Tag Archives: Wwoofing

WWOOFing at the Permaculture Research Institute

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My interest in Permaculture started back in 2010 and I soon completed my Design Certificate. I think it’s safe to say that it changed my life, the direction I was to take and the learning pathway that I have since followed. Nina and I hosted a PDC ourselves in 2011 and were lucky enough to help facilitate a course in Romania on our recent overland trip. We have since visited many permaculture properties and WWOOFed at smallholdings and farms across the world.

Over the last three years I have also watched many of Geoff Lawton’s online videos, got familiar with the design of his property and hoped that one day I would get to visit the Permaculture Research Institute at Zaytuna Farm in New South Wales, Australia.

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When a place became available at short notice there was no hesitation from me and I hopped on a train to Brisbane, transferred to a car with a previously organised Gumtree Lift Share and then hitched the last 19km from Nimbin to arrive, quite soggy, late on a Monday afternoon. I was pointed in the general direction of reception on arrival and given a detailed explanation of what was expected of me during my stay, the rules of the farm and a few things to be wary of in the snake department – Taipans, Browns and Red Belly Blacks (all very deadly snakes). I got my tent up before dark and was soon happy to be sitting eating dinner with the 10 week intern crew, farm manager, guests (including Bill Mollison) and other WWOOFers.

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I stayed at the farm for a month and worked a week in each of four areas – main crop, small animals, kitchen garden and food forests. The large animals team need more training which was too much to fit into my short stay. My first week involved a lot of food processing as there was large amounts of root vegetables coming up from main crop. Much Kim Chi was made!

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I worked a lot with Adon, adding compost, mulching, planting potatoes, cassava, peas and harvesting turnips, kale, pak choi and potatoes. I got to learn about the chicken tractor system which moves every 2 weeks, leaving behind fertilised rows for planting. It moves through 26 different sections. each containing 8 rows. This means each area gets a twice yearly visit from the chickens. There didn’t seem to be much emphasis on beneficial companions and the bare earth, tillage techniques was not what I expected to see at a world leading permaculture farm.

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During that first week Paul Taylor, an expert on soil fertility, was present on the farm as he was teaching students the soil section of their internship. I managed to skim off a lot of information from him and the interns and was present during the very interesting compost making sessions. This has really kickstarted my understanding of making microbial dense compost – whoop!

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My activities varied more in the second week although I spent a lot of time on main crop. It was very hot down there and very exposed.  I skinned my first chicken, collected buckets of fresh mulberries and wild raspberries, helped lay irrigation pipe with Geoff, did a spot of fishing with Zac and generally got more of an understanding of the farm.

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By week 3 I was tending to small animals which meant feeding and cleaning the rabbits, chickens, pigeons, goats and ducks as well as raising new born chicks. By week 4 I was combining my animal care with responsibility of the kitchen garden with the aim of keeping guests in fresh produce during their stay.

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I learnt a huge amount at the farm from some very inspirational people which included other WWOOFers, students who passed through, Des the farm manager, Geoff Lawton himself and Bill Mollison (who happened to be around for more than two weeks).

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I also have some gripes about the place. I would like to think that the Permaculture Research Institute would be a best practice environment to set an example for students and visitors alike but there seemed to be a distinct lack of people care. Des, the farm manager was grateful for the work of WWOOFers but the rest of the management gave little gratitude. A “thank you” after a months work would be nice.

Given the amount of money that seems to be received from online courses and internships I would like to see the use of 100% organic food on the farm and more awareness about the products they are feeding people – let’s stop with the GM!

I believe that it’s setting a bad example when the WWOOF supervisor is selling corporate products as refreshments to WWOOFers, taking advantage of their need for a cool drink after a hard days work, and yet students were asked to leave the farm as they drank a beer around the campfire on the last night of a $7000 internship – not cool.

Places of learning, especially in the world of community orientated, co-operatitve, integrative, standard setting, permaculture designer manual teaching institutions should be aware that the world is watching and hierarchical, top down rules are most dangerous. I send out much respect to the fellow WWOOFers and students that I worked alongside during my month at the farm but I was deeply disappointed in the people care and lack of respect for the volunteers. I would like to see a feedback system enter the structure of the WWOOF network which could allow WWOOFers to gage the vibe of a host before committing to a months work.

