community

Oh Rosa, Rosa, Santa Rosa…

farm stand

 

So back into the, chronological, swing and here we are again in California…

It was a whirlwind week full of schools, farms and driving.

 

Thursday: After making it to Santa Rosa last night we woke up to the bright lights of Walmart. We had chosen our spot with a hypocritical mix of fear, cringing and the tourist’s ability to use something previously detested while simultaneously revelling in its bright shiny newness and convenience. I trashily rejoiced in my new ability to shop in nocturnal hours and access a toilet and drinking water at a whim. Love it or loathe it, it’s a symbiotic relationship really – weary travellers get a guaranteed place to sleep that is free and unperturbed by local authority visits, while Walmart gets sales through the sheer convenience of having cheap supplies and food at your feet. We settled in amongst shoppers and RV’s in our, relatively, little tent on wheels – upon a suggestion from our friends back home we had arranged to hire a people-mover type van with the ability to put all the seats flush down in the floor, under the premise that it would act as accommodation where we didn’t have any. To our delight it did the job as hoped, although it took us a few nights to sort out the right combination for a semblance of real comfort – Emma ending up on the back bench seat, Michael on the middle floor with his new $5 walmart blanket and me in the fully reclined and flat passenger seat, having stolen the other sleeping bag.

We packed up in leisurely speed, for once (things had been feeling quite rushed so far in the States), as we were nice and close to our attraction for the day – Summerfield Waldorf School and Farm. We met the ever-smiling and knowledgeable Sallie just after the school’s main lesson – a feature of waldorf education. The main academic lesson happens in the morning when students can best receive it with attention, leaving the rest of the day for other more engaging, physical or creative activities – delightful yet developmental treats like music, hand crafts, arts and outside play. We toured the grounds and classes in the morning, including the end of a ‘farm’ lesson for Class One. They were shelling peas and corn kernels then gathered under the big sitting tree for the customary finishing address.  The lower school farm teacher recapped the lesson and cued its end with “thank you and goodbye class one”, followed by gorgeous chiming children in harmonic reply: “thank you and goodbye Farmer Dan”- so so sweet!

 

collage kindy rooms etc collage lunch

 

We gratefully accepted an offer to stay for the school lunch, which is provided for high school students and staff four days a week. We met Matt and Tom – the joyously proud cooks who made the lunch that was delicious and overflowing with good stuff like lentils, pulled pork, veg and salad greens – even including produce grown at the school. During the refuel, we took an opportunity to talk more closely with the upper school farm teacher, Ronni, about the kind of integration the farm had in syllabus. Using the farm, it’s products and processes to teach life lessons is deeply entrenched in the school – since the beginning in fact, owing to the spirit in which the land is viewed. The school prefers to treat land as something which is stewarded, rather than owned – even entering into a legally binding Land Trust agreement that requires them to protect it as land and wild life refuge in perpetuity. This land was always expected to be a biodynamic farm, in symbiosis with the school – hence, in addition to the usual staff, they have two dedicated farm teachers, a teaching assistant, farm manager and two seasonal interns. That’s quite a crew to bring together all the educational opportunities a farm has to offer – what a wonderful thing to behold!

In the afternoon we walked with the farm manager, Dana, through the 17 acres of farm land (the whole campus measures 38 acres). They use it to grow food (fruit, veg, grains) and keep livestock (cows, sheep, ducks and chickens). Indeed it yields an impressive array of goods for the on-school farm stand – harvested, stocked and open everyday, it sells seasonal fruit and veg along with eggs and yogurt (made by Dana). Students, parents, staff and anyone else so inclined can buy the goods through an honour box. One of Dana’s aims has been to focus on lifting the production of the farm and evidently the sales reflect his success. The funds go back to support the work of the farm. There is also a permaculture garden as part of the high school which students are free to pick from.

collage farm walk collage farm stand

After an incredible day, I’m struggling to describe the overall experience as anything other than ‘wholistic’ – it just felt like life and all it’s lessons were so well addressed and showcased here it was hard for me to feel any other way. I certainly came away with the sense that it would be hard to find a school with a better educational program grounded in the earth and its wonders. To be fair though, they have had over 40 years to work and mould it!

P1050845 em on see saw

Of course the combination of Waldorf School and farm existing as one entity was a must-see for us, given our interests. However it also brought to light the potential for Emma’s own Waldorf School back home – the wonderful natural resources they already have, like a biodynamic almond grove, just waiting to be tapped into when the other resources emerge to facilitate it. That would be an exciting project to see.

 

Friday: While we toured the Summerfield School yesterday, Emma was invited to join Class One for their main lesson this morning – something she decided to do. Kudos to her, little poppet – despite clearly harbouring some nervousness at being the newbie she never asked to back out and apparently warmed up well. So much so in fact, that when we checked back in at recess time, she was keen to stay on for the rest of the day. So she got to spend more time with some new friends, do some hand crafts and help pack up the room in preparation for the next day’s Winter Faire. Bounding out of the class to me down the hill she declared “Mum, I had a GREAT day!”. Well, you can’t ask for more than that, can you?

I continue to be pleased and proud of this little person who could understandably reside permanently in the “this is all too new and too hard corner” but instead chooses to come out often and walk the “try it” path – good on you Em. We spent half the day in the car park (leaving your child in a new place is particularly tricky without being reachable by phone) but it was a great opportunity to read (actually I was very happy about having an excuse to just sit there and read!). However once we knew Em was all good, we ventured out to the local shops for supplies and came on back to our happy child – ahhh, good day…

 

em run garden

 

Saturday: Well, after the tour and Emma’s day at her third school for the year, we went back to Summerfield for the again! (I suspect coming to this school could easily have become a habit). This third day in a row was a Saturday and the school’s once a year big celebration/fundraiser/showcase and more – the Winter Faire!

We wandered around wide eyed while Emma got in a frenzy about all the things she wanted to do and see. We perused the vendors stalls and, amazingly, found an artist there who had hailed from Adelaide and helped found the other Waldorf school in South Australia, (in Mt Barker)! Apparently she came out in need of a reset and tried painting on a whim – she never left. Good thing too, her artwork was beautiful.

After that it was a flurry of cookie decorating, food, craft, food, more craft and and more food! The day was topped off with a circus performance which was neither dinky nor small – this school has a right proper circus tent up for most of the year as an extra building – so you can imagine the quality of their circus program. It was great way to end the day and Em stayed up close, glued to it for the whole show.

 

P1050849 em on stilts

 

Sunday: After taking the leisurely 1 hour drive back to San Fran we let Em in on the secret that we were headed to yet another Waldorf School Fair (that we had by chance found out about from one of the Summerfield Staff). We fit in some work at the laundromat and headed to the San Francisco Waldorf School. Absolutely an inner city school (albeit in a really nice area), it was an interesting contrast to the more rurally set ones we have seen. I think they did a good job with the vertical space they have, although space for outside play is, and always was going to be I guess, fairly small. However the upside of this location is they get to tap into the cultural and natural perks – like some little parks the city has kicking around. Kidding – they have Golden Gate park right nearby which is over 1000 acres in size and encompasses the San Francisco Botanic Garden, California Academy of Sciences, de Young Museum, Conservatory of Flowers and a beautiful massive outdoor music concourse, art studio, lake and even a Dutch Windmill. Phew – imagine having access to all that in just one corner of your area? I don’t think a city school would be right for us but I can certainly appreciate the advantages.

 

collage san fran city waldorf

 

After a lovely day wandering about another school, folding paper stars and dipping beeswax candles, we landed at our new home for the week in Noe Valley – a well-to-do area just south of downtown. We were very grateful to receive a hosting offer from Julia, a member of San Francisco’s Urban Agriculture Alliance Group – a group that just started out with a few people in that area of interest who thought it was a useful idea to try and meet to build a network. I’m not even sure how we found them to be honest – I can’t remember how we got onto it but i’m grateful we did, they are a great example. Later in the week I attended one of their monthly meetings and am glad I did – witnessing one of their meeting later in the week was good learning experience and a chance to meet  people doing great things.

Mon: It wasn’t until we had returned our rental car and walked 2 hours home (by choice – we have been enjoying soaking up the different corners of the city by foot) that we first met our host Julia. Generous, trusting and knowledgable, it was a pleasure to spend the day with her. She took us to the local mexican place for a bite to eat which was both delicious and incredibly well priced I have to say (filling, fresh and healthy food for under 5 bucks each). Then we navigated some of the area’s bus lines and made our way to Alemany farm where Julia volunteers every week. Alemany is an interesting place from the perspective that it is city land (which, by the by was previously abandoned, guerrilla gardened, abandoned and gardened again) and run totally by volunteers without any, as far as I can tell, formal organisation. People organise themselves and the most experienced become the natural go-to leaders, who also take on tasks like weighing and recording all food that comes off the site – an uncommonly organised approach to an informal organisation in my mind – impressive. We spent the afternoon chatting to people and shuttling mulch to various areas being eroded by the much wished for rain (seems they are in drought here too). Emma made no hesitation in seizing the opportunity to play sight supervisor, deftly allocating and instructing Michael, myself and our new host! Well, I normally try and curb this kind of thing but it dawned on me that if we can’t practice this freely in childhood – whenever else in life do you get that kind of open, uninhibited opportunity? I sent out a couple of apologetic feelers then deemed it all good – carry on Boss!

collage Alemany Farm inc sign

 

collage Alemany Farm 1 collage Alemany Farm 2 duo

 

After Julia bid us farewell we continued on with some harvesting – what a haul, including lettuce, cabbage, beets, turnips, lemons, ground cherries (gooseberries), a plethora of other greens  and the new (for us) yacon which was like many things including crunch lychee or apple-y watermelon. It was an impressive site, apparently they are expecting to pull off about 8 or 9 tones of food from the meandering hilly 3 1/2 acre site this year. What a great effort. It was a pleasure to see this place and hear about the food grown for the community – going to soup kitchens, free food stalls and open pick community days, as well as the volunteers. We hope Alemany Farm powers on 🙂

 

