Monday, 26 November 2012

It is finished - well maybe!

Just a dusting this week
All the electric trenches are dug, and the job of getting electric to our greenhouse would have been finished if we had got enough cable to finish it, but we don't. Not quite sure why the cable has not arrived yet and it is worrying, as the dry but dull weather we have had has now changed and we even had a dusting of snow this last week. The forecast for the rest of the week is not good either. If you are of the praying kind, then please pray the cable arrives tomorrow before the rain or snow comes.

Yup we still have a muddy mess and we still have an open
I mentioned that we had holes developing in our field last week and we thought it might have something to do with the high powered cable laid last year (update - my husband reliably informs me this was not last year but a couple of years ago. Doesn't time fly when your having fun?), so we had the electric guys in to have a look. It seems the electric cable is actually about a metre away from the hole and they can't work out what is happening as the hole they dug filled up too quickly with water. The rather large hole that they made is still there and so we can see what happens to it over the winter and spring. Ian can then have another look at it and decide what to do with it at that point.  At least they have marked where the cable actually is and so Ian isn't likely to put the back hoe through it when he digs the area.

Trees wrapped for winter with straw blankets around
their roots
I emailed my PhD proposal to be looked at before submission proper and I have had some positive comments back on it, but unfortunately that too is not quite finished either. It shouldn't take long to make the recommended amendments, but I didn't get the chance today as I wanted to get some jobs done out on the land just in case it does snow later on this week.

Ian sharpening the ends of the sticks for
marking the edge of the drop to the
greenhouse ditch
Other land jobs this week included marking up the road for winter, so we can find it even if it does snow. I also got a thicket of trees thinned out and the thinned out trees will make some good supports for beans and peas next year. It's nice to get at least something prepared ahead of time. I have also finished off some beds and paths in our orchard plot. It all looks far too neat and tidy for me, but at least it means we are ready for the spring sowing. There are still bits that are not prepared, but they will wait until next year as I am taking the easy route of covering the weedy area with black cloth. It makes digging the area over much quicker when it is needed.  I also decided to wrap the trees up this week, although it is still damp the weather forecast is not looking too good and so rather than wait until plummeting temperatures I went ahead and got them all safely tucked up with straw blankets for their feet and plastic bubble wrap around their branches.

A pipe to span the trench to make sure the
water runs away from the greenhouse ditch
and not into the trench
Ian has also plodded on with winter preparation and autumn type jobs. He has been continuing to cut the trees that are in front of ditch that we want to dig out. The pile of logs and branches is getting quite big now as the forest has encroached onto the field rather a lot in the last 15 years. At least that means plenty of firewood for next year, unfortunately not good enough for covering a house. Or at least I think they might not be, but I have just checked and alder and birch are considered hardwoods, just possibly not quite thick enough in diameter. I must do some more research! I know I have seen larch used on cladding and they have been thin strips rather than the thicker cladding. Anyway back to Ian! He has also fixed the car this week, we had a problem with the gearbox again and so he took the housing apart and all the problem seems to be is a nylon bearing (well I think that's what he said) that gets jammed every now and again. Doesn't seem such a good system for what should be a robust car! He also made a shelter outside the workshop/stable for the alpacas as when it rains heavily one of them always seems to get stuck outside. It will also mean that there is less snow comes in between the wood paneling on the side.

This male is for keeping and we wonder if
he was the one responsible for the noise.
We said goodbye to one of our chickens this week, as we packed him up in a box and sent him off to a new home (no we didn't put him in the post, just in case you were wondering). Our neighbour's mum has a farm and all her old male chickens died recently and so she wanted a young replacement. We had agreed to this ages ago and we got a dispatched broiler chicken in advance. Seemed like a fair swap! Once we know that he has adapted to his new home and settled in, then we will make a final decision as to which chickens to keep and which to cull. There should be three chickens heading to our freezer, as we are still not too sure about the gender of one of the chickens and being smaller anyway will benefit from a little longer to fatten up if it is male. One of our chickens also went "Cock-a-doodle-doo" the week before. It was really odd as we had just left the greenhouse where our chickens are housed at the moment when we heard it. We both stopped in our tracks and looked at each other as if to say "did you hear what I thought I heard?" Strange thing is that we have not heard it since and no idea which chicken made the noise - probably gone into shock and that is why we haven't heard it again.

