We have spent the last ten days at our first host "farm", Domain du Verger, both thoroughly enjoying ourselves and wondering what we have got ourselves into. So far, WWOOFing is not what we were expecting, but we are making the most of it and reminding ourselves that every place is going to be different from the last.
It was a change of pace for sure to go from being on our bikes all day, making our own schedule, to waking up and eating and working when expected to, but we were excited to become useful members and jumped straight into work. Day one involved a brief lesson of driving the tractor while clearing stones from some fields which will grow hay for feed this summer and collecting wood that had been cut up last fall along the perimeter of the pastures. The farm hand, Pascal, goes the extra mile to tidy up the dead wood.
It was tiring work and we realized we could have used a day or two to recover from our first bike ride before setting to work. Fortunately the weekend was upon us and our host, Jean, needed to leave for a few days to pick up his wife, Barbara, in Brussels, so we had a few days to relax a bit and make ourselves at home.
The centerpiece of Domaine to Verger is an impressive chateau originally built in the 16th century with a chapel and kitchen addition from the 18th century. It has retained much of its original character, ie. it has seen little updating apart from modernizing with electrical, plumbing, and central heating. It is a massive home with most of the rooms going unused the majority of the time. A great deal of work has been done to restore/improve the grounds surrounding the house and it makes for a rather stunning and inviting space.
For being such a grand house the interior is modest and tasteful, with plenty of charm. We have a lovely bedroom and bath in our own wing of the main house.
The chateau is surrounded by numerous buildings and barns, a few of which house workers or are used as shop space and storage, and a few are vacation rentals, called gîtes in France. Find out more about the rentals at their website. Originally these buildings were necessary to house all of the workers and animals that participated in the functioning of the estate.
Near the house is a large walled garden that has been well designed and is requiring much attention in this spring tidying and planting season.
The functioning farm portion of Domaine du Verger includes 600 acres of fields and pasture with cattle and sheep that are breed and sold off young. The animals have been housed in the barn all winter and most have just given birth or will be in the next few days.
Earlier this week we led some of the adult female sheep out to pasture. They had given birth early in the spring and their young were old enough to be weened off their milk.
The baby lambs are adorable.
These two were born yesterday!
It would be easy to fill our blog with pictures of us holding lambs and putting sheep out to pasture, and generally give you the idea that we are well on our way to becoming livestock farmers, but the truth is we have spent almost no time working with the animals. We chose to come to Domaine du Verger under the impression that working with the animals would be at least part of what we would be doing, in fact, their WWOOF profile states, "We always have something to do: Either in the fields, or with the animals." The animals, actually the entire farm, is cared for by the hired farmer, Pascal, who moves about quickly despite his short stature and talks even quicker. Our WWOOF host, Jean, owns and manages the farm but he is a bit of a gentleman farmer, and does not himself participate much in its operations. We have expressed an interest in helping with the animals but given our lack of experience and our limited French we are not able to do much other than help with feeding which doesn't take long or teach us much. So there you have it, we are volunteering on an organic farm, but we are not actually doing much farm work.
So what have we been doing if we haven't been farming? Well we were both kept busy for several days this last week doing electrical work on this building under renovation.
There were at least 20 home runs that needed to be pulled through empty flex tube conduit, some with up to seven wires, across the length of the house under the dirt floor, before the concrete slab was poured.
We eventually figured out a system, but we ran into problems early on and we were both amazed that this was the way wires were installed in France.
Much of our time was spent bundling the correct combination of wires for each conduit given the fact that the wire was sold in individual strands. It seemed mind-blowingly inefficient.
Patrick receives detailed instructions from Jean.
The especially chatty builder, Denise, became increasingly quiet and irritable as the deadline for the concrete pour neared.
It was a scramble at the end, but in the last few hours we pulled the last of the wires, Denise finished the ground work prep and the concrete pour proceeded on schedule.
When not filling in as an electrician Heide has been putting in many hours of work in the walled garden with Barbara, weeding, spring cleaning, planting seeds and transplanting starts to the cold frames.
A particularly large project was completely overhauling the raspberry beds; rescuing them from the weeds, trimming them back and laying fertilizer and mulch.
Patrick has been busy with a multitude of grounds maintenance tasks. Including hours of mowing the extensive lawns around the chateau, spraying roundup along the gravel drives, and pruning back the overgrown hedges.
We joined forces yesterday afternoon to haul away the clippings.
On Saturday we took a break from our work and pulled out the bikes from the barn for a trip to the local market 13k away.
We arrived early before the crowds but by the time we left around 10:30 it was clear that we were at the happening spot. Everyone had come out from miles around to pick up some things for the farm or just to see and be seen. We especially liked the area with all of the birds for sale: chickens, ducks, geese, pigeons, canaries, you name it.
We are pleased to announce that this next week will be a little more easy going than last, as we will be on our own again with our hosts away for the whole week at a friend's ski chalet in Chamonix. We will be playing Lord and Lady of the manor. I wonder what we will get up to?