Tea and tajine

22 09 2015

As I sit in Marrakech on my last day in Morocco, too hot to move anything more than my hands, I’m thinking about my last 6 weeks in this crazy country. I think it has been the most “different” place I have traveled, in comparison to the culture I grew up in. As a solo Caucasian female (three characteristics that make me stick out in the crowd), my travels have been far from easy and have required constant diligence. But with this experience, I leave Morocco tomorrow with much more than the 10 kg carry on that will be on my back – figuratively and also probably literally, but hopefully Ryan Air doesn’t notice the latter.

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Back to the dirt

30 11 2013

I can distinctly remember a time during high school when I felt like I was drowning in the sea of global problems. The water was over my head and I felt overwhelmed, paralyzed, yet compelled to act. For me, local food and agriculture emerged as an important part of the bigger picture, and a way for me to find my way to the surface. Through involvement with the local farmers’ market and community gardens, I guess I learned how to swim, or at least how to do something.

Then, university happened and as could be expected from a liberal arts and sciences education, my mind was opened to a whole new range of interests. Yet, in my final year of study, I found my way back to local food as I interviewed to small-scale farmers their collaborations for my thesis. This was essentially a way for me to talk to farmers and figure out whether or not farming was for me. By the end, I was pretty convinced that it was and proceeded to find summer employment on an organic farm.

After working on the farm for a couple months, I realized I had been mistaken. The rows were too long, the sun was too hot, and at that time, my mind was just too active to be left alone with my thoughts all day. This realization shattered my world a bit, leaving me with the daunting question of “Now what?”

This adventure offers an opportunity to explore this question. It is also an opportunity to revisit farming. Volunteering on farms is a super way to travel cheaply as well as be immersed in a community, rather than just seeing places from an outsider’s lens.

Our first volunteering was at the Esalen Institute, a retreat centre in Big Sur that offers workshops and classes, and is home to stunning, cliffside hot spring baths. We would volunteer for the morning in the gardens or on the farm, and in return receive three substantial meals as well as access to the baths. It was great to finally get our hands dirty and to meet so many interesting people, and talk to them about what they were learning about in their classes. I particularly appreciated the level of mindfulness that was embedded into our daily schedule. Each morning would commence with a brief meditation and introductions. Then, after breakfast, we would have another brief mediation, followed by a “check in”. At this time, each member of the crew had the opportunity to talk about their “whole self” – physical, mental and emotional – rather than solely their “work self.” Since leaving Esalen, we’ve tried to carry on this ritual before starting each day’s drive/activities. We really loved volunteering at Esalen and all the folks we met there, and the cliffside hot spring pools weren’t bad either!

Finding liberation and enlightenment...?

Finding liberation and enlightenment…?

The stunning Esalen grounds & gardens

The stunning Esalen grounds & gardens

On our way to the cliffside hot spring pools...

On our way to the cliffside hot spring pools…

After Esalen, we spent the weekend in Santa Barbara, staying with a friend of a woman we’d met at Esalen. I love connections! Then, we continued on to Ojai and WWOOFed for a few days with Steve and the farm interns at The Farmer and the Cook. Really great people, lots of volunteers, and lots of fun. It was a pleasure to work amidst Steve’s laid-back demeanor. We participated in two harvest days and enjoyed fabulous food at the Farmer and the Cook. This restaurant seems to be the centre of a lot of moving and shaking in the community. Not only do they offer delicious meals, smoothies and baking, but they also sell produce from the farm. This type of farm-restaurant enterprise really makes sense because on a farm there are a lot of culls that often become compost or food waste because they can’t be sold to customers. However, with this sort of enterprise, the culls can be harvested and used in the restaurant’s dishes. As Steve explained, that less than perfect tomato can be turned into $9.75/lb at the salad bar!

One day, after work at Steve’s farm, we went to Mano Farm, home of All Good Things Organic Seeds, for a farm tour. This farm had been on our radar for two reasons: 1) I’d previously met one of the guys living there when he was building a cob garden shed at Quest, 2) some fellow Quest alumni had stopped by there about a year ago while biking from Alaska to Argentina (for more on this adventure, check out A Trip South). The next day, being American Thanksgiving, we ended up returning to Mano for a incredible feast, then staying a couple more nights. Late into the night, we sat in Quin’s ultra-comfy Sky chairs around the fireplace in the outdoor kitchen area, under a blanket of twinking white lights and a grander blanket of stars, sharing stories and talking about food, farming and its difficulties, the purpose of life and everything in between.

Trying to snag some citrus...don't worry, we got it!

Trying to snag some citrus in Ojai…Don’t worry, we got it!

Best shower ever!

Best shower ever!

