Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Week at Alpenblick

It was nine o’clock in the morning on Monday, August 24th when I arrived at the Glebe Community Centre in Ottawa, dragging along two backpacks, a sleeping bag, and a mat. I was about to go on a very interesting trip, along with three councillors like myself and thirteen campers. We were all participating in the 2009 Youth Farm Apprenticeship Camp, which took place at the historic, picturesque Alpenblick Farm.

Alpenblick is a free-range organic meet and dairy farm with a diverse collection of animals and ecosystems. Robert Oechsli and Petra Stevenson, our hosts, love their animals and make sure that they lead happy and healthy lives. We were very privileged to be able to hold the camp at their home.

The camp was a very successful Growing Up Organic project. Growing Up Organic, a subdivision of Canadian Organic Growers, focuses on exposing kids and teenagers to organic foods and practices. Three of our staff members, including myself, work or have worked with Growing Up Organic.

Steve Gibbs was the programmer for this year’s camp, and he did an astounding job of organizing and planning the camp down to its minuscule details. As well, we had an Ottawa actor and social justice activist, Tracey, accompany us with the hope of raising awareness towards food issues through theatre activities. Also signed up to help was Christian, a Glebe Community Centre employee.

About an hour following my arrival at the Centre, everybody was set and ready to go. The campers ranged anywhere from eleven to sixteen years old and came from the Ottawa area and beyond. We even had a student from France participating!

Our bus arrived shortly, driven by Alpenblick’s own Mr. Oechsli (who is also a licensed bus driver). After loading our camping equipment onto the bus, we set off to the sound of excited voices and the warm summer wind in our hair. About a half-hour later, we were there.

As soon as the bus had come to a stop at the end of Alpenblick’s lengthy driveway, we were greeted by the resident canine, a group of wandering goats, and Petra. The campers immediately noticed the goat pen just a few metres away, filled with goats yet too young to brave the outside world with the adults. Although the campers were all eager to get going, Robert decided to take a few minutes to remind them that, since they were on a free-range farm, they had to expect regular run-ins with the livestock during the five days that they were there. He assured everyone, however, that all of the animals were tame and extremely friendly. He told us that we should expect to see, scattered around his three hundred and twenty acres: a herd of cows, a flock of sheep, a herd of goats, a bristly black pig, a guard llama, a miniature horse, a lazy dog, and five fluffy felines. Not to mention the wildlife.

Once Robert had finished the introduction to his farm, it was time for the campers to set up their tents and get their belongings organized, while the four councillors helped with either the set-up, worked on constructing an eating area, or prepared lunch. As soon as everybody was done, we sat down for a delicious meal of organic pita wraps with honey, peanut butter, and jam. That was when we learned our very first lesson about goats: they are extremely curious creatures.

We barely had time to start eating when the goats started coming, one by one, wanting to investigate all of the new objects, see all of the new people and, more importantly, have a taste of our delicious food. Luckily, as soon as a goat’s curiosity was quenched, it was very happy to leave us alone and get back to its goatish activities.

Following lunch, Steve led a fire-building activity with the campers. Some of them have never actually built a campfire before, but by the end of the activity not only could they build steady campfires with no assistance, but they could also teach others the skill at the same time. Following the activity, Steve arranged a series of games for the campers to play. Team members had to work together to extinguish the campfires of their opponents while keeping their own fire from being extinguished. The participants seemed to be enjoying themselves very much.

After the games it was time for everybody to participate in cooking dinner. Everybody helped to cut and cook organic vegetables as well as prepare organic peppers stuffed with rice and lentils and boiled in tomato sauce. Everything was cooked over campfires that the kids built and maintained themselves. To go along with the main course was a fresh salad.

Following the delicious and filling meal, the time had come for Tracey to do her first theatre workshop. The workshop was held in Robert’s warm and roomy barn, where bales of hay served as comfortable seating. The theme for the workshop was obstacles related to food and how to deal with them. Although some campers were a little shy to participate at first, everybody ended up having fun and learning some valuable lessons too.

After theatre, we had a bonfire and made ourselves some nutritious snacks before going to bed.

