The Gift Economy

I have spent a lot of time over the last few weeks picking fruit and vegetables from the garden and hedgerows and preserving it for winter. Most of the mushrooms I picked in my neighbour’s field were dried, as were some of my cooking apples (the first crop off the tree in years!), and some apples and other fruits were bottled or made into jam, some of the elderberries became Pontiack sauce to enrich casseroles, and the eating apples my friend Marie gave me from her hugely productive orchard went into the steam juicer with a cinnamon stick to make a lightly spiced juice for winter nights, whilst most of the tomatoes were roasted with slivers of garlic and a dribble of olive oil before going in the freezer. So this

Became this (plus lots of boxes in the freezer!)

 

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But I was also able to give lots of produce away. Most people had more than enough courgettes and green beans but tomatoes, mushrooms and grapes were welcome.  In the days before freezers everyone in the neighbourhood feasted when a pig was killed on a farm because with only limited means of preserving the meat it made sense to share it and, in return, be given some of a future supply. The same ethos applies to garden crops now – anything surplus is shared out. But I realised I was making choices about who got what.

It set me thinking (there is lots of time to think whilst peeling and coring apples or waiting for jam to reach setting point!) about the amazing people in Todmorden (and other places) who plant unloved or underused public spaces with edibles and invite everyone to help themselves. I think that if I was one of them I would start with a pretty rosy picture of the benefit I would be bringing to the community. I would imagine helping those elderly or disabled people no longer able to tend a garden and missing having freshly picked fruit and veg. Those parents struggling to feed their kids and relying on the food bank could have freshly plucked salad for tea. They are the deserving poor.

But what if I see that lad from the rough end of town, the one who has never wanted, let alone had, a job picking ALL the strawberries I carried water to when the weather was hot and dry? Do I tell myself that at least he wants to eat fresh food and they will be good for him or do I worry that he will simply trash them and curse him? The ?underserving? poor.

Or what about that couple with two good salaries and a big house saving a bit on the Waitrose shop – is that OK? The ‘too lazy to grow their own’.

Maybe this is why Community Supported Agriculture and Community Farms are so popular – only those who put in cash or work benefit.

But that begs the question – Those parents using the food bank may be unable to put money upfront however economically advantageous in the long run, and may not have time or energy to volunteer. And the retired or disabled folk may have the same problem. Community agriculture and Community Farms can easily become middle class enclaves however worthy the aspirations.

All this linked back in my mind to a conversation with a friend earlier in the year. We were talking about birds taking our black- and red-currants. To net or not to net was the dilemma. My choice, because I have plenty of space, was to not net but to increase the number of bushes until even the most voracious of flocks cannot eat them all! Not so easy if all you have is room for one bush I know.

It all seems to me to be part of the same questions: How generous should I be? When am I being greedy or overly self protective? At what point do I give so much stuff away I am not being properly caring towards myself? And how do I cope if my generosity feels unappreciated or even abused? Despite reading a number of books recently on our attitudes to money and possessions I have no answers to these conundrums – but I would love to hear your thoughts!

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Oh Dear! Now what?

At the end of July I finished a year of recording all my expenditure in line with the categories of the One Planet Development Carbon Footprint Calculator. It was time to enter it all into the spreadsheet and get the calculated result. (you can find the calculator on the Welsh government website under Topics>Planning>Policy and guidance>One planet development practice guide. The pdfs are at the bottom of the page.) I knew I would not meet the target of 1.88 global hectares but hoped for and expected nothing worse than 2 to 2.5 times that. So it was rather a shock to get 6.72 global hectares – 3.6 times my share of the planet’s resources! How did that happen? How can I get this number down and live within my fair share? I must admit that I felt ashamed to be so greedy and also slightly panicky as to how I could improve further.

