Tuesday, 1 January 2013

The end of the line...

It's hard to believe I'm here at the end of this project - it's gone oh so fast, with a lot of changes. In summary - there's been ups, there's been downs. I feel that I've failed in some of my original aims, but far exceeded them in others... For reference, you can read my starting post here.

First up, my life feels very different to how it did a year ago. In a practical way, my habits have changed a lot - no more supermarkets, much much less buying of stuff, carsharing etc... My mental attitude to belongings and stuff has changed a lot - I've got rid of a lot of things, and got a lot less possessive of other things (namely my car!). My living situation has changed a lot - the house I live in now is very communal - we cook together, share a lot of food, and generally spend a lot of time together. I don't know how much of this is directly as a result of this project, and how much is a result of a journey I may well have already been on. But I feel it's definitely heavily influenced it.

The biggest change that I didn't expect was the change to my entire way of looking at life. It's made me challenge about what's important in life and what I want. To me, life is about the people you're with and the experiences you have. There is a Mark Boyle quote that I used earlier this year in a post, and it's one that I think about almost daily:

"If you spend your time putting more love into the world, then it is reasonable to believe you are going to benefit from a world with more love in it."

And yes, you can put it down as fluffy hippy crap, but I genuinely believe in it. I started the year thinking that community and relationships were important, and this has just strengthened as the year has gone on. For me, my life is no better if I have the latest DVDs and a widescreen TV, but my friendships and the experiences I have enrich my life beyond words. It's challenged what I want out of life and where I'm heading.

There's no doubt that the first part of the year was full of a lot more enthusiasm and personal challenge than the second half. Maybe that's because I did a lot of the ground work in the first half, but I do feel that I haven't been as hard on myself about decisions as I maybe should have been. For example, I still eat meat when I'm eating out without checking where it's sourced from, drive my car when not 100% necessary, and buy clothes from supermarkets (very occasionally).

The other reason that the second half of this year has been quieter than the first is because it's inspired a new project (yes, what a shocker - I have a new project!). I'm not quite ready to talk about it yet, but it really feels like a natural continuation of this project. As a result, a fair amount of energy has been going into shaping and researching that.

The biggest difficulty has been the battle to find the middle ground of living a good and non-consumerism driven life, but also one that isn't miserable and a constant struggle. I've found time to be a key factor in this - it's generally possible to  make better decisions when you have the time. In a normal week, I can manage to not shop at supermarkets and get everything from local shops. However, if I'm going away to a festival or a big weekend away with friends, suddenly this becomes a lot more challenging and if I don't have sufficient time to get everything I need, I've ended up going to the supermarket in a bit of a last minute panic. With more time, I would be able to get to shops and get everything, but sadly fitting it in around a full time job and social life means compromises are sometimes necessary.

So overall how have I done? The definition of consumerism I first used when I started this project was this:

“Consumerism is a social and economic order that is based on the systematic creation and fostering of a desire to purchase goods and services in ever greater amounts”.

I definitely feel like I've stepped away from that. I've stopped buying things without thinking. Yes, I still buy stuff, but a lot of thought goes into what I buy and whether I actually need it. I may not always make the best decisions, but I make better ones. The original aim was "... being aware of what I spend and where it goes, and trying to spend it in the right way", and that's something I feel I've definitely achieved. My whole mindset regarding money and the things I buy has been transformed, and become so integrated into my way of thinking that it has become my normal way of thinking.

Now to keep on down the path I've started on...

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Addicted to decluttering...

Recently I've been overwhelmed by an urge to get rid of a lot of my belongings. It started a month ago, when I found myself with a free evening. I started sorting through some clothes, ruthlessly rooting out the clothes that I realised I wasn't going to wear again. I offered them to some friends, and whatever was left went to the charity shop. Then old hats/scarves/gloves that I'd had sitting in a drawer for ages and had no need for. At this point, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself for having got rid of a few boxes/bags worth of stuff.

But instead of stopping there, I continued. 75% of my DVDs went, sold for a quid each to some friends. Then I went through my book collection again, removing a further half to get rid of and sell. Suddenly, where I'd previously seen just stuff, I started seeing things I didn't need any longer. A couple of lomo cameras I didn't use any longer, some kitchen stuff I never used, textbooks I didn't use, board games, cookbooks - nothing was safe from the decluttering mania.

Initially it made my room look a lot messier (piles of stuff, everywhere) but it's now settling down as people come and collect what they've claimed. I've managed to sell quite a lot of stuff (turns out selling a dvd for a quid doesn't sound like much, but when you're selling 40 of them, it adds up quite quickly), and made over £150 so far. The rest I've just given away or taken to a charity shop - so far nothing has gone in the bin.