More pipe to ensure water runs where we
want it too during the upheaval of digging
We had a bit of a surprise this week, as we arrived on our land I saw something pale sticking out of the ground on our hill, but it was way too far to see clearly what it was. I asked Ian and he said he thought it was a tuft of grass. It turned out that it wasn't a tuft of grass at all, it was a fox. It must have been sat in the middle of the field wondering what on earth it was going to do now as it was stuck inside the electric fence. It dashed this way and that but couldn't work out how it was going to get past the fence. Ian came to fetch me and the sight of two humans advancing towards it was enough to help it overcome the fear of the fence and off it shot. At least we know the fence works - sort of! It must have run into the fence and got a bit of a shock, as the wires at the top of the field were lying on the ground or at least popped out of the fasteners. They wouldn't have done that if it had just walked into them.

Finally got around to having a fire to burn
tomato plants. It has been too wet or we've
been too busy. We also got rid of some
rubbish from around the place too
We found out this week that we finally have recycling facilities in our village. We have even got rid of some plastic bottles that have been lying around for ages. So years after everyone else we can now get rid of plastic, paper, cardboard, tetra packs, cartons, and glass bottles. Very exciting! (I guess we don't get out much) Sadly another bank in Latvia closed its door this week and that means the only permanent bank in our village has closed its doors. Fortunately though it was a bit more orderly than the last time a bank closed and people have had time to sort out alternatives and if they don't do that personally they will just have their funds transferred to another bank who has agreed to take on the accounts. We are not sure though if we the bank taking on the accounts will keep our branch open or not. We do know we get to keep the ATM, but that is a bit of a moot point as that particular bank already has an ATM in our village anyway, just hope they keep it better stocked than before, as occasionally it is not possible to take out much if the money is low.

This isn't as flat as some places, but you can imagine
being able to look forever as the prairie goes on and on.
This was taken from our time in Colorado
Finally I am nearly finished (hope there are not too many sighs of relief there) but I have been revisiting Rich Mullins songs. He sang about his faith with such honesty which was straight from the heart and even now some of his songs can make me cry, which is saying something as normally I am not the emotional type. Some words from one of his songs really struck me this week as words for our times and it is from the song "Calling Out Your Name"

From the place where the morning gathers
You can look sometimes forever 'til you see
What time may never know
What time may never know
How the Lord takes by its corners this old world
And shakes us forward and shakes us free
To run wild with the hope
To run wild with the hope
The song itself is about nature calling out its praise and I really grew to love this song as it mentions the prairies which I saw for the first time in Colorado. But this song has a new resonance in a time of shaking, when nothing seems certain and feels so uncomfortable. To know that God takes this world and shakes us forward and shakes us free helps me to understand more than ever that the shaking has a purpose and it is not just some random act of the universe. God indeed wants us to run wild with the hope, the hope that he is setting a new order to things, that life cannot carry on the way it always has done, he has a purpose in creating a freer world, a fairer world. One where we can run free with hope.
Of course Colorado is not all prairie. Here is a picture from
Cameron Pass in the Rocky Mountains.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Little by little

At least it isn't raining! The flags were out this week as
Sunday was Latvia's day of Independence. 94 years from
the first time they declared their independence from Russia
We don't get a huge amount of post. Not surprising really as we don't send a lot of letters either or order a huge amount, neither do we get much in the way of junk mail, but this week there was a surprise in our mailbox. A mysterious card. It wasn't one of our birthdays or our anniversary. It is still a bit early for a Christmas card, especially a local one, as there was no postal address on the card. It turned out to be a card with a picture of an alpaca on it. A local friend of ours had seen it whilst away and thought of us - very sweet. Even sweeter were the kind words inside. Always a lift to a week to receive some kind words!

