Volunteering at Solawi Zabergäu – a German CSA

This year I have decided to deepen my knowledge in Permaculture and try to get to know more people working on different Permaculture projects. As a few of you might know my long-term goals are to have a small Permaculture farm of my own again as well as doing some more Permaculture teaching and design. To get closer to that I decided that volunteering can be a smart way to get started. It’s something I can do fairly easy since I’m a freelancer and can bring my work with me anywhere.

The sheep keeping weeds down and providing the fields with manure.

How I found Solawi Zabergäu

I found Solawi Zabergäu through the German WWOOF network where I’m a member. I made a search for farms mentioning Permaculture in their descriptions and in the state I live in. The reason I decided to narrow it down to farms into Permaculture only is that I’m mainly focusing on finding projects working according to Permaculture principles. Sure, I could probably learn a thing or two from larger scale organic production too, and in a way I actually got some of that during my visit as well. Having found a few different farms that sounded interesting I decided to contact Solawi Zabergäu since it sounded like a nice place and wasn’t very far away. Solawi is short for “Solidarische Landwirtschaft” = solidary farming, the Germany equivalent of community supported agriculture (CSA), a form of farming where members buy a share of the produce over a full year and pay a monthly fee.

Spinach growing strong outside even if it was just February

What I learned during my visit

I felt welcome right away here. Very friendly people and everybody was helpful showing me around. We took a quick tour of the place during the first afternoon and I quickly recognized that this farm has a feature common of many German farms = the living quarters were separated from the fields where the crops are produced. Very often you see this setup where farmers live in a house in a village and then take their tractor out to the fields to do the work. In total Solawi Zabergäu has access to a few hectares of land as well as a large greenhouse complex on a former garden center, slowly being converted to fit the needs of the CSA. From a Permculture perspective it’s less than ideal to have things so spread out of course, but you have to work with what you’ve got.

A few of the things I learned here was of course related to growing veggies on a larger scale since that’s what the main business idea is about, but I also had the chance to reflect upon more social aspects of the project. So instead of telling you what I did each day I’ll mention a few things I learned and realized during these two weeks.

Sowing hundreds of seeds in pots. After a while you get a quite good hang of it.

There’s not only one way of doing things

First of all I learned more about sowing seeds and maintaining annuals on a bigger scale. Already there I realized that there are more than one way to do seemingly simple tasks. Earlier I learned sowing and transplantation in one way with more loosely packed soil while here I was told to do the opposite and put some more pressure. There’s a difference when you use a tractor to transplant some of the seedlings later. Big tip to all volunteers out there: Don’t be afraid to ask how people want things done in that specific place. Or at least start with a few steps if you’ve done something before and ask if what you’re doing is alright. It will save you time and effort later if adjustments are needed.

Part of the old garden center. There are still a lot of trees and shrubs that can be used for other parts of the farm.

Foodsharing – taking care of what would go to waste

I knew of similar initiatives from before where people ask supermarkets for surplus that hasn’t been sold and would end up as waste. What I didn’t know was that there is an organized network for this in Germany where you can become a member on the foodsharing.de website and request to pick up sorted out food. Not all of it is in good enough shape to eat still, but some of it will make great animal feed or compost and astonishing amounts are still 100% fine for consumption. During the two weeks spent at Solawi Zabergäu a large portion of the food we ate came from this initiative plus vegetables grown on the farm. You become very creative in making up meals in this way, especially in late winter where the farm has a limited range of available vegetables. We cooked very nice meals and it feels good to take care of things that would else go to waste.

Making new Alpaca friends

On the farm live two Alpacas and a few sheep of the breed Fuchsschaf (fox sheep), an old breed with a slightly red tint to the wool. I had never been close to alpacas before so this was a fun experience. You really have to stay calm since they are quite shy animals and react to any swift movements. A challenge for someone like me who is usually quite hyper and move quickly in most things I do. Taking them out for a walk over the fields really made me have to slow down and move carefully. Yoga in walking form. 😉

The two Alpacas living on the farm.

What is Permaculture?

