farm development

May and early June is the time of year when the olive trees are flowering. Their pollination is not done by insects but carried in the air because the flowers are tiny, so each tree makes thousands of them. The pollen is a common cause of an allergic reaction with symptoms like a bad common cold – sneezing, runny eyes, lack of energy and so on. Janet has developed this allergy so for about six weeks she tries to stay in and can’t do much; she is fine in the morning but deteriorates until in the evening she really suffers.

mowing 1

I have to mow the grass in our olive groves because it dries out to become a fire hazard. When I do it the pollen and grass dust fill the air – I can only cope with it for a couple of hours before I have to quit, come indoors, sneeze and have a shower to wash off the dust. I have mown only half our fields and groves up to now, because other jobs have become more urgent.

The weather here becomes seriously hot and dry, and I have to be out early to get in four hours work before lunchtime. It is very easy to become dehydrated so I come up to the house and drink half a litre of diluted fruit juice every hour.

P1040617 C hair abefore

P1040617 C hair afterNow I know how the vines feel – I spend a month at this time of the year watering them and giving them a haircut – removing excess shoots and tying the good growth to the wires installed over the past two years. The pictures here are of the vines beside our house, bordering the veg plot, before and after trimming.

Last year half of my vines were on wires and the vindima took only three days compared to well over a week in previous years; it was much easier as the grapes were more accessible.

vines after cropLast summer I had two men put a hundred posts in the vines abefore croplarger of our vineyards to make twelve more lines of wiring. The large vineyard is now all wired so this year all the vines are tied to the wires, getting them off the ground, making pruning and watering easier. Watering used to take at least two hours a day under the hot sunshine, lugging around seventy metres of hosepipe, from May until September.

irrig 1 tubingDrip irrigation is the way forward, which is what I’ve been installing for the last couple of weeks. This is what a hundred metres of irrigation tube looks like, and I’ve used quite a few of these!

irrig 3It required digging a trench in the hard baked earth and laying a heavy supply tube into it. Then I had to drill holes into it, fit connectors and a fifty-metre drip tube for each line, clip each 16mm tube to the bottom wire, and finally put in a dripper above every vine.

For over a hundred vines it took many hours, and there are two blank lines ready for planting more vines in the autumn.. The system had to be tested once the pipework seemed finished – a third of a mile in total – before refilling the trench. All this would be only a few days’ work if I didn’t have my basic jobs to do first – making the irrigation is what I do when I’ve finished watering those same vines with a hose! Now it is all done, watering the vines is almost as easy as turning on a few taps, and the pump is solar-powered and silent. It is lovely to work slowly in the vineyards, carefully pruning each vine, tying the best growth to wires to train and support it, listening to the water dripping and knowing the vine will use it to give us lots of lovely wine!

Our friend Celia offered me a few good words of advice and, by her attitude to her chickens, is an encouragement to anyone to keep them.

dorkingNeighbours Brenda and Stuart kindly talked and showed me through the routine maintainance for these most basic of self-sufficient domestic animals.  They also lent me a good book.

I know it’s unlikely that we will find for sale in our part of Portugal  Dorkings,  Plymouth Rocks or Sussex chickens, but the pretty Wyandotte with its pencil edged feathers and excellent homely disposition should be available – but is not.

Wyandotte _Silver_Laced
We were shopping for stone (as one does) a few miles from home when we passed a chicken suppliers farm, the gateposts with stone cockerels on were its advert. We asked the owner if we could see his stock and surprisingly he had hundreds of chickens all the same. What race were they? “Good layers”. Were they of mixed race or did they have a name? No, no, not of mixed race, but he’d forgotten – “Oh yes, very good breed, named Hybrid”. Hmmm. This is a man who makes a living from selling chickens and ducks. There are two poultry suppliers on the market in Fundão. He is one of them.

I asked if he could supply ducks to lay eggs, he would know what breed would do best here (maybe). He said he could, and I asked if they quack. No, he said, they are “patos mudos”, mute ducks. I know those are bred for meat not for laying. I asked if he could supply two female ducks which go “quack” and lay eggs. He said that would be complicated and hasn’t replied yet.

campbell duck 2All I want is a couple of Campbells or, second best, Indian Runners.  Obviously I’ve searched the internet and apart from mute ducks I can get “patos Esmeralda” (green ducks i.e.mallards) or “patos reais” which seem to be mallards too. Here, ducks are only bred for meat, the occasional eggs are simply where more duck chicks come from. Stuart tell me the patos mudos just eat and eat and get bigger until at ten weeks they can’t walk, they fall over and die. Bred for meat. Not what I want. I want a waddle and a quack, pet ducks, duck eggs.