I think I've just suddenly realised that it's all replaceable. If I want to watch a dvd I've got rid of, I'll borrow it from the video shop or a friend. If I want to re-read a book, I can get it from a library. But generally if I've not used something in the last year, I most likely won't want to use it any time soon. I've also realised that my interests and tastes change. It's part of who I am. I get enthusiastic about hobbies - some stick around for good, others pass on by (like my lomography obsession) and I move on to new things. There's no point in living surrounded by the stuff from my past.

I've still got a long way to go (I still have a fair amount of stuff...), but I'm getting there. And instead of feeling a sense of loss about letting things go, I'm getting a real kick out of it...

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

The clothes off my back...

Clothes are a bit of a problem issue for me. I'm not exactly a skinny girl and clothes buying is already a challenging process, so the idea of restricting this further isn't the most welcome thought. On the plus side, I don't buy many clothes, and so it's less of an issue than it could be. Regardless, I want to get to the best place I can be given my size and budget, and so I thought it was about time I addressed it.

I've done a bit of an audit of the clothes I've bought this year. This has resulted in a few interesting results:

1) About half of my clothes are second hand, specifically from charity shops. I feel no need to adjust this shopping, as buying second hand is definitely a good thing in my book.

2) I don't buy many clothes. So far this year (10 1/2 months), in terms of new clothes, I've bought two pairs of jeans, a dress, a top, a couple of pairs of pyjama bottoms and a couple of pairs of leggings. Oh and a onesie. All in all, that's probably not much more than £100 in total (excluding the onesie). 

So how to do it better. Well, they don't make ethical clothes in larger sizes. They tend to stop at a 16/18, and so that's not an option for me at the moment. It's difficult to buy more second hand clothes than I currently do - the problem being that it's hard to find something if you're looking for a specific item. And buying less clothes isn't really the issue - I buy very few clothes, most of which are through need.

So where does that leave me? Well, the main problem I have is that the list of places I can get clothes from (New Look, Matalan, Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's...) is heavily dominated by cheap and not exactly high quality products. So I've been making a deliberate attempt to steer clear (where possible) from those places. Which has led me to... Marks and Spencers!

Yes. I have started shopping at M&S. So far this has extended to a couple of pairs of PJ bottoms and a pair of leggings, but I have to say that I'm impressed. I'm not sure M&S are any more ethical in their clothes production, but the stuff I've bought has certainly lasted a lot better than the previous items I've bought from other shops. My previous PJs lasted about 5 months, but these have been going strong for 9 months without sign of wearing out. They cost a few quid more, but it appears to be money well spent. The leggings are lasting well and haven't even got the weird baggy knee thing that most other pairs get. So hopefully by buying items that last longer and therefore need replacing less often, I can reduce the environmental impact that way.

Other than that, it's probably a case of trawling charity shops where possible and only buying the clothes I actually need....

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Adventures in WWOOFing

For the uninitiated, WWOOFing stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. It's based around the premise that you go and work on an organic farm in exchange for food and board, getting to learn a lot about organic farming and hopefully having fun and meeting interesting people along the way. You're expected to work for between 25 and 35 hours per week, and the rest is 'free time'. In many farms, during your stay you are treated as a member of the family, eating and socialising alongside your hosts a lot of the time.

I've been meaning to go for years, but never quite got round to it. However, I've been thinking about WWOOFing when travelling at some point, and so I thought it was about time I got round to giving it a go in the UK. Added to that I had a week of holiday left to use this year, and am trying to save money at the moment, so it seemed like a good time.

Earlier in the summer I joined the UK WWOOFing network and set about trying to find a host for a week at the start of October. One of the farms I contacted were Park Mill Farm, based in Gloucestershire and only half an hour from Bristol. This appealed, as it meant I could just come home in the evenings if I didn't enjoy it, or keep in touch if I did. I also liked the fact that they were a small holding that had a veg box scheme as well as keeping rare breed pigs, chickens, ducks and geese. One of the owners, Lara, emailed me back very quickly and suggested we have a chat on the phone. As soon as I spoke to her I knew it was the right place to go, and we ended up chatting for ages.

Uncertain still of quite what to expect, I turned up on a Sunday night armed with warm clothes and wellies, hoping for a week where I would learn a few things and wouldn't miss Bristol too much. Immediately I knew the week was going to be ok - I was shown to the amazing converted cow shed where I was going to be staying - a beautiful building with open plan kitchen, dining table, sofa and bedroom, and separate bathroom. It was beautiful and Lara had put out a welcome pack of food including homemade jam and a packet of Minstrels. I was then promptly introduced to her husband Oli and their dogs Morgan and Milly, offered a glass of wine and made to feel so much at home.

