It has seemed very quiet on the farm this past week or so without the to-ing and fro-ing’s of the workmen. Since starting the renovation at the beginning of the year they have been a big part of our daily routine. We’d had the weekends to ourselves and the odd day or two when the weather was too bad for them to work outdoors, but generally speaking they have been around and we have enjoyed watching our dream grow week by week.
The phrase “topping out” normally refers to the point in time when the final piece of the structure is installed on a building or perhaps when the roof has been completed. It is seen as a celebration and usually involves toasting the project with a glass or two of something nice. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the project has reached it’s completion, but signifies that the building has reached its full height. With this in mind, the roof of our barn and the longhouse is now complete and the barn is as tall now as it is ever going to be.
Not sure if it is the custom in Portugal to have a topping out ceremony when the builders have finished their part of the project, we would have nonetheless enjoyed doing this on their last day and were disappointed that the Covid restrictions had made this impossible. So, we’ve decided that we would like to have a bar-b-q and a bit of a gathering when restrictions allow, as a belated topping out, giving us the opportunity to celebrate the success of the build and to let the team know how much we appreciate their hard work.
It has certainly been a strange few months, socially distancing with only a wave or a “bom dia” as communication and not even being able to offer a friendly smile due to wearing our facemasks and we are looking forward to the times when some normality is re-instated.
With the Portuguese lockdown now eased, we took the opportunity to call by the Ecositana workshop with a couple of bottles of brandy for Antonio and Raphael and some beer for the workers. I think this went down well and both Antonio and Raphael were insistent that these should be drank together – so a Bar-B-Q it will be. Great minds think alike!
Since Simon first came to tinker with the buffalo, we haven’t managed to get it started again as it seemed to be stuck in gear, so he came back to have another go. This time he took the top off the gearbox and spent an hour or so stripping it down, cleaning it up and generally having a good look at it. For our part, we kept him well supplied with black coffee and biscuits and left him to do his stuff. Eventually, from where we were working outside of the annexe we could hear the deep snarl then growl as it once again kicked in to life.
We rushed up see what was happening and could see Simon out on the land walking alongside it. Mark didn’t want to let him go until we’d managed to start it for ourselves – it was quite a task to say the least. It’s a very old piece of machinery, and in UK terms probably an antique. It has no doubt been here for many many years so naturally it seemed right that we should do what we could to get it up running and back doing what it does best.
The modern day versions have some sort of electronic ignition to make things easier when stating up. This one has a rope fastened to a piece of timber that is wrapped round the front pulley wheel. To kick it into action, the rope needs to be wound around the wheel and yanked with some considerable force judging by Mark’s red face as he was starting it.
She is quite a temperamental old lady and doesn’t always want to co-operate. After several attempts, Mark did eventually get it started and was given some instructions from Simon on what does what and where and when – then he left us to get on with it. Getting it going does seem to be very technique sensitive but with a few gentle words and a bit of rough handling she was ready and willing.
The ground was hard and the ruts made by the crane in places were extremely deep. We knew we had our work cut out as there were two terraces to level, but we are keen to do as much on the land by ourselves and if nothing else we have the time and energy to give it our best shot.
The buffalo cut its way through the soil, dancing about whenever it reached one of the ruts. It appeared for all the world to resemble a scene of a world war 1 tank traversing the trenches. Mark was hanging on for dear life behind it, desperately trying to steer it in a straight line. I’m fairly certain that at times I saw both of his feet leave the ground at the same time as the buffalo dipped in and out of the deep trenches. Quite a sight to behold but great to see it doing its job.
Not wanting to damage the blades on any bricks and broken tiles left behind by the builders, I had the job of wheelbarrowing all the hardcore to the ever increasing mound that we find ourselves with. I smiled to think that back in December I needed “L” plates when using a wheelbarrow and now am quite confident manoeuvring it between terraces. I’m also confident pruning trees, cutting back the vines, driving the tractor and general manual labour. When cutting the grass around the plot in the ride-on tractor though I still need to learn to duck when passing under low branches on the fruit trees as I feel like I have been almost scalped a number of times now. I do wonder what other skills I’ll pick up over the coming years.
While I was clearing the way, Mark got on with rotavating, I definitely think he scored for the more strenuous of the jobs but it’s amazing what can be achieved with sheer grit and determination. We were keen to tidy our land and nothing was going to stop us.
