Monday, 26 September 2011

Hmmm! Interesting!

A neighbours lake
Our village has been undergoing a certain amount of transformation just lately. A disused building, I think linked to the old water system, has now been dismantled completely instead of just being left to rot, which is encouraging (unfortunately no before pictures). Another building on the main road has had new windows installed after being vacant for quite a while, again not sure, but I seem to think someone told me it was a small cafe at one time. The road up to the technical school has now been tarmacked (asphalted) and about time too. The road up to the high school was fine but just past the high school the tarmac ran out and then it was dirt road, and a pretty lousy dirt road at that, right up to the technical school, which didn't really look good for all those visiting from abroad on european funded exchange type trips. Outside the high school there is also a new skatepark, a request from the youngsters of the village. Finally the lake is returning as well, as they start to finish off the new hydroelectric station, not sure if it is replacing or complementing the old system yet. Unfortunately you are going to have to wait for photos as I haven't got around to photographing any of them yet. It is nice though to see steady improvements to the infrastructure and look of the village, even in these difficult times and my prayer is that people themselves see transformations in their own lives and not just in buildings. 

A late flower
It was a birthday week here in our household as Ian turned another year older. As usual we didn't really do much except go to the hotel to eat and Ian ordered steak, which they actually had this time, so he was very pleased indeed. My present to Ian was another addition to the Stanley family. We now have two Stanley flasks 1.1L and 1.9L, a Stanley insulated cup and we now await a Stanley food flask, as soon as our son ships it across to us that is -hint! hint!. They are certainly robust enough as one survived a fall from the car recently, a fate that saw the sad demise of two previous flasks and are certainly great for us out on the land, especially as the weather turns cooler as they really do stay hot - worth the investment with the hammer and use they get in our house. Another reason for going to the hotel though was a lack of electric and water - nice present! We knew the electric was going off as the electric company send out emails and texts to alert us, they even send us an alert 5 minutes after they turn it off - at least we then knew it is the company working on it and not some random fault. Unfortunately, although we knew about it, I am not sure some of our neighbours did. One neighbour was having work done on his water system and the water was turned off and they worked on the water all morning but then the electric went off and so did the noise from the apartment below, next we saw the work van disappearing - no electric - no work - no water! Fortunately the workman did come back once the electric came back on, but that did mean a noisy evening and no water until much later. Good job we have two apartments as it meant it was no problem to get some water from there.

Fieldwork. I am standing in one of the wild boar holes
This week I started chronicling the wild boar damage on different properties around the area for my Masters research project. It has been interesting walking around with the farmers, as they show me where the boundaries of their properties lie and where some of the worst damage is. It is pretty bad! I have recorded holes over 50cm deep and some damage that covered an area of 8m by 8m and seen damage today that covered even larger areas than that, but not got round to actually recording them yet. It is so disheartening to see as we know from experience the repercussions of the damaged areas, where invasive plants get in and good grass doesn't get established. What was once flat areas become difficult to walk across without time consuming remedial work. For us each new patch adds yet more time in Spring flattening it out, adding grass seed and hoping the ground elder doesn't spread into it. For others it represents an area where the hay could become contaminated with soil if the cutter cuts into a hole, or hay cutting equipment breaks, or an area where cattle or goats cannot be fed. One farmer has had to forget about plans to expand as they cannot grow their own feed, the pigs would love that too much. 

Damage that covers 8m by 8m

This hole might not be so extensive
but it is deep. My stick is marked off in
5cm graduations. This hole is 45cm deep
and if you can imagine what would happen
if you stepped in it once the grass grows back
or a tractor wheel hits it.

Fresh damage on our own plot, on what
was flat ground

Footprints along the side of a public
road. The wild boar do not seem
to be afraid of travelling on the roads
The frustration with seeing the damage and lack of options to deal with the problem here in Latvia lead to one of our rare arguments. Ian was moaning about the damage and I said that it was one of the reasons that I was doing the research I was doing, he turned to me and said "What good is that going to do? What difference will it make?" I saw red! I was not happy, as he may as well have said that this next year will be a complete and utter waste of time, as no one will listen anyway. In my saner moments I would agree, what difference can I make? Who will bother to listen or read my findings? Who am I to think I can make a difference? I work on the principle though that I have to do something, I cannot sit back and watch it happen and shake my head sadly. Maybe my work won't make a difference, but the next person's might. Maybe my work will change things or be at least part of the answer. I don't know! But I have to hope that there is a reason for all this work. I have to believe that despite the circumstances I can make a difference. As Galdiel said to Frodo in the Lord of the Rings 
"Even the smallest person can change the course of the future."
Before you think badly of Ian, he did apologise very quickly and admits he was wrong. It shows though what our neighbours have to live with and have lived with a few years, their frustrations are greater than ours. The general consensus of opinion is that there wasn't a problem 5-7 years ago - depending on which area we are looking at. The huge messes left by the wild boar are recent and not an ancient problem and yet they keep coming up against the attitude, this is their problem and nothing they can do about it. Not helpful for the future of farming in the area.