The work itself varied so much over the week. I was given the daily task of looking after the animals (feeding the pigs, chickens, ducks and geese in the morning, and putting them to bed at night), and between that I got to do a bit of everything - from taking pigs to slaughter, weeding the veg beds, moving pigs and electric fencing, planting seeds, putting together veg boxes and meat orders, plucking and gutting a chicken, digging in ditches, spreading manure... On top of that, we also found time to drink a lot of tea, bake bagels and homemade hobnobs, and I also got an afternoon off to go and pootle round the local town.

My hosts Oli and Lara bought the farm (with its 20 acres of land) about 3 years ago, and it was almost completely derelict. None of the outbuildings were usable, and only 3 rooms in the house were even liveable in (and that's being generous with the description of liveable in). On top of that, the land hadn't been farmed in years. So far, the Stables has been converted to a holiday let and the Cow Shed to a multi-purpose venue, but they still live in 3 downstairs rooms of the main house while they slowly work on the rest of the property. It's a bit like Grand Designs but without the people having endless bucketloads of money to throw at the place...

Their passion for renovating the house and setting up a sustainable small holding is truly inspiring and a real labour of love - the veg plot is based around a CSA model and currently supplies veg to 10 local families, which Lara hopes will expand to 30 families next year. They have about 30 chickens, 16 ducks and 3 geese who all contribute to the "egg round". One of their big passions is their rare breed pigs, who they breed for meat and also use to clear land around the farm (they currently have 9 four week old piglets! Whilst they're not organic certified (the certificate is too expensive for a small farm), the meat and veg growing is all done to organic principles (and beyond!)

For me it was a really enlightening experience. I learnt a lot of practical skills, but by far the best thing was getting to know Lara and Oli, and talking to them about their experiences. They made me feel so much a part of their family during my stay - from chatting over cups of tea, to going for a walk with the dogs, to going to the local pub for a couple of drinks. It's really re-enforced with me what I feel about growing and eating vegetables and meat too - the pigs are so well loved and cared for, and the chickens they eat are the cockerels that are a by product of raising more hens too lay eggs (see my separate blog post here), and the veg is all seasonal. Life on the farm was a wonderful experience as well - time seemed to move a lot more slowly, and it didn't really feel like work a lot of the time.

For me, WWOOFing is definitely something I'm going to do again, and I'll definitely be back at Park Mill Farm in the not too distant future!

I blog therefore I am?

So it's all been a bit quiet on the blogging front over the last couple of months. It's been a combination of being busy, being ill and being away.

Things have been trundling along though. Have a little summary of a few things:
- My car share is up and running, and working well.
- I went WWOOFing for a week. It was awesome. More to follow about that...
- Today I cooked a meal almost completely (apart from the flour and stock in the gravy!) sourced from free range/organic and local ingredients.The veg came from the organic veg box, and the belly of pork was from the farm where I was wwoofing. It was amazing.
- I went on holiday to Scotland for a week. Not exactly exotic, but much more sustainable and affordable!
- I've switched to an 'eco' deodorant. Nobody's told me I smell yet, so that's probably a good thing. I'm trying a more natural toothpaste but remain unconvinced...
- I've been trying to fix my clothes when they start falling apart, rather than throw them away. So far, there's been a pretty good success!
- My housemates and I are trialling a lovefilm dvd rental subscription as a house as a legal way to watch more films.

Hopefully I'll be less slack with the blogging over the coming months.

The other distraction is that I've been working on my next project, which really feels like a natural continuation of this project. It's a bit early to spill the beans on it yet, but more to follow...

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Chickens and pigs...

For years I've wanted to find out more about animal slaughter and have an opportunity to be more involved in the process. That might sound really sinister, but I feel that if I'm going to eat the meat, I should be willing to get my hands dirty and be prepared to do some of the work. I know that's not true for everyone, but it's how I've felt for a while.

When I came WWOOFing, I didn't think that was something I was going to get the chance to be part of (especially given that I'm only hear for a week). But chance has it that my visit to Park Mill Farm coincided with two pigs being booked in at the abattoir, and d-day for one of the cockerels.

Caution - the rest of the post goes into more detail about the animal slaughter - don't say I didn't warn you.

The Pigs

When I arrived on Sunday evening, my hosts Lara and Oli told me that two of their pigs were booked in at the abattoir early the next morning. They told me I didn't have to go (a bit of a leap in at the wwoofing deep end) but I was keen to go. Early the next morning we loaded the pigs (affectionately named "the escapees" due to their ability to get through even the most comprehensive electric fencing) into the trailer and drove them about half an hour to the abattoir. The one we went to is a small local abattoir (slaughtering only 80 animals a day). Lara told me she'd been to visit a couple when they started keeping pigs, and was really impressed with this one as it's so small and independent - it also happens that it's the most local to the farm, minimising the transportation required.

