Goodbye Grzybow


Beautiful Vilnius
Beautiful Vilnius

It’s hard to believe my five weeks on the goat farm have now come to a close.  I’m still processing what long-term affect my time there will have.  In the meantime, though, I’m just thankful to have found family in Poland, even if they weren’t Simcoskys.


I spent yesterday in Warsaw celebrating Juliusz Slowacki’s 200th birthday.  He’s Poland’s great romantic poet, you know.  Zosia and Zuzia’s old high school sponsored a two day festival during which time students past and present acted out the great conflict between Slowacki and Adam Mickiewicz, performed music composed for Slowacki’s poetry, and ate a seven-tiered birthday cake.

From Warsaw I took an overnight bus to Vilnius, Lithuania, which I’ve found to be one of the loveliest cities I’ve ever visited: winding cobblestone, hidden courtyards – that sort of thing.  Vilnius is the EU’s 2009 Cultural Capital and  all that investment shows, especially in the churches.

Lithuania is at the center of the religious world: to its west is Catholicism, to its east and south Orthodoxy, and to its north Lutheranism.  All of these traditions are well-represented in Old Town.  You can’t walk five steps with stumbling across a church.  I think I wandered into about five services this morning.

What’s truly remarkable about this is that during the Soviet era all of these churches were converted to museums of atheism, and that’s not a euphemism for what many conservative Christians think is happening in more liberal wings of the church.  Today, these museums of atheism have been restored to houses of worship and are overflowing with communicants.  I couldn’t help but think that all the gray heads in the room remember a time in when that sacred space was a museum to its antithesis.

Tomorrow, I move on to Riga, Latvia, and begin couchsurfing.  I’ll be staying in Jelgava, 45 min outside Riga, and assisting in three English classes, Tuesday morning.

Details to come.

Farming 101

For any planning their next Wwoof adventure, a few farming tips:

  • A pitchfork is a fork not a spoon.  One’s natural inclination is to shovel hay; it should actually be speared.
  • A farmer’s hands are his best shovel.  I think mine are still better suited to word processing.
  • Fill a wheelbarrow from the corners in.
  • Do not close the door to the goat pen behind you when you let them out for a walk.  They might wish to return early.
  • The EU will pay a subsidy if you cut your hay by hand.  (I’m pretty sure the US Department of Agriculture subsidizes only for quantity.)
  • Cows are really, really big.

1 September 1939

On this date 70 years ago, Germany invaded Poland and WWII began.  Babci was buying shoes with her father when the sirens sounded and the planes roared.  I’m reminded that those of us who have never lived through war cannot even imagine the terror.

When fighting began, Poland had a population of 35 million – afterwards, 22 million.

Even then, it wasn’t until 1989, when Poland became the first nation to leave the Eastern Bloc that life began to resemble that of Babci’s pre-shoe-shopping days.

I remain appalled at how little I know about all of this.  Too bad Eli Whitney and the cotton gin doesn’t come up very often at cocktail hour.

long overdue

It’s a rainy day in Grzybow.  The cows and goats have been milked.  The cheese has been made.  Laundry’s in the machine. Only thing left to do now is catch up on writing.

Peter and Ewa just came back from a three day vacation to the Polish seaside (their first extended stay away from the farm in two years), and left myself, another American wwoofer, and their 20 year old daughter in charge.  This meant milking twice a day and generally caring for thirty goats and three cows, making cheese, planning and teaching two English lessons to the village children, preparing three meals a day, and keeping the dogs from running into the neighbors’ fields.  Needless to say I’ve had my hands full.

All went well until the last ten minutes, when the cheese curd decided not to set, the calves escaped from their enclosure, and the horses (oh, yeah, I always forget to mention the horses) went for a gallop through the farmyard just as Peter and Ewa drove up and illuminated the scene with their headlights.  Oh well.

In other news:

  •  Had a fascinating Polish history lesson while visiting Warsaw; I don’t understand why this stuff has been kept from me.  In the 15th century, Poland was the largest country in Europe.  The royal line died out in the 16th century and the ensuing democratically elected rulers weren’t quite so good to the Poles.  For 123 years, Poland ceased to exist.
  • Visited Plock (pronounced: “Pwotsk”) a lovely town on the banks of the Wisla (pronounced: “Veeswa”), once the capital of Poland, visited by Jan Pawel II, with a rather impressive art deco museum.
  • Remembered the fourth anniversary of Brother Roger’s shocking murder at a small Taize service in Slubice (pronounced: “Swoobeetsa”).  About a dozen of us gathered around the village priest’s candle-lit dining room table and sang short choruses in half a dozen languages.  French was the hardest to get in sync with, latin the easiest.
  • Learned how to make Polish spaghetti sauce;  1 tin tomato paste, 1 lb butter, season to taste.