Grapes, just before they were picked and
eaten. They were tasty. 
Just thought I would up date you on the fermented cucumbers, hmmm well we finally tasted them and they are errrrr interesting. They are not awful, but their taste is very different and I can't quite make up my mind if I like it or not. Fermented foods are supposed to be healthy for us and the reduction of such foods in our diet is possibly some of the reasons our bodies don't work like they should. They are also a great way of storing foods for use over a longer period of time. Well it is about 2 hours after eating the cucumbers and I don't feel sick, so maybe they are okay, you will just have to check out my blog next week to see whether we are still okay.

If you have an hour or so to spare then take a look at this film. The guy is a gardener who takes time to talk to God about his garden and with amazing results. I have to say that after this year when everything seemed to be a bit too much, his way of gardening looks so easy and what's more doable. My heart has been asking how did Adam tend the garden of Eden, can we capture some of that connection and ease of gardening? Maybe this guy has got some of the answers and certainly some things we can learn from.

Warning to all arachnophobes, look away at this point, in other words, if you are scared of spiders then the last picture is something you will want to avoid
Had to remove this little guy before he got squashed under
the wheel, took a bit of doing but managed it in the end. He's
gorgeous though, isn't he?

Monday, 19 September 2011

Our special visitor

Well there has been lots of landscaping going on. Ian's been landscaping around our barn

Starting the process (Picture by Mavis)
Nice and level by the side of the greenhouse in preparation
for the snow in winter

Levelling off the ground by the barn
and the wild boar have been errrr hindering

Not helpful! Right between our raspberries and
currant bushes.
The wild boar have not just been digging up our land, they have been having a good go at the neighbouring properties too.

I know I am small but the photo gives you some idea of the
depth of some of the wild boar digging. If they would just
take off the top layer it would just be annoying but big holes
like this are dangerous for tractors. This hole area was one of
several about the same size.

I started my project this week of monitoring the pig activity and I first need to walk the perimeter of the farms and then log all the activity that looks new, so that I can record any done over the next few weeks or so. The problem is that it is a mammoth task, firstly walking all the way around as they are quite large some of them and then logging the damage, they have been so active just this last week that it is going to take me ages just to log the work they have already done, never mind what they will do over the coming weeks. Never mind! I shall be as fit as a fiddle by Christmas doing this, after the pumpkin weight training programme and the tomato challenge of carrying umpteen kilos up several flights of stairs in recent weeks.

Here we all are at the local hotel. Mavis is in the middle.
Last week, however did get off to a reasonably relaxed start, as we had our special visitor from England. It was quite wet most of the week but that was good in some ways as it just gave us lots of time to chat, and eat and chat and errr eat and chat some more. Mavis has been reading my blog now for over three years and has been such an encouragement, although we have never met in person, and so it was a thrill when she mentioned she would love to come and visit to see what we are doing. You can read Mavis' perspective on the trip on her blog. Besides chatting we also took her to visit our friends on their farms and one of them treated us to home-made pizzas using ingredients from out of the garden and cheese from her own goats, followed by honey cake and I suspect that was home-made too, using honey from our friend's bees. The other friend gave us a guided tour of the barn with all the animals in it and even gave us a milking demonstration, which she does by hand. It was very funny watching the calves being fed the milk afterwards and after they had finished the milk in their buckets they licked each others faces as they were not wasting a single drop of the precious liquid. It looked like they were kissing. Mavis has now got to see our land for real as well as the flats we have renovated over the few years we have been here. She has seen and heard firsthand some of the challenges and seen the joys of living here and hopefully taken away a real flavour of the place. Just a shame that it rained all day on the Friday she flew back and so Riga was more like a flying bus type tour - on your right you will see..... and to your left is ....... - in between mall hopping that is, where we ate and chatted some more, at least we stayed dry. The other shame is that Mavis missed the first tow of the season, as the very next day one of our young neighbours had managed to get stuck at the bottom of the allotments - not really sure what he would be doing there, but he was going nowhere fast if we hadn't helped.