Tue: Michael’s 33rd birthday! We started the day early with a stealthy effort in getting ready from Emma and I (because of course Michael was up at some baker’s hour before us). We came out to say “Happy Birthday”, then “get ready, we’re leaving”!! Don’t worry – it wasn’t all that brash, hugs were part of the deal 🙂 We ventured out by bus and foot to a little place I found online that described itself as making ‘creative pastries’ – thinking that was sufficiently intriguing and with the promise of good coffee too, it became the destination. They certainly had some very extravagant looking pastries and other foody items. We dined and drank before setting off again for the Ferry Plaza Farmers Markets, on three times a week in the hub that is San Fran’s Embarcardero (the strip of former bay piers turned restaurants and tourist attractions). We were a touch early so decided to walk to see the “famous” lombard/crooked street. Turned out to be a very long, very steep walk punctuated by the excruciating whining of a small child – followed shortly by my own equivalent. Poor Michael – that, I dare say, was the not-so-fun portion of birthday day! Thankfully after more walking we found a park – that’s always a good reset for the family. As for Lombard street itself I have to say I viewed it more as an exersize in physical endurance rather than traveller’s wonder – I marvelled at what attractions make the ‘tourist’ list (and secretly dispised having become one that bought into it). Sure, it’s interesting and pretty but it’s just a very windy, steep street – cool to see I guess but it was more entertaining to see the antics of other tourists. Both hilarious and infuriating – wide eyed tourists, like children who are told that they should be amazed at what they see, stood everywhere to take happy snaps. That included in the middle of the road while poor tourist-plagued-residents were trying to get out of their own driveways! Sigh. That’s why I secretly despised having become a ‘tourist’. Oh well, no getting away from that – perhaps I can just aim to be a responsible tourist…

collage mic bday

We found our way back, via China Town and perused the farmers markets. Good looking produce at what seemed (to an Australian) decent prices, it was great to see these markets in such a prominent location. I’m told now that there are many many more local markets about the place too, usually sporting better prices and aimed more at the general, local, public. We stopped inside the Ferry Building where there is a foodies heaven of gourmet and good old fashioned tasty value added foods – the best part of which is they mostly had a foundation and focus in organic, local or responsibly grown items. Michael had previously said he had been given a list of foods we must try while in the State s – we ticked one off with a good ol’ Grilled Cheese – sweet, yummy, filling. Stroll’s along the piers, ice cream and running ensued, followed by the (slightly mortifying) discovery of Pier 39 – I think of it as San Fran’s answer to the Gold Coast (or perhaps it is the other way around?). I would say it is like the trashy american donut our dear Virginian friend explained to us once – so bad yet so good!

Then Michael and Emma retired to home (plus a little trip down the street for pizza and ice cream!) while I ventured into the city for the San Fran Urban Agriculture Alliance’s monthly meeting. It proved to be a great example of group sharing to witness as well as an inspiring group of people and projects. So while I’m glad I overcame my reluctance to trek into the city at night, I would probably forgo that ‘adventure’ (ahem) again 🙂 Don’t panic parents and loved one’s, it wasn’t that bad!

Wed: After yesterday’s walking tourist spectacular everyone was pretty pooped so we opted for a quiet day. Michael and Emma did school lessons while I did some much needed photo sorting and writing (in fact i’m hauled up in a starbucks writing this now – tell me, is that cliche tourist or cliche local?). We also ventured out to have our first US postal service experience and patronised a little sweets/gift shop. The incredibly happy shop keeper was overjoyed while Emma slowly selected her little bag of treats – bless her, saying she didn’t want to spend too much money or buy too many treats lol. Ah, self regulation – it does appear now and then 🙂

Thursday: Yes, while including this thursday makes it strictly more than a week, it does close off this part of our trip nicely as it was our last day in San Fran. We were a little unsure about our plans as there were storms forecast for the day and people were sounding really concerned – they even closed the schools in places. It shook us a little like whoa, whats coming, will the buses run, should we stay indoors?? But all we were seeing was rain so we decided to don our rain gear and trek out by bus anyway. Seems like in the end, everyone got a little excited – understandably too. They have been in a big drought here – so much so the preoccupation with the weather, rain and climate was very akin to home. And to be fair things were worse a bit further north, but we did have a giggle when it just turned out to be like a standard rainy day in Adelaide. Score though – we were going to one of the sights of San Fran, the California Academy of Sciences, and along with all the public transport, it was practically empty. We pretty much had whatever we wanted to ourselves  – woo!

And so for putting up with a wet rain jacket we were rewarded with a super fun day spent exploring the Cal Academy’s aquarium, planetarium, rainforest and museum – all this stuff intertwined in one place. topped off with a cafeteria showcasing local organic food in a range of styles. We picked from the grill, mexican hall and the sandwich bar – had a great filling feed which was pretty good value. The day was something we hadn’t budgeted for but it was totally worth it, i’m glad we decided to do it. I never, never, get tired of seeing Emma’s little mind blow up in awe and excitement – and this was a full day of it. We viewed sea creatures from all regions of the world up close in the underwater aquarium from tropical fish to jelly fish and big fish that swam over our head… We picked up tickets to a planetarium show and moved on to see penguins feeding while the biologist told us about them. Taking in lifelike antelopes and tigers, we learned about the evolution of humans and our near extinction which left us with todays diminished genetic diversity – apparently we all have 99.9% in common when looking at our DNA. The giant globe housing a rainforest took our fancy and we entered (what is in fact a US containment facility – you must not leave with butterflies! We learnt about the 4 different layers of a rainforest (forest floor, under storey, canopy and emergent for those of you who want to attend the poop quiz later) and admired the beautiful bird and butterflies breezing by. We investigated some more tunnels where we found starfish and sea urchins we could touch. We took in 2 shows at the planetarium – one of which would have justified the entrance price alone. I actually had no idea what a planetarium was before this – good one to see, apparently its the biggest in the world. Think giant, like giant, domed movie screen in front of you and above – I think some people compared it to IMAX but my guess is this was more immersive, in fact one part in particular left us all feeling like we were really flying through the stars. The two shows covered superficial topics like the origin of the universe and lots of perspective building facts on the earth. more so than facts and pictures, they were both really beautiful movies in their own right – they just happen to be true and scientifically accurate.

collage cal academy

Thanks California – you were awesome xx

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Portlandia!

Today we reached the final destination of our road trip – Portland. Woo!

We drove in over the city – taking in the trademark White Stag sign, which I didn’t manage to catch on camera. Nor did I do a good job of note taking – my entries here are incredibly scant. Perhaps I was too busy being taken aback by the place – what we saw and experienced here was crazy cool – Portland bursts with personality.

For me, a lot of that was in the community and business endeavours we discovered. So many great new (and not so new) ideas put into action, all with wonderful artistic flair. We came across a community farm, community programs, an eco-laundry, a great food co-op and so many places selling either fabulous local food or beautiful arty crafty goods. Phew!

We made it to the ‘Alberta Arts district’, the ‘Mississippi district’ and East Portland. So occupied were we with all that was in these spots, we never even made it downtown.

We ventured first to Alberta Main Street – heart of the Alberta Arts District. There we parked and wandered, taking in all the buzz and activity of the businesses. What a thriving place, and despite the cold too. Here are some of the goodies along the stretch…

collage businesses alberta street 1 collage alberta street business 2

We stopped at the ‘Random Order’ pie house for lunch – chicken pie and cherry pie. Yum and Yum. And their approach to it all just tops it right off…

collage random order

We took in some more strolling after lunch – one must work off their pie(s). But we did stick to the theme – visiting ‘Pie Footwear‘ on the main road, selling environmentally and socially responsible shoes. They even extended this mindset to the fit out of the shop itself – you can read some more here. We were aiming to get some of the shoes we had held off buying in Oz and fell into a really interesting conversation with the owners, Stacey and JC. Turns out that like our friends Toff & Cara back in Adelaide, (creators of Home Grain Bakery), this couple had also seen a gap and filled it – following the demand rather than their own personal preference for a business type. And we loved finding out that JC used to work in organic veg distribution, so we chatted a little longer on that subject too. Of course there was still more cool stuff to see, including a typical style of painted house that I quietly fell in love with, so we strolled on:

collage alberat street outside plus houses

Actually, the whole reason we had landed in Alberta Street was because our first night was to be in a ‘tiny house’ (see some previous musings on tiny houses here). It was located in the ingenious “Caravan Tiny House Hotel” – a project/business that made use of an abandoned lot to place several (currently 6) tiny houses in a little group, acting as a hotel with separate rooms if you will. The first of it’s kind in the USA (and most probably the world…) took lots of time and negotiation with the city to iron out the legislative hurdles, ahem…. I mean wrinkles. What a great job those trailblazers did of persisting to come up with something brand new – not only great for the community and a livelihood for themselves, but an excellent way for people to try out a tiny house experience. (Incidentally, if you are in Oz or New Zealand there is another way to try out a tiny house experience thanks to the Happy Simply project – check it out here and here.)

wattlebees in front of roly poly tiny house

For more info on the tiny house hotel, you can check out Caravans’ general website here. Or see more photos/info on our little home for the night here. They also have an extensive list of media coverage links here – it’s worth seeing, it’s massive! It also includes an episode of the Portland based, wickedly funny show called Portlandia (which, for the record, I didn’t know about when deciding the title for this post…).

We spent much time getting acquainted with ‘Roly Poly’ by climbing around and investigating. Yes. Literally. Climbing. In a house that could be the size of your bedroom it’s no wonder there are a couple of lofts upstairs for sleeping, and that getting to things often requires climbing up, down or over.

collage climbing in tiny house

Roly Poly – so named for it’s unique rounded qualities – is one of the smaller homes in the hotel. And for me, the design and furniture made it feel so. However, it was beautifully crafted and with only 1 or 2 people in there it would probably be much easier than it was with us 2 biggies and 1 smally. And regardless of all that, it was a super fun experience.

Emma loved climbing all about in there, just witness her hangin’ about over the kitchen. I think secretly though, maybe I loved it more!!! Aside from getting some strength and stretching work in, just by living, there is a great kind of novelty to having nearly everything within your reach. I wonder if it is purely just a novelty or if it turns into one of the pros of a small home. I guess an extended stay would be the ideal way to answer that question.

collage caravan tiny house outside collage caravan tiny house inside

Indeed, if budget had allowed, we would have loved some more time there. Instead we settled on a plan to sleep in our car caravan and started the day with a trip to East Portland, where Zenger Farm, and our  generous tour guide Prairie, was to be found.

