How to start an off-grid farm (in Spain)

Sarah & Guillaume volunteer builders

No, this isn’t an Earthship in the making, but it uses the same principles. Its part of an off-grid farm and eco-travelodge near Granada, Spain. Aspen and David Edge inherited a dilapidated reservoir, where the subsidence caused annual tears in the plastic liner.
“We decided to use what we had got … dirt, and an environmental problem … used tyres to build a stabilising wall of several thousand tyres. It also meant that we were not having to use water to mix cement, not to mention the cement itself. We are on the home run and have only 113 more tyres to fill. Then we will used mud and water, with a little lime to render the tyres. Finally we are going to use a liner which has a 10 year guarantee (unlike the previous one which had to be replaced each year).

They also built a sheep stable, which took a year, together with volunteer help. Again using what we had, stones and dirt. The mortar was made up with a little lime. It works perfectly and we now have 5 sheep, which we use in our attempt to re-establish perennial grasses using Holistic Management grazing planning. We have just had our first lambs … twins.

One was rejected by the mother, which involved a steep, but valuable learning curve which eventually culminated in our having to let her go.
Another story! They are no breed that we know of … they just look as though they stepped out of the pages of the Old Testament! We were given them as an exchange with our goatfarmer neighbour, Paco.

We originally designed the kitchen garden from a northern European ‘gardening’ mindset so established no-dig beds, using the stones we removed from the beds to create the paths. Certainly, we have managed to build soil very successfully, although there are also drawbacks now that we have learnt more about managing a brittle, rather than non-brittle landscape, again courtesy of Holistic Management.

The rabbits are uniquely being kept in a warrenry. This method was used by the Roman in England. They would wall round a wild rabbit warren, and use a warrener to manage the population for meat. We were trying to establish as natural an environment as we could … rabbits are normally kept in wire cages in barns to maximise management and production. We built a large wired enclosure, including wire buried a foot underground and we created a large heap of soil at one end. We included a couple of large concrete pipe entrances in case the modern rabbit had forgotten what to do with dirt! We have planted grape vines along the sides which will grow over the tope and provide shade during the summer. Obviously, this is more like a zoo, than a
wild warren, but it seems to be working well. We provide them with
greenery from other parts of the farm, together with dried alfalfa and grain as well as kitchen peelings of suitable plants. We are learning a lot about how rabbits live in more natural conditions … we have yet to find a book that tells us anything about how wild rabbits live.

The geese are also an experiment (that’s part of our focus here … research and development) in terms of using a grass eating creature to help prevent the build up of decadent plant material. We introduced them as a stop-gap until we got the sheep, which are a better animal for restoration purposes in brittle landscapes. We need to manage them better if we are going to continue to keep them because at the moment we are allowing them to overgraze, which isn’t doing the ecosystem processes any favours here. The other crucial factor is that they need to bring off their own young. They are prodigous layers, but last year, although the eggs were fertile they did
not bring off their young. There are two possible causes … inecperience or lack of humidity (because at the end of the day brittle landscape are not the natural habitat of geese).

The chickens have also been very interesting. Our goal was to establish a flock that was adapted to this environment, foraged well, produced eggs and meat, and reared its own young. Three breeds on, we have still to achieve our objective! The most challenging aspect so far is getting them to bring off their own young … no luck so far. As a result of production farming, breeding for show rather than utility, the use of incubators or Bantams, the broody hen is almost a thing of the past! We are hoping that we can get a visitor to bring over eggs from the UK of 3 breeds that are reputedly prone to broodiness and bring them off under a Bantam, to see if we can come up with a hybrid all purpose bird. The breeds we have tried so far are Reco Hybrid, Translyvannian Naked Necks (Turkans) and Andalucian Blues. We are going to try for Barnevelders, Plymouth Roacks and Australorps.

The countryside here is termed maquis/garigue. It is generally typified by the presence of aromatic perennials or drought tolerant trees and shrubs, such as the Holm Oak and Spanish Broom. This is
the penultimate stage to desertification in a brittle landscape, the stage before that would have been perennial grasses. In Spring there is a flush of annual flowers, which are predominant on land that has been disturbed.
This has built up over the hundreds of years that people have been ploughing for annual crops and vegetables. The perennial grasses are slowly dying out. We are trying to re-establish them using their counterpart in nature, grazing animals, as has been successfully achieved in Africa, Australia and America. Perennial grasses would provide the best soil stabiliser and cover possible up here.

