February 27, 2012

Mission Statement

Our aim is to create a self-sufficient small-holding  
developed according to permaculture principles of design,  
cultivated using organic and biodynamic methodology, and  
sustained by social education.

Our primary outputs will be:
  • RAW GOODS – organic vegetables and fruits
  • PROCESSSED GOODS – condiments, sauces, preserves etc
  • HOSPITALITY – monthly seasonal food events, residential retreats
  • SKILLS EXCHANGE – workshops and seminars

Through our work we aim to foster a network of mutually beneficial exchange within the local and regional area, that will raise awareness about the importance of:
  • a Local Food Economy
  • Regional Food Identity
  • Land Based Skills
  • Sustainable Living

In our first year we will build our home and establish the cultivation of vegetables and fruit. We will set up work weeks throughout the summer, inviting volunteers to help renovate the house and establish the gardens, whilst learning and exchanging knowledge. We will also plan in a handful of seminars focusing on Permaculture Design, Medicinal and Culinary Herbs, Biodynamic Agriculture and Low Impact Development, and will instigate monthly food events to raise awareness about our work and invite support.

In our second year we will design and build a commercial standard kitchen for catering and processing food. We will also expand our stock of animals and develop accommodation for residential courses and holiday retreats. We will continue with monthly awareness-raising events and will establish a farm shop. In the summer months we will take products to selected markets for wider networking and publicity.

By spring of the third year we intend to be fully functioning as a centre for the exchange of skills and ideas, trading in goods derived from our land and sustained by regular workshops and events.

February 24, 2012

mud on the track

The snow has now completely melted, save a few stacked up piles in odd corners and high places. The town is back to normal (as if winter had never happened) and today we spotted the first snowdrops in the back yard - sleepy white heads almost ready to peep out. Spring at last!

Out on the farm, winter has left us a surprise: as we approach our turn off we notice two hazard posts on the road. Turning into the muddy drive we immediately see swathes of mud clinging to tufts of swampy ground - rich, silty mud nestling where it landed, displaced by torrents of water.

Over the last few days all the snow from the hill behind has been rapidly melting into streams which have washed straight down the huge open field right into the natural dip that forms our northern border and which continues down through the lower pasture. The journey is clearly visible by the mud slide heading straight down to the road.

It is a sad sight and it is clear that the huge monoculture field above is responsible. So much of its fertility has simply been washed away. Not so long ago - we met someone our age who can still remember it so clearly - that huge field was all orchards which would have acted as a natural drainage system absorbing any excess water. Now there is nothing to take it up, and it is the land intended for cultivation that suffers the most.

The good news for us is that it has happened now and not after having already implemented lots of plans (and that the washed-away-top-soil has landed right in our territory and not in someone else’s). Examining the shape of the mud traces in the lower pasture near the farm house, we begin to see an area that would lend itself perfectly to a series of small, interconnected ponds – an opportunity to cultivate watercress, grow willow for weaving, encourage wildlife diversity and maybe even breed some fish!

Looking up at the big field you can see the water channel running directly between two springs. The one on the right is our neighbour's and the other is ours. This line is approximately the edge of our property. We will lay a wide hedge along this channel to form our boundary and to reinstate a natural drainage system. The hedge will follow the northern boundary upwards until it meets the western boundary where it will continue whilst rapidly reducing in height and size to maximise the warmth and light coming in from the south. We will plant this field with green manure for a couple of years to allow it to recover from intensive cultivation, pesticides and fertilisers.

Above the house to the left behind the cluster of fruit trees, is a large flat area perfect for cultivating vegetables. The poly-tunnel will fit nicely in the far corner without being too visible, yet open to enough light. Further across is a patch that has already been used to grow vegetables last season. It has all been mulched over with hay, but it is possible to see a few rows of rather sorry looking strawberry plants that may just revive with the spring.

Most of the rows have been dug over and then mulched to keep the soil rich and free from prying weeds. Lifting layers of mulch you can still see ice clinging to the strands of hay just a few inches from the surface.