P1050628 emma arms zenger zenger farm map 2 smaller

In a space that was open lands in the 1800’s sits the surviving farm, surrounded by encroaching suburbia. What was forest land was logged to help build Portland until it saw a series of owners and eventually turned over to dairy in the 1900’s by a Swiss immigrant family – the Zengers. Their son, Ulrich Zenger, desperately wanted to see the land’s heritage and sustainability preserved. It was eventually bought by the city – keeping and using it’s existing 10 acres of wetlands to help combat the flooding issues fast approaching  with increased urban buildings and insufficient drainage. It also had community and educational potential that began to be realised when it was leased out in the 1990’s to Urban Bounty’s owner Marc Boucher-Colbert. He used the land as a farm but also hosted community and educational events, later forming partnerships with educational institutions in the area to increase it’s use in education. These days the farm’s capacity for serving the community and environment has been expanded and formalised under the direction of a non profit group – Friends of Zenger Farm. This team and volunteers have partnered with the city to officially make it a public space – used as a working model of urban agriculture and education centre for all things sustainable and community. It is a base for a multitude of programs including summer camps, farmer training and a home school partnership. They even run a 60 person CSA and send produce to some local restaurants and farmers market.

They are also big on helping the community to help themselves. The ‘healthy eating on a budget’ workshops were just one example that Prairie joyfully shared with us. These community based cooking demonstrations and related activities have gone a long way to empowering those on the lowest incomes, while honouring and incorporating the huge diversity of cultures from which many of them come. They seem to foster an invaluable exchange of learning and relationships between community members. It was a great thing to hear about. And I loved this tid-bit from the website:

“healthy food comes from healthy soil, which can be anywhere, even in the city”

You can see more about Zenger Farm and what they are doing here.

collage zenger farm 2 collage zenger farm 3 chooks collage zenger farm 1

The mundane but necessary need to do laundry presented itself. So we took on a recommendation from the Tiny House Hotel staff to check out a new laundromat that had opened up in the nearby Mission district. The staff member who told us about it said he hadn’t been there himself but that people were saying it was good. Good indeed – the place knocked my socks off! It’s so odd to get excited about something to ordinarily boring but that is one aspect of the genius – we can make anything and everything an awesome experience! Kudos to the creator, Morgan Gary, who’s concept, execution and environmentally responsible mindset made this as one of my favourite spots we visited. My words aren’t really doing a great descriptive job right now of explaining that which is ‘Spin Laundry Lounge’, so allow me to cheat and read this paragraph from the website instead:

After completing an MBA in Sustainable Business, she [Morgan Gary] set out to give the laundromat a 21st century update: the fastest, most energy-efficient machines in the world + eco friendly laundry products in a retro-mod cafe/lounge, serving local food and drinks. Save time and money, reduce your carbon footprint, and enjoy every minute of Portland’s totally redefined laundromat experience. 

spin laundry and em collage spin laundry 1 collage spin 2 signs collage spin 3 cafe

I mean, they sell microbrews and have arcade games for goodness sake – is that not the coolest way to do laundry ever? We did our laundry and hung out in the cafe, using the free WiFi and sucking up some drinks. We also chatted to Megan, the lovely lady on staff that day. She did a fantastic job of telling us about the place, instructing us on how to use everything and looking after Em with friendliness, textas and spin colouring pages. Our laundry was done before we knew it – I didn’t really want to leave… You can see more about it here on the website.

In addition to doing laundry the fun way that afternoon, we also meandered down Mission districts’, you guessed it… Mission Street.

Like Alberta Street, this also had a fun feel. I observed some sage advice on a door front…

mission street 1 donutsOk. Will do.

We also happened across a funky looking building which turned out to be much more than we expected.

mission steet em building 2 smaller

This was the quirky and wonderful front to ‘The Rebuilding Centre’ – a community resource for affordable recycled materials. It’s a great place to find bits and bobs for all sorts of construction, and also to tap into an inspirational ideas library or their deconstruction service – their website is a great portal for all such things, see it here.

collage rebuilding centre 1

On top of all that, turns out it is actually an income generator for the ‘Our United Villages’ non-profit. Wow! Great place, great resource, great idea.

collage rebuild centre 2 collage rebuild cenytre community legacy

We loved the ‘Community Legacy’ program – a central place, space and imputes for sharing stories that bring the community together. Seems a great way to inspire, forge bonds and spread the word about all those good news stories happening right around the corner! See their website here.

After a very full afternoon we returned to Alberta Street and found fate had alternative accommodation plans for us – the offer of a bed from a kind stranger that we kept bumping into. We struck up a conversation and after hearing about the road trip Yonti said there was an empty room in the space she was renting. We were welcome to fill it for a night or two. It was really awesome to see human curiosity, generosity and trust in action.

When I said it was very kind, she replied “well, I’ve been on the receiving end of it, and know what its like”. Yonti was right – it made me think about our own feelings after receiving generosity and hospitality – it just makes you want to pass it on. I think to receive is to grow gratitude and wish to pass it on. Here is the first, of many, pledges to ‘pass it on’!

It turned out to be a spare room in the basement below a church – cool space! Also, funny to see peoples’ heads at street feet height.

P1050658 the ittle church portland

Not only was it glorious to have a warm, quiet, full size bed and warm shower but getting to chat with Yonti was like a bonus activity! We had interesting conversations and she passed on many wonderful suggestions for people to see around the place.

Sadly, between the other places we visited and the new info intake limit we were fast approaching, we didn’t get to follow up on these. We made a strategic decision to cut some of our plans and slow down. We headed off early to begin our return journey, preparing for the next stage in the area of Santa Rosa – home of the Summerfield Waldorf School.

Lastly as an aside, I want to make mention that I am writing this retrospectively, from Nepal. It’s interesting to do so because having now experienced and seen life here as well as India, it is with different eyes that I view some of our previous experiences. What a curious feeling it is. Like Portland for example, I got so excited about the artistic, cool and happening nature of the place, and with good reason of course. However, one might say it’s at odds with the appreciation I now have for some of the simpler concerns and way in which life is carried out in here in Asia. I find it a strange and hard place to sit. There is beauty in the allure, ideas and aesthetic of what I saw in Portland. There is also beauty and practicality in the simplicity with which people lead their lives here in Asia. I feel like the best way to reconcile this mental rift, as is often the case, is to find somewhere in the middle. I should look for a happy and responsible balance between the beauty and energy of fun, exciting, artistic endeavours while keeping them grounded with a good dose of perspective in the simple and necessary. Wish me luck on the pursuit!

Mel xx

WWOOF round 2 – with a side order of village, permaculture style

village hill view

 

Next stop: Crystal Waters Eco Village in the beautiful Sunshine Coast hinterland of Queensland.

For us, this was to be round 2 of WWOOFing, and a chance to visit family just down the road – my Dad, Step-mum and two sisters. Actually, they are the whole reason we went to Queensland. And why we even thought of taking the car and some extra time to see Australia on our way out – cheers to that!

It was also round 2 of seeing community life, though this time we could settle in and experience it ourselves for a while. For the first week however, we stayed alone on the property (dejavu!) as our hosts, Max & Trudi, were away for birthday celebrations. Max gave us some excellent instructions so we set to work on those jobs.  Despite this, and that there are always jobs around, it’s still a little harder to get into the swing of a place and its work without the owner there to point you in a particular direction. or mention how they do things – at least to begin with anyway. Nevertheless we managed to find our way around and make ourselves useful. When all else failed we had a weeding bonanza – it may have been a little more than necessary but, a good old weeding blitz every now and then is a good thing 🙂

In the topographically endowed plot they have two garden areas, plus various plantings of useful trees for bees, birds and humans alike (such as the freaky but fun – and yummy – Jaboticaba). One garden is up high and close to the house with crops that require more frequent care, as in the permaculture idea of zoning (highest maintenance areas are placed close to where the labour is). Think greens and such: lettuces, herbs, spinach, onions, cucumbers, salad greens, tomatoes and flowers for companions. It was a good sized area with about 6 large raised beds sitting over a sandy base and plantings around the edge (another permaculture principle; value and use the edge – in this example it is taken literally in terms of space but one could also consider it more laterally in valuing ideas, people or products that are on the fringe). And just like at home, cherry tomatoes were proving to be troopers so we foraged lots from stray bushes to make many a tabouli bowl with the abundant parsley.

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Then the other ‘lower’ garden, as per its name, was located down the hill a bit. As you might guess, the less frequently visited crops were down here. At this end of spring it included the last of plants like broccoli, kale, cabbage and more onions and parsley.  We partook in these too, then helped prep for new plantings in the five super long beds with some home grown chook poo and worm castings (aka, you guessed it – poo) for fertiliser. Turns out, moving wheelbarrows up and down the slopes was, deceptively, much harder than I expected – gardening on a hillside will keep you fit! Then we topped em’ off with locally abundant shredded bamboo for mulch and they were ready for the next planting – some of which we got to do before we left. We sowed peas and beans in time to see them raise their little heads and stretch leafy wings – I love seeing the birth of seedlings!

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Emma was prospering in the setting and lifestyle here too. While on our own, she quickly settled into a routine of looking after the chickens by herself – ushering them in and out; checking water, grain and eggs; and dragging over spent broccoli. I say ‘dragging’ because, by this time, the broccoli stalks had grown to be pretty much bigger than her.

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em chicken chillinWe often found her taking solace in the hen house, just hanging out with the ladies. She really enjoyed having that responsibility – I think the morning and night animal chores punctuated her day.

She also took to playing hospitality – ‘the tea party hotel’ as she liked to call it. She set up tables, took our orders,  made food for real and even sometimes did the dishes after packing it all up! True to her independent ways, she was completely adamant that she must do it all. Well, it was her hotel I guess. In light of her enjoying this kind of service role, we took the opportunity to add a related responsibility – doing the breakfast dishes while Michael and I went out for another couple of hours work in the morning. Despite not being over the moon about it, she agreed, then volunteered to make the breakfast too, go figure! Seems the freedom to take responsibility and feel strong brings on a flourishing in her.

I’ve yet to mention our accommodation – a beautiful swiss style chalet. And when I say Swiss chalet, in sunny Queensland, I don’t think its a joke. Max is actually Swiss. Picture a wooden cabin with two bedrooms, decks, central lounge and kitchen, viewing the Northern woods and dam. We certainly felt spoiled – even Ruby got a bed!

