The first WWOOF – near a small township called Kendall

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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?

It’s all about the soil

The search for cake and tea on my birthday brought us to Glyn Mitchell, a soil expert in Jersey.  He happened to be sitting at a picnic table in a garden where my partner and I sat down to enjoy some afternoon tea at a Garden Open Day hosted by the National Trust.  Glyn showed us his Brix meter and how it can measure sugar content and hence vitality and taste in food.  He demonstrated the device on a cherry tomato that happened to be sitting on the table.  The measure was 0.  I asked him where the tomato had come from – obviously some supermarket – but he declined to tell us.  Instead, he offered to show us how enriching soil with microbes could benefit plant growth.  He took us into the walled vegetable garden and showed us two planter boxes.  Both had been planted at the same time.  One box looked as if a miniature jungle of broad bean plants were growing in it.  They were over a foot high and so dense, bursting out of the pot that you could hardly see the soil.  The other container had small seedlings still struggling to grow.  The soil in that box was from the ground beneath us, whereas the other one had been enriched with Glyn’s compost tea.  Microbes clearly made a difference to plant growth.

I was due to leave the island ten days later to return to Australia but I decided I would delay my departure if Glyn could teach me how to do this.  A week later, I had confirmation that Glyn would be able to take three days out of his schedule to teach us how to make compost, compost teas and extracts and to analyse soil under a microscope.  I postponed my flight to Sydney by two weeks.

It was an intensive three days.  We learned about plant succession, composting, the importance of carbon and nitrogen and how they come to be in our soil and how industrial agriculture is stripping our land of these and other vital nutrients.  Apparently, there are only six more growing seasons left in Jersey for the Jersey Royal potato.  The quest for profit has depleted the land.  Some fields have already been abandoned because nothing will grow in them.  The irony is that the Jersey Royal isn’t even a Jersey potato.  Its seed potatoes are imported from Scotland.

We built a compost pile and named it States of Jersey (that is the name of the Jersey government).  According to international composting standards, the pile needs to be turned at least 5 times (whenever it becomes too hot – max of 70ºC) and needs to maintain temperatures above 55º and below 70ºC for 15 days in order to kill off weed seeds and pathogens.

We created the pile on day one and turned it on day two and day three.  I did not know that turning the pile meant emptying the whole thing and laying out the compost on a tarp in three piles – the top layer, the core (the hottest part) and the compost that had been surrounding the core.  The piles then had to be put back together so that previously hot parts were now in cooler areas and vice versa.  Good for building arm muscles.

We both had a microscope to work with, and I was reminded of biology class at school.  The only difference was with modern technology, I could see what was on the slide on my laptop.  I could even video or photograph my specimen.  I struggled to get the focus right and kept seeing the dust floating on the surface of my eye.  I couldn’t get the two visual fields to merge into one, so in the end I just looked through one eye – it was much simpler and microscope work with glasses was already a challenge.  When I finally managed to adjust all the dials and knobs, a whole new world opened up – a sea of vibrating bacteria and flagellates, cillates zooming around as if they were on fast forward and nematodes squirming around, twisting and turning.  There were chopped up limbs of micro arthropods and even headless nematodes.  It is a vicious world down there.

We looked at various soil and compost samples.  Soil from a field sprayed with chemicals had hardly anything to see.  Even the compost from the zoo didn’t have much life in it, whereas Glyn’s compost from his garden was teeming with microbes.   It is these microbes that feed, nourish and protect plants and trees and result in a high BRIX value in vegetables and fruit.

The task at hand was counting all these creatures.  The nematodes were easy on a magnification of ten  – they were huge in comparison, but even on a magnification of 100, the bacteria were impossible to count.   There were too many dots buzzing around, so the sample had to be diluted by a factor of ten.  I managed the dilution but ended up with a greasy cover slip so had to do it all over again.  It took a long time to be able to distinguish between the good and bad fungi; and I’m still not certain I’m seeing some organic matter or if in fact, it is fungi.

Counting the microbes allows us to know how bacterial or fungal the sample is and whether there is sufficient life to sustain plant growth.  I will have to buy a microscope and do lots of practice before I can feel confident about the analysis.

Glyn suggested we set up a whatsapp group so that we can continue to update each other on the progress of the compost pile and eventually have a microbe count of the finished product as well as share data on any compost piles I create in Australia.  Our whatsapp group is called the Jersey Nematodes and so far, States of Jersey,  which has been turned 4 times, is doing better than a compost pile that Glyn recently instructed a group in Guernsey to build. Like the Aussie Kiwi rivalry, the Jersey Guernsey rivalry is alive and kicking.

Postscript

The Guernsey pile crashed because temperatures didn’t stay high enough, but thankfully States of Jersey was a success and will now rest until ambient temperature is reached before it is used to feed the plants and fields.