In the spring, I’ll be doing the usual preparation work before écovallée opens, and I have to finish the road to the car park some time before then. But I have plenty of other projects to be getting on with.

The first big project is a new idea: teaching people how to create or improve their own website, using WordPress. I’ll be running one-day introductory courses, and one-day content courses, in one of the region’s best restaurants – Les Petits Plats. (I’ll be re-doing their website, too.) I’ve written about the courses here and I’ll keep you up to date on this blog, from time to time.

Apart from that, I’ll be working hard on music. My objective is to get my solo piano set in my head, so I can throw my chord charts away. Then I’ll try and do the same with the band. Both sets added together run to about six hours, so it won’t be easy. As part of this process, I’m going to be recording a load of piano tutorials on my new YouTube channel. I couldn’t have learnt the 200-odd songs I’ve learnt in the last few years without YouTube. This is my attempt to put something back.

If you’re thinking that the blog is wandering off track, both of these activities still fall under the banner of self sufficiency. At the end of his book, John Seymour recommends using all your skills to bring in the money our world doesn’t let you live without. It’s not just about pushing wheelbarrows and wearing dirty clothes.

As an added bonus, during the winter months, I can do both of these inside.

One of the first things I heard about permaculture was how easy it is – a “no-dig” solution to the world’s insatiable demand for food. My mind conjured up images of someone (me perhaps, or Her Outdoors) wafting seed at the ground, then coming back  later to wander through our very own Garden of Eden, trees dripping and ground heaving with all manner of perfect fruit and vegetables. A smallholder’s paradise, where chickens take care of the pests and all you need to do is lie in the shade and plan what you’re going to do with today’s harvest.

It’s an attractive image, especially when you’ve spent seven years creating this:

veggie patch work

This was our veggie patch yesterday (the first time Her Outdoors has been happy to have it photographed). The ground was initially dug over by pigs, and all the “raised beds” were dug by hand, fertilised with Pepito’s manure, wood ash from our burner, rotated to help prevent disease (“help” is a key word here), nurtured, slaved over, repaired using wood from écovallée and stared at dejectedly. It’s been a labour of necessity, love and hope – and if you’ve ever done any gardening (I haven’t – Her Outdoors did this pretty much on her own), you’ll have looked for an easier way to get the results you want.

So when someone tells you about no-dig food production, you look into it.

Having read a bit and watched a few permaculture videos on youtube, permaculture can be fantastically easy. Provided you have the ground terraformed by JCBs, have uncountable tons of topsoil and manure delivered by fleets of trucks, and a huge amount of money to spend on seeds. Oh, and a sub-tropical climate with massive amounts of rain followed by months of sunlight. And plenty of time. And help.

What if you have none of those things?

One answer, found through permaculture, could be hugelkultur. If this is the first time you’ve come across this excellent word, it won’t be the last. Anyone who’s tried it raves about it. 

Last winter, we built a small “flugelbed” (any Swedish-sounding word works for us) in the polytunnel. It wasn’t a real krugelschmugel – more a raise bed half filled with rotting wood and manure, topped with earth from molehills. It’s been great. Carrots thrived in the sifted soil, free from pests who haven’t evolved to fly up to that altitude. Unfortunately, the deer have enjoyed breaking in and using it as a salad bar, leaving beautifully cropped plants next to telltale hoof prints. Our response will be to create a deer-proof fence around the polytunnel when we get round to it, which will surely do… something.

But that’s not the point right now.

The point is that we’re starting our first shnugelbed outside. It’s a very long-term project but one we’re very excited about. Lacking a JCB, Her Outdoors prepared the area to be used by leaving a tarp on the ground for a year or so. After the rain loosened the clay-heavy soil, she spend a few weeks carefully removing the bindweed:

veggie bed digging

Yesterday the hugelproject looked like this:

veggie bed before

All we needed to do next was place the soil to one side of the (uphill is wise here):

veggie bed after

We’ll be returning to this project regularly to monitor its progress. In a few years, the results should be spectacular.