After a few deep breaths I managed to engage my brain! Although this calculator is much more searching and precise than many I have seen, it has its flaws. For instance it asks me to enter my consumption of food as money spent on the various categories. Paradoxically when I broke my wrist and did almost all my shopping in a supermarket my spending went down. So buying potatoes grown in Egypt on sand plus chemicals, using rapidly depleting underground aquifers, would give a lower score than waiting a few weeks to get organically grown ones from Pembrokeshire! I gather from Jasmine Dale that when the scheme was originally being designed there was an intention to correct this anomaly but somehow that has been lost. I do understand that it could get ridiculous with multiple categories – Potatoes organic Welsh,  Potatoes organic UK, Potatoes organic EU, Potatoes organic other, Potatoes not organic Welsh…. all with different scores per £ spent.

Secondly if John had still been alive my score would be much lower. Although food costs would roughly double and the water bill would go up a bit, the cost of running and heating the house would stay pretty much the same. Similarly the bulk of the costs of running the car would be unchanged and as we always tried to do more than one errand in each journey we would mostly travel together so the petrol cost would only increase a bit. Lowering my carbon footprint does not seem a good enough reason to start looking for a new husband!

Another alarmingly big chunk went on the dogs and cats. Even excluding the ‘contributions’ to the rescue charity for Sally and Connor and the one-off cost of having Connor neutered (he was too young for him to have been done already) they are costing me about £11.50 per week. I buy the cheapest food by the sack from the farmers’ Co-op but on the advice of the vet when I got Orchid from the rescue charity, they get a dentastix each night and Roo gets through quite a lot of squeaky balls! I know that there are people who disapprove of pets and I can understand their logic. However the original reason for having cats was to keep vermin like rats and mice under control. No I probably do not need 3 of them for that (though they keep finding plenty). And the dogs keep me healthy and connected to the neighbours as I explained in my first post on this blog (read it here Walking the dogs) And all 5 of them keep me company, make me laugh and give me cuddles.

It was those ‘unquantifiable’ outcomes, the ‘soft’ benefits which both Jasmine and Jan Martin (a.k.a. Mrs Snail – read her blog here) reminded me needed to be ‘offset’ against my consumption. I am building soil fertility  in the garden, increasing the amount and diversity of habitat, planting trees, building community, volunteering for charities (which is how some of the petrol is used), passing on what I learn through the networks and I belong to…..

Then I read an interesting piece by Paul Jennings who lives only a few miles away. He points out that my plot and my lifestyle are embedded within a wider system which is not, at the moment, designed to be helpful to me achieving my goal. If there was a public transport system that was close enough I would use it. When I am offered a lift or can give one I do. If I could use a taxi (the nearest taxi firm is, I believe, based in Cardigan 19 miles away) I would. But in the system as it is I need a car. And so on. You can read his excellent piece here.

None of that leaves me complacent about my high score. It was an interesting exercise and gave me some useful information. I need to go on thinking about how I could do better but to focus too narrowly on that one criterion could lead me to make some unethical choices.

Is it better to buy a jumper made of synthetic fiber from the charity shop or to knit one from locally produced wool? The former makes use of something that has already been made, supports a charity, encourages volunteering, helps prevent an empty shop on the high street, but I may think ‘easy come, easy go’ and not take much care of it, it sheds microfibres into the environment, will never rot down … The latter supports local farmers, a local haberdashery shop, encourages me to be creative, I will probably look after it because I know how long it took to make, it is environmentally friendly, will rot when I finally put it on the compost heap…

I do not think there is A right answer to any of these conundrums. Hopefully wrestling with them will do both my brain and the planet some good!

 

 

Friends and family

Despite being without an Internet connection for 8 weeks of it I have had a fantastic summer.

It all started with the celebration of the new fields at Dyfed Permaculture Trust (find out more here The consequence of reading books)

 

 

The usual workdays and network get-togethers have been enhanced by the lovely sunny weather. There has been chance to catch up with friends. Some have come here and we have made the most of the new deck. Other times I have visited them or we have gone out for lunch together as Jan (Mrs Snail who blogs as ‘The Snail of Happiness’) did last week in Tresaith.

 

Then there were the regular workdays and gatherings.

My eldest Grandchild, Shorna’s graduation (read about it here Going Batty in London) was followed by her younger brother Sean getting the A level grades he needed for a place at Swansea University (read about my joining them for the open day here All Change) and now my daughter’s eldest, Sam, has done well enough in his GCSEs to go on to College where he hopes to do a music course. His younger sister Georgia had no exams this year thank goodness!