I've been busy knitting too
I mentioned previously that I had had to send a request to Sheffield University for a transcript. A transcript for those who don't know and if you are as ancient as I am, is the results from the time spent at university, not just the final results but a breakdown of what you did whilst there. Well after they conducted their archaeological dig, they managed to find something to transcribe into a modern transcript. Okay I exaggerate, but it is still about 27 years ago since I was there. I was quite surprised to read them again, my chemistry was my redeeming feature in my results for my first year at 70%, the rest were all rather mediocre. I rediscovered that I had taken Anatomy and Cell Biology, Biochemistry, two lots of Chemistry for Biologists, Microbiology and Physiology. I had forgotten about Microbiology. I must have pulled myself up by the bootstraps in the end to get a 2:2 grade as my second year results didn't look that promising either. How did I manage?

Oh yes we still have mud!
One of the reasons for the transcript is that I need it to continue on with my studies at Tartu university and I am pleased to say that the authorities have accepted the transcript and I am good to go onto the next stage. I have even nearly finished the proposal I need to write to say what it is that I want to study. It just needs tidying up and a quick check over and I can send that off too. The weird thing is that I have really struggled to put it together. It is quite a step up from a taught Masters, where the course is pretty much organised for you. This time I have to convince someone that what I want to do is a worthy subject to study and I have to organise it, albeit with a mentor. I think part of me realises that this means a significant change over the next four years and in some ways it feels like jumping off a cliff, once over the top it is not so easy to get back, I'm committed (perhaps I should be but that's another story). I know I will be fine once I get going on it, but I have really had to lean into God to get to this stage. He has kept nudging me along to get me to where I am, to get me past the point of inertia. Oh well! Future here I come, now.

I have been busy! Honest!
I have also been doing some translating just lately. Not the proper sort of translation where I look at the text in a foreign language and try and work out what it means in English, but rendering google translate into something that makes sense in my native language. It is an interesting exercise, but I think I managed it. No complaints anyway. Latvian can be quite interesting when using google translate, as Latvians can be quite philosophical and that renders a direct translation into a rather amusing piece or otherwise downright unreadable. I gather it works both ways though.

You can just see the end of the pipe at the top
of the photo that Ian cleared.
I did manage a bit of time out on the land to do a bit of winter preparation. I have been reluctant to do too much as I don't want to wrap up the trees too early in the damp weather. I would rather it be colder before I do that. Instead I have cut down some small spruce trees (aka baby Christmas trees) to use around some of our tiny trees and to lay on top of herbs and bushes as protection from the heavy snow and browsing deer. I still want the temperature to drop some more before wrapping the trees up in layers of plastic again. Meanwhile Ian has continued on with the cable work. At least the rain has more or less held off, not been great weather, but at least not tipping it down with rain. We are getting closer and closer to getting sorted now, with the cable laid right up to the electric pole and a trench dug down to the greenhouse and a bit beyond for the barn. We even have the right forms filled in to get the power laid on. We are getting there, bit by bit. Ian was able to get on with the cable as the lake disappeared at at last. It might have had something to do with Ian going down into a culvert over the road and not on our land and clearing away a large stone and some debris from a pipe he found. We won't know if that was the problem until we either get a lot more rain or in the spring snowmelt.

A small sink hole, but a little worrying as we
have been finding a few of these close to our
temporary lake
One of the things I have learnt along the way in my studies is how things change when the voiceless find their voice, then you get a different kind of revolution. When mindsets start to change there comes a tipping point where people change from hopeless to those with at least a glimmer of hope that things might change. Of course when the powers in charge kick back there can be trouble, but sometimes they cannot contain what has changed, especially if people lose their fear. People here in Latvia still live in fear, fear of losing jobs, fear of losing heat, and a myriad of other things. People won't speak out openly about what they know for fear, but fear of what? Speaking out is not going to result in the secret police coming knocking at your door, but still the fear of something lingers on. Trying to change the mindset is hard, people might moan in whispers, but not openly and that is corrosive and allows those who take advantage to continue taking advantage. I long for Latvians to really find their voice and learn to speak out, not with pent up emotion, although that might have to happen, but with a clear sense of what is right and wrong, with a clear sense of something has got to change and they are going to speak out until it does.

