Saskatchewan Help Exchange

Posted from Alameda, Saskatchewan, Canada.

(or: Green Acres, Canada-style)

To see photos of us in action at the farm, go to the accompanying photos post.

Leaving Toronto and heading to a small town in Saskatchewan, we camped for several nights.  Our final night of camping was near Winnipeg, Manitoba on Tuesday, August 23.  The only thing worth mentioning (the very sad miniature golf course is certainly not - although I guess I just did) is that it was incredibly windy (gusts to 30 mph? – just a guess since we had no way to measure it), and dry and dusty, but Maggi was sturdy in the wind all through the night.  We were much more comfortable than the poor campers in tents whose walls were flapping in and out all night long.

The drive to our next destination had very different landscape than we have so far encountered in Canada: it was flat prairie.  And because of the extraordinarily dry summer and the wind, it was a challenging drive.  But Apollo was up to the challenge.  We arrived at our destination in the afternoon of Wednesday the 24th.

This experience was our third Help Exchange, ten days on an organic farm in southern Saskatchewan about 30 miles from the North Dakota border.  It is a small certified organic produce farm that sells their garden produce to members of a CSA and also raises livestock for its own use.  The land that the farm is on is in itself fascinating; not only does the 160-acre plot include native prairie land (land that has never ever been tilled) but there are buffalo rub stones where hundred of years ago buffalo would scratch their backs since there were no trees.  And because of their constant circling of the stone, the earth around the stone would become compressed and create a crater in the landscape.  Also, there are teepee ring marks on the land where natives once lived.

The farm is owned and run by a young couple with a small daughter.  For the past four years they have hosted over 60 helpers from various organizations such as Help Exchange or Wwoof.  During our stay there was another helper who had come from Germany and had been there all summer.  It was fun to share this experience with another person, since our previous Help Exchange opportunities had only been the two of us as workers.  Luckily for us, the day we arrived was the first day after they had just spent several days butchering 500 chickens to sell locally.  But our German friend was happy to give us all the details of that process.  And we were happy we missed the fun.

A calf we nick-named "Cutie Pie"

In a typical day, around 5:30/6:00 a.m. and then again at 4:00 p.m., a few people in the household (we sometimes did the morning shift but always did the afternoon) would have to go out into the pasture and bring in the 8 cows who were milked.  The cattle are kept in a pasture to graze on… wait for it… grass!  (Cows were meant to eat grass, not grain.)  Milking was accomplished with automated milking machines, so it was much easier than hand milking everyone as well as nicer for us and for the cows.  Erik grew up on a farm and usually helped milk.  Joe has no such experience so he usually helped herd the cows and swept the barn.  But one day he did get to assist in the milking of a cow!  After milking, the cows would have to be escorted back to pasture (usually Joe’s job in the afternoon), where we assume they chowed down all more grass, but for all we know they had a hidden rumpus room and played air hockey for hours on end.  Sometime that day, the cows would be moved based on a schedule that allowed for them to have new grass each day and for the old grass to have a chance to regrow.

The milk that wasn’t immediately saved for drinking or used to make other products was then poured into a milk separator, which divided the cream from the skim.  The farmers made their own butter, cheese, and yogurt (or “yoghurt” as it is spelled by the wacky Canadians).  Because it was for personal use, none of the dairy products were pasteurized.  If you can guarantee cleanliness and safety, unpasteurized dairy products are incredibly healthy for you – much more beneficial to your system than pasteurized.

After the morning milking, we would all congregate for breakfast.  Breakfast way always a multigrain cereal that had been fermented over night using home-produced whey.  Fermenting grains makes the nutrients much more accessible to your body.  Ancient civilizations all over the world always fermented their grains before use, but we no longer do it today.  Thus, we are missing out on all the benefits that the grains have to offer.  Topped with some homemade yog(h)urt and raw honey, this was totally delicious.

