Saturday, September 23, 2006
"If you can't say anything nice..."
Millet, AB. Sept. 4-17
We got a little lost on our way to Nordic Place. Communication wasn't clear, I didn't realize D and M's home wasn't actually on the farm. We turned left up the drive. Our jaws dropped.
A rolling lawn edged with geraniums in every color led to a stunning tudor-style home. I checked the address, again. Jake the dog greeted us. After a round of introductions, we headed for the field, a 10 mile drive from the house. I eyed M's water shoes and D's sandals and was assured my flip-flop were appropriate for a farm touch and a quick weeding session. M handed my a butter knife from the kitchen drawer, laughing at her lack of weeding tools. M dropped us off at one end and ducked back into the car, and drove to check the strawberries. D drove the truck, walked a dozen steps in the dirt and settled onto the tractor. I stepped on thorns, stubbed my toe on a rock, pulled my knife from my pocket and watched Elka struggle to pull dandelions with a screwdriver. We watched the sun set form the field. Burnt orange over the RV lot surrounding us.
M and D opened their home to us. They shared their washing machine and protein powder. We relaxed in their hot tub, played a couple games of pool and made good use of our access to wifi. Their house-mate offered us a lesson in horse-care and took the kids for a ride. When a storm rolled in and we pulled our sleeping bags in to the basement, they didn't object. Plus, they gave us a coupon, a trial visit to their time-share at Fairmont. All they asked in return, was our labor.
It was Sunday, the much anticipated and often announced "day off." We were preparing to leave, as were the other wwoofers, so M chewed a piece of original-flavored jerky and left instructions to Tomo alone.
"Today I'll have y ou do my beef jerky...It won't take long...People really like my jerky, it doesn't have msg...You just have to cut it and weigh it..."
I turned my back, reached for the scale and said nothing. Tomo assured us that she didn't need help, that we should finish packing and go. Ridiculous. The quick little task took 5 vegetarians and 2 omnivores about an hour. My hands smelled of teriyaki for days. And still, this was a better job than the tomatoes.
We tried to estimate, maybe a million? Ayumi says "billion." In a rush to beat the frost, we pulled all the tomato plants from the fields. Truckload after load of vines heavy with green tomatoes came back to the house, to the quanset. At first, Tomato Island was funny. Then outrageous, cruel, exhausting and finally, just sad. We pulled tons (literally?) of unripe fruit, sorting and storing on cardboard trays. I tried, tactfully, to raise my doubts about the operation. Beyond that, I was relieved knowing I wouldn't be there to clean up the rotting mess.
The peppers went through the same process. I suggested that in my experience, ripe bell peppers won't keep well in a sun-lit windowsill. A few days later, hours of our work sat wilting, wrinkled, decaying. And something didn't smell quite right.
"You didn't spray Round-Up on those did you?" Andreas asked, loading 100's of bags on to his truck. D shook his head, no. "I can't sell them if you do. Spray the tops and the potatoes will rot, turn to mush... They won't be organic..." We spent days in the potato fields, harvested maybe 40,000 pounds of yellow, purple and red potatoes.
We amused ourselves finding some with little toes or snowman potatoes. I rested my collection of field-finds on the car bumper, to document later. Hours behind the harvester and our forearms were bruised, lungs full of dust but thankfully, no broken fingers. Yet. "All right, two of you can take a break, so whoever is tired, can go home," D announced to the four of us. I pointed out that we were all tired and wanted to explain that we'd just assume stay and finish rather than come again tomorrow. Too late. D snached his cell phone, slammed the car door and I lost my special collection to a passive aggressive fit. "Fine, all of you just go," D yelped. And we did.
That's when I heard the plan. M is a business woman, in five years she hopes to sell the farm and her "preferred customer" farmer's market. The goal is to turn a $1 investment in medicinal herbs into $60 profit. She's got investors. It's a pyramid of sorts. Marketing means phone call when we clean the onions. More calls when we freeze the berries. If she comes out of her office as we prep the beans, we're to push her back in. She'll tell us about her calls twice during dinner, and disappear until the dishes are done.
At breakfast, Ukiah made toast and shook his head. "I'm confused. It's an organic farm but they don't eat organic food?" My own confusion prompted observations, followed by depression and interestingly, a growing sense of compassion. No composting at the field or at the house. 10 car trips to and from the field in one day, sometimes to bring forgotten butter knives. No band-aids, safety goggles or gloves. An extensive collection of self-help books. No other books. A field of shredded black plastic, weed barrier not removed before harvest or after. No mulch. "What is this squash or pumpkin? How do you cook squash?" No speaking directly to the women from Japan ("or Korea, or where ever" as D put it.) No fresh ginger or garlic. No dried dill or nutmeg. No "thank you". No conversation they didn't start.
Time is precious, even on the road. Thanks to our new friends, woofers from Ireland, Australia and Japan, for making it all worth while. Together, we cooked, shared photos, told stories, drove (filthy after hours in the field) to the beer store, and ate chocolate. Their acknowledgement of the surrounding absurdity kept me grounded.
The morning we left, M dumped a 50 pound bag of potatoes, confirming what I'd smelled for days. Their skins weren't broken, they weren't scared. Just disintegrating. Rotten. Mush.
We learned a lot.