Friday, December 26, 2008

Winter Greens : A few years back, during a guided trip around the Centre for Alternative Technology in North Wales, the head gardener, Roger, proudly told us that he was able to put green salad leaves on the table for the staff and volunteers every day of the year. It is with similar swelling of my breast that I can tell you that the head gardener here, Gabrielle, is accomplishing a similar feat, conjuring up a variety of fresh salad leaves and winter greens.

Back in a warmer and sunnier July, Richard and Leigh came to stay in our gite. Showing them around, we approached the vegetable garden and I asked them whether they grew any vegetables. In the quiet, modest way he talks, Richard told me that he’d had an allotment for nearly 30 years (the photo below, sent to us by Leigh, show’s Richard in his allotment in Sussex). Humility is a wonderful human quality and I slipped seamlessly from talking mode into listening mode. He surveyed our raised bed system, asking questions to which I didn’t have the answer: this is Gabrielle’s domain. A day or so later, he gave Gabrielle a few packets of seeds that he’d saved from his allotment, plants that he found particularly useful over the years. He also sent some more to us once they’d returned home.

Richard gave us:
◊ “Green in Snow”—what a great name for a winter green—its Latin name is brassica juncea var. multiceps and, in Chinese, it’s xue li hong. It’s an Oriental mustard, a very vigorous, hardy and fast-growing winter green; young leaves are pleasantly spicy in salads but the more mature leaves can become a overpowering raw, while remaining useful if cooked, in a stir fry, for example.
◊ “Giant Red Mustard”, another Oriental mustard, in Latin, brassica juncea var. rugosa and aka taka-na
in Japanese. It’s a large and prolific plant that can be harvested in the winter but will grow faster in warmer weather. Use the leaves as for the other mustard.
◊ “Ragged Jack” kale, also known as red Russian kale (brassica oleracea acephala. From what I’ve read (this is our first season with it) the plants won’t keep growing all winter, although the plant should over-winter; we’re still cropping ours for the moment. It has a milder, sweeter flavour, in contrast to the peppery mustards and can be used in salad or boiled greens.
◊ Polycress (lepidium sativum) is a quick-growing cress and not, in fairness, a winter green, as such. We’re still cropping it but it is coming to an end.
◊ Land cress, also known as American cress (barbarea verna) which can be used in salad as ordinary cress or cooked, like spinach. It’s a hardy biennial, meaning it takes two years to complete it’s lifecycle. Therefore, it overwinters and, apparently with the aid of a cloche, will provide winter leaves. We don’t have a cloche but are still cropping.
And a couple that we had ourselves:
◊ Rouge d’hiver lettuce (Lactuca sativa) an old French strain of lettuce with a sweet, mild flavour, which is very frost tolerant.
◊ Perpetual spinach, which is not, in fact a spinach but rather part of the beet family, hence its other name, “spinach beet” (beta vulgaris cicla). A cut-and-come-again self-seeding, biennial. These two qualities together could confuse you into thinking it was a perennial (perennial = permaculture gold stars) it certainly acts that way. It was my veg-of-the-year last year, as we had a small slab of it, about 2 foot (60 cm) by 2 foot square, which kept us in fresh spinach-like leaves all summer. We are still cropping this although new leaf production has slowed.

So, thanks Richard, for pointing us in the right direction and supplying some seeds. We look forward to learning of other plants to add to our current winter collection. Mentions due to Joy Larkcom’s Oriental Vegetables and Ken Fern’s Plants for a Future book and Internet database.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Prescient programming : Last week, Thursday evening revolved around the television, to the exclusion of all else: not an admission you might expect on a permaculture blog? It was definitely culture though, the denouement of the BBC’s excellent serialised adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel, Little Dorrit. In brief, it's about reversals of fortune and how characters cope with both poverty and wealth. The episode began with the sudden collapse of Mr Merdle’s bank, leaving the thousands of people who invested in him facing financial ruin. It was set around 1855–57; in December 2008, we learn of the fall of another financial empire, not of the fictional Merdle but rather a very-much-real-life Madoff and his fraud of around $50 billion, leaving some rich clients penniless. A case symptomatic of the recent catastrophic near collapse of the global capitalist system.

I think it would be right to say that Gabrielle and I inhabit the middle classes. Normally, we read of bad news but don’t directly suffer: there exists a comfort zone between bad news and personal experience. On Wednesday, following days of a fair ski-slope of a decent in the value of the pound, I clicked on the website I habitually use to keep an eye on the £ / € rate to find it had tumbled a further 3% during the day. (Our revenues, including renting out our holiday cottage, come in £s.) So it is beginning to hurt. I’m not asking for any sympathy nor beating my breasts but I’ve found the experience rather sobering and instructive.

Cushioned from the stark realities, many middle class greenies—which includes us— are encouraged to believe that we can consume our way to a better world: Buy Fair Trade coffee. Buy organic bananas. Maybe even justify a long-haul flight on the basis that it’s eco-tourism. But, you know, that really isn’t the answer, whatever it is that we buy. You’ll be familiar with the eco-mantra “reduce, REUSE, RECYCLE” but, I suggest, we forget too easily the first and most important of these: REDUCE.

David Holmgren, co-originator of the permaculture concept, has it as “refuse, reduce, reuse, repair and recycle” (Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, p 112). Now I don’t profess to really understand how Capitalism functions but it does seem to be predicated on consumption and growth—implying accelerating consumption. To quote Holmgren further:
The industrial processes that support modern life can be characterised by an input–output model, in which the inputs are natural materials and energy while the outputs are useful things and services. However, when we step back from this process and take a long-term view, we can see all these useful things end up as wastes (mostly in rubbish tips) and that even the most ethereal of services required the degradation of energy and resources to wastes. This model might be better characterised as “consume–excrete”. The view of people as simply consumers and excreters might be biological, but it is not ecological.