At 9 AM the next morning, Steve woke us up with a deafening “GOOD MORNING, FARM CAMP!” Waiting for us was a wonderful breakfast of oatmeal, hard-boiled eggs, toast, and hot chocolate. As we ate, we shared stories of meowing strangers who’ve come to visit us in the wee hours of the morning.

A number of campers had gotten up early so they could watch and help Robert milk the goats. Then, following breakfast, everybody proceeded to Robert’s cold storage to watch the first step of making goat cheese. Robert thoroughly explained what he was doing and the campers all seemed very interested. Once the forming cheese had been left to sit, the campers kept themselves busy by helping clean up fallen trees and broken branches lying around the campsite. Soon enough, the time had come to watch the second step of making goat cheese. Afterwards came lunch, which was made up of peanut butter and jam sandwiches, raisins, honey, limeade, and the leftovers from yesterday’s dinner.

Once lunch was finished and the eating area was cleaned up, it was time to make the camp’s first outing. The trip was made to a biodynamic vegetable farm. A biodynamic farm is a farm that is self-sustainable, meaning that everything that the farmers need comes from the farm itself. Not only is it a method that saves money, but it is also a way of life that has a lot of spiritual meaning to some farmers. On this particular biodynamic farm, the campers and councillors learned about the value of self-sustained farming, and then got to harvest and try a number of different organic vegetables. It was a very delicious and informative experience.

Upon returning to Alpeblick, the campers gathered firewood for the dinner that they cooked shortly afterwards. The dinner was comprised of stone soup, Alpenblick’s own beef sausages, cheese, limeade, and a salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, and sunflower seeds. Following dinner, the campers resumed their firewood-gathering activity so as to have a constant amount of wood to use in the future.

Once darkness had fallen, it was time once again for the theatre workshop. As Tracey was gone for an audition that night, Steve took over the workshop for her in the lighted and cosy barn. The participants, including the councillors, were divided into two groups and each group thought up and acted out a different version of the same story (the story being the lifecycle of a common tomato). One story had the setting of an industrial tomato farm, and the other of an organic tomato garden. It was amazing to see how much knowledge the kids had on each subject, and how well they were able to share this knowledge with their peers.

Following theatre came the nightly tradition of sitting and talking around a campfire, and then gradually heading off to bed.

Wednesday morning. Everybody was awake in an instant at the sound of Steve’s booming voice. A breakfast of hot oatmeal, hard-boiled eggs, toast, and bagels was already waiting for the groggy campers. Immediately following breakfast, Robert had prepared some of his own cow’s and goat’s milk for the campers to taste and compare. Many said afterwards that both types of milk were extremely delicious, which I am sure they were.

Not long following the milk-tasting activity, the campers got to watch as Robert and an adult helper moved freshly-bought bales of hay from a wagon and into the barn. Robert also talked about personal safety on the farm as he worked. A goat named Daisy kept everybody company as she observed the goings-on, and got continuously pet in the process.

Next came a hands-on activity where the kids got to work together to build a raised garden bed from logs, sticks, and compost. Although it was fun, and there was even time to plant a packet of seeds, the campers were exhausted by the end. A much-needed break was in order, before a much-appreciated lunch of pita wraps with hummus and peanut butter, apples, salad, hot chocolate, and leftover stone soup.

Following lunch, the campers had the amazing opportunity to look at authentic northern aboriginal art brought in by four wonderful and knowledgeable northern aboriginals. There was everything; from soapstone carvings, to animal furs, to artwork, to books, to films, to photography, to traditional clothing, to tools, and even music recordings. Licks the cat enjoyed spending time among the fox furs, much to everybody’s amusement. After learning the story behind every single piece of aboriginal artwork that was presented, the campers got to make some of their own art. Using bars of soap and plastic knives, the campers got to carve whatever sculptures they could come up with for everybody to see. It was a great activity with which to finish the afternoon.

The night’s dinner was made up of spaghetti with tomato sauce, sausages, cheese, pitas, cooked vegetables, bean salad, and limeade. There was no theatre activity that night; instead, we had a campfire with delicious roasted marshmallows and chocolate.

The next morning began with the now all-too-familiar “GOOD MORNING, FARM CAMP!” The usual breakfast of oatmeal and other treats followed. To start the day off, Robert organized an educational session where he talked about farm equipment and how to safely interact with it. The session was informational, of course, but it was quickly followed by a game of wheelbarrow racing. There is no need to worry: the game didn’t break any actual farm safety rules. It was fun and full of laughs and silliness.

