Laptop Chick Warmer

On to less serious matters … the weather has taken a sudden change … from a hot summer day it went to cloudy and humid … and now stormy … winds and rain. In the midst of this all … a small 3 day old chick was left behind outside … found cold and shivering … so Andreea brought him indoors and asked me to keep him warming. One option was to use both hands (which makes typing kind of difficult) … so I came with this solution. One hand for the chick … held up next to the heat exhaust … and voila … hot chick and another hand free to type:

 

The Remaining 5%

A question has come up in discussions regarding Cutia Taranului. The question circles around “what do the peasants get out of this” (this being Cutia Taranului) … usually with an undertone that is really asking “how are the peasants being exploited this time”. So, first of all, a great thank you to everyone who brought up the question. It is a just and important question since the peasants have been subject to years of exploitation and abuse. However, we were also slightly offended by the question because nothing could be further from our mind. With those two energies now consolidated I believe we can now answer that question thoroughly.

Caring Attention

We spend hours (sometimes many hours) over a period of weeks (sometimes many weeks … months) on the phone and when possible face-to-face with peasants that contact us (the only peasant family we reached out to were Ildi and Levente – our neighbors and first peasant family to join the project, all the other peasants learn about the project and contact us to inquire about it) regarding the project. It takes patience and conscious effort to communicate to them our intentions and how Cutia Taranului works.

We face much doubt and skepticism. We place no pressure on anyone to join. We realize that Cutia Taranului brings with and demands of peasant-families a huge cultural and intellectual shift … we appreciate every peasant family who gives us the opportunity to share Cutia Taranului with them. We are in awe of every peasant family that finds the courage to give it a try. (And we look forward to rejoicing with every peasant family that succeeds.)

When a peasant family expresses an interest to join the project, the conversation moves the next phase.

Personal Guidance

We learn from every peasant what they create and explore different directions for putting together a relevant and feasible box. Relevancy means a box that can provide a valuable and useful service to people in the city. Feasible means that the peasant can organize and deliver the box in an efficient and financial way. Financial means that at the end of a day of deliveries they are left with a decent profit.

That last “financial” part may seem obvious but in almost every case, if left to their own decisions, peasants will come up with either (1) nothing; (2) a box that is either irrelevant (people in the city are not likely to be interested in it) or (3) insustainable effort (the peasant family may end up losing money or making an insignificant profit). Our objective is not to flood the website with boxes, but to put out correct and relevant boxes that will, hopefully, be embraced by people in the city (as has been the case so far).

After numerous iterations we usually arrive at a good box and … we move to the next phase

Launch and “Adverstising”

We ask peasants families to write a page introducing themselves and to provide us with a photograph of them. However most peasants are not writers  so … most of the time Andreea ends up interviewing them and authoring a page for them. The rest of the time Andreea reviews and offers editorial suggestions based on our past experience. When possible we usually end up photographing them too.

Andreea then continues to write (or help edit) a description of the boxes and the menu of additional, optional products. We publish all that information on the website, present it to them (which sometimes isn’t trivial … since they don’t aways have Internet access) and ask them to review it. We also add their information into the Cutia Taranului information system (which is being contantly developed as the needs of the project unfold).

We then send a notification to people who have signed up to the constantly growing (all over Romania) waiting list … we give them 24 hours advance notice to decide if they want to join. Then we begin to spread the word about the new boxes to the growing Cutia Taranului social-network. Then registrations begin.

Registration

Every registration arrives at our information system and begins a carefully monitored process. We relay registration information to peasant-families (when possible by email, many times by phone). We remind them that they need to call new members within a day or two to confirm the registration.  We offer them guidance on how to speak on the phone, what needs to be asked, what needs to be avoided … how to be thorough, friendly and effective. We (try) to make sure that they do so in an orderly way by confirming with them after they speak to every member.

We then produce for them organized reports of their member lists and stay in touch until boxes are ready to deliver. We try to assist them in organizing an effective delivery route (instead of zig-zagging throughout the city). When necessary we send email updates to all the members of a box to let them know how things are coming along.

First Delivery

Before the first delivery we try make sure everything is in order. We send members an email letting them know that boxes are expected and what they (as members) can do to help in the process.

We then wait with excitement to hear from peasants and hopefully members how was their experience. Delivery of boxes has just begun so we are just now beginning to move into a reliable and recurring delivery schedule.

