Salt’s Run: A Family Wwoofing Adventure

6 March 2016 – Last weekend, the family went on a WWOOFing adventure to Salt’s Run Farm just outside Saint Andrews in Victoria. We practiced herding sheep and cattle, got to meet a former champion racing horse, practiced our gardening skills, and continued to learn the joys and difficulties of farm work with a 9 month old baby. This is a tag-team post of both our experiences.

Old JeepsIntroduction

Hazel’s 83 acre farm is located just outside the small village of Saint Andrews in Victoria. She produces mostly sheep and cattle meat and aims to live as waste-free a life as possible. Her farm seems to be a collection of all kinds of old yet useful tools and parts systematically organized (except for maybe the three old Jeep Wranglers slowly rusting away). She follows organic practices and doesn’t use any chemicals or pesticides, and she prefers to develop a human connection with her livestock. We enjoyed our time here and look forward to coming back someday soon.

The Dad’s Experience

Counting Sheep

Herding SheepIt’s always exciting escaping work and the city to experience life on a farm. The one thing I was looking forward to the most on this trip was to get more experience working with sheep. One thing about sheep is that they are extremely low maintenance, so often times there isn’t much to do. The biggest task this weekend involving the sheep was moving them from one paddock to another. There were about 26 sheep – dorpers to be exact – in the mob that needed to be moved (in Australia a herd is called a mob).

Dorpers, a breed I had not heard of before, are a South African breed known as fast-growing meat-producing sheep that shed their own fleeces. [1] Hazel explained that she raises her livestock primarily for meat production, so this would make sense as a breed choice. All the meat eaten on her property comes from the farm, and she typically sells the rest or trades it for other produce and supplies.

After being explained our task, the two of us, the baby, and a WWOOFer from Japan set out to relocate the sheep. My task was to walk along the perimeter of the new paddock to ensure no gates had accidentally come open and then open the gate along the driveway. The other two would work the 26 sheep from the bottom end of the old paddock to the top. The technique is rather simple and just involves walking towards them in the direction you want them to move, periodically using your arms to make yourself bigger on the left or the right if they start going the wrong direction. There is no need to yell or make noise. They will respond on their own once you infiltrate their “flight zone,” which is the perimeter around themselves in which they feel safe. Hazel’s sheep are quite used to people so you can get relatively close before they bolt, but sheep that live on farms that use helicopters (yes, that’s a thing) have a much larger flight zone and spook very easily – understandably so.

Zena the CowAt one point while walking along the perimeter of the new paddock I suddenly heard a noise behind me and when I turned around a very large and angry looking animal was stalking me just two feet behind me! On first glance I wasn’t sure if it was a cow or a bull, and of course I immediately assumed the worst and my heart skipped a beat. I turned to face it and it didn’t back off so I continued on my trek. Now realizing it was a cow I was more at east but admittedly still a bit nervous because she was following so closely (with her calf) and kind of huffing and puffing. I wondered if she was trying to get me away from her calf and was happy to finally reach the paddock gate. After ringing Hazel, she said it would be okay to leave the gate open. Sure enough, she didn’t leave the paddock even with the gate open once I continued on my way. Note to self: be more aware of animals nearby – I had assumed the paddock was empty and it was amazing how easily this large animal crept up on me!

Once meeting the rest of the group at the top of the driveway, we opened the paddock gate and out they all came. Ko, the WWOOFer from Japan, had gone down to the new paddock gate to stand in the driveway. That way they would go into the new paddock instead of continuing up the driveway. The two of us and the baby followed behind the mob to keep them moving in the direction we wanted.

A smart tactic used by many farmers is to count the animals as they move through each paddock gate. It’s easier counting them as they’re moving more single file and it serves as a good checkpoint at each point through the move to ensure none of the animals have inadvertently gone missing. Indeed, we counted 23 sheep instead of 26 before moving them from the first paddock, and 23 again once entering the new paddock. Hazel was not sure where the other three went but would no doubt set out to find them at some point in the near future.

