I am spending my summer in Belgium with my husband and daughter, visiting family and getting to know the city of Brussels which we'd like to make our second home one day. I don't have work here and being a tourist is only fun for a few days before I get restless so I was happy to come upon an urban farm where I could volunteer a couple of days per week. La Ferme du Chant des Cailles is very similar to our own farm in Miami in many ways. It's run by a group of youngsters, it's pretty much the only working urban farm in Brussels and they function as a CSA for the local community.
It's been a pleasure working with this crew and I'm very impressed with the things they have going here. For starters, their CSA is a u-pick operation, meaning their members are welcome to step into the farm 24/7 to harvest their own weekly veggie share. They also grow food year round which is pretty impressive considering the cold winters here. There is a beautiful community garden on the farm where individuals are allowed a small area to grow anything and everything from artichokes to chamomile to medicinal herbs, flowers, berries and vegetables. The farm also maintains a herd of rotationally grazed sheep for wool and milk. There is a beautiful flower field open to the public for an honor system u-pick. Last, but not least, pictured above is a large medicinal garden on site managed by a woman who makes products like tea and soap which are for sale at a market stand on site every weekend, at which they also sell their own sheep's milk cheese. Woah, right?
Farm members are constantly coming by to harvest their veggie shares so the farm has to be incredibly organized in order to communicate with the 300 individuals who harvest from these fields. At the core of the farm there is a little covered structure where members will find a chalk board filled in with a harvest list, a stack of harvest totes and a cubby full of harvest knifes. Out in the field every row is neatly labeled with harvesting notes for each kind of crop. They use a colored flag system to mark the rows that are available for harvesting every week. It's not all cakes and whistles though. They pay a price for skipping the tedious harvest task that we take on at Little River Coop. For one thing they can't inter-plant crops together to maximize space for fear of confusing members. They also face a whole slew of challenges related to the way which members harvest on the farm; for example, people always tend to harvest closest to the main walkway instead of venturing all the way down the row to the other end so the farmers always find overripe fruit at the far end, unpicked kale at the back and over picked kale at the front, etc. Somehow they are making it work and it's pretty great to see that the farmers get to focus full time attention to filling and tending the fields.
The farm is neighbored by low income houses which are actually super cute cottages built in the 1930's made from bricks made of soil from the property on which they sit. This goes to show how much clay is in the soil here, an element I hadn't experienced before and was truly happy to get my hands into. Another neighbor is the elementary school pictured above, which brings groups of kids to the farm every Wednesday for outdoor classroom time and on the other side there is a large commercial garden center from which the farm recently bought an out-of-use green house to rebuild on the farm for more winter production.
I feel like there is much to be learned from these folks and I look forward to a few more volunteer days before my return to Miami.