Thursday, 15 December 2011

Winter garden and winter workshop

Most of the over-wintering crops are already sown and growing well in the garden – peas, spring cabbage, onions, garlic, shallots and parsley. We grow perennial herbs such as rosemary, oregano and chives too, as well as asparagus. I will be sowing a few leek seeds later this month, and some exhibition type onions. Not that I show, I just enjoy growing some “special” leeks and onions. These will be sown in modules and started off indoors overnight and outside during the day if the weather is suitable. I aim to produce as much food as reasonably possible, both for us and the goats, and winter growing crops are better than summer ones due to almost total lack of rainfall in the summer, which means irrigation is needed for crops that are spring sown.

In the last week I have harvested 28 loofahs (some places spell the word differently) that I considered appeared mature with others that have been left just to see what happens to them. I only had five plants. Average length is about 40cms although I have a couple of short ones, and two at 55cms. I also tried one peanut plant and there are pods well formed, but most are immature. They were very late sown, being a few seeds in a small packet of nuts and raisins that my mother in law had with her when she visited in May and 12 germinated. We cannot buy raw peanuts in this part of Portugal. I do not know why. The immature ones look like baby potatoes, whilst the mature ones are dimpled, looking just the same as you would see them in the shops. I know this will be old hat to some people, but not to others. I will leave the rest as long as possible but the lower temperatures (4 nights below 2ÂșC and exactly zero a week ago) means that the plants are dying and unlikely to be able to put much more into the filling of the pods. Nevertheless I will wait. At least I will be able to sample home grown peanuts, and if I have enough to sow for next year I will be happy.

Both loofahs and peanuts are new crops to me. I cleared the tomatoes a few days ago and have sown more peas and a few broad beans in the two narrow beds, although the bulk of the broad bean crop is grown elsewhere on the quinta. The two beds had already grown early potatoes this year, so have had two crops through them and a third almost ready to sow. I have 21 of these beds in the kitchen garden area, which is close to the house. They are slightly variable in length but average about 10 metres. Of course I make use of the irrigated olive groves for our own food crops too, and we have a variety of fruit and nut trees in other areas so I do not need a bigger garden.

The used farm equipment market in this part of the world is almost non-existent and importing from other countries is an extreme hassle as well as prohibitively expensive. The price of new equipment is also such that it cannot usually be justified on a small property, although I did buy a new tractor (and haymaking equipment in shares with Patrick). As a consequence I have made several pieces of equipment myself since moving here. I am currently making something based on the principles of a corn sheller. Corn shellers will be well known to readers in USA, but for others who are not familiar with the gadget, it is simply a piece of equipment that removes the kernels from corn cobs, corn to the north American people being called maize in most of the rest of the English speaking world.

I spend only a little time on most (but not all) days on this type of project if I have one active, and so it can take a while to make something that is slightly complicated. I have reached the trial stage (a few clamps or temporary nuts and bolts still attached whilst I do some test runs) and it is working satisfactorily – some shielding needed to stop stray kernels flying about but the actual kernel removal is working. I do not work from plans but have a rough idea of what I want to achieve before I start and always need to modify something as I progress. So far as possible I use scrap materials. This is in keeping with my philosophy of being able to enjoy life without spending money if it can be avoided. The sheller is no exception. I had a plywood and angle iron box that was originally intended as a seed box for a seed drill (itself made up from scrap pieces) and I used this to support the sheller plates – one static, one moving (two old discs from a car’s brakes) and covered the gap between them with parts of a hoop from an old wine barrel. The drive shaft (an old water pipe) fits through the discs and is turned by means of a handle devised from some scrap bar, a piece of irrigation tubing and a broken tap fitting. I had to use some new angle iron and nuts and bolts, but all in all, it cost me very little.

I need a sheller because whilst a small number of ears are easily shelled by hand, I want to feed several kilos a day leading up to the goats kidding from early February onwards, so hand shelling is not really an option. I have been using a grape crusher for shelling, but it was never going to be the answer because it is very slow, needing to be constantly turned (manually) in reverse to loosen some kernels and then forward to pull the kernels and smaller cobs, or pieces of cob through and into a container. I pull out some of the shelled cobs during the process and then winnow the shelled kernels to remove the pieces of cob, although the goats will consume some, so perfect winnowing is not necessary. I think the cobs may not be too palatable because the goats sometimes leave a few in their feed troughs. The grape crusher is not satisfactory for shelling pulses either, because it breaks a proportion of the seeds - the quantity depending on seed size.