All in all, herding sheep is pretty easy work. Because they’re herbivores, they are naturally fearful of predators (like ourselves) and therefore are easy to make move. The key to good herding seems to be just controlling the access points to the various paddocks and creating a path that the sheep will naturally follow. Here is a video of the sheep making their way into the new paddock:

Herding Cattle

Our next task for the day was, again, to move animals from one paddock to another – this time it was cattle. It would be a simpler move since they just had to go through one gate into an immediately adjacent paddock. However, when we started trying to move the cattle we quickly realized they were much harder to motivate than sheep. I suppose this makes sense since they’re so much bigger and therefore not as fearful of us. The tactic that ended up working was simply opening the gate and calling for them to come. When I told Hazel this realization she told me that although true for her cows this might not be the same at other farms. Hers are very used to people, hence why they didn’t scare and also hence why they came to us when called. Below is a video of us ushering them through the paddock gate:

Meet Moo!

Moo the HorseOne of the more pleasant parts of the weekend was getting to meet Moo. Moo is a 28 year-old purebread Arabian horse that used to be a champion race horse just over 20 years ago. After he had outlived his use as a racing horse he was set to be put down for dog food. Through a friend, Hazel adopted the horse after bringing it onto her property for a week to see if they made a connection. He is very friendly, behaves like an “old soul,” and is without a doubt one of the family. He even eats meals in the same spot as everybody else (Hazel has a shed separate from the house where her, the WWOOFers, and Moo all eat).

After later telling the story to a veterinarian colleague of mine, I learned that horses typically only live 25-30 years and normally die simply because their teeth rot out and it becomes too difficult to eat. Moo certainly looks really good for 28 years old and you can tell by looking at his muscles how he must have been a great racer in his youth.

Worries with the Baby

Horse ManureAlthough Moo is fantastic company, he does have a habit of leaving manure basically everywhere he goes. Because manure is a great form of fertilizer for plants, Hazel rightfully collects it and puts it all around her gardens. However, because of this it was inevitable that the baby would decide to see how she likes its taste. Although we don’t really stop her from putting dirt in her mouth, I thought drawing the line at manure was a reasonable thing to do. Later research led me to discover that horse manure is one of biggest sources of the bacteria Clostridium tetani that causes tetanus. My research seems to only suggest that infection comes from a wound as opposed to direct ingestion of the bacteria, although the pathogen safety data sheet lists accidental ingestion as a hazard for lab workers. [2] I will continue to do research on this topic.

Transplanting Asparagus

Asparagus BerriesDuring our stay, we had to weed out a garden and plant some garlic that had been transplanted from another garden bed. The only other plant in the bed was asparagus, which was growing thick in some spots. I was asked to Google around a bit and see if we should transplant and thin some of the asparagus and, if so, what the best technique is. After a quick but intensive reading session, I concluded we shouldn’t do it. Because asparagus are perennials, they develop an extensive root system that can become difficult to remove without damaging the neighboring asparagus. The older they become the more difficult, and these asparagus were already several years old. Furthermore, although thinning and transplanting asparagus can help increase their productivity, it should only ever be done in the spring – not during the growing season as it was this weekend. [3-4] One little tid-bit I learned while researching though is that the berries produced by male asparagus are actually poisonous! Although they are only toxic to humans in larger quantities, this is great information to know.

So, instead of transplanting the asparagus we just stuck to the original plan of weeding, planting the garlic, and mulching the bed. Once it was done it was looking pretty good.

Back to Reality

Unfortunately I could only stay the weekend before needing to return back to work. The wife and baby, though, planned on staying for the remainder of the week. I look forward to a day when this becomes more of our home routine as opposed to getaway routine.

The Mom’s Experience

Finding Salt’s Run

I’ve been WWOOFing on and off with the baby Dagny both in belly and out of belly for a while now. I was starting to get a little tired of traveling so far from home and not being able to return easily if things weren’t going perfectly smooth. So I decided to find some farms closer to home that I could visit frequently and that didn’t mind how long each stay was, and were generally flexible. I hit gold with Hazel. She is a very warm and understanding woman. She loves having the Dagny on the farm, watching a baby experience the same surrounds that she grew up in.