Kissing calves (Photo by Mavis)
This weekend I started stripping the buckwheat seed of the plant, while Ian was busy landscaping. I got half a bucket, but it took me all afternoon, I hope the rest goes a bit quicker. We need some animals then we could just beat the living daylights out of the plants and then let the animals pick over any seeds left, but using the flail does seem to leave a lot of seed on the plants. Or we need one of those engineering types that love tinkering about developing little one off machines, anyone up to the job? At least harvesting the buckwheat will provide a rainy day project, as we can harvest the buckwheat in the greenhouse, even if I can't get out studying wild boar damage and Ian landscaping and digging drains.

The turkeys at our other friends farm (Photo by Mavis).
Looking ahead I finally got our plane tickets sorted for our Christmas trip to the UK, as they had special offers on for the days we were interested in travelling, the problem is that the next day airbaltic decided to announce cuts to staff and flights. It would appear though that the announcements are to do with a spat between the head of the airline and the Latvian Government. Hopefully they will sort it out very soon, instead of being yet one more casuality of brinkmanship between a powerful guy and the Latvian government. The Latvian government are actually the majority shareholder of the airline, but do not have a say in how the airline is run, and want to buy out the minority shareholder who runs the company. Not sure how that happened but doesn't seem to make sense really. The CEO is now back in Germany as he fears being arrested in Latvia for fraud charges. Not sure if the charges are real or trumped up either, but shows some of the challenges Latvians face.

I will just finish off with an excellent article on the effects of austerity on Latvia. The two authors are spot on about the reason for the drop in unemployment here in Latvia, it is mainly down to many people moving away looking for work rather than due to an improvement in the economy. We really need to generate a new economy now, one that does not penalise the poorest for the mistakes of the bankers - they maybe back in profit but the people are hurting.

Monday, 12 September 2011

And there's more!

Finally we got some Amish Paste tomatoes that are as big
as advertised. I kept the seeds from that really big one, let's
see what we can do next year!
The Pumpkin weight training schedules continued this week as the pumpkins have been moved in and out of the greenhouse several times in order to dry them off in the sun. Hopefully that way they will last a long time. Added to the tomato challenge - lugging several kilos of tomatoes up three flights of stairs, it all has just got to be good for me, if I don't perish in the effort that is. The end is in sight for the harvesting though, all the carrots are now up and in the process of being got ready for long term storage (small ones dried, juiced or added to chutney, large ones to go in baskets with sawdust), and some of the tomatoes got some blight on them so they were pulled up - green tomato chutney anyone? That leaves the Borlotti beans, French beans, runner beans and beetroot to deal with soon, along with the hamburg parsley but there is no rush for that yet, it will stand a little frost. It does feel like a mammoth task at times, as we are stood over the sink sorting the veg out, but it will soon be over. Once those temperatures dip below freezing we will be just about finished for the year - well food wise. We have until the snow comes for me to do some observations and data gathering on wild boar activity for my course and Ian will be sorting out the woodland again, that should keep us busy for just a bit longer.

Sorry the picture is not so good as that is in our barn on
my camera phone. This makeshift shelving holds our larger
We have had a bit of an exciting time this week. We are in the process of making the access road onto our land legal, which involved one of our neighbours helping us to fill out forms at the office dealing with roads for the area, and then we had to drive the lady in the office to our land to look at the access road and then drive her back to her office - a round trip of 90 km, not exactly a little jaunt. In the process of driving the lady backwards and forwards, we also gave a lift to another neighbour of ours who also had to be in Madona. It all got a little complicated, but it worked out in the end and everybody was happy, including the lady from the office. She didn't speak a lot of English but she declared the siting of the road was "good." The next part of the process is to get it sorted out and accepted by the local council offices but we were a bit too busy to sort that out this week.Okay that might not sound too exciting to you but getting everything legitimate is important to us.