So we now have an extra incentive to reconsider our consumption. While I’ve got my head in Holmgren’s book, Gabrielle is currently studying Rob Hoskins’ The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience”. She’s been shocked by what she’s read and has moved from someone who thought she was pretty aware about climate change and peak oil to someone who is in no doubt of the situation, the challenges that face us and the need to take action. We’ve agreed to swap books when we come to the end and I’ll write again on the subject when I’ve read it.

Next blog, I’ll tell you how Gabrielle is still putting fresh green leaves-either as salad or cooked—on the table, two days before the winter solstice.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Oh Deer! A very strange thing happened to me a couple of Sundays ago. Gabrielle was out and I was up on our barn roof, laying slates (renovating the barn into a new gite) when I heard a noise from the sheep paddock below. There, we have four (castrated) male lambs born this year and an elderly ewe—who can’t have any more lambs and so can’t run with the ram. It’s not unusual for the boys to be boys—despite being disconnected from their testicles—and charge each other, clashing heads with something between a “clack” and a “crump". I assumed that was what it was but stopped slating and turned to look anyhow.

What I saw wasn’t two little boy lambs in a testosterone-style stand-off but all five sheep standing together, as sheep are want to do, staring at something else … and then I saw it, a flash of russet brown running headlong into the sheep netting (that’s the metre-high galvanised wire mesh fencing that encircles the field). It got up and raced off again, before piling in once more to this barrier, either invisible or incomprehensible to it. It was a chevreuil (roe deer - like the one in the photo above) that had obviously leapt the fence to get in but couldn’t now work out that it had to do the same to exit and was clearly becoming more distressed and disoriented by the second. I got off the roof as quick as I could and ran into the field.

The deer continued in its unsuccessful and painful attempts and I realised I had to do something. I opened the gate to the field and calmly walked behind the deer, arms outstretched, in the hope that it would tend to go away from me, towards the open gate. This didn’t work and I realised that the deer really would hurt itself soon if I didn’t do something a little more proactive. I tried shepherding it into a corner and, after a particularly heavy impact into the fence, which left it stunned, I threw myself headlong upon it, arms wide and managed to grab it, encircling its legs with my arms and holding it tight to me.

Have you ever been in a situation where you do something, because you thought it was the right thing to do, but now you’re left holding the baby, so to speak, and you haven’t a clue what to do? It was one of those moments, with bells on. Wildlife is something you observe at a distance, perhaps with the aid of binoculars. I had a live roe deer in my arms, about the size of a large Labrador dog, panting heavily, heart racing and a bit bloody around the mouth. I do remember thinking how beautifully soft the coat was. I looked up at the countryside beyond the sheep paddock and saw a couple of hunters, guns over their arms, with their dogs some way in the distance but clearly looking at me. Even if they weren’t specifically hunting for deer, it would have been them that spooked the deer into jumping into our field. So I made my way out of the sheep paddock in the opposite direction, having to squeeze past my scaffolding, deer in arms, all the time wondering what to do. When I got to the end of the lane, I turned right, walking through a neighbour’s garden until I could release it into the valley below. It bounded energetically out of view, so I assume it wasn't that badly hurt.

Sorry I didn’t get any photos of what was an amazing experience but I had my hands rather full! Next blog: what have Charles Dickens, Capitalism and Permaculture got to do with each other?

Friday, December 05, 2008

Permaculture Zones :
With so much going on, and so much to do, I’m sometimes guilty of not following up on a project or experiment I’ve started, which can lead to a disappointing conclusion. An example from this summer is my attempt to propagate some dwarf box hedging plants (Buxus sempervirens "Suffruticosa") from cuttings, the idea being to make a knot garden, filled with herbs some years hence. (photo ref) I took advice from the nurseryman who sold me the original plants, I read instructions in Peter Thompson’s book, Creative Propagation and I took care in taking the cuttings and planting them in two pots of differing media, covered them with tented polythene bags—which act like mini-greenhouses and keep the moisture in—left them in the polytunnel … and promptly completely forgot about them.

Zoning is one of your permaculture basics, David Holmgren describes them thus: “Permaculture zones are more-or-less concentric areas of intensity of use … The closer to the centre [i.e., the dwelling], the more efficient and intensive is our use of the land; the further away we go, the more or less we must rely on self-maintaining elements that require little input from us …” (Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability p 138). So, you plant your herbs by the kitchen door, your annual salad leaves not much further—so you walk past them often and notice when they need watering or cropping—and your fruit orchard much further away. The explanatory diagrams in some permaculture books look as neat, as regular and as organised as the photo of the beautiful knot garden above but even David Holmgren, co-originator or the permaculture concept, accepts that one has to compromise “due to the nature of the site and effects of title boundaries.” (ibid.) It's the idea that's important.

