Thursday, September 04, 2008

Aranjuez 2

And the reason for the one woman blog fest is that I am on holiday for a month, so I've got time to catch up, and pin down my memories afore they disappear.

And because I'm going to be away for the next fortnight, WWOOFing again!

That's tootling off to be a Willing Worker on an Organic Farm - I get country life and board and lodging, and my hosts get cheap enthusiastic labour. As long as everyone's honest about what they can offer, and realistic about what they can expect, it works a treat: townies get a break from urban crowds and noise, and a chance to get some dirt under their fingernails; and organic farmers operating on a tight budget get affordable help in the months when they need it.

Wwoofers also get a chance to learn new skills and explore new ideas. You can WWOOF for a week, or months on end; with one host, or a series across a country - maybe even a continent if you factor in some casual or seasonal work to keep you in petty cash and have something in the bank for contingencies.

And in that time, depending on who you go to, you can acquire hands-on experience of animal husbandry; poultry; planting, cultivation, harvesting, preserving and cooking; traditional and alternative building methods; woodland maintenance, alternative energy; water management - the list goes on.

WWOOF hosts provide details of their land and activities, their location and neighbourhood; when they need help, and how many hours a day and days a week they expect (Some want 8 hours a day, five days a week, some 6/6, some 4/5 or 4/6.); plus info on accommodation (which ranges from a separate cabin, caravan, yurt or tipi, to a shared room and meals with the family); and diet - local, vegetarian, vegan, macrobiotic; whether they can accommodate children; how they feel about alcohol, smoking and drugs; and what languages they speak.

Then there's the whole range of personal beliefs and values - it's an 'alternative' lifestyle after all, so while the safety net has a larger mesh than the 9-5 urban lifestyle (9-5? Run that past me again?!) there's more scope for going your own way. Many organic smallholders come from a philosophical base, or are motivated by conscience; others simply want more personal space and control than city life admits; and then others want to focus on the spiritual dimension that city life tends to squeeze out. For every host trying to combine a conventional business - growing food, running a small hotel or offering residential courses in painting, horse-riding or cooking -with raising a family, and a sustainable rural way of life, there's another practising and teaching meditation, holistic therapies, and so forth; and another who wants to restore and reawaken land that has been abandoned, or exhausted by modern farming methods; and another who wants to introduce or experiment with sustainable alternatives where high energy consumption and wasteful building practices and materials have been the norm; and another....... People, you know?!

WWOOF is pretty well worldwide these days, either with national organisations, or, operating through WWOOF Independents for countries that don't have their own organisation - yet! I had to join W.I. in 2006, but WWOOF España has since come on-stream, so I've gone through them this year. Very welcoming. Very thoughtful. The website is in English as well as Spanish, and many hosts provide profiles in two languages. If they don't, you need to have some Spanish!

When I went WWOOFing for the first time a couple of years ago, I had a challenging but very satisfying month in Andalucia, watering and weeding (and picking stones out of) an established huerta (fruit and veg garden), and clearing land for a new one; helping to clear the damage the river had wreaked after freak April hailstorms turned it from a thing of peace and beauty into - into a force of nature; helping a neighbour restore his huerta, which had been obliterated by the river (We were setting iron fence poles into two-foot-deep concrete footings, because the original posts had been swept away). and feeding and watering chickens and doves. I also saw the tragedy of Dutch Elm Disease, discovered that English thorns and burrs - and wasps - have nothing on Spanish thorns, burrs and wasps; discovered the beauty and extraordinary staying power of olive trees; saw pomegranate trees in flower; learnt how to shell walnuts and almonds - in the barn, with a no-messing thumb-squishing hammer - and put up bugscreens, and use a Spanish long-handled dustpan, and a long hoe, and a short sickle; and I also learnt a little bit of Spanish (really useful stuff, like the lombrizo, pared, pozo and hoz -worm, wall, well, and hoe) which has stood me in good stead at job interviews and cocktail parties ever since. And I was very well fed and housed, and really got used to having a swimming pool, and watching swallows play Dambusters in the afternoons when the sun began to let up a teeny bit. By the end of that month, I knew I wanted to do it again, just not in Andalusia in frikkin' July!

This time round I knew what I was looking for, and just needed to match up place, time slot and potentially useful experience. Of course, I've got so little experience, just the balcony plants and a collection of gardening and Earth Garden magazines (plus books on raising chickens and ducks!) that almost anything would be helpful; but I'll only get two chances a year to do this(Holy Week and the summer vacation), so I want to make the most of them.

I have no interest in olive, almond or cork farming (temperature, acreage) or indeed anything commercial - so no ostriches either. We're talking smallholding here, a.k.a. large garden(s).
On the food side, my interests lie with -
Fruit and vegetables - What works where, and how to keep it alive and productive.
Poultry and ducks: ditto, e.g. What kind of ducks do best here (depending on whether 'here' means southern, central or northern Spain!).
Livestock - Do a goat's plus points (milk / cheese / yoghurt / personality / general reprobate charm) outweigh the negative (wanton destructiveness / voracious omniverosity / sly intelligence / traditional representation as devil incarnate)?
Is there an argument or two (milk, wool, meat, fertiliser, weed/grass control) for keeping sheep?
Should we keep a pig (voracious omniverosity / friendly intelligence / pest control / fertiliser / everything-but-the-squeal) or not - (big!) ............?

On the domestic side, I want to see how other people have got on with alternative building materials, energy media and the waste / water management systems I've been reading about. This side will have to wait for now. But I want to try a small-scale 'grey' (bath) water treatment experiment this autumn. I've become rather obsessive about water - use, re-use, quality - in the last couple of years, but that's probably no bad thing these days.

So next week I'm off to a place near Aranjuez, which has 4 hectares of land given over to cereals, fruit trees (I love fruit trees and fruit bushes!) and vegetables. They also have 2 pigs, 2 donkeys, a mare and some chickens. They used to have sheep, but not anymore, which is disappointing, but I'm looking forward to the pigs: they had some tremendous sows at Rice Lane City Farm and Hackney City Farm last summer, and although the breeds will be different, it's all going to be new to me anyway. And mine hosts have been very welcoming and helpful in response to my emails. I'm excited!

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