– written for the Aquarian magazine
I suppose it was during our time in Africa – working on Community Development projects under Mennonite Central Committee – that Maggie and my interest in hospitality was kindled. Our home was a crossroads for volunteers, children and neighbours. Because of our central location MCC had two guestrooms as part of the building. We loved the news, perspectives and distractions visitors brought into our home. Our kids flourished with the diversity of attention as well.
When we returned to Southwest Manitoba in 1991 to build up our homestead and farm business, we joined the Willing Workers On Organic Farms (WWOOF) network (now named World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) and almost immediately had young people from all over the world stopping in to help us with our greenhouse, garden, animals and construction projects. Our little 1901 Baptist church which we had converted to a home wasn’t large enough – considering we were six in the family by then – to comfortably accommodate everyone. So we embarked on a plan to build a small straw bale guesthouse about a stone’s throw from our family house.
A friend of ours was unemployed at the time – 1996. He took on the project. We gave him a budget and the tools and away he went. He came up with a wonderful plan, none of which was ever dedicated to paper drawings. Little did we know that his artistic mind had no room for budget calculations. The ‘little guesthouse’ ballooned before our eyes to become a two story house with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a full kitchen, two sitting rooms and a two car garage. The budget ran out with the roof up but not covered. And our friend left town. (We still like him, by the way.)
We quickly covered and shingled the guesthouse before winter hit. And over the next five years with the help of lots of friends, extended family and strangers (who called up cold saying they would love to come and work on a straw house) we kept building with whatever cash we had to devote to the task. It was a labour of love I suppose. Our ideas of how we could use the building grew as it blossomed in our midst. Somewhere along the way we decided to finish it in a tidy enough way to be able to attract travelers and retreat seekers. By the spring of 2000 we entertained our first guests. And they were gushing in their appreciation for the architecture, the natural setting, our down home style of hosting, our farm animals and even our tendency to find work for anybody who so much as suggested they might have a couple hours on their hands.
We went away as a family for a year-long trip till mid 2001. When we returned we started to advertise in earnest. Some friends called one day to say they were thinking of settling in the area and asked if they could rent the Straw house for the winter while they looked for work and a home site of their own. We agreed and toned down the advertising. This was a good experience for us in that we learned what the house needed to make it comfortable in the middle of winter. There is always more we can do to improve the place but we’re pleased with it and our guests continue to coo contentedly about it. Our advertising is modest. In Winnipeg, we have our business cards at Ambrosia, Bread and Circuses, Humboldt’s Legacy, Manitoba EcoNet and Prairie Sky Books. We get some calls from our website www.roomtogrow.info as well. We were nicely busy last summer and fall until Thanksgiving. And now in winter we get a visitor or two a week.
We’ve learned that although the straw house is an attraction, it doesn’t appear to be what our guests comment on most. There are the initial questions about its construction and comments on how cozy and inspiring it is. But it seems to be the peacefulness of the setting, the wholesomeness of the farm activity and the hospitality of our family that people comment on most. This is great, because we aren’t in the room renting business. We’re more interested in offering folks from the city unique experiences in the country.
We’re a certified organic greenhouse grower with a large organic circle garden (designed in concentric permanent beds with a stone throne in the middle) in which we grow 50 plus varieties of culinary and medicinal herbs plus lots of vegies and small fruit. Guests are encouraged to wander, sample, ask questions and help out if they wish. We’re also in the Turtle Mountain parkland. Our 160 acres of woodland has a few ponds and marshes that attract and support a great diversity of plants and animals. We don’t disturb most of it for any length of time and so when we or our guests are patient and respectful we can encounter the wild in a very intimate way by going just a short distance from the yard.
We’re ready now to build on the wonderful feedback we’ve received by becoming more deliberate and expansive in our advertising. We’re on the cusp of offering the following:
· Guided encounters with the wild. We can take individuals, families, school groups, women’s and men’s groups, etc. on hour long, day long, over night, multi day excursions during which we can train the senses to observe life happening in the various micro zones, collect wild edibles, build campfires to heat up our food, tell stories and do whatever our interests and the seasons offer us.
· Organic gardening, composting, greenhouse growing and food preserving experiences through which we offer some of the knowledge we’ve received over the years.
· Home fixing skills for women and men. The majority of our Wwoofers are young women. Many of them are keen to do their own building and maintenance work. I’ve enjoyed offering some basic skills like chopping wood and using a hammer to more involved skills like designing and building a dock or using a tractor with a front end loader. I would like to offer skills training experiences to individuals and groups.
· Farm Tours in the area. We have a wonderful diversity of farms in the area, each with a story to be told and a family to be respected for what they know about providing quality food and agricultural services. There are organic farms, horse training farms, bison farms, grain and oilseed farms, beef farms, etc. Since I grew up in the area I have friends in every direction who would be willing to host you or your small group to walk into the beef herd in the pasture, ride a combine at harvest time, watch and learn as they train a horse or provide whatever experiences our guests are curious about and fits with the activity of the moment or season.
· Specific packages for writer’s, musicians, health practitioners, birders, photographers and educators depending on the needs.
We’ll be developing these offerings over the next year and will post them and the associated costs on our website. But we encourage people to call or email and ask. When folks tell us what they need we can build experiences around them rather than around our own passions and ideas.
We’re conscious that we’re a fair distance from Winnipeg, about 3 hours by car and 5 by bus. I’ve written up a Lonely Turtle Tour that guests can ask for or find on our website to help them keep their eyes open for topographical changes and farm practices along the way.
Perks. When people stay with us they get the run of the farm including intimate encounters with our cats, dogs and horses – all of which are expected to keep clear if any one guest does not approve of them. They get to sample herbs and vegies for their own cooking while they are with us. If they want more for when they leave we can sell them packaged or green herbs and some vegies depending on quantities. Eventually we want to grow enough food so that our guests don’t need to bring any packaged foods along. We hope to have our own vegies, fruit, eggs, dairy, organic and wild meats stored in coolers, freezers and cold storage that they will have access to. We also hope to bake organic whole wheat bread, muffins, and other baking often enough so that everyone tastes it fresh while they are with us. Throughout the year there is homegrown herbal tea and honey in the cupboard to be used free of charge. There is filtered water for those who prefer this to our well water and biodegradable soaps in the bathrooms and kitchen. I’m sure there are more perks – like marked trails on our place and a short distance away in the provincial park, no telephones, computer, TV or clocks to distract them from the holiday they want and need (although we have a telephone in our house they can use if need be).