This beats the trenches we dug a few years ago
to drain the area around the greenhouse whilst
in the process of being built. Still it brings us a
step nearer to getting the electric in
Something else I learnt along the way is the phrase
"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view - until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." spoken by Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
I had the joy of reading this book as it was a set piece of my daughters' english GCSE. Such a great book for showing the human side of people in an age where being black was to be thought of as subhuman by some folks. The phrase works for many other situations though and I was impressed by one pastor and his youth pastor's attempt to understand being homeless Some might think it was a publicity stunt to pretend to be homeless for 10 days, to do it together is not the same though, as many do not have that choice, but at least they got out there and met the folks who are genuinely homeless to talk to them, to share with them and find out how to help. Maybe if all those who try to help in some ways get out there and listen they might understand better.

No snow and no rain, can't be all bad, even if it is a little dreich

Monday, 12 November 2012

Cry Wolf!

Here what are you doing?
There is one thing you can say for definite about living in Latvia, it is varied and not often boring. The biodiversity of the place is also rich and diverse, and getting more diverse by the year around here. This week we heard the news that a local farm has lost some sheep and the culprits are probably a wolf family. Now this is a farm that I have walked to to investigate whilst I was doing my wild boar study, so not terribly far. We had heard of wolves close by, as in 20km away and so have had it in the back of our minds that a wolf attack was always a possibility, now it is more real and we have to seriously look again at the safety of our animals. The sheep were not housed in a barn like most of the animals around here at night, as the days are still quite mild for November and the grass still reasonable, even if it has taken a hit with a few hard frosts and so that might explain why they were attacked, even with their electric fence protection. Recent logging near us might also explain why the wolves were in the area as they may have been disturbed, however, that still means they were probably close anyway.

Now why did the cat cross the river?
To get to the other side? And why?
No idea, she moaned about it all the
way across
The only good thing to come out of this news is that we got a tasty meal out of it, as we were invited around to eat as one of the guys working on the farm was cooking some of the lamb and the rest of his family don't like it. We even got some ribs to take home. Waste not! Want not! The meal out was a last minute invitation and one that Ian accepted with relish, even though we had only eaten an hour before. Once again it is like trying to feed a teenager around here i.e. Ian is a bottomless bucket at the moment and I can't fill him up, so the thought of some supper was enough for him to consider going back out in the dark and cold, even if it meant waiting ages for car windows to defrost.

The ocean we are waiting to recede.
Doesn't look so bad from here, but
believe me that is wide and deep
The rest of the week was spent battling the rain again for Ian. Oceans abound for sure, but at least by the end of the week we finally got some sun, fleeting though it was. It has been that bad that even when the rain stops there are still rivers of water running down the hill from goodness knows where. It does mean that Ian hasn't been able to finish laying the cable as the ocean (no longer a lake) has just got bigger instead of receding as he had hoped. Instead he has managed to get the rest of the cable buried in places despite the collapsing sides of the trenches and so all that needs to happen now is for that ocean to recede to a lake and he can carry on and finish the job. Fortunately the weather forecast is looking better but we could do with more sun forecast to dry it all up.

This is the river feeding the lake, where
there should be no river
Being new to this farming lark is one of wonder at times, often wondering what on earth we are doing but loving it all the same. One of the things we have wondered about is the gender of our chickens. We hoped we had sorted them out into one ark with one male and five hens, one ark with one male and four hens, one ark with four males for dispatching to other homes or to our freezer. Well maybe! Errr possibly! And then again maybe not! Some of the little darlings appear to be late starters and we were wondering if one of the chickens in the male ark maybe female after all, but we are still not sure yet. One of the chickens in the 1+4 ark is definitely turning out to be male and one we still have a question mark over. I guess we didn't do too badly then, because apparently even seasoned chicken owners are never 100% sure until the chicken either crows or lays an egg and none of them has done either of those things yet.