Our builder João contacted his friend and arranged for us to go together and get half a dozen chickens from his friend, who happens to be the son of the previously-mentioned “expert”.  I drove out to meet him and we went together to the chicken farm in a lovely location with a mountain view. His friend was not there, had forgotten us and was busy an hour’s drive away. He told us on the phone that he had no ducks other than mute ones.

Janet and I decided that in view of these delays maybe we should put our fowl plan on hold for the moment, so we still have no chickens nor ducks.

Perhaps we will take a trip to France and get some Maran chickens which are friendly to humans and good layers of dark brown eggs. Maybe we will go to Spain to get Andalusians which have grey feathers with black pencilled edges.

Maybe even we’ll find someone who lives in central Portugal and has already done this seeking and by natural means, and now has spare thoroughbred chickens . . . anyone?

We eat over four dozen eggs a week. I have maybe six of them, Doggo always has an omelette for breakfast so that’s 1½ dozen more. Janet is the glutton, averaging half a dozen a day (raw, liquidised with cream and honey). Two years ago we decided to keep chickens to get our own fresh wholesome free-range eggs. They have to be far from where we live so any smell from them, and noise in the early morning, will not reach us. They have to be cool in summer and sheltered from the cold in winter. a trench for manilhas P1020480

a2 laying pipes P1020474 In August 2012 we chose a spot on the quinta which would be good. JJ brought his JCB and dug a trench for land drainage. Our builders installed big drainage pipes then I filled and levelled the land.

a3 drainage for chicken land P1020488 Following my visit to England this year we had the builders round to discuss constructing a fox-proof enclosure for a dozen chickens and a pair of ducks. They started to make the chicken shack in late April, in our chosen spot about fifty metres from the house, in a south-facing hollow.


c2 first quarter of Janet's chicken shack P1030829  The first delivery comprised 4 cubic metres of sand and (28 bags) of cement, half of which Luis converted into concrete for the foundations. d make concrete P1030839 By the end of their first day of work the size of the capoeiro (chicken house) and their yard was fixed. The deep foundations are needed because a fox will try to dig under a wall to get at chickens. It then kills them all and takes only one.

e concrete foundations P1030847. end of work day1

f P1030856 second quarter of shack On the second day part two of three deliveries arrived – 450 agglomerate  blocks and five more bags of cement. All these were unloaded by hand, there was no crane to help.

first course P1030864 Unlike all our previous builders, João had (and used) a tape measure and a spirit level. He laid out level strings to mark the working perimeter. They enjoyed working here, in a partly shaded quiet corner of the farm, allowed to just get on.

fP1030867They set out a nice little picnic area on site to have lunch, and each day when they finished work we all had a cold beer.

h P1030875  The blocks with a groove in them are used around the perimeter. When the wire mesh is fixed it is put into the groove which is then filled with mortar to give a fox-proof joint.

The final delivery included concrete posts, a large roll of 2m high heavy-duty mesh, steel bars, fifty more blocks (for another job), more cement and more sand. The afternoon temperature was around 30°C so we usually took them iced water mid-afternoon, which was greatly appreciated.

l P1030893We already had on the quinta some long steel roof supports, roofing and metal doors from the garage we removed from beside the granite house four years ago, and metal doors we had saved from the old cowshed which we converted into our kitchen / living room.  João cut the metal and made roof beams from it, before fitting the corrugated cement roofing.j  welding door frameP1030935

He made new frames for the metal doors and fitted them. My design incorporates storage space at the back of the shack, for feed, and a space for storing gardening materials, of which we seem to have a lot. They put double doors on that too.

Finally they fitted the tough wire netting, which we hope will keep out the sacarrabos (Egyptian mongoose) too. It is the size of a large rat over two feet long, and bites chickens to drink their blood. It eats chicks, and can get through a flock in one night.

k fix wire  P1030906After two weeks, the shed (more of an hotel for chickens, really) was ready. The poultry can go to roost, go out, eat and lay eggs all in safety within the compound, without us needing to be there every day; the plan, though, is for them to be free-range.  However, chickens really like green vegetables – and there’s another job to follow  . . .

The chicken house

The chicken house

A week ago we finalised an arrangement for the two workmen to start work today (Thursday) and at that time a little rain was foreseen. Yesterday the weather forecast was 90mm of rain on Thursday and it had already started when we got up. I speculated that work would be delayed by a day but Janet said they will work in any weather. She was right. In pouring rain and dim light Luis and Jorge arrived, unloaded stout wooden poles and metal posts, and set to work placing end poles to wire my vines into lines.

First end pole

aligning metal posts

aligning metal posts

Dressed in waterproofs and wellies, I went down to the small vineyard and met them. I explained exactly what I wanted and they carefully measured out where the metal posts should go.