So you have already worked out the answer to my problem, or problems more like: having too many things on the go and a short-term memory already fading as middle age takes hold … now what was I saying? Adapting the zoning idea, I need to put important stuff along the paths I regularly walk, which is why you see me inspecting a Prosciutto-style ham hanging above an oft-used route, drying in the winter air. The ham has already spent a month in a brine of salty water, flavoured with apple juice, cider, sugar, juniper berries, bay leaves, cloves and black peppercorns and must now slowly dry over the next few months, before we can pare off tasty slices to eat with next summer's tomatoes and melons. It’s all a bit touch-and-go though, as if it’s too humid (winter in Northern France!) the meat could go rotten, yet if it dries too quickly, the dry surface locks in a wet middle, which goes rotten. When we tried it last year, we were told by more than one French friend that this was not possible in Brittany. Happily we proved them wrong, see photo of last year’s ham. The point of all this is that vigilant surveillance is what’s needed, hence all the chat about zones …

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Guest blog from a wandering minstrel: On the three occasions we’ve been hosts to volunteers, we’ve asked them to write a guest blog. We also asked David to produce a permaculture design proposal for a section of our land (a blog on that soon) and therefore he hadn’t the time to write before he left, so here’s his epistolary blog …

Hello there Stuart and Gabrielle!
I've finally found the time to write to you both and reflect on my days at your smallholding. After a hectic 3 weeks, I've nearly reached the end of my travels in France. I spent a nice extra week in Brittany hanging out with friends and drinking lots of cider and playing guitar on market days. Then I spent 3 days in Paris walking the streets and drinking coffee. I've just arrived in Avignon after 2 fun weeks in the south Alps with friends working a small property building stone foundations and construction willow contraptions. It snowed the last day, which was nice. Tomorrow I go to Bordeaux to celebrate more with good friends from home before starting my 5 month 'permaculture' adventure through Spain.

My blog entry
I arrived on Stuart’s and Gabrielle’s (henceforth S&G) smallholding in late October with a whole 6 months of travel through France and Spain awaiting me. The purpose of my travels was to visit various permaculture projects/farms to compliment and further enrich my 2 previous years of study in Kinsale Ireland, where one can do a full-time course in Permaculture and Practical Sustainability, which I thoroughly recommend! I wanted to hit the ground running and get stuck in to the smallholding life straight away. I was delighted to find that S&G's place offered everything I was looking for.

It wasn't long after arriving that I realised I had chosen a great place to spend the week; a series of funny coincidences gladdened my heart and the previous arrangement of sleeping outside in a yurt was upgraded to first class and I was given my own room in the house (an unusual but very comfy converted barn). The deal was I could stay in the house if my personality didn't prove corrosive to both S&G's ears ... it didn't thankfully.
I was given a very warm welcome and I guess I could start by mentioning how very well fed and looked after I was every day. S&G are fantastic and generous hosts. Imagine giving an Irishman free access to a fridge full of beer and every night and indeed sometimes by day a bottle or two of wine would be opened. We ate delicious foods, including lovely meat reared on the farm, rabbit, sheep; pork and chicken, and veg and salads from the garden. A warm fire would magically light itself in the morning before I arose from bed at the early hour of 10am ... and stay lit all day to welcome us in after a days work at which time I could sit back and delve into their extensive library and permaculture DVD collection.

It wasn't all sitting back and relaxing though! Thankfully I was in the mood for some decent hard work and it proved for the most part rewarding and relevant to what I wanted to learn about. I was gladly very much on the receiving end of information at their smallholding but was delighted I could pass on some of my own knowledge and experience (photo shows me doing a soil test). I wanted to learn about keeping animals and got first hand experience of doing so. Much appreciation to S&G for teaching me what they knew and being so willing to answer all my questions. Alas, I never got to see the pigs but they tasted very good. The chickens are hilarious and it made me realise they are a most useful bird on the farm and one I would definitely want in my own place. I got a good grounding in keeping chickens, what food and housing they require and the workload they involve. I got to help construct a chicken house (see right) and even got a taste of the slaughtering process, also with a rabbit, which was a new and worthwhile experience.

The cider day was great fun. I couldn't help thinking how great it would be to finish the day with a nice bottle of cider and indeed we were invited into Paul’s and Christiane’s house for precisely that. It impressed me to see the connections S&G have made with the local community, trading one skill for another and helping each other when required. Gabrielle dresses up as a true Bretonne and plays her violin with a local traditional group, Stuart ploughs a local farmer’s land and exchanged a year’s wood for an artist friend to paint a mural at their house. And fair play to them for learning the lingo!
My time at the farm gave me good idea of the time and dedication involved in living this kind of life, it's a big commitment but a rewarding one. You need a strong back and a love of work. I enjoyed S&G's approach. They've thrown themselves in the deep end and are very willing to make mistakes and learn from them, and share their experiences of their site, which they are clearly passionate about. We had some interesting discussions each night about permaculture, it's philosophy and the meaning of life ... (photo show me inoculating stumps in their woodland with conifer cauliflower mycelium.

I'm just the third volunteer to find my way to this quaint little part of Brittany. there'll be plenty of work to do in the future so I hope others are lucky enough to hook up with Stuart and Gabrielle for a week and get involved in their smallholding. Many thanks for a great week and best of luck in the future. I'd love to make it back someday. Especially to try that cider we helped make!
Till next time
Best wishes

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

“Nothing makes you more tolerant of a neighbour’s noisy party than being there.” Franklin P. Jones (American Businessman, 1887 – 1927): the perfect quote to introduce our own noisy party, to which, of course, we invited all our neighbours and friends.

It was a very English Guy Fawkes Party on Bonfire Night (5th November, although we slid ours into the nearest Saturday). We’d held a similar event two years ago, which was a great success despite initial scepticism from our French guests that it was a wise thing to have an outdoors evening event in the middle of November. They’ve become more used to our English eccentricities over the intervening time. Having recently slaughtered two very large pigs, and with over 80 men, women and children to feed, probably the world’s best homemade sausages seemed the obvious choice. We served up over two hundred, either tucked into soft rolls made to order by our village boulanger (baker) Jacky, or wrapped up in a buckwheat pancake—called a galette—made, “au fur et à mesure” by our musical friend, Michèle.

