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.

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.

Going to Town

I grew up on the edge of Prestwich in Greater Manchester, in a modest, semi-detached house in a cul-de-sac near one of the entrances to Heaton Park. Everyday shopping was done on foot in one of two small parades of shops – one at each end of the bigger road the cul-de-sac adjoined. Between them they supported a butcher, grocer, greengrocer, hardware shop, haberdashery, newsagent, chemist, post office and a bank. ‘Going to Town’ was a trip to Manchester itself. A major, day long expedition planned by my mother with military precision. ‘The list’ which had been growing as she noticed things she needed, was re-written according to the shop where she expected to find things and in the correct order to visit them. Since being out all day meant having a mid-day meal in a cafe the route had to deliver us to a suitable one early enough to beat the rush but late enough for them to be serving meals rather than just morning coffee. When we went on the bus we had to go after the rush hour but once we had a car we left earlier to get a parking place (always on the street in those days) before the commuters filled them all. , meaning of course that we arrived before the shops opened and so started at the furthest point from where we parked to use the time. Definitely not an outing to be undertaken lightly or often!

 

I still use local shops as much as possible and am lucky enough to have a choice of independent butchers, market gardens and small supermarkets within a few miles. ‘Going to Town’ means Carmarthen, Cardigan which are about the same distance (20 miles) from home or Haverfordwest which is slightly further, with occasional forays to Newcastle Emlyn or Narberth.  Mostly I go to Cardigan which has fewer chain-stores and more independent shops and where there is a fantastic haberdashery in the lower market – a must for someone like me who knits, crochets and sews. It is also where the Welsh class I go to is located meaning I can combine journeys.

 

Its Welsh name, Aberteifi, describes it – the mouth of the River Teifi and it was once an important port. The railway line which used to serve the town closed a long time ago but the route is now a footpath that runs next to the river through the Teifi Marshes Nature reserve and on to the village of Cilgerran. From there other pathways continue along the river, past the disused slate quarries and eventually to Llechryd.

 

If I fancy a view of the sea rather than the river a short drive through the village of St Dogmaels brings me to the long sandy beach and dune system at Poppit. Either turns a shopping trip from a chore into a treat for me and the dogs. It beats Manchester any day!

A feast of growing and growing a feast

Regular readers may have noticed that it is a while since I published a post. After a particularly cold and wet winter that felt as if it would never end it did – spectacularly! We have had a long spell of lovely warm dry weather. So I have been spending every available moment in the garden.

When, a few years after we moved in, we bought the steep slope behind the house from our lovely neighbour we had it terraced. But that meant the new veg garden was just compacted stone so we built raised beds and filled them with any bio-degradable material we could get. As anyone who has a compost heap knows a mountain of material breaks down into a little hump. So every year we added loads more. Until John was too ill and I was too busy looking after him. When I got back to the garden after he died the beds were very low again and by the time I had pulled out the worst of the really nasty weeds like bindweed and nettles, lower still. Luckily I had access to chipped wood from a local firm so I covered the annual weeds with cardboard then filled the beds with that – and it rotted down and I refilled them – and… This year the stash of material is already well rotted so hopefully from now on it will not go down much more. However I still had to do some barrowing up the hill before planting out seedlings and doing some direct sowing. But at last the bulk of the filling, planting and sowing are done. Which is just as well as this morning normal service was resumed with showers. Actually I am quite pleased because watering so many small things was quite a lot of work and the water butts were getting low. I should explain that I chose to go on water meter so that I would be more aware of my usage (which worked) and I do all the watering with cans from butts which collect rainwater from the roofs of the greenhouses and sheds.

Anyway things are growing and trees and shrubs are in bloom so it all looks much better.

 

By way of a change and some company I spent last Sunday at Dyfed Permaculture Farm Trust where we weeded one of the forest garden beds. We left some ‘weeds’ which are liked by bees but grubbed up the creeping buttercup and nettles. It was such a lovely day we had lunch outside around the firepit in front of the yurt. Michelle accidentally dug up some Babbington’s leeks, a perennial leek and offered them to me rather than put them back.

I am trying to increase the number of edible perrenials and self-seeders I have because they take much less work and come earlier. On Monday a friend came over for lunch and I picked small leaf lime, hawthorn, vine leaves, buckler leaf sorrel, jack-by-the-hedge, orpine, wild garlic, chives, chive flowers, oregano, corn salad and purslane with a few early leaves of newly sown chard and beetroot to make a big bowl of salad to go with hard boiled eggs from Jeni’s ducks and some home-made cheese scones. Delicious!