Time on the Farm

One of the aspects of travelling around that can get a bit wearing after a while is the lack of routine. It’s very liberating at first, being able to do whatever you feel like whenever you want, but after a while I start craving structure, responsibility and routine. This was certainly true as my time in Perth came to an end and I got the train south to the small rural town of Waroona, for two weeks of volunteer farm work.

I found Hamel Homegrown, run by organic farmers Fiona and Anton, on WorkAway, the same website that I used to find my volunteering placement at Yellow House in Kuala Lumpur. The deal on the farm was the same, and similar to most WWOOFing and farm work projects; working five hours per day, five days a week, in return for food and accommodation, and the rest of the time free to relax and explore.

Fiona and Anton started the farm just over twenty years ago, after spending much of their twenties travelling around the country ‘doing the hippy thing’. On the twelve acre plot they have a small orchard and a chicken coop as well as rows of crops, and they grow small to medium quantities of all kinds of fruit and veg, which they sell to organic wholesalers, at a farmer’s market, and from a honesty-box stall on the driveway. They’ve worked hard – in Fiona’s words “it took a long time and a lot of work to become profitable” – and have amassed a huge amount of experience and knowledge of their trade.

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The farm

Working hours were 8:00am to 1:00pm, and I quickly got into the routine of early mornings and freezing cold starts. Along with the part-time staff, almost exclusively members of the extended family, and Francis, another volunteer from Uganda, I moved through a wide variety of jobs from picking and cleaning beetroot, packing lettuces and picking citrus fruit and pumpkins to cleaning up garlic, mulching and weeding and planting onion seedlings. We had a mid-morning tea break together on the veranda, during which I heard the local gossip and got to know everyone better.

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The veranda

It was surprisingly satisfying spending so much time outside and getting my hands dirty doing such physical work. After the first day my body ached from all the bending and lifting, but I had more energy as well, and the more I did the more I was able to see what organic farming is all about. More than just not using chemicals it seemed to me to be about not fighting against nature but working with it; a huge amount of effort was put into improving the soil through mulching and making compost, and instead of waging war against weeds and pests, they were pretty much accepted as inevitable, although some beds were covered in black matting with holes cut for the plants to poke through, in order to prevent weeds in the more delicate crops.

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Me and Francis

The afternoons were my own and after a shower and some lunch I spent most of them reading and relaxing, or walking around the local countryside with Francis. The landscape was not too different to the UK really with lots of green and woods and farmland, and the Western Australian winter was much like the English spring or summer, so it was very pleasant to walk around. A few times I walked to the town along the railway line, and one afternoon Fiona lent me their old ute and we went for a drive and a look around the nearby Lake Moyanup. The truck was ancient but worked well enough once I’d figured out how to take the handbrake off – instead of a horizontal handle is was a thin lever below the steering wheel that you twist and push in – extremely retro!

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Lake Moyanup

In the evenings Francis and I would cook, using the wonderful fresh fruit, vegetables and eggs at our disposal, and watch television with Fiona and Anton. They were very welcoming and over the course of two weeks I met most of their extended family; children, grandchildren, nieces and all, and they took me to their Pentecostal church and introduced me to everyone in the town.

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Walking along the train track

Two weeks flew by and I would have been happy to stay longer. Given my inherent laziness I hadn’t been sure how I’d get along with such physical work, but I found it incredibly satisfying and relaxing being outdoors all the time and getting my hands dirty, and Fiona and Anton’s outlook on life and on growing things was brilliant. I felt quite calm as I returned to Perth, resolving to find a community garden back in Brighton and promising Fiona and Anton to keep them updated with my progress.

After a few more days in Perth, this time in the slightly more interesting suburb of North Bridge, I took an overnight flight back to Melbourne, to see my friends there and prepare for the impending journey homewards.

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Kalaw

The bus ride to Kalaw began with a stretch along a new Chinese-built highway, which was smooth, straight and completely deserted, presumably because it’s a toll road. After an hour or so we were back on ordinary single-lane roads and a few hours after that, as we started climbing and zigzagging towards Kalaw, I remembered how much I’d missed being in the mountains. Kalaw sits at an altitude of 1300m and despite being on a latitude closer to the Sudan than Switzerland, it did feel quite alpine. Lots of pine trees grow in the area, and although it follows the wet/dry season pattern like the rest of Myanmar, it did feel noticeably cooler. For this reason it was a popular destination for the British as a holiday retreat when Yangon was at its hottest and wettest, and it remains a popular holiday home spot for the Myanmar elite. The British architectural influence is noticeable here, but in a different way from Yangon; Yangon is full of imposing, imperialist official buildings – banks, hotels, government offices – while Kalaw reflects early 20th century domestic architecture – family homes with steep roofs and mock Tudor rendering. The climate and the surroundings felt oddly familiar in a way I wasn’t expecting at all, but it’s a pleasant town, quietly prospering as a popular hiking destination.

