and his family in Switzerland.  When I think of myself as a 65 year old woman running a farm on my own, I would like to think that people will offer to help me, so I agreed.

Four days later, I wonder what had possessed me to punish myself in this way.

Joyce’s farm is off grid – drinking water is collected on the roof and is stored in a tank that needs to be pumped into another tank.  Water for irrigation is pumped from a bore into a tank.  To feed the pigs, this water is pumped once more into a second tank.  Power comes from a 30 year old solar system or a generator when the sun isn’t working.  Water can be heated by these two means as well as a wood fire stove in the kitchen.

I have daily chores to do – feed and water 12 pigs, let the chickens out and feed and water them, collect and clean eggs from 70 chickens and place them in egg cartons, make sure all the electric fencing is working and no two legged or four legged creature has escaped, turn on and off pumps to move water from one location to another.  In the evening, I must turn off the water for the pigs and put the chickens away.  I had thought all of this might take me a couple of hours each day.

Day 1  –  Jess, the dog, ran away and I spent a couple of hours worrying and looking for her.  She eventually returned and in the hope of teaching her a lesson, I tied her to a fence.  She looked at me as if to say ‘are you serious?’  She was not happy and neither was I.

The chores, together with looking for Jess took up half the day.  At dusk, with Jess on a lead, we walked down to the chickens to put them away for the night but none of them had returned to their coup so we went back to the house.  Once it was dark, I went to take the truck down, but alas, the battery had died and it wouldn’t start.  The generator had to be turned on each night for a couple of hours so I went to do that and found that that too wouldn’t start.

The phone numbers I had been given for Joyce’s son and daughter-in-law didn’t work so I had to call a neighbour and ask for help.  Luckily, Danny turned up within a quarter of an hour and jump started the truck.  In mutual solidarity, the generator went on with a turn of the key which previously had refused to work.  With the truck now working, I drove down to the chickens, and all but four were perched on their roosts in the chicken coup.

The rebel four were roosting in an apple tree behind a wire fence.  In order to retrieve them, I had to crawl under the tree and pull each one out from amongst the branches and take them one at a time back to the coup – not easy crawling out from under a tree with a chicken under one arm and a torch in the other hand.  In the end I had to leave one in the tree as she had positioned herself where I could not extricate her out of the branches without doing her serious harm.  The cheeky thing the following morning was found peering into the chicken coup as if to say to the other hens ‘what on earth are you all still doing inside?’.

Day 2

Jess behaved herself and did not run away when we went to let the chickens out.  I had equipped myself with some treats in the hope that that would keep her within close range.  It seemed to work.  I received a message from Danny asking me if I could have the eggs ready for pick up that evening – a day earlier than expected.  It was his job to deliver them to the Arboretum in Canberra each Friday while Joyce was away.  I had an hour to scrub 300 eggs with bleach and water, as I had decided to go into Canberra for the afternoon to do some shopping and look for a mother’s day card.  I was almost empty on fuel so with a petrol station plugged into my GPS, I took off only to find that it did not exist at that address.  Much to my relief, I found another one not too far away.

Once in Canberra, not knowing where anything was, I spent all afternoon looking for my bits and pieces and ended up returning to the farm after dark.  Once home, I raced down to put the chickens away only to find that someone else had already done it.  A nice gesture but a text or phone call would not have gone astray.  Back up at the house, as I was in the middle of preparing dinner, Joyce’s daughter-in-law, also called Jess, arrived for the second time that day to tell me the pigs had run away, the electric fence had been trashed, there had been no water and that she had rectified all these issues.  I informed her that at lunch time that day, the pigs were all in their pens, with water and an intact fence.

Day 3

I took Jess (dog) down to the vegetable garden where I found Liz, one of Joyce’s volunteers, weeding the cabbage patch.  Nettles and marshmallow were over a foot high right throughout the cabbages.  I told her I would give her a hand once I had pumped water from the bore and fed the pigs.  I left Jess with her.

I fed the pigs only to find that they did not have water again.  I climbed onto the roof where the tank was and it appeared to have water.  I checked the filters to see if they were blocked but they seemed fine.  I clearly had an issue but wasn’t quite sure what to do so I returned to Liz, and she asked me if I had seen the dog.  I spent the next four hours calling her on and off with no luck.  The pigs still had no water, and although water had been pumped the previous day to the pig tank, I pumped again and finally managed to get water to come through the taps.  There obviously was a leak somewhere.

Mid afternoon, Jess (daugher-in-law) turned up with Jess (the dog).  She had been found on someone’s property – at least she hadn’t been chasing sheep.  I spent the afternoon collecting kindling for the fire.

By the time I sat down to have a rest, it was late afternoon – so much for thinking I would have time to read and or catch up on some study in my free time.