Having learnt a little more on how to host such an event, we successfully delegated a few tasks this time, so thanks to Caroline for serving the hot mulled wine all evening and to Sébastien and Serge for taking complete charge of the fireworks, apart from the sparklers, which were handed out by Michel and Gilles. It was a musical night as well, with Gabrielle’s and Alastair’s playing (violin and guitar, respectively) inspiring Julie, Maryté and Christian (two accordions and a clarinet) to join in. Thanks also to everyone who brought cakes to share for dessert.

A very special mention has to go to Gabrielle’s wonderful “Guy”, a life-size mannequin fabricated from old clothes, straw, cardboard and papier maché, sat in a rickety deckchair who, following tradition, was burnt atop our bonfire after the sausages and before the fireworks (see photo at top).

Monday, November 24, 2008

How do you like your Locust? Black or Honey? On the occasions that I might presume to dispense permaculture know-how on this blog, it’s always from the point of view of the fellow beginner, blundering around in a sea of ignorance, incomprehension and incompetence, rather than me ever claiming to be an “expert”. I think that this can be rather reassuring for a fellow beginner: to read of tales of occasional success set against a background of mistakes and failure, making them feel that their own stumbling progress is quite OK and not to be measured up against the pristine examples of the true expert. Coupled with my vague idea that permaculture knowledge should be ”open source”, I plan to publish a series of FREE permaculture fact sheets under the title of “The Blind Leading the Blind”. Our talented artist friend Alastair has already supplied the artwork, see above.

However much of a beginner you consider yourself, be prepared to question received knowledge; perhaps that approach is actually a requisite of permaculture? Here’s a recent example, which concerns our planting of a few black locust (also known as false acacia and, in Latin, robinia pseudo-acacia) a plant I believed to be an archetypal permaculture panacea. In his The Earth Care manual: A Permaculture Handbook for Britain and other Temperate Climates, Patrick Whitefield (who taught my Permaculture Design Course) says that black locust “provides: fodder of bees, edible seed for chickens, edible foliage for grazing animals, timber … and nitrogen fixation.” p.33. In The Woodland Way: A Permaculture Approach to Sustainable Woodland Management, Ben Law says, “Nitrogen fixing trees like alder and black locust will make a useful addition to any agroforestry system whether over pasture or arable crops.” p.17. So, imagine my surprise when, tucked up in bed one night with a cup of cocoa and Gene Logson’s All Flesh is Grass: The Pleasures and Promises of Pasture Farming, I read that “Black locust... is not a good pasture tree. Its leaves are considered toxic to animals.” Hmmmm?

I searched around on the Internet and came up with this entry on Wikipedia: Unlike the pods of the honey locust, but like those of the related European Laburnum, the black locust's pods are toxic. In fact, every part of the tree, especially the bark, is considered toxic, with the exception of the flowers. However, various reports have suggested that the seeds and the young pods of the black locust can be edible when cooked, since the poisons that are contained in this plant are decomposed by heat. Horses that consume the plant show signs of anorexia, depression, diarrhea, colic, weakness, and cardiac arrhythmia. Symptoms usually occur about 1 hour following consumption, and immediate veterinary attention is required.

Having planted several of the trees where our chickens free-range, with the intention of them grazing on the fallen seedpods, you can see that I was a little concerned. I’ve even planted two in a paddock where the sheep graze. Perhaps I should have planted the thorn-less Honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) instead, which Gene Logson suggests “makes an excellent pasture tree.” He goes on to explain that livestock love the sweet seedpods, that the tree does not cast heavy shade so allows the sun to get to the pasture and that “the tree is a legume, so is constantly fixing nitrogen in the soil.”

Reading around books and searching on the Internet, I found conflicting opinions as to whether the honey locust does indeed fix nitrogen, or not. I emailed Martin Crawford of The Agroforestry Research Trust. He replied:
There is some confusion around black locust and honey locust. In the past both have just been called “locust” in North America and the uses of both have sometimes been mixed up.
Black locust is an excellent fast growing n-fixer and a good bee plant. They have more experience of growing it in pastures in Eastern Europe than North America. In Hungary the leaves are valued as excellent fodder, especially for goats and rabbits. Whether it is toxic to horses, I don’t know but it won’t be to sheep if goats are fine with it. However, the seeds do contain toxins when raw, so it is probably not best used as a major feed for chickens. The Hungarians report no problems from ruminants eating the seeds pods.
Honey locust was thought not to fix nitrogen until a few years ago because they don’t produce nodules like most n-fixers. Then someone discovered the fix N through a different mechanism, so now they apparently do. However, I don’t recommend it for France in pastures, as it is very slow growing and will require many years of protection from grazing stock.

I wrote to Patrick Whitefield of my discoveries; he said: “After reading what you’ve written I’ll certainly make an amendment in the Manual next time it’s reprinted and also when I’m teaching. Interesting about Glenditsia too.
Thank you very much. I only wish other people were so free with the products of their research as you are!”

So there you have it, the not-quite-definitive answer to the question I began with. Do question received wisdom and do share the results of your research. Thanks to Magnus for posting a question (as a comment), to which this is, I hope, a useful reply.

Friday, November 14, 2008

How to make cider: Part 2. The apples we helped pick at the end of October had been left exposed to the elements to "mature", precisely why, I’m not quite sure. Apple-pressing time was now upon us and, our (then) volunteer David joined us at Paul's and Christiane’s farm. We supplied a 1000 litre animal drinker, which proved ideal for industrial-scale washing of apples and Paul had welded a basket of mesh to an old hayfork to create the perfect utensil for scooping out the apples from their cold bath and loading up wicker baskets.
The apples were then crushed and shredded by an ancient machine, originally bought by Paul’s grandfather in 1910. It was belt driven by an electric motor. Pause for a technical scratch of my head: by way of comparison, I have a bicycle and the chain turns around two sets of toothed cogs; even so, occasionally the chain comes off. The apple crusher is turned by a very worn flat fabric belt, about three inches (75mm) wide, with plenty of defects and scraps hanging off and runs on a decidedly warped wooden wheel. It’s tensioned by a broomstick wedged between the itself and the motor; accurate alignment is effected by kicking the motor around until it looks in line with the wonky wheel. It didn’t miss a beat all afternoon, how does that work, then?