Happy pictures to follow…

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News from Busso…

Today brings welcome news from Italy. The very nature of our journey means that we are connecting with, working with and then inevitably parting way with friends, couch surf hosts and wwoof hosts along the way. We wonder often how the projects are going that we leave behind. We can of course receive the odd update via email but its just not the same as seeing with our own eyes. Some of our permaculture blitz ideas were met with caution by our hosts, seen as “crazy” gardening or “cocktail” gardens. “Let’s see” was a common used phrase when a new experiment had been planted out.

Luckily Giovanni was very open to the idea of a new synergistic garden, less work, less water, less disease, no chemicals, no digging, more food were all promised once the initial set up was complete. You can read the original blog post here.

The pictures above show the set up process followed by the photographs below, just received from Giovanni, taken only last night, with the comments that it hasn’t even rained since we left – looks like that thick layer of moisture holding mulch is doing the trick…

Solstice in Heaven

Today is the longest day of the year, summer solstice, and according to Nina’s trusty journal it’s also the 150th day of our travels. It seems like a life time ago that we left England, the many changing landscapes that we have passed through adding to the fortunate yet artificial feeling of ever lasting adventure.

Nina and I are trekking in the Vikos Aoös National park, Epiros, Greece. It’s the north western region of the country, up close to the Albanian border. It’s another place we’ve landed in due to the kind hospitality of friends. We were invited to stay at Angelo and Birgitte’s house in the small village of Paleochlori nestled in forested hills, inland from the port of Igoumenistsa. After two weeks there our attention turned to the national park a couple of hours away. Nina plucked this little gem out of the Lonely Planet, hearing that not many people visit the region and that it’s filled with natural beauty, including a third of Greece’s flora, together with traditional villages and monasteries.

Leaving our most heavy items in Ioannina, we donned our backpacks, sleeping bags, tent, a bit of food and set off for 3 days trekking and camping with a rough itinerary of connecting ancient hamlets, traversing the world’s deepest gorge (according to the Guinness Book of Records’ depth/width ratio), visiting a monastery or two and plenty of swimming, much needed in the 30 plus heat.

Four days ago the bus from Ioannina dropped us in Monodendri, one of 45 villages in the Zagori region. The old houses here are all made from local stone, as are the streets, walls and churches. It has the quaintness of a Cotswold village yet more dramatic in it’s isolated setting. We walked to the 15th century monastery, just outside the village, from where we could look down into the gorge we would walk the next day. Close by we found a nice spot for the tent and, with a little concern about the wild boars, snuggled up for a good nights sleep.

We woke at the crack the dawn, packed down the tent and set off excited by what we may find. The first task was to descend nearly a kilometre down onto the gorge floor. It was already becoming hot but luckily there was plenty of tree cover. The old paths here were used to connect villages before roads were put in more recently. The gorge itself is 20km long. We joined it a little way along and walked around 12km along it. We’d heard that there were bears and wolves here but hadn’t really taken seriously the possibility of seeing one. It took an hour or so to descend and on reaching the bottom we stopped for some breakfast on the dry, rocky river bed.

The walking from here was not difficult, although challenging. The path had to climb to avoid rock faces that descended into the river below. The sheer scale of the gorge was breathtaking and the diversity of plants and habitats made every step of the way interesting. There were plenty of frogs, lizards and beetles. The whole place was humming with insect life. We even stopped to take in a family of weasels playing on the rocks and the only other people we saw that day spotted a small brown bear on the path. We read that there are 1750 recorded plant species in the national park and it feels like a very stable eco system. Geologically though, this is not the case, with the occasional sound of rocks pitching themselves into to ravine below, though not every rock finds the bottom.

Half way along the gorge we came to the source of the spring fed river that continued ahead. The mountains here are caustic which means they hold vast amounts of water within. In winter this forms glaciers inside the mountains and throughout the year they melt to produce the most stunning aqua coloured watercourses. Unfortunately though, this means that they are also extremely cold. Nina managed a five second swim but I only just got my feet wet. The river that we were to follow from here just added more beauty to the already picture perfect surroundings. Rainbow trout now added to the flora, a sub species that have adapted to the extreme water temperatures by spawning all year round.

