Saltspring Island, BC - Being a trendoid is backbreaking work. Apparently last year's fad was monastery vacations and the year before's dude ranch holidays.
But here I am chained to this summer's rage, organic farm vacations. I'm spending my holiday as a Willing Worker On Organic Farms (WOOFer) on Stowel Lake Farm, the largest organic farm on Saltspring, near Vancouver Island.
We work six hours a day for room and board - a nice trailer at the foot of a small mountain, all the eggs, chicken, fresh-picked fruits and veggies we can eat - and access to a postcard-perfect lake. As a city slicker food policy wonk, I wanted to find out what it felt like, deep in my bones, to be a farmer. I've succeeded beyond my wildest nightmare.
After my first six-hour shift, I fall unconscious at 8:30 in the evening, only to toss and turn all night in a vain search for a place on my backside, butt or hips that doesn't cause me to squeal in pain when any weight is put on it.
By the end of the first week, I start to get the hang of how to orient my back for my daily round of activities - harvesting and weeding, yanking out the Tyrannosaurus rex variant of pigweed that can out-compete crops on a farm with rich soil, plentiful water and no pesticides. But by this time, my hands are covered with blisters and my arms and legs with cuts.
This is how I learn why professional farmers don't work outdoors in their summer Ts, shorts and sandals, but instead stick with long pants, long-sleeved shirts, gloves, thick work socks and boots.
What gets me through that first week is the diversity. The variety of crops and livestock are the spice of my life because they let me keep changing to a muscle group that hasn't yet been exhausted. When I can't bend over any longer to pull carrots or beets, I can crouch and crawl while picking long beans.
I wouldn't have made it through my second morning if it weren't for the farmers market stand we set up in downtown Ganges, which gives me four hours standing up straight and working my jaw, which is in good shape from my regular city job.
To make a market stand work, farmers need a variety of ready-for-cooking goods. A stand featuring a solo presentation of hay or mung beans won't cut it. The wider the range of fruit and veggies, the more customers see the makings for a few varied meals and the better sales go.
So the variety of foods grown at Stowell Lake saves my sorry backside.
Though diversity and flux are the way of nature, they are not the way of the work world, where repetition of a specialized activity is said to maximize worker productivity on an hourly basis. Conventional agriculture mimics industrial and bureaucratic workplaces by specializing in a small number of species and crops controlled through routinization and mechanization. Organic farming instead works with nature's pattern of pluralism.
Other than the farmers market, my favourite diversity break from weeding is wheelbarrowing weeds to one of two coops where chickens have free range. It might seem like a chicken feed issue to someone who doesn't have an aching back, but what's going on here is crucial for the economics and ecology of organic farm survival.
Hand weeding is a time-consuming and exhausting alternative to spraying herbicides. But hand weeding is effective because it preserves the purity of a food-producing resource. Weeds, which commonly contain more vitamins and minerals than plants deliberately grown by and for humans, can be recycled as chicken feed.
Indeed, one reason why free-range and organic chickens don't need a daily dose of antibiotics, according to Joel Salatin's book Pastured Poultry Profits, is that they get to enjoy a full dose of vitamins, minerals and trace elements when they supplement their conventional high-carb grain diet with an organic salad bar of weeds.
Organic weeds contribute to healthy chickens, lean and nutritious organic meat for humans and natural nitrogen-rich fertilizer - no reason to put it down as chicken shit - that can be composted with the carbon-rich weeds and applied to next year's trees and plants. The over-specialized vegetable farmer, by contrast, has no animals to feed weeds to, so simply sprays to kill weeds, then goes to the store to buy fertilizer.
The over-specialized chicken farmer has no free greens to supplement his bland diet of grains, has to pay for antibiotics for his overcrowded and undernourished birds and then find a way to keep his chicken poop from creating a stench and poisoning his water supply.
My daughter Anika's favourite chicken trick on the farm is the "chicken tractor' in the apple orchard, another triumph of smart design over specialization.
This flock is housed close to several apple trees. The chickens earn their keep because of their eggs, sold to the farm's best customers, and because they grub around for insects that might otherwise grow up to predate on apple trees, all the while dropping fertilizer that fruit trees thrive on.
This is a success story worthy of a book series, Chicken Poop For The Soil, perhaps. A better title than Weeds: The Farmer's Friend. I'd write it, except my back's too stiff to sit that long.