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And as for the village’s landscape, Max & Trudi’s lot sits within the 640 acre bush property – 14% of which is allocated to residential land. The rest is owned in common – as preserved bushland mostly, plus commercial land (the village green, commercial kitchen & deck venue, other business space/ventures, paddocks and an eco caravan park).  A body corporate, community co-operative and sub committees manage the public facilities and village green activities. The property is a wildlife refuge and so a no dog/cat policy is in place to protect the diversity there. And diversity abounds – as do the kangaroos and wallabies that frequented our cabin and the gardens every day. Literally. Plus deer – not as often or as close, but not far enough away for a gardener, hence the wildlife-proof fences which surround the edible plantings. Birds, frogs, butterflies and snakes also visited us. And spiders, lots of spiders. But after daily clearing of webs, and nightly refilling, you just let it go and get used to it. Throughout the village are dams, ponds and a sparkling, rocky creek – containing fish and even platypus. It certainly is a beautiful slice of bush that seems to succeed at incorporating refreshing environments for humans and wildlife alike.

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Then early one morning we met Max – up with the sun, as he is everyday. I think he was a little surprised to see some WWOOFers doing the same. Lovely man – matter of fact and warm. Not long after we met Trudi – working diligently in the bee house and equally lovely, exuding what I think of as a typically wonderful country disposition: equal parts down-to-earth frankness and friendly hospitality.

Then, the bees – oh the bees! This was our first introduction into bees and beekeeping. Scary and captivating is how I want to describe the experience. The gentle calmness Max demonstrated seemed an essential qualification for checking the hives and collecting honey. For that reason I donned a bee suit but mostly watched while the born-calm Michael learnt the ropes. Fascinating – I would love to have a go one day. For now though, I headed in to help Trudi with the processing. Sticky fun sees waxy caps of the honeycomb taken off frames with a heated knife, followed by spinning to release the honey. Then it just goes through a series of mesh filters and into a bucket. Voila! Simple, and such a bonus that honey keeps just fine at room temperature and is naturally anti-bacterial – great product to work with.

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While Max and Trudi keep bees and sell honey as a business (Crystal Waters Raw Honey), I suspect that for them, as for others, its about more than just honey and money. Watching Max with the bees was like watching someone in pleasant ritual. In mediation. Not to mention the importance of helping to sustain a healthy bee population – both for their own sake and ours.

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In case you’re uninitiated, bees are responsible for pollinating, and therefore producing, a significant chunk of our food. As well as who-knows-what other valuable roles in the eco-system. Seems they are having ever-more trouble from disease, habitat/food loss and our increasing use of chemicals in agriculture. The American (aka Californian) almond industry is a great case in point. The sect has turned over massive tracts of land to almond trees – and usually only almond trees = massive monoculture. They rely solely on bees to pollinate their crop and turn blossoms into almonds, but there aren’t enough bees around naturally, (i’m thinking it’s pretty hard to live in a place with only one food at one time of year), and so they truck them in seasonally from all over the country. Increasingly though, more bee deaths are occurring after the event and across the country in general (the mysterious, cause-unknown, syndrome is being called ‘colony collapse disorder’). And it looks like the chemicals the growers are using are also a contributing cause. It got so bad that they had to ship bees in from Australia! Can you believe it? I was shocked, having no idea they did that. I know what we’re like after such a long trip – I can’t imagine it does the bees any good either, never mind the resources that go into the transportation and quarantine issues. Turns out quarantine issues did emerge and the risk of foreign disease/parasites from our bees caused the US to put the Kibosh on that option. Looks to me like plugging a badly designed boat with ever-growing wads of bubblegum. As for a solution, well in my opinion, it seems it might just be the same as what we need – diversity of clean food. We don’t do well eating the same thing endlessly, nor living in a food desert or consuming processed/chemicalised (yes, I’ve now made that a word) food. Neither do they. So plant something else with the almonds, its not hard (unless the system is set up to be a large scale mechanised factory in a field…). It’s just another reason to support the growers using more responsible and sustainable practices – i.e. without the chemicals and mass-scale.

Ok, I’m back from ranty-town. Shall we continue?

Max & Trudi also run cows – on some of the communal land the village holds. Residents have the opportunity to lease land from the Co-op and now it’s free to do so, provided you agree to look after the parcel of land in whatever venture you are using it for. So Max and Trudi have several paddocks to run the cows through, including their orchard of pecan trees. They break up the land with the portable electric fencing that was a game changer for sustainable farming,  letting farmers run stock using cell grazing techniques (see the start of this article). A higher density of animals in the smaller area, for a shorter period of time, mimics nature more closely. Thus producing a myriad of advantages like more complete grazing, quicker recovery and higher quality pasture. The better management creates a healthier environment which translates into more nutritious products. They ran four beautiful black lowline cows – these girls don’t grow horns and are shorter than your average cow, but still rather hefty. So much so that when we first met them, Emma stuck herself firmly to my side and said:

“Mummy, will they eat me?”

Snigger. A lesson followed on the, suddenly relevant and contextualised, meaning of a  ‘herbivore’.

collage cows

 

In addition, Max & Trudi also have an orchard of kaffir lime trees and work on their other business in environmental consulting as well as a non-profit which encourages and educates in the area of communities and eco-villages. So a day’s work on such a property can cover tasks in many areas. To paint a picture of our WWOOFing days though, think of time spent in garden beds working the soil with natural amendments, weeding, planting and watering, as well as tying cucumbers and putting the ingeniously simple shade cloth covers in an infinite number of configurations, according to the days weather. Then other tasks were decidedly bee orientated – helping to check, clean and collect from hives and process the honey. Emma enjoyed watching and helping with the bottle labelling too. And I think we all enjoyed getting a good dose of woodworking when drilling, hammering, nailing, gluing and wiring up new bee frames was required. While Emma was busy learning to use the electric drill and hammer in eyelets, I made a comment about this being a woodworking lesson for her, but despite my best efforts she didn’t believe me. Oh well, apparently those skills belong in some other category!

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We also went to one of the local markets at Witta to help set up Max & Trudi’s stall, which adjoins that of Pat and Johns – they recently bought the Lindegger’s long held seedling business. They were a great couple of stalls in what was a lovely example of a country market, selling lots of great local, sustainable produce.

In amongst the work hours – which can be a flexible arrangement by the way – we tried to get involved with some of the many activities going on. Most days we would wake up early to do a couple of hours then do another couple after breakfast or leave it until the afternoon. We also did more on some days so we could organise larger allotments of free to time for excursions. The type of work schedule depends upon the host and the work they have going – but from what we have seen and heard, most hosts are more than happy to be flexible and give WWOOFers encouragement, time and help in getting to know the area and people. It’s a sharing platform after all.

Well, at Crystal Waters there is so much to see, do and join in with that we tried our best to take advantage of what we could. For example, Every Saturday in the village green their organic, handmade sourdough bakery opens up to serve it’s bready delights, plus morning sweet treats and coffee. The second hand shop located across the way also opens and people can mill around, sit on the outdoor tables and chairs or shelter up on the deck. People come down for their weekly bread, some stay for a cuppa and chat, or many with kids come down to socialise while the children amuse themselves with the play equipment and each other’s company. Its a lovely, relaxed atmosphere where people are happy to linger and socialise. In contrast, on the first Saturday of each month it grows into the Crystal Waters Market where you find a busier, lively atmosphere. In addition to the bakery and second hand shop, there is live music and vendors selling an array of things like second hand goods and foodie items (ranging from fresh produce and ready to eat yummies – think home made pies, curry, sorbet, real lemonade and juices – to more specialty stuff like kombucha). And the commercial kitchen and communal cafe on the big deck opens up too.

collage market

 

Thats just the tip of the iceberg though. Every friday night there is a movie on in the Eco Centre, followed by the bakery saturday-moning-social (as i’m calling it) and then usually a saturday night show of some sort – we caught a comedy performance when were there, great fun. Then on Sunday morning they shake it all off with a bush walk in the property or surrounding area. After the bush walk I joined in some of the other happenings during the week – like taking Emma to the community choir (thought she might find it fun) only to have her abandon me for a new friend  – well! It now seemed I was there to join the choir – nothing left to do but try and sing. Not to worry though, I found it was so much fun I went back the next week! And it was of course great for Emma – she and Ellenie had a wonderful time. We even organised to come back for another play date.  Then we all went along to watch the Marimba band practice. If you’re not familiar with the marimba, imagine a mutated wooden xylophone-like creature big enough to have its own legs and stand at an adults waist. Now imagine several of them in one room with players beating in time and tune. On arrival we were given instruments and an apologetic forewarning that they may not be right on top of things – it had been a little while. The instruments were great fun, the sounds jubilant and the warnings unnecessary – we enjoyed every minute of it, especially emma who surprisingly found a comfortable home and rhythm upon the drum.

So the activities were great and we had a blast, but what we enjoyed most was meeting the people. The chance to meet, chat and connect was invigorating and I enjoyed hearing other’s perspectives on all sorts of topics, including the village. We spent the rest of our free time visiting our family, relaxing in the cabin, chillin down at the creek or exploring places outside like nearby Maleny, Ananda Marga River School, Manduka Coop Community and Chenrezig Institute Budhist Retreat (all of which, were very rich and interesting in their own ways).

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Looking back, I think of the mixed messages we got about this place. It’s reputation as a worthy model is based on the fact that it’s been around for about 30 years, is still going and was the first permaculture eco-village ever designed in the world – not to mention the leading examples of sustainable buildings which can be seen there. Yet, the village seems to suffer from a different reputation in some parts of the greater area – with negative hippie-type stigma or insinuations that things there aren’t working. When we talked about going there to see an illustration of a good intentional community, we received discouragement – the source of which I suspect lay in mismatches of expectations or the natural frustrations & challenges which are present in managing that amount of land and people.

Later on, Max (who also co-designed the village) chatted to us about the issue too, saying people often expect the village to be one way or another. For instance, everyone getting along or thinking the same way, all being into some healing or spirituality, or that the place would be dripping with food. He added that in reality, expectations are often wrong and the village just is what it is – about 200 people co-living in an area with the accompanying diversity one might expect of a group that size.

But in the face of the initial contradictions, we decided that whatever the actual situation was, we could learn from it. Examples to emulate are just as powerful as examples to avoid. And I’m so glad we did – what a rich experience we had.

