Thursday, September 28, 2006

What came first, the chicken or the egg? We have the answer to this age-old conundrum: it’s the chicken, at least in our household. We’ve still had no eggs from our hens and, taking advice, have recently bought some plastic imitations to place in the henhouse to encourage them. And for the chicken? We’ve started eating them. This was always part of the plan and, as we have obtained all ours as small chicks, we didn’t know whether we were getting hens or cocks. There’s only room for one cockerel in the henhouse and so, when they’re eating size but before they’ve started fighting, they’re taken for the pot.

I feel obliged to come over all philosophical about this but will try and avoid the temptation, other than to say that I respect people who are principled vegetarians but we eat meat; and if one chooses to eat meat then I think one should care where it comes from and how it’s raised. Have a read of Jamie Oliver’s thoughts on page 210 of Jamie’s Italy and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s “Meat Manifesto” on page 9 of the The River Cottage Meat Book, both of whose views I thoroughly agree with. We have seen and supervised our free-range chickens all the way from chicks to dinner plate and so have taken responsibility for what we eat.

Our good friends and neighbours Carol and Alan have had visitors this week. Carol’s daughter Emily arrived with her boyfriend Mike and friends Ann and Sam. During their stay, they asked to be involved with the preparation of a chicken for the pot and with thorough instruction and close supervision, Mike and Ann expertly and humanely despatched two chickens. Then, with Gabrielle, me and Sam, we plucked and drew the birds, hanging them for a day before marinating the cockerel in red wine for 24 hours for a very authentic French coq-au-vin. The one bird adequately fed eight of us as you can see from the photo above. We’re offering a course on preparing chicken for the pot to people staying at our holiday gite as very practical introduction to keeping chickens for eggs and meat.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Technology! I ended my last post by saying that I had a computer problem and would be offline for a while. Thanks to our friend Caroline, who had lent us a spare screen, we’re up and running again, at least for the time being; but it is a reminder of how reliant we are on technology and how life seems to grind to a halt if something fails! How did we ever cope without emails and the ability to access the Internet?

In exchange for some wheat for our poultry and diesel for our very small and very old tractor, I’d been asked to help out Paul, our pig-farming neighbour, with his corn harvest. By virtue of a heavy goods vehicle and coach entitlement, I’ve got a licence to drive a tractor but, before yesterday, I’d never driven one. Inside every man, is there not a little boy who always wanted to drive a tractor? Certainly inside this man! After the all-too-brief instructions, or lack of them, and in French as well (basically: “follow the combine and, when you’re full, go and empty the trailer over there”) I fulfilled my boyhood dream and drove a huge green tractor for two days and 29 hectares of cornfield.

Permaculture? No, not really but it was fascinating to see, and thereby understand, the scale of modern food production. There were five of us working: me driving the two tractors—reversing a full trailer onto the hopper and leaving someone else to unload it whilst I jumped into the other and drove back to meet the combine on the field—and the others piling the shredded-into-flour corn into a huge heap to be covered with a polythene tarpaulin. I’m not sure I could put into words the scale of it all, and I certainly couldn’t answer the question “is permaculture a real and viable alternative to modern industrial farming methods?” Another question I can’t answer is how, economically, modern farming and food production works. From our own observations here, the farmers work extremely hard, often without taking holidays for years on end, for slim rewards, and receive about 30% of their income from EU subsidies, without which, they couldn’t operate. Why? The food at the supermarkets gets cheaper and cheaper because, with their power of purchase, they are able to force down prices and squeeze the supplier, so the government has to subsidise the farmers, who would otherwise go out of business. We must be paying more taxes (to subsidise farmers) for the privilege of buying cheaper food. It’d be great to hear your views, so please post a comment.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

After a hard days permaculturing, every good permaculturer deserves a drink and, in France, that’s often a glass or two of red wine. Gabrielle came back from shopping today with a huge grin on her face, clutching a bottle of “Arse” wine. In faint subscript, the whole title was Seigneurie d’ARSE, which I have translated, with the aid of my much used English/French dictionary, as the “Lord’s Arse”. This wordplay is presumably lost on the French as I’m sure that they wouldn’t try to sell wine that apparently issues from the Lord of the Manor’s own bottom.

I’ve noticed that we have many visitors to our blog from the USA, where, for you, the word is “ass”. In England, an ass is a donkey, i.e., some sort of horse. I think that the extra “r” adds useful emphasis! In French, the word for arse, or ass, is “cul”, pronounced, “coo”. Thank you very much is “merci beaucoup”; problematically, a mispronunciation could be heard by French ears as “merci beau cul”, which translates as “thanks, nice arse”. However, I do think this would work adequately well in a restaurant, for example, when addressed to a pretty waitress or handsome young waiter!

