Learning A Lot from the Happy Wanderers

By Cam Mather

We had our second experience hosting volunteer helpers here at Sunflower Farm last week. And just like our week with Mike and Melissa in early June, it was a pretty awesome experience. HelpX (https://www.helpx.net/index.asp) is similar to the WWOOF program (http://www.wwoof.org/) but you don’t necessarily have to be an organic farm to participate in having people come and work in exchange for room and board.

I am a strong believer in life long learning and this summer I have learned a lot without ever having to leave my house.

Gwen and Dave are a young couple from Syracuse, N.Y. They have both completed degrees in Environmental Biology and are exploring their options for their future paths. I think they already have a pretty good idea, but they enjoy HelpXing as a way to get out and learn from others. I think it’s a brilliant concept and shows incredible maturity on their part.

It turned out that Gwen & Dave spent their first week here in Canada at John & Denice’s U-Pick Blueberry farm. John & Denice are good friends of ours and we’ve blogged about their amazing highbush blueberry farm here . We, of course, are very competitive with John and Denice and when we discovered that they’d taken Gwen and Dave on a wine tour of Prince Edward County during their stay it was pretty clear that John & Denice had ratcheted up the game and we’d have to come up with something pretty amazing to compete. Well, not really, I would never try and compete with that. The best we could offer was daily swims in 5th Depot Lake which was pretty crucial since Gwen & Dave were here during a brutal heat wave.

When we asked John and Denice about Gwen and Dave, they raved about them so our expectations were pretty high and they did not disappoint. It started with the rain we got the morning after they arrived. We’d gone weeks without any rain, so I was pretty happy and impressed that their arrival coincided with the rain.

After performing such a magical feat, they could have spent the rest of the week resting on their laurels but they didn’t. They were up and in the garden by 6:30 a.m. to try and beat the heat. What was so refreshing about Gwen & Dave was how self-directed they were. I could show them the area I wanted weeded and they just went to it. They were meticulous around the plants and aggressive in the middle of the rows. They made great progress and the garden has never looked better. I want to give tours now to show it off!

When it was time to water I just needed to tell them the high priority plants (i.e. the ones I am going to be able to sell for the greatest financial return) and they were on it. Dave and I expanded the garden, which required a lot of weed chopping and pick axing. And I’ve got to say, for a couple that eats a plant-based diet, they had a lot of stamina, especially considering the brutal heat and humidity. We worked in the garden until about noon, and then they worked in the shade hanging garlic up to dry and trimming and cleaning garlic in the afternoon.

But really, the greatest thing about having people like Gwen and Dave come and work here is the intellectual stimulation. Whether it was politics, science, renewable energy or religion, we had really great discussions with these two. Since they’ve worked on other farms they shared ideas they had learned elsewhere and since Michelle and I haven’t traveled it was great to live vicariously through the stories of their journeys.

I learned something else when Gwen pointed out some “slime mould” in the blueberry patch. I had seen this before but had no idea what it was. And now I’ve got to say that I know way more about slime mould than I ever thought I would. Like how intelligent they are, and how when it’s time to reproduce, some of the cells decide to sacrifice their ability to reproduce and form stalks that other cells can basically climb up to release their spores. Go figure – sacrificial slime mould cells! It sure made for interesting dinner conversation!

Dave had worked a farm where they washed the garlic after digging it up. I’m paranoid about moisture around my garlic because I want it as dry as possible to maximize how long it lasts. But there have been years we’ve harvested it during a wet spell so sometimes it’s unavoidable. Here Gwen and I are watching Dave shake some garlic vigorously in a rain barrel to get the dirt off. The washed garlic looks great and is now hanging up to dry, so I’ve labeled it as “Dave’s Great Garlic Experiment” and will follow it to see how it lasts over the winter.