While we may not know all there is to know after seeing it for a few weeks, it’s still true that we were actually there. We met people, got involved and saw it for ourselves. We saw that there are challenges to be worked through, and trade-offs for the lifestyle – but I think that’s the case anywhere. More importantly, we saw why is the villager’s have decided the up-sides and positives outweigh them – we saw a place where the land and environment are respected, where people come together for activity, joy and in need. And where a healthy lifestyle can flourish.

As a result, we have real admiration and respect for the village and what they have done/are doing there. The continuing journey ahead will be an interesting one that we wish them all the best for, and hope to hear more about.

Lastly, we are grateful to have met the people we did – it was such a pleasure. And particularly to our hosts Max & Trudi for their open and sharing spirit – thank you for the opportunity and conversations. We took a lot away from our time there – we hope we also left a little piece of ourselves behind….

 

Guest Post – Fires & Friendship

It’s been surreal to hear about the bush fires that happened back home earlier this month. In fact there is even a wiki article on it already, making it feel oddly like a historical relic only weeks after its occurrence – indeed while people are still in the midst of grappling with how to recover. Nevertheless, if you want to see the article and the details, find it here.

Closer to the proverbial home, we heard about one of my fellow PDC’ers (permaculture design certificate classmate) Daniel, who tragically had nearly all of his 80 acre property burnt, but luckily escaped injury and retained his house. The word was sent for help and the permaculture and friends network did it’s stuff – organising a ‘Permablitz’ at the property – think good old Backyard Blitz using permaculture enthusiasts and principles!

Our PDC teacher and all round good fella Graham Brookman, summed up the story for everyone – the example of community coming together warmed my heart to and so I wanted to share it here too.

Thus, please enjoy a guest story from Graham Brookman at The Food Forest:

Race to save Daniel’s orchard

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Daniel was away from  his property when the Hills Fire started, but managed
to get home to defend his property. Unseen windblown embers landed west of
his land and ignited a fire that quickly burned east toward his home and
engulfed his agroforestry plantings, developing explosive heat that simply
killed many of his sheep.

The fire was now burning down a steep hill toward his house and fire
response crews were arriving. Despite their efforts the fire went through
Daniel’s precious orchard with many heritage fruit and nut varieties. But
the grass in the orchard was cropped short and deciduous trees don’t burn
well; dripper line does, and it was present as little lines of ash or
disfigured, bubbled black plastic. On the whole the trees still  had bits of
green and the bark wasn’t completely blackened, they were like patients who
had been badly burned and needed a drip and lots of care.

Daniel was devastated but concentrated on the job of putting down his
severely burned sheep and burying them with those that died in the fire. His
fiancee Lynne injured her knee helping to get injured sheep down from the
hills. Things were at breaking point  but the question kept going around in
his head “Could the orchard be saved?”

He didn’t have the ready cash to replace the entire irrigation system and he
didn’t physically or emotionally have the strength to tackle the job of
saving the trees, so emailed friends to let them know his predicament. The
response was rapid and practical. A number of close friends simply said they
would come a help him and would chuck in some cash for a roll of dripper
line each.

They networked others and soon a whole group of his fellow participants in a
recent permaculture course were copied-in. Daniel had been listening to ABC
891 (radio) for fire information and rang the Talkback Gardening show to
see what suggestions they had for care of fire-affected trees. He was
staggered when a listener rang him with an offer of $500 and a day’s
physical help. This bolstered his confidence; Daniel was now organising a
‘Permablitz’, a working bee with close friends and a whole lot of people who
care for plants and have gardening skills.

Someone was picking up irrigation supplies, everyone was bringing tools,
cakes were baked by perfect strangers, salads prepared, replacement trees
were selected from home nurseries, trailers were hooked onto 4WDs and
Hollands Creek rd , Cudlee Creek suffered its first-ever traffic jam as
everyone converged on Daniel’s steep, sad-looking orchard last Saturday.

Kilometres of 19mm dripper line were rolled out, hundreds of drippers were
inserted, the north and west face of each tree was whitewashed to reflect
solar radiation.

Every tree got a dose of vermipost and ‘worm wee’ that someone had brought
to help revive the trees and each was mulched with straw.

Everyone was well fed and well exercised (someone brought a monitor that
revealed that he covered 14 kilometres climbing up and down the steep
terrain of the orchard!).

collage permablitz daniels place

A productive orchard watering system was rebuilt, new friends were made,
skills learned, networks formed and children presented with a powerful role
model. As  someone said, “This is what Permaculture is all about”.

A message from Daniel and Lynne:

‘The dripper system is working and the trees have had a good soak. I worked
out that it would have taken us 5 months to complete what you did in One
Fantastic Day.

Thankyou so much for your kind help and donations

Cheers to the permaculture spirit!

Daniel & Lynne’

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WWOOF WWOOF – the first foray


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When we talk to people about our interest in farming or growing things, a lot ask if we come from that kind of background. The answer is no, we don’t. While there may be some historical farming further down the generational line, our interest is born out of exploration, rather than upbringing. As well as what we feel the world needs today – responsible farmers and real food. These farm warriors are already out there  – we just want to see more.

Oh, and the idea of growing something as simple and necessary as food fits in well with the capitalist/entrepreneur/opportunist in me (yup, that’s all in there too…). Maybe we can make a living out of this – after all, it’s not like eating is going out of fashion anytime soon.

Seems as good a livelihood as any in which to place our bets….

But back to the original point – we don’t come from farming and so arriving at our first WWOOF stop (willing/worlwide workers on organic farms), Sat Chit Ananda, was the first time for any of us living on a farm.

 

 

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I feel like I’ve written about the concept of WWOOFing already so for those who have missed it, or in case I was just hallucinating, here is a link to a quick wiki explanation, or see here for the international website.

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While this would only be a two week stay, and it can take a lifetime to read land or perfect farming craft, it was long enough to get a good feel for the farm’s routine and lifestyle in that particular season. It was also the longest we had been in one place since starting our travels.

Getting used to life here was hard for me at first. I think I came unconsciously with expectations of what would happen on a ‘farm’ and what might be expected of a WWOOFer – like so many hours per day of work and structured job lists, etc. Indeed, I’m sure there are places like that out there, but it was different here. In fact, I came to realise that like anything, the deeper we delve the more variation we find – farms come in all different shapes and sizes. And motivations.

Sat Chit Ananda is not a commercial farm. And so that is not what drives the activity here. Kerrie and Paul are building themselves a sustainable refuge from the world. And one that they want to also be an example for others. I admire their aspirations in what they are wanting to do here – in fact what they have already done here. We arrived near the end of Spring, to a land parched and desperately waiting for summer rains, so at first it was hard for us to see easily what was happening here. But soon enough we realised just how much they had accomplished.

Taking old cattle land that had seen much degradation and little water, they set about transforming it towards self-sufficiency. While it isn’t there yet (what ever is, really?) Paul and Kerrie have made long headways into a food forest, water collection, solar power and composting toilets. They have farmed food and animals for veg, meat, milk and eggs – even producing their own cheese. They’ve also delved into alternative farm transportation with miniature horses and built the most magnificent ode to sustainable housing in the form of a 2 storey geodesic dome – a sight to behold, which even greets you from the roadside.

 

collage Sat Chit Ananda trees

 

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All of this, amongst life and its setbacks. Certainly, Paul and Kerrie showed us a down-to-earth attitude and acceptance of life’s realities that I hadn’t seen before. They were great examples of how to operate positively while living in the truth of our own limitations, which we rarely stop to acknowledge. Seeing our resources, like time, energy and money, as they actually are rather than what we want them to be, is a healthy habit I want to take on. Acceptance of how things are, and what we really have control over, seems tantamount to freedom.

One example of which is Paul. After having a stroke some years ago, there are limitations on when or how much he can do in a day. As a result of this, and just life’s limitations in general, the work here often follows opportunity, rather than schedule – taking advantage of the times when resource planets align and going for it.

As it happened though, most of our first week was to be self driven, while our hosts were away on a much needed vacation. So for someone who’s strength is not self-discipline, battling the pre-conceived ideas, self starting and an energy-draining intense heat was: tough. Having said that though, those same conditions meant it was a really good place to dip my proverbial toe and inch into the new experience of living on a farm and being a WOOFer.

In that first week, we really appreciated and enjoyed the trust and freedom which comes with looking after someone else’s farm. We worked with their daughters to keep things going and tried to be newbie helpers rather than a hindrance. We managed pretty well I reckon – Michael in his element with fix-it jobs, Emma taking to the animals and me tackling a shed full of sorting. In fact, I like to joke that we had farm life pegged by the end of the first day – we spent it chasing escapee animals and fixing fences!

 

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We fell into a daily schedule more easily than I expected, centred around the animals:

Wake early, do some work, drink tea. Milk the goat, feed and move the animals, eat breakfast. Maybe some more work, let the chooks out. Swelter in the heat. Maybe some late afternoon work, round up chooks, feed and move animals. Have dinner, sleep, repeat.

It was good – there was enough routine work to structure the day with predictability, yet plenty of free time for personal activities or getting to know our hosts. We really enjoyed that aspect – Paul and Kerrie were very welcoming and inclusive, we shared meals and social time most days, Working, chatting and getting to know people in this way is really rewarding.

And in a wider sense, its been incredible for us to try out so many different sharing experiences (WWOOFing, couch surfing, out of the blue visiting, and the random occurrences that come from travelling overall). It has allowed us to explore the things we are interested in such a rich and varied way.

What I love most about these kind of platforms, or any groups that come together over some common interest, is the infinite number of angles to come at it from – so there is always a new experience, perspective or approach to be discovered. I have done it time and time again: come to a group assuming the people there will be of a particular mindset because of the common interest – but invariably I get surprised by those who differ from me in some way I had not expected. I fall into the trap of assuming these people must think and believe in the same things as me because of this one common point.

It was like seeing them as identical shapes which could overlap and stack on top of each other, fitting nicely and neatly into some vertical tower of understanding. Now it seems more accurate to view them as shapes on a horizontal plane, (or perhaps three dimensional space), that meet and overlap in just one part of themselves, not the whole.

More like a connected system of floating spheres – a network, not silos. Probably more like nature itself, eco systems are linked webs – creatures meet and cross paths at different points of commonality, morphing through time and space. And they change as a result of the meeting or missing of others.

Anyway, regardless of how I describe it, these experiences are always valuable reminders to step back and check on the narrowing of my own perspective.