Payment

We charge peasant-families nothing for this entire process. We do it patienly and passionately and with no strings attached. Members pay the peasant directly. 95% of the revenues stay with the peasant. We ask for a 5% monthly donation (at the end of every month – based on actual sales) to support our continued work.

Ironically we’ve been systemically criticized by anyone with any business experience that 5% is too little to ask in return for what we do. We’ve spent a lot of energy speaking to these people about our motivations and reasoning. Despite continuous pressures to change this number we haven’t. We are very happy with it. So are peasants (who currently pay a lot more for a lot less).

The Remaining 5%

This is where the story takes an interesting twist. Everyone seems to be interested in the bottom line number but not a single person has asked where that money will go. Here is a list of things on our agenda:

  1. Funding our continued research on sustainable agriculture in Romania. We would like to see traditional Romanian agriculture evolve beyond where it is to better practices. We would like to see a system of agriculture that:
    • Is better for the land itself and takes precious care of of soil fertility for future generations (as opposed to the current paradigm in which soil fertility is constantly degraded).
    • Is much less oil and oil-product (fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, etc.) dependent.
    • Is much less labor intensive then traditional “slavery to the land” agriculture.
    • Is much more respectful towards and integrative with trees and forests
    • Is much more respectful towards  and integrative with animals.
    • Is much more diverse.
    • Is inherently organic.
    • Is much more efficient and reliable.
    • … in other words … more sustainable, more reliable, less expensive, less work, more and better food, more profits.
  2. Funding our continued research projects on diverse aspects of sustainable village life in Romania in the hope that others (hopefully a younger generation) will be inspired to give it a try.
  3. Creating a non-profit that will support the ongoing operation of the project and shelter it and everyone involved (peasants, members and us) from potential hostilities.
  4. Supporting other social endeavours that we would like to explore (that are too early to unveil and way beyond the scope of this post).

… and it’s all just getting started … so who knows what that list may look like in the near and far future 🙂

 

 

 

Hay Delay

For the past week or so we’ve been wanting to hire someone to cut, turn and bale hay from ~3 hectares of our pasture (you need good weather conditions – a few days with no  rain so that the hay can be cut, dried and collected without getting wet). Initially we put it off because we weren’t convinced if and how much hay we needed (we were using it mostly as mulch … and we prefer not to anymore … so looking for better, accessible mulch materials). Recently we were putting it off because we don’t have enough cash money on hand to pay for it (a visit to the city is planned).

We’ve been approached numerous times by two sheep-herd owners (and a neighbor with cows) to let them pasture their herds on our land. We’ve refused because (a) we wanted to let the pasture rest; (b) we were planning to cut hay from it; and (c) we had plans to begin improving and converting parts of it.

Today we went to the village to pick up a few things from the market and to have a coffee. We met with one of the herd-owners and he asked us again for permission to pasture his herd on our land. We thought about it and decided to let him. The pasture has been rested and if not cut will become overgrown. Our efforts at improving and converting parts of it are on the way but moving slowly … so we won’t be getting to much of it at first. So, at first we said to him that we will cut hay from a part of it and then let his herd in.

But then I stopped Andreea as she as speaking and asked her to try and make a different trade. We asked him if he can bring us baled straw which, for our uses, is much better then hay in which case we won’t cut hay and he can bring his herd in right away. The look on his face was priceless … he was shocked and confused … he couldn’t figure out if we were joking or serious. However, once he got past the initial shock he easily agreed. He has 0.8 hectares of straw he can bale and deliver to us and everyone is happy (in addition, starting in August, we will be getting sheep cheese products).

Hay here is considered precious as animal feed that is both grazed and cut and stored numerous times a year for the winter months … straw isn’t (animals don’t eat straw). Therefor there aren’t many local uses for straw and it isn’t considered valuable. Once again our values seem to point in a different direction 🙂

So everyone got a great deal. We don’t need to spend any money on cutting the hay and we don’t need to spend any money on getting straw as mulching materials. He gets more pasture for his herd. It feels soooooo good to come across such win-win exchanges where money is simply taken out of the equation.

This is also a great example of a hidden purpose behind delays. We come across this a lot … sometimes over much longer periods of time. Delays are there for a purpose … you have to have patience and to let things be because only time can reveal their purpose 🙂

Them

There is a fascinating aspect to Cutia Taranului. If you haven’t heard about it yet then it is a CSA (community supported agriculture) type of service which makes it possible for small scale, local producers to sell their produce directly to customers in the city.  In most western cultures food production is largely controlled by large agro-businesses with a (growing) backdrop of small producers who sell to local communities. Here in Romania almost half of the population are peasants who feed themselves and make a scarce living by selling their produce. That means that Cutia Taranului has huge potential outreach … theoretically making it possible for half of the population to feed the other half. It excites me every time I think about.