This is acceptable for some stock, but the goats prefer whole seeds rather than kibbled seeds mixed with coarse meal, which is the effect of the crusher on larger pulses. Cattle would consume this mixture better, and whole ears of maize can be hammermilled to avoid the need to shell the grain from the cob. The overall energy level is slightly reduced when this is done, but the amount of fibre is increased compared with straight grain.

I am making the sheller as dual purpose so that I can shell seed stocks for the next crop of pulses. In other words a small scale thresher, but limited to certain crops and not suitable for small grains such as wheat or barley. I can readily feed pulses in the shell apart from White Lupins, another new crop for me in 2011. Lupins come in many different varieties, and the white seeded white flowered lupins I used are about the size of a small broad bean, and eaten as a snack in Portugal after being boiled and sometimes pickled. I grew them as a livestock protein source.  It was a most successful crop, up to 300 seeds per plant with sowing both in the autumn of 2010 and late winter of 2010/11, but the mature pods have a very sharp spike on the flower end – the part you can take in your fingers on many peas and beans and pull to open up the pod for shelling. This point penetrates flesh very easily and makes hand shelling both difficult and dangerous. It also means I am not prepared to feed the pods whole as I can the other pulses. 

Shellers as made commercially in USA are designed to leave the cob intact and this is usually ejected separately to the kernels. I will not have this refinement because I need the sheller to be capable of breaking open the pods of the pulses, so it will also break the maize cobs into pieces. This is no great hardship for me and I have various ideas for dealing with the produce of the sheller, one of which is to extend the usually short seasonal use of my olive-grading table by adapting it to winnow the maize and pulses after shelling. The cobs have three uses. Goat feed in limited amounts, added to the goats’ bedding, or burned on the household stove. Through the goats or under their feet are probably the best uses for me. I have enough grubbed out olive stumps to last me a few years in firewood.

Yellow lupin varieties have a much softer pod and they are suitable as a hay crop as well as turning in as green manure. I am not growing any yellow ones this year, but I gave Patrick a hand with preparing ground for some that he has sown in the last week. I want to grow white ones again for stockfeed. The seed of the yellow ones is too small to consider hand harvesting, especially since the white ones can be grown at the same time and on similar ground. In places with harsh winters they can both be grown as spring sown.

Lupins are a very high protein crop, with high quality dietary fibre and some oil, but not enough that it needs to be removed, so lupins are more akin to a low oil soy in composition than they are to beans and peas, and that is important. They could be used instead of soy in those places where soy cannot be grown and do not need any processing as soy does. Along with maize, lupins make a good base for concentrate feed for all livestock, although they are low in methionine, an amino acid that can be a limiting factor in milk production of lactating animals. Lupins are a safer crop than cereal grains in relation to the risks of acidosis, also known as grain poisoning.

I grow the maize between the rows of olive trees, and it is sown with a tractor mounted seed drill I made last winter. Several parts of this drill were removed from a previous drill I had also made from scrap – photo in the book for those of you who have it. The new improved “Mark 2” (see endnote) is a twin double row seeder, i.e. twin rows 10cms apart and a 50cms gap between each pair of twins. I fit 8 rows of maize in between each row of olives whilst the trees are small, and expect to reduce this to six as the trees grow. The spacing is such that with some re-arrangement of the tines (a few minutes work) I can run my scarifier through as a post-emergence weeder. Hand harvesting is not difficult, and I only grew a bit more than an acre this year in one grove so it was not a big job. I had Black Eyed Peas, sown with the same drill, on about a hectare in another grove and harvesting these was a much bigger job. Probably too much in fact as I was desperately short of time in the late summer, and I will cut back next year if I can harvest a reasonable crop of broad beans and lupins. The main advantage of the Black Eyes is that they require a lot less irrigation than other summer legume crops.