The chunky pulp was collected in a leaky wooden trough, from where Paul scooped it up with a shovel, the sides “adjusted” (with a hammer) to be a tight fit, so’s not to miss a scrap. He slapped this stodge onto a bed of straw and so built up a cake of layers of apple pulp and straw in the traditional cider press (also bought by his dad in 1910). Once we were underway, Emma and Pete, holidaymakers staying in our gite for an autumnal week, cycled up to see what was happening. Two blinks of an eye and they were both mucking in. It was fun to see because, for them, they were having a really authentic, bucolic holiday bonus and for free but Paul couldn’t get over that they were vacanciers (holidaymakers) but were willing to get dirty and cold whilst offering help. (Photo shows l-r Paul, Emma, David and Pete.) He was so astonished, he remarked on it several times. When the last apple had gone to apple heaven, we were all invited into the farmhouse for cider (bought at the local agricultural college) and cake (see photo at top).

Why the straw? Paul told me that it serves two services: it allows a space for the juice to run out to the edge (and so fall to the base of the press and into a container; and it provides friction, to maintain the integrity of the mound of apple pulp as it’s compressed, rather than splurging out the sides. The cake was left to rest overnight and then the oak baulks were inserted into the top of the press the following day and slowly and progressively wound down over the next couple of days. The last two pics show David racheting the press down a couple of notches, the juice running off and me pouring a bucketful of it into a decrepit oak barrel, via a wodden funnel. The process takes several months before the cider gets bottled; I’ll keep you posted…

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Posting your comments on our blog. If our blog inspires, enlightens or even confuses you, please post a comment. To do this, go to the bottom of that particular blog, where you will find “x comments” in green. Click on that and it will take you to the “Post a comment” page. Type in your praise, questions or abuse and then “choose an identity”. The first two are relevant if you have your own blog, else choose the third and type your name (and website, if you have one) or just post anonymously. Click “Publish your comment” and there you are, although there’ll be a delay as I get to vet them!

And if you like a particular blog, do have a look to see if there have been any comments posted. Click on the same “x comments” link and you’ll see what’s been written by other readers. Kristen (he's the happy one in the photo) posted a really comprehen-sive comment to my last blog, on the subject of Local Exchange Trading Systems (LETS) more specifically, their French equivalent, Système d'Échange Local (SEL). It’s so good, I don’t want it to be hidden / lost and reprint it here in full. (Don’t be put off, I don’t expect all comments to be this long! But do be impressed with the standard of English, as Kristen is very French!)

The French equivalent of LETS is SEL (système d'échange local), and I am very seriously contemplating putting my efforts into starting one around where I live, as I believe local 'currencies' such as the ones in these systems can save communities from total breakdown if (when) the world monetary system collapses (see my recent article on

Those local currencies often have a very useful feature: they melt when you do not use them (built-in negative interest rate). This encourages exchange and prevents hoarding. It places the supplier of goods and services in a dominant position with respect to the holder of money (which is the reverse of our current money system). It also has the same effect as hyperinflation of evaporating unused capital, but without the ill-effect of disorganising price references and gnawing at pensions and salaries.

Now the question of how to value work. There are three common possibilities: equal wages (as in: one hour of work = one unit of currency, be it aromatherapy, plumbing, or quantum physics), fixed prices (as in: some authority decides how much everything costs) or free market (as in: how many hours of plumbing would you be ready to do in return for ten minutes of high-end business consulting). Although there could be countless objections, I think I prefer the first (egalitarian) solution: everyone earns the same with the same amount of work. The difference then, between people with different skill levels, is that skilled people can choose the most interesting jobs, while unskilled people have to go for the repetitive tasks. It is now a struggle for quality of life rather than standard of living. I earn the same as my neighbour, only I like what I do better than he does. In fact, this is exactly what I have been doing in the past ten years, reducing my working hours so that my income has not changed.

I also like the possibility of fixed prices, as long as you can keep enough competition in the system. We know that one of the trends of a free-market system is to endlessly lower quality, because consumers go for the cheaper thing, even though it is flimsier or ill-finished. When the prices are fixed, the consumer will always go for the best quality, enticing craftspeople to always improve on quality (therefore durability, therefore sustainability). In essence, in a fixed price system, market forces adjust quality (instead of price). The danger when there is too little competition (oligopoly or monopoly) is a drop in quality. But this happens with free markets too, in which monopoly not only reduces quality, but also increases price. So apart from the (probably titanic) bureaucratic burden of fixing prices, I also like fixed price systems. (but I still prefer egalitarian systems).

Cheers, Kristen. Next up, Cider making, Part 2, then Guy Fawkes fun French stylie, making hempcrete, salad leaves all winter and loads of other stuff!