Saint Andrews MarketOn our way to Salt’s Run (Hazel named her farm after a beloved dog), we stopped at a market in a nearby town called Saint Andrews. What a fantastic place! The town was so cute and the people were very friendly. I was surprised at how young everyone was. Normally in these country towns there are very few people our age. We ate some delicious market food and I bought two great articles of clothing for less than $5. I absolutely love thrift shopping at these kinds of markets. Hazel had told us to meet her at her place for lunch, so we set off to the farm.

We drove down some back roads through absolutely beautiful country when we came to Hazel’s driveway. As we drove up we checked out all the sheep and cows hanging out in their paddocks. They all had an amazing amount of room to roam around and graze. This was the first time I thought, “This is what I want my farm to be like. Happy, roaming and grazing animals.” We pulled up to the house and Hazel came out to greet us. We seemed to all get along great from first meet and we immediately started helping out with putting lunch together.

This is What I Want

Zena the CowThe next couple of days were fantastic as we were set off to herd and feed all of the animals. I always feel happy planting in the garden as well and my husband and I took turns paying more attention to the baby while getting work done in the garden since there was a lot of manure lying around for her to try and eat (she really will eat anything….). The meals were wonderful and the company was just as good. Both Hazel and Ko were a great conversation. While helping to make meals I took a good look around Hazel’s home and saw that she lives in an absolute minimalist home. It is a small earth rendered home with all of the basic needs. Another great living example of one of the ways we plan to change our lives when we get home.

For breakfast we had delicious sausages and for dinner we had Hazel’s lamb chops, both home grown. As I chowed down on these delicious chops I thought about how this meat along with a couple of easy sides would easily be $25+ at any restaurant. Well worth the day’s work we put in. While we ate, Hazel told me about how she had a friend down the road that grew her own vegetables organically and that every week she would give her friend some meat in exchange for vegetables. Once again I thought, “This is how I want my farm life to be, exchanging the goods I produce for goods that other like-minded people in my community produce.”

The weekend went by quickly and my husband had to go back to work. I wanted to stay at the farm for the week so the baby and I stayed behind. Monday went very well. Dagny was happy playing outside and in the kitchen while I got work done and she went down well for her naps. While she slept I got the more physical kind of work done, digging down a few feet all the way around one of Hazel’s garden beds as she wanted to put cinder blocks in for the garden walls rather than the wood that was currently in place and beginning to rot.

Me and MooAt morning tea I told Hazel about how I’ve always wanted to learn to ride a horse. She told me that at this farm I would be able to learn how to first develop a sound relationship with a horse. Once again I thought, “This is what I want it to be like at my farm, I want to have good relationships with my animals. I want there to be respect for everyone and everything that lives on my farm.” Hazel was right. Over the next few days I was able to begin a bond with Moo. He is very talented at communicating what he wants. On more than one occasion I was able to watch him run full speed and what an amazing sight that is, while neighing and loudly telling me, “Hey! You! Wait up! Open this gate for me!” He is also quite responsive to your requests, as I would ask him to give Dagny a little room and he would always oblige.

Baby Hurdle 1: Food Convenience

In Australia you get used to the flies...

In Australia you get used to the flies…

That night we had a some wonderful baked vegetables, with the option of more lamb chops, which I passed up on. The vegetables available were fantastic but not what I was used to feeding Dagny. I had a hard time figuring out what to feed her and how. She still doesn’t have teeth and a lot of what was available was a bit tough even after being cooked, and so came the first hurdle. I know that when we are growing our own food we won’t have all the foods we are used to being able to get at any time, but this is the first time it hit home since I started this journey. There are a couple of vegetables, namely sweet potato and pumpkin or squash, that are always Dagny’s staple base foods in order to make sure she has the appropriate amount of food and calories, and then I swap out what I mix in with it. I had sort of experienced this in the morning as well. Hazel has cereal and bread every morning. I don’t really like feeding Dagny a lot of wheat and grain. Normally she has bananas and avocados and eggs. Only eggs were available and I had a hard time figuring out what else to give her to give her breakfast a little more substance. There wasn’t much for fruit available for her usual snacks either. I did figure out that if I took some of the muesli mix and put some milk in, it would soften up so that Dagny could eat it comfortably and that became a go-to when all else failed.