Our path split from the gorge after a few more kilometres and we begun the climb up and round more forested mountains, clinging to the hillside, before opening out onto flower meadows and eventually the small village of Mikro Papingo. We’d made it to civilisation after a very hot 17km. A welcome fountain greeted us and we cooled down before enquiring about a spot to camp in Makro Papingo – the next village. A barman in the local restaurant pointed us to the village football pitch and we set up camp in the dark.

Yesterday we went easy on ourselves. First stop was the incredible rock pools between the two villages we’d found last night. Nina was keen for an early morning swim but once again I only managed a rinse off in the super cold waters. A small human intervention made a beautiful pool from an otherwise trickling stream through the rock.

We hitched a lift the next 7km to a village where we were hoping to wwoof. The Zissis brothers ran a hotel and restaurant there using their own organic veg. They were the only wwoof hosts in the region and we had contacted them a few weeks earlier. Unfortunately (but in the end fortunately) they had nothing much to do about the place. They instead offered us a free room for the night and lunch, drinks and dinner with the family. Greece already has that welcome feeling that we experienced in the villages of Morocco. We explored the village on foot before a well needed bed.

This morning we walked down the hill to join the Voldomatis river as it continued it’s path from the gorge. We are in awe of the beauty of this region and the unspoilt wilderness. Today we followed a path 10km or so along the river edge. We met one other couple, seasoned Aussie walkers, who obviously knew all the worlds best places to walk. We couldn’t argue that this was one of them. Nina swam again. I chickened out again. We sat and looked at the amazing scenery around us, happy that we are here but sad that to think that most rivers in the world are polluted by industrial and human waste or bad agricultural practices. We’ve been drinking the water from this river for three days, we’ve walked it, we’ve watched the trout, the birds and the dragonflies. The banks are covered in trees, to the waters edge. Nobody is messing with this landscape and that’s why it’s thriving!

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Gorilla in the Mist

We have been in Italy for 6 weeks in total. For each new person we meet or new village we enter we wonder if we’ll ever have a truly authentic Italian experience. Some time with a family would be nice or the chance to learn about home cooked Italian food. From the comfort of our Molise farmhouse we looked through the wwoof host list once again and although we usually steer clear of agri-tourism farms there was something wooing us towards our next host. It may have been the photo’s that Nina spotted of home made pasta and freshly baked wood oven bread. In fact I’m sure it was. We contacted Giovanni and he was keen to have us for a week in Busso before we left Italy for Greece.

Giovanni kindly collected us from our farmhouse in Faifoli. He has a friend with a mill nearby and was keen to pick up some fresh flour for baking and making polenta later in the week. He hinted on route that he was recently separated from his wife and it was obvious when we arrived at his house that the agri-tourism business had been laid to rest. The topic of conversation in the car was verging on obsessive and Giovanni clearly had a new passion – truffle hunting! It turns out that we had arrived in one of the most prolific black truffle hotspots in Italy and THE only region in the world where you can find the elusive white truffle.

Giovanni got up at 4am every morning to take two of his five dogs out hunting. He mentioned to us that he watches films or listens to music at around 2am each night and he was up past twelve every day that we were there. One day we found him randomly sleeping in his car at lunchtime and on day five he confessed to insomnia which gave reason to the silver-back nature we had experienced, calm and attentive one minute and explosive and unpredictable the next. We wanted authentic and we certainly got it. Our time in Busso was very testing but also very rewarding.

Our host, also a professional chef, was keen to demonstrate his skills in the kitchen and we were baking sourdough bread and pizza within hours of arrival. He cooked pumpkin risotto, wild chicory, potato and bean pasta amongst an array of other Italian delights with home made wine with every lunchtime and evening meal. Oh yes, before you ask, we were treated to the legendary black truffles, once with egg and once with the polenta on a friendly visit to parents for lunch. There is no other taste like it in the world. Delicate fungi with a buttery warmth that when grated, raw, has a distinct texture similar to parmesan cheese. I could see how they could become addictive and maybe why Giovanni was obsessed and a bit crazy.