We’ve been warned quite a few times (so far, by caring people) that the project could generate some serious backfire. If the project spreads, as we hope it will, it could have some … noticeable economic implications. It may cause quite a bit of business to shift from current market places and supermarket chains, directly back into the hands of peasants. That may agitate many stakeholders who are vested in these relatively new  and dominating businesses. So we’ve been warned that they may … get defensive and aggressive. They can be:

  • Supermarket chains who have invested heavily in their infrastructures all over Romania will naturally want to protect their investments.
  • Owners of “market place shopping malls” (closed structures which were built where once there were simple, open farmers-markets which charged a symbolic fee) who charge peasants impossible space rental fees.
  • Organized crime syndicates (which we know little about but have heard mentioned numerous times) who I assume have their vested interests.
  • Government agencies that may be curious about higher levels of income. Peasants are currently registered as small producers and exempt from taxes (after all, no one expects a peasant to be make enough income to justify paying taxes).
  • Government agencies that are used to and expect traditional methods of agriculture and may be threatened by change (our intentions is to change not just how peasant make money but more importantly how they work the land and how they grow food).
  • Corrupt government officials … simply because corruption is a dominant force in Romanian government (national and local) who may either lose their foothold or be interested in getting in on the new action.

Our first reaction to these potential threats is a smile. When Cutia Taranului reaches a point where it draws this kind of attention we’ll know we’ve done something wonderful. It is also amazing to witness how, from a sustainable/ecological perspective, the law and outlaws seem to come together through opposition.

However there is also discomfort. Cutia Taranului has no malintent towards anyone. We are not against supermarkets or city-markets or government (though we are against greed and corruption) … nothing we do is defined as being opposition … everything we do is for someone or something:

  • for peasants who we would like to be able to make a decent living and live a better life.
  • for a peasant life style which is dying and we wish to see revived and refreshed.
  • for city dwellers who we wish will be able to enjoy fresh, healthy and local food.
  • for communities who will become healthier, stronger and more resilient through mutual support and self nurturing.
  • for Romania as a country that will reconnect with its peasant-nature and maintain its ability to feed and sustain itself.

Anyone who finds themselves not aligned with these goals is not in conflict with us or with Cutia Taranului … they are in conflict with communities … maybe even in conflict with Romania as a country. This is what gives us peace of mind. Everyone who has, so far, joined Cutia Taranului (peasant and city-member) has done so based on trust, faith and excitement. THAT is what makes it a force to be reckoned with (should reckoning be required).

Cutia Taranului has resilience designed into it. Once a relationship has been established between a peasant and box-members in the city … and once there are thousands of such relationships all over the country … there is no one central place you can go to shut it down. You can attack Cutia Taranului itself … but the ecosystem as a whole and the communities all over Romania will have a life of their own.

However there is more. We assume that Cutia Taranului itself will require some kind of legal entity. This post is a great opportunity to reach out and ask for people that can help us to do this properly. If you are a lawyer or accountant that cares about this topic as deeply as we do and can help us create a healthy formal position to complement the organic ecosystem then please do contact us.

 

Stainless Steel Mesh

We’ve finally managed to track down here in Romania some stainless steel mesh. Why would we need stainless steel mesh you ask? We are collecting materials to build our first solar dehydrators for food preservation. Regardless of the design you choose to go with (except of course for buying an electric one) you are going to be building trays to place the food on. These are most likely going to be wooden frames with a wire-mesh to place the food on. If you care about what comes in contact with your food and longevity of the trays then you are most probably going to end up with stainless steel.

Today we went to the post office to pay an advance so that the order can be shipped to us. As Andreea was speaking to the lady who accepts payments I had a few seconds to stare at the invoice we brought with us to make payment and that single invoice embodies so much of our experience in creating a sustainable life here in Romania … it seemed worth putting into words. So this post is about that … a post about solar dehydrators will come at a later time 🙂

I’ll start at a point in time at which we already know what we want to do … though getting there is often as demanding a journey as actually creating it. In this case we knew we wanted to go with Solar Drying as a means of preserving food, drying tea leaves, herbs … and eventually using it to dry medicinal plants which is a direction we wish to explore. We started looking around and found a few approaches to dehydration. After much reading and re-reading and head scratching to understand not just design choices but the reasons for them … we settled on a design we wanted to implement.

