Perspective Reporter's Notebook

Digging in at an organic farm: planting, composting, mulching

Some of the salad greens growing at the Center for Alternative Technology in Wales. (Joanna Koter/YJI)

Machynlleth, WALES – I have been in this green, damp, cold place for almost three weeks now and I could not be happier.

The Centre for Alternative Technology turned out to be exactly what I need and it will be my home for the next six months. Half a year of life! This is how long I will spend here at CAT, a place dedicated to teaching sustainable development near Machynlleth, Wales.

The tops of the Snowdonian hills are visible from CAT. (Joanna Koter/YJI)

Seeking a break from city life – but one that would offer a solid structure and skills I could use in the future – I decided to volunteer with CAT. Along with studying geography and environmental science at university, I wanted to learn by doing practical things like gardening, farming and maintenance.

I arrived in Machynlleth on a cloudy Sunday afternoon in January. Once I got off the train, I looked around trying to locate the bus stop. It turned out that the last bus – one of the three that run on Sundays – had left 10 minutes before I got there. Hitchhiking was another option, yet all the people I spoke to were heading down south and I had to relocate about three miles up north.

The CAT campus: the glass dome, the Straw Bale Theatre (a straw bale insulated building) and the Whole Home in the background. (Joanna Koter/YJI)

It was not a long distance to walk, just about an hour, but given the amount of luggage I was travelling with, I had to call a taxi.

After a 10 minute drive up and down mid-Welsh hills and across bridges spanning wild streams, I finally arrived at CAT.  Set up in the 1970s, the center is located on the remains of an old quarry that had gone virtually inactive in the 1930s.

The aim of CAT is to promote environmentally friendly solutions for life, ranging from generating power to heating homes to drying socks, and to educate people on green technologies. It is a higher education institution, a visitor center, an organic farm, and it even has its own village – a few cottages which originally had housed quarrymen. After CAT was established, they were home to staff and volunteers.

The Whole Home at CAT may be the most insulated house in Britain. It has rockwool insulation, quadruple-glazed windows, and eco-friendly domestic appliances. (Joanna Koter/YJI)

On my first night at CAT I encountered the reception, my temporary dorm (a minimalist cabin with a bunk bed, a chair, and three shelves), and Tea Chest. Tea Chest is the heart of volunteers’ lives. It’s the common room, the kitchen, and accommodation for long term volunteers like me.
Two other volunteers who had been there four months already greeted me at the Tea Chest, and offered me some freshly cooked veggie curry. They explained to me how the working day is structured and the logistics of meals: every week, each of us gets an allowance for which we place a bulk order for food so the kitchen is always stocked with organic, plant-based food. Heaven!

Over the next three weeks, I did a variety of jobs more or less related to organic gardening. In my work, I keep track of what I learn by taking time every afternoon to write down what I did that day. I get to work with two brilliant gardeners, both of whom are great teachers and kind people. One of them is the head gardener and has worked at CAT for 39 years. He knows the place inside out and I am sincerely glad that I met him. He shares gardening tips and tricks with me and despite his age, he’s always ready to work no matter what the weather’s like.

Speaking of which, observing the weather is one of my daily tasks. I record the temperature, the amount of precipitation, wind speed and direction, and cloud cover in a special notebook. At the end of each month, all data gathered goes to the Met Office in Edinburgh and is analyzed by professional meteorologists. This makes me feel that I am doing something very important whenever I walk down in the morning to check the weather.

Hot beds prepared for the sowing season. (Joanna Koter/YJI)

Mondays are compost-days. We fuel our compost cages with kitchen waste and leftovers from the volunteers’ kitchen and the CAT cafe. This is a smelly and sticky job, yet it’s necessary to produce high-quality, low-impact fertilizer for our garden plots. We have also constructed hot beds, which are large wire cages filled with straw and food scraps. This mixture will generate heat as it rots down and help vegetable seedlings to sprout and give them a head start before the planting season.

Ben Neville, a CAT volunteer from Birmingham, UK, waters freshly planted spinach. (Joanna Koter/YJI)

Other jobs that we need to get done before spring is raking dead leaves off paths so that we can add them to leafmould (nutrient-rich, sweet-smelling mulch) and weaving living willow structures to maintain their shape. I also got to pick leeks and salad, spread wood ash over beds, sow beans, clear the site of bramble, make a stepping stone path, hoe (disturb the soil to control slug populations) and plant herbs.
With spring approaching and summer coming afterwards, I am going to learn much more about gardening and conservation.

In the evenings and on weekends, volunteers are free to do anything they wish. I pass time by playing the guitar, painting, socializing with other staff members and students, going to the local pub or exploring nearby towns such as Machynlleth or Aberystwyth.

Although we work hard all day, CAT really is a place of rest. The mountain views, the sound of birds singing, the sweet smell of wood after a rain, and the remote location make it a perfect place for a retreat from the toxic society where we usually live.

When working in the garden you work with your mind, your body, and your soul. It is possibly the most satisfying job I could ever imagine, one that leaves me looking forward to tomorrow.

Joanna Koter is a Senior Reporter with Youth Journalism International.