So it was great to experience life here, and grow to know our hosts more. And that spirit of curiosity and sharing was certainly alive and well. Actually, it brings me to think of an advantage of WWOOFing in your own country – the absence of a cultural and/or language barrier. While you may not experience a new culture, it does allow you to get a deeper understanding of the people or processes you are meeting. For that reason, I would recommend WWOOFing both in your own country and abroad – getting the best of skill sharing, making friends and novel cultural exchange.
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When it came time to leave, it was hard. Particularly for Emma, who so quickly connected to the life, people and animals here. I’m really grateful for this experience, and to Paul, Kerrie, Janine and Tegan for letting us join their lives – we wish you all the best, and would love to cross paths again some day, thank you!

 

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Future Feeders – plus lots of educational tangents (don’t say you weren’t warned)

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Our couch surfing hosts put us onto an initiative happening in Mullum called Future Feeders. Reading about it hit all the right words for me:
  • growing young farmers
  • small scale farm management
  • ecological agriculture
  • resilient communities
  • local food security
Turns out, Future Feeders is a new start-up all about keeping local agriculture and food industries alive though youth-driven entrepreneurship. They aim to grow successful models and opportunities for young people in ecological farming.
We got in contact with Joel Orchard, the Project Manager. As with many of the discoveries on our trip, combining short notice with busy schedules can make for tricky chat coordinating! But we found a time that worked, and we’re so glad we did. With a gentle calmness and discernment about him, we talked about a whole bunch of stuff, ranging from the project to corporate food, the structure of today’s society, to education and parental expectations – you know, just the normal topics tackled daily around the dinner table – or is that just us?
Future feeders was born out of Joel’s desire to see opportunities in agriculture for keen, enterprising young people. Therein he recognised a problem – a gap in getting interested youth onto farms. Surprisingly, it’s a lack of training opportunities holding them back, rather than land as one might expect. It’s the missing link I noticed without realising it a long time ago – the deficit left behind because we no longer routinely pass on information from one generation to the next, especially in practical trades and crafts. We don’t go out and learn on the job anymore – we go to school, learn all the theory, get a little practice in a non-contextualised classroom and then sport the piece of paper to say we are qualified when perhaps some of us feel fraud-like about that fact (me at least, and some others that I have spoken to).
Apprenticeships are obviously the exception here – they blend a much larger mix of on-the-job training with the educational theory work. And internships – its all on-the-ground intensive learning. These two models are perfect candidates for learning to farm – but they appear to be a rarity now. And for anyone who has read Joel Salatin’s latest book ‘Field of Farmers’, it wouldn’t be a surprise. He highlights with startling detail just how lacking our bridges are between incoming and outgoing farmers. A clear gap can now be seen between the older farmer without anyone to pass on their wisdom to and the interested youth, often coming from the city or suburbs with minimal, if any, experience. There simply are too few opportunities for real, practical learning in the form of internships or apprenticeships. And it’s for a myriad of reasons, but perhaps mostly owing to the fear and scant time/energy of farmers leftover to invest in creating a quality training program. Joel Salatin goes through the trials, tribulations and costs they encountered in starting their own apprentice and intern programs, as well all the developments they went through. With that all laid out, it’s clear what a big investment it is, and that it must be passion which drives it. For the Salatins, it was the love and desire to ensure their local food system remained – not just for their own sake but also that of the community (just so you know, I love reading his books – if you need a daily dose of common sense to boost your resolve and immunity to this world, I recommend you pick one up).
So it seems a skills shortage really does exist – its just not the one the government told you about.
Our society is set up differently these days. Different doesn’t have to mean bad.
Different = new pros & cons = opportunity.
Con: farming can be seen as not valued or viable these days = Con: big disconnection, hard to get youth on land and learning.
Pro: today’s youth often bring a different way of thinking and skills from other areas to the farm – which, Pro; can help transform it into a healthy, rewarding career option  (while, Pro: healing the land and the people finally receiving nutritious food – not just something that looks like a vegetable).
future feeders rows pic

photo courtesy of Future Feeders

This discussion is also related to another thing I have often lamented (ha! ‘lamented’ – now I really do sound like an old farmer!). That being how people are hired for jobs – often resting the burden upon that aforementioned piece of paper rather than the person’s natural aptitude or suitability. That’s what I love about how things used to happen (from what I can tell and yes, probably through rose coloured glasses, but I will continue all the same) – the local business owner would take on new workers realising it was an investment. An investment in passing on their knowledge, their trade, their craft (have you noticed the reemergence of pride in craftsmanship and artisinal skills these days?). I think they appreciated the broader value in it and were therefore willing to spend the time and energy growing productive, empowered people. People who were also more than likely to become members of their own community. All of this meant they would choose candidates not necessarily on their experience or schooling but upon their character, and if they would be able to do the work.  You got a job because your character was worthy and you would be suited to the job. What a novel idea! (do you see it? – that’s my tongue in my cheek).
One of the original land healing farmers, George Henderson, demonstrated the self-evident value of operating this way generations ago in at least one of his books. And I know a few forward thinking managers who recognise this. But, how many times have we let a good candidate go, or not even noticed them because they didn’t have the right qualification? Or what about just looking at the educational requirements – an example of Coles comes to mind – requiring night fillers to have finished year 12 if you were old enough to have done so – why? What relevance do year 12 subjects have to stacking shelves and how does that mean you will be better at the job? Why not look at who they are, what they have done and why.
School is only one way to learn.
It used to be that school was a basic general education so you could then go off and learn what was right for you – granted, the options for employment were also much more limited in previous generations. Nevertheless, it seems like we are specialising kids younger and younger and requiring more and more study – to the detriment of experience and balanced human beings in my opinion. We have seen the social norm go from leaving school early (joining the family business or leaving to earn for the family), to finishing high school, to doing a bachelor degree, to completing something post-grad (Honours, Masters or a PhD). It just keeps escalating – a PhD now seems no more valuable in the job market than Honours used to be, despite the extra 3 years (at least) required to obtain it. I’m not saying any of those are not worth doing or unwarranted – I just don’t think they should be pre-requisites for individuals to be considered ‘educated’, ’suitable’ or ‘worthy’.
Anecdotally, it seems particularly rife in America – it is just expected that you will go to college and get a degree – even if you already plan never to use it or go into that line of work. Doesn’t that seem like a non-sensical social norm? Children placate their parents desires and the business of education is perpetuated for it’s own sake. I’m sure it came from a well-meaning place, namely our parent’s desires to see us secure and do better than them, but it’s not the only way! Please realise that, parents and students alike.
Remember the term ‘life experience’? Or the old fashioned version that came up in our conversation with Joel: ‘worldliness’? It is incredibly worthwhile and should count for something. To understand the context within which we live, and apply our skills thereafter, must be more valuable than thrashing around in the dark confines of one system, one education, one job, one mindset. Let us learn, think for ourselves and act accordingly.
Returning to Joel’s take on things, (Joel Orchard that is, who would have thought i’d be talking about two influential Joel’s in one post?), he wanted to see real skill sharing so people with a passion could learn enough to get onto land and make something of it. WWOOFing (Worldwide Workers On Organic Farms) could be an option but in Joel’s experience spots are often taken up by travellers (ahem….sorry!) or it hasn’t been substantial enough to meet the need. He also thinks there is a reluctance to enter the field by some due to the picture we have been sold of farming as old, lonely, isolated & poor. It’s the scarcity model rather than the abundance we keep seeing is actually possible. This abundance comes from hard work no doubt, but is more than repaid with incredibly rewarding, healthy, purposeful work, and a good chance of having an awesome office to boot.
So what can you do if you can’t find an internship? Call on others to come with you and build your own – while also moulding it into a viable business and reproducible model so others might get an opportunity too. This is what Joel did – initially floating his idea to the local community. Good feedback and involvement has now settled into a smaller core of permanent volunteers. And bear in mind all the Future Feeders crew are making this start-up happen between other jobs that pay the bills until it stands on its own feet – pretty admirable in my book. Its heartening to see people putting themselves out there to save the future of things that are important.  Like local, healthy, responsibly farmed food. I am struggling right now to think of many things more important or fundamental to us as humans or communities – particularly when taking all the side benefits into consideration – like jobs, empowerment, health and community relationships,  all of which build resilience. And Joel is certainly on the same page there – saying he thinks “farming is the most noble profession – so connected, gentle and fundamental”.
They piloted the program at Mullumbimby Community Gardens – 1.5 acres converted into a market garden. Joel said the gardens provided the community interface they were looking for – purposely trying to bring people to the farm rather than the other way around. Visions of chefs and herbalists coming to pick their own supplies embodies the kind of connection they wish to foster – seeing that visceral next level past farmers markets as important. But for now the group has partnered up with a local CSA scheme (community supported agriculture) and recently made their first sale – woop woop! This is moving them towards building the sustainable financial and business aspects of the model.
future feeders market garden
The market garden site is also being used to train participants in ecological farming methods – including possibly certified organic but embracing any types of agro-ecology (i.e. biological farming methods that work with nature or mimic it, rather than the industrial/artificial/chemical model that is of convention today). Amusingly, my computer’s auto correct does not recognise “agro-ecology” thus keeps changing it to “afro-ecology” – a highly entertaining alternative and mental picture, but perhaps not as accurately descriptive. Aah computers….
The Future Feeders’ plan is to  replicate the model on other sites – something they aren’t short of. Joel says they receive offers of land to farm literally every week. Every week! Sadly, they have to turn them down – highlighting the shortfall again of opportunities, time and mentors for training. They simply don’t have enough people to farm the land being offered yet. Good problem to have.
Moving onto the challenges – what are they and how do you overcome them? Joel says the work is physically demanding but the trickier challenge can be that of people. Communicating, cooperating and problem-solving with others is sometimes difficult – for no other reason than humans simply being humans. It’s useful to know. Really – you might like to note it down somewhere…
I know it seems obvious now, but do you remember anyone telling you that in school? That’s an important lesson I could have used a heads up on – forewarned is forearmed you know. But seriously, it’s a message we keep hearing on our travels – managing human relationships can be hard. Yet, the other thing reiterated to us is the power of human relationships to pull us through and overcome the challenges – think those that we work with, our customers, our mentors, the community and family or friends. An interesting paradigm isn’t it? People – the hardest part yet the best part.
Joel said he was pulled through by the love and collective nature of working with people. He also said you have to believe in what you are doing. So, in addition to people, I think he hit on the two other staples for dealing with obstacles – love for what you are doing and the belief or resolve that comes from being part of something bigger than ourselves. Lets call it our top 3 challenge adversaries:
People, Passion and Purpose.
A lot has happened for a project that only started earlier this year – what is next for Future Feeders and its momentum? Pushing the envelope Joel says – using alternative thinking, and youthful innovation to mould farming into a new shape for today. This includes navigating the co-operative model waters – determining good ways to build an inclusive and incentivised network of members and partners. With any luck, it will simultaneously increase ecological production of healthy food, farmland, business, community and training opportunities.
It is essentially a farm, education and business enterprise and they aim to expand into different pockets of land using a cycle of learning. A trained farmer teaches the student, student farms land and becomes a new teacher – they teach a new student and then move on to new land, gaining more valuable learning themselves while having produced another trained student, that will in turn became another teacher. And so it goes on. It will develop a network to leverage better opportunities in labour, equipment, buying, distribution and markets. For example, pooling resources like equipment or machinery (this is a good time to mention that they are keen to stick to appropriate technologies, as are many others – learn more here).
We talked more about our current food system and how it is broken (aka corrupted) – it’s something many could go on about at length. Me included – in fact I did in the draft version of this post, but for now have withheld it. Suffice it to say, the system is such that too many people don’t know where their food comes from – we are disconnected from that which is most fundamental. So I think it’s incredibly exciting to see people take their distaste for the situation and turn it into something positive like this. I think it’s Joel’s form of peaceful protest, useful activism.
In fact, Future Feeders is reminiscent of a like-minded manifestation in America (who seem to be about 5-10 years ahead of us in their action on the food front) called Greenhorns – all about advocacy for, and growth of, the young agricultural sector to maintain true food security there. Back home, the little group of farming friends that center around our local farming elder Di (Bickleigh Vale Farm, McLaren Vale), only discovered Greenhorns recently – with much joy and resolve that something similar is needed in Australia, and in more local chapters too. I certainly see Future Feeders as starting that progression – and indeed Joel hopes that advocacy is an area they will eventually move in to.
It also reminds me of several friends in Adelaide who have just up and started small-scale farming projects independently – Wagtail Urban Farm, The Garden Farmers and most recently Sand Road Farm. Grass roots projects are springing up like weeds – apt pun intended.
So if it’s happening somewhere, I bet it’s happening elsewhere – if you know about something like this, or someone wanting to start-up, PLEASE let us know. These people should be put in contact so they can learn from and support each other!
I want to finish with something Joel said in conversation, a bolster for all those battling on the local food front:
“it’s more than food production, it’s a way to change the world in a peaceful way”
Find out more or get in contact with Future Feeders via their Facebook page here or their website here
.
Cheers and encouragement to everyone working towards feeding our future! xx
future feeders seedlings

