Our local roofer, Freddy Royeau, and his team spent the month of March redoing the roof of the barn, which was starting to collapse. It was a huge job. It took between three and five of them the whole month. (During all that time – March remember – it rained just once!) They reused as many tiles from the barn as they could, roughly 50%, and they installed new tiles to go under the solar panels so that section of the roof was stronger than the rest. They did a great job. Merci Freddy! Hopefully the roof won’t need redoing in our lifetimes. And so now we can start rehabilitating the rooms in the barn, little by little, one at a time…
The solar panels were installed in May. There are 57 of them – that’s 20.8kW, enough to cover pretty much all our needs. It’s an east-west array, which means we get solar electricity from dawn until dusk. We’ve shifted our use of electricity so that the hot water boiler, the washing machine, the well pump and most of the cooking take place during daylight hours.
Our latest electricity bill came in at 100€ less per month and we’re earning 100-150€ per month from selling our surplus to the grid, so it amounts to a reduced bill of 200-250€ per month.
The panels are made by a company called Solarwatt and were manufactured in Germany. They’re more expensive than standard panels but at least they weren’t made by Uighur slaves in China or by a Korean arms company! The payback when we first started looking at installing solar was about 25 years but with the electricity price rises it’s now about 15 years. Coincidentally that’s when our mortgage will be paid off so you’re all invited to the Big Raise End of Debt Party in the summer of 2037!!!
We’ve started making wattle and daub walls with our own clay. The straw, which we use throughout the farm, comes from an organic farm 20km away. Now the barn roof has been fixed, we’re starting to rehabilitate the interior with wattle and daub. These are Alexis’s feet making the daub:
And this our WWOOFer, Angelina (who’s also making a documentary about the farm over the next two months!), demonstrating the correct technique for applying daub to a ceiling:
We replaced the window in our bedroom with something a bit bigger, less barred, better insulated, more traditional and more picturesque. That meant redoing the window opening with stone, the render on the outside wall and the insulation on the inside wall. The works were led by the former owner of the house, the mythical Steve, who was ably supported by Cedric (he of Maginot Line fame – see previous newsletter and below), Cedric’s father, Daniel, Cedric’s partner, Elodie, Blanche, Hervé and me.
We have a wonderful new logo created by our brilliant designer, Chris. If you look closely you can see our two faces in the R (talking over each other!) and a hand holding an apple. Our other brilliant designer, Sophie, then turned the logo into some funky sweatshirts.
There are some new videos on our YouTube channel: one on the greenhouse filmed and edited by our WWOOFers, Alexia and Yann; and the second on our courses, done by Valence, the WWOOFer who created the earlier videos. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCfnZrRZDFYOmbsSV48R5I0w
We don’t want to be seen as some sort of British-Parisian eco-cult; we want our local community to understand what we’re doing. So, in cooperation with our Mayor, we’re holding an Open Day with guided visits of the farm and a special tour/aperitif for all the artisans who’ve worked on the house over the last five years.
One of our most regular artisans, Cedric, built a fence around our burgeoning forest garden to keep the deer and wild boar out. We call it the Maginot Line because it only has three sides! An intelligent wild boar could get into the forest garden between the house and the main pond but it hasn’t happened yet.
We planted another 250 trees in February and lost about 5-10% of them to drought – our fifth drought in five years! It rained once in March, once in April and once in May. The ground was like concrete by the end of May. There was some rain at the start of June, but then nothing except one 20mm downpour in mid-August, until now, mid-September. We’re on the border of Normandy and Brittany! Thankfully the new pump in the well and 200m of hosepipe allowed us to water our young trees at least once or twice, but we still lost quite a few. So we’re planting another 200 this winter.
Late frosts didn’t affect our tree fruit as badly as in 2021 thank goodness. And because it’s been incredibly dry there’s been no tomato blight. So we’re busily bottling produce for the winter. Tomatoes, peaches, red fruit jams, courgettes, rhubarb, pears – we’re preserving summer for a winter day! And a special mention must go to our repeat WWOOFer and blackberry specialist, Anastasia. Thanks to her we have a year’s worth of blackberry jam!
We’ve decided to cut down on wood fires instead of cutting down trees. Whatever you may think, wood is not a renewable energy source. In theory you can plant a tree to compensate for the one you’ve cut down and burnt. But of course the tree will take 40-100 years to lock up the equivalent amount of carbon. And here at the farm we can burn the equivalent of several large trees over the winter months, which is clearly not sustainable.
Burning wood also releases CO2 in the here and now. But it’s now that we need to stop producing CO2. Finally, the particulates from a wood burner significantly degrade the quality of the air in a home.
For all these reasons we’ve decided to reduce the number of wood fires we have. From now on we’ll only light a fire on special occasions. Like when Blanche’s nephew, Axel, comes to visit!
In the kitchen we’re learning new stuff – such as vegan quiches and sour dough baguettes.
Rewilding and reforesting
But our most exciting news is that we might be able to buy the field next door. It’s 16 acres of cow pasture running down the west side of our property. We’d like to create a public permaculture park in a third of it, plant more nut trees in another third and rewild the final third. The only problem is we don’t have the money to buy it! So we’re on the lookout for some very generous friends of The Big Raise who would be happy to donate large or small sums for us to reforest, rewild and inspire!
- For a large donation – 1,000€ and above – you’d have the option of becoming a trustee of the land and having a say in what happens to it.
- For a small donation – anything you can afford – we’d be really, really grateful!
We’ll be putting more flesh on our ask over the coming weeks. It’s not yet 100% sure that the family who own the land will in fact sell it. But if they do, then we want to be ready to step in. We already have a couple of British friends who’ve offered 10% of the purchase price and Steve, the former owner of the farm, who’s offered 1%! So the ball is already rolling. 😊
We have two more weekend courses in the diary before we close for the winter:
- 7-9 October – Permaculture, Vegan Cooking, Fermentation and Foraging
- 28-30 October – An Introduction to Permaculture, Meditation, Fermentation and Foraging
We also offer five-day applied permaculture courses and permaculture days for groups so do get in touch if you’re interested.
Solution : Comfrey
Comfrey really is an incredible plant. It has deep roots which bring minerals to the surface, particularly potassium which all fruit need to ripen. If you transplant a comfrey plant, you’ll leave some roots behind so it’ll almost certainly regrow. We replant comfrey around all our fruit trees and we feed our tomatoes with comfrey tea (comfrey leaves fermented for 1-2 weeks in a water-filled rubbish bin). Comfrey – a bit like raspberries – you can never have enough of it!
We’re flying the flag for Ukraine at the farm. Alexis was based in both Kyiv, Moscow and Tbilisi as a journalist. Let’s not forget the Ukrainians. Or the Georgians (invaded by Russia in 2008). Or Moldova (at risk). Or the Baltics (at risk).
All the best,
Alexis, Blanche, Louis & Thelma
P.S. A final word to celebrate out Blanche’s mother, Danièle, who passed away this week after an 18-month battle with bone marrow cancer. She was a radiant, generous and much loved woman. She will be sorely missed.