It is essential that the place maize is grown is entirely pig proof otherwise the wild population just moves in and destroys the crop as it forms the ears. They do not bother other crops very much. It seems they do not care for pumpkins and squashes, and they ignore the pulses too. I do not know why, because I should have thought all of them were equally good feeding, and just as easy for the pigs to “harvest” as the immature maize cobs.

I am also part way through construction of a four row broad bean drill that would double for white lupins (although I am also considering an exchangeable lupin seed metering tube for the maize drill) but temporarily shelved this as I decided to sow the 2 hectares destined for early sown beans to a fescue/white clover ley, using Segria a Spanish fescue and Haifa white clover. The organic matter content of this piece of land is not increasing as well as I would like, still only 2.7% on analysis although an improvement on the 1.8% in 2004. Four years in grass will make a big difference. The beans will now go into the olive groves, and I am restricted in being able to work this land due to the usual heavy autumn rains, so decided the sheller had priority. I take our household requirements from the field sown crops, but the garden bed I sowed will be ready earlier than the field sown ones.

I will move back to the bean drill when the sheller is finished and delay sowing probably until February depending upon weather conditions. I will be able to pick fresh beans for ourselves in May and they will be dry enough for long term storage by early June. They will be followed by maize. Patrick is assisting me with the design of the sowing tines (CAD or Computer Aided Design no-less) complete with fixed seed delivery tubes for the bean drill. We had intended to use the rear tines from a scarifier, but may have purpose made tines manufactured for us. This will considerably increase the cost of the drill, but could be worthwhile in the long run since the drill is likely to have a great deal of use in season, and it is probable that at times Patrick and I will have a narrow sowing window of opportunity so will work as a team, one getting the land ready and the other sowing immediately behind.

Endnote.   I have a lot of what might normally be considered useless information floating around in my head, and I was reminded when typing Mark 2, that it is the name that was used by the author Mark Twain. His real name was not Mark Twain, but Samuel Langhorne Clemens. He qualified as a Mississippi river boat pilot and it is said took his pen-name from the call of the person taking a depth measurement of the river on the boats, which, when it was two fathoms deep was “Mark twain”.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Storks and other local wildlife

Contrary to what you may read, storks do not all overwinter in Africa or India and return to Europe in the spring. Storks may be in northern Europe from spring until autumn, but they disappear from here during the summer and return in the early winter. I have seen a Black Stork (Ciconia negra) but it is the White Stork (C. ciconia) that is the common stork of Portugal. I have added Latin names so that those people not familiar with the names may identify the birds and animals I write about.  It is always difficult to be certain when a species of bird goes away unless you make a point of checking daily, but easy to know when it returns. Guy Fawkes Day is about when we expect them, although it has been into December some years. This year they arrived back bang on time, although I understand some reside in the Algarve all year round, having done so for a number of years. 

Guy Fawkes Day is 5th November and celebrated in England, and the rest of Britain, with bonfires and fireworks because it is the date of an attempt to blow up the English Houses of Parliament in 1605. Guy Fawkes was caught guarding the explosives that had been set. I am never sure whether the populace was/is pleased that the attempt failed and so celebrate the burning of Fawkes’ effigy on top of the bonfire, or whether they were/are disappointed and have bonfires to show what might have been.

We had a visit from a Great White Egret (Egretta alba) at the beginning of the month. According to my European Birds guide book they should all be on the Eastern side of the Mediterranean. It seems they are occasionally sighted in Portugal, and increasingly so in recent years. Apparently they have also been sighted in the UK a few times, with a flock of 8 in Norfolk in 2009. Think pure white heron (Ardea spp.) with a yellow bill and dark legs, and you will know if you ever see one. Cattle egrets (Bubulcus ibis), of which we see large numbers, are a much smaller bird.

Various theories are put forward why birds generally are increasing their habitat range. Some say it is because farmers are using fewer chemicals, others that it is global warming, and others that it is because of increasing numbers of many species. I am not prepared to guess why it is happening, but I am pleased when I see something new that I can I identify, and find it most interesting when I see a bird at close quarters. We are situated very close to a river and look down upon it from the house. It is always fascinating to see the otters hunting fish. I am looking forward to see whether we have a Greenshank (Tringa nebularia) visiting towards the end of the year. We have had a lone bird here over the Christmas and New Year period the last two years.