P1030500a  Posts are hammered in using the cylindrical hammer which Jorge is carrying in this photo. How does he know when to stop driving the post in? Use one’s built-in marker aka nose.


When all the metal supports were in, the end poles were secured to the ground to resist tension in the wires by screwing helices with a strong metal tie-rod (pictured) 50cm into the earth, starting off in a hole 20cm deep.



P1030511aWhat is not conveyed in these pictures is what it’s like working in heavy rain. The gritty soil from the hole slips back in from the spades as you try to lift it out, the rain goes into your eyes when you’re trying to look along the line of posts, your hands slip about on the tools. Twice the rain rate touched 8cm (3 inches) per minute; working outdoors has to stop in this.

P1030520a By late afternoon the rain stopped. The men fixed the horizontal support wires which will carry the vines tied to them.









Each wire is tensioned with a ratchet at one end.



The sky became dark grey to the south, it was 5pm and time to knock off. Our damp but tenacious workmen left. Two minutes later the heavens opened and down poured 2cm of rain in half an hour.

The JCB trundled up the dirt road on Tuesday morning, JJ driving, cheerfully bringing potential easy demolition.

His first job was shifting five loads of boulders and lovely old dressed stones to the entrance where my tractor broke down a few weeks ago (doing the same job).

The builders started early too, as the shade temperatures quickly rose from 28°C at 8am. Builders like the cheery sound of a cement mixer grinding round and sloshing its wet sand and cement sloppily between the two curved paddles inside the tub. Does it remind them of home?? João and Manel worked hard all day in full sun, easily five degrees hotter than the 39°C afternoon shade temperature. I struggled to work with them and had to go indoors to cool down every half hour.

Meanwhile JJ in his maquina trundled over to the well and set about pulling out a substantial willow tree which has regrown since being torn up five years ago – see “Clearing the Well” posted November 2007. This well is in a field and the top is level with the land; there was only a flimsy wire fence for safety around it. Two weeks ago I cleared the bracken and long straw surrounding it so we could see its edge.


Having removed the tree he brought five more loads of boulders to add to the pile I had accumulated in the previous year. He used the retro-digger (that’s the one on the back of the JCB) to carefully arrange the stones around the well, and suggested they would make a good start to raising its wall but plenty more would be required. The well is more than four metres across and its circumference over thirteen metres, so many tons of flat-faced boulders were needed.

He finished off by digging a thirty-metre trench for us, which will appear in another blog.

Wednesday 8am and the builders returned and headed straight out to the well. I followed with my front-loader on the tractor. All day we heaved boulders, brought more boulders, searched around for the lascas (flat stones) so useful in stone walling, the bigger the better. They built most of the new wall in one day, with no mortar.

On Thursday they arrived and set the cement mixer running to give a cheery working background. They mortared in the upper part of the wall and levelled it with the lascas.

On Friday we moved to the bottom of the quinta where we brought in its mains electricity supply, connecting via a meter inside a couple of boxes in a purpose-built regulation-height wall. João and Manel levelled the top of this wall with slim stones, faced it smoothly with mortar, and we put boulders on either side of it. They stuck onto this wall a panel of six tiles given to us by Jacinto the builder shortly after we bought the farm.

Now the Quinta da Serrinha is labelled. Five years after we took it on the quinta has a  safe useable well, aproper entrance and a nameplate. Wow !

. . . has been derelict for
years and looks more like a compact tip with potential for improvement. One wall has caved in.

On Monday 27th June Jorge the builder called round to ask if we needed any work done. As it happens, the granite house does need a couple of minor repairs, and we discussed these.
One of his workers, Pedro, likes working with stone. He said the pigsty wall needs pulling down then rebuilding. He asked about our plans for the sty and I explained that it will one day be a roofed barbecue area. He suggested adding a curved stone wall beside the sty around an old mountain oak which is next to it and making a shady sitting place there – I agreed it would be nice.

On Tuesday Jorge returned to tell us he could start next Monday, maybe even on Friday. “Good,” we said. “Start when you can, but there’s no hurry.”

Thursday morning at 9.30 a van, a lorry and four men arrived with Jorge. They unloaded a cement mixer, piles of building blocks and metal flashing, and Jorge had a level chalk line pinged in the north wall ready to dig a yard-drainage channel. Then he put in string lines for the excavations for steps descending an earth slope beside the house on the east wall. A ladder was raised on the south wall ready for the installation of a line of flashing.

Pedro eyed up our overgrown wreck of a pigsty disapprovingly. We wrote a list of what is included in the estimate, and Jorge went away. Pedro and I talked a little about the pigsty again. He called over the workers and had the overgrowth cleared, fallen stones moved away and a trench dug around the sty.  

