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.

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. Once the grass is cut by hand using scythes, it is then left on the fields to dry before being gathered as hay. This is essential fodder for livestock housed through the long winter in large village barns.

Bringing in the hay

Traditional wooden barn

Other villagers use mechanised grass cutters which requires regular sharpening and maintenance. Bandi and his son Akos can be seen doing just this in the video above.

Returning home from the fields

It does not matter what time of the day, month or year you go for a walk around a village in Transylvania, there is always something fascinating to see. This villager was cutting alfalfa the traditional way using a scythe on one of his fields. 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.

Harvesting with Scythe

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 grapes from large vines that act as canopies in the yards which offer great shade in the summer.

Storing pickles in cool cellar

Some of the villagers also have beehives which are placed on trailers and driven deep into the forest. Excess honey not personally consumed is then sold at very reasonable prices to other villagers.

Honey bees at work in Transylvania

Village yards in Transylvania are full of 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

There is a network of buried pipes supplied by the mayor's office supplying water directly from underground reservoirs. During periods of high demand the water pressure can drop so many villagers like to have their own well too. Many of these have traditional hand pulley systems with a chain and bucket.

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

Suckling piglets

There is no gas supply to the village so most people produce heat and fuel for cooking with wood burning stoves. The focal feature of all village yards is a well stocked woodpile.

Wood store ready for winter

There are several kinds of shepherds in Romania. Those that take their own animals to the hills which are mainly for their own consumption. Then there are roving transhumance shepherds that live outside with their animals in makeshift homes, which can be dismantled and moved to pastures new. The third type of shepherd is a man paid by other villagers to look after their livestock allowing them to do other work.

There are no fences to prevent domestic livestock from roaming wherever they like, so whatever style of shepherding is adopted it is apparent that sheep and cattle cannot be left to their own devices. For one the fields of crops would be constantly raided and there are also far too many wolves and bears which would pray on them. Shepherds protect livestock using livestock guardian dogs.

Livestock Guardian Dogs at work

Life in the barn

Apple picking is an easy affair if the tree is short. Simply pick the apples by hand or if out of reach use a ladder. However, some apple trees are too tall to pick the upper fruit which is where the 'long arm' comes into play. 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

Nothing is wasted and it is a regular feature of everyday life to see villagers combing the meadows for mushrooms. This lady was also picking wild flowers to make a medicinal tea.

Picking wild herbs for medicinal teas

Picking wild herbs and mushrooms

It is the everyday life in and around the village that absolutely 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. Many people do have small tractors for ploughing but it remains a common site to see this performed the traditional way using horses.

Potato planting - Transylvania

We came across this villager preparing his strip of land on high ground close to the village. This soil is not suitable for vegetables, but very good for growing grass, which will be harvested as hay for the winter. Manure had been loosely spread by hand thrown from a cart and now he was working it in with this home made contraption. Basically it was a piece of log which he placed on top of a big bunch of branches. He then sat on top of the stump which was dragged along by two horses.

I thought it would be nice to show you an example of strip farming, especially as each villager works their land at slightly different times and sometimes planting different crops. This all leads to a variation of colours to the strips, nicely demonstrated in the following photograph.

Strip farming - Transylvania