Baby Hurdle 2: Dagny Gets Sick

Kitchen TableAt this Monday dinner, there were grilled mushrooms available, which seemed to be one of the only things Dagny could easily eat apart from the zucchini, so I gave her one of those and cut up a tomato for her as well. The evening passed by with a lot more amazing conversation about the other ways in which Hazel traded and bartered with her friends and community and it gave me a lot of hope for all the possibilities in my own future home and community. After a couple glasses of wine and some more laughs, we went to bed.

At about 1 am I heard Dagny give a little whimper. She started to toss and turn and whine a bit. I tried to figure out what was ailing her and make her more comfortable without completely waking up but she wound up in my arms crying. Within about a minute she had vomited all over me. This is the first time Dagny was seriously physically ill. She had spit up here and there and brought a few things up before but never like this. After she was done she was happy though and it didn’t take her long to go back to sleep. I had her in bed with me both for her and my emotional well-being. One hour later, while I was in some in between stage of sleep, I could hear some gurgling and Dagny was puking again and not rolling over herself. I had to roll her to her stomach and pat her back to help her vomit again. Once it was all out she immediately went back to sleep. This encounter was scarring for me. I was horrified to think what might have happened if I had left her in her own bed and not been close enough to wake up to her gurgling. I was up for the rest of the night.

In the morning I started to make breakfast for everyone, watching Dagny play with Banjo, Hazel’s dog, as I cooked. I was racking my brain about what could have made Dagny sick. She did not have a temperature and seemed perfectly happy, albeit a bit clingy, and healthy now that it was all over. Then I remembered that the first time I gave her mushrooms she brought those back up and that I had thought to myself if she ever had mushrooms again and they came up I’d know she must be allergic. The sleepless night had made me tired though.

Baby Hurdle 3: Melbourne Heat

The day passed by with the highest temperature of the week (37 C / 98.6 F) and I struggled to get work done and cater to Dagny simultaneously. She wasn’t sleeping well in the heat and wouldn’t let me put her down for long so I was stuck in the house for the day, cleaning and cooking. It didn’t bother me to work in the house for the day but I was just mentally exhausted by the end of it all. I called my husband and asked him to come pick me up. Hazel understood perfectly.

Conclusions

Salt's Run FarmAll together, the trip was incredible. I met somebody with so many similar ideals and got to see a lot of the lifestyle I plan to have once we have our own farm in action. One of the things I appreciate most though, even though it was a little stressful, was running into the hurdles I ran into. I had to think about how I would have to get creative with the food I was able to grow and buy/trade with my community seasonally if I’m not going to buy from commercial grocery stores. I had learn different ways to juggle caring for my child while getting what needed to be done finished on the farm. Just a few of the challenges we will face in our new lifestyle.

Hazel and I became friends in my short stay and she told me to come back anytime I would like. I’m waiting out this heat wave (I will be avoiding moving somewhere with temperatures like in peak Melbourne summers) but plan to go back as soon as it become bearable again.

Conclusions

Me and MooThe trip to Salt’s Run had its fun moments and its difficult moments, but they were all learning moments. We continue to learn that this is a lifestyle we would love to have some day: a home-based life, producing our own food, developing a connection with our land and animals, and being a part of a cool community. It comes with challenges: not always having the exact food you want and trying to stay productive with little children were two from just this trip. We learned to herd animals, and we learned that Dagny may have an allergy to mushrooms. We made new friends with Hazel and Moo, and continued down the long road to building new skills and preparing for what challenges and excitement the future may bring.

Sources

  1. “Dorper.” Wikipedia, last modified 7 Jan 2016 18:32. (Source)
  2. Clostridium Tetani Pathogen Safety Data Sheet – Infectious Substances.” Public Health Agency of Canada, 2011. (Source)
  3. McAllister, Sharon. “Tips for Transplanting Asparagus.” Mother Earth News, September/October 1983. (Source)
  4. “Transplanting Asparagus.” Aparagus-Lover.com. (Source)
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