It is no secret that Nicholas and I bought our farm for the princely sum of 14,000 euros, and the idea that we could acquire such a beautiful place for such a bargain price was certainly a contributing factor to us making the leap from computer nerds to goat herds. One day when I was standing under the “signal tree” (the only place on our property where you can get mobile signal) taking a rare and inconvenient glimpse into what was happening in the world of Facebook, I was pleased to stumble across someone posing the question “An off-grid life with less than 14k- Is it possible?”. I was not so pleased when I saw the many negative responses telling the questioner that off grid living was the preserve of the retired and the super rich. So, despite the fact that the signal was patchy, the sun was really hot, and standing under the signal tree being pestered by wasps was not my preferred way to spend more than a few minutes at a time, I felt compelled to reach out and set the record straight.
“We’ve been living our dream for 18 months now, yes we shit in a field and yes we read by candle light but so what!? We dont gotta go to work, dont got a boss telling us what to do, and we live in total uncompromising union with nature. 1 ex computer programmer + 1 ex academic = 0 practical skills but we grow our own food and raise our own animals. If we can, You can do It!”
OK, I admit that was not me at my most eloquent, but when you factor in we didn’t have electricity at the time you can understand why it sounds like a hastily written telegram. Thankfully Olivia didn’t seem to mind my rough and ready approach, and we became firm friends despite the limitations of the signal tree. Therefore, I was over the moon to welcome her and her charming partner Sergio to our farm just three months later! Here’s what happened next…
Olivia and Sergio: Off Grid Explorations.
Length of stay: 1 week
Season: Summer (August 2020).
What were you doing in the weeks before you arrived at the freedom farm?
The weeks leading up to our stay at Freedom Farm were largely uneventful. I had finished work at my English academy for the summer and was spending most of my time under lockdown, cooped up at home trying to avoid the sweaty summer heat of Madrid. Sergio was finishing his masters degree. In anticipation of our summer adventure we got our camping gear ready, bought a few last minute things and booked a rental car.
It felt almost surreal to know that in a matter of days I would be out of the city that I had been trapped in for the whole year and be out in the countryside ‘milking goats’ as Max had told me. It was difficult to imagine from the concrete buildings and tarmac roads of Madrid. I was very curious as to what it was going to be like! Just a few days before we were due to set off, we had a bit of a drama because Sergio was called back into work (he had been on fourlough for the past 6 months) and that would have meant that we would have had to cancel the trip! After so much planning and with our camping gear and back packs already lined up by the door, we were both really disappointed. And surprised too – Madrid is usually dead in August and even more so now with no tourists! Just our luck that something would happen at the last minute to spoil our plans. We were plunged into a panic as to what to do. I was adamant that I was going to travel anyway – I hadn’t spent the last few weeks organising our trip for it to just disappear into thin air. Plus, this job was just a weekend job and wouldn’t really be much of a loss.
The way I saw it, this trip was a step forward towards our future together. We both have the dream of living an alternative life and we needed to start exploring what that might look like – something that is impossible to do from Madrid.
After some persuading and some frank conversations, Sergio agreed with me. ‘We haven’t come this far to take a step back now’, he said.
The next day he rang his boss and told him he wouldn’t be returning. It was a courageous decision, since there was no guarantee that he would find work when we got back. But Sergio more than anyone knows how to ‘buscar la vida’ (find work somehow) and I felt sure that it was the right thing. Sometimes our dreams require us to take a leap of faith, and that is exactly what we did (just as Max and Nic had done!). So the next day we set off on our journey to the Freedom Farm!
How did you find out about the Freedom Farm and what attracted you to it?
I had originally met Max and Nic in one of the off-grid Facebook groups during the quarantine. He had offered me some advice about how to go about making the dream living an alternative life a reality and took the time to share with me some of his experiences. Something in his answers intrigued me. I felt like there was a lot of real experience behind his words and I resonated with the fact that they too had previously lived in the city and started out pretty clueless. I was also very curious to visit that part of Spain because it is famed for being one of the more depopulated areas and is also where there are a lot of alternative-minded people living in the countryside.
What were your first impressions of the place and how was your first night?
When we finally got to Maella, Nic guided us down the dirt road to the farm. It was quite rough and we had to take it easy with our little red ford K.A! As the track continued we seemed to be getting deeper and deeper into the countryside… and further and further away from civilisation! The views were stunning and I started to get excited. I had finally escaped Madrid! At least for a while anyway. When we pulled up to the farm, my first impression was that it was in such a stunning location. Hidden away in a little valley, it was surrounded by mountains and pine forest, with views out over the olive groves. Max came out the house to greet us. I seem to remember that he was wearing an apron and looked as if he had been cooking something delicious. Me being a typical awkward Brit, I wasn’t sure if we were going to do the British handshake or the Spanish double-kiss. I needn’t have worried about these formalities, because Max went straight in for a big bear hug instead! Laughing a big belly laugh, he welcomed us to the Freedom Farm. I knew then that we had come to the right place!
After a cup of tea (black tea with milk – another good sign!), Max and Nic showed us around their land. We needed to find a place to pitch our tent and ended up opting for a spot on the border of the forest on the top terrace. There wasn’t much flat space for the tent, so we had to try and flatten the patch we had chosen, since it was on a slight incline. We also used the pine needless to cushion the ground a little bit, because we were only sleeping on thin camping mats.