And errr... there's some more, and doesn't
include the bag full of small ones we dried.
juiced and made into chutney. We really
need some animals next year to help us out.
Unfortunately though in the process of doing all that, the gorgeous morning turned into an afternoon of rain which scuppered any chance of getting in some more buckwheat, we had to wait until the next day to do that. We still headed out to the land though after dropping our neighbour off so that we could pick up a spare windscreen wiper, which just happened to be in our workshop out on the land, as the one we were using was driving us mad with the noise it was making. We were only on the land about 10 minutes before driving off, but in the meantime three cars had parked at the bottom of our road. One was a police car, one was a national tv car (LNT) with camera crew and another turned out to be the bomb disposal squad. We had found a grenade with a pin in it and our friend who was visiting us over the weekend helpfully phoned the police for us and told him about it. About an hour later he turned up and saw it and told us he would bring the bomb squad out to get it at a later date but we didn't need to be there. Funnily enough the policeman was dressed very smartly the second time we saw him, unlike the casual attire he was wearing when he came to make his initial inspection. Wonder if it was for the camera crew? They even interviewed me in English, very funny but I hope they didn't really show it.

This weeks's harvest of tomatoes. 
Well this is a short and sweet blog this week (do I hear my kids saying "thank goodness for that?") but it has been a busy morning continuing processing tomatoes and getting our home in some semblance of clean for a special visitor. More next week.

And yes there are still more to ripen

Monday, 5 September 2011

Harvest Festival

It's like our own harvest festival. We didn't plant those big
orange pumpkins or the large green ones, they just grew
in our manure heap up the garden. Guess what the cows
have been eating! Apparently it makes the milk tastier. At
the top are sunflower heads.
Still in harvesting mode this week, another coolbox full of tomatoes which were transformed into jars of tomato sauce, beans in tomato sauce and a tomato, onion and chilli sauce. We had to sit for a whole evening shelling beans for the eight jars of baked beans I made. It would have been easier if I hadn't already got the tomato sauce cooked down as the pods would have been drier and easier to shell. Hopefully the next lot of beans waiting for shelling can wait long enough to dry out. We also have pumpkins harvested and curing, along with lots of other squash as you can see from the picture but the ultimate harvest started today, our field of buckwheat. What a job! Our barn is still not quite ready and so there is not much room to put our buckwheat to dry, so we have some stacked in a corner - all four trailer loads full, on the Latvian style hay rick supports. We also have some on supports in the greenhouse and after an afternoon cutting we are gradually running out of room and nowhere near done yet. A friend of ours even came and collected a boot full to try on their rabbits. It is looking increasingly likely that we will allow some (maybe most) to be killed off by the frost and let it seed itself for next year. That way we can probably collect a harvest off it in maybe June or early July next year.
Our field before harvesting
Our first two stacks. As you can see the barn is not finished yet
we are still waiting for the doors to be done and the frames
are there in the middle 
Stack number three in our greenhouse
Stack number four and the start of number
five. We packed in at this stage because
it was getting late and starting to get damp.
The worst thing is that we can't start until
the afternoon as the dew is so heavy in the
mornings now.
All that buckwheat came from this small patch, there is still
a lot more to do!!!!!!

Yes mushroom time again and we live
to tell the tale after a lovely wild
mushroom risotto
All the harvesting has made me think about efficiency. What do we think about when we think about efficiency today? It is usually measured in two ways, the costs of the output versus inputs or the output per person. A modern farm with lots of modern equipment is considered efficient because there is a large output with minimal input from one person due to all the equipment to hand, but is that really efficient? Farming with lots of big equipment can be wasteful. All the harvest has to be at the same stage at the same time to be harvested by machine, or a lot of the harvest will be rejected and wasted. An allotment garden, however, is far less wasteful as the harvest can carry on for a long period of time and less produce is rejected as it can be used in different ways (did you know that more can be produced per acre on an allotment than a farmer could ever hope to harvest?). For instance, we had some blossom end rot in some tomatoes, so I just picked them when they were green and we had them fried. They were perfectly edible with the blossom end cut off but in a modern farm that would have been rejected and thrown away. The farms also have high inputs in terms of capital to buy the equipment, the sprays and fertilisers needed to farm on that scale in a monoculture, and a large oil input in terms of diesel and manufacture of all that equipment. How sustainable is that in the long term? I will leave that one for you to think about.