At one point Dave and I were busy expanding the garden near a row of large pine trees. It was nice to be able to work in the shade and when I mentioned to Dave how nice it was to have this shady spot, he immediately said, “Yea, good for lettuce.” Well, I might have written a gardening book, but that doesn’t mean that I’m always thinking straight in the spring during my mad dash to get everything planted. So next year I’ll remember to plant the lettuce in that section, thanks to Dave’s great observation. There are just so many things to remember in a garden and some times it takes someone to point out the obvious to you!

Dave is a great guitar player and Gwen pulled out a mandolin at one point, so we got free entertainment along with everything else!

For people like Michelle and me who are pretty happy living alone in our isolated spot, this whole process is a bit of a stretch. We live 3 miles from our nearest neighbor because we like solitude. We also tend to graze all day rather than eating regular meals, so to have to prepare three regular meals a day is kind of different for us. But we know how important it is to eat properly in order to be able to keep working at the pace we were working in the garden and of course we felt an obligation to feed our helpers well.

We had a great week. We accomplished a huge amount in the garden. We learned a lot. And we thoroughly enjoyed the company of a charming, intelligent, well-grounded young couple who we would like to call friends for a long time.

As I said to both of these volunteer couples as we sat down for one of our first meals, “This is just about the weirdest thing I’ve ever done. We’ve never met you and have no idea if we’ll get along or whether or not you’re some sort of psycho killers, and you don’t know much about us, and we’re going to live and work together for a week, and then we’ll probably never seen you again. It’s just weird.” And they agreed.

And yet from this huge potential for weirdness came a really great experience.

This was good for me. I’m past 50 and getting set in my ways. I don’t like staying up late anymore. I have no time for expensive restaurants. I have one mug I like to drink coffee out of. I have one cultivator that I use for just about everything in the garden. Friday night is “Pizza Night” even if a tornado has blown down our house, and Pizza Night calls for Dr. Pepper in the Coke glass that I love.

For someone as inflexible as me, this bizarre and risky experiment with people coming to work and learn on the farm was a huge leap of faith, with a dramatic payback. If this keeps up I might be able to try Pizza Night on Thursday one of these days!

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5 Responses to “Learning A Lot from the Happy Wanderers”

  • Carole:

    I will say that the first time I read about the help thing visions of Tom Sawyer and white washing the fence came to mind but it seems to be working and if all parties benefit, it’s a good thing 🙂

  • Gwen:

    Its great there are people out there willing to take us in and share their knowledge. We are so lucky to have had a chance to stay with you and are happy to call you friends. Let us know how the garlic experiment works out!

  • Cathy:

    I wish I could come visit, but it isn’t practical 2300 miles away, yes, I even map quested you. So I asked my local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) in Tacoma, Washington if they would like occational free help and they welcomed it. No B&B for me, no stranger danger for them, just pulling weeds while I pick my unlimited free herbs. My CSA fruit and veggies are already picked. I’ve registered with helpx for more regional experience. I’ve made a choice that my food is home grown or local now, and so am I.

  • Makes me wish I was younger so I could participate in the helpx network. Reminds me of the get togethers with friends in younger years. What a great experience you are providing for them. If I ever get to your neck of the woods I would love to see your place. Maybe even pull a few weeds.
    I too am getting set in my ways right down to the favorite coffee cup, early to bed (with at least 15 minutes of reading while snuggled in) and dinners out just seem expensive and mostly a disappointment afterward. Keep writing. You two are an inspiration.

  • Heh Heh Heh! You’re very brave for a set-in-your-ways introvert to host young people – twice now. It’s a brilliant thing to do though, because of the intellectual stimulation from well-travelled, open-minded people. And you get some work done. Good for you. As for the three meals a day: when I was young and in the army in Africa on patrol in the bush, we ate twice a day – we’d get up just before dawn and walk until around 10 am, then go down for the mid-day heat, then walk and eat again around 4 pm, then walk until just before last light. We’d snack as we walked, but two main meals was enough. To this day thirty years later that’s when I’m most hungry. So maybe you could try a twice a day meal schedule – it’s less meal preparation, less disruption. Wake up at dawn with coffee and biscuits and off you go.

    gerrit,
    Sustainable Living Blog
    http://www.gerritbotha.com

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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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