This was our second Help Exchange opportunity so far on our trip. Our previous experience happened almost two months ago, when we first left Minnesota, on a vineyard outside of La Crosse, Wisconsin. (You can read about that one here.) This time we signed up to work on an organic farm, which has hosted many Help Exchange helpers from all over the world in recent years. It’s easy to see why: PEI is a wonderful place to be and this farm is spectacular.
The farm has vegetable gardens which were all lined up into perfectly measured rows by one of our hosts who was a certified Master Gardener, earning his diploma in Illinois. While we were there they were growing potatoes, squash, zucchini, lettuces and greens, carrots, herbs, beets, onions, tomatoes, strawberries, raspberries, garlic, sweet peas, pole beans, rhubarb, and so on. There were also dozens and dozens of different flowers and plants throughout the yard, including a row of lavender that was permanently buzzing with the sounds of visiting honey bees.
There were two pigs (Pork and Bess), around two dozen chickens, and about a dozen mixed breed beef cattle. All species were being lovingly raised as market animals to become future food for the human farm residents. At one time, the farm also had horses and dogs, but animals like that frequently require more attention than our hosts’ busy lifestyles often allowed them to provide.
Our schedule was generally an 8:00 – 2:30 work day with a lunch break. Daily tasks involved releasing the chickens from their chicken tractors in the morning, moving the pen to another location on the field with fresh grass, and feeding and watering them. In the evening we would corral them back up and secure them in the tractors until the next morning. We also fed the pigs every day, which was very fun. The pigs had pig feed but they would also get some fun scraps from the farmhouse, including greens and sometimes even pasta (no lobster though). The pigs were shy and a little skittish, but they loved to eat and would hop right into their trough and tuck into their meal while walking all over it. In the mornings, after taking care of the chickens and pigs we would usually inspect the six rows of potato plants for potato beetles.
After those standard morning chores we would begin whatever assignments the hosts had for us that day. Sometimes they were pleasantly meditative tasks such as trimming hedges while listening to the birds or weeding the flower beds while enjoying the scent of the lavender plants. We are good and thorough weeders, but it was fun to see the hosts in action; they were good and thorough too, but they were also fast. We tried to pick up a few pointers whenever we could, including noticing what tools they used and how. One day Joe got to thin the beet crop so that the beetroots don’t fight for territory because they are too close. We also learned how to hill a crop by raking dirt onto the roots of the plants (like potatoes) to protect the tubers from sun exposure.
Our most challenging task involved tearing out and rebuilding stone steps that lead from the driveway to the walkway of the house. Over time the steps, although beautiful, had begun sloping towards the driveway, creating a treacherous walk when icy. None of us had any idea what we were doing or how to fix it, but once we tore down the existing steps we knew that we were committed and needed to figure it out. We ended up laying a row of bricks on the dirt under the steps to add support; previously they were just sitting on dirt and gravel. We also noticed that the treads interlocked with the step below it but that the original installer didn’t interlock them. So we did. And then we realized that by doing so, we were creating an 11-inch step instead of an 8-inch step. So…we had to tear those out and try again. Apparently the original installer knew what he was doing. Long story short: the steps turned out wonderfully and both hosts’ mothers are thrilled because they were previously afraid of taking a spill on icy stairs.
Our new and improved steps no longer met the walkway at the appropriate height; they were too high. So the next day we had to rip out a five-foot stretch of a herringbone-patterned brick walkway. Understanding how to complete this task was simpler: just add some dirt underneath the walkway to raise it up. But the execution was extremely complicated because everything needed to be level and line up with what was already in place. Long story short (again): Erik did most of the work by himself without professional tools or training but his workmanship easily rivaled that of a professional. It wasn’t easy and involved a fair amount of trial and error, but he brought it all together.
One of Joe’s favorite tasks was baking a cake for a dinner party. He hasn’t baked a cake in several months, so this was way too much fun. There is some level of anxiety when working in someone else’s kitchen with their equipment (not your own) and knowing that this wasn’t just some cake to have around the house but rather for guests, but it all went well. And because it was raining that day, Erik cleaned the house while the hosts were working in town.
This experience was fantastic for so many reasons. We got to do a variety of tasks and learned a lot about gardening and animals – not to mention (re)building stone stairs. And our hosts were very gracious – if the weather was bad, they didn’t make us work just for the sake of working. And if we were involved in a particularly difficult task that day, then maybe we wouldn’t work until 2:30 that day. We had all our meals with our hosts, they took us to events, they invited us to their own dinner party, and they generously showed us around the Island.
There was a moment at the dinner party, after eating mussels, lobster, and chocolate cake and telling stories and doing a fair amount of laughing, when we realized: one week ago we knew none of these people or anything about their lives. But because of Help Exchange we learned some new skills, saw a part of the world that was previously unknown to us, and met some wonderful people whom we will hopefully see again in the future. These are the moments in the trip that reaffirm why we left the Cities two months ago, and we look forward to many more of them.