My Russian Visa finally came through, so the next phase of the journey looks to be on.  I’ve got one more week on the farm.  Then, I plan to couch surf ( through the Baltics and into Russia.  Spend a little time harvesting potatoes at an Orthodox monastery outside Moscow before embarking on the Trans-Siberian Railroad.

Stay tuned.

What I’ve learned from living on a farm

Small-scale organic farming in developing foreign countries is not exactly ideal professional development material.  It’s true that the real world applications are not always immediately visible, especially for someone like myself for whom farming was never really a career consideration.  This is of course not to say that my time here hasn’t been reaping benefits.

Concerning food:

  • I’ll never shop at a supermarket in the same way. Growing up in America, it’s easy to think that all food is vacuum-sealed, anti-bacterial, pasteurized, processed, and packaged.  And, that all that manhandling is necessary for food to be safe, healthy, edible.  Here on the farm you can’t escape the reality that food comes from the earth.  Milk comes from a real living organism and you don’t choose its fat content.  Bread is made with flour which is ground from wheat which is grown in fields which are sprayed with slurry.  Cheese is bacteria.  
  • Small scale farming is more economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable than industrial farming.  Purchasing foodstuffs from local producers is not the cheapest choice in the short view.  In the long view, though, the extra dollars spent on locally produced, ideally organic, products goes further towards keeping the earth in good working condition, supporting hard working families and the communities in which they live and work.  Industrial farming may make grocery shopping easier on our individual pocketbooks, but the government subsidies required to maintain the system and the irresponsible way these corporations treat the land are not sustainable.
  • Meat is expensive and unnecessary.  Seeing how much it takes to fatten a calve versus tend a garden, makes me question the centrality of meat in my diet.  Also, not eating it much, I haven’t really missed it.  (We did feast on pork knuckle, boar steak, and pig’s neck in Plock yesterday, though, and it was mighty tasty.)

Concerning labor:

  • Work never stops.  Weekends and evenings are nice ways to organize our lives.  The reality, though, is that while we rest the world doesn’t  I’m very aware of this on the farm as the goats continue bleeting and composting continues steaming even on Sunday.  It’s not too far of a leap to translate goats and compost to a 9-5 application.
  • It’s much easier to complete a task when you understand and value the whole to which it is contributing.  Milking a cow, making cheese, milling flour, baking bread: the rewards are immediate.  Making “mountains” of hay, moving trailers, cleaning silos: not so much.  Nevertheless, I trust that Peter with all his knowledge of bio-dynamics understands how all the pieces fit together.
  • Poland was the first country to leave the Soviet Bloc in 1989 and it’s evident how hard they’ve worked to build-up social organizations for themselves that previously had been provided by the government.  In America, I think we too often fail to recognize how our, even modest, contributions of finances and labor to community organizations of value are essential to their perpetuation.

In sum, after living on a farm, I don’t feel the call to start a farm.  I do know, however, that I will live in the world differently after this experience.

A day of rest

When I signed up to Wwoof one of the many things I wasn’t completely clear about regarded my work schedule.  I ralize most of the civilized world works 40 hours a week Monday through Friday, the animal kingdom not so much.  Consequently, I wasn’t surprised when Satruday turned out to be a day like the past five but was delighted to hear breakfast would be at 10 instead of 7.30 on Sunday.  (I’m pretty sure Peter had already milked the cows and goats, made some cheese, and fed the horses by the time we made it to the table.)

After breakfast I went with Ewa to mass in the adjacecent village and and was surprised to see the church was standing room only, especially considering this was the third of four Sunay services and it’s harvest season. 

(Celebrating the harvest has, incidentally, taken on awhole new meaning for me.  It’s not just about abundance, but relief that the work is done and the harvest has been stored.)

The Catholic church plays a hugely significant role in Polish culture that I’m still trying to wrap my head around.  Clearly it”s a touchstone along side language that has allowed Poles to retain a national identity.  This was evident in the diversity of parishioner, from graying farmers, to young parents to youth.  I was intrigued to hear Ewa say she takes a group of youth to Taize each summer.

After mass, we met up with the rest of the crew and drove 35km to Chopin’s summer residence for a free afternoon concert.  Unfortunately, 2010 is 200th anniversary of his birth or death so most of the site was closed for construction/renovation.  Be on the look out next year, though, for lots of Chopin inspred events.

I’m still trying to figure out how got this far along into life never realizing Chopin was Polish.  Apparently, Copernicus and Marie Curie, too.

Just when I thought the day was coming to a close, the work assignments started rolling: let out the goats, mill the flour, move the hay, feed the calves, feed the wood oven.

Who needs a whole day to rest anyway?

Tomorrow Ewa has appointments in Warszawa and Peter is meeting his old girlfriend in Krakow so Cleona and I are left to our own devices. Should be interesting.

smacznego (bon apetite)

I thought I’d write a bit about food today, but first a run down of the day’s activities.

