There’s a lot of talk about reducing our ecological footprint and finding harmony with the environment. Meet some passionate people who are living a truly green lifestyle at an innovative Latvian farm.
Back to the land
Hear the phrases “communal living” or “alternative lifestyle,” and images of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll amidst the haystacks may spring to mind. But beyond these tie-died stereotypes, there are committed people who leave the city to find better ways of living in a troubled world.
One such band of idealists has settled at “Zadiņi,” a picturesque property near Smiltene, 120 kilometres northwest of Riga. Here, they grow food with permaculture methods, using composting and smart landscaping to minimise weeding and watering while constantly enriching the soil. The residents are building energy-efficient homes using local materials. And they are forging relationships based on cooperation rather than competition, and welcoming visitors so that society at large can learn about their vision.
Practice what you preach
Like the Latvian countryside as a whole, “Zadiņi” has seen dramatic upheavals over the last century. Before the Second World War, it was a prosperous farm, but the Zadiņš family had to flee from communist oppression and the land was collectivised. Ieva Zadiņa, who was born in the property in 1942, got it back during the restitution process of the 1990s, and as she did not want to move from the United States, she entrusted it to a cousin in Latvia.
The cousin began a relationship with a local businessman, who contrary to Ieva’s wishes erected a large residence and a sauna, went to town with paving, chopped down trees and dug a chain of interlocking fishponds. The rapacious entrepreneur eventually departed following a personal tragedy, and in 2017 lifelong environmentalist Ieva invited the Latvian Permaculture Association to come and use “Zadiņi.”
Realising that most alternative communities fail because of internal disputes, the association decided on a model which keeps the property under common stewardship while allowing residents to build their own houses on the 90 hectares. In spring 2018, the organisation’s chairman Elgars Felcis and his wife Weronika brought their three children to live at “Zadiņi.” They had just spent several years in Weronika’s native Poland, and after lovely-but-heavily-polluted Krakow, they were ready for a new challenge in the fresh air.
Moreover, as a sociologist researching sustainable development and a Christian, Elgars felt it was time to put his money where his mouth is.
“I thought to myself, “enough talking, go and do something practical,” he says. “It reduces my anxiety about the global ecological breakdown, and I gain more independence and security in an unstable world.”
Seven adults and five children live today at “Zadiņi.” They grow fruits and vegetables in no-dig gardens and a big greenhouse and get eggs from a homemade “chicken tractor,” which keeps the hens happy and nurtures the soil. A few cows are grazed for beef and as a source of manure. The community produce about 20 percent of its dietary needs, but complete self-sufficiency is not a goal, with neighbouring organic farmers also providing affordable, high quality food.
While they are building dwellings elsewhere on the property, the residents inhabit the legacy buildings. Unfortunately, these are not south facing, thus reducing the efficiency of solar panels, but Elgars has installed a rocket mass heater in the main house. His forthcoming strawbale house will incorporate green energy solutions.
The community hasn’t burned its bridges with the mainstream economy. Elgars is still a part-time university lecturer, a job he can now do remotely due to the pandemic. And the residents collaborate on small business projects, like supplying birch sap to a local beverage maker. Eighty percent of the earnings go to the workers, with the remainder paid into the community fund. Several hours a week are devoted to common chores like chopping firewood.
“The idea is to think beyond the boundaries of “that’s mine,”” says Elgars. “If you can’t let go off the idea of private property a little, then it’s not for you.”
Despite these shared tasks, each family retains its privacy. Dismissing ideas about “free love,” Elgars believes that strong familial bonds are key to the project’s long-term viability. Weekly residents’ meetings help to iron out any differences.
“We sit down, look each other in the eye and if there are issues the others help by mediating,” he says. “And we find solutions or apologise and work things out.”
Living together on a grander scale has been tried, too. In 2017, 2018 and 2020, over 150 people gathered at “Zadiņi” for the annual Latvian permaculture festival, sleeping in a “hay hotel” in the pre-war barn, and answering the call of nature in composting toilets, whose contents eventually fertilise the fruit trees.
New long-term residents are also welcome, and people can spend a week or a few months at “Zadiņi” to see if the lifestyle suits them.
Born and raised in the countryside in Germany, Johanna Lohrengel became fascinated with the Baltic states after visiting Lithuania, and a few years ago she moved to her partner Gatis Kreicbergs’ native Latvia. After meeting Weronika at a women’s forum, “Zadiņi” seemed like the perfect environment to raise a family.
“The first time I set eyes on this place, I knew I would live here,” says Johanna. “There’s enormous freedom here – so many opportunities for creative people.”
Johanna is an artist and illustrator who is currently working on a children’s book about interaction with nature and has done striking murals around “Zadiņi.” Gatis moved his bicycle repair shop from the capital and now specialises in custom-built “freak bikes,” such as pedal-powered washing machines.
Their home on the property, a split-level wonder bolstered on six spruce trees with power provided by a car battery, is another creative endeavour. The couple’s five-year-old son Tālis revels in the open spaces of “Zadiņi,” and they have another baby on the way. Sharing babysitting duties and school runs with the other members of the community is a godsend.
Johanna, Tālis and Gatis
“We’re all good friends and neighbours,” she says. “I know we can always ask them for help, and they can rely on us.”
Few of the residents have made a more dramatic transition than Aigars Rubiķis. Riga-born Aigars was once a successful stockbroker and fund manager. But he has loved the countryside since childhood, and five years ago he dropped out of the rat race and moved to “Zadiņi.”
“I didn’t choose to come here – this land called me to come and live in northern Vidzeme,” he says.
Inspired by his grandmother’s deep knowledge of the forest and books by herbalist Juris Bušs, Aigars has become an expert in the medicinal uses of native plants. On an early-spring stroll around “Zadiņi,” he points out violet lesser periwinkles, which reduce blood pressure and improve memory, and extols the virtues of vitamin and mineral-packed nettles. He puts these treasures into teas and tinctures to share with the “Zadiņi” community and with visitors for a modest donation.
Revering the traditional Latvian relationship between spirituality and nature, Aigars has created sacral rock formations in the forest where solstice rituals are held. And as another act of devotion, he wants to plant groups of trees to form ancient Baltic signs.
“Everyone has their unique path, and while others enjoy the city, I prefer being in nature,” he says.