The night before, I had not bothered to light a fire and my showers were now lukewarm, so after saying good night to the chickens (this time, none had ventured into the apple tree) and turning off the water to the pigs, I lit a fire in the stove and cooked my dinner.  Distracted by a phone call, I did not realise that the kitchen and dining room were filling up with smoke until I saw a grey haze rising towards the ceiling.  I turned to the stove to find it puffing smoke out of the seams.  I increased the gap in the  flue to fix the problem.  That night I lay in bed listening to Jess snore in her crate, thinking that I might as well be at a campsite as everything smelled of smoke.

Day 4

It was pouring.  As I woke to the sound of the rain, I remembered that all the wood for the fire was out in the open getting wet.  I woke Jess out of her crate and opened the door for her so that she could go to the toilet in the garden which was secured by an electric fence.  As soon as she smelled the rain, she turned around and went straight back to her crate.  I called her out again but she only made four steps out of her crate and turned back round.  My patience was wearing thin, and I yelled at her to go outside and shut the door behind her so she could not come back into the house.  I went to do my morning stretches  and realised some time later that Jess was nowhere in sight.  I went back to her crate and found her lying on Joyce’s bed.  She must have pushed the door open to get back in.  This dog was driving me up the wall.

The rain eventually stopped and I went to feed the pigs to find that one of the electric fences was down again.  I left it as it was, as it only separated the sow and her piglets from the other sows.  They could all play in the mud together.  The water situation was fine, so I moved onto the chickens.  I let them out and collected the eggs.  They were all covered in excrement so I had another hour cleaning 60 eggs with bleach and water.  At lunch time, I decided to have something to eat and to prepare my slow cooked lamb shanks for dinner only to find that there was no running water to the house.  I turned on the pump but no water came.

Camping was definitely easier than this.

An hour or so later, Jess turned up with a brand new head torch.  I had sent a message to Joyce the previous night asking her where the torch was in case I lost power and the generator wouldn’t go on.

I told Jess there was no water even though I had had the pump on for the last 40 minutes.  We went to check on the pump and discovered a hidden valve that needed to be opened.  We finally had water.

That evening only one chicken was lost by the apple tree.  I found her trying to push the 9 foot fence down so I picked her up and took her back to her friends.

Today was a relatively good day – I had lamb shanks for dinner and the stove did not smoke and I had power and water.  Hopefully the shower will be hot in the morning.

Dust to oasis

joyce-tomatoes-e1521696832556.jpeg

Since my first visit to Gundaroo where I encountered the shingleback lizard and all that dust, I have returned on two more occasions, spending close to 6 weeks in total with my host, Joyce and her dog, Jess and her pigs and her chickens.

Humans adapt to most conditions.  After the initial days of wondering if I could make it through another day, Gundaroo has turned into a refuge and a school.  The dust remains but thankfully the temperature is dropping.  The early mornings are crisp and cool, reminding me, surprisingly, of northern Spain, when I walked the Camino.  The dawn light is the same and so is the smell of the earth before the temperature rises and Spain then disappears to the other side of the world.

My second visit in January was an escape from Sydney and from the family, post Christmas.  Joyce welcomed me back, as her farm needed ongoing help but because she also needed an interpreter.  A Japanese farmer wwoofer had arrived a few days earlier from Hokkaido.  Takako’s family operated a conventional broad acre farm and Takako was interested in learning about organic farming from Joyce, but her English was limited.  For close to two weeks, I interpreted all day long on topics such as seeds, irrigation, farming techniques, and cooking.  Each night I fell into bed exhausted after working in the heat and for a change, using my brain.  I had been upgraded into the house since the first visit and was no longer in the caravan which now was like an oven.

Takako had irrigation problems in her greenhouse and wanted to know how she could install either a spray or a drip system instead of watering by hand.  My technical vocabulary is limited in both languages so the three of us spent quite a lot of time in the local rural supplies store trying to make sense of what might solve her irrigation issues.

Being high summer, the vegetable garden was starting to take shape but the weeds were also in abundance.  We picked buckets of purslane which we fed to the chickens.  We ate some too in a delicious Turkish recipe with rice, tomatoes and garlic.  We planted rows of rocket, lettuces, coriander in its place  and we soil blocked hundreds of seeds of radicchio and other types of chicory.  Salanova seems to be the latest fashion in salad mix seeds producing beautifully formed lettuce heads, almost like mandalas.  Every farm I’ve been to seems to be growing them.

One morning we were in the chicken pen, trying to fix a broken feed box.  Takako and I were so engrossed in the problem that we failed to see Jess jump the fence.  All of a sudden there were a hundred chickens running for their lives and Jess tearing around the pen and inside the chicken coup trying to catch her breakfast.  Feathers were flying everywhere.  I tried to run after Jess but with the ground being so uneven, I was likely to end up with a twisted ankle.  Joyce heard us yelling and came to our rescue.    Thankfully no lives were lost.