That’s enough international wordplay for tonight. I have a computer problem, most of my screen has gone blank, so it’s off to the repair shop tomorrow and we’ll be offline for a while but please keep an eye out, as I’ll carry on posting as soon as it’s sorted. In the pipeline: I’ve loads to tell you about our woods, after the second French expert forestier came to visit. He’s employed by the state and a really super, right-on ecological guy and very supportive to our permaculture ideas for managing the woodland. And, I’ve got an update on our food production, with some shiitake mushrooms, and an answer to the conundrum “which came first, the chicken or the egg”. Back soon, I hope…

Friday, September 15, 2006

So what is permaculture? Historically, one has to go back to the 1970s to find a couple of Australians, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, who coined the term. I don’t think they’d claim to have invented it, as such, as a lot of what might be considered permaculture has either been around for a long time and/or sits under the umbrella of other definitions, such as organic gardening, architecture and forestry, amongst many others. What they did, is bring a lot of this extant wisdom together in a design system for the whole, where organic gardening, for example, is a method. It takes a good look at nature, to see how natural ecosystems function successfully and tries to emulate the interconnectivity and beneficial links one finds there. And its goal is to create an ecologically sustainable habitat.

Chinese peasant agriculture is certainly sustainable but might, with our eyes, be considered unremitting drudgery. Modern, highly mechanised, chemical dependant and subsidised farming is certainly unsustainable, both environmentally and ultimately economically as well, although it does provide a lot of food and at minimum price—at least for the moment. Permaculture suggests ways of designing sustainable food production systems, using our knowledge, intelligence and other advantages, such as, for example, different plant combinations not available to previous generations, a positive result of globalisation.

If we compare a modern Western wheat field with the equivalent area of natural forest we can see the inspiration for permaculture. The wheat field must be sprayed with herbicide, covered with nitrogen fertiliser, ploughed, harrowed, mechanically planted, sprayed with pesticides and so on. The natural forest requires no maintenance—no fuel-driven mechanised interventions and no chemical additives—yet will provide much greater biomass per year. Just before we get carried away, let’s remember that a much higher proportion of the output of the wheat field is edible. But what if we designed a nut and fruit orchard, which included many other edible perennial plants, along the natural forest pattern rather than the wheat monoculture? That’s called a forest garden, just one practical example of applied permaculture.

One tiny example of permaculture at work on our site, is our use of chickens to tidy up the goose house. As we lifted the dirty straw bedding in one of our weekly cleans, we noticed some maggots and a few other creepy-crawlies. Not sure whether they would create a problem for our geese, we wondered what we should do. Applying a little permaculture, we coaxed the chickens into the goose house, where they spent some happy hours scratching away at the floor and eating the bugs. We could have spent a lot of our own time and effort cleaning up to the best of our ability and probably applying some chemical product to kill bugs but instead, much as in a natural ecosystem, we just made a link between different parts of our system, problem solved!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

We have had varying success with our vegetable garden. We didn’t move in to our property until late April and found ourselves trying to create vegetable patches out of an overgrown flower garden next to the house. Despite the adverse soil conditions we armed ourselves with a box full of organic seeds and our new garden tools and did our best. One vegetable that we both love is butternut squash and we had saved seed from one we’d bought in a French supermarket and eaten months before. Lots of little seedlings popped up the tray and we planted the two strongest looking ones in patch of soil at the back of the garden.

In her book Grow Your Own Vegetables, Joy Larkcom recommends pinning butternut squash in a circle as it grows, marking the centre point with a cane for watering. We’ll be trying that next year, as ours had started to grow like a triffid before I got to that part of the book! It grew and grew and started to scramble out over the fence, down a slope and up the apple tree next to it. Flowers were appearing every day but after weeks of vigorous growth and continuous flowering we had no fruit to show. It seemed that all of the flowers were male and were not swelling.

Was our supermarket squash a sterile mutant, perhaps even GM? We kicked ourselves for not adding it to our original shopping list of organic seeds. We had all but given up on it when, weeks later whilst I was checking on the chickens, I saw a huge fruit hanging in the brambles, hiding under the equally huge leaves. I was so excited; I nearly called Stuart on his mobile! but managed to hold back my excitement until he came home when it was the first thing I told him. Tonight we are having an old favourite, butternut squash curry, with the first of our very own. As I said not everything has worked in our vegetable garden this year but this is one meal that we will remember.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Not yet half eight and we’ve clipped the wings of five geese before breakfast! The geese spend their day eating grass, dandelions and anything else that takes their fancy within the safe confines of the electric fencing/netting. They’re getting bigger all the time and have an impressive set of wings. We’d read that domestic geese are too heavy to fly and, for our five grey Toulouse, that seems to be true. However, with a good run at it, if a strong headwind is available, they can all get airborne to some degree, the lighter white Embden being the more successful. At the end of the day, if their patch is at the top of the field, their eagerness to get back to the barn and the awaiting wheat treat means that they hare off down the field, bouncing up and down as they get airborne for a short distance: very amusing. However, yesterday evening, as we were preparing to bring them in, I glanced out to the field and something was definitely wrong. I saw nine geese inside their enclosure and one white one outside, walking up and down the fence.

