Permaculturing in Portugal

One family's attempts to live in a more planet-friendly way

Volunteering

Folk have been coming to volunteer at Quinta do Vale for 10 years now (ah man! is it really that long?!) and we’ve had many truly wonderful people stay here and many thoroughly excellent times.

Many have become quinta ‘family’ and come back on a regular basis. Some of them loved it so much they never left and now have their own quintas in these valleys. So be warned – this place and the landscape and community it’s embedded in can capture your heart and your imagination!

(For more on the principles that underpin how we operate here and our involvement in our wider community, please see the Get Involved and Community pages.)

The fires of 2017

The catastrophic wildfires which swept through a vast area – almost 2,000 square kilometers – of Central and Northern Portugal in just 24 hours of October 15-16 2017 cut off these valleys and burnt everything in sight, including the quinta. In these valleys alone, 22 families and individuals lost their homes. Two people in the village of Cerdeira were among the 50 people who lost their lives.

We were lucky enough not to lose the main communal building (still being renovated) and yurt, but the wee house, geodome greenhouse and the volunteer/course participant accommodation and facilities were destroyed. It took nearly 18 months of gruelling paperwork to get help through the EU disaster relief funding provided to Portugal, but the wee house is now being rebuilt.

Elsewhere we’re continuing to work flat out on getting the quinta into a suitable state for hosting courses to take our work here to the next level. In 2019, we completed the communal kitchen in the main building and created camping pitches for course participants and volunteers. A programme of 6 courses over a period of 6 weeks took place in June and July and was an amazing beginning to the next phase of the quinta’s career as an educational centre.

2020 has been, shall we say … difficult, but then hasn’t it for all of us? Closed borders and internal restrictions on movement have meant not only a much shorter volunteer season, but cancellation of our entire programme of courses, some quite literally right at the last minute. Hugely disappointing for everyone concerned and a lot of wasted time and resources in preparations for events which were prevented from taking place. Nevertheless, 2020’s volunteers were an awesome crew and the quinta is in much the better shape for it. Considerable progress was made removing burned and dead trees and shrubs which still remained. New growing areas got going and post-fire rebuilding and new building work progressed.

In 2018 and 2019, I threw volunteering opportunities wide open and we’ve had many utterly amazing people come by to help us recover and rebuild after the fires. Short stays tend not to work so well though, so in 2020 the minimum stay was for 2 weeks and for 2021 we’ll be returning to our pre-fire volunteer programme of a one-month minimum, although work here will continue to be focused on recovering the quinta from the fires for a long while yet.

Volunteer work details

Currently we are looking for people to help in the following areas …

Work is likely to involve any combination of digging, hauling, clearing land, pruning, weeding, watering, sowing, planting, harvesting, cooking, preserving, laundry, cleaning, emptying the compost toilets, caring for the poultry, planting trees, felling trees, cutting and chopping firewood, construction and building work in stone, wood, bamboo, clay, lime and other (mostly) natural materials, and helping out with the courses here.

There’s minimal use of heavy machinery – it’s impossible to get anything seriously useful onto most of the land – so all earthworks are dug by hand and all building materials moved around the site by hand. Petrol strimmers/brushcutters and chainsaws are used, plus the usual range of construction power tools. It’s an advantage if you’re an experienced user of any or all.

There’s no rigidly set working day. We work as weather, project progress, materials, machines, power availability, inspiration, flow and necessity dictate, and we frequently work on several projects simultaneously, moving from one to another as conditions suggest. Days can range from a full-on, intense, 12-hour stretch at one extreme to a what-the-hell-let’s-go-to-the-river-beach at the other.

While the days aren’t rigidly defined, getting an early start in the morning is essential in summer. It works best to get most of the day’s outdoor work done by lunch time, leaving the hot afternoons freer to slow the pace, work indoors or go cool off in the river.

Volunteer requirements

Experience in any of the various areas of work on the quinta is not a requirement but it’s certainly an asset. More important though is enthusiasm and a willingness to jump in and learn. It’s so much more fun when everyone is enjoying themselves. ‘Work’ becomes play.