photo courtesy of Future Feeders

To Mullum, to Mullum

P1030591 armidale pool   It was three days driving from the farm in Ruffy to our stop in Mullum. It saw us go through Albury, Wagga, Dubbo, Tamworth and Armidale, as well as lots of little towns in-between. collage emma pool armidale   Pondering the journey also makes me think about the variety of accommodation we have encountered to date – in three weeks we have slept in 2 rest stops (on the side of the road), a vacant block, 3 tourist parks and 3 houses – in beds, a tent or caravan. Talk about variety. That aspect has been very interesting. Its also been great for getting used to looking after yourself – setting up and packing down camp continuously will do that – and goes a long way towards becoming comfortable with change.   P1030606 armidale camp
We’ve noticed that Emma has the hardest times at transition – settling in somewhere new and packing up to leave. This was to be expected, and we have been pleased to see the amount of time she needed decrease as we went on. It also highlighted how well she handled all the change and newness during the rest of the time. For a mum and daughter who can be adverse to not knowing or controlling our surroundings – we are doing pretty well so far 🙂
Another heartening observation has been Emma’s ability to connect quickly with the animals and children wherever we have been. For a child who hasn’t really been around animals or had many pets, she has taken a shining to, and solace from, the creatures in our adventure. I’m glad about this – I hope it’s a connection that will stay with her into the future. I also hope it sparks reverence and respect for all creatures and life in nature – we shall see.
Anyway- back to the destination at hand – we were on way to our first couch surfing stop. What is couch surfing? For those who aren’t familiar, they liken it a little to when you travel and call on family or friends in your destination to maybe put you up for a couple nights, or show you around. You know – a nice friendly place to stay, good company to hang out with and a chance to get tips from the locals. Essentially they took that philosophy and built a web-based network so you could do it with friends you haven’t met yet. Cool idea, huh? They refine it with host/surfer profiles, reviews and search capabilities so you find a good match and feel safe in what you are doing. We found our host by searching within Mullumbimby and listed by how recently they had used the site. The first one up was an awesome host with lots of great alternative interests like us, a family of his own and experience hosting hundreds of other surfers. After reading reviews we were satisfied they would be great people to meet and sent a request through. Request accepted, we exchanged some details so we could meet at the appropriate point in the space-time continuum and we were set. Easy!
After shifting around so much on the road, it was really nice to look forward to 3 nights in one place with some insider knowledge. And Benny and Sophia didn’t disappoint – they were interesting, open, generous people. And they put us onto heaps of cool stuff in the area and beyond. Clearly community minded and accustomed to having people flow through their life, it was easy to settle into communal ways at their place .
In fact from where I sit now, i’m surprised at how easy it has been to meet and live with new people. I expected it to be much harder. I’m sure it probably is on a longer term basis. Perhaps it is the transient nature of these meetings and networks (e.g. wwoofing, couch surfing) that lay good foundations for communication of facts and expectations. Whatever it is, when everyone knows a good deal about what is going on and what to expect, things can go much smoother.
And from my experience so far, it seems the other factor at play is having space and time which offer a balance of being together and apart. There needs to be enough communal time to build relationships and understanding, but also time alone to debrief – there are a lot of new surroundings, dynamics and learning to process (as a family or individuals). Not to mention whatever lessons and emotions come up internally within each person.
But back to Mullum – as you would expect there were lots of colourful places and characters around town. We saw numerous outlets for organic and health related stuff like grocers, juice bars, cafes and even a herbal/homepathic shop concocting remedies to order.
collage juice bar 1
collage mullum 2

and you thought your local had lots of community notices!

Michael and Emma also had many comrades in their trademark bare feet. We wondered the town, looking at places and people, eating good food (including a cool little cafe called Punch & Daisy) We also hung out at home, watched the ducks, pottered in the garden, went for a walk and recuperated, even catching a community dinner. Between all that, lots of time was spent chatting over dinner and breakfast with Benny and Sophia.  So great to talk things over with others open to ideas or opinions – 1. to be able to express your own and get feedback, and 2. to hear those of others – it’s like exercise for your mind!
A short aside on this topic (warning, here comes an observational musing) – one trait I have noticed: those who seem most open to the opinion of others are usually those most secure in their own. Or more accurately, secure in their own values, from which all else is derived. So I don’t mean they are dogmatic about their own opinions, more like they are secure about what they are and why, which also allows a greater openness to change if it is sensible.
We also checked out the local community garden. It was a pretty cool place to see – it had permaculture demonstration plots, private plots, public picking plots (‘food for all’), a kids area, a shop to sell seeds and plants (and other stuff) a learning space, cafe/kitchen and more. Like a bio-char facility – got a fantastic explanation of biochar and it’s many uses from Don – in fact so many I have to admit it was a little overload for me to keep in my head. Michael’s brain may have been a better receptacle for that info!. Neverthless it’s definitely on our list of things to look into now.
collage mullum comm garden 1
collage mullum comm garden 2
collage mullum comm garden 3
collage mullum comm garden perm 1
collage mullum comm garden perm 2
collage mullum comm garden perm 3
Even the garden’s toilets were fun – and of the composting variety of course. I feel fairly familiar with composting toilets, having seen and used a few now – but if it, and the whole ‘humanure’ world, is foreign check out this link.
collage mullum comm garden toilet
There was a pretty exciting initiative starting out of the gardens too called ‘Future Feeders’. Our hosts put us onto this and an intentional community called ‘Famunity’. I want to give them both more air time in their own posts though, so sit tight for those 🙂
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In the meantime, I would like to wrap up this post by thanking Benny, Sophia and little Mossy for making our first couch surfing experience a great one – here’s to the fun, sharing and growth of meeting new people – Cheers!
collage mic handstand

On the Road Again

P1030547 tunnel

So here is the challenge – 1 hour to write 1 post, albeit a photo rich, word poor one. Sounds easy – unless your me. Here we go…

After experiencing the bio-dynamic delights of Ruffy, we set off for 3 days on the road, en route to Mullum land (aka Mullumbimby). There we would experience couch surfing for the first time. But for now we had driving, lots of driving, ahead of us.

We had a wonderfully surprising morning just getting out of Ruff and to our first stop – upon a recommendation we went to Longwood to see ‘The Rockery’. It is a gemstone museum, in actual fact it is one man’s house and the physical manifestation of his passion for rocks. The personal collection spreads throughout – his kitchen bench literally his shop counter. Although it may sound odd, it was actually very endearing – as was the owner Maurie Brodie. It was a pleasure listening to him recall his many adventures across the world that his love has prompted. I was particularly amazed to hear him recall, with vivid clarity, the exact moment that he became interested in rocks (many many years ago) -he was 17 and his mum showed him a picture in the middle of a Woman’s Weekly magazine. It was of a whole bunch of tumbled rocks – glossy and shiny like boiled lollies he said. I love that – whenever someone can pinpoint a passion’s trigger – I think it’s fascinating.

