In 1994 we moved almost five hundred miles away from everything familiar, leaving our family, friends and the city we grew up in behind. We wanted to follow our dream of a healthier, more self-reliant lifestyle on our own smallholding using permaculture methods. We bought a steading to convert to a home, sited on three acres of land in north east Scotland and started slowly establishing our own system.
Our immediate neighbours were mostly conventional farmers who, because of the commercial nature of their business, have a very different mindset to those of us not producing for the mass market. It was easy enough to get to know local people, but the ideas and advice they had to offer was not always appropriate to the permaculture way we wanted to develop our own plot. As most of the people we met had never heard of permaculture, rather than sharing ideas, we spent more time explaining ourselves. The alternative growing methods we used regularly invited speculation that they would never work, because it was always done another way and always had been. Nevertheless, there is community spirit, generosity and a willingness to oblige one's neighbours in rural areas, that was never quite so apparent to me in the suburbs.
We were not the only people doing this by any means. We knew there were lots of other smallholding families up here, but meeting them required our everyday paths to cross. Most of those we did get to know were not aware of permaculture, although it has now become more topical and more smallholders seem to be drifting towards it.
Once we discovered online forums however, all of that changed. We got to know all sorts of people and their values quite well – long before we ever met – and a whole network of like-minded friends evolved. Sometimes these same people were just a few miles away, but because they were in the catchment area for different schools and parishes we would probably never have met them.
The benefits of an online community - "A helping hand in times of need"
The social benefits of the green forums are immense for some. For a newcomer to this lifestyle, it can be reassuring to have people who been doing things a bit longer to go to for advice or even a 'hands on' demonstration. A lot of useful information is available just from browsing the various forum sections and if a member asks, there are sure to be plenty of helpful replies.
The forums often solve the problems of isolation for those in rural areas with transport problems. I can recall many instances where someone has collected groceries for a forum friend who was unwell or snowed in during the winter.
Being tied by commitments to livestock and holdings, and often far from family and friends, it is not always easy to find a helping hand in times of need. Through the forums, people have found animal sitters so they can visit sick relatives or have a holiday. We keep a spare hen house ourselves so we can look after chickens for friends in need. Looking after a holding for a week or two is a big imposition to ask of a busy neighbour. When there are a number of friends in an area, any of them can drop in as they are passing and share the chores, and knowing that there will be a chance to reciprocate makes it easier to ask. We set up a timebank group on our own forum to help cater for this and similar needs in the online community. As it grows, we will have a pool of people with different skills who can help each other with projects and support those less able if necessary. Timebanking is a simpler system to LETS (Local Exchange Trading Systems). The timebank currency is in hours rather than credits with each person's hour of work having the same value.
Swap, Trade, Freecycle
Through these forums, people have found the second-hand things they needed, or have been redirected to an item on the local freecycle site. Members often offer unwanted items free to collect or advertise things they want to sell.
Throughout the growing season members swap their produce at informal gatherings and some forums have food co-ops. Others organise bulk buys for the members.
Our forum members had a seed swap day last spring. It worked well for those among us with limited growing space who just wanted to grow a few plants of many varieties. We also posted out small packages to members who lived further afield. It is a great way of using up seed that is close to the use by date and an economical way to grow a wider variety of produce. Several of us are now seed saving ready for the next seed exchange in the spring. We aim to eventually have a seed bank of saved seeds to give away, including any old or unusual varieties that are harder to obtain as we find them.
Other popular activities are craft days at each other's homes, tutoring in creative skills and giving demonstrations. Members also tell each other about relevant events and arrange car sharing.
Although some of the forums may be local to an area, they tend to attract members from all over the world. This widens the experience of the membership as they learn how things are done in other climates and using different techniques. Often these ideas can be adapted to suit local conditions and they certainly feed the imagination.
Seeing the ingenious solutions other people find, and the way they reuse recyclable materials, is one of the most inspiring things about online communities.
How to create an online forum
If any of this appeals to you, try and find a forum in your own area or, better still, start your own. You don't need to be a computer wizard – I came to it as a complete novice and learned as I went along.
If you do a Google search for permaculture forums, green forums or smallholding forums and add the area you live in, you may find something near you. If you want to start your own forum, search for free forums on Google and you will find lots to chose from. Most of them have a section that will teach you; how to set everything up, add sections, promote your forum and give general advice about how to keep the forum active. You may find it helpful to join a forum first to get an idea of how they work and to help you decide which aspects of them you prefer.
As greener living and permaculture-based smallholding was our chosen lifestyle, we wanted to start our own forum in an attempt to meet more permaculture enthusiasts. Having belonged to a number of green forums, we decided that we preferred the practical and educational aspects of them, so we set up 'The Roundhouse' forum so we could share our own knowledge and learn from others.
The name was a deliberate attempt to imply inclusiveness and have a family feel, as opposed to being merely a place for discussion. We believe that leading by example to show what can be done is more likely to win hearts and minds, so we try not to be political and recognise that any move in the right direction is better than none. Feel free to drop in and have a browse, our boards are always open to visitors, but we like it better still if you join us and share your wisdom. www.theroundhouseforum.co.uk
Julie Wall is married to a blacksmith with three adult daughters. Originally from Coventry, she now lives just outside the village of Cornhill in NE Scotland on a three acre smallholding, run on permaculture principles. She has a passion for texile crafts, recycling fabrics into practical things and creating fabrics from our own wool.