Living Freely – Valuing the Marginal and Recycling Energy
Plukrijp Community, Belgium
Photos and article by Richard Perkins
We are now a month into our epic global family film journey documenting active and replicable solutions in all areas of permaculture design. Our recent trip to the Plukrijp community has left a strong impression on us, an account we feel moved to share. Situated in Schriek, Belgium, this small farm has developed into a thriving community hub over the last few years, and offers solutions in various aspects of permaculture design, but most notable is the way this community lives at vertically no cost. Around 4000 people pass through here a year in addition to a 15-strong community, and the whole thing is run on a simple magic hat. The running costs have been reduced to gas for cooking and water rates!
Frank Rumen has farmed organic vegetables for over 30 years on this site, and it turns out his experience working in wholesale organic food alongside his vegetable box scheme has been key to creating the dynamic 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 planted forest gardens and another field across the road with wheat, pumpkin, potato and more orchard trees. Frank has worked the tunnels long enough with mixed polycultures that the tunnels now self seed spontaneously, and with a quick look I see 15 varieties of salad in a square meter. The business side of production ceased as the unique community model arose and the need for ultra intensive cropping has long gone; yet the farm still produces far more food than they themselves use. A walk along the rows knocking down seed is enough to keep the whole thing rolling along in overproduction of salad!
The chickens and geese are kept in an interesting way also, with netted pens joined by hundreds of meters of netted tunnels that run the entire perimeter of the fields. Frank has designed this in to ensure weeds do not encroach from the neighboring land. Majoring in Jerusalem artichoke, berries and other fodder I can see these corridors as a very functional system producing fodder and yielding crops whilst keeping edges of the field clean and allowing the birds much greater secure range for exercise and exploration without taking up much foot space. Nice design.
On the land Frank is also experimenting with sowing wheat as single plants at wide spacing. We look at his test plots, using 1/10th seed as conventional plantings and they seem much healthier and vibrant than the conventionally sown wheat right alongside. Still in its experimental phase, it reminds me of the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) that is spreading over SE Asia and produces harder, higher yielding and better quality rice grains with 1/10th seed and only a fraction of the water (flooded just the right time of year for weed disturbance) so I can imagine this to be a useful strategy. Frank remarks that by allowing an individual plant full self expression it can produce up to 40 heads on a single plant and because it is photosynthesizing right down to the base the plant expresses vigor and resilience that is noticeable compared to conventionally sown wheat grown in the plot alongside.
Busting out of the current economic model — cultivating the land, cultivating people
The land based enterprise aside, the most lasting impression we take away with us from this place is the way Frank and the community have developed resilience and beneficial connections with surrounding communities through conventional waste streams. Over 30 years or more Frank has cultivated his connections in the organic wholesale sector, and applied this in all areas of his life, to create an incredibly abundant minimal cost lifestyle for all that live at and visit Plukrijp.
Within a 50 km radius around the site, wholesale food that has passed its sell by date, or fruit and vegetables too close to ripening, get brought here and are either stored, processed or given away. The morning we arrive Frank picks up 25kg of asparagus, 60kg of onions, 60kg of potatoes and several crates of tomatoes, cauliflower and bananas. It is entirely organic certified, top quality produce and everything is as you would expect on sale at a farmers’ market, save a few softening tomatoes. And this happens every week! We are shown around the store where an array of huge chest freezers store all manner of breads, vegetables and meats along with food that has been cooked or processed if too close to ripening for immediate consumption due to the sheer volume. Several fridges are full with dairy items and refrigerated goods. The array of fridges and freezers are all powered by their solar set up. Storage space appears to be the only limiting factor!
I’ve always had an aversion to skipping any old food for the sake of it, and have passed up many highly processed junk laced meals, celebrated as recycled but compromised by content. It’s all well and good to intercept general supermarket waste, but I don’t want to eat that anyway — I’d rather it went to a biogas unit. From a design perspective that’s where scale comes in. By going to the ‘middle men’ in the organic sector, Frank has cultivated contacts and links to the point where nearly all the community’s needs are met without cost, at little effort and to stunning proportions. To me it feels a bit like the difference between shopping organic in a health shop and organizing our own bulk organic food orders with friends. By going to the larger source you can tap into a different level of abundance, then share the surplus with whoever needs it.
On vast racking around the freezers there is 200l of olive oil (a year out of date) and Frank laughs as he recalls the astronomical value olive oil has at times auctioned for when retrieved from ship wrecks that are over 2000 years old! Jars of pickles and preserves made from the farms crops blend in with all manner of organic whole foods, the oldest of which are 20 years out of date. And still avidly consumed here.
Frank has applied his philosophy to all areas of the public waste stream over the years. For him it’s all about cultivating relationships, communicating needs and spreading awareness both of what they are doing and why they are doing it. One morning we move clay, 40 tons in bags picked up as someone else’s waste from well digging, now destined to make a great slip around multiple ponds on this highly sandy soil. Frank explains that he stops whenever he sees anything that someone is disposing of and explains what he does. Sometimes people do not want to rid themselves of their scrap, perceiving some inherent value, and so he returns another time, sometimes a year later to find often its still their. He’s been doing it so long most people actually come to him now, glad that someone can take their “refuse” off their hands. With my design brain on, I often consider how some things are more beneficial tackled at a larger scale, for example compost making in an urban environment. I feel the same here — by creating a hub and store Frank can utilize incredible amounts of waste resources and ensure they get used for the benefit of many.
There is a free ‘shop’ here too, with hundreds of boxes of clothes, implements and odds and ends, you can find whatever you are looking for. There are two barns jam packed full of ‘scrap’, thrown out appliances that still work fine, dozens of bikes, steel, tools, furniture, glazing and endless lengths of lumber. It’s all free; people come here from all over to find whatever they need for projects, and for the farm itself there is all you could ever need for any new project or repairs and maintenance. Exploring the community buildings, it is clear the philosophy of intercepting waste streams applies here too; except 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 three stories high this building was constructed at a very considerably lower cost than a conventional structure of this magnitude. I see parts of supermarkets, industrial units and greenhouses have all been adapted into thoughtful and creative architecture!
We stack a couple of pallets of free fresh organic produce in the community library, every other space is now full, and peruse the thousands of books collected from garbage. It’s what makes this place unique for me. There are deliveries to other groups and communities and ‘give away’ markets in nearby cities for people to just take free, fresh and high quality organic produce when there is 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. It is so refreshing to us to experience this example, and the opening up of time in these people’s lives not needing to fit into the conventional economic model. We sit down to a dinner of fresh salad picked an hour earlier, soup from vegetables gleaned from the waste stream, huge loaves of beautiful bread from a delicatessen organic bakery in Brussels. Frank’s mother is 96 and the youngest at the table is 1, all are paid attention to and supported. Meals here are always community affairs with laughter, conversation and exchanges followed by group song ringing around the room until bedtime.
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 valuing the marginal in this regard I have heard about or experienced, and I leave grateful for the possibilities Plukrijp represents. Communication as a key to abundance, it seems so fitting.
Richard Perkins is a highly regarded Permaculture Teacher and Designer in the UK and abroad, and Director of Integralpermanence.org Design Services. Currently on a global family film adventure experiencing and documenting Permaculture solutions around the globe, you can follow their adventures through film and blog at https://www.impermanencefilm.org.