Then comes the work of more detailed study … there are many details … many of which I can recognize and appreciate only after numerous readings with time and space for contemplation (and even then some considerations only become clear when I actually do the work of construction). By the time I’ve got a good idea of how to approach construction I’ve also got a fairly good grasp of the materials we will need. Many times these materials are new to me.

Then comes the task of tracking them down. Some things are available in the village hardware store, others in the larger DIY chain stores in the city and others are often more difficult (ranging from slightly to damn near impossible) to find. At best, the search needs to be conducted in Romanian (other times I have to find German terms to search either German suppliers or Ebay.de when we can’t find things here in Romania). Sometimes just finding the names or terms in Romanian is a formidable task … one that Andreea has to take on. Then comes the searching. It can take anywhere from hours to days … to weeks (when we get tired of not finding anything and have to take a step back to gain freshness and perspective).

We finally found a source … two online shops for beekeeping equipment. They carry stainless steel mesh that is used for the bottom of beehives (so that Varroa mites can fall out). Andreea called them up but they were out of stock and the density was too low  … the holes in the mesh were too large … yes you need to know what is the wire thickness and what is either the density (number of wires per centimeter or inch) or hole size. We had to realize that (a) we needed to know these measurements and (b) then locate a mesh with sizes that would work for us.

The search continued … we found one other source in some cheesy Romanian import/export website. We found three kinds of mesh … none of which was suitable … one of which was close enough to warrant further attention. We called and asked for more information … fortunately they had many other sizes. We got a few more quotes. Some were very expensive (prices per square meter) and/or came in very large long roles (which made them even more expensive). We fine=tuned the search and asked for more prices. And then it appeared … an excellent match, mid-range pricing and in a relatively short (10 meter) role.

The prices did not include VAT or shipping. Shipping was expensive … we searched for other options … found none. We decided to go ahead. We placed our order (email communication) and were sent an invoice with a request to pay an advance. It wasn’t cheap … actually its pretty expensive. It scared us … we still don’t have any income … and are trying to keep expenses down … without immobilizing ourselves.

Regular mesh materials (plastic, cheap metals …) can be found for 10-20 lei per square meter. Our stainless steel mesh will cost us more then 150 lei per square meter. For the price of just the steel mesh we could buy a pretty fancy and comfortable electric dryer (and we may yet need a simple one for drying seeds!). Yet solar means no need for electricity. Solar means no dependency on machinery that is bound to fail. Solar means easily being able to scale up our drying operation (already we can go up to 10 sqm of dryers). Stainless steel means our food will be without any chemical contaminants. Stainless steel means it will be easy to keep clean. Stainless steel means, if treated well, it will last us a long long time. In the end, Stainless steel will be not just cheaper … but priceless.

Yet, knowing all this, there is still an emotional fear … for us that is (currently) a lot of money. Sustainable isn’t easy, it is usually more expensive then commercial/industrial alternatives (that are ofen falsely presented as cheap), it requires long term thinking, in the beginning it is usually an unknown, it takes faith, it takes patience, effort and work, it is about building long-lasting infrastructures … and it can lead to an embracing, secure, empowering and abundant life.

All this goes through my mind in the space of a few seconds as I stare at the invoice. Then the lady tells Andreea she can’t help us … some postal services are only available in larger/central post-offices in the city. Sending money this way is, apparently one of those things. So … we still haven’t managed to complete the order … but we are getting there. Then we can move on to the next materials on the list … and hopefully soon we will have everything we need … then … we can get started building the solar dryers … and then enjoy them for life … or at least a very long time 🙂

Mine is smaller then yours

So the other day Ildi calls Andreea and asks if we would like to adopt a dog … one of those small dogs that look up to pinchers. I said no … those are not dogs … and we really don’t need a 3rd dog … and that was that. Then we went over to Ildi and Levente to pick up a few things and there is this … overgrown mouse … and Andreea picks it up … and looks at me, and then everyone else looks at me … and I say … wha the heck. Now we have two dogs and one not dog … meet Ricky:

She’s already a “big dog” … 3 or 4 months old … and she aint going to get much bigger 🙂

Ricky is a lucky dog here in Romania. Romanian villagers shudder at the thought of sterilzing or castrating dogs. So lots of puppies are born … too many puppies. What to do? Drown the extra puppies and keep the ones you want. I kid you not. Well Ricky wasn’t drowned (I told you she was lucky). She was raised for a few months (from the looks of her, in very poor conditions) and seems to have been dumped in the middle of a field. A sheperd found her and brought her to Ildi and Levente … and now she resides with us here at Bhudeva. Loui has taken a liking to her, Indy is jealous .. and Ricky seems to feel at home 🙂 Now we just need a huge saint-bernard that we can call Martin 🙂

Food is not cheap

One of the challenges that good & sustainable farming deals with is market prices. General wisdom amongst both producers and consumers seems to be that food is or should be cheap. General wisdom is wrong.