After breakfast, dishes (including the milking equipment) had to be washed and then the rest of the chores completed, mainly feeding and watering the other animals.  They kept chickens, which needed to checked for eggs (one day Joe found one single chicken sitting on 9 eggs!).  There were pigs, including one boar, two sows, and two litters of adolescents; often the skim from separating the day’s milk would go to the piggies, who thought they had died and gone to heaven when they would get this treat.  We also needed to check on the geese that were kept for eventual eating and some sheep that helped eat the grass.  There were also a pair of ducks that hung around, but they were self-sufficient.

It was fun to learn the characteristics and personalities of all the animals.  Each cow had a distinct behavior, and when moving them you had to play to those traits if one was being especially temperamental.  The geese are funny because of the way they all move as a unit, but annoying because when one would squawk they would all then begin to squawk.  The sheep were docile and cute but showed very little individualisms.  The boar was a pain in the butt because he would also upend his food and water bowls and they would get all muddy, which meant that Joe would get all muddy when he tried to rectify the situation.  The sows did everything together, but when the food came they were each other’s biggest rivals – they were mean!  The piggies were silly but totally lived to eat and they would virtually tackle you if they thought you had food on you; and it was also surprising how often one of them would accidentally touch the electric fence and shock himself, resulting in a quick, high-pitched squeal.  The turkeys were friendly and curious, as where the chickens.  Roosters, on the other hand, have a little too much attitude.

In addition to the animals, there was a large garden which produced a huge assortment of beautiful, tasty, organic vegetables.  They were green beans, zucchini, pumpkins, tomatoes, several kids of peppers, potatoes, carrots, beets, Swiss chard, eggplant, corn, cucumbers, squash, apples – and was just while we were there.  Thursdays were CSA days, so we would go and pick the produce that was to be delivered that afternoon.  Let me reiterate: if you belonged to the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and received vegetables in the afternoon, they were picked that morning.  How awesome is that?  Somedays we would help process the foods, like make pickles from the cucumbers or chop and freeze apples.

Beside the animals and the vegetables, we had plenty of other projects to keep us busy, including cutting down dead trees (Erik the Fayre was in his element using a Swedish-made chainsaw) to help build up the fire wood supply for the winter, helping to relocate a grainery from one location on the farm to another, moving the geese and sheep so they had fresh grass, keeping an eye out for renegade cattle who somehow escaped the fences, and picking apples.  Erik got to relive his former farm days by driving the tractor and performing more advanced tasks.  One particularly challenging day involved shoveling several inches of chicken manure and bedding out of the hen and brooder houses, and we had to wear face masks to protect us from the fumes.  We even got to witness an on-site, impromptu operation that one cow required to help untwist her stomach (which isn’t uncommon to this type of cow):  one minute the cow was standing there, the next minute she was standing there with a veterinarian’s arm all the way inside of her side.  And the surgery was a success!

We worked hard all day always looked forward to mealtimes.  Meals were taken seriously and never rushed.  And they were comprised mostly of foods produced on the farm and everything was cooked from scratch.  Imagine having Sunday dinner for lunch and supper of every day – that was what it was like to eat here.  Both farmers were wonderful cooks and everything was so delicious – and good for you, of course.   They are big believers in organically and locally raised products, raw dairy, and omnivorism; in other words, there are no chemicals in the food, you are strongly encouraged to eat more butter and drink more whole milk, and animal fats and proteins are necessary for your body’s health and assisting in the digestion and processing of nutrients from non-animal sources.  It sounds decadent, but we both honestly believe that we’ve lost weight while being here and eating this way.  There are many other tenets to this diet philosophy (including the fermenting of grains before consumption) that are very logical and based in science.  We are definitely researching this further and will be altering our diet as best we can on the road.

The farmers were very warm and friendly people, and we were treated like members of the family.  We’ve learned so much from both of them about organic farming and raising grass-fed animals.  It’s not that hard, and it’s better for the environment and the animals.  But in our culture of high-profit margins and the need for more and bigger, these ideas get left behind.  Joe had the opportunity to make lunch one day, and of the dozen or so ingredients he used (including the butter and lard) all of them were produced on this farm.  That’s really exciting, inspiring, and fulfilling.  Maintaining this type of lifestyle and diet will be difficult for us on the road, but we can make some changes for now and more when it becomes practical.  It’s a holistic respect for the earth, the animals, and yourself, and one that is benefits all parties.  It’s a great thing that in addition to learning some new skills and knowledge, we’ve been participants in a new philosophy about the circle of life on this planet.  It was a telling sign for us that our final evening with them included a night sky saturated with thousands of visible stars, a large and low moon that turned from pale yellow to dark orange in a matter of minutes, and an appearance by the Northern Lights – all mesmerizing sights to behold.