The surrounding are is currently grazed by Paco, on an unmanaged basis,
which is resulting in over-grazing and over-resting of plants.As a result of inappropriate or no management is becoming a fire-prone area, it does mean that any fire that does come through here, will cause less damage. Every year since we have been here, there have been bushfires. The one last year burnt out 2,500 hectares and
came to within 2 kms of our home.

The solar panels and batteries are a fairly simple system, which nevertheless runs a TV, computer, lights, hi-fi. The only items that are precluded are an iron and hairdryer. I tested once the
use of a steam iron … it used more energy than our 6 panels could
generate! As to hairdryers, who needs them? Unless you have designer hairstyles, which certainly don’t go with this lifestyle! We have 4 x 55 watt panels )(inherited in 1999) and 2 x 75 watt panels (2003). They have a 2.2 kilowatt since wave inverter which supplies mains quality power to the
house. Power is stored in 8 x 6 volt batteries connected as 24 volt, with a rating of 200 amp hrs per battery, i.e. 400 amp hrs at 24 volts.

The farmhouse has a two-bedroom self-catering apartment which we let out to self-guided walkers. The large window is in fact our office beneath.

Twenty years ago we volunteered on a farm in New Zealand and it was this experience which informed our desire to lead a more sustainable and harmonious life in social, economic and environmental terms. Seven years ago, after years of learning and preparation, we purchased a 30 acre property in southern Spain with the intention of putting this theory into practice.

We realised that whilst western society is enjoying an unparalled boom in terms of income, material goods and choice, part of the price being paid is the increasing depletion of natural resources – today’s generation is writing cheques which subsequent generations will have to honour. The reduction of our consumption of non-renewable energy is one of the ways in which we can move towards greater environmental sustainability.

As part of our Holistic Management programme of management*, we installed solar panels which supply power for all household needs, including our telephone, together with power for lighting in The Lodge, which is self-contained farmhouse accommodation for self-guided walkers. We believe that any sustainable energy installations, however, must be part of a whole programme of management, one which considers social, economic and environmental factors in each and every decision we make.

Over the 7 years we have built on the foundation of mixed fruit and nut trees, by adding fodder trees as well as extending the vineyard, creating 4 vegetable gardens, building a nursery for growing perennial plants and annual vegetable seedlings and including chickens, geese, rabbits, sheep and bees in our land management plan. We have used natural building materials, stone, mud and lime to build our stable, and are using tyres, rammed with earth, to build a stabilising wall for the renovation of the existing reservoir, which nearly 2,000 tyres later is due for completion this year!

Whilst there are many wonderful aspects of today’s society – cures for diseases that routinely wiped out millions, access to more information than Aristotle could dream of, travel to distant planets – there is also a darker aspect to this progress – desertification, famine, unparalleled consumption, wars over scarce resources.

Our vision is to address these concerns, through using the holistic decision-making framework in both our personal and professional lives. We are researching and developing land management practices for small-scale farmers in brittle environments such as the Mediterranean. We also offer training opportunities for others who wish to put this process to work for them in their lives and their land.

* Note about Holistic Management www.holisticmanagement.org
Holistic Management is an holistic decision-making process which ensures that every decision we take leads not only to the improvement of the social and economic fabric of our lives, but also moves us
consistently towards environmental sustainability. This framework has been used to restore thousands of acres of landscape in three continents over the past 30 years.

Holistic Management provides a simple framework which enables each and every one of us, including organisations and businesses, to test our decisions for long-term social, economic and environmental
sustainability. It also provides a structure to help us create a life that consistently leads us towards the quality to which we are aspiring, without damaging the natural resources upon which that life depends.

Allan Savory, creator of Holistic Management, has been instrumental in the restoration of countless acres of land in Africa, Australia and America together with the livelihoods that depended upon them. He is director of The Africa Centre in Zimbabwe, where he works alongside local farmers and communities regenerating grasslands and creating real wealth.

I do not believe that we can look to any present government or institute in the world for leadership in this necessary change. The magnitude of world desertification alone, taking but one of our problems, has already grown beyond the power of any human organisation to handle. So great is the problem that now only ordinary people can deal with it – you and I – teachers, farmers, ranchers, tribesmen, foresters, mothers, fathers, business people, or whatever we are outside our institutional identities. We can only do what is necessary by working collaboratively and supporting one another with a vision of a world greater than outselves. –  Allan Savory.

2 Responses

  1. hiya folks,
    your set up sounds very impressive.i am just starting out on a similar future for myself and family which is something i have only dreamt of before.I am in Andalucia too and am interested in raising geese as i have a massive amount of grasses and weeds(i also love goose eggs).
    Please would you advise on where i could get some from.

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