Our duties as wwoofers were mostly helping out around the place. We emptied a wood shed and added some new acacia uprights for roof support before re-stacking it, we put up some fencing, we helped move things around that he couldn’t have done alone, we supervised the revival of an old lawnmower and we generally kept the crazy-maker’s kitchen clean. Plus we made another round of elderflower cordial, our third batch in Italy!

Giovanni mentioned a few times that he wanted to ‘do’ permaculture in his vegetable garden. On day four he went out to visit a friend and Nina and I set about turning an unused area of his vegetable plot into a synergistic garden. I’d learnt the basics from Elena a few weeks earlier. The process of setting it up is very easy and due to the no-dig nature it only has to be done once. On the slope I pulled earth from the high ground down to form one metre terraces, leaving a path. Nina added plenty of old sheep and rabbit poo and I then added a drip irrigation pipe along the top of each terrace and we heavily mulched, paths an all. We had some seeds collected from our journey so far, some seedlings that Giovanni bought plus whatever we could find around the property, like strawberries and mint. We designed a companion pattern for each bed and packed them full of food crop and beneficial plants like borage and calendula. Giovanni was very happy with his new garden and said that he was hoping to transfer the whole veg patch into this type of ‘easy’ growing system.

We were asked along to a morning truffle hunt one day. Up and out the door before 5am. Dew-proof trousers, a big stick and sniffer dogs in cages. It was all very surreal. We drove to an area just a few kilometres away, a young forest emerging from grassland. Oaks, blackthorn, wild apples, hawthorn, poplar and dogwood were all present. Giovanni showed us areas of grass die back where he expects to find truffles and sadly areas where some very competitive truffle hunters had dug up meters of soil around the tree. They do this once they have found just one truffle in the hope of randomly finding more. Not only do they take the unripe truffles but they break the mycellium and upset the symbiotic relationship of tree and truffle and any hopes of the same area fruiting again. Our guide has no need for this illegal type of scavenging as his dogs are so good at honing in to the spot. It was great to see them nose to ground, excited by what they may find. We didn’t find a truffle that morning. He never does when he takes people with him. We heard the horror stories of poison baits being left for dogs, easy for poachers to get the upper hand once your rival dog is dead. It’s big business and Giovanni has a friend who recently sold a truffle for $23,000.

I was worried for Giovanni and I was worried for his animals. I could have counted the number of hours sleep he’d had in one week on one hand. One moment he was full of joy and enthusiasm for his new garden and the next he was whacking one of his hounds in frustration. He was relying on truffles for an income and relying on his dogs for truffles. When little Ziggy got a wheat tuft in her ear it was the cost of removing it that seemed the major concern and not the welfare of the dog. I had to remind our host that the dogs had no water in their cages, cages that they spend every moment in when not truffle hunting. It makes me think about using animals as tools for profit related business. And it makes me think about relying on one stream of income and the pressure that comes with it. The permaculture principle of redundancy teaches us not to put all our eggs in one basket. The analogy of the spiders web demonstrates this perfectly, it can still perform it’s function even when a whole bunch of links are broken. I hope that Giovanni will be inspired by his new garden and maybe he will develop it further for less reliance on truffle hunting.

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Diploma in Roma…

Today marks our 104th day on the road.  It seems like a lifetime ago that we left England.  We have seen many places, met many amazing people and helped with some incredible projects.  A few weeks ago I left Can Coll in the Spanish Pyrenees with all the information I needed to provide Amanda and Dino with a deisgn for their property as part of my Permaculture Diploma.  We’ve been here in Roma for over a week now and it’s been quite a difficult time working on my design whilst the smell of the ancient city drifts in through the window.  I’m happy to say that PR4 is now complete and ready to be reviewed by my tutor and peers.  We have four more days to enjoy Roma and I think this evening we will celebrate!  If you are interested in the design click on the picture below…

Wwoofing in the Spanish Pyrenees

We arrived by train from Barcelona to Figueres station where we were greeted by Amanda, Deno and their two dogs Rita and Lucy. From there we drove for an hour into the mountains and just past the small village of Albanya. The farmhouse is in an isolated location within a protected national park. We were truly blown away by the beauty of the area on arrival, between the rolling holm oak forests sat a 17th century farmhouse on a ridge above their vegetable gardens and fruit trees.

