August 2012


This is what the field looks like at the moment:

I can’t help thinking, after spending several days picking weeds out of the cut corn, lining up the heads all in one direction and tying them into stooks, that this very long job would have been much easier if we’d used sickles instead of scythes. (Obviously, there’s only one way to find out – more on this some other year).

The stacks, though, look fantastic.

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For many reasons, pig keeping and the dream of self-sufficiency* go hand in hand. Tom and Barbara did it. Hugh did it. And so did we – as soon as we realised we were spending €700 a year on pork products at the local supermarket.

This money, we reckoned, could buy us pigs and feed them until time for slaughter. We could theoretically sell a pig, buy and feed more pigs, and keep ourselves in pork – forever.

For their part, the pigs would live in the woods, clear the land of unwanted vegetation, consume our meat-free food waste, turn weeds from the veggie beds into manure, and provide all the sausages, ham, bacon, lardons, roasts, salamis, filet mignons and more that we could possibly want.

(The €700 obviously excludes the set-up costs of fencing and housing, and the costs of slaughter if you’re using an abattoir, but you get the picture. Eventually, it would be a self-sustaining part of our lives.)

Now, for other reasons, we are looking again at this decision. In fact, there’s a distinct possibility that these two will be the last pigs we keep:

Why?

Partly, because carrying food and water hundreds of metres up and down the valley twice a day means we have very little freedom to do other things with our time. (If it’s too much to ask other people to do when we go away, isn’t it too much to ask of ourselves?)

Partly, because they are costing us more than that original estimate. These pigs, for example, will not go for slaughter until November when they’ll be over 1.5 years old. They cost us roughly €15 a week to feed. They’ll be too heavy for me to slaughter on the land and so will need to be taken to the abattoir.

Partly, because they’ve done their job of clearing the woods. If they stay there any longer there won’t be any woods – they’re that good at clearing them! They also damage the soil structure so severely that the land takes years to recover.

Partly, because since watching “Forks over knives” recently, we’ve all started eating much less meat. (It’s a film that describes the benefits of eating a veggie or vegan diet and I highly recommend watching it. Some of the points will genuinely surprise you and it might even save your life.)

Add a couple of these partlys together and we can look forward to spending €15 a week on veggie seeds or produce in the local market. We still have chickens, rabbits and geese for when we feel the need or desire for meat but, if we do the almost unimaginable and make the jump to a vegetable-based diet, we can sell these animals to other people and actually Make Some Money to buy these veggie seeds and products.

Which is a long-winded and largely unedited way of saying: We’re changing. One thing this challenging, exciting and enlivening (yet ironically, financially impoverished) lifestyle does is present you with the opportunity to grow, develop, play and explore new ideas.

On a personal level, I have never enjoyed taking the life of an animal, even though I can argue that the animal was always intended to feed me and my family. I have always been thankful to the animal, but could never shake the thought that ending a life is spiritually… an abomination (seems a bit much but it’s the word that feels appropriate).

Yes, it will be nice not to kill any more.

*We are so far from the reality of being self-sufficient it’s not even funny. I remember seeing a couple talking about being self-sufficient after about 15 years of constant work. It seemed a long time at the time, but now I think it’s reasonable.

Last week, Her Outdoors, who pays more attention to these things than me, said it was time to harvest the field of triticale we sowed at the end of last year.

From memory, this field was prepared by pigs’ noses, horse with spike harrow, tractor with Canadienne, humans with buckets (for rocks – lots of rocks), tractor with plough, and tractor with spike harrow. It was then sown by hand, harrowed a couple of times and left for nature to do her job.

(There was actually quite a lot more to it than that.)

I’ve taken photos randomly since the planting which are labelled “cultivation” on the right for the true crop spotters among you. Here is how the field looked before we took our scythes to it:


Here’s a close up of the heads:


And this is what the field looked like after a bit of sweaty work:


Obviously, there was quite a lot more to it than that. We decided to buy a second scythe, for example, to make the job go a bit more quickly. Then we bought a peening jig to get the blades really sharp, which needed a seat making for it:


And just before we started, Her Outdoors knocked up a couple of cradles (which didn’t last long, but was worth a try):


After three mornings of scything, we’re beginning to get the hang of it. Her Outdoors is now making stooks while I finish the cutting. And we have threshing, winnowing and storing to look forward to.

While shuffling up and down the field, I’ve been feeling a strong connection with the many generations who have gone before us. I wondered briefly about the sustainability ratio of this way of farming – how much energy we are putting in compared to how much energy we will get out. But then Her Outdoors reminded me that farming allowed the human population to explode way back when. So the balance will fall heavily on the side of success.

I’m grateful for a year when we had good rainfall at a good time (unlike last year). And hopeful that the seed will be good, will not spoil, will not be eaten by mice, and all the other unknown factors we have yet to encounter.

I just want to share a perfect moment from this morning before I go. I’d been up and down the field, before sitting down to rest (and to drink quite a lot of water). I noticed that there was not a mechanical sound anywhere. Images of Van Goch’s paintings filled my head. The wind picked up briefly and delivered a sublimely timed gust to my face, and I felt a oneness with humanity down the ages. To top the moment off, I heard the sound of two horses coming up the hill.

It really doesn’t get any better than that.