We experienced what the region had to offer the next day on our full day ‘trek’ (although what makes it a trek and not a walk or hike I have no idea) around the area to the west of the town. Our guide for the day was incredibly knowledgeable about all kinds of things, telling us first about the pine forest at the edge of the town, a protected ‘community forest’, which is being cleared regardless for house building as Kalaw grows. We stopped by a house belonging to an elderly couple, and were told how, as there is no pension system in Myanmar (apart from government employees), ‘retired’ people who do not have sufficient savings must either rely on their children, or make some kind of living for themselves. Many of these people in rural areas are able to grow crops in their gardens, like the couple we met who grow Chinese celery, which is used as a remedy for high blood pressure and is in high demand from city dwellers.

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Kalaw

As we walked uphill and away from the outskirts of Kalaw, we found ourselves walking through steep farmland and could see the area’s main crops. International trade has been allowed in Myanmar since 2010, which has seen an explosion in demand for ginger and an increase in price from around 200 kyatts per kilo (about 12p/kilo) to 1200 kyatts (about 70p/kilo). It’s a reliable crop, with two harvests per year, and grow happily on the steep slopes of this area. Tea is another popular crop, specifically the Chinese variety, which is used to make green tea. In the rainy season, the leaves are picked, roasted, dried and packaged on site, all by hand, and sell for about 5000 kyatts per kilo (£2.80/kilo). Prior to 1975, when the government cracked down on opium production, opium was frequently grown in the area, and smuggled in tea shipments. The tainted tea leaves used in the smuggling were then sold as opium tea.

We didn’t see many animals in the area, and were told that most of the large mammals in the area have mostly been driven away. Tigers, for example, used to be seen often in the area, but they have now moved on to more remote places as humans have settled in the area and the habitat has shrunk. More direct means were used to remove monkeys from the forests, as they were eating the farmers’ crops. The solution the local monks came up with was pretty ingenious – they told farmers to catch as many monkeys as they could, dress them up in human clothes and makeup, and release them back into the wild. When the captured monkey found its group, the other monkeys wouldn’t recognise it and they would run away, and eventually the captured monkey would rid itself of the clothes and be reaccepted. It sounds like something from a children’s book, but apparently after repeating this as often as they could for several months, the monkeys left the area completely.

We walked through a village on our way, which was home to about 180 people of the Palaung tribe. Most of the men here work in a jade mine a little way from the village, so are away from home when they’re working but usually return in the rainy season. For this reason most of the farming is done by the women, with help from any children old enough to be useful.

It’s as tough a life as you’d expect being several hours horse and cart ride from healthcare or any other infrastructure. Many births are not registered, which makes it impossible to travel or vote, and there have been problems with army press-ganging in the past. But our guide was optimistic about the future, as there have been efforts in recent years to increase birth registration numbers, with officials visiting remote communities conducting censuses and infrastructure reviews. He was also optimistic, as everyone seems to be, that the Myanmar economy will grow under Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership, and that this will lead to an increase in living standards for everyone.

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We passed through a monastery before climbing up to our lunch spot with a view, and had probably the best meal so far. We then descended into the cool and shady rain forest and emerged at Kalaw’s reservoir before passing through more farmland. This time the farms were on flatter ground, so the main crop here was rice, with a few strawberries and other fruit and veg.

After a shower and dinner at a popular local Nepali restaurant, some of the group went for a drink at a tiny bar near the hotel. It was one room, about 10×30 feet, with a long bar in the centre of the room, and it was packed with about 25 people. A few people sat in the corner playing guitars and singing. After a little while the landlord got everyone’s attention to tell us about his charity project. He told us a story of how on Christmas Eve 12 years earlier, an Irishman got talking to the musicians and the landlord and they ended up organising a charity collection for education supplies for local children. The landlord has continued this every night since, and they now raise hundreds of thousands of kyatts each year from tourists, local people, and Burmese visitors from the big cities. I have noticed this kind of small scale charity project throughout the trip, and in some ways it is not surprising; the Buddhist culture puts a great emphasis on donations and offerings, and in the absence of a welfare state it is the monasteries that the destitute and desperate turn to. Put this together with the fact that only 5% of the country’s GDP is spent on education and it’s no wonder people feel the need to do something to help their local community. It will be fascinating to see what will happen under the new government later this year.