So far and no further. Here Ian was
digging the trench and immediately
burying the cable before it collapsed
but the route after this was far too wet
to dig with our tractor
I mentioned last week that I was frustrated that there didn't seem to be much in the way of small scale farm equipment and this week I found the ideal product, only problem is that it is a protype made in Africa, wonder how long it would take for someone to make one in Europe? Probably no time soon. As far as agriculture here in Europe is concerned, the only agriculture worth investing in is big agriculture and not the small scale farming. So the search continues for engineers who love a challenge and to see what they can produce.

Not too bad! Err we hope!
I'm glad the US Presidential campaign is over, now we can get back to some news as if there is a world that exists outside of America. It is not that I don't want to know what is going on, but the large amount of coverage gets tiresome in the end. It is also galling to see so much money spent on things like advertising etc. Spending in the order of $2bn, that would pay for three years interest payments on the Latvian national debt, it is 20x the losses of Haiti to the storm, despite the devastating loss of crops there (remember Hurricane Sandy and the fact it hit the Caribbean islands first?), and it would buy 100m mosquito nets, saving lots of lives in the process. So what would you have spent $2bn on?

Trenches full of water

Ruts full of water and this is on top of
the hill

But here comes the sun on a beautiful frosty morning
A quick update on the article for which I was interviewed: I came out of it quite well by all accounts. It seems to be a fair representation of what is in my report and what I said, we won't quibble on a few details as something could have been lost in the translation anyway. So all in all, quite a relief.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Plodge, plodge

The wraps are finally coming off the accommodation block
for the school
There has been some excitement in our household this week, we got to see baby pictures of grandchild number two. This little mite is not as chilled as the first one, as it wouldn't lie quietly to have its picture taken, so not so clear, but still it is there and appears healthy and that's the main thing. It is lovely being able to see the pictures and see them despite our family being scattered across the globe.  It all feels a little surreal at times knowing the events are really happening, but not being there in person, but it is comforting to know that we are only a Skype call away and can still be involved in the process, albeit in a more limited way than if any of them lived down the street from us. 
Bit of a difference to when they started. No balconies now,
no crumbling brick work and all clad with an outer skin
of eco-friendly products - well that is theory. Hope it is
well done and it lasts. 

There was more excitement when I read the front page of the magazine that had an interview of me in. The front page headline read "Mežacūka. Draugs vai iednaidnieks?" which means Wild boar: Friend or Foe? My masters thesis title! I wasn't quite sure whether to be upset or not, but the reason for picking the title for my thesis was to capture people's attention and it looks like it worked from that point of view. I was credited with the title in the main body of the interview so that's okay. The article came complete with silly photo, although I did look very earnest, as if I had something very important to say. It was a good job though that I had changed for the interview just in case and didn't see the journalist in my usual scruffy clothes. From what I could tell the article looked fairly well written and a neighbour agreed with that assessment, but I still need to get a more accurate translation of it. Hopefully I shall let you know if I fully approve next week.
Before the dig

In Denmark we had a tv for three months when we lived in a rented flat there and one of the programmes we used to watch was "Time Team," but we used to nickname it "Dig a trench." As many of you know whenever they wanted to find something out about the history of a place they would dig a trench as an exploratory first step to see what was there. Well Ian has been doing his own "Dig a trench" for our electric cable and it is proving to be a fascinating cross section of our land as far as the make up of the soil is concerned. We have everything from sand to clay to rich loam, all within a 500m transect. He started off in good but cold weather while the snow was still on the ground and everything went well, but then it melted and the rain started again. Now it is no longer squelch, squelch in the mud, it is more like plodge, plodge in the water (Verb plodge (Geordie) To wade or splash around in puddles, mud, clarts or mire.). Our lake has reappeared as it seems to do every time it rains now and we have rivers of water running across the fields. It is not making life easy at the moment. The lake is right where Ian wants to dig for the electric cable and he can't really skirt around it as it is onto neighbouring land. It is so frustrating. The trench has also collapsed in places as the rain washes some of the soil back in, and some of the soil is just being washed back into field. The trench is 70cm deep and in places it is filled to the brim with water. So what should have been a fairly tidy neat scar across the land, may turn out to be a much wider scar with a depression in it. Not what we wanted to do.

