March 25, 2012

The Good, the Bad and the Dirty

After reading my last post about a typical day at the farm, you should now have a basic understanding of how I spend my days here. I nearly included descriptions of some of the specific projects I’ve been working on but the post was getting a bit lengthy so I decided to give them a post of their own.

There is always so much work to do here and half the fun is not really knowing what will be thrown my way in any given day. I've collected a few examples of some of the jobs I did this last week.

Cows on the Move

Every so often, the cows need to be moved from one field to another basically because they have depleted their food supply. Apart from grass and forage, cows are usually allowed to eat a certain amount of leftover crops that remain after previous harvest. The only way to make sure they don’t eat it all in a matter of hours is to use a lightly electrified fence to restrict the area they can graze on. So one of the main jobs is to take down the fencing in one field and put it back up in the other one. The fence will need to be moved over a couple of feet twice a day, and that goes on until they munch through the entire field and need to be moved on to the next one. As we arrived at the field, Big Boss warned us to be really quiet so as not to draw too much attention and even had to shush us a few times. I thought he was being a bit over dramatic but as soon as the cows noticed the activity going on, they got all happy and worked up. They knew they were being moved and in anticipation of new pastures, could not hide their excitement. All thirty cows crowded around the gate, pushing and shoving each other out the way. All elbows and knees at this point. As soon as we opened the gate, they stormed off. Quite a lot of prep work involved, but the actual moving process took less than a minute. Cows are hard work but they taste so delicious.

Images: Impatiently waiting and on the move

Leeks Underground

This was one of the most strenuous jobs I’ve done so far here, and possibly even anywhere. It was also one of the most fulfilling at the end of the day. The soil in this polytunnel had been prepared nearly a month ago but no one had gotten around to planting anything yet. Weed was starting to grow everywhere so the land needed preparing again. First, I hand-ploughed the entire plot in order to move the soil around and get rid of the pesky weed, and then I evened out the surface with a rake. The next day, my whole body felt like a truck had run over it. Next, I measured out and marked where the rows needed to be, about one foot apart so that seeds have plenty of space to grow and we have enough room to work. Using the edge of a wooden plank, I ploughed shallow trenches into which I planted the seeds and then covered the trenches again using the same soil. Finally, I gave them a good soaking. I was exhausted when I finished but felt a deep satisfaction. It might have been one of those days in which I could not even bother to shower before passing out in bed. Does happen sometimes out here. Last I checked, my leeks were starting to come up. I have yet to harvest anything that I’ve planted but I can only imagine the overwhelming feeling of accomplishment I would get from eating the fruits of my labor.

Images: Before and after land preparation

Capitalizing on Oregano

One of the polytunnels has oregano growing wildly around one of its sides and as a result there are lots of “satellite” shoots popping out of the ground everywhere. Last Friday we undertook a little experiment to try digging out some of the shoots and replanting them into pots to see whether they survived. I checked them today and they seem to be bouncing back nicely. In a matter of weeks, we’ll have a bunch of oregano plants that can be sold to clients in cute little pots for at least one pound fifty. Alternatively, the little fellas would have become part of the soil after plowing when we prepare the earth for the next crops.

My Fragrant Babies

This is what it all boils down to, the reason why I’m here in the first place. I realize that I may not put a dent on world hunger with a few trays of basil, coriander and dill but I’m learning the basic notions of growing food, one of the most important aspects in the quest to becoming self-sufficient. I haven’t found out why yet, but many seeds need to be sown in trays until they produce the first few real leaves before they are planted. Others need larger individual pots and some can be sown straight in the ground. Seeding is not rocket science. The trays are filled to about three quarters with sterile compost, which basically means there is nothing growing in it that might compete with the seedlings for soil and nutrients. The compost is pushed down gently to make it nice and even. The best way to do this is by placing another tray of the same size on top and pushing down. Some seeds need their own compartment, while others are sown in bunches, especially when they are old or have been hanging out inside an open packet for too long. Another inch of soil goes on top and then it is pushed down again to compact it. Probably best to do this with the backs of the fingers. Finally, the seeds need to be watered, which is often the trickiest part because they require just the right amount. Too little or too much will kill them. A good method is to sprinkle water until the soil looks shiny. Other seeds I’ve sown so far include lettuce, cucumber, aubergines, courgettes, tomatoes, beet, peppers, nasturtiums and runner beans.

Images: Seeds going in trays and the first of the babies

Not all jobs are fun and games. Yesterday, there was a rodent-killing bonanza here at the farm. It was time to move the chicken houses. Apart from laying eggs all day, chicken manure (nice word for shit really) is a natural fertilizer so they are often used in small farms to prepare the land before cultivating. Chickens help move the soil around, and also aid in weed and pest control, as they continuously scratch the ground in search for worms and insects to eat. Having done their job in one field, they were ready to be moved on to the next. Three out of four of the chicken houses are old trailers that have been converted into chicken coups, so they were quite easy to move. The fourth one however was a proper wooden shed, which was sitting on the ground. Apparently, a large number of rats had decided to build a nest underneath it. The same rats that had a feast a couple of weeks ago with the mizuna (a Japanese salad herb) I planted in one of the polytunnels near by, so I suppose you can understand what needed to be done.