The kitchen windows are not fully reflective, but sufficient that we frequently have birds land on the windowsills and we can look at them from very close up – just the thickness of the glass separating us. In the spring we had a Hoopoe (Upupa epops) as a regular visitor for about three weeks. There are lots of them about and whilst not tame, they are not particularly shy either. Crag martins (Ptyonoprogne rupestris) - what an awful Latin name for such a charming bird, are the most frequent to rest on the sills, but occasionally Blue Tits (Parus caeruleus) and of course Sparrows, the common House Sparrow (Passer domesticus). The windows are also a great vantage point for watching fly-pasts of our favourite summer visitors, the Bee-eaters (Merops apiaster) as well as the occasional Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis). It is nice too to watch the otters (Lutra lutra) when they choose to fish in the pool immediately below us.

There are too all the “little brown birds” that never stay still long enough to make identification, and I find it much easier with the bigger ones such as Golden Oriole (Oriolus oriolus) which is seen infrequently, or Magpies (Pica pica) of which there are too many. The other bigger birds include Ravens (Corvus corax), Grey Herons (Ardea cinerea), Cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo), Buzzards (Buteo buteo) and Black Kites (Milvus migrans). We also have a small covey of Red-legged partridge (Alectoris rufa) that include the quinta in their territory. There are various eagles and vultures not too far away from us although not in our immediate vicinity.

Of course I do recognise many of the smaller birds and the most common include the Stonechat (Saxicola torquata), Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros), Siskin (Carduelis spinus), Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis), Linnet (Carduelis cannabina), and Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba).

Animal wise, in addition to the otters we have foxes (Vulpes vulpes) and wild pigs, and I have once seen a Beech marten (Mates foina). I had to seek help in identifying that. It is similar to a Pine marten (Martes martes) and, although I have never seen one, probably the American marten (Martes americana) if you are familiar with either of those. Apparently the American marten is also sometimes referred to as a Pine marten in parts of the USA. Very rarely I see a rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) or a hare (Lepus europaeus). I am yet to see an Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus), although I am told there are some, and Egyptian Mongooses (Herpestes ichneumon) in the area. In addition there are what translates into English as Civet, but some claim is a misidentification for a species of Genet.  

Press Release

As I said in my opening blog "Introducing Myself" I will not be repeating things that are in the book, and I will not be using the blog to "push" sales either, but I am issuing a press release on 1 December to selected print and online magazines, newspapers and journalists in many countries. This release includes a 50% reduction in the book price for December, and since a considerable number of people (more than I had expected) are checking in on the blog I felt it was only fair that these people should have advance notice. I would not like a follower of my blog to buy the book in the next few weeks and then discover they could have bought it at half price if they had known about the offer.

I would also like to advise that the blog will be much improved in appearance very soon. Patrick will do the new design for me. Anyway, press release...........

“HOW NOT TO MAKE MILLIONS – but still enjoy a rich rural life” took 60 years to write.

Author Alan McDonald began gardening at the age of seven and 60 years later is still gardening and farming.

Juncal do Campo, Portugal, 1st December 2011 – Alan McDonald currently resident on his rural property near Juncal do Campo in the Castelo Branco area of Portugal has published “HOW NOT TO MAKE MILLIONS – but still enjoy a rich rural life” a book of over 250 pages that describes how he reached his goal of being a farmer despite frequently having been told it was not possible because he did not have the money needed to do so. The book goes on to give the reader the decades of experience and wealth of knowledge acquired by the author in England, Australia, Scotland and Portugal.

For a limited time, expiring on 31st December, an electronic book version that is normally priced at US$9 will be available at a very generous 50% discount at To take advantage of this offer, use the Coupon Code PX47D.

Numerous books have been written that tell of would be farmers moving to a rural life but this is not one of them. The author was reared on his father’s smallholding so he was a country boy from the beginning and not an urbanite who fell into the many traps awaiting newcomers. Whilst it is very unlikely that anyone else can have such a wide experience of food production and the way of life in so many diverse places on their own land, the story of his farming and gardening in different countries is only a part of this remarkable book. The experience gained, what works and what does not, plus warnings of what might befall the unwary, is all passed on to the reader as suggestions to be considered and not instructions that must be followed. We are led from first beginning to look for a piece of land all the way through to devouring its produce. This makes it a book of great interest too for town and city dwellers concerned about their future ability to purchase wholesome food. Being an ebook it is also an instantaneous reference source for easy future use.