At the risk of sounding like Swiss Toni from The Fast Show, self-sufficiency is a lot like perpetual motion. It seems like a lovely idea, is probably impossible, and almost completely useless. 

Considering impossibility

In Christmases past, I used to argue with a friend of mine’s dad about perpetual motion. “Alex,” he would say while shaking his head and re-filling his pipe. “You haven’t considered entropy.” (He’s a nuclear physicist – they say things like that.) And he was right. I only recently looked it up.

But fundamental laws of physics aside, I am happy to concede that if a perpetual motion machine was invented, it would serve no useful purpose. As soon as you started to draw power from it – and why else would you be building a machine – I suspect it would stop working.

So it is with self sufficiency.

Ignoring the grim reality of the self-sufficient life for a moment – the making of clothes from your own wool, the exposure of your crops and animals to the vagaries of the weather, the impossible number of skills you would need to master, the relentless work – as soon as you wanted to draw money from your labour (to pay property taxes, exchange for school meals etc), I’m sure your carefully woven life-support system would unravel.

What’s the point?

And what’s the use of self-sufficiency anyway – even if you did achieve it?

Sometimes I read that producing food for yourself and your family is a right-wing thing. It smarts because, although I’m nowhere near that end of the political spectrum, there’s more than one grain of truth to it. (Selfish sufficiency might be a better term.)

Like many people who have started working towards having control of their own food supply, of wresting control for their destinies from amoral corporate bodies and faceless bureaucracies, I could not happily feed myself if other people went without. Like the Ubuntu legend (you know – the one where African children all win a basket full of sweets by approaching it hand in hand), I could only be truly happy if everyone else was OK, too.

Which is why, in 2013, like God facing the irrefutable evidence of his own existence in the Hitchhiker’s Guide, self-sufficiency as a goal vanished in a puff of logic.

I have to say, it’s a bit of a relief.

A much better idea

No doubt following another fundamental law of physics, a new goal rushed into the aspirational vacuum in my head. This idea, which if it’s any good should need no explanation, I’m going to call: Community Sufficiency.

You’ll be reading more about this in 2014, and experiencing some of it if you come and stay in écovallée.

In the meantime, I hope you and yours have a wonderful, happy mid-winter festival, Saturnalia, or whatever else you choose to call the celebration of our hemisphere’s darkest day. After tomorrow, the light’s coming back, it’ll soon be spring, and the future is ripe with possibilities.

When we’ve had bookings in the past, I’ve had to do the following things (not necessarily in this order):

o write the details into my computer’s calendar

o write the details into a spreadsheet

o open an Illustrator file and change the boxes on the calendar manually, copy and paste it into a Photoshop document, save it as a png, open an ftp program(me), copy the new file into the right folder, and refresh the page

o check it all works

This obviously left me wide open to a major panic when our computer got fried by lightning. It was a while before I realised much of the data was stored in the iCloud and could still be read, but my system was obviously far too complicated. I persevered for the rest of the 2013 season but, now it’s time to start thinking about next year, something had to change.

I spent literally a few minutes online and found a link in a forum that mentioned date blocker. I’ve spent literally some more minutes doing a test calendar that I offer you (and me – it’s mainly for me to be honest) as a trial. I’ve been given some code (one for embedding and one for a link) and I’m pasting them below. Let’s see what happens now.


OK, the embedded code didn’t appear. I’ve now added the other two yurts, so here’s the new code for embedded and link. Remember, ladies and gentlemen, this is a test. There is no need to be alarmed.

Link code:
View availability

Embed (iframe – whatever that is) code:

That embed code just doesn’t want to play. But the link works. The calendar is clear, functional, but not pretty. I’ll sit with this for a while.

I ended up re-designing the whole website in WordPress. The calendar plug-in I use there cost about $29 and can be customised up to a point.

Last week, Her Outdoors came back from the local garage fuming.

She’d just discovered that a 25kg bottle of gas (we use one a month for cooking) had gone from €26 to €32 in one hit – a massive increase in anyone’s cheque book.