But after 10 days here – our final full day coinciding with International Bacon Day, believe it or not! – this morning (Sunday, September 4) we start a two-day drive to a town near Banff, Alberta for another Help Exchange.  After such a rewarding experience here, we are excited to begin the next adventure!

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6 Responses to Saskatchewan Help Exchange

  1. Anna & Karen says:

    Hi Joe & Erik. We’ve been enjoying your posts all summer, which as usual flew by in Minnesota. Did it go fast for you? The Saskatchewan organic farm experience caught my eye. What a fun time to be outside enjoying the magnificent color changes in the night sky. And the lovely food….Whew!! Very cool!!! In the meantime, we’ll enjoy the farmers markets in the Twin Cities and think of you.

    Take care. Anna

  2. This was my favorite post so far! I found myself wanting to experience it myself. I have no doubt more fantastic, rewarding adventures await you!

    Best,
    Heather

  3. Aunt Mary & Uncle Bill says:

    Hi boys…..You are both doing a great job, keeping us informed…Sounds like Erik in reliving some of his past…and Joe you are learning, and doing a fine job….Lucky you missed the chicken butchering, you would not of thought of chicken the same way…Just keep up the great attitude, and hard work, doing great, learning everyday…thinking of you lots…sending love…be careful…drive safe….Love, Aunt Mary

  4. Alice Williams says:

    Hi Joe and Erik,
    I belonged to a CSA once myself. I split the weekly box with a friend and it was STILL more than I could eat! It worked better for my son and his wife who have a family.

    Now I go to roadside stands and farmers’ market but I still think CSAs are a great idea.
    Alice

  5. Ford says:

    Well, I’m all settled into my early autumn city life here. Teaching the fourth graders and blowing the bassoon have blossomed into their usual busy routine after the summer lull. I get great vicarious pleasure from reading your adventures in far-away, exotic lands with fairy tale farm creatures and heroic feats of daring do. Thanks for making the time to keep us all up to date and entertained. We miss you!!

    Ford

  6. Tom Fletcher says:

    Hello Joe and Erik,
    I hope you are both well, it sound like a very different life from the way you have lived in the city. I trust you are enjoying it .

    Russ and I had a live in girl child many years ago. She grew up and married an organic farmer in Wisconsin, so when we visit them we eat real food. The taste is amazing and of course we always come home with piles of vegetables. She affectionately calls us Daddy Russ and Mommy Tommy.

    When I was a small boy it was my job to hand pick the bugs off the potato plants. My father said it kept me out of trouble. I would spend hours on my hands and knees dropping the bugs into a coffee can. One year my grandfather gave me two dozen duck eggs to hatch and when the little guys came out they imprinted on me. They were a birthday present and I really loved my ducks. They all wanted to sit in my lap at the same time and be petted and they followed me every where. They followed me into the potato patch and began looking under the leaves for bugs to eat. My dad joked about my “trained,” ducks and offered to rent us out to other farms.

    I hated chickens………well Roosters, when I was a small boy. I saved up my money and bought a machete. It was genuine U.S. Army surplus and I found it advertized in the back of the Popular Mechanics magazine. It arrived by rural post. When it came my father patted me on the head and said “Tommy you have been a good boy all week. Would you like to kill a rooster for Sunday dinner,”.
    I suppose some would say what happened was not psychologically healthy for a sensitive eight year old, but I have to admit I really enjoyed myself.

    We always raised six pigs each year and we named them after our neighbors.
    We also had an old pink bowling ball that we put in their pen when the pigs were old enough to play. I think Rugby was invented by pigs.
    We usually raised three steers and my father named them after my uncles.

    Your tales from the farm are bringing back memories for me.

    Warm Regards,

    Tom

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