Friday, November 25, 2011

Fattening pigs on acorns

Two weeks of Andrew and Sue volunteering comes to an end and another article in the post, it’s time to catch up with some blogging:

Our pig farming neighbours, Paul and Christiane, have retired this year.  Ever since we’ve kept pigs ourselves, we’ve done an exchange with them, whereby I manage the English-speaking guests in their gîte and they give us all the cereals that we need.  It’s an elegant solution.  What I give is just a small thing for me (a few minutes on the computer replying to emails, preparing contracts and cycling down to translate on their arrival) but enormously important for them (most of their rental income comes via me).  En revanche, considering the scales involved, a few bags of ground mixed cereals is nothing for them but of considerable value to us (compared to the price we’d pay at the local agricultural merchants for similar).

We overfed our first pigs, and to lesser degrees the second and even third year before we got it right.  The key point was a little bit of advice in Starting With Pigs by Andy Case, “feed pigs by eye”.  It’s good advice but requires a level of expertise that only years of experience, and a few fat pigs, can give.  In the second year, we started weighing out their food, following a regime from the breeder.  The ‘problem’ is that, as they live outdoors, they have access to a whole lot of natural nutrition and we can’t measure how much of it they eat; so one has to learn to feed by eye.  We now give our pigs about a third of the cereal ration of their barn-raised cousins … but we do still give them some cereals.

There has been lots of building work going on as the new owner brings the buildings into conformity with the latest welfare standards.  When I went round to collect the last few bags of feed, that would see our pigs through to the day they left for the abattoir, the machine couldn't be made to work and I left empty handed.  What could we do?

I was missing the oakey obvious:  When we give holiday guests the introductory tour of our permaculture smallholding, we come to the pigs, where I point out what a lovely area they have to free range in.  I explain that the pigs eat a surprising amount of grass, root around (for roots!) and benefit from excess of cherries, plums and apples as they come into season, and finally acorns from the four mature oak trees that surround the paddock.  I even tell them that in Spain, there are pigs that are fed exclusively on acorns to make the very best quality jamón ibérico.

It’s been a very good mast year and there is an abundance of acorns.  We bought a clever rolling basket device (called a nut wizard) from Martin Crawford at The Agroforestry Research Trust and started to hoover up the acorns.  We’ve also been making lots of apple juice.  So we finished our three pigs on a diet of acorns and apple pulp and they seemed very happy and suitably heavy.

There are so many acorns, we’ve carried on collecting and will try to store them to feed to next year’s pigs before the acorns start to fall again.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Eco-construction, economics, climate change and peak oil ...


“The construction of Europe is an art.  It is the art of the possible.” 
Jacques Chirac.

I was looking for a suitable quote to kick-start this blog on some eco-construction stuff.  I didn’t find anything I liked for the context I wanted but, with Europe in financial chaos, I thought this ironic, coming as it does from a ex-president of France (’95 to ’07) currently on trial for corruption during his time as mayor of Paris.  The trail is taking place in his absence as the poor dear is suffering memory lapses and is too unwell to attend.

the mix ascends by tractor and bucket
I avoid political ranting on this blog, which is meant to be an easy-going chronicle of our stumbling progress on our Breton permaculture smallholding, promoting our holiday cottage for rent but it’s hard to ignore what’s going on in Europe and the rest of the world at the moment.

Didier setting out some levels
We’ve got a nascent ‘Transition Town’ group not far from us and I’ve offered to get involved, so I’ve just re-read Part One of The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience by Rob Hopkins.  It’s reminded me that, in comparison to the twin, linked threats of peak oil and climate change, our current economic woes pale into insignificance.  However, our politicians once again fail to rise to the challenge and can only exhort us to throw away stuff that still works (such as your car) and buy morestuff, stuff we don’t really need and which consumes valuable energy and resources to manufacture and transport.
hemp and lime floor

By the by, we had a climate change activist and his son come and stay recently, on their cycling route from the port of St Malo to the south of Brittany, where they are going to start a community farm project.  With the gite booked, we had them in our house and decided not to charge: the idea of freely giving weary travellers shelter and sustenance seemed satisfyingly human.  After dinner he asked if we could watch the English TV news and I had the strangest experience of looking at John Jordan on the television  being interviewed on BBC’s Newsnight and turning to see the same head sat in our armchair watching himself.

all work and ... a large lunch !
I firmly believe that one shouldn’t rant about problems without offering helpful solutions, so my advice to European governments is to ask their peoples to start looking down the backs of their sofas to see if they can find any lost change.  It’s seems the ever-efficient Germans have been the first to do this, ‘finding’ an amazing 55 billion euros they didn’t think they had.  Start pulling those cushions out!

… and to finish off with some eco-construction : work on the barn continues (update soon) and we’ve also been helping out friends.  Bruno and Audrey have a very uneven but solid wooden floor in their attic, which will become their bedroom.  Audrey’s dad, Didier, was maitre d’œuvre for the day and Bruno and several friends and neighbours (me included) mixed and raised up by tractor and buckets, a porridge of hemp and lime for Didier to level.  This light but strong eco-‘concrete’ sets hard over a month or so and consolidates the floor, leaving a flat surface.  The beautiful old oak boards remain in place as the ceiling of the rooms below.  Why ‘eco’ ?  Lime is produced at a much lower temperature than cement (less energy) and absorbs CO2 as it dries/cures.  Hemp is a bit of a wonder plant and requires no chemicals during its cultivation.

We’ve also helped Bruno and Mélanie top off their straw bale house with a green roof.  Another convivial team effort, we planted hundreds of sedums into a substrate of earth and pouzzolane (volcanic rock).  Our influence was to tell them about famous English gardener Gertrude Jekyll’s ‘drifts’.  The idea is to plant large, smooth edged clumps of similar plants together in a satisfyingly uneven drifts.  I’ll post more pics next summer, when the plants have expanded to fill the gaps and come into flower.

Helping French friends out is always a pleasure, particularly as good food and wine is inevitably implicated along with music round the bonfire on the green roof day.

Mél and Bruno round the bonfire
We’re awaiting the arrival of the first of this season’s winter volunteers later today.  Andrew and Sue came for a week last year but have booked for two this time … we’re clearly not working them hard enough!