Now, we might be able to stretch to this extortionate price hike, but why should we? Besides which, it’s not a sustainable thing to do. If you’ve read anything about “peak oil”, you’ll know that these increases are only the beginning, at the end of which there will be no more fossil fuel. No one can say when this will happen, but that it will happen is certain. We are living through a few fleeting years in planetary history where our species’ success is a direct result of the non-renewable resource beneath the deserts of the Middle East and, tragically, the soon-to-be-fracked green and pleasant lands around the world.

So how did we respond? We put the new gas bottle next to the cooker in the kitchen and didn’t plug it in. We took the cover off the clay oven and started to see our woodburner as something more than a way to keep warm.

That was nearly a week ago. Here’s a shot from the second firing of the clay oven:

clay oven cooking

o corn bread muffins for the following breakfast

o roasted squash and garlic mash

o beans for the next day

o bread rolls for the day after, too

o sausages were in the oven at this point

It’s not without stress. Learning how to keep the clay oven hot enough to do several things, cooking without some very specific tools that would make the whole thing much easier, and walking to and from the kitchen several times to fetch ingredients and utensils is all a bit of a pain. But there are huge positives.

Cooking is now at the centre of our attention, as a family. The kids were out looking for scrap wood for the clay oven the other day. They’re seeing meals being made in front of them, instead of in the kitchen 15 metres away (in another building). The Daughter even made dinner for her and Boy on the woodburner the other night. Only a simple one, but how many 12-year-olds in her class have done that this holiday? Or ever?

It’s too early to have a routine, but we plan on firing the clay oven about three times a week for baking. Probably a loaf of bread, then a casserole as the oven cools. Making pizzas is quite stressful and not enjoyable for the person doing the making, so we won’t do that too often. We use the woodburner most of the time which means the yurt gets a bit warm three times a day. Surprisingly, it boils water in a pan from cold almost as fast as our stove-top kettle did, so although it takes longer to make essential things, like coffee first thing in the morning, the inconvenience isn’t huge.

I could write a very long post about our thoughts over the last week, but I’ve got quite a lot to do at the moment. I realise this is not the kind of thing many people can do, but it is exactly the kind of thing we set out to do. Our original plan was to have a beautiful Esse wood-fired oven for cooking in the Winter and then find another option for the Summer. I suspect we’ll eat a lot of salads and barbecue when we need to. A friend gave us a solar oven that we’ve been using to prove bread. We’ll explore rocket stoves, too. I’m not sure how else we’ll be boiling a kettle.

Have we plugged the gas bottle in yet? Yes. My tractor doctor came round the other day to take a wheel away (I don’t have the gear to fix a puncture) and Her Outdoors offered him a coffee before realising the woodburner wasn’t on. We may be happy to live like this, but we can’t assume other people will understand.

After the school run, I took advantage of the dry weather to turn some of the overstood coppice I cut a couple of years ago into heat for about ten days. (The sawdust goes onto the paths through the woods, which will become more and more National Trust-like over time. That’s my theory anyway.)

wood cutting

While I was cutting, I was thinking about this article that a friend posted on facebook last night. It tells the incredible story of a family who survived for 40 years in the Siberian wilderness. They didn’t have the tractor, axe, chainsaw, boots, thermals, ear defenders, gloves – or even the breakfast I had today. They had practically nothing. For decades.

I’ve said before how far we are from being self sufficient – now you can read what it’s really like.

For various reasons, some of which I’ve already touched on, we’re taking a (possibly permanent) break from pig keeping. To give you the benefit of our experience over the last five years (and to remind me what I’ve learnt for future reference), I’ve decided to blog our final Pig Week in some detail.

If you are a vegetarian, you might want to unfollow for a couple of weeks.

One of the most troubling parts of rearing pigs for food, for me, especially early on, has been deciding when it’s time for them to leave for the Great Sty in the Sky. Actually being the one responsible for ending a life throws up many emotional and spiritual issues. Fortunately, weather, availability of helpers and other factors, provides a very small window of opportunity. That window has just opened.

