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3.2. Farming on Wheels: A Passion for Peas

A Passion For Peas
April 1999

Title image-A Passion for Peas

By Susan Restino

Farming on wheels isn't impossible. It just takes persistence and a passion for growing things. We'd been homesteading in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, for 15 years when my husband Charley and I found out I had progressive multiple sclerosis.

At first I went on doing things as I always had, and Charley took over when I got too tired. But gradually it got harder for me to walk and work. One day I went out to the garden and got so overheated in the sun that I couldn't get back to the house. I realized I'd have to give up my old role on the farm, which included a fair amount of physical work--milking, cleaning stalls, feeding the animals, working in the gardens.

By that time, luckily, our kids were grown up and on their own. We decided to gradually let go of our goats and chickens and horses. I cut back on the amount of freezing and canning I was doing. Charley rebuilt the kitchen so it was easier to work in.

Then I got an electric scooter, and we joined Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF). Now our garden is bigger and better than ever, with exotic details like asparagus, strawberries, lemon balm, lettuce in winter. There are now flower beds around our house, nicely weeded in the summer and banked with straw in the winter. We're even thinking about getting animals again.

Susan checks the greenhouse plants from her scooter.

Charley and I moved to Nova Scotia from New England in the early 1970s. We bought some land in a little valley in the Cape Breton highlands, cleared 10 of our 75 acres, and built a house and barn with very little money. We raised and home-schooled our children as they grew up side by side with a world of nature and a barn full of livestock. I wrote several books and magazine articles about creative cookery with whole grains and homegrown foods. Charley became an environmental consultant, specializing in forestry. In the winter, we write. In the summer, we farm.

You might say farming has been a lifetime passion. For instance, I have this thing about peas. Planting peas is, to me, the quintessential springtime activity. The erection of pea fences declares an occupational territory: We who live here take farming seriously. It's a kind of commitment: that we will weed, water, hoe and pick these peas. It's poetry. Pea vines will wend their way up the fences, clinging with delicate tendrils. Flowers will bloom, pale as butterflies, and pea pods will fatten like green earrings. We will pick them early in the cool of the summer morning, shell them and use them as an essential ingredient in our household haute cuisine. We like peas enough to do all this, and more.

But by mid-June of last year, I was beginning to feel as if the season was escaping us. The garden was not planted. It was almost too late for putting in peas, even in a place as far north as Cape Breton. We weren't sure we were capable of all the hard work needed to get our garden under way. One morning I assembled the seeds and made a new garden plan. But I couldn't go out and fork manure. And I realized it was a lot to ask my husband to do it himself, along with all the other things he's taken over.

That's when I got a phone call from a young fellow in Halifax, wondering if we would like the help of a WWOOFer.

"Sure would," I said, and welcomed Mark, who came to stay with us and work with my husband for three very busy days. I spent most of those days making sure there were good meals waiting for them, while they plowed, limed, manured, rototilled, staked, raked, hilled and planted the garden--peas, beans, potatoes, carrots, squash, lettuce, chard, corn, kale and broccoli. Then they set up a 30-foot greenhouse where we put in tomatoes, basil, peppers and eggplant seedlings. We rolled into summer with a flourish.

WWOOF is a loosely knit organization of energetic, independent young people with an urge to travel. Each farm describes itself in a paragraph published in a booklet. Participants choose a place they think they'd like, give the farm a call, and either make arrangements or get turned down. There are WWOOF programs in countries all around the world, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, Switzerland and Italy. You can find more info on the Net. WWOOF is just getting started in the United States. The cost, for both participants and hosts, is under $50.

The idea is that WWOOFers help out on farms in different places in their travels. This cuts down the cost of transient life. It also enables them to learn about farming from organic farms and farmers. WWOOFing appeals to a certain romantic spirit: One girl from British Columbia described herself as a Knight of the Organic Road. As volunteers, they live and work on WWOOF-host organic farms, receiving no wages except room and board and what they learn from the experience.

WWOOF was tailor-made for me. I may not be able to do everything, but I know what needs to be done. Charley arranged the garden rows wide enough so I can get in and out on my electric scooter. I prowl around, inspecting. I notice weeds taking over the lettuce, peas ready to be picked, mice nibbling the tops of the carrots. I pay attention to the watering of the squash, the flowering of the basil, the temperature of the greenhouse. I think about how to accomplish things--hoses to be moved, vents opened, the kitchen taken over by a freezing operation. I do a little picking as I go; a couple of cucumbers, chives for an omelet, flowers for the table.

The bonus is that I get to share what I know with people who want to learn. I enjoy being able to work in the garden with WWOOFers, showing them how to prune tomatoes, how to thin carrots, when to transplant lettuce in the greenhouse, where to find mint. I don't always insist that they always do things my way. The motto of 4-H in my childhood was "Learn by Doing," and that's often the best way.

When Jessica arrived at the beginning of August, the peas were ripe. She picked a bucketful, which my husband shelled, out on the porch, in a small, noisy contraption which runs off an electric drill. I taught her how to steam, chill and freeze them in the kitchen. The next day, Jess said she would rather shell peas by hand than listen to the racket of that machine. "Fine," I said, and handed her the bucket. By the time she finished shelling, her fingers were sore and she knew why we're lucky to have a pea sheller. When we did the next picking of peas, a second WWOOFer had arrived to join Jess. There were twice as many peas to be picked, and there were no more complaints about the noisy sheller. They went swimming, instead.

WWOOFers come to our little farm from all over the world, which is part of the fun of having them. We've had people from Australia, Germany and England, as well as Canada and the United States. Madoka, who joined Jessica this summer, was our first from Japan, but I'm sure not the last. We enjoy the cross-cultural experience as much as they do, and make an effort to share music, art and cooking as well as daily farmwork.

The best part of WWOOFers is their willingness. The ones we've had here enjoy good hard physical work. I help them learn to put that energy to good use, and make sure there's a meal waiting when they're through. Eating well is part of farming well. Since many WWOOFers are vegetarians, it helps to have a good supply of vegetables on hand.

I much prefer having a few WWOOFers for a long stay to having new helpers every few days. After a few months, they know how to dig a good deep hole in the ground or hoe a row without hurting their backs. They've learned the difference between weeds and vegetables, and they even know which weeds we consider edible. They automatically water new transplants. They know how to run the wood stove, what to do with compost, and our custom of making bread on a rainy day. They remind me about broccoli that's going by. They know how to tell if corn is ripe and when mice are getting into the strawberries. They know when to go for a swim. They're ready to start a farm of their own.

As for me, I'm ready to take some time off until next year, when I'll start another garden plan and hope for a WWOOFer or two to come and stay and help us eat all the food still in our freezer from the year before.

Susan Restino lives in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, where she writes books and stories about cooking and country living. WWOOF can be contacted by e-mail at; Web site:


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