It was quite blustery yesterday and so, with a favourable gust just at the right time, it must have been enough for the goose to clear the fence, however, once outside, s/he was a bit of a loss what to do. The saving grace is that the geese always want to stick together, so having flown to “freedom”, all it really wanted was to be back with the group. Having got them all safely into their house, our thoughts turned to preventing a reoccurrence and the technique of clipping their wings. We emailed our Somerset smallholding friend, Val, for advice. We also looked at a couple of websites. One helpfully warned “NEVER CLIP A WING THAT IS GROWING BLOOD FEATHERS” saying that “you will bleed the bird to death”, frustratingly with a complete lack of explanation as to what they might be and how we might recognise them: not very reassuring! Happily, another site informed us what “blood feathers” were.

Armed with a book (Starting With Geese), a pair of kitchen scissors and some secateurs, we headed for the goose house. It was impossible to separate the grey from white, so we caught them one by one, taking the grey straight out onto the field but clipping the flight feathers (on one side only) of each white bird. There was loads of noise, as you might imagine, but it all made sense once we actually had a bird in the hand, so to speak! We were apprehensive before getting started but our confidence in goose keeping has grown immensely and we felt very proud of ourselves once it was all done.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Foraging – Part 3. Perhaps today’s photo isn’t quite such an attractive image as the last blog’s revolving recycled radiator but is sure to bring a smile to Alan and Bernie. Voila! Alan, our fellow-foraging friend and Gabrielle, uh, how shall I put it delicately, shovelling shit! After the aforementioned trip to the tip to dump the slates from half of our barn roof—and the simultaneous recovery of the washing machine drum—before disconnecting Alan’s trailer, we headed down to the local stables where, by prior arrangement, we loaded up with horse manure, excellent nutritious organic soil improver, and completely free! We did two trips, one for Alan’s and Carol’s vegetable plot and one for ours.

One aspect of permaculture is to consider the inputs and outputs of each aspect of a designed system, so that outputs of one component, e.g., poultry pooh from the chicken house, becomes a valuable input for the garden via the compost heap rather than a pollutant, which needs to be got rid of—possibly with a disposal cost on top—as happens with large scale chicken farms. What we’ve done here is simply to obtain a local resource freely, whilst simultaneously helping the stables to dispose of an unwanted product. With so many people growing vegetables locally, it amazed me that there was plenty available and that we didn’t have to pay for it, as happens in the posher parts of the south of England!

Bearing all this in mind, I was inspired by Mark Fisher’s article (in issue 48 of Permaculture Magazine) on his innovative permaculture design at the Ecology Building Society’s new headquarters. Excavating and cultivating the site to create his new design, he unearthed all manner of junk and then had decisions to make on how to dispose of it. He wanted to assume responsibility for this waste, so “Recycling where I could”, he says, “some had to go into the waste stream, but the tarmac, concrete and brick is neatly stacked and retained on site. I haven’t hidden it, but then I haven’t skipped it so that it ends up polluting somewhere else. With time, moss will grow over it and the structural vegetation will obscure its presence. And … some creatures will probably find habitat and refuge in it”. After an experiment to see if we could smash up the slates into small pieces without sharp edges, we decided to keep the second trailer-full of slates and store them here for future use constructing footpaths.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Foraging – Part 2. We’re re-roofing one of our barns at the moment. Christophe, an estate agent friend of ours, helped me to strip one side last Sunday. We threw the slates directly into a trailer I’d borrowed from our neighbour Alan, who helped again by coming to the municipal tip with me on Monday morning to unload into the huge bin. Whilst there, I spied a dead washing machine lying on the top of the almost full bin for metal waste. I have two uses for the stainless steel drum inside and asked the guy on duty if I could recover it. With a nod and a quizzical smile he assented and, with Alan’s help again, in I jumped to wrestle the heavy appliance out of the bin and into the van. Next to the bin where we dumped the slates was the wood bin, where I noticed a solid oak table top in three sections and I couldn’t resist asking if I could grab that as well.

So, what can one do with a dead washing machine, he asks rhetorically? First idea comes from Bob Flowerdew’s No Work Garden, p.125. He says that if a fig tree is planted in the stainless steel drum from a washing machine, its roots are restricted, thereby encouraging it to fruit well rather than producing “masses of long soft growth and little fruit.” It’s a method of keeping other plants small as well. We want to plant a fig tree, so a washing machine drum became a must-have accessory. Second use is as a brazier or fire pit. It’s an idea I saw on a gardening programme on the TV some time ago. The drum had been removed from the washing machine and mounted horizontally on a solid support, whilst retaining the bearing. It contains the fire—much safer than a bonfire—the perforations allow air in for good combustion and also sparkly orange and red glimpses of the fire, which become spectacular when the drum is spun (some sort of stick or fire proof glove would be useful!)

I’d removed the drum, which wasn’t desperately photogenic, and was searching on Google/Images for something to illustrate this blog, when I came across a great site dedicated to making fire pits and ovens out of old washing machine drums. Check out the galleries and Indian tandoori oven! And for the oak table top? It’s just a great piece of hardwood to hold onto until I’m making something and which will then be dismantled, cut to size, planned, sanded and ultimately oiled to make beautiful furniture costing nothing and saving on hardwood resources. The off-cuts will make great burning in our soon to be fitted wood stove, which will replace our current electric heaters to heat our home this winter.