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.