But the other big family event was that I met my new foster grandchildren for the first time. My son and his wife have been fostering for a few years now but until this year had teenagers for relatively short placements or, on one occasion, teenagers and a younger sibling for a while. This time they were asked to take another sibling group but these are aged 5 up to 8 and will, all being well, be with them until they are adults. They are delightful children but have lived in cities all their lives with parents who were too lacking in resources (internal and external) to do much more than provide basic care for them. (They also have 2 other siblings who are both disabled and have gone to separate placements where they have the undivided attention of very experienced and trained carers.) Hassan brought them to visit me for a few days to give them some of the experiences they had missed out on. And because my daughter Carrie was planning to come at about the same time he picked her up on the way – it was good to have her help and expertise with little ones. My skills with small children are rather rusty! Between us we gave them a whole string of firsts.

Roo and Orchid were the first dogs they had actually stroked, let alone played with, but Roo soon had them throwing her ball for her! We all visited Jeni so they could meet sheep, pigs, hens, ducks, geese and more dogs! They picked blackberries and ate some straight from the hedge, picked tomatoes with Jeni and with me, and ate French beans they had helped collect. We went to the beach and made sandcastles, went in the sea, looked into rock pools, ate ice cream cones and had Fish and Chips for tea in a cafe. We played in the castle at Newcastle Emlyn. Carrie helped them make a cake, then made them some playdough and picked leaves to press into it to make patterns. Hassan helped them make paper aeroplanes and they flew them off the deck. And two of the nights they slept in tents in the garden. Such simple pleasures but ones that many urban children in struggling families miss out on. It was such a privilege to be able to give them those experiences – ones that I suspect they will remember for the rest of their lives.

I hope you had a good summer too. Please blog about it or share a highlight or two as a comment – I would love to hear about it.

Shop Local!

Those of you who read these posts regularly will know that I live in a very rural part of South West Wales – in the middle of nowhere, past the back of beyond! My nearest shop, and the only one within walking distance (just), is at C&M organics near Llanglydwen. Chris and Matt have a market garden where they grow and sell fantastic veg, all certified organic. But not everything grows well in this rather damp part of the UK and of course some things are too exotic to grow in the UK at all. So to meet the needs of the shops and restaurants they supply they buy in stuff from ‘foreign parts’ (including the UK!). And for us locals they sell through their farm shop where they also stock various dry goods and some chilled produce if it has a long enough shelf life.

 

Recently they realised that those people starting out in the agriculture or horticulture businesses, many of them contemporaries and friends of their daughters, could do with a helping hand to sell their produce. Some, like Alex and Sam Heffron at Mountain Hall farm (read more about them here Starting From Scratch) who produce raw milk from their small herd of channel island cows and grass fed beef, have difficulty meeting demand fairly locally. Others can sell over the internet. But not everything lends itself to delivery by post or courier and those producers can struggle. The problem for Chris and Matt was that they guarantee that everything in they sell through the shop is certified organic and many of these small, new producers, cannot afford the certification process which is understandably rigorous and therefore expensive.

 

The solution was to offer a weekly produce market in the area outside the shop. Very much a family affair Chris and Matt are helped by their daughters, grandchildren and the dogs! Like the pannier markets of old anyone can ask for a space to sell whatever they have a surplus of so I will be taking grapes when they are ripe but will only need space for a week or two. The only rule is that no-one can sell what they already stock in the shop or compete with another stallholder.

 

They make no charge for a space on the tables and provide tea or coffee and home-made cake to everyone in return for a modest donation. Families and dogs are welcomed and there is space to sit and chat – I have met several new people and seen others I have not spoken to for a while so it is a really good chance to socialise as well as shop. The object is not to make money for themselves but to encourage the newcomers to farming and to build community. So if you find yourself out this way on a Saturday morning please come and join us.