Born in Ashington and raised close to Morpeth, Northumberland, UK, Alan McDonald began work for the local council on leaving school, but was always determined that he would be a farmer. He married a local girl in 1971 and they bought their first few acres. After moving to bigger farms in Northumberland and Australia, they moved back to Scotland and then on to Portugal where they enjoy life with their garden, field crops, olive trees and goats together with the simple pleasures of good food, good wine and occasional good company.

Friday, 25 November 2011

A Glossary followed by a blog on Olives

Before posting about the quinta – the Portuguese word that means a farm, I thought I should give a glossary to explain about some things and words that I will be using on a regular basis, otherwise some of what I write would not mean much to people in some countries. It is not always possible to give a precise meaning that is globally translatable. For instance a quinta, which is also the word used for Thursday (although strictly Quinta-feira) is usually a small farm rather than a big one, and whilst this might be called a smallholding in some countries, smallholding translates to hobby farm in other countries. A hobby farm is in turn usually the sort of place where the owner is not reliant upon it to provide a living, perhaps using it only for pleasure, whereas a quinta is more often than not the sole means of support for the owner and perhaps a family too. See the problem? A quinta is not a hobby, it is a means of survival. I find it easiest to refer to all landholdings, whatever their size, by the simple word farm. I hope some of the following will be useful to readers in the future, and if anything is not clear, please feel free to ask for an explanation through a comment. I will endeavour to answer such queries promptly.

Animals. A fairly substantial dictionary could be produced trying to explain all the different words associated with animals. I will try my best to explain things as they occur.

FYM. Farmyard manure. The mixture of bedding, faeces and urine of farm livestock. It may be fresh or old, in a shed or out, stacked, matured into the best fertiliser there is, and possibly mixed with other things too.

Grass. This is the generic term used by farmers when referring to a field that contains either natural or sown species of grasses, with or without legumes or herbs.

Grove. The area of ground in which olive trees are grown. It is never a “field” of olive trees, always a “grove”.

My wife. This is the way I normally refer to her when addressing other people. She has a name of course, but is quite happy to be known to other people as Old McDonald’s Wife. There is no disrespect in this, and we have worked as a team for a very long time, having been married for over 40 years. She feeds me well and is a great asset, having trained as a Home Economics teacher. Sometimes when writing I will write “I” and sometimes “we”. This is primarily because I do most of the horticultural and agricultural work, whilst she looks after the house, flowers and some of the fruit.

Narrow beds. An area of ground in a garden that is bounded by footpaths. The bed is usually narrow enough to be straddled or the middle reached from either side.

Olive mill. A place where olives are taken and “milled” in a similar manner that grain is milled and made into flour. That would, of course, be a Flour Mill. There is an extraction process after milling the olives so that oil is produced.

Patrick. Another immigrant or “estrangeiro” as the Portuguese call us, and who has a similar sized quinta to ours about 5 miles distant. I share haymaking and some other equipment with him. I have never shared equipment with anyone before this, but it just seemed the sensible thing to do and he is such a decent sort of a bloke. He also just happens to be an extremely gifted graphic designer who made the front cover for my book and did all the technical work of making my Word document ready for publishing as well as preparing the ads I have placed in magazines. It is extremely fortunate to have a neighbour such as this. Having had the occasional not-so-good neighbour at times I sympathise with those who have only that sort.  His details appear at the foot of the Copyright page of the book if anyone has need of his talents. 

PTO. The Power Take Off (PTO) is a splined shaft that sticks centrally out from the rear of a tractor, sometimes the front too, and is driven by the engine in a rotating motion. This shaft powers many farm implements.

TPL. Three Point Linkage. The three points at the rear, sometimes the front too, where an implement is attached to the tractor. There is one top link and two bottom links. This mechanism, powered by hydraulics, allows implements to be raised for transport or turning in the field, and lowered for use. A link box is simply a box that is carried on the tpl and a most useful piece of equipment.