We cleared one row today to allow it to thaw out a bit and release any excess moisture. This row will be for the elephant garlic bulbs that we have carried with us on our journey from England in a basket in a corner of our caravan. They have spent the last couple of months in a box of earth in the attic above our flat where they got a proper frost, enabling them to send out shoots ready to multiply.

Weekly column 'A Taste of Earth' published at www.porkandgin.com

February 19, 2012

A brief look

The Rotstein - the tiny tree in the distance is our boundary
Schwarze Schöps, eastern boundary

The back garden, looking northwards


Main house

Front door, north side

Hall (Gewölbe Stall)


Living room, upstairs

February 18, 2012

First Signs of Spring

Our friendly neighbour can contain his curiosity no longer and insists on driving us on our next visit to the farm. Born and bred in this region, he is an effort to understand but so full of stories and good advice that the effort is always worth it.

His enthusiasm is contagious! We pile out the van at the bottom of the drive full of laughter and excitement. The snow is too thick to drive up and it takes a while for our eyes to adjust to its’ almost blinding white light.

The snow lies much thicker here than in the town and captures a beautiful peace and purity that is now marred in Görlitz by the sludge of too many cars and people and no fresh fall of snow.

Only one line of footprints trace the yard - from the front door to the woodshed and across to the big barn. There the current owner still has his metal workshop, slowly winding down operations, sorting through his possessions and feeding the Kachelofen (a traditional tiled oven that can burn wood or coal and retains heat for a long time) to keep one room warm for comfort.

In no time at all, fresh tracks scribble all over the yard and garden whilst the big girls make snow balls and ‘ice-lollies’ and angels on their backs in the open spaces, and our neighbour receives the full tour.

The tiny feet of our little 18 month old Maia wade through drifts up to her thighs and the effort of simply crossing the yard is enough for the day! So we settle into the ‘summer house’, drink hot tea and eat fruit, and listen to the sounds of a chainsaw in the distance, a cluster of birds in the fir trees and the older girls squealing in the snow.

Here I can think. Sheltered by three walls, with the fourth side totally open to the back garden, the view takes in only nature – the nearby fruit saplings, the birch tree snuggling close to the walnut tree and behind, the arable land and the majestic rise of the wooded hill in the background.

That birch tree will sadly need to go, cramping the style of the walnut and blocking too much light from the south. It will make good firewood for next year and will be a job well done already now, before the sap begins to rise.

You can smell spring in the air, subtly coaxing buds on the trees and sending a soft breeze of hope through the branches. Everything is still white and frozen, but temperatures have risen a lot in the last few days and the great thaw is already beginning.

It is hard to know where to start with planning. We aim to move in at the start of April, when temperatures will be amenable enough for us to exist in the house without the pressure of constant fires. The first work will certainly be preparing ground for crops. Planning this has already sparked many interesting debates on things like mulching, tractors, where-what-and-how and permaculture principles of design.

A key principle in permaculture design is to ‘integrate rather than segregate’ - each new development must be carefully planned to be multifunctional and very practical. For example, if you were to put a greenhouse in the middle of a field, it would simply be a greenhouse. However, if you place it against a south-facing wall of your house, it will also serve to warm the house and will be much more accessible to the kitchen. The main house faces south into the courtyard, making this an ideal solution for our greenhouse needs, with just enough room to keep the drive entrance as it is.

The ‘metal workshop’ is an old brick barn closing the western edge of the courtyard and completing an L shape with the main house. You can see the shape of the original arched doorway in the back that has long been bricked in. It is an ideal space for animals and the arch will certainly need to be re-opened to enable them to exit easily to pasture.