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Cultural Exchange – Fair Exchange: We’re very proud to present a wonderful piece of original artwork, a larger-than-life-size mural which instead of pieces of silver, we paid for with pieces of wood. Using permaculture principles as our guide, we try to link different parts of our gardens / farm / lives into a coherent, designed synergy rather than a disparate collection of individually useful stuff, so that we end up with something that is more than the sum of its parts. One tool we use is to consider permaculture inputs and outputs, so that, for example, windfall apples are hoovered up by grazing pigs and chicken poo, rather than being a caustic pollutant, is turned into rich compost for the vegetables. In the same terms, an output from our wood is a happy excess of firewood, having this year cut a forest ride to provide access. Our friend Alastair has an excess of artistic talent (he’s also a very good rhythm guitarist) but a dearth of logs. A cultural exchange of inputs and outputs has taken place and we are now the proud owners of a superb piece of art, allowing Alastair and Caroline to relax in front of their cosy wood-burning stove.

An interesting point was how to fix the tariff of exchange. You might have heard of Local Exchange Trading Systems (LETS) wherein goods and services are traded without using money. The exchanges don’t even need to be a direct, so that, for example, a member may earn credit by doing childcare for one person and spend it later on carpentry with another person in the same network. If I ever talk about LETS, Gabrielle usually smiles at me in a slightly knowing, slightly sceptical way, as her experience, when living in Brighton, was that it was easy to find any number of people offering aromatherapy treatments but damned difficult to find a plumber. And is the plumber’s hour worth more than the aromatherapist’s hour? Apparently, this "equivalence" is the one of the most controversial issues in LETS. What we decided with Alastair was to compare the local retail price of firewood with the price he’d charge commercially for an equivalent painting, thus calculating that our painting (which to us is “priceless”) was worth four cubic metres of chopped, split and seasoned firewood.

Talking of plumbers (as compared to aromatherapists) we encountered a blocked drain situation during the installation of the French drain around our French barn. Late on a cold and damp autumnal afternoon, on his way home from another job, our plumber called in to see what he could do. Ian worked his plumbacious magic, using chimney sweeping rods and a high pressure hose and, after a good three quarters of an hour, with fingertips turning blue, we had water flowing. Intended only as a “tip”—in French un pourboire (lit: for to drink) we pressed some of our homemade sausages on him. Unbelievably, for him this was enough. I disagreed; he insisted; I added a homemade chorizo. So there you have it, a plumber paid in sausages! And what about the aromatherapists? If you know of anyone working in Brittany that can give me a lower back massage, using sweet almond oil with lavender and who’ll take in payment a kilo of probably the world’s best British breakfast bangers, do let me know.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Volunteers: the third chapter. After the successful stays of Sam and then Kristen and Christine we were happy to accept David’s offer to come and stay for a week, working for his food and lodging. We got excited as David had told us, in his emails, that he’d done a permaculture course in Kinsale , Ireland. We started to compile a(nother) “list of things to do”, specifically for David. We even thought that we could entrust a design project to him and might learn some things from him.

A permaculture design course is typically 72 hours long, so imagine how impressed I was when, in the car coming home from collecting him at Rennes railway station, David told me that the Kinsale course was two years long! I felt like I’d ordered a Ford and, when I turned up at the showroom to collect my new car, the salesman handed me the keys of a Ferrari. This guy must know what his talking about.

We’ve given him, as a project, the area surrounding our chicken house, where we’ve recently cut down some large—unsuitable to their location—pine (macrocarpa) trees. That’s a work in progress, which you’ll read more about in subsequent blogs, but he’s already made his mark in our gite garden. While Gabrielle was showing him around, she pointed out the horseradish (see my amateurish, Photo-shopped visual metaphor at right) planted last spring: proud of its rude health, energetically throwing off big green leaves. David didn’t share her delight but rather recoiled in shock. Horseradish, as well as supplying some very useful roots (horseradish sauce!) and leaves (in salad) is also extremely invasive and will quickly take over the area in which it finds itself. We’re amongst honoured company apparently, faux pas-wise, as David related a tale of the founder of the permaculture course in Kinsale, Rob Hopkins. He’d planted horseradish in the Kinsale Further Education College’s forest garden. Having returned after an absence of three years to speak to the new students, and now knowing a lot more about the beast, he felt it necessary to begin his address by offering a formal apology to the students and staff for planting said horseradish. The remedial action has been to mulch the area for two years under black plastic. Anything less just won’t do, as in pulling it out, any scrap of root left, will re-sprout. This isn’t a pop at Rob at all, just a reassurance to anyone out there (like us) stumbling around in a mist of permacultural confusion, that we’re experimental pioneers rather than experts at the pinnacle. We’ve done some more research and will now fastidiously dig up the horseradish and replant it in a partly submerged dustbin, to control the spread of it’s edible yet invasive roots yet still enjoy the benefits.

Friday, October 31, 2008

How to make cider: Part 1. Probably the simplest instructions I’ll ever post: “First, pick your apples!”

Because of the climate—which dictates what grows well—you’ll see apple orchards rather than grape vines here in the north of France. Hence Brittany is not a wine producing region but is well know for its cider. I imagine that making cider on a small scale is less complex than wine (please post a comment if you know differently). The basics are that you squash apples to get the juice, which ferments naturally, and with no added yeast, to become alcoholic cider (“hard cider”, for any American readers [for whom I also include this subliminal, political message: Vote Obama! please]). If you just want apple juice, you have to pasteurise it.

Here in the Brittany countryside, making cider on a family scale is still a common event. Paul and Christiane, our pig-farming neighbours, are no exceptions but, busy as they always are, they haven’t found the time since 2000. Cider doesn’t keep in the way wine sometimes can and perhaps it was because their 2000 bottles were tasting bitter that they decided the time, and the apples were ripe. Many hands make light work, as the saying goes, and a team of expert apple pickers was assembled: Paul and Christiane, bien sûr, Christiane’s sister, Cecile, and her husband, Bernard, and his mum and Paul’s mum, me, Gabrielle and her brother, Bruin, not forgetting Aldo the large yet amiable Labrador cross.

