Are you snowed under with bills and would love to get your heating, electricity and food practically for free? Well, there’s an innovative man in rural Latvia who can show you how.
Do it yourself
Some people come to Latvia for business or to get an education, or they discover the place as tourists and decide to stick around. But for Thomas Krüger from Germany, it was love at first sight.
About 15 years ago, he spotted his future-wife Līga singing in a visiting choir, and eventually they moved to her native land. In 2011, they bought “Lejas Varicēni,” a 6.5-hectare property near Smiltene, 125 km northeast of Riga, and have turned it into a showcase of what you can do with not much cash but an abundance of imagination and energy.
“Whatever you want to do, you can do it! And then the only question becomes, “how?” says Thomas.
Land of plenty
At first glance, “Lejas Varicēni” looks like a pastoral idyll, with donkeys, chickens and geese meandering about the green pastures. But then you notice strange mushroom-like structures sprouting out of the meadows, which turn out to be “hobbit houses.”
Sunk into the ground, assembled from clay, straw and whatever can be scrounged and topped with turf for extra insulation, they are easy to build and dirt cheap. The simplest one on the property, which was put up by a bunch of friends over a few weekends as an experiment, cost a grand total of 30 euros. The bill for a higher-end version, now the realm of the teenage daughter (who also did a lot of the work herself), ran at just over 1,000 euros. Mod cons include a skylight made from scavenged washing machine doors.
Dreaming of creating an ecovillage at “Lejas Varicēni,” Thomas went to courses in Italy on alternative agriculture. There he learned about permaculture, an approach which “works with nature rather than against it.” The family got busy mulching and composting, and now grows all its own vegetables. And all year round at that, thanks to a greenhouse which maintains a constant temperature by being sunk deep into the ground with double-glazing on top. In mid-October, the tomatoes straight off the vine are delicious, and peppers, figs and dates are also ripening.
The Krügers make their own juices, jams, ketchup and wine, and the cellar is stocked with their own preserved pork. A neighbour provides honey and goat’s milk. As well as harvesting over 30 mature apple trees, the family recently planted a “food forest,” which will eventually become a self-sustaining ecosystem providing walnuts, apricots, peaches, plums and even kiwi fruit, courtesy of a sapling acclimatised in Siberia.
Līga’s salary as a teacher puts some money on the table, and before the Covid crisis, they received funds from Germany to take in troubled adolescents for long-term stays.
Once an electrical engineer with a lucrative career in internet security, Thomas has no regrets about leaving the rat race. He loves the Latvian tradition of talkas, or working bees, where friends get together to build something, learn new stuff and have fun.
“In Germany, I existed, but here I am alive,” he says. “In Latvia, everyone is happy to pitch in, whereas in Germany if your neighbour’s apples fall on your side of the fence, you’re in trouble.”
Power to the people
According to Thomas, complete self-sufficiency is not necessary for sociable homo sapiens. But he estimates the family supplies about 30 percent of absolutely everything it consumes in summer, and it plans to gradually raise this to 70 percent.
They currently use a mixture of solar and grid power, but when some EU-funded panels come online, they will be completely on their own. And on a recent weekend, a team of experts from Estonia helped install a triangle-shaped house which produces its own energy.
The family keeps warm in winter with rocket mass heaters, highly efficient wood-fired stoves (and bread ovens) which Thomas fashions from clay and scrap metal. They also cost almost nothing to build and keep a room warm with just an armful of firewood. And he has helped install these at many other farms around Latvia, including for Sandis Behmanis, profiled here a few weeks ago.
Thomas believes the world is facing ecological, financial and now epidemiological crises, and we have plundered the Earth’s resources to the limit. Fortunately, this man has solutions which are good for the planet and offer people healthier and happier lives.