Satisfying Hunger

When we were still living in Israel we couldn’t afford organic products but we did make it a point to eat good nutritious whole wheat bread. It cost 3 or 4 times more then the standard white bread. This went on for many years until one day we forgot to purchase our good bread and had to settle for the regular white bread that was available in the small village shop. The bread felt empty, I had to eat twice as many slices of bread as I was used to just to satisfy my hunger. So the real price of this “cheap” bread was actually twice its label price.

Nutritional Value

That same bread had very poor nutritional value. I could at best get more calories (energy) from eating more of it but no matter how much of it I ate … I couldn’t consume what wasn’t there. There are many nutritional elements that our bodies need and expect to find in food. If those elements are not in the food we eat then we don’t supply our bodies with what they need. From there one of three things can happen:

  1. We live with deficient nutrition … and that leads to health problems which come with a heavy price (monetary and then some).
  2. We rely on food supplements that are very expensive for regular consumption.
  3. We eat too much … our bodies continuing to look for what they need … and we become overweight … fat … and obese … and that leads to other health problems which come with a heavy price.

So how cheap is that cheap food?

But even that is not the whole story.

Subsidies

In most western/industrialized countries many (if not most) food products are “protected” and regulated by subsidies. There can be diverse motivations for subsidies but the end result is that government controlled funds are passed on to producers. If, for example, egg production in your country is subsidized, that means that in addition to profits from selling eggs, a producer receives additional payment from the government. “From the government” really means “from taxpayer money” and that really means “you”.

So when you, for example, purchase an egg, in addition to what you pay in the store, you have already paid an additional sum of money through subsidies. How much? I don’t know … but it can be a substantial amount of money. Many farmers have become reliant on subsidies (rather then profits) for their sustenance.

Now consider that subsidies are just one form of market manipulation. They are a simple manipulation because they directly allocate resources for a specific purpose. What about indirect interventions? What effects do trade agreements between countries have on food prices? What effects do trade agreements between international corporations have on food prices? What effect do trade agreements between countries and corporations have on food prices? And for Romanians … what effect does corruption have on food prices?

Food is not cheap. Period.

The bottom line is that whatever you pay for food in a store does not reflect the true price (let alone value) of food. Food is more expensive to produce and deliver then we want to believe it is. It’s easy to blame large corporations and corrupt governments but we have all worked together to create this situation. We were convinced that industrialization and commercialization would be a good thing – we liked the idea of being able to have anything we want to eat available to us for low prices whenever we want it. Governments merely represent us and our desires. Large companies merely look for potential markets and try to make a profit from them. We all worked together to create the food reality we live in … and for a while it seemed nice.

Yet is hasn’t worked out has it? Food prices went up. So, being true to our dreams, we continued to push … food became even more indutrialized, efficiently processed … and …  less tasty and less nutritious … and sometimes unhealthy (in some ways even poisonous). And still food prices continued to rise … and still do … everywhere. We ended up paying more and getting less. This is a direct result of all of us, together, pursuing our dream of cheap food. Maybe its time to dream up something better?

Dreaming up something new isn’t easy to do. It demand personal sacrifice and change. We all have to re-examine our values:

  • Do we prefer to eat cheap food or healthy food?
  • Do we prefer poor food all year long or healthy food when it is naturally available?
  • Do we prefer that others prepare and pre-process our food for us or to take the time to lovingly prepare and cook our own food?
  • Do we prefer a global menu of food that comes from all over the world or a menu that is based on what grows locally?
  • Do we prefer to support industrial food production (large corporations) or small-scale local producers (our neighbors)?
  • Do we prefer “organic” food that is transported long distances or local, traditional food that is grown nearby?
  • Do we want to be dependent on international corporations for our food supply or do we want to be a self-sufficient community?
  • What is more important to us: fast cars, fancy furniture and electronic gadgets or food?

We dreamt up and created our current food-reality. We can dream up and create a better one.