I was impressed by the abattoir (well, as impressed as you can be) - the person who runs it was out in the yard to greet us, and you could see he cared about the animals by his manner with them. It was really fast to unload them and they are slaughtered immediately after being unloaded. The animals weren't in any distress when they arrived or were unloaded, and the whole process was very quick. Unfortunately this kind of small local abattoir is getting increasingly rare, as most are now large operations that deal in huge numbers of animals daily, and likely involve significantly more distress and less care for the animals involved.

The pigs are then collected by a local butcher, and tomorrow we go early in the morning to collect it from him. From there, some is packaged up for the orders which are collected either tomorrow or the next, and the remainder is frozen for future orders.

I've sampled some of the meat, and it's fantastic (Good Housekeeping Award winning!) - the pigs are truly free range (the Christmas pigs are currently roaming round a couple of acres of land including an orchard) and people say they can taste the apples in the meat!

Looking after the pigs and piglets on the farm this week, it has made me realise what a big deal it is to kill and animal and eat it. But it hasn't changed the fact that I don't think there's anything wrong with it, as long as it's done well and the animals are well cared for. The animals here are loved, and every step of their life from birth to death is thought through to ensure they are cared for as well as possible. It has made more sure that I want to limit the meat I eat to free range meat from smaller producers - I can't imagine large farms take the effort to collect crates of windfall apples from an orchard, lug them across the farm, and then feed them to a couple of the pigs just because they love them...

The chicken

Every morning on the farm I've been woken up by the cockerels. This year, Lara and Oli decided they wanted some more egg laying hens, and so incubated and hatched some of the eggs. However, unluckily, 9 of the hatchlings were cockerels. They kept them and raised them, but it's costly to feed them and so they've been slowly eating them over the months. When I arrived, there were 5, and feeding and letting them in/out of their house has been one of my jobs this week.

It was decided that we'd have a roast chicken this week, and so yesterday was the chosen day to do the deed. I went with Oli and Lara as they caught one of the cockerels (they are completely calm and stay still if you hold them in the right way). I stayed to watch it be killed - the kindest and quickest way is to break its neck, and so it was laid on the ground, a bar put across its neck, then by putting a foot either side of its neck and pulling upwards and forwards, it is killed instantly.

For me, the actual death was not distressing, but I was surprised by how long it carried on twitching for (the chicken is very much dead at this point - it's just the nerves twitching). We then took the bird to the shed and hung it up by its feet so we could pluck it (much easier when it's warm). I was really shocked by how tricky this was - there's a lot of different types of feathers on a chicken, and some are very hard or awkward to pluck (when this is done at factory farming scale, they dip the birds in wax and rip it off to pluck them). The bird was then left overnight for the blood to drain into its neck.

Back we went today. Here comes the gruesome bit. First we beheaded the chicken (complete with congealed blood). There are tendons running through the legs of the chicken, and so to remove them, you have to cut around the foot joint and pull. The tendons pull out of the legs and you're left with two feet with dangling tendons, and one chicken with no leg tendons. This sounds simple, but really isn't and is stupidly hard work. At one point I was pretty much dangling off the chicken foot and they were still holding on. However, this was eventually done and we got onto the gutting. I won't go into all the detail, but it was trickier than I thought - both in terms of the steps in the process, but also in terms of logistics - I have large hands and the neck and pelvis are small! However, it was really interesting too, especially to see how different a naturally raised chicken is to a supermarket one (much scrawnier in terms of muscle, but with much more fat!).

I didn't find the process upsetting at all really. If you're going to raise egg laying chickens, cockerels are going to be born, and I'd far rather they have a good life then be killed, than killed as chicks (which is what happens in the factory farming industry). The death was done efficiently and quickly, and I found the process afterwards really fascinating, but much more time consuming than I thought it'd be. One thing's to be sure, I'll never complain about paying what I used to think was a lot of money for a free range chicken...

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

The reality of eating meat

This week I'm wwoofing on a small farm in Gloucestershire (more to come in another blog). The farm rears rare breed pigs, as well as having ducks, geese and chickens, and a CSA based veg plot. The pigs are reared for their meat and for me (especially after all my thoughts on meat eating this year), this is proving really interesting (especially given that my responsibilities this week involve looking after these animals).

It's been a bit of a baptism of fire. The first thing I did on Monday morning was help take two pigs to the abattoir (I was given the option of not going by my hosts, but decided I wanted to go) - it was a small local abattoir and actually a lot less distressing than I expected. On Friday we pick the meat up from the butchers and prepare it for collection by customers on Saturday.

On top of that, tomorrow I also get to learn how to kill a chicken (one of the cockerels they raised after hatching some eggs), then pluck, hang and gut it. Again, this isn't a mandatory part of the wwoofing experience, but something I've chosen to participate in.

I've thought for a long while that if you want to eat meat, you should be prepared to at least be fully aware of what that means. And so this week is a real test for me. I'll report back :)