You need to be fit. I can’t emphasise this enough. Work on the land, especially in heat if you’re not used to it, is physically demanding and so is this steep terrain. As noted, we can also put in some very long days on occasion.

If you have any sort of chronic health problem which is likely to affect your ability to work and/or put you or others at risk of harm, then I don’t encourage you to apply. Well-managed conditions which you’re confident and competent in dealing with are not a problem. Please note we’re 20km from the nearest emergency room and 75km from a hospital equipped to deal with serious conditions. Note also if you have …

  • Allergies/hayfever – it’s very hot, dry and dusty here in summer and it’s impossible to keep the dust out of the buildings. There’s a huge variety of plants around the place with no rain in summer to take the pollen out of the air and the schist bedrock reduces to a superfine powder which gets into everything. I also have a dog, several cats, poultry and bees.
  • Respiratory, cardiac and/or musculoskeletal problems – this quinta is on the side of a mountain. Whilst the terraces are relatively level (nothing is flat), you will also be working on slopes of 30-45°. There’s an altitude difference of 60m between the top and bottom of the quinta and you’ll be constantly going up and down steps and slopes, often carrying stuff, as you move around the land. The nearest villages are either 100m below or 100m above us. Good lungs are an asset and good knees essential.

Life here goes with the flow, so an easy-going, flexible, humorous attitude will go a long way towards preserving everyone’s sanity, as will the ability to work independently if circumstances and other workload demands.

I make volunteering opportunities and the facilities here available in good faith, but at your own risk. Accidents happen so please make sure you have adequate and appropriate health and travel insurance and are covered against injury to others as well as yourself.

Please note I don’t make volunteering opportunities available to families with young children. Kids love it here, but the number of hazardous drops off the edges of terrace walls, precipitous steps, steep slopes, unfenced ponds and waterways, sharp tools in use, etc, means it’s almost impossible to take your eyes off them. A constant state of high alert doesn’t make for an easy or relaxed atmosphere for you, for me, or for anyone else (including our long-suffering animals) and is hugely distracting from the tasks at hand. I’m sorry – it’s been tried but it just doesn’t work.

Companion animals can occasionally be accepted but it’s the exception rather than the rule and will be highly dependent on whether the animal will fit in peacefully with the quinta’s own menagerie, who are tolerant of respectful visitors but very clear this is their territory.

Volunteer accommodation and facilities

As of July 2018, I can once again offer accommodation. The one surviving 4-berth caravan has had all its melted windows replaced, electricity and water services to it are restored and the shade structure is repaired. We’ve also added a woodstove for heating. At the moment, this is the only accommodation I can provide. Anything else is up to you to bring.

Volunteer at Quinta do Vale - the 4-berth caravan

The 4-berth caravan … with appendages

There are 2 camper van pitches. Electric hook-up to our solar supply and water are available on one. There is one other park-up without services.

There is level ground for camping which can accommodate small to medium-sized tents.

Meals include organic fresh vegetables, eggs, and fruit from the quinta according to season and availability. I have a good store of organic staples from our local wholefood coop. Normally, food is provided in return for your help as a volunteer but depending on current resources, I may have to ask you to contribute towards food costs. This is just a simple fact of post-fire – and now post-CoViD-19 – life, so if it’s not acceptable to you, then the quinta is not the place for you at this time. For 2021, this will unfortunately almost certainly be necessary.

We generally all eat together and share or take turns to cook. Now that the communal kitchen is completed, this is an immensely enjoyable part of the day.

There are composting toilets on the quinta, an off grid power supply, hot showers (water and sun/firewood supplies permitting), communal kitchen, laundry, refrigeration (including freezer) and wifi.

Volunteer season and length of stay

Generally the volunteering season here is end March/early April to end-September/early October. I may occasionally take volunteers in the winter, but the emphasis is on the occasionally and is dependent on prevailing weather conditions and work schedules. There’s no harm in emailing to ask though as there’s more flexibility outside the main season and it may often be possible.

It takes a while to settle into the projects and rhythms of the quinta, to gain facility and familiarity with new skills, and for teams to really gel and get into their stride, so volunteers should be prepared to stay for a minimum of one month.