Some of the not so lovely dwellers in our compost heap.
These are cockchafer grubs and they have a voracious
appetite that can ruin a crop. Ian was just going to move
the composted straw but ended up sifting through it for
these little fellows and there were about four tubs worth.
From my perspective though, we are being as efficient as possible with what we have, weather permitting. The buckwheat this year may get partly wasted as far as collecting seed is concerned but it has done its job of keeping the weeds down and giving us the time to plan for next year. It was also an interesting experiment to see how it grew and what it looked like, as none of our friends and neighbours knew what it would be like. It did prove it is worth growing in this area but there is of course a question of how much can be grown to be harvested using minimal equipment. There must be a better way to harvest it and stack it to dry and that is something we will have to think about. Having said that, if the weather had been a little kinder to us we may have had more time to collect it too. It was too dry to plant any earlier (even if we had found any if you recall the trouble we had finding it in the first place) and is only just ripe enough to harvest now. We may lose out in the end to frosts, unless of course we have another window of good weather before the onslaught of frosts. The rest of our gardening though is usually more efficient as far as trying to harvest all that we have and finding as many different ways to store it for winter use, if we can't use it now. I must say the fermenting cucumbers are interesting to watch and I do hope they turn out well in the end, the book assures me they will be lovely.

Been a beautiful day today
I mentioned last week that weather watching has become really important to us, but the forecasts have let us down badly this week as the rain often came earlier than predicted and instead of a morning of sunshine followed by afternoon rain as predicted, it just rained a lot. That also meant that the hay we cut the other week is now wet. Good job that it was only going to be compost anyway. It also meant that Ian has now started on rainy day projects such as painting radiators in the other apartment. We often joke about rainy day projects, if it is something that is inside and needs doing we jokingly add it to the list, not sure how much of that list will ever get done but we wouldn't want Ian to get bored when it rains and pens him inside the house now would we?

We had our visitors back again this
week. Those wild boar sure know
how to dig.
I think the rain held off just long enough for the return to school this week. Ex-Soviet countries still tend to stick to the September 1st as the date for returning to school after the summer. Much of the returning ceremony here in our village is held outside unfortunately, considering our weather this last week. It is funny to see children dressed up in their best, the boys in shirts and ties instead of the usual more casual attire, and girls in very smart frocks and all carrying flowers for their teacher. Going back to school is certainly a big event here. Can't imagine children all dressed up as if going to a party back in England on their first day back. Where does all the time go though? I started back to work too (I moderate an online chat room for a UK based educational organisation) and yet it doesn't seem that long ago since I broke up for the holidays. This summer has flown by and it hasn't helped that my work for my university course has not really stopped this year either. Hopefully though I shall be ready to get started on putting together the work for my Masters thesis.

Some of our magical messy forest.
This will get a make over later on but
maybe a while before we get to this bit.
Had another nice week chatting with friends again, one evening we got to know a little more about life behind the iron curtain. It is fascinating hearing stories of every day life. This week we found out that expeditions to other countries was very possible. We were always under the illusion that travel for those living in the Soviet Union was limited. The reality was that travel outside of the Soviet Union was limited, even to Poland and East Germany, but travel within the Soviet Union was very possible and that was a huge expanse of land to travel and explore. Our friends told us that they would group together and hire a coach, pack tents to stay in, then travel all over the place just not in a Westerly direction. Sweden was a far off country when you lived behind the iron curtain, despite being just over the other side of the small Baltic Sea, but East was very possible, Ukraine, Russia etc.

Aubergine! We are a little more successful than last year
but not much. One more year to see if we can do better.
Just like to finish with the tale of the Houdini rabbit. We were round at our friends farm and they have lots of little rabbits but one of them keeps escaping. After apprehending the little individual (rather amusing as it was three adults to one small rabbit and he gave us the run around for a good couple of minutes) he was placed back in his pen with lots of other rabbits of a similar age. We couldn't really see anyway he could get out, there were no gaps, but as we stood talking we could hear some scrabbling and the Houdini rabbit scrabbled his way up a 3ft high fence onto a narrow ridge and then squeezed itself around a tiny gap into the pen of some bigger rabbits. The little one then proceeded to get itself into the feed basket from which it attempted another escape - not this time though! I caught him by the scruff of the neck and put him back where he belonged. No sooner than he was back in, he was plotting his next escape. We watched him try again but not quite make it this time. I decided to put a stop to this little one for its own safety of course - that and I'm a spoilsport - by jamming a piece of wood into the crevice through which it was squeezing, unfortunately that didn't sort it. The little fellow has now been imprisoned in a cage after escaping five more times and so far he hasn't managed to find a way out of that yet. What makes this little fellow so determined to get out though, when all the others are content to be fed and watered?