“You were always a good man of business, Jacob,” said Scrooge.
“Business!” screamed the ghost. “Mankind was my business … ” – A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens.
Anna Fieberg, the young woman from Germany, was sorting the last pears of the fall season at Elke and Ken Knechtel’s Red Barn Plants and Produce in Maple Ridge.
This summer, she picked fruit in Penticton, grapes at a cottage winery in the Cowichan Valley, and fruit and vegetables in Cawston – at the Knechtel family farm where the pears came from.
“The Similkameen Valley is so beautiful,” says Anna. “I hadn’t expected it to be warm enough to grow cantaloupe. I’m from the city. I’d never tasted so many varieties of tomatoes, all so delicious. The farmers told us to try them, to eat them just after they’d been picked.”
The Red Barn is Anna’s last host farm before she flies back to Hamburg.
“I’m a woofer,” she tells me, “WWOOFR is an acronym for willing workers on organic farms.”
Currently, 100 countries, including Canada, will sign you up for the program. Nobody is paid for the work – whatever a farmer on a budget needs and doesn’t have enough hands for.
Anna says the job could run two weeks to several months.
Being a woofer is a chance to contribute to sustainable food production for a better world. Nobody gets paid. But, for a woofer, volunteer service is it’s own reward.
“It’s a good arrangement ,” says Anna. “Woofers get all their meals and accommodation for working between four to six hours a day. You learn a lot about organic farming methods. And, because you eat your meals with the host family and talk to them about their lives, you experience a new culture first-hand.”
Anna discovered woofing at the right time in her life. As a social worker, she helped clients with psychological illnesses.
“I liked the job,” she says, “but the heavy schedule meant each client only got an hour and a half of my time each week. It wasn’t enough, and that was stressful.”
Frustrated, Anna gave up her vocation, but not her drive to help people. She had an interest in horticulture.
Woofing suggested an avocation. The word describes a creative outlet outside one’s income producing work; one that lets us get in touch with ourselves, and what’s important to us as human beings.
As Scrooge discovered, avocations usually involves service to mankind.
“I began to see that I could help another way,” Anna says, “through horticultural therapy. Gardening and farming can solve psychological illness for many people.”
Anna’s experience as a woofer confirmed this.
“I’d never enjoyed anything so much, or felt so good about what I was doing,” she says. “Organic gardening taught me that I can help people with psychological problems by getting them involved in growing things. When I return to Germany, I’ll use horticulture with youth. I’d like to go into schools and help children see that growing food can be fun, and a way to contribute to their society.“
Anyone’s mental well-being is elevated with gardening. A film called Edible City: Grow the Revolution features the Good Food Initiative in the U.S. This program has introduced American city dwellers – many who couldn’t recall the taste of real food – to cooperative vegetable gardening. The results were life-changing. Under-utilized green spaces, back yards, and empty lots have become places to meet neighbors, grow healthy food, and make friends. In many cases, food cooperatives were born.
In Ridge Meadows, Christian Cowley of the CEED Centre sees the social benefits of gardening. The centre operates community gardens at Pioneer Park and at the centre.
“In Maple Ridge there’s a good intergenerational garden too,” he says. “Seniors who have the knowledge get back in touch with the earth while mentoring kids who might see how vegetables grow for the first time.”
Cowley notes that getting school kids involved in gardens often produces positive results right away.
“You see amazing things. Some kids find it difficult to sit in a school desk all day, but put them in a garden for half an hour, they’re good for the day.”
There are 10 gardens in our local schools. The CEED Centre sponsors community garden plots in Pioneer Park and at the centre’s location on 222nd Street.
We still have a lot of under-utilized, green space in the district that could grow food.
For more information about upcoming organic gardening workshops at the CEED Centre, call 604-463-2229.
Jack Emberly is a retired teacher, local author and environmentalist.