The first night I didn’t sleep so well but not because we were uncomfortable, just because we had had such great conversations with Max and Nic over dinner and my mind was buzzing with ideas! The rest of the nights we slept fine – not quite like babies because let’s face it, camping mats are hardly the most comfortable and we were still on a bit of an incline, but I embraced the opportunity to be out in the wild and sleeping amongst the pine trees. The sunrise over the olives groves in the morning more than made up for any discomfort.
Everyone who visits the the Freedom Farm experiences unique challenges, what have been some of the challenges you’ve overcome?
One of the challenges I faced when we were there was the itch on my legs after wading through the fields with the scratchy grass. I have very sensitive skin and the dry grass really set off a skin allergy. I soon learnt that it was better for me to work in long pants, no matter how hot it was!
I also had a bit of an allergic reaction to the the combination of pollen, dust and dogs. I am asthmatic (although normally it doesn’t bother me at all) and it came as a bit of a surprise. I had travelled without any inhalers (because I normally don’t use any) and so I was unprepared. It didn’t stop me from enjoying myself and Max made me soothing tea with honey and herbs from the garden, which actually really helped!
How would you describe the place to a friend or family member back home?
If I was to describe the place to a friend, I would describe it as laid-back yet organised, bohemian, intellectual, political, spiritual, creative and fun!
Can you describe what a typical day on the farm is like or tell us about a memorable day you had?
Overall, some of my most memorable moments were making the hugel mounds for the permaculture garden with Max and milking the goats in the morning (although I must confess that I wasn’t always up early enough to do that!). I also really enjoyed the physical tasks of chopping fire wood and working with Nic to make the patio area. There was no task that I didn’t enjoy and I really appreciated the variety of things that they asked us to do.
I also really appreciated Nic taking the time to take us into Maella to show us around and also come with us to view some fincas that we wanted to look at. It was fun to explore other abandoned fincas and imagine what we could do with them! It was also good to get a bit of experience of what kind of questions to ask when looking for a plot of land and what kind of potential pitfalls you have to be careful of.
We also had an fun trip down to the river for a summer dip!
Thinking about it now, it’s amazing how much we were able to do in such a short space of time!
Who did you meet during your visit?
We got to meet some of the neighbours and other volunteers from another nearby project. We ended up meeting a lot of other interesting people from many different countries which made the whole experience even more enriching. It felt like a little secret cosmopolitan hub in the middle of ‘empty Spain’!
What have you learned from your visit to Freedom Farm? Have you changed in any way?
Now back in Madrid and looking back on our stay, I would say that I took away a lot of practical knowledge from Max and Nic. Practical knowledge in terms of permaculture solutions for having hard terrain (no dig garden and hugel mounds) and how to get around not having access to water. It was a good insight into some of the considerations that you need to make when you set out on a off-grid venture and I feel like I have a much better idea of what to expect once I take the plunge and get myself out to the countryside!
I also was amazed to hear their stories about how they started and how brave they were for throwing themselves in at the deep end so much! I still can’t believe what they went through in order to arrive at the place where they are today. I think they are both role models for all of us and they have really inspired me to keep believing in my dream.
If you had a magic wand and you could give a gift to the Freedom farm, what would you give?
If I had a magic wand I would give Max and Nic what they really need to bring their vision of a small community a reality: people! People with skills to offer and the motivation and energy to get stuck in. Also people who want to commit to the project and help take the farm to the next level. Max and Nic each have so much to offer and I can see that together with the right people, they could really create a great community.
What advice would you give to someone thinking about coming to the Freedom Farm?
If someone was considering visiting the Freedom Farm, I would say one thing: do it! You won’t regret it. Max and Nic really went out of their way to host myself and Sergio and I really couldn’t fault them. The whole experience was positive – I felt part of a team and valued for the work we were doing. There was never a moment where I felt like I was being taken advantage of and just being used as cheap labour. It was a genuine exchange and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
What advice would you give to someone coming to the Freedom Farm?
If you are visiting the farm I obviously recommend taking a good pair of shoes and clothes that you don’t mind getting dirty. I’d also recommend taking a small tub to wash your clothes in etc. This proved to be invaluable when we were camping and we used it to wash in as well.
If you go in summer and you are camping, I’d also take a mosquito net – not that there were tonnes of mosquitoes but just generally for the creepy crawlies too. You’ll also need a torch or head light. Another thing I would take is some kind of yoga mat that you can have outside of your tent, so you can step out of your tent onto that instead of the straight onto the earth. We also took a camping stove, even though in the end we didn’t use it for anything other than a cup of rosemary tea before going to bed. At least this gives you a bit of independence if you feel like a bit of down time and you can’t be bothered to go back down to the house.
Other than that, I’d say to people that you can trust that Max and Nic will do their utmost to make you comfortable and to cater for your needs, so don’t be afraid to tell them what you like/don’t like/what you would prefer. They are both very flexible in their approach and are keen for their volunteers to get the most out of their stay, both in terms of doing a wide range of tasks and also leisure activities.
Also, expect to eat VERY well because Max is an amazing cook and will cook you up a storm! Ultimately, I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending someone to volunteer with Max and Nic, not for one second.
I hope I will be able to return soon to see how much progress they’ve made and eat more of Max’s food!
Best of luck to Max and Nic for the future and to all those that pass through the Freedom Farm!
Olivia and Sergio’s Off Grid Explorations are also documented here on Olivia’s blog.