During my third visit, less than a week ago, the weekly harvest for the restaurant delivery was so bountiful the cooler box on the truck could barely be closed.  Joyce had rung to tell me how productive the garden had become and she wanted me to see the transformation which she said I had helped her make.  I happened to have a few days spare in between wwoofing posts so I went to help.  The tomatoes were superb, just like how I remember them from my childhood.  There were also cucumbers, lettuce, corn, radishes, beans, capsicum, zucchini, eggplant, coriander, rocket, basil.

There were two wwoofers there as well who were helping to clean the house, washing walls and floors.  Sophie and Carole were the Swiss team, organised, hard-working, a lot of fun and on a 7 month adventure of Australia.

The farm was undergoing a transformation.

 

 

 

Dust

IMG_9818

Note to self – don’t buy a farm surrounded by gravel roads

Another note to self – buy as close to the coast as I can afford

The evening I arrived at the next farm, I wondered how long I would last. I was not used to the dust – it was everywhere and the buildings were old and looked like I may be joined by various creepy crawlies in the dimly lit bathroom and caravan where I was sleeping. The farm, although still in New South Wales, was about 35 minutes from Canberra near a town called Gundaroo and was run by a 65 year woman who had been farming here for 30 years. Compared to Kendall, the landscape was harsh, dry and rocky, and what wasn’t cleared was covered in eucalypts.

The dust was throughout the house and the work van. I asked my host how it managed to get everywhere – it was all over the computer equipment in the office, on all the papers and on any flat surfaces. She told me the house wasn’t finished and there were gaps where the dust could enter but it was a farm and farms were never clean.

Farms apparently were also dangerous places. I was told not to wear shorts in case I came across brown snakes. The entry to the bathroom area was essentially a work shed full of farm tools and equipment and swarmed with bush flies. I did not want to have to use the bathroom in the middle of the night as I stumble half asleep out the caravan and through these tools.

When I woke the following morning, I still wondered how long I would manage to stick it out. I told myself it was character building and I was sure to learn something.

One of my first tasks was to help empty the food scraps collected from a local restaurant into the worm baths together with pig manure. The food scraps had been collected on a Friday and it was now Wednesday – it was rotting fast. For the rest of the day, no matter how many times I washed my hands, I could not get the smell of rotting food off my hands and fingers. Next time I would need to use rubber gloves.

The 100 acre farm had ¼ acre of vegetable production, about 100 chickens for eggs, a dozen or so pigs and a cemetery. The pigs were used for soil regeneration as well as for meat. The pork meat balls on my first night were delicious and so was the food throughout the duration of my stay – most days we had salad from leaves collected in the garden – lettuces, rocket, mustard greens, baby chard and the most delicious tomatoes.

Over the first few days, I made vegetable beds using a broadfork in the searing heat. Being small and light was clearly a disadvantage as my progress was slow and I could hardly get the fork into the ground even if I rocked back and forth on it. (Perhaps after three weeks here I might get a balancing act in a circus).   We distributed trichogramma wasp larvae to deal with the caterpillar problem and erected rabbit proof netting on trellises to salvage the beans. I helped catch three not-so-small piglets that had managed to escape the electric fence and were having a ball running around the field.

As the days passed, it became hotter and by 9:30 in the morning it was above 30 degrees. The first of these very hot days, I thought I would pass out. There was a tap for drinking water near the vegetable gardens and I thankfully drank from it only to realise there were tiny worms swimming in my cup. They were mosquito larvae.

By lunchtime, I was exhausted from the heat, feeling nauseous and lightheaded. I was in no mood to eat anything and kept drinking as much water as I could. I longed for a swim but there was no swimming pool apart from a dam, which I’m sure would have been akin to having a mud bath with all the dust and God knows what else swimming in it. I had already come across a shingleback lizard, a funny looking creature about 60 cm long and 20 cm wide that looked like a baby relative of the dinosaur. It was black with the tail and head looking much the same with funny scales on its back.

Reptiles, the dust and the heat….a far cry from the lush green fields I long for on my farm.

 

Daily (Easter) egg hunt

There was more weeding the day after and the one after and the one after that…

IMG_9797

It gives me so much pleasure and joy to see what eggs the chickens and ducks have laid and to collect them throughout the day.  It is like hunting for Easter eggs every day – and they are so much nicer than the cheap chocolate ones from the supermarket.

The chickens seem to lay their eggs in the same spot throughout the day.  Here there is a small tin shed lined with straw, and in the corner is a nest where the chickens lay one by one.  Often, I will go and check how they are doing, and I find a hen sitting in the corner and another three waiting, presumably for their turn at the entrance to the shed.  If none of the chickens are laying, I might find an egg or two and by the end of the day, there may be four or five or perhaps a dozen beautiful eggs of different shades and sizes sitting in the nest.