Getting into the swing of it now, he ignored the repairs listed on the estimate and set a big stone step beside the sty, then had Daniel prune the oak tree. The step became an entrance and continued into a wall, with all four workers sweating in the hot sun and with the shade temperature at 36°C.
Mário made cement and took soil away. Jorge returned in the late afternoon and admired the progress on the sty. He commented that he didn’t know about the wall and it isn’t in the estimate. I admitted it is something of a surprise to me too, and was totally unplanned. However, Pedro clearly knows what he’s doing so I’m prepared to pay for him to do it.

Left: Pedro working on the wall.  Above: Mario.
The team of four worked on the wall for three more days, clearing the rocks from inside the sty on Monday.

Below: Daniel positioning heavy stones for Pedro. They also started on the original plan, making a flight of five steps along the side of the granite house, which will make the walk to the apartment safer.

However,  after five days on site two delays occurred; one over delivery of the stone flooring for the sty/barbecue, and the other over step heights. The builders went elsewhere after Tuesday 5th July and are due back “soon”. That was over two weeks ago . . .

 Update:  1st August and still waiting . . .

The veg garden has been stripped of its drip irrigation, the vines have shed most of their leaves so are now ready for pruning, and the cooling breeze from the Serra da Estrela is now a less welcome chilly wind. Winter is here.

It would be nice to sit in our lovely granite house, shut the doors and light the fire, and settle in. But this will not be yet. To cut a very long story short, it took from May to October, six months, of pushing carpenters to get two external oak doors made and fitted.

Pic: the front door and its frame in hallway prior to fitting,  Zé discussing the hinges with Clive.





In order to fit security shutters as the French do I had to make the brackets myself, as we were unable to find them in any shop – my dad, who worked with metal all his life, would have been proud of me!

The finished doors with their secure shutters look lovely and we’re very pleased with them. Next we need internal doors.  The cost of buying them ready-made from a supplier and finishing them ourselves is not far off the cost of having Zé the carpenter make tham, so we will take the easy (?) route and have now asked  him to estimate the cost of making and fitting five internal doors; we called in to his workshop and he said he will start on them “next year”!

Pic: 140 kilos of olives for winnowing with the hand-powered machine. I tip the olives into the top and Janet cranks the handle round. In the cylinder are eight blades which whirl to blow the olive leaves off the fruit, which is shaken through a moving riddle onto the sloping chute and into the red collector on the floor.

We harvested the olives from 23 trees in five days at the end of November, and after cleaning them in our winnowing machine we took 222 kilos of olives to the lagar (place where the olives are crushed with big millstones to extract the oil) on Friday afternoon. Once they were delivered and weighed we were given a receipt and told that we should return in a week when our olives had been assayed for their oil content and enough of the new oil would be pressed for distribution. Rain started that evening and we had to wait a week until the rain cleared before it was safe to recommence the harvest.

Pic: rained off, leaving the prunings in lines ready for chopping into a mulch with the brushcutter on the back of my tractor.

Late November’s week of snow in the UK was a belt of rain in Portugal, and when it passed the clear skies, high light levels and sunny weather returned. We picked olives while the sun shone, and after five days picking from nine in the morning until dusk we had harvested another 200 kilos.

We winnowed them as the sun set, and the next day loaded them into the car and drove twenty miles to the lagar. 

Central and southern Portugal are clad in olive trees. Formerly there was a lagar in every village (ours had one, and the next was three miles away) and the olives were taken there in donkey-drawn carts to be pressed. Nowadays most have had to close because of EEC regulations (although the oil was always of top quality as it is a staple food, produced without chemical treatments). Consequently most home producers arrange for a friend with a pickup truck to take their olives to one of the few remaining lagars up to twenty five miles away. Since the catchment areas have increased from maybe ten square miles to six hundred, the pressure on them has also increased at least fifty-fold. Furthermore, it is uneconomical for these large lagars to press small loads so they set a guideline minimum of 200 kilos delivered. The little old ladies who are subsistence farming therefore have to use the service of some local farmer who will aggregate their crops into one load and deal with it.

Pic: our washed olives conveyed for weighing, see blog from Dec 08.

The queue for pressing was long, so we went food shopping and had an early lunch before returning and joining the line of lorries, pickup trucks and tractors with trailers. After several hours we learned that the lagar was overwhelmed with olives and was struggling to deal with the tonnages arriving. The sun set and the temperature began to drop. We were twenty-third in the line on arrival and could only move with it. We were cold and hungry (early lunch!) and slowly the line advanced. At 7.30 we passed through the yard gates where there were still eight vehicles in front of us.

The lagar had devised a method of simply washing and weighing half the clients’ loads whilst processing the other clients’ olives. Ours were not processed, and we were given a second receipt to reclaim in oil in a week. We left the lagar shortly before 10pm, chilled to the marrow and beyond hunger.

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