Sustainable living in Transylvania

by Paul White

Life can be hard in Romania so resilience and self sufficiency are important lessons to learn from a young age. It just so happens that many of the more traditional farming methods that have been passed from one generation to another are low impact and sustainable.

Muck spreading on meadow to improve grass for hay making.

Yearly planning is crucial to success and everybody makes the most of the fair weather seasons to plant and harvest in preparation for the long and harsh winter. Not only are grains, fruit and vegetables grown in abundance but grass too for hay making. 

Sickle bar mower

Hay raking by hand

The first cut of grass takes place from July 1st onward. This gives time for meadow flowers to seed and young ground nesting birds to fledge. Grass is cut either by hand using a large scythe, mechanised walk behind sickle bar mower, or tractor-drawn rotary disc mower.  

Horse drawn acrobat hay turner.

The grass needs to be spread by rake on the meadow to dry, and then turned for the underlayer to dry too. Traditionally this was done by hand but to speed up the process this is now often performed using an acrobat hay turner. If the hay is going to be baled then the hay is gathered into windrows.

Windrows of hay.

Hay that has some moisture in it and needs more drying will be gathered into mini haystacks. This reduces penetration of extra moisture caused morning dew and potential rain. It may need spreading again in warm sunshine to dry the underlayers before moving onto a cart. This whole process from cutting grass to storing hay in the barn involves a lot of hard work. 

So how much hay is required to let say feed a single cow in a barn over winter? Locals will tell you that as a rule of thumb you need a cart load of hay for each leg of the cow. One cart load of hay weighs around 800kg, so four cartloads equals 3.2 tons per cow. This is an average and obviously varies depending on the quality of hay and the length of winter. 

Transporting loose to the village.

Traditional wooden barn
Typical large barn for hay storage and wintering livestock.

Walk behind sickle bar mowers require regular maintenance and the blades sharpening as demonstrated by Bandi and his son Akos in the video above.

Scything alfalfa.

The villager above is harvesting alfalfa the traditional way using a scythe. Hot, hard work, but he had an excellent and efficient rhythm. You can see a pouch on his hip for his sharpening stone which he used briefly at the end of each row.

Vegetables and fruit grown in the summer are not only consumed in season but are are also pickled and made into preserves for the winter. These include gherkins, peppers, chillies, cabbage, tomatoes, and jam made from the fruit. Wine making is also a popular activity made from large grape vines that cover yards, offering much needed shade in the summer.

Storing pickles in cool cellar

Some villagers also keep bees for honey for both personal consumption and commercial sales. Those that produce honey for sale often use mobile beehives which are placed on trailers driven to forests and agricultural fields. The latter also benefits farmers that require cross pollination of crops.  

Honey bees at work in Transylvania

Backyards in Transylvania are filled with activity from domestic animals, which are a vital part of the villagers diet. The nearest supermarket is half an hours drive away and relatively expensive, so rearing your own animals makes a lot of sense.

Sustainable Living

In our village there's a network of underground pipes that supply water to households directly from underground reservoirs. During periods of high demand the water pressure can drop so many villagers like to have their own well too as a backup supply. Historically well use was the main source of water and  many are traditionally maintained with stone lining and a hand pulley system using chain and bucket. 

Many villagers have one or several cows for milk, making butter and cheese and occasionally meat.

Suckling piglets

There is no mains gas supply to the village so many heat their  homes and cook food using wood burning stoves. A well stocked woodpile for winter is a common feature in most yards.

Wood store ready for winter

There are several kinds of pastoralists in each village. Those that take their own animals to communal grazing areas which are raised for family consumption. Then there are transhumance shepherds that live outside with their flocks from spring to autumn. The third type pastoralist are men paid by other villagers to look after their livestock during the day whilst they graze, freeing them to get on with other work.

Cattle, sheep and goats require a constant human presence with livestock guardian dogs to protect them from depredation by wolves or bears. Some pastoralists also use electric fencing to prevent livestock wandering too far away, especially if pastures neighbour with crops.

Livestock Guardian Dogs at work
Livestock guardian dogs.

Apple picking is easy if the tree is short, but more complicated if out of reach. This is when a 'long arm picker' becomes very useful . This simple contraption not only enables all fruit to be picked, but in careful hands brings down the crop in good condition too.

Picking apples - Transylvania

Foraging for food is also a common feature of village life. Many have in depth knowledge of what is good and safe to consume. This lady was picking wild flowers to make medicinal tea and mushrooms to cook and eat.

Picking wild herbs for medicinal teas

Picking wild herbs and mushrooms

It is the everyday life in and around the village that fascinates me with lots of activity in the fields, ploughing, burning and planting crops. Although the villagers tend to grow some of their vegetables at home they also have strips of land surrounding the village where they grow their main staple, potatoes. The horse was traditionally multitasked for ploughing and transportation but in recent history they are slowly being replaced by the tractor. Please remember that hay consuming wintered livestock (including the horse) produce a lot of manure, and this rich natural fertiliser is ploughed back into the soil. This is all part of the cycle of organically  produced food.

Potato planting - Transylvania

I love innovation! We came across this villager below fertilising his hay meadow close to the village. He had laid manure by pitchfork from a slow moving horse drawn cart and was then spreading it using this home made contraption. It consisted of a harrow holding down branches with a wood stump on top to sit on, then dragged along by two horses. The harrow smoothed the mole hills on the surface of the meadow, which is important when it comes to cutting the grass, and the branches broke down and spread the manure.  

This final image below is a good example of strip farming. The variation in shade and colour is caused by differing crops and timing of preparation and planting.

Strip farming - Transylvania