The Power of a Good Planning Policy

Forty years ago John and I lived in Mid Wales with 2 very small children and a dream. We wanted to sell the small terraced cottage we had lovingly renovated (the details provided by the estate agent boasted that the sitting room was ‘with power socket’ and the only tap was a cold one on the kitchen wall!) and move somewhere more rural with a bigger garden. We wanted to grow more of our own food, keep a few hens and maybe have bees or a pig. We subscribed to a magazine called ‘Practical Self Sufficiency’ and although we were a bit more realistic than some of the contributors and correspondents we certainly wanted to be more self sufficient than we were.

The problem, of course, was money. We could not afford a house (however dilapidated)  with a large garden even in an area where prices were relatively low. If we sold our house and bought a piece of agricultural land there was no hope of getting planning permission. It was to be many years before we had built up enough capital to be able to buy this place (another renovation project) and later add some more land to the original plot.

If we were a young family now we would have a much better chance thanks to an innovative Planning initiative unique to Wales – One Planet Development. Anyone who owns a small parcel of agricultural land can apply for permission to build a house and live on it. Now before you start thinking this is a cushy option and begin to design your new holiday home let me tell you that this planning option is not for the faint hearted! It comes with many conditions!

blogOPD1this patch of over-grazed sheep field is the plot which Simon and Jasmine Dale acquired as part of the Lammas eco-village.

 

Firstly the dwelling has to be ‘zero carbon’ using predominantly local, natural materials. Many are very beautiful and have been lovingly crafted by their owners to keep costs down but the whole process is a far cry from buying a set of plans from a book and getting a builder to put the house up.

blogOPD2This is the house they built to live in with their 2 children whilst they built their ‘forever’ home. Sadly shortly before that was completed it burnt down on New year’s day this year.

 

 

Secondly the applicants must submit a detailed plan of how they will earn a living from the land. Within 5 years at least 30 % of their food must be grown or reared on site and the rest of their basic needs must be met from the income they generate from it. All this requires them to keep detailed records and make annual returns of all their income and spending. By putting the figures into a carbon footprint calculator they also demonstrate that they are progressing towards the goal of only using their fair share of the planet’s resources.  As an exercise, and out of interest, I have just finished recording the figures for myself for a year though I have yet to enter them into the calculator. It was quite onerous to record all my spending (masses of till receipts and post it notes with records of things like parking fees) and allocate it to the required categories. My income comes mostly from my pension but having been self-employed in the past I know how much time it takes to keep track of that.

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The garden they made to meet the planning requirements. The greenhouses were bought second hand and Simon managed to join them end to end down the slope. The intention was to feed the warmed air by convection into the house.

 

All photos by jasmine Dale reproduced with permission

The site must use 100% renewable energy (any not generated on site being bought  out of that land based income) and applicants must take responsibility for most of their waste including water and sewerage. They have to show how they will minimise the use of fossil fuel run vehicles. And that they have considered the impact of their development (positive and negative) on the local community, landscape and wildlife big and small.

Because some of the pioneers of this new policy were the people who built Lammas eco-village (read more about them here ) just over the hill from me, this area has become a hotspot for OPD. They are no country bumpkins. Highly intelligent, often highly educated and always highly motivated they know exactly what they are letting themselves in for. Often they have given up good careers in cities because the lifestyle did not suit them. They are tech savvy but happy to live simply. And they have organised themselves to provide support, advice and help to each other. They use their plots intensively to meet the planning criteria, work hard and problem solve creatively. If I was 40 years younger…

Gorffenaf lives up to it’s name!

Gorffenaf is the Welsh name for July. It is a contraction of ‘Gorffen’ meaning finish and ‘Haf’ meaning summer which always seemed a bit premature to me! With schools usually not breaking up for the summer holidays until the end of the month Early August is when the holiday season starts for many of us. But this year it seems to truly be the last month of high summer.

