Sunday, October 14, 2012


One of my favourite parts of the internship at Falls Brook Centre was the amount of freedom we had to take on random new projects simply because we could. Admittedly, when I think about it there is really no reason why many of these projects could not be done anywhere in the world, but something about living with eight gifted and curious people got the creative juices flowing.

My favourite project was actually part of my work at the centre, but it hardly felt like it. I helped with the construction of a greenhouse on the south side of our barn. It gradually expanded to take up the entire wall, including a giant roof that went a good twenty feet high! The best part was being involved right from the beginning, starting by hauling out the stones that would later become the foundation of the structure and laying them out and leveling them. We then put up a first wall which would hold large, removable windowpanes. The idea was for the windows to be removed in the summertime so that the plants could benefit from the wind and the rain when they needed them, and be protected from them when they became damaging. We then put on a roof and sides, which was a finicky process and involved a lot of climbing and precarious balancing. I took some photos throughout the process to show how it came up:

We were lucky enough to have a worm composting expert in our group of interns. In addition to being knowledgeable about the process of vermicompost and worms in general, she also brought a whole bunch of them with her when she arrived. Note that this does answer the question that everyone wonders about, but no-one dares to ask: ‘can you bring live earthworms on a plane?’ The answer is yes, but you will get funny looks.

Anyway, we got to thinking about how vermicompost could be used in different places in the community. We helped out with the existing operation, and then inspiration hit: the best place for a new worm compost box would be the local elementary school – because no one likes worms better than first graders. Think back that far and you will know it to be true.

And so it was built, a small two-level work composting affair that we made of scraps of wood we found lying in the barn. The whole experiment was little more than a cleverly-designed excuse on my part to play with power saws, but this was not realized by anyone until it was too late. The two-story design is interesting: the upper level has a screen at the bottom large enough for the worms to fit through but small enough that fresh food will not. When the bottom fills up with worm castings, you just cover the screen on top with food and wait for the worms to migrate into the upper layer. Then you can dig all of the castings out of the bottom without taking away your precious earthworms!

Allegedly, every group of interns tries to make soap – though many give up partway through the process. We managed to stick it out – first, we collected ash from the firewood, making sure to burn nothing but hardwood in the wood stove, since softwood ash does not produce the same concentrations of caustic substances. We then boiled the ash in water and reduced the liquid we obtained from that until we got thick, pasty lye. Then, with various fats, nice smelling things, and black magic, we stirred everything together into what appears to be on its way to becoming soap. Unfortunately, this recipe takes a while to cure so I will never know what the end product ended up becoming.

Of course, any talk of experiments would be incomplete without mentioning the many food-and-drink related shenanigans that went on. From yogurt making (runny) to beer brewing (delicious), we tried a little bit of everything. I really appreciate the ingenuity of people who can see weird hybrid melon-squash and make it into a casserole, and decide that the ideal thing to do with stale, flat leftover keg beer is to bake it into bread (both of these are verified good ideas).

Needless to say, if you think any of the odd projects above are worthwhile and want a more detailed description, drop me a line and I’d be happy to share more details! If your only reaction to this post was to roll your eyes at my ability to be distracted by various side projects, well, that’s cool too!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Out east!

Well, it looks like I got a little behind on this. Chalk everything up to having too much fun while I was in New Brunswick – that and already-poor blog updating skills. If I recall correctly, I promised a bit of an introduction to where I was in New Brunswick. Never mind that I am now in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic – that is another story for another day!

First, a little bit of history and geography: Falls Brook Centre was born out of the 1992 Rio Summit, which has come back into the news lately because of the 20-years-on follow-up summit that just happened, Rio+20. One of the things that came out of the first Rio summit was the need for rural development that was environmentally and economically sustainable. Falls Brook was started as a demonstration centre for organic agriculture and land restoration. It’s located in the Acadian forest, on property that was logged and farmed for a long time. Since starting twenty years ago, the people here have been reforesting a good deal of the site, and have started organic gardens that provide a great deal of the food for the staff of the centre.

We’re located near Florenceville-Bristol, which you may know as the french fry capital of the world, home of McCain potato products (I know I certainly did before arriving here). The surrounding countryside, unsurprisingly, is mostly filled with potato farms and little intersections that are named after the families that have lived there for generations upon generations. It is a strange sensation to go to a village with a certain name and interact with people who have that same name. Perhaps this speaks to how much of a city boy I am?

When I told people about this internship, they had two main questions: first, what was I actually doing? Second, why was it necessary to spend three months in New Brunswick? The first question is always a favourite of people in the international development/environmental field, since the answer is often far less exciting than people expect. The second is evidence that I have too many friends from Toronto who can’t imagine spending time anywhere in the country except in cities of one million people or more.

The Canadian portion of the internship has three main focuses: forestry, agriculture, and education. Most people choose one area to work in for most of their time here. I’ve sort of been given projects in each of the areas, which have been taking shape. Our education projects have focused on presentations to schools and summer camps. This has included a highly exciting development, namely the start of my career as a puppeteer. A big part of our educational activities has been a series of puppet shows on environmental themes. I have, to date, played a heron lamenting the destruction of wetlands, a trio of musical ears of corn who talk about the impact of genetically modified seeds on heirloom varieties, and Dr. Wriggles, an expert on vermicompost. In less exciting news, I’ve also been working on the centre’s newsletter and workshops on kitchen gardening. There’s also been a lot of time to be in the forests here and learn about the Acadian ecosystems and our restoration projects.

In addition, half of our day is given to upkeep of the site’s gardens and trails, with the idea that we should learn about the day-to-day tasks involved in managing organic agriculture and forest restoration projects. I’ve been helping to build a greenhouse, about which more later.

The Canadian portion of the internship is also an opportunity for us to get to know the different partner organizations and prepare ourselves for six months working with them. After doing some research, I decided that I was interested in working with an organization in the Domincan Republic. I hope that having the extra time to learn and reflect will make it a better match for me – the projects that they have been working on in reforestation and enterprise development seem to be right up my alley.

In the beginning of September, we also had the opportunity to do a course on permaculture design. Permaculture is a system of landscape management that looks at designing systems for long-term productivity, with a focus on food production (unless I’m mistaken, the word comes from ‘permanent agriculture’). The class was an eclectic mix of environmental enthusiasts, with the Falls Brooks interns on one side and local maritime permaculture practitioners and soon-to-be practitioners on the other. We were also joined by four partners from our overseas projects, two from Cuba and two from Honduras. They brought their own perspectives to the course, and I had a great time doing a running interpretation of the classes for them.

The main project of the permaculture course was a design project based on a need identified by the community. We worked in our group with community members to come up with a design for projects. My group worked with the community land trust, a group of people that has put aside over one hundred acres to be inhabited by people who want to build a community in South Knowlesville. The land is given in free, renewable 99-year leases, the only stipulation being that people stay on the land and do not use chemical fertilizers or pesticides (interested parties, consult The good folks on the land trust wanted us to design a place where people could be welcomed into the community, and stay short-term with some important amenities such as a kitchen and showers. It was an interesting experience to design something that people were actually interested in using, and we got some really good feedback!
Anyway, that is what I was up to in New Brunswick. I’m in the Dominican Republic now, about to begin the next leg of the journey! As long as I remember to keep writing, expect updates from this part of the world soon!