A physical, somewhat bent-double-back-breaking yet also very enjoyable day was pleasantly punctuated by the obligatory French lunch, consisting of aperitifs such as port (which the English tend to drink after a meal as a digestive) aniseed-flavoured pastis or even whisky, served with crisps, followed by a starter, main course (curiously referred to as the plat de resistance) accompanied by cider, cheese, accompanied by red wine, then dessert and coffee. Bruin, here to stay with us for a couple of weeks, wasn’t at all prepared for all this and thought, not unreasonably, that the entrée (starter) was it and so—being a hungry boy after a hard morning’s apple picking—he got rather tucked in, so to speak. You should have seen his face when the main course arrived. It would be fair to say that we weren’t quite so dynamic in the afternoon session and I was very pleased to see the trailer full to capacity, calling an end to proceedings. The apples were left in the trailer, exposed to the elements, for a couple of weeks to mature before turning into juice.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

“A Pig in a Poke / Let the Cat out of the Bag:” Entomology is the study of insects; etymology is the study of the history and development of the meaning of words. Not to be confused then, unless you want to know how the word “insect” came into the English language!

Today’s bit of silliness is to reveal to you, if you didn’t already know, the meaning behind the two English idioms in the title above. I think it’s fair to say that letting the cat out of the bag is the more well known—meaning the disclosure of a secret—but did you know that the two phrases are related?

“Poke” is a diminutive of pocket but is also dialect for a bag or sack: so we actually have a pig in a sack. Or do we? Imagine yourself in a bustling 16th century market, vendors shouting out bargains, and you hear a pig being offered at a really low price with a wriggling sack being shoved into your face. It’s a blind bargain. Do you take it quickly or risk losing the discount of the day? You pass over your pennies and grab your bargain bag.

You know what’s going to happen now, don’t you? You get home, pleased with your purchase and then, in front of your family and wearing a proud smile, you open the sack, letting the cat out of the bag. You’ve been had: it wasn’t a porky bargain at all but rather a stray cat. I hope I’ve explained this clearly and, with the aid of one of our cats, here’s a demonstration …
(the laughter in the background is Gabrielle's brother, Bruin, who was here to stay)

Thursday, October 23, 2008

“Life and death on the Farm, Part 2.” This is the sequel to Part 1, and even Part 1 and a half: something I’ve been thinking about for some time trying to formulate what I should write.

If animals are part of your permaculture design, and one of the desired permaculture outputs is meat, then their humane slaughter is inevitably something that you are going to have to prepare for and deal with. Whether you plan to do this yourself, get a slaughterer to come to you or take them to the abattoir, this is a huge event, especially for the first time. For us, the welfare of the animal throughout its life, and its slaughter in a calm and humane manner is both paramount and incontrovertible. That way, you get another beneficial permaculture output, a happy animal, the very least you owe it if it’s going to end up on your dinner plate.

If you want to read up on the subject, there’s no better place to start than The Humane Slaughter Association (HSA) which “is the only registered charity that works, in the UK and internationally, through educational, scientific and technical advances, exclusively towards the highest worldwide standards of welfare for food animals during transport, marketing and slaughter.” Their excellent publications are sold on a not-for-profit basis. Other sources on information include, for example, The Soil Association text and, for me, a very interesting telephone conversation with Muhammad Ridha Payne of the organic halal (Muslim) meat suppliers in the UK, Abraham Natural Produce. I’m not in any sense religious but I was interested to hear him explain the correct principles of “halal” (permissible for Muslims) slaughter, which includes such elements as ensuring the animal is calm and unstressed and the slaughterer is in the correct state of mind with equipment correctly prepared.

We’ve slaughtered chickens, geese and rabbits here ourselves. For our pigs last year—the first time with a larger animal—Bernard, an itinerant slaughterer called a boucher de campagne (lit: country butcher) came to our smallholding to help us. Home slaughter is allowed under European rules, if the meat is for personal consumption only (i.e., you can’t sell it or even give it away). The local method involves suspending a live animal by a hind leg, cutting its throat, so it bleeds to death: definitely not what we wanted to do. François, a young local farmer kindly lent us his captive bolt humane killer and I used this according to HSA instructions. Once an animal is stunned unconscious, it’s suspended and stuck (bled) immediately. We’ve since slaughtered two kid goats, a hogget (lamb over a year old but not yet mutton) and the first of this year’s pigs using the same technique and with Bernard’s help.

Home slaughter obviously avoids any need to transport the animal. It’s in its own environment and our animals are used to being petted and having our hands around their heads. I can honestly tell you that they are not at all aware of what’s about to happen and, when I pull the trigger on the stunner, they drop immediately; there is no apparent distress at all to the animal. With our two remaining pigs well over 100 kg each, we decided it too great a task and that it’d be better to take them to an abattoir. Our friends, Sébastien and Jan helped in many ways, Sébastien borrowing a purpose-built animal trailer from the maire of the adjacent commune and Jan—who is coincidentally a veterinarian surgeon specialising in pigs—sorted things out with the abattoir, even trying to arrange a visit for me so I could see what went on there (politely refused). It’s a relatively small-scale abattoir who are very used to private people bringing one or two animals as well as lorries coming from farms.

With some food, we coaxed the pigs into the trailer early Thursday morning last week. We arrived at the abattoir while it was still relatively dark, and I reversed the trailer up to the loading ramp. The pigs seemed unperturbed by their 15-minute journey and were led into an individual holding pen. The slaughter would take place that morning, the pigs being electrically stunned. We returned Friday afternoon to recover the carcasses.