We immediately knew we would have an amazing experience there and within minutes we were kicking ourselves that we would only be staying a week. Amanda showed us to our room before we set off into the forest to explore the area, full of marron chestnut trees and meandering creaks. The dogs came with us and we were immediately friends! Later that evening Deno cooked up a lovely pasta meal and we drank wine and chatted until late. Deno is Italian and loved to cook.

The next morning we set about our week of work which was to include weeding then mulching the many raspberry, strawberry and artichokes patches, replanting mints as ground covers, strimming, making new beds for yet more raspberry’s, collecting butchers broom, a root crop for tea and compost preparation.

On day three I discovered a pair of disused tanks and a spring which looked like they were once used to wash clothes or something. Deno and Amanda expressed an interested in making use of it and I jumped at the chance of a fresh diploma project.  I spent most of my weekend off observing the surroundings of the tanks, any unused resources and carrying out some experiments with clay to understand the possibilities of a design. Amanda and Deno seemed excited about the possibility of “growing” fish and aquatic plants and my new found enthusiasm in aquaculture was rubbing off. Watch this space for a design and implementation plan for PR4.

Our time at CanColl was really rewarding. Amanda and Deno are in the early stages of a Bed & Breakfast to earn a living and with Deno’s amazing cooking and Amanda’s hand in the garden they are certainly close to living out their dream. Thank you so much for the wild boar sausage!!!

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Big Mountains, Small Money

It’s nearly the end of March and the last four weeks have been all about the Mountains and less about the money.  We are in Granada at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. They are still covered in snow although the temperature here is averaging about 26 degrees in the height of the day.

Since leaving our village building experience in Morocco we’ve not managed to get far away from the beautiful jagged edges of the landscape. We travelled by local bus through the Middle Atlas mountains of Morocco up to Fez where we spent three memorable days exploring the winding medina streets of what is said to be the oldest surviving medieval and the largest non motorised city in the world.

Our next leg took us again by local bus up to Tangier for our ferry. We skimmed the Rif mountains of Northern Morocco of which we had visited on the way into the country 8 weeks ago. It was a whole lot warmer than when we arrived.

The ferry took us across the water into Spain with the giant rock of Gibralter to our east. Arriving in Spain only 3 hours later made Morocco feel a world away. We’d had a truly rich experience there and felt sad to leave.

Part of our journey design and the reason we are able to spend quite a bit of time in europe will be our careful use of money and here in Spain it was to begin. Areas we highlighted for scrimping were travel and accommodation mostly and so this was to be our first hitch hike of this travel adventure.

We wrote out our Malaga sign whilst on the boat and after a couple of badly chosen spots we found a good area and stuck out those thumbs! It was only 20 minutes later that we were scooped up by a local and taken 40 minutes or so towards our destination. He plonked us in a good spot to find another ride and it was only 15 minutes more waiting until a big old motor home pulled in to take us on to Malaga.

In Malaga we had arranged to couch surf with a couple who seemed to be professional couch surf hosts. Ana and Israel had hosted many other people and enjoyed the company and practicing their language skills. They were very kind and trusting and gave us a key and disappeared off to a family gathering leaving Nina and I their home.

Our next stop and another great money saving arrangement was our first Wwoof of the journey. We arrived in Orgiva by local bus but hiked the remaining 5km or so up a dry river bed to find the olive finca we were to be working on for the following week. Wwoofing is a great example of stacking functions as it has so many positives – we live for free with accommodation and food covered, the host receives two hard workers for 5.5 hours a day, we can to learn about local processes and cultures whilst exploring the area and we meet other like minded people who share the same passions about organic techniques.

Kate’s Finca was stunning, set in a valley of more snowy topped mountains with no road access. Her main output is olives but she also has tonnes of veg and other fruit trees and chickens etc. Wwwofers stay in little self contained Casitas with cooking facilities and fire places. It was a beautiful place to work for a week and we would have liked to stay longer.

My fourth Diploma project should now be in full swing but I am yet to find it and so moving on was unavoidable. We saved another bus fare by hitching and trekking to Granada to meet with our next Couch surf host. Andrea, who is studying environmental science here. We explored the city yesterday and cooked for her last night. Travelling on a budget feels very rewarding so far and it means we have a few extra euros for the all important ice cream and beer.

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