Tradition has it that you should only process a pig (my term for killing and butchering) in a month with an “r” in it. Thanks largely to human activity since the industrial revolution, September and October were far too warm this year. Earlier this month, I took advantage of a cold evening to say goodbye to our second-to-last pig – and I’ve just booked someone to come and help me with the final pig. I won’t tell you exactly when. Just that it is soon.

The pig in question is about 18 months old (as compared to factory line pigs that are killed at about six months, I understand) and has spent his life in our woods. He probably weighs around 150kg (I’ve read some UK abattoirs are refusing to process pigs heavier than 100kg) and his size alone will present me with a number of challenges. He has cost about €10 a week while he’s lived here but cost very little to begin with. In all, we’ve probably spent about €800 on the pig and are looking forward to many months of “free” meat.

Our plans are to use one leg for prosciutto, one for a ham stored hung in the air, streaky and back bacon (smoked and unsmoked), sausages, chorizo, salami, some joints and curry. I’ll explain all the details as we go.

I saw something online yesterday about a farm offering courses on a “Pig in a Day”. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall also offers courses like this. We’re going to demonstrate how long the process actually takes (in reality, well over a week) to provide some balance. As you’ll see from earlier posts, we’re not novices. This will be the 12th pig who has lived on the smallholding. I have personally killed one and butchered nine and a half of those.

If you’re still with me, I hope you will find the following posts helpful, educational and, above all, respectful.

From a smallholding point of view, I’m fortunate enough to have my birthday at the end of the Summer. It’s a time of plenty.

Plenty of tomatoes:

Plenty of butternut squash:

(I told you there were plenty of tomatoes.)

This year, there was even plenty wine and beer brought by visitors to écovallée. Which meant I didn’t have to spend my birthday money on anything. Which gave me the opportunity to entertain wistful ideas, like the buying of a longbow I promised myself years ago (until I saw how much they actually cost), or a new pair of gloves (although there’s really only one big hole in one of them at the moment), or something I hadn’t even thought of yet.

Unfortunately, the economic reality of smallholding caught up with me and what I actually bought was this:

From left to right: a 40 kg bag of maize, a 25 kg bag of rolled barley, a 10 kg bag of corn and a 25 kg bag of rabbit food. These are things that have to be bought with alarming frequency (except the corn – that’s a treat for the chickens and geese) and which are increasing in price at an alarming rate (and will continue to do so, until the oil runs out).

I was going to use the opportunity to write an indepth post about the economics of smallholding, including an aside about the impossibility of self-sufficiency in the early 21st Century, but that will have to wait. It’ll take a bit of time to write and I really have to get back to work on the caravan project.

So I give you this slightly self-indulgent woe-is-me post instead. (Cue world’s smallest violin.) It could have been worse, I suppose. I could have used the money to buy fuel, like last year. And the year before. (Violin fades out.) But I can’t ignore the fact that the chickens got me something in return:

Which would be perfect. If I only liked eggs.

My old log cutting bench has seen its last season:

As I was sketching out a new, improved design, I remembered something that friend and helper Alex mentioned a few years ago. She said she’d made a log cutting system involving uprights with many logs stacked on top of each other. I guestimated she meant something like this:

This is how many logs you can cut in a couple of minutes, the first time you used it:

It’s a huge efficiency in time and energy (physical and fossil fuel). There’s at least one log lift less required than with the previous bench, and it may be close to perfect. It will also mean only one large pile of sawdust (for animal bedding and compost toilets), instead of several small piles with the old, portable bench.

This is a Mark I experiment to see if the gaps and angles work. It’s based on the width and blade length of my chainsaw, to produce the 40 cm lengths required for our main woodburner. We have a second burner that uses 25 cm lengths and I’m still thinking about that.

(Worth mentioning that, going into my fourth winter in a yurt, I’ve never been so prepared when it comes to fire wood. I have dry wood in various locations, and have even got the beginnings of a pile for next winter.)

(Also worth mentioning that I’m hating the new blogger interface that I’ve been forcibly migrated onto. Instead of struggling with it, I’m going to start looking for another platform. I’ve stopped following other blogs that have migrated but please bear with me.)

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.