Before having lunch, most of the campers set out on an exploring expedition of the farm property. Meanwhile, a couple of councillors (including myself) and a few volunteers stayed behind to cook lunch. We prepared pitas with peanut butter and hummus, as well as a beat salad and a bean salad. There were also sunflower and pumpkin seeds, raisins, tea, and the last of the stone soup. Once the exploring campers have returned and lunch was finished, everybody worked together to thoroughly clean up the eating area. Then came the second outing.

This time, the trip was to Carleton Beach. Although the day wasn’t particularly warm, nobody hesitated to get into their swimwear, and some even braved getting into the water. Taking advantage of the pleasant circumstances, Tracey decided to hold part of the theatre workshop right on the beach. The task was to prepare two plays based on the issues discussed during the very first workshop. The two most popular issues were chosen, and each camper had to work with the issue that they felt they most closely related to.

Upon returning to the farm, the campers got to continue their theatre activity by making up and then practicing their plays. As soon as everybody was prepared to present, the plays were acted out - the first time completely through with no interruptions, and the second time with audience members having the opportunity to interfere at any time that they would like, replacing the character of their choice, and then helping to resolve the conflict in the play as that character. If that isn’t an ingenious way to learn about a problem and then work together to find a solution to it, I don’t know what is.

Our dinner that night was prepared with help from Robert and Petra. To go along with our baked and boiled potatoes with butter and sour cream, Robert cooked a delicious beef roast over one of our campfires, while Petra prepared an exquisite lentil dish for the vegetarians. There was rich hot chocolate, too. It is safe to say that the kids were the happiest that they have ever been that evening.

That night’s campfire was an especially important one. Not only was it our final campfire at the camp, but we also had an important duty to perform. A friend of Robert had asked us to properly and patriotically dispose of his old Canadian flags. We did so, with a moment of respectful silence to farewell their fiery departure.

Once the flags have passed on, it was time for the silly awards ceremony. An award was given to every camper and councillor alike, with titles like “The ‘I’m Not a Cat Lover’ Award,” and others even sillier. Following the awards came a farm trivia game accompanied by delicious s’mores and roasted marshmallows. Finally, once they were sufficiently tired, the kids began heading off to bed, until only the councillors were left. After a few stories and many funny and bonding moments, we decided that we needed our sleep, too. We headed off to our respective tents, more than a little saddened that this will probably be the very last night that we will ever spend together.

The sound of Steve’s voice the next morning did not come as an indicator of a brand new day, but rather as the indication of the last day of fun on Alpenblick Farm. We packed up our tents and the rest of our equipment, then gathered at the picnic table for our breakfast. It would have been a pretty saddening ordeal if it wasn’t for the fact that we still had one more trip to make. Although we would not be coming back to Alpenblick Farm afterwards, the adventure was not yet over.

After everybody had loaded their things onto the bus (driven by Robert, as always) we said our goodbyes to the friends that we have come to make: the young goats, the cats, the cows, the sheep, the dog, David the llama, Freddie the pig, and Petra. It was hard, of course, to leave this place behind, but what lay ahead promised one last memorable experience.

We were going to AJ’s Tomato Farm. AJ Shewchuk, a 13-year-old boy living in Almont, Ontario, grows organic tomatillos and heirloom tomatoes in his own back yard and at the neighbour’s farm. The business gets AJ a lot of summer income, not to mention the public attention and local exposure.

AJ personally gave us a tour of his gardens, and afterwards we got to try tomatillos and several varieties of heirloom tomatoes that we picked ourselves. The variation in taste of the different kinds of tomatoes was incredible, and really made you see the value of heirloom growing. Considering how enthusiastic every one of the campers was during the visit, I would say that it was a pretty successful way to finish off the week.

And thus, only one more bus ride took us back to the Glebe Community Centre, where it all began. Although this marked the end of something unforgettable, the mood amongst the campers was lifted as they talked and laughed, their voices filling the councillors with inexplicable joy. Once the bus had come to a stop, the pace was rushed as the campers said quick goodbyes and walked off to find their families. As one proud councillor, I knew that they had a lot tell.

Thank you for giving me this opportunity,

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