Farmhands from Philadelphia

By Cam Mather

Over the last few years as our “To Do” list has grown and our personal energy levels have decreased, Michelle and I have considered finding “WWOOFers” to come and work on our farm. “WWOOF” stands for “World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms” and it’s a way for people looking to work and learn on organic farms to connect with farmers looking for willing workers. Essentially the willing workers trade their labor for room and board and the chance to learn how to farm organically. We’ve never done it before but this year I thought it might be time. (Find out more here;

We decided to gear up our food production this summer so that we’ll have some extra to sell at the Farmer’s Market in Tamworth. I always have a whack of projects that I have in mind for the summer months that I don’t get done because I’m too busy in the garden. By the time everything is planted, and I spend my time weeding and watering and harvesting, the season is over. So I thought some extra hands might help me get some of these projects done.

There’s a fee to join the WWOOFers program, so Michelle found an alternative venue called “HelpX.” ( Michelle posted a description of what we were looking for and what we had to offer here at Sunflower Farm. Shortly after she posted it we were contacted by Mike and Melissa, a couple from Philadelphia who said they’d be interested. Wow! Philadelphia! Home of the Flyers and Eagles and the Liberty Bell!

They sounded keen to learn about living sustainably so we arranged for them to come and spend a week here. They arrived on June 4th and will soon be heading off on new adventures. As I said to Michelle, and to Mike and Melissa after they’d been here for a day or two, this is one of the weirdest thing’s I’ve ever done, and as a home-schooling, off-grid living, bike riding, tofu-eating, self-employed non-traditionalist, that’s saying something. You invite people that you don’t know anything about to come and stay at your place for a week, and hope you’ll be able to get some work out of them. And you hope that they’re not psycho killers. They, of course, probably have the same concerns.

As it turns out, the fit couldn’t have been better. It was our first time hosting HelpXers and it was their first time as volunteers so we all had the same apprehensions. Mike is back at school focusing on renewable energy engineering so he is really interested in the whole “off grid” concept. Melissa works for a book publisher! Really. How great is that! We just sit around and share war stories from the publishing world. We have learned a lot from her, like how one of the hot trends right now is “narrative non-fiction!” The book that Michelle and I have written called “Little House Off The Grid” (to be published this fall) would be considered narrative non-fiction, so it’s guaranteed to be a huge best seller! We use the same software and have all the same issues in our business so it’s been pretty great talking to Melissa.

There is a show on TVO called “The Agenda” about current events that I watch periodically. It turned out that last week the show was all about “energy”, and Mike wanted to watch it. All week the shows were coming from an energy conference at the Perimeter Institute at The University of Waterloo, and each night there was a different topic – renewable energy, transportation, buildings, etc. Usually I have to fight Michelle for the TV so that I can watch it, but this time I had a male ally in the fight.

Mike and Melissa have used a week of their holidays to come here and work, and so I tapered my expectations of how much work I should demand from them. This is one of those situations where it’s a process of polite negotiation. I, of course, would like them to start in the garden at 6 am and finish up at about 6 pm; while I presume they would like to work somewhat less than this. In reality they’ve been working 4 – 6 hours a day but they’ve managed to accomplish a lot. I have always had a “To Do” list that is a couple of pages long and we’ve been ticking items off of it like crazy.

The biggest downside of this arrangement from my perspective is that in exchange for their labor we offer a room and meals. While I don’t mind providing the food, I’m not into the routine of having to prepare and eat regular sit down meals, especially at this time of year. My usual day starts with granola and fruit around 6 am and then I work in the garden until I’m starved, usually around 9 or 10 am. At that point I make myself some tea and toast if I’m heading to the office, or something more substantial if I’m going to work outside all day. Lunch is usually a non-event and I just grab something quick and easy. Our dinners are pretty informal and pretty simple. So it’s been a stretch having to plan and prepare 3 square meals a day. I suppose if having to have a real meal is the worst part of the experience apparently things are going very well.

We’ve had our share of excitement. I let the chickens out of their pen one day so that could spend time with me in the blueberry patch, and then after leaving them for 3 minutes while I got Melissa started on another project, they were gone. I panicked! Michelle would not have been happy with me if they’d flown the coop, or made their run to freedom through our predator-filled woods. After a few minutes of flushing the woods with Mike and Melissa we found them, in the long grass right beside the blueberries.

Mike and Melissa went for runs on most of the days that they were here. On Wednesday afternoon they left for a run when it was hot and sunny and very humid. About 20 minutes later the skies turned darker than I’ve ever seen them and a horrific thunderstorm blew through. I have never seen wind come up so quickly. Once I had the chickens rounded up and tucked safely in their coop, I went out in the car to find the runners. Luckily they were almost home and so I needn’t have worried but when I drove down to the end of my property to turn around there was a huge tree that had been blown down and was blocking one lane of the road. It turns out that there were trees blown down all over the place and most of our neighbors were without power for a couple of days.

On “The Agenda” show the energy “experts” kept yammering on about stuff, but I have a strong sense that most of them don’t have any personal experience with solar power, and probably haven’t even changed their light bulbs. But here we were watching the show, while thousands of people in the province couldn’t watch because they were without power and are entirely reliant on someone else to provide it. Our power is produced entirely by the sun right now. Our hot water comes from the sun. Even with 4 adults showering every day during the heat wave our solar domestic hot water heater was able to keep up.

I’m thinking that if Mike and Melissa came here to find out if this renewable stuff is for real, they’re discovering you can power a typical North American home entirely with renewable energy, and it’s the absolute coolest thing ever. I’m thinking they’re probably getting a little sick of my perpetual pontification…. “And that waffle, yes, the waffle iron is electric and since it’s plugged into an AC outlet in our house, that’s a SOLAR-POWERED WAFFLE you’re eating!” Yee ha!

* * * * *

We are hoping to convince Mike & Melissa to write a guest post about their experiences as HelpX volunteers here, so look for that in the near future!

5 Responses to “Farmhands from Philadelphia”

  • Donna Richards:

    I really love reading your blog. Since meeting you at the RBG in Burlington this spring, I have been following the goings-on at your farm. It’s kind of like have a subscription to Harrowsmith magazine. My hubby and I hope to retire to a rural property in New Brunswick in a few years and are busy trying to learn everything we can. The sweet potato we bought from you has gone the way of the dodo bird but the kale I neglected last year has gone to seed and I may have seeds to plant next spring. We are trying to follow your mantra ~compost, compost, compost – water, water, water ~ and so far our garden is coming along pretty well. We are harvesting radishes and lettuce already. Thanks for taking the time to write this blog. It is both entertaining and informative.

  • Thanks Cathy! Actually, the chickens usually come running whenever we approach their pen…. they are always hoping that we have some cutworms or grubs for them! Now we’ll just have to train them to come even when they are outside the pen!

  • Cathy:

    Repeat after me, “Here Chick, Chick. Here Chick, Chick.” Now go out to the chickens with a handful of cracked corn. Sparingly toss some corn to the chickens (while they are in the pen) Repeating this mantra while they eat the corn. Do this once a day until they come when you say, “Here Chick, Chick.” Then give them the corn. This works when they are out of the pen, they will follow you anywhere, until the ripe juicy blueberries start dropping on the ground…after that, good luck. Mine small flock will come into their rolling roost when the sun goes down if there are not too many blueberries on the ground.

  • Will:

    Would be great to hear how it was for their ‘first time’ too.

  • Heidi:


    This is my favorite post yet.
    And I am so proud of you.

    You will have to guess why…

    Yee ha!


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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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