Big Boss came around asking for volunteers but I did not have the heart to step up to the plate on this occasion. I went outside as they were all walking off; Shovels, spades, pitch forks and pick axes slung over their shoulders. It looked like a scene from an old western movie. I watched them until they disappeared from sight and went back inside to carry on with my work cleaning eggs. Somebody had to do it. The next part of the story is a compilation of bits and bobs I gathered from their exciting post-war accounts. This is how it all went down. They surrounded the chicken house with netting all the way down to the floor, except for where the tractor was attached to the coup. As soon as the tractor pulled it out of the way, the netting was closed into a tight circle. Perhaps the word arena would be more appropriate in this case. On the ground below, there was an intricate maze of holes that were obviously interconnected because as soon as they began digging out some of these holes, rats started popping up everywhere only to find they had no where to go.

I was told the massacre lasted a matter of minutes. Big Boss got the most, with 8 out of a total body count of 23, including 7 or 8 younglings. He really hates rats and I suppose he would be the one most worried about the damage they were causing to his property. Apparently he got so excited at one point, while trying to murder one of the big rats desperately weaving around his feet, that he nearly hacked his foot off with a shovel. A narrow escape though his boot was completely destroyed. Perhaps one day if I have my own farm, I will be left with no choice but to partake in my share of rodent genocide. Not this time though. This is definitely one job I did not volunteer for.

Please keep in mind that I’m new to farming so my explanations have been fairly simple. Then again, I imagine it is all quite foreign to you as well, so we could call this Farming 101.


  1. Reading about your experience moving the cows, immediately reminded me of when I was a young 6 year old kid in Samana DR, being raised by grandma. I loved dealing with the cows and 'los bueayes'. Being from the city, It was great. My longtime childhood friend, Julito who was from there , wasn't feeling it though. He did this everyday, 365. So when I would go back every summer, we were was always told by his granfather 'Don Mingito'(Mingo),"Julito y jon, vallan a muda la vacas carjo"! I didn't know why we were doing it until years and years later! But ur right, the cows are savy when they are getting moved to greener pastures to grub! It was real and no quesition, a fun and humbling experience going back and forth from big city to agricultor, even though I mainly observed the latter. I can tell your enjoying your time there and living it. Keep us posted LiL Ms. Z

    1. I never pictured you as a farmer J! lol What a cool experience that must have been growing up. I'm happy that you were able to relate and reminisce about the good old days. I'm def making the most out of my experience here. Will do!

  2. Oops, did not intend to post anonymous,It's Jwill commenting.

  3. ufff..esto ha sido un "baño" de naturaleza...como para hacernos pensar en la responsabilidad que tenemos de tomar el control de nuestra vida y de nuestra salud fisica, mental y espiritual. Besos Zau. Pa'lante hasta donde quieras y puedas.

  4. I love this!!! Reading this transports me over there in such a way... And the pics are a great kick baby, visuals :))
    I can't wait to take my "growing and planting" lessons with you, yay! You are learning so much, keep absorbing, I want to know it all! :))
    Luv uuu!

  5. Thanks for sharing, it definitely transported me to where you are. Working on your own crops is a tough job, as in manual job, but I can see how it would be very rewarding as well. You will be an even tougher lady when you leave the farm from all the hard work. I remember doing yard work at my house, weeding, and planting flowers; and one summer I decided to have my own garden. I planted seeds for tomatoes, peppers, beans, cucumbers and corn! I gave up at the end of the summer, the garden went wild and required more work than what I thought.

    I don't like rats at all, so I understand you about not volunteering for that job, I loved how you told the story about your boss, I felt like I was there too, on top of a chair haha.

    I visited Galicia not long ago, a friend's house, and everything we ate was for her mom's "field", and the meat we had was from a neighbor that grows the animals. It was quite an experience, and I felt good eating everything organic, the tomatoes, lettuce, potatoes, pumpkin, kiwis, oranges, name it! Even the water was from the mountains! no process at all, filtered through the soil, and it was so fresh.

    Maybe you can come back to Bcn and create your own Meetup and have farming classes ;-)

    Sorry to scatterbrain, but I was just thinking of something someone said to me, about the Dominican Republic, and how many people are so poor, but many really don't need to be. That they can farm, grow their own crops, because the soil is fertile! but I think the education might be lacking, or maybe just the motivation, since it does require some work ;). It would be great to go around these little towns and teach people how to be self-sufficient. Maybe they already are, but from what I remember as a kid, not many people have their own garden in the city.

    Just some thoughts, keep the blogs coming, living through you!!