Anyway, i’m sure that, and having a look around, would have been enough for me to enjoy my time there. And probably the same for Michael. But what made it sooo worth it was Emma’s reaction – I think we have stumbled across something special for her. She was glued to the place – drinking in all the different shapes, colours and sparkles. The fluorescent rocks in the darkroom just blew her away! It was amusing and heartwarming at the same time to observe her reactions. It’s not often I have seen her that in awe.

collage emma rockery

This is what she said about it: “This place is so amazing it makes me want to cry”. Just gorgeous 🙂

After we pried Emma away, and thanked Maurie for sharing his passion, we settled in for a drive. Eventually we decided it was time for lunch and stopped at the next place available. It was town called Benalla in what felt like the middle of Victoria – an ordinary kind of town except for the entrance with an art gallery, boardwalk upon the river and the most astounding piece of artwork I have ever encountered. It’s hard to describe, think clay art gallery combined with outdoor seating/ampitheatre and playground. Whatever it was, it really spoke to me. To be fair, the ‘Clay Mural’ was 27 years in the making – and the outlay is so intricate and complicated i’m hardly surprised. This is where the ‘photo rich’ bit comes in – warning: photo bombardment imminent. See the splendour for yourself…

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Thanks Benalla – your awesome!

Art absorbed, 1 hour post challenge met.

Ahhh – now for a cuppa……

‘Ruff’ing it

P1030481 quince blooms mill springs
As we hoped might happen, we were happily directed to our first unplanned farm-stay at a little place called “Ruffy”, about 2 hours north of Melbourne.
Thanks to Chris from Green Onions, who told Michael about one of their suppliers, saying if you want to see farms, you should definitely see that one – they grow the best peaches. And he didn’t just mean for the area, or last season – he meant the best. Ever.
So Chris gave us their contact details and Michael put in a call. After lots of discussion about good practices for farming and living today, and much reassurance that Michael was indeed not trying to sell them something, we were invited along for a visit and to pitch our tent for a while. An invitation to ‘Ruff it’.
Driving into the area reveals beautiful horse stud flats and hilly green pastures. The farm – Mill Springs Farm – belongs to Adrian and Valda Martin, who come from a long line or farmers and orchardists on both sides. Valda welcomes us in for a good old country cup of tea before heading up to the orchard to meet Adrian and having a look around.
The farm’s main produce is bio-dynamically grown fruit – think beautiful stone fruit, quinces, apples and boysenberries. They also grow olives for oil, sheep for meat, have free range laying hens and are delving into grain.
collage mill springs 1
Everything on the farm is grown biodynamically. specifically to the demeter standard of biodynamics which, analagous to the off shoot of dialects from a common language, holds a particular way of applying the biodynamic principles Rudolf Steiner indicated nearly 100 years ago. The Martins have been using this method for about 20 years now.

Here is a little excerpt from the biodynamic manual Adrian gave us to read:

The [demeter bio-dynamic] system is not simply a replacement of synthetic chemicals and artificial fertilisers with ‘organic’ substitutes. Instead the farmer must learn to think and work biologically.
When I asked why they chose biodynamics, different answers emerge. Valda says it’s because they had seen the effects of chemical use and therefore looked for something different to the conventional practice. Adrian says it’s because of the simplicity – it is how people used to farm before industrialisation. He likes the fact you can do it yourself without relying too heavily on technology or buying inputs.
Oh, and the fact that it works – they are steadfast and serious in explaining the unmistakably good results they have seen in things like:
  • product quality & taste (evidenced by the religious-like patronage they receive)
  • farm recovery times after harsh conditions – (they seem to be the first to spring back to life, probably owing to next on the list:)
  • soil quality & life and
  • decreased water requirements – (several reasons but one stand out for me was that trees are grown such that they source water and nutrients as needed from healthy soil, rather than the traditional overfeeding of fertiliser which results in a thirsty tree  and more water consumption)
As well as taking the time out to chat with us, the Martins very kindly offer us more than we could have hoped for in the way of facilities, including some land to perch on for a few days. It is a beautiful place to stay – with trees, life and birdsong rounding it out.
P1030477 cherry rows and berries
I really enjoyed the way things unfolded there: Michael and I each found something to help with; Emma flowed between farm activities and contented alone time and we got to know the family a little more through tea, chooks and conversations.
Chris described Adrian as just one of the most genuine people you will meet, I wholeheartedly agree. What a good old fashioned country farmer – quiet, but kind to the core, and full of common-sense wisdom. Valda, his wife of several decades, is quick to point out that Adrian doesn’t go on a lot about things (skyting, as they call it), and is overly humble about his level of knowledge. He obviously makes up for it with his openness – all you need do is ask him a question.
Valda is remarkable in her own right. Generous with a no-nonsense attitude and sharp as a tack. She uses her passion for needle & thread to bolster several charity projects, including hospital and prison projects for support and rehabilitation. As we look at her lifetime of crafting and contributions I realise just how much traditional arts and crafts can be a vehicle for healing, purpose and community.
Like most farmers, they work hard – and mother nature throws a spanner in the works regularly. So why do they choose this difficult life? And why is there such a renewed interest in joining them? My own suspicion is because it’s an honest profession which provides a real and tangible connection to the world we live in. For Adrian,  it seems there is a satisfaction and purpose inherent in growing things for others. He says he gets pleasure from growing the best fruit possible. And he has no plans to leave – intent on continuing until his body gives up.
I don’t think the market will have any problem with that either – apparently demand is always growing and, uncharacteristically, Adrian offers up his opinion on why: he puts it down to the young mothers of Melbourne searching out better food for their children. That’s heartening – I would love to see demand for responsibly farmed food become the social norm. Here’s hoping…
This experience left me feeling incredibly grateful. Firstly, as you might expect, grateful for seeing their example in farming – Adrian certainly made a good case for skipping ‘organic’ all together and going straight to biodynamics. But surprisingly, even more grateful for having just met them and their family – it instilled in me something that Michael already had a healthy faith for – the good nature of people. I felt like they were good people trying to do good things. And they met us as strangers, showing great generosity and openness. Thank you!
collage mill springs tractor
Happy Farming. Happy Eating.
xx

The School of Life – Melbourne style

school of life with piggy & emma
Tuesday:
Slow start-stop morning. Rush to finally get sorted and out of the house – doesn’t happen until after lunch – kicking myself, never mind. Then onto learning about the trains on the fly – whoops, missed one, oh well. Caught the next train. Then suddenly it says the destination is now where we came from – what? We jump off – only to see it progress to where we thought it was going, bugger. Apparently the ‘city loop’ messes with what I would consider the conventional naming of things. Mel has a mini-meltdown, Michael and Emma vacate the platform. We regroup and jump on another train only to find out from a passenger that this one IS actually going back to where we came from – seriously?! Jump off again to the one across the platform and lo and behold – it goes to our station! We ask where Bourke Street is – apparently we are already on it – ha, awesome! Such tourists….
After the shenanigans of the train, finding our destination turns out to be super simple – it was just down the street (yay!). The School of Life, Melbourne, sits on Bourke St – mere metres from Southern Cross Station. When we arrive we are greeted by the wistfully pleasant Genevieve, who also turns out to be the queen of books (later walking us through some of the must reads on the shelves – i’ll be adding them to our reading list). We are here to talk with Jess, the Community Manager, who meets us with a great openness and honesty. She has kindly agreed to chat with us about the workings and passions of The School of Life Melbourne (which I shall hereafter designate TSOL for the sake of my typing fingers and sanity).
It turns out that describing TSOL to people is hard for us when mentioning this as one of our Melbourne-town destinations. I think that’s because it’s a new kind of beast – part education centre, bookshop, cafe, art house, community/connection/conversation builder and purveyor of fine inspirational goods & tools (like their awesome conversation cards, the 15 minute important life activity hourglass timer or the hilarious tote bag labelled “emotional baggage”).
mic school of life
The original TSOL was founded in London by modern-day philosopher Alain De Botton. A group of super interested social-doers, through a local Melbournian social enterprise (who are also responsible for the Dumbo Feather publication you may have seen kicking around) approached the SOL about trying something here. The result was a pop-up that piloted last year – for which they had a wait list of 800 people wanting to take a class with 26 spots – clearly there was something in this! So the dedicated group forged ahead and this permanent – and first – international outreach was born in Melbourne. There are now 6 others in places like Amsterdam, Rio and Paris.
I asked Jess what she thought it was about TSOL that made it unique – she said it seems to fill a gap for people, that something is missing and it helped give them insight into themselves plus a connection to others. That pretty well seems to reflect TSOL’s core business – developing emotional intelligence.
Now don’t be scared off by that. Really – it’s just useful stuff we don’t seem to get taught in school or society much these days (in my opinion). Class titles like ‘how to be confident’, ‘how to be creative’ and ‘how to face death’ start to paint the picture. Here are some others (or check out the full program for Oz here):
– How to balance work with life
– How to spend time alone
– How to make love last
 I feel like lots of people spend decades pondering these topics in solitude before ever getting a breakthrough or finding the insight they seek. What a grand idea to have an inviting, funky, well run place for the general public to come and engage in such important inner work.
The demand for their classes hasn’t waned, regularly selling out. I want to ask what it is about this educational model that makes it work, but before I can, Jess gives me the answer in describing how TSOL is unique – seems they are one in the same. She describes how classes deliver a great mix of elements like historical & current wisdom or philosophy, questions & workshop activities, individual and group time as well as pre-class tasks & post-class reading references. They also lash out a heavy dose of culture – think literature, film and art as a tool for examples, therapy and insight.
I suspect it would be hard for someone to come away without something useful. Jess also says the classes have a kind of practical “immediacy” to them – and she should know. After enrolling in “realise your potential” (because that was the only class not sold out), she quit her job the following day! She also put her CV into TSOL and hey presto – that is how we came to find her there! Pretty good embodiment of what goes on there i’d say.
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I ask a last question – what is the most important job of TSOL? ‘developing emotional intelligence through the use of culture and community connection’  says Jess – if we can learn to find comfort in speaking and listening to strangers, perhaps it will help break down the barriers to open, richer relationships with those we love. We could even find others have similar situations, feelings or thoughts.
We thank Jess for her generosity and stay to look around (and maybe we had drinks and cake too – not telling). So much goodness to be had – I only wish we could have taken a class while we were here. But as I said to Jess, Adelaide isn’t far away from Melbourne – we might just come on back one day!
This quote was up on the wall for the day – I thought it summed up nicely one of the reasons we are travelling and why we consider it important for Emma to see other places:

“For those who feel simply trapped under their responsibilities and can’t summon the initiative to quit, exposing yourself to how other people live loosens the mind. You can comprehend how many ways there are to get by. Choosing a new way seems possible”

Po Bronson – ‘What Should I Do With My Life?’

You can explore the website, classes and shop here or check out their new youtube channel here – I encourage you to have a look.
May we find solice and solidarity in our shared stories.
Mel xx
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