Which animals, and how many, is a question we will tackle in due course. Animals are important on a small holding, whether you eat them later or not. Pigs can plough the land for you and eat your kitchen waste (as can chickens, albeit more daintily), sheep are ideal for maintaining orchards and goats will crop down almost anything (careful fencing needed!) saving you hours of battling with overgrown bramble patches. Best of all, animal manure is perfect for the vegetable garden and in combination with generous mulching and good composting, should ensure that you have no need to buy in any fertilisers or compost at all.

Closing the loop from earth to table and back again, creating no waste, nurturing sheer abundance of life with a purpose for everything - that is the vision that we can hardly wait to begin.

Weekly column 'A Taste of Earth' published @ www.porkandgin.com

February 14, 2012

Our Farm

Last November, we moved to Görlitz, in the far eastern borders of Germany. By some standards Germany’s most beautiful city, the ‘old town’ of Görlitz boasts stunning architecture and cobbled streets, quirky craft ateliers and numerous antique shops, as well as a bridge that takes you straight over to Poland. The old town is encircled by a low-key city centre which gradually sprawls into a semi-deserted ghost town where every second building is empty - sometimes whole streets - residues of past splendour visible only in faded gabled terraces and semi-detached villas.

Tourism is the only real draw for the city and anything outside of the old town struggles to survive. The surrounding area is of mixed interest. North is one vast, flat plane dotted with lakes and pine forests, stretching up towards Berlin. Due south takes you to the mountains of the Czech border via one of the largest man-made lakes in Saxony. The Czech border runs north-westwards towards Dresden and holds some of the most interesting landscape in its’ environs.

We have come to this part of Germany in search of affordable land upon which to grow our own needs and eventually to establish a livelihood from trading our products and services. Certain levels of security were needed to enable us to take this great leap of faith and for us, Germany makes the most sense, with its supportive infrastructure and the fact that we both speak the language.

We left England with some sadness but also a great feeling of freedom and lightness. We had no idea where exactly we would end up, yet the freedom of making a decision that simply felt right, gave us the confidence to move on.

In the end, it all happened much more quickly than we expected!

We had set ourselves up for a long drawn-out process of hunting and networking and advertising and dithering and hoping and crashing and trying once again. We certainly did all of that for a while, but suddenly with very little warning - we hold the keys to our own farm (pending a few formalities)!

Three and half hectares of growing and grazing land with a spring and a stream, old fruit trees and a walnut tree, young fruit trees, a farm house and barns enclosing one corner of a courtyard, a crumbling pig shelter, wooden summer shack and fir trees to the south (protecting from strong winds) and the shell of a small, free-standing house shielding the front side of the yard from the road.

The farm lies in the middle of a village that is over 7km long, all built along the edges of a small, winding road. Directly behind the farm rises a small mountain (or large hill!) and just under 4kms down village is a train station with regular connections to Görlitz and Dresden. It is pretty much equidistant between the Polish border to the east and the mountains of the Czech border to the west and south.

The farm has been lived in half-heartedly for the last few years and some crucial adjustments have been made, but there still remains a lot to do before our family could survive another winter like this one – it was -20°C last week! Stepping outside feels like opening the door of a freezer and immediately the insides of your nostrils freeze together, cheeks burn red and fingers and toes rapidly lose all sense of individuality.

In the market only the regular meat stall is trading (and of course the hot food stalls) but no sign of fresh fruit and vegetables – these temperatures simply ruin them. So it was venison and wild boar goulash today, instead of steamed greens and parsnip chips (needless to say, no complaints)!

In these harsh conditions, the current life on the farm made its necessary exchanges: the cat – Funny – arrived shy yet affectionate to our second storey flat to have company and shelter from the cold, whilst the old ewe and her son made their last journey in the battered van. An hour later, two skins still steaming, bloodstained and raw, were draped over trestles in the yard to dry out. The meat will last a good year, yet the gesture for the owners was a final goodbye to the farm, with all its promises, memories and dreams.

Now it is time for us to spin the ideas we’ve been juggling for so long, without a context, into a real plan of action that can begin with the first signs of spring.

Weekly column 'A Taste of Earth' published @ www.porkandgin.com