Whilst walking the dogs I have spotted blackberries ripening in the most sheltered spots in the hedgerows. Rowanberries are taking on their colour too and there should be a bumper crop of both. I am really relieved to see them since my strawberries and raspberries were disappointing – the unusually long, hot, dry spell meant small, rather hard fruit. (I had stored plenty of rainwater for a ‘normal’ summer but even limiting watering to precious plants in the greenhouses ran out and had to use some metered water but could not afford to use it outside. (For those of you living outside the UK the system used to be that we paid a tax (rates) to the local authority which included the cost of our water however much or little we used. Now, increasingly, properties have a meter on the incoming mains and pay a fixed charge for the supply plus an amount for each cubic meter used. I opted to have a meter installed to make me more aware of using treated tap water only when I really need it – and it has worked! But having failed to anticipate this summer’s demand for water in the garden I had to live with the consequences. )

A few days ago my neighbour, Beccy, gave me some mushrooms she had picked in one of their fields and invited me to go and pick more if I wanted them. So another friend, Jeni, and I had a lovely walk one bright breezy morning following the cow tracks to the most prolific field to pick baskets full. I dried most of mine to store them for winter dishes. There is something magical about seeing jars of produce on the shelf to keep me fed through the less productive months. Though someone must have thought they had too much of a good thing! These wannabe marrows were left on the verge at a crossroads!

Then last night I saw that the bird cherry tree on the drive was beginning to shed its leaves – bright golden confetti at my feet. Truly Summer is coming to an end and Autumn beginning.

Permaculture Principles 4 – Every element should support more than one function and every function should be supported by more than one elemnent

I will have to try and think of a pithier way of putting that! Though doubtless others have tried and I have no reason to suppose I am better at pithy than they were.

Permaculture is about designing efficient, resilient systems. The efficiency comes from elements which earn their keep or their space in our cupboards. Probably all of us have been given gadgets such as waffle makers, sandwich toasters as gifts and found that we do not eat many waffles or toasted sandwiches! So they sit in the cupboard getting an occasional outing until we decide they can reasonably be got rid of. A wooden spoon or sharp knife on the other hand…  Resilience is characterised by elastic in the system – if there is a failure at any one point there will always be a ‘Plan B’. Think of a road layout. If there is one road from A to B and it gets blocked no traffic can move but if that road is part of a network then everyone can divert around the blockage. The diversion may be less direct or convenient but it is still possible to get from A to B.

I have been rather forcibly reminded of this principle recently. Over a month ago my broadband connection failed (Why it has been down so long is another story) and I have discovered just how dependent I have become on that one element. Partly that dependency has arisen because of where I live and the lack of infrastructure in the remoter, rural parts of the UK; but I had also failed to notice how many things in my life were becoming wi-fi dependent. That one element supports many functions; the problem is that too many functions were supported by only that element!

The most obvious is communication. Because my hearing is poor I find emails easier than even a special phone. So I have been visiting my friends Jeni and Rob most days to collect emails and reply to anything urgent. Lovely to see them but…. I have also been using the free connections in the Library and at the Welsh class when I am in Cardigan but neither of those is secure. I know one of my neighbours uses a mobile phone connection in preference to a landline one but I get no signal at home so a smart phone is not a good use of money.

I also do research for my Permaculture Diploma online, use the web-based resources for the Welsh course including listening again to audio tapes, bank for myself and in my role as treasurer at Dyfed Permaculture Farm Trust, read the news, check the weather forecast, play games and do puzzles, manage my electricity account, listen to radio as podcasts and occasionally watch TV, join Skype meetings, keep up with friends on social media, shop for things I cannot get locally and, of course,  write this blog.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor some of these there are alternatives. I can phone people if I need to, Radio reception is poor at home because I am right down in the valley but it is good enough to listen to a news bulletin. One of my bank accounts is available by going into the Cardigan branch. The hardest to access have been the Welsh course, Skype meetings and this blog. The audio on the first 2 is anti-social and headphones plus hearing aids is not a good mix! Blog writing has to be done online and takes time.

Well – lesson learned! Even if my broadband is restored tomorrow when the 5th Openreach engineer has a go, I need to have a better back-up plan so I have asked my very tech-savvy son to come over when he can and review the whole system with me. He already has some ideas using gadgets and gizmos I have never heard of. I anticipate a cash boost for Amazon (no local shop is likely to have all we need). Watch this space!