In which our plans to work on a sheep farm go awry…
This small town would not have been on our radar at all, but we came here to volunteer on a farm through WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms). WWOOF is a worldwide organization which matches potential volunteers like us – urban dwellers wanting to learn about farming – with real organic or sustainable farms looking for volunteers. In exchange for room and board, volunteers help out on the farm and learn about sustainable farming through hands-on experience.
Most WWOOFers are young people in their early twenties. Indeed, when I was a young person in my early twenties, Roman introduced the concept to me, and I was all for it. Gotta know how to farm so we can survive the zombie apocalypse, am I right? No, seriously, I had never set foot on an actual farm before, and this was a way to experience a lifestyle I would otherwise never have access to. Soon after we agreed to try WWOOFing someday, we had babies, and the plan to work on a farm was indefinitely postponed.
WWOOFing with children is less common, but possible. I knew about this because I once read an article in a parenting magazine by a mother who WWOOFed in South America with a young child and a toddler. She had a wonderful experience. Her child played on the farm while she carried the toddler in a sling and was able to complete her farm duties. This sounded insane to me – at the time, my own children were toddlers, and they certainly would not have sat contently in a sling for hours while I concentrated on farm tasks.
However, now that our kids were 6 and 8, we thought they were old enough to explore safely on the farm, and possibly even help out, while we learned the ropes. After contacting a variety of farms on the WWOOF Canada website, we arranged to spend ten days on a sheep farm on Waupoos Island – a tiny place near Picton. The farm had a thousand sheep. We were excited – we could not imagine what such a farm looked like, nor what kind of work we would be doing.
When we arrived, we first met the owners at their winter residence on the mainland. The home was built in the late 1800s and had an old-fashioned cast iron stove. It stood on a wide plot of land with tall, swaying grass. We met one of the hosts and her little one-year-old daughter, as well as a farmhand named Mark. Mark had come to the farm as a WWOOFer several years ago, and he returned every summer, now as a paid employee. Apparently this was common – WWOOFers would come for a few weeks, and end up loving the experience so much that they stayed on for months. This certainly buoyed our excitement.
We had a delicious dinner with our host, and then Mark took us over to the island on a small motorized boat. The hosts and the baby would join us the next day. Our spirits were high when stepped into the boat with all of our backpacks and cut across the silver water to the island. The sheep were grazing out of sight in the fields, but we were met by hundreds of lambs (it had been a busy lambing season this spring). An old farm house stood a little ways in the distance.
The kids made friends with the lambs, and Mark showed us where to find their food and how to distribute the pellets into receptacles in the barn. The lambs bleated and ran about their large enclosure, in and out of the open barn, between muddy patches and wildly tall thistles. One lamb was skinnier and smaller than the rest. It hobbled in the dim barnyard. Mark said it probably wouldn’t make it. He told us a common farm saying: where there is livestock, there is dead stock. This season had been particularly bad. It had been raining hard all spring (we’d all heard about the flooding in Ontario and Quebec). Ewes were giving birth in the downpour, and lambs would fall into puddles and drown at such a fast rate that farm workers couldn’t get to them in time. Even so, they had more lambs this season than ever before. I tried to picture myself working here in the heavy, cold rain, sliding on mud as I ran to catch newborn lambs before they drowned. This work was not for the faint of heart.
In addition to the lambs, we met two large white Pekinese sheep dogs: Lisa and Bug. These were not house dogs – they lived outdoors and guarded the sheep from coyotes. They were tame enough when Mark introduced us and acquiesced to being pet, but only after barking and growling and needing to be calmed.
In the house, there was a third dog: this one was little and yappy. He was a very different type of dog. He sniffed everyone out, ran circles around the new humans, licked our hands and demanded our attention.
As night fell, so did my spirits. We were confined to the big house on the island. As soon as we walked in, Sam managed to flick the wrong switch on the wall, which killed the water pump. Poor Mark had to go out into the darkness to try to “prime” it (not sure what that means). The water did not work that night, and we were all filthy, especially the kids who had followed the lambs all over their muddy enclosure. The house was old and under renovation, and certainly looked half-dilapidated in the darkness. Our rooms were full of giant spiders and moths and other creepy crawlers, who we vacuumed up as best we could. Because the water was broken, the toilets didn’t flush, which just raised the level of grossness exponentially. It was sticky-hot. I fell into an anxious sleep certain we were going to live with no toilet for ten days, feeling the phantom tickles of bugs crawling up my legs.
In the morning, we woke up, and the water was back on. In the daylight, the house looked less rundown, and took on an old-farmhouse charm. There were fresh eggs for breakfast – they didn’t need to be refrigerated because they were not store bought. As Roman made eggs for Sam, Peter ran outside to play in the grass. The area with the lambs and the farm equipment was fenced-off, so I felt calm letting him explore alone. Mark told us that we could hang around and relax all morning, and later when the hosts arrived, they would ease us into some work, show us around. Everything seemed laid back, and I was excited to help out. The previous night’s pessimism was evaporating in the early-morning sunlight, and I began to feel like this would work out after all. It wouldn’t be easy or always comfortable, but we would leave here with some new skills and a memorable experience.
Then, I heard Peter cry out. I ran outside and saw him bolting in panic from Bug, one of the Pekinese dogs. There was a small amount of blood on his hand. He had been bitten. At first, I thought it was just a small bite on one hand – perhaps just a scratch, perhaps we could bandage it up and move forward. Then I saw a gash on his head. He had been bitten pretty badly.
So, instead of eating those farm-fresh eggs, Mark had to take us back across the water to Picton. We were headed to the emergency room at the local hospital. Roman had the forethought to grab our packs, thinking that we may not want to return. On that boat ride back across the lake, as the farmhouse fell away from sight, I still thought that maybe we would come back– I still held on hope that our WWOOF would work out.
In the end, however, we threw in the towel. Peter was shaken, but not traumatized. He’d narrowly avoided getting stitches, and he was happy about that. We got some antibiotics for his bite, and instructions to keep it clean – not something we could do on a sheep farm with irregular running water. It was more than that though – we realized that we couldn’t do the WWOOF thing with kids, or maybe just not our kids. They seem to have no sense of self-preservation. Even in a fenced off field with no farm equipment or livestock, Peter had honed in on the danger, failing to understand that a growling half-wild farm dog was best left alone. We had been on the farm for less than 24 hours. We just couldn’t count on being able to keep the kids from harm while, at the same time, being of any use to the farm.
So, perhaps we had missed our chance at WWOOFing, and we should have tried harder to make a go of it in our youth. Or perhaps we will try again when the boys are older still – when they are in their early-twenties, for example. Or maybe we will try again even sooner, on this very trip, on a smaller-scale farm somewhere in Europe. Time will tell.
On the plus side, we’ve now gained two extra weeks of travel, allowing us to go farther east to Quebec and even New Brunswick, and to stay with our family in New York for much longer than we’d planned.