After the dig. It kind of looks like we have a
rather large mole problem
I finally got all the fodder beet in to feed the chickens, the remaining few beetroot, hamburg parsley and some parsnips. I had commented this week on one blog that we don't seem to be troubled with voles nibbling our vegetables, unfortunately I discovered that we do have a problem in one of our allotment plots after all. It could be because I was the last to dig up a root crop and so the only one with anything worth eating in the area, but there was a whole row where the leaves looked fresh and green but when I pulled them there was nothing but a hole left in the soil where a root once was with a tunnel onto the next one. Not a good sign. At least it was our allotment plot and not out on the land, there they would have been dug up by the wild boar if it hadn't been for the electric fencing around the plot. Shame electric fences are a bit useless against voles. On the land the parsnips were of varying sizes, some a decent size and some small but they were all good and long, which is a good sign as it means the soil is deep at that spot anyway. It was also the first time we had actually managed to grow parsnips reasonably well out here in Latvia and maybe warming the soil first before putting the seed in paid off

Looking back up the hill
One of the frustrations with trying to do something a bit different is trying to get appropriate equipment. So much money is spent on big agricultural machinery that there is not much available for the small diverse farmer, there might be in India or China but not here in Europe, or if there is we haven't found it. Sometimes we find something if there is a market elsewhere like in landscaping or vineyards which require the smaller equipment but where would you find a small scale thresher? Or a small scale seed separator? I feel there is a real need for engineers to work on small scale machinery that mimics some of the jobs that were done in the days of yore and yet reflect the engineering possible in this day and age, a real fusion of old and new thinking. This hopefully would make entry level farming cheaper, instead of relying on equipment with a huge outlay, which severely restricts the opportunities for young farmers unless they take over a family business. Another idea would be for engineers who were capable of restoring old equipment which are lying around in many barns, no longer used but still capable of doing a valuable job if only people could get them to work again. Oh well! If you know of anyone who fits the bill, then do let me know, won't you?

Bella in the chicken box. Neither Bella nor
the chickens seemed bothered by the company.
I think she was after the parsnip flavoured with
some fat poured off some sausages I had done
in the oven - either that or she has developed
a liking for parsnips!!!!
Small farms are efficient, believe it or not! They can produce more per acre with smaller outside inputs but it does require a lot of manpower. It is not efficient as economists might measure efficiency, but it is kinder to the environment to have more people producing food with fewer fossil fuel inputs. One of the reasons for introducing animals to the mix is to improve the efficiency of the vegetable garden by producing onsite fertiliser, instead of shipping it in. We are still experimenting with working out what we need to raise to support the livestock we have (sounds grand for three alpacas and 15 chickens, but it's a start), so that when we scale up we will have some idea of how much we need to grow to keep them in food year round. So hopefully as we grow the vegetables to feed ourselves and the animals, the cycling of nutrients will be good enough to keep everything healthy. Well that's the general idea anyway

The chickens with their new cobbled together roof aka
Frankenroof. The low roof was fine outside for the
chickens with the good throughput of air but inside
the greenhouse it meant that the ground was always damp
so we thought it would be best to have a net cover instead
After a flurry of anonymous comments which are only spam, I have taken the decision to remove the permission to post anonymously. It certainly won't affect my regular posters, but I am sorry if you had intended to comment but don't want to post with a profile, only it was getting too time consuming dealing with the anonymous comments that had nothing to say apart from that which already been said all over the internet, word for word. 
I said it had been wet. This is Ian's new walk in wardrobe
or where he hangs his wet stuff and just lately there
has been a lot of that.