Monday, August 20, 2012

Farm Volunteering

Last Tuesday, the 14th, I volunteered on a farm about 30 miles outside of Portland.  I'm going to have some less than nice things to say, so I'll leave the farm nameless.

I've been looking for a farm to volunteer with since moving down to Portland.  I'd really love to get involved with a farmer consistently enough to be able to feel like I'm really making an impact in how that farms operates and thrives.  I found one about 2 months ago that I thought would be a good fit for me, and I contacted the farmer - we'll call him Steve - about a month ago to see if he needed any help.  Things didn't end up working out that time, but I stayed in contact with him, and eventually was able to go out to his farm and work this past Tuesday.

When I arrived at 730am, "Steve" was rushing out of his house because 4 of his cows had busted through a gate and wandered out into an unfenced paddock the night before.  Not knowing what was going on or what he needed from me, I kind of followed him around for about 30 minutes while he gathered some oats to try to lure the cows and some chain to try to repair the gate.  Once we found the cows, he was relieved, but somewhat rough with one of them to try to get it back into a fenced area.  The cow continued to be stubborn until I grabbed a handful of oats from the bag and lured it with hand feeding back into the fenced paddock.  The other three cows came willingly enough as they were a bit older and understood the oats were a treat.  All throughout this time, I was thinking that if I was one of those cows, I'd have broken out into that field as well.  The field they were in was rather barren and dusty, which on this side of Oregon must almost always be a sign of overgrazing.  The field they were in was lush and quite overgrown, full of cow "candy" that must have enticed them through the gate.

After reestablishing the cows in the overgrazed paddock, we circled the rest of the property, where my farmer proceeded to tell me that last year he had had about 30-40 animals, and this year he has over 400.  Most of them are poultry, but he went from 5 cows to almost 20, and 2 of his 4 pigs are female and pregnant, and he's expecting his pork count to be about 30 head soon.  I'm not a farmer, so I don't know if that's unreasonably fast growth, but I do know that with the conditions of his field, it was definitely too fast a rate of growth for him.

Once he finally got around to giving me a project, he had me sheet mulch an area around some blackberry he was trying to propagate, and cover it with used chicken bedding from the feed store he runs in town.  The chicken bedding had been sitting in a tub in the back of his enclosed truck in the hot sun for a few days, and it STUNK.  I worked with it as I was asked, because I had offered to volunteer and help him, as I had put it when I was on the phone with him, "even if it means shoveling shit."  Little did I know it would be several days old and composting anaerobically so that it stunk to high heaven.  After clearing some thick grass with my hori hori (which I love and plan to do some kind of review on sometime soon) and dropping it where I cut it to replace the nutrients, I sheet mulched with cardboard (which I also cut to shape with the hori hori... like I said this thing is awesome) and then pitch-forked the bedding over the cardboard.  It was gross, but it'll air out in a couple days and probably break down just fine, although I definitely wouldn't have eaten any of the blackberries that were on the plants when I spread it.

After that project, I met up with his new intern and helped clean out a pig shelter that STILL hadn't been cleaned out from that winter.  It was nasty.  The dust from the pigs that were in there last winter was almost 6 inches deep, and the little bit of it that I was unfortunate enough to breathe in made me lose my voice almost completely two days later.  It broke one of my cardinal rules for anything involves farming and homesteading... if it smells bad, you must be doing it wrong.

Last but not least, while working with and talking to his intern, I learned that "Steve" doesn't keep a very tidy ship at home either.  Apparently there was dried dog-doo in the house that hadn't been cleaned up since the intern arrived.  There had been several things that the intern had been asked to clean up around the farm that had obviously been left for a long time.  And from my own conversations with "Steve," he seemed like he believed he had it all perfectly figured out, and wouldn't have been open to suggestion.  This was confirmed for me by the intern, who'd previously spent quite a long time interning on a biodynamic farm, and had been brought out to try to implement some of that system on this farm.  The intern told me that nearly all of the suggestions he gave for moving towards biodynamics were summarily rejected.

After all that ranting, I feel a bit guilty.  I obviously don't know all of the things "Steve" had going on, and I don't think "Steve" is a bad guy at all... in fact I think he's trying hard to do the right things, just in all the wrong ways.  I'd have volunteered again and tried to help out with that, but the combination of the farm being a 33 mile drive for me one way and "Steve's" obvious stubbornness to the ideas of others left me feeling like it was a battle not worth fighting.  (I've also subsequently heard from the intern and found out that he quit his internship a few days after I volunteered, for similar reasons.)  So, needless to say, I'm still searching for a farm where I can volunteer.  I'm thinking of asking the lady that I get my raw milk from.  She gave Kelsey and I a tour of her operation, and I already know that it's well beyond even my own standards for cleanliness and friendliness for the animals.  I don't know if she needs much help, but it's worth a shot.

Does anyone else know about any farms around Portland that might need an occasional volunteer?  If so, please let me know about it in the comments.  Thanks for reading!

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