The only exception to the one-month minimum is for returning volunteers. Occasionally I will accept volunteers for periods of less than the minimum during winter as there’s more flexibility in the off season and no existing team dynamics to disrupt with shorter stays.

If you’re interested in applying to volunteer here, please email in the first instance telling me when you’d like to come and a little bit about yourself.

The following photos provide a flavour of what volunteering at Quinta do Vale has been all about.

Find us on HelpX

Volunteer at Quinta do Vale - digging swales on the lower pond terrace

Digging swales on the lower pond terrace

Volunteer at Quinta do Vale - turning all our prunings into mulch

Turning all our prunings into mulch

Volunteer at Quinta do Vale - the quinta's 4-legged residents

Some of the quinta’s 4-legged residents

Volunteer at Quinta do Vale - charring fencing posts for the poultry compound

Charring fencing posts for the poultry compound

Volunteer at Quinta do Vale - hilarity in the kitchen

Hilarity in the kitchen

Volunteer at Quinta do Vale - mealtimes

Mealtimes

Volunteer at Quinta do Vale - sorting out the worm tank

Sorting out the worm tank

Volunteer at Quinta do Vale - making cob

Making cob

Volunteer at Quinta do Vale - lime pointing schist walls on a community workday

Lime pointing a schist wall on a community workday

Local community

Many here in these valleys are still struggling with the fall-out from the 2017 fires. Many people lost their homes and everything they had. It will be a long time yet before we are truly back on our feet. It’s been a bit like a war zone here. While the slopes are a lot greener than they were now, the land is desertifying due to ecosystem degradation and the possibility of water shortages looms every summer.

Nevertheless, good things are happening. Lots of community self-help initiatives and people coming together to volunteer help and support for each other and the devastated environment. To volunteer here at this time is certainly not your usual type of volunteering, but you will have the opportunity to be part of something very special.

There’s a lively social scene in summer (restrictions permitting …) revolving around the river beach, community education centre and local cafés. There’s lots of music, local markets, events, workshops, parties and lots of opportunities to meet locals and other eco-immigrants.

If you can’t come and volunteer or visit but feel moved to help us and/or the wider community get our lives back together again, please see the Get involved page.

What remains of the wee house at Quinta do Vale

What remained of the wee house after the fires

Local facilities

Benfeita village shop, which stocks a reasonable range of basics, is 500m away down the hill from the quinta. There’s also a post office (mornings only) and café. The butcher’s is open on Wednesdays. There’s a number of van deliveries: two daily bread vans, weekly cheese, fish and vegetables, and monthly frozen food, though catching any of them is mostly a matter of luck or ESP.

There are also two village shops/cafés in the village of Luadas, 100m above the quinta and around 2-3 times the walking distance.

Volunteer at Quinta do Vale - party time

Mobile phone signal here is good to reasonable, depending on your network. Portugal Telecom’s MEO network has the best coverage. Vodafone is patchy to poor. If your network doesn’t work here, you’ll get a signal in Luadas. Or you can use VoIP/messaging apps via the quinta wifi which is available to everyone staying here.

The outdoor café by the river beach in Benfeita also has free wifi, as does the café/restaurant in Pardieiros, the next village along from Benfeita.

There were great walks to take in the surrounding hills and valleys. There will be again.

Volunteer at Quinta do Vale - walking the Caminho de Xisto

The Caminho do Xisto da Benfeita

Volunteer at Quinta do Vale - Benfeita river beach

Benfeita river beach and café

Volunteer at Quinta do Vale - Benfeita café

Fajão swimming pool

Local swimming spots

Volunteer at Quinta do Vale - local swimming spots

Volunteer at Quinta do Vale -  - local swimming spots

Volunteer at Quinta do Vale - festa time

Festa time


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Sometimes there are occasions when it’s useful to be able to communicate with everyone who’s ever volunteered, applied to volunteer, or is thinking of applying to volunteer here. Please sign up to our mailing list if this applies to you! You can also elect to get information about the courses held here and the opportunities to sponsor one of our projects if you’re interested.

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Please check the volunteering box below to make sure your name goes on the right list. (You can also check either of the other boxes if you’re interested in those areas.) We send out different newsletters to each list.


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