The ducks on the other hand seem to lay their eggs once they have been returned to their coop in the evening.  They too lay their eggs in the one nest but don’t seem to lay as often. I might find up to four eggs every few days.

My fellow Crazy Daisy (About) insisted I give one of the ducks an old-fashioned Spanish name so he or she has been named ‘Abelardo’.  There are three white ducks and a brown one so the brown one now has this fine name.  I asked for a name for a chicken as there is one that is an escape artist and manages to get herself into an off limits area and happily wanders around on her own.  She is a brown hen and is slimmer than the others, so perhaps there is a hole somewhere in the fence that she is getting through and back again!  ‘Matilde’ is her new name.  There is a speckled hen, still nameless, that has taken a liking to my legs and has started pecking me whenever I am near her.  My day off today, I went to feed them in my shorts and flip-flops and realised that was not such a good idea.

The first WWOOF – near a small township called Kendall

IMG_20171122_100717254

It was a disappointing start to my search for a WWOOF host. Only one of a half a dozen replied to my inquiry for a vacancy. Even a woman whom I spoke to on the phone who asked me to email her my details didn’t have the courtesy to reply. Eventually I found a couple who were willing to take me on for two weeks. The woman was welcoming and friendly and her host profile sounded like she had an interesting farm with cows, chickens, ducks, fruit trees and a vegetable garden.

The farm was just over 130 acres up along a gravel road, a large part of it native bush. On my first day I was warned about snakes – red belly black snakes are common – venomous but won’t kill you. Brown snakes are dangerous but hadn’t been sighted yet by my hosts. Pythons also abound and on my fourth or fifth day, Molly and Musket, the two Italian working dogs were barking at a 2.5 meter python that was rearing its head at them. Snakes are not my cup of tea and I was grateful for the fly screens in my windows and doors to my granny flat where I was staying.

The first task I was given was to let the chickens and ducks out of their coop, feed them, clean and refill their water containers and collect any eggs. There were 12 eggs in a bed of weeds in the corner of what looked like it had seen better days as a vegetable patch but now had weeds almost 3 foot high. You would think the chickens and ducks were delighted to see a long lost friend by how they all came running towards me, but alas it was only because they knew they were going to be fed.

I spent the rest of the day digging out those 3 foot high weeds that were more like shrubs that covered an area of about 4 square meters. Next I moved onto a similar sized patch that had a giant thistle with stalks over an inch in diameter surrounded by more weeds. I had never done so much weeding in my life.   Two days later I converted the now bald patch into neat vegetable beds carefully planted with seeds of corn, spinach, rocket, lettuce, and beetroot.

I’m by no means an expert in any of this farming business but it was apparent that smart design and common sense are crucial. It eliminates so much wasted effort, resources and energy. With no proper drainage, the entrance to the chicken coop became a massive mud puddle after the water containers were emptied and washed. The property survived on tank water only, and water was precious. Yet, the containers of water were filled to the top everyday and most of it tipped out the next day, which did not make much sense to me. The ducks ended up floating in them by the end of the day.  That may be why they never ventured to the dam for a swim.

Some of the design problems are harder to eliminate – access to the farm was via a road on someone else’s property. This meant my hosts had right of carriageway but it was not like a public road and the owner of the private property could make life difficult.

He happened to be someone with a lifelong bee in his bonnet that needed to pursue relationships by antagonising and offending. He did not like anyone on his bit of road but there were two properties that had right of carriageway through it.  There was no other way to get to these properties.  Amongst other problematic incidents, one day my hosts found that he had parked his truck in the middle of the road to block access!  They ended up going to mediation to resolve their differences and would have pursued an apprehended violence order if necessary. Apparently when the mediator suggested an agreement where the neighbour was to refrain from harassing my hosts for a period of six months (in the hope that this would be the new order of the day), he insisted that three months was more appropriate!

My hosts were into cattle by the time I went to wwoof with then. They had a number of Galloway cows, Jersey cows and an Angus. Prior to the cows they had sheep, but tragically woke one morning to a herd in shock with one sheep floating in the dam and the rest with bite marks, having been attacked by a pack of wild dogs. Pigs had preceded the sheep.  They were being bred to be sold but not all managed to leave the farm. When they got too old, they cost too much in feed and hence were sold for meat.

Today, on my eighth day, I woke with a sore right eye and an inflamed eyelid. It was as if I had a stye but couldn’t feel the typical grain of sand. After spending the morning making chutney – a welcome change from the weeding – I went to the doctor and was told I had an eye infection. ‘Are you sure?’, I asked him. Antibiotics and an antibacterial cream seemed overkill for a puffy eye. I took myself to the pharmacy and asked the pharmacist who told me to try the cream and if it didn’t work in 5 days, to take the antibiotics.

More weeding tomorrow?