Taking an animal’s life is quite an event, emotionally speaking. For me, once the slaughter has taken place, there is a great sense of relief that it’s passed without causing the animal any suffering then the animal that we reared becomes a carcass to process. Gabrielle did shed a tear when we slaughtered the pigs last year but I must admit to being more affected this year, using the abattoir. I found the whole experience quite poignant, saying goodbye to the pigs and leaving them in someone else’s “care”. When I’d cleaned and returned the trailer and had a coffee with Sébastien, I walked up to the pig paddock; the emptiness overwhelmed me and I found myself with a lump in my throat and tears rolling down my cheeks. We were certainly much closer to the pigs last year, so it must have been something else. I rather think it was the stillness of the once-lively paddock, a metaphor for the cycle of life.

I’m proud of how we treat our animals and I feel, for me, it’s only right that I take full responsibility for their humane slaughter. I’m not advocating that every meat eater should kill their own meat but I do think one should understand what goes on to put meat on the plate and to undertake to buy meat from non-factory-farmed animals that have had a life outdoors and been raised with care. If that choice appears to cost too much, then think of eating better meat, but less often, and learning how to make use of every ounce of goodness out of the meat you do buy, finishing off with boiling the bones for stock. We will take delivery of two new weaners next February.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Tinker’s Bubble, Fossil Fuel Use and Permaculture:
Could you live like this? “Tinker's Bubble is an intentional community located near Yeovil in south Somerset, England. It was established in 1994 on forty acres of land consisting of about 20 acres of woodland as well as orchards and pasture.” (I quote from this page from Wikipedia and Economads, as they don’t have their own website.) “Low-impact living is the major idea of this community … For one, they have strict principals of not using fossil fuels.” So, how do they get by without petrol, diesel and gas? Apparently, they cook on a wood stove or over an open fire and use wind and solar energy for light. They cut hay using wonderfully light and sharp Austrian Scythes and sell timber which is felled by hand, logged by a Shire horse called Samson and then sawn up by a wood-fired steam-engine driven sawmill.

I'm not sure I could but I do think it’s really important that we have such principled pioneers to show us how we might return to life without oil as the supply diminishes I'd be as shocked as the next wo/man, if liquid fuel suddenly wasn’t available tomorrow. Rather than use it all up, then have none, I’d prefer to prioritise it, so that we’d eschew unnecessary flights for summer holidays, to save fuel to power ambulances, for example, and, as someone who processes a lot of wood, chainsaws (I shudder to think what it’s be like to cut and split our wood by hand.)

Call me hypocritical but whilst one should use less fuel where possible, there are moments when I celebrate the power of the internal combustion engine. Neighbour Serge had a huge pile of stone that he was willing to donate to us for our impending straw-bale house build project. Pig-farming neighbour Paul has a huge, powerful John Deere tractor. He agreed to help me move the stones 50 yards / metres from Serge’s house to our building plot, a task that took myself, Paul, his tractor and Gabrielle’s brother Bruin (here to stay for a of couple of weeks) just over an hour. Difficult, this carbon debt stuff!

On a lighter note, I was impressed and amused by the power of Paul's diesel-driven tractor to conveniently reposition these huge stones. Impressed by the raw, testosterone-charged, mechanical power, Bruin commented, "this tractor has balls", a statement we can now confirm. French nouns are divided into masculine and feminine—le orla, un orune, which is confusingly to do with how the word’s spelt, rather than bearing any relation to the meaning of the word, hence the “masculine” army and police are both “feminine”: une armée and la police. Seeing the brute force of the tractor shrugging off the challenge posed by these huge stones, how reassuring to find that it is “un tracteur”, i.e., unequivocally masculine. The proof: checkout these large pair of metal, tractor testicles and see if you agree.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

How fat is your pig? Modern, factory-farm produced bacon is lean: that’s, apparently, what the customer wants. It wasn’t always so. In his Cottage Economy (published, as a series of pamphlets, 1821-20) William Cobbett wrote of the cottagers’ pig:
Make him quite fat by all means. The last bushel, even if he sit as he eat, is the most profitable. If he can walk two hundred yards at a time, he is not well fatted. Lean bacon is the most wasteful thing that any family can use. In short, it is uneatable, except by drunkards, who want something to stimulate their sickly appetite. The man who cannot live on solid fat bacon, well fed and well cured, wants the sweet sauce of labour, or is fit for the hospital.” (p 109).
Wow! Strong words indeed.

Last year, we overfed our pigs, a pair of New Zealand Kune Kunes, and Bernard, the boucher de campagne (itinerant slaughterman and butcher) who helped us out, called them “boules de graisse (balls of fat); well, at least William Cobbet would have approved. Kune Kunes are notorious for putting on fat, which was used by the Maoris to preserve food. Similarly, other old breeds of pig will run to fat and so we’ve followed a regime this year, weighing out the food we give them each day; regularly prodding and poking and feeling for any sign of ribs, to try and remain in control of their size. The day is approaching and it’s time to have an idea of what weight they will “kill out” at (carcass weight), but how?

Last year, wanting to know the weight of our pigs to work out how much medicine I needed to administer to worm them, I ended up standing on the bathroom scales holding a squealing pig, then subtracting my own weight. Gabrielle, more sensible and less foolhardy and always keen to avoid my back pinging out and rendering me immobile and bad-tempered for a few days, did some research and came up with a special pig tape. You measure them around their bellies and then read off the scale. See photo at top—though perhaps I should have asked Gabrielle to take a video to show you how I had to follow our pigs around as they grazed on apples, slightly annoyed, or perhaps just tickled, by my attempts. Good thing I didn’t try to pick them up, they’re supposedly 120 kgs (265 lbs) each!