One of the things that really struck me here was that people have very different views on what Permaculture is. We were discussing this a bit during meals and it became clear that the understanding of the concept varies broadly. One of the guys said he doesn’t like Permaculture since he has learned organic farming in a more industrial way. He looked upon Permaculture as something just adding more work in the form of mulching that attracts snails. He didn’t seem to look upon it as a design system, but rather as a specific method. What surprised me is that he had been to one of the more known Permaculture projects in Germany and still had that view. Maybe the people there hadn’t introduced him fully to what was going on there?

Another guy presented the view that no Permaculture garden he had visited so far was a true Permaculture garden. When I asked what he meant he explained that most of them seemed to only be doing standard organic farming since they were growing a lot of annual vegetables. His idea of what Permaculture is consisted of creating self-regulating systems where plants self-seed and very little human input is needed.

Leftovers from the last veggie delivery to the CSA members.

These two views really made it clear for me that it’s important to explain that Permaculture can be so much more than just a certain shape or method. For me it’s a design system which has space for many different techniques. What makes it Permaculture is that there is a thought through strategy for making the need for maintenance lower, that elements are multi-functional and put in the right place so that no unnecessary resources are put on maintaining it. Creating such a system is not easy and it’s definitely a challenge explaining to a visitor what’s going on – to show how and why that specific system IS Permaculture, even if it might not look very different from an ordinary natural garden, forest or even standard farm. This is something Permaculturists everywhere need to get better at, me included.

The transition from standard farming to Permaculture

Another thing that really stood out during this stay for me is that it’s a huge challenge to find ways to make a transition from industrial farming to Permaculture methods, regardless if you’re farming organic or not. The challenges occur in several forms – from having to switch your own way of viewing the world to having the courage to work in a way different from the neighbors and try to convince them that their crops won’t be harmed just because your field doesn’t look 100% the same as theirs. Just adding a few trees and bushes and not putting them in straight rows seems to provoke some people deeply around here.

The field where the community garden will be created. A few trees have already been planted and it’s easy to see that there is a lot of wind in this spot.

There is also the factor of size. If having large fields to tend to and limited manpower to help out with the work, it’s natural to understand that the only option might be to use a tractor. If you have a goal of providing food for 100-150 families, as i in this case, then you will need to compromise. I know the people at Solawi Zabergäu want to do more work by hand only and use less machines, but for now they just have to stick to partially working with their tractor for doing part of the work. The way to change that would be getting more help from the members.

An old tree inside the greenhouse.

Taking on a Permaculture challenge

This is where I decided I wanted to take on a small Permaculture challenge and design a community space for the farm. The fields are currently fully open and situated in a windy place. To remedy that it would be great to plant more trees and bushes, which is already part of their existing plan. I suggested to also use this initiative to create a community space where workers, volunteers and members can sit down to take a break from the field work. The idea would be to create a space that is inviting to families to go to on weekends or afternoons to help out a bit with the farm work and at the same time have a place to relax, let the kids play and maybe pick some berries or fruit. Like that I truly believe it’s possible to engage the members of the CSA a bit more. So my goal with the design I want to do is to create a space which remedies a bit of the wind problem, helps building organic matter for the fields, increases wildlife habitat and cares for the people working in the space.

Asian salad greens. These are a great addition in winter since they are quite frost hardy.

How many hours do you work for your food?

Actually, as a thought experiment we made a quick calculation of how many hours of work each member (family unit) of the CSA would have to work per week to replace the people currently growing their food. These are only rough estimations, but it gives you something to think about:

4 people working full time = 160 hours per week. With currently around 100 members in the CSA this would mean 1.6 hours of work per week to grow a large portion of the food eaten.

Even if we multiply this with four to cover for other food needs this would only mean around 6 hours of work per week. How many hours per week are you currently working to cover for your food expenses and what quality of food are you getting?

I’m leaving you with that thought for now and I’m saying thank you so much to the guys at Solawi Zabergäu! I had a great time and I will be back soon with a first draft for the community garden and to get that project started.

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Veronica is the founder of Hyperbrain.me. With one foot in the past and one in the future she takes inspiration from older aesthetics and ideas to apply them in updated form today. She is passionate about teaching timeless skills and believes that the world needs more polymaths.

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