Vegetables. I will use standard English names, but where I am aware of another name being used in some English speaking countries e.g. maize and corn, I will use both.


November is the time of year when the olive harvest is in full swing in our area of Portugal – and other places too, of course. Many people are able to commence in October, and depending upon a range of variables the harvest often continues into December and sometimes even later, but November is the peak month. As appears common with harvests around the world, the weather conspires to keep us out of the groves. After the usual extremely dry summer (falls of a few millimetres several weeks apart occur most years) the autumnal rains this year were late in arriving, but 156mm in 10 days from 24th October meant summer was well and truly over. Several more heavy falls adding more than another 100mm in the following two weeks made the ground very wet indeed.

At first it appeared that the olive harvest might be a good one and early, due to a general fall of 30 to 40mm of rain at the beginning of September, unseasonably early and most welcome just as the fruit was increasing in size and moving towards maturity, but as the dry weather continued through October, accompanied by higher than usual temperatures, the developing fruit was adversely affected in non-irrigated groves, which means almost all of them. Rain was needed again at the end of September or early October in order to flesh out the fruit. Instead the olives began to mature and then the excessive rain caused a lot of cracking of the fruit. The poor quality regional crop meant that it was not economic for the only local cash buyer of table quality fruit to open for business this year. This buyer has been the outlet for the bulk of our own crop in past years.

This year saw the first harvest from 440 new trees we have planted and a bit less than half of them bore fruit - anything from a single olive, to the majority with about a handful and a very small number with up to a kilo or so.  Consequently I had a very small crop – helped by five “stray” trees around the quinta. It is not economic to go further afield with a small quantity, so after retaining a few for eating I took the rest for making into oil. I bulked up our small harvest, estimated at about 55 kilos, with Patrick’s bigger one. The yield was a litre of oil to eight and a half kilos of olives. The mill makes a quick test, then does the calculation of the oil that should be produced, retains a percentage in payment for making oil from your olives, and gives you the quantity to which you are entitled.

We only use about five litres a year in the kitchen, and although we make our own soap this takes very little too. We have at least a year’s supply of soap on hand, so we obtained slightly more than enough oil to see us through the year. Pure olive oil soap has been renowned for a very long time as being the best soap there is, and is sometimes known as Castille, although strictly this term should only be used for soap made in Castille, Spain and it should not contain any other oil either. 

Patrick and I are planning to make a trial batch of biodiesel with some of this year’s oil. Our long term aim is to become partially, if not fully, self-sufficient in biodiesel for tractors and irrigation pumps. In future, after selling the table quality fruit we intend to take the next grade below Extra Virgin and Virgin Olive Oil (a non-food grade known as Lampante) in exchange for our remaining olives and make bigger quantities of biodiesel from it. This is the grade of oil we use for soap too.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Introducing myself

I use the name Old McDonald on various forums around the world, and so it seemed appropriate to use it for my blog. My surname is McDonald and I am old.
When I was about 7 years old my father let me have a few square yards of land and I began to grow vegetables on it. I sold the produce. This was the whole idea of him allowing me to use it. He knew as well as I did that I wanted to be a farmer when I grew up and this was the starting point. He had wanted to be one too, but his father was a blacksmith not a farmer, and so he worked down the coalmines. At the end of WWII he bought a very small smallholding, a smallholding being known as a hobby farm in some parts of the world. So he was able to let me have a tiny piece of his land for my own use. He knew I would have a great uphill struggle to become a farmer (he had to continue working in the pits) but he encouraged me when the rest of the world said it was impossible.
From the very beginning I kept records of what I did with my little piece of land. From then to the present day is a long story - a 60 years long story. The details of where I have been in the meantime and my experiences of farming and gardening in various countries are contained in my records and that long story. I eventually made them into an ebook format at and if you click on the link and access the free sample you will be able to read much more about me and the places where I have farmed and gardened. The contents page lists the countries and the Preface will give you a good idea of how I think.
I will not be repeating things from the ebook in this blog, but instead writing about my present farming and gardening on my current property, which is a little over six and a half hectares or 16 acres in the middle of Portugal. I will post on a regular basis provided there is something of interest to write about, and I already have a couple of things from the past few weeks partially drafted. The next post should follow very soon after this one.