Saturday, 22 October 2011

WWOOFing at East Cider Farm

Right now I'm on Denman Island, the larger and less isolated of the two main Northern Gulf islands. Here the ferry seems to be more like a road addition and many of the residents flit back and forth from Vancouver Island since the ferry across doesn't stop at 6pm as the one from Denman to Hornby does. Just like Hornby though, it feels a bit like the British countryside. Like Hornby it has its fair share of hippys, but it's also got quite a few right wing Albertans who apparently started coming to the island once there were flights direct from Calgary to nearby Courtenay. There seems to be quite a bit of community spirit here too, with lots going on in the village such as drumming circles, concerts, yoga and Chinese medicine classes.

I'm almost at the end of the second week of my fifth WWOOFing session. I'm at East Cider Farm/Orchard with Larry and Anne, their crazy stick obsessed dog Ringa, the scratchy cat Screech, some chickens and four Muscovy ducks, as well as at the moment their youngest of three sons, Sebo. My abode is a small (what they call) trailer just outside the house. Larry is now retired to farm work after working 25 years, or more, for BC ferries and Anne works a few days a week as a mediator trying to resolve parent-teenage conflicts.

When Larry and Anne moved to the farm in the early 1980s there was a falling down shack of a house, a few apple trees and some fields. They built their own wooden house, planted about 1000 apple rootstocks, grafting on approximately 80 different varieties of apples and surrounded the orchard with a high fence to stop the deer getting in. The trees are semi-dwarf trees, which apparently only give a steady yield for thirty years, after which productivity starts to dwindle. Their size is very convenient and there are only a few trees that I can't reach the top branches of, and I haven't had to climb any ladders yet. Varieties include gala, blenheim orange, bramley, asian apple-pear (shinjuku), dabinett, liberty, jonagold, prima, james grieve, tompkin's king, chisel jersey and new orleans renette.There are also some pear trees. There are no coxes, russets or kidd's orange redds. Almost all taste pretty good, apart from some of the cider apples and a variety from New York that doesn't even have a proper name, but just numbers (and now I understand why..). The Tompkin's King, which I was picking yesterday, is a yellow-red apple, with pink markings, pretty juicy, susceptible to being worm eaten (almost half of the apples I picked had worms in them) and is really tasty. It is thought to have originated from New Jersey and is quite popular in North America (I've been reading the apple books). The dabinetts (cider apples) are delicious and the galas rather good too. I'm also fond of the apple-pears, although theirs are much smaller than those we had in China and South Korea. I've been thinking of planting one at home for a while, so it's good to see that they can grow in this damp almost Devonshire-like environment. It's hard not to eat a lot of the small apples when I'm picking, I think the blueberry picking has made me think I need to eat while I'm picking fruit!

Back when the trees first started fruiting it wasn't hard for Larry and Anne to sell the apples on the island, but now that everyone seems to have planted their own there's not such a demand. They did used to take some to sell at farmers' markets in Vancouver, but it is rather far to go and sell your apples. In Vancouver you can sell organic apples for about $1.80 a pound. You are lucky to find any apples in downtown Vancouver below 99 cents a pound. All the apples sold here at the little self-service shop in the apple barn are 75 cents a pound. Although not as bad as our apples at home, East Cider Farm's apples have some scab. Larry used to apply some limewash, which is permitted when you're growing organically, but now he can't be bothered. So the low value of the apples and the scab has led them to using most of their apples in juice, or apple cider as they call it in these lands. They separate the apples into good quality apples for sale and juicing on Vancouver Island, second quality (the scabby or wormy ones) for cutting up and juicing on Denman Island and third quality (too small, too scabby, too rotten, too wormy), which they wheel to the edge of the wood for the deer to eat. The man who juices for them in Courtenay wants to retire and appears to be a bit of a fussy grump. He has stopped pasturising the juice for them this year and is threatening to stop pressing at the end of the month, despite it having been a late season.
So Anne and Larry are now pasturising the raw juice themselves by boiling it to 180F and filling it into sterilised glass bottles. They have installed a propane heater beneath the sink to keep the water the bottles are in hot and put a spout and some improvised insulation on a very large pan to boil the juice in. Aside from apples and juice they also sell some jams, dried apple, pear and plum bags and in the summer organic fruit from the Okanagan (and Similkameen) from Hornby's veg. stall man (who came to buy some vegetables from Mariposa Organic Farm while I was there.)

Despite growing up surrounded by about 70 apple trees I have to shamefully admit that I've never really picked apples before. There is a little bit of an art to picking apples, because you mustn't pick the fruit spur (just above the apple stem), otherwise there wont be any fruit on that particular branch next year. Usually when the apples are ripe enough you just need to move them up or down or from side to side and they will come off. When they don't come off so easily you have to use your thumb or other hand to hold the branch to stop the fruit spur coming off. It is much easier to pick the windfalls, but it's wetter on the ground and the apples are more often host to woodlice (or woodbugs...), worms, maggots and in my first week here wasps.

So what have I been doing here on Denman? Workwise I've been picking apples, picking up windfalls, sorting apples (obviously), cutting the bad bits out of the second rate apples (which I do too slowly) watering the tomatoes, picking maize, pulling out the stems of the maize and chopping them into small pieces, picking the tomatoes, pulling out the tomatoes, pulling out the squash plants, clearing out the chicken shed in preparation for two turkeys due to arrive at the weekend, slicing and peeling apple to dry it, preparing the dried fruit bags, making pear compote and trying to stop the school kids who came to visit the farm from picking all the fruit spurs along with their apples. And when I've not been working I've been to a thanksgiving potluck dinner with 17 other people, participating in my first 'thanksgiving round', eating a thanksgiving meal with the family, throwing possibly into the thousands of sticks for Ringa in the garden and on the beach, walking along the beach, seeing an otter and many bald eagles, cycling round the island, visiting Fillongley provincial park, visiting Boyle Point provincial park, eating two meals in Lindsey's (she was a WWOOFer here and now comes and helps once a week) pioneer cabin, meeting up with Dave and Sarah in the 'city centre', watching the end of the Denman v. Courtenay football match, having a look at an art exhibition, getting some wool and felting needles at the felt shop, drinking hot chocolate in the cafe, reading 'Two Caravans' by Marina Lewycka (it's a good story about immigrant workers in the UK), trying to read (because you have to when you come from Lyme Regis) the copy of the 'French Leutenant's woman' that I found in the Northern Studies Centre, taking photos, sorting photos, trying to trip plan (but the internet is slow) and going to a cello concert with Lindsey (we weren't going to go because it was expensive but then Connie who I met exhibiting her art at the art exhibition gave us free tickets). I've also baked brownies (although out of a president's choice packet so I don't think that really counts), a lasagne and steamed lots of vegetables.

I'm dreaming of all the things I can bake when I get home. One day I'll try bottling some fruit and veg., making my own granola and I think I should try drying some pears and plums. I'm currently stealing some recipes from an Italian vegan cookbook written by a Denman Island lady. I'm worried that I've lost the book with all the other recipes I've gathered on this journey (hopefully it's at the blueberry farm), so I've learnt the lesson and am storing these on the computer.

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