We’ve often noticed a local couple passing by the farm on their Japanese Buffalo attached to a cart. As luck would have it, we inherited a cart with the sale of the farm and I am led to believe that once the rotavator blades have been disconnected, the cart can be attached to the main body of the buffalo and it can be used to transport soil, cuttings, rubble or even passengers.
There is a little wooden seat for the driver to sit on and there seems to be a lot of these being used in this way. We’ve even seen one parked up in Castelo Branco with a dining chair firmly fastened in the cart. Mark thinks he would be able to get our cart attached ok and has offered to take me and Wanda out for a test drive. To be honest, I’m a bit concerned that he seems to have visions of using it like a roman chariot or such like and for the moment at least, while he still needs a bit more practice I’m happy to stick to a more conventional way of getting around and use the car.
Levelling the land was tough going although we did manage to get both the two terraces 99% complete. At one point the buffalo got stuck in a rut, spitting and spluttering as it sunk deeper into the waterlogged hole. Several attempts later, after we had tried placing wooden chocks and bricks under the wheel to help it out, we resorted to BFI and the buffalo crawled out of the other side. Deciding to give the boggy area a wide berth we carried on with the rest of the terrace. 8 hours later, with sore backs, aching arms and desperately in need of hot showers we stood back to admire our handiwork. Not bad for a days work.
The soil on the Quinta is very fine, with lots of sandy granite which means that it becomes very soft and difficult to walk on when rotavated without sinking in to it. We were forecast to have some heavy showers so decided to leave it to settle, for the rain to compress it down and then to have another go once it had dried out.
Getting back to the farm and in particular, the land, there has been a lot to be getting on with. As I’ve already mentioned, we were due to have heavy wind and rains, so we were keen to do as much outside as we could. We’ve adopted a kind of “indoor/outdoor” rule. If it’s fine we’re out working on the land, if the weather is bad we’re working indoors.
The early part of the week was extremely hot. The factor 20 sun-cream came in really handy as did the bush hats – although I do think we need to have a wardrobe conversation before we get dressed in the morning!
When living back in the UK we knew that there would be a growth spurt in the garden once we’d had a bit of sunshine, but that is nothing compared to the scale here in Portugal. Our farm is so amazingly beautiful it almost feels as though we can see the leaves and fruit growing on the trees before our eyes.
There are still number of trees and shrubs that were not really sure about – so they will be part of our learning curve for our first year – discovering what they are, when they flower and fruit, what we can use the produce for and how to prune and cut everything back.
We are fortunate to have Linda and Andy less than an hours drive away so often pick their brains and bounce our ideas off them and the little book Linda gave me about growing vegetables is proving extremely useful. They often donate plants, trees and shrubs to our little Quinta which they have dug up from their farm and so far these have taken really well to their new site.
Our recently planted fruit tree terrace is also becoming established – the nectarine, plum and cherry trees are all showing an abundance of green shoots and the little orange tree, although it does look a bit mottled has several white buds with the promise of blossom in the next week or so.
The Guava is holding it’s own and depending on the angle we are viewing it from gives the impression that it is perhaps developing new growth. It’s difficult to say and maybe its something we are going to have to research a bit more. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten Guava so perhaps will be able to try our home grown variety next year.
Elsewhere around the plot nature is waking up with beautiful fragrances all around.
The trees in the orange grove are now almost void of fruit although one of the trees at the end, with a slightly darker leaf to the others still has a few fruit remaining. The new tree that we planted on the fruit terrace is supposed to be a late fruiter so we are hoping to be able to pick oranges for most of the year when this matures. We will be harvesting the last of our oranges for juicing and eating later this week with the anticipation of a new crop around November time. Nature is so divinely clever – it was almost as the last fruit fell that the orange blossom started to make an appearance – as my boss would say, it’s the circle of life!
The veggie plot is also doing well – with onions, swiss chard and broccoli added to it’s beds. We’ve re-routed the grey water from the bathroom (where we also have the washing machine) into the veggie patch so it’s doing ok for irrigation. Long term we will introduce a system that irrigates the whole of the plot through a pipe with little holes to create a bit of a sprinkler system, but for now we are managing as we are and using our waste water.
We’ve enjoyed taking the baton and starting the next phase of development the farm. It does feels very much “Over to us” now but we are loving every minute.