1. Sanded fence.

2. Filled the hay loft.

2. Milled rye into flour.  Once the hopper was full and I just had to wait for the barrels of flour to fill, I:

a. Fed the goats who nearly de-pants-ed me;

b. Watered the horses;

c.  Took garbage to compost;

d. All while keeping an eye on the mill and making sure the barrel didn’t overflow;

3. More fence;

4. More flour;

5. More hay.

I’ve never been so filthy in my life, imagine the layers of dirt.  (I have pictures, but am struggling to transfer them to the computer with minimal rest and Polish instruction. I’ll continue working, though.)

As for food, we eat lots of chleb (bread), ser (cheese), and maszlo (butter).  All of these products are made at the farm with resources grown at the farm.  Bread, cheese, and butter is basically the menu for breakfast and dinner.  Occassionally, there will be a few slices of cured ham, vegetables from the garden, honey, jam, and on days that have been especially trying a little Bulgarian wine before bed.

Lunch aka Dinner aka Obiad is the main meal of the day, eaten around 2 in the afternoon. It generally consists of hearty Polish peasant food: borscht with big chunks of beet, potatoes, carrots and assorted beans;  fried pork chops with boiled potatoes and mushroom gravy; remarkably tasty cauliflower soup.  Needless to say, nothing comes packaged or pre-processed; most everything orignates within a few hundred meters of the kitchen, and there’s no anti-bacterial hand gel in sight.

On the train to the monastery, I read Michael Pollans The Omnivore’s Dilemma which got me thinking more acutely about where my food comes from.  Tonight at dinner while eating my chleb with butter and honey, I was struck by how intimately involved I was in its production.  In just the one week I’ve been at Grzybow, I’ve cleaned out the silo that holds the grain, filled the silo with new grain, cut wood for the oven, moved the wood into the oven, ground the grain into flour, and on Monday, I understand, I’ll actually turn my flour into bread.  That little piece of dense, dark, rye chleb might not have cost me any zloty, but I’ve nonetheless paid dearly for it.

I haven’t quite figured out my takeaway from this observation just yet.  Surely, I’m not going to return to the States and start a biodynamic bakery, but I think I can be intentional about weighing the expense – monetary, environmental, labor – of my food.  A loaf of Wonder bread might not cost many dollars (does it  even cost 1?) but surely it charges its fee in other places and in other ways far away from my home kitchen.

I had also meant to write about dinner-time conversation tonight. Topics have included bio-dynamic farming, anthroposophy, the role of the Catholic church in Polish politics, etc.  Maybe tomorrow.

Speaking of tomorrow, I understand it is a day of rest (Saturday, obviously, was not).  Breakfast at 10 instead of 7.30.  Mass at noon.  Then, a concert at Chopin’s country home a few kilometers from here.  (How is it I didn’t realize he was Polish?)

Must go now.  Ewa just brought me a book about Polish Benedictine meditation.  Apparently, I’m supposed to translate the introduction by breakfast. . .

Labor Day

When I left my job to embark on this adventure, I did so ostensively with the idea that I wanted my labor to be concentrated in an effort to contribute good to the world.  That has by and large been the case.  What I hadn’t expected was just how much labor I had to give.

Since arriving at the farm, I’veplayed the role of cheese maker, cow herder, lumber jack, miller, plum picker, and general gardner.

Whrn Cleona and I ran out of things to do yesterday afternoon, we consulted my Polish dictionary and crafted a sentence to ask Babci: “Czy my plemy w ogro’d?”  Which I’m reasonably sure means “can we weed in the garden?” since the garden is where she led us with instructions to rip up the tomato plants that had not performed well this season.  Later she returned with a couple baskets and a ladder and led us to the plum tree laden with fruit.  Ever the dutiful servant, I climbed right into the middle of the tree and got to it, while Babci scurried around the base eating fruit and telling me “No! No! No!”  Her body language led me to believe that this didn’t mean what I thought especially since I knew “no” in Polish was “Nie.”  Sure enough, “No! No! No!” means “Yes! Yes! Yes!”  Try to get your heads around that one.

Today, I turned forty wheels of cheese and scrubbed them with salt water.  Also turned the milk that we had just taken from the cows and goats into cheese curds and starting forming them into wheels.  I’m pretty sure the “cheeserie” would not meet many American health codes.

Also today, I got in touch with my inner lumber jack wielding an ax and chain saw in an effor to make firewood. (All human limbs remained intact, while the wood was decimated.)

Finally, we cleaned out the goat barn, gave the cows one more milking (cows are really big, incidentally), and fed the left over cheese water to the calves.

I think about what I would have accomplished on a Tuesday a few weeks ago and am ashamed by the thought of how much less I would have done, how much less significant what I did do was, and how much better I was compensated.  There’s something fundamentally wrong with our economic system when basic food production has to be subsidized by the government and friendly neighbors to continue operations while superfluous economic ventures support gluttonous consumer lifestyles.

I’m working on pictures, seriously.  I’ll also try to be a bit more reflective, less descriptive in the future.