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Posted by Richard Perkins about 11 years ago
We stopped in at Plukrijp, home to Frank Ruymen and Martine Beaujean and their family as well as the community, some permanent and long term, some transient. It has been here that we have parted ways with Muriel and spent a couple of days catching up with our administration and enjoying the buzz of this diverse little community.
Situated in Schriek, Belgium, this small farm has developed into a thriving hub and community over the last few years, with the Plukrijp foundation being started in 2008. The farm has been reduced in size in more recent years and serves a new community based function, around 4000 people pass through here a year and the whole thing is run on a simple magic hat with no obligations, the secret behind this “dirt” cheap living we will soon find out, only small gas and water charges need to be paid other than any particular materials or possessions people desire on an individual basis.
Frank has farmed organic vegetables for over 30 years now, and it turns out his experience working in organic food wholesale has been key to creating the economic model that supports so many people to live and visit here with no cost. The site is 2 ha and has four 60m polytunnels and a larger greenhouse in salad and vegetable production, strip forest gardens and another field across the road with wheat, pumpkin, potato and more orchard trees and forest garden inspired strip plantings. Theres a lot of food, far too much, and this ties neatly into what Frank has spent years developing here.
Some of the systems that I most enjoyed here where the way marginal edges were utilized around the farm. Spaces between, behind, beside everything have a niche planting to make use of the microclimate. The chickens are placed on top of 2.5m pit of organic matter producing tons of compost, most of which will be exported off the farm one day as there is not so much of a need for it here. Frank has worked the tunnels long enough with mixed polycultures that the tunnels self seed spontaneously, and with a quick look I see 15 varieties of salad in a square meter. As the business side of production ceased as the unique community model arose the need for ultra intensive cropping has long gone and the farm still produces far more food than they themselves use combined with the bulk foods coming in from waste streams. Salads are left to self seed in this manner in all the tunnel spaces, helped with a casual walk knocking the seed heads in the fall, and particular care only given to rows of carrots, pepper and other higher value plants potted into the mix. It is worth noting that Mypex weed barrier sits on top of the beds as a mulch and protective covering of the soil, Frank is against mulch on vegetable beds which he prefers to “scratch” or leave weed matting on to keep selecting for bacterial domination. Personally, considering bare soil to be public enemy number one, I hold back my thoughts, but admittedly I can see it seems to be working well for Frank if its being going on like this 30 years!
The chickens and geese are kept in an interesting way also, with netted areas joined by netted tunnels that run the entire perimeter of parcels of the land. Frank has designed this in to ensure weeds do not encroach from neighboring plots and over stood with Jerusalem artichoke, berries and other fodder I can see this as a very functional system producing fodder, yielding crops, keeping edges of the field clean and allowing the birds much greater secure range for exercise and exploration without taking up much footspace. Nice design.
Frank is also experimenting with sowing wheat as single grains quite far apart. We look at his test plots and the sparse grains with a 1/10th seed seem much healthier and vibrant than the conventionally sown wheat right alongside.
Wheat expressed as single plants with adequate space, compared with conventionally sown "Auschwitz" wheat as Frank calls it, having to stand too tightly together and suffering... Note colouringIt reminds me of the SRI- System of Rice Intensification- that is spreading over SE Asia and produces harder, higher yielding better quality rice grains with 1/10th seed and only a fraction of the water (flooded just the right time of year for one weed disturbance) so I can imagine this to be a useful strategy. By allowing an individual plant full expression it can produce up to 40 heads on a single plant and because its photosynthesizing right down to the base in its entirety the plant has a vigor and resilience that make organic production easeful. We hope to be visiting and documenting SRI work as we reach that part of the world- check it out, it’s a revolution!
The most lasting impression we take away with us from this place is the way Frank and co have developed resilience and beneficial functions through conventional waste streams. Over 30 years or more Frank has developed his connections through working in organic food wholesale to create an incredibly abundant minimal cost lifestyle for all that live and visit Plukrijp. Food that has passed its sell by date, or fruit and vegetables too close to ripening in a wide area around the site get brought here and are either stored, processed or given away. Its simply incredible, and the morning we arrive Frank picks up 25kg of asparagus, 60kg of onions, 60kg of potatoes, several crates of tomatoes and bananas. They are all organic and all completely fine to eat. And this happens every week!
Exploring the buildings, it is clear the philosophy of intercepting waste streams applies here too, save the original house all the buildings incorporate materials gleaned from demolition sites and scrap yards. The main community space houses a rocket stove heated 20 ton thermal mass, a rocket stove sauna and passive glazed solar heating on the south side, and despite being 3 stories high this building was constructed at much lower cost than a conventional structure.
We are shown around the store where an array of huge chest freezers store all manner of breads, vegetables and meats along with food cooked and processed if too close to ripening for immediate consumption due to the sheer volume. There is 100l of olive oil that Franks laughs at noting that we value olive oil retrieved from ship wrecks that are over 2000 years old! Jars of pickles and preserves from the sites produce blend in with all manner of organic wholefoods, still perfectly good to eat, some years after there sell by dates, but considered bureaucratically as past its best.
Ive always had an aversion to skipping any old food for the sake of it, and have observed many “food aware” people eating highly processed junk that would not usually make up their diet simply because its free. That’s all well and good, but by going to the “middle men” in the organic sector, Frank has cultivated contacts and links to the point where nearly all the communities needs are met without cost, at little effort and to stunning proportions.
Its not just food, one morning we move bags of pure clay, 40 tons in bags picked up as someone else’s waste, which will make a great slip around ponds on this highly sandy soil. There is a free “shop” here too, hundreds of boxes of clothes, materials and odds and ends, you can find whatever you are looking for. There are two barns full of “scrap” thrown out appliances that still work fine, dozens of bikes, steel, tools and lumber. Its all free, people come here to find whatever they need, and for the projects on the farm there is all you could ever need. Its amazing, simply having the space to store things, and communicating with contacts about what they are up too, this place has become a very rich store of food and materials that allow them to live without money save for cooking gas, water rates and individual expenses outside of the ordinary.
We stack a couple of pallets of free fresh produce in the community library, thousands and thousands of books collected from garbage. Its what makes this place unique for me. Not only do they produce more fresh produce than the community and all its visitors can consume, they collect and store far more too! There are deliveries and give away markets in near by cities for people to just take free, fresh and high quality organic produce when there is too much excess.
Obviously this model can only be replicated to a certain degree, but there are surely still millions of tons of organic food around the world making it to landfill annually. Its so refreshing to experience this example, and the opening of space in these peoples lives not needing to fit into the conventional economic model. We sit down to a dinner of salad picked an hour earlier, soup and vegetables still fresh but gleaned from the waste stream, huge loaves of beautiful bread from a delicatessen organic bakery in Brussels. Meals here are community affairs, laughter, conversation and exchanges followed by siesters or group singing ringing around the room.
We leave amazed at the potential to engage with surrounding communities in this multifunctional and beneficial way, this is certainly the most organized and shining example of this nature Ive heard about or seen, and I drive away grateful of the possibilities Plukrijp represents.
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