Under the blanket of twinkling lights at Mano Farm

Under the blanket of twinkling lights at Mano Farm

Both in Big Sur and Ojai, we really enjoyed the connections we made on these farms, not to mention the opportunity to get our hands in the dirt. I was quickly reminded of the joy of farming, not to mention its grounding nature. Still not sure if I want farming to be my livelihood, but I definitely want it to be part of my lifestyle and can’t wait to plant some seed babies next spring!

Welcome to the Rock

6 05 2012

I’ve landed on the Rock, otherwise known as Salt Spring Island, and am quickly settling into island life. I arrived on Tuesday and have worked 3 days here at Foxglove Farm, run by Michael and Jeanne Marie Ableman. So far, I’m enjoying myself and learning a lot. I have been itching to get my hands into the dirt for quite some time now, so I’m glad to finally get to do so. I’ll be a farm apprentice here for the month of May.

At Quest, we complete at least one, but up to four, experiential learning blocks. This means learning outside the classroom. My farm apprenticeship will count as my first

experiential learning block. Back in April, I had to find a site supervisor (which is Michael in this case) and a faculty supervisor, and complete an experiential learning plan, identifying the context, activities, objectives, assessment and application. My learning objectives for my apprenticeship are:

  • To learn to grow food more successfully
  • To develop research methods to apply to my Question (particularly a process for measuring collaboration and social capital in a particular context)
  • To begin considering possible Keystone projects (like a thesis, which I will be completing next year, in my final year at Quest)
  • To gain a greater appreciation for the food I consume

In addition to my day-to-day farm duties, I will also conduct some interviews, maintain a journal, and continue to read one of my seminal works, E. F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, as well as a collection of

research papers.

As you may recall, my Question is “What is the role of collaboration in developing effective institutions?” I hope this experience informs answers to some of my sub-questions, such as: Why should we

collaborate? What circumstances do and do not benefit from collaboration? How can we facilitate collaboration? How can we measure collaboration? What does it mean to be “effective”? More specifically, in the context of the farm, I am thinking about:

What form(s) does collaboration take on the farm (both internally and with the local community)? What role does social capital play in facilitating these collaborations? Is the farm an effective institution? If so, what makes it effective? Do farmers’ markets serve as a social hub that facilitates collaboration and generates social capital? Obviously, I’d like to focus a bit more, but for now, this is the scope of my studies.

Now on to what I’ve actually learned! Although I cannot chronicle everything, here are some of the main things (most of these can be accredited to Michael):

  1. Observation is the most importantagricultural skill. Michael claims he doesn’t know anything about agriculture. He just knows what he sees, and tries to make connections and understand why certain things are happening. To hone our observation skills, we are supposed to walk around the farm twice a week (following the same route each time), recording our observations. I did my first observational farm tour on Thursday. (This kind of reminds me of an activity we did in ERM in high school where we visited our spot every week and and made observations.) Observation, along with a bit of common sense, is all you need.
  2. Cultivating (with a collinear hoe, the best tool ever!) beats hand weeding any day. Ideally, you never have to weed if you do this often.
  3. “It’s often not about the big ideas, but the millions of little details that make the difference.”
  4. Human waste is not managed effectively (Thanks to Chris for this insight). For example, why do we shit into good drinking water? Further, urine is nitrogen-rich and totally being under-utilized.
  5. It is difficult to do everything well, so grow what you like to eat. If you love it, it will usually work out for you.
  6. You need to know the context of the land. We are merely passing through. Ownership is overrated.
  7. Don’t be afraid to break all the rules and experiment. Find out what works for you. Give up everything you’ve been told. Don’t hold on to dogmas too tightly. We really have more ignorance than knowledge, so approach farming with a beginner’s mind. Take risks and innovate. (Planting spinach and eggplant together is our own example of this) A farm should be a manifestation of your own needs and personality.
  8. Don’t underestimate the aesthetic. Take a peak at our patchwork of kale for proof!
  9. Diversify your palate. It seems to be narrowing, so we can only really distinguish between salty and sweet. There are so many other flavours we are missing out on!
  10. It’s not about products, but systems.
  11. More people need to be farming. A few percent of the population is not enough!People write about food, work in food policy, etc. without actually doing it. It is hard, but gratifying work. Put the farmer out of business by growing your own food. It is more fun at a smaller scale anyway.
  12. Pleasure is a more effective motivator than doom and gloom. If for no other reason, grow food because it tastes good!
  13. A bit of a paradox emerges when you look at collaboration in small towns, generally speaking. On one hand, a small town is a very conducive climate because the sense of intimacy and community provides a common vision and facilitates networking. On the other hand, there is a deepsense of ownership and often stagnation that can prevent something from evolving and emerging.

Okay, so maybe that was more than a few, but learning is good, right?

Photo of trailer that I am living in at Foxglove Farm

My Little Abode, Foxglove Farm, Salt Spring Island