For over a month I lived in Small Footprint ecovillage, in Estonian called Väike Jalajälg, a community of around 10 adults and some children. The initiators came together around five years ago to live in community with a small ecological footprint and they envisioned to also function as inspiration and training centre for sustainable lifestyles. The plot they found for their ecovillage is located in the countryside village Mõisamaa on the beautiful lands of an old German hunting manor, with about thirty hectares of farmland around it. They host a permaculture garden at the ecovillage, a GAIA primary school, a training centre for various workshops related to their practices, raw chocolate bar production and more. During my stay, four years after the start of the project, it is a time of change for the ecovillage. Several community members are leaving and the remaining inhabitants take time to refocus their communal activities and realign with each other. In this blog I give an overview of my experience from the ecovillage.
Overlooking the gardens from the veranda of the main building I instantly realised the appeal of the ecovillage property as a beautiful, tranquil place to be. Surrounded by fields of agriculture and away from big cities, the old manor grounds feel like a refuge from society. There are beautiful old trees, more than a hundred mature fruit trees and countless berry bushes. Walking through the ecovillage you are blessed by the sight of thousands tiny songbirds, swallows, butterflies, storks, bees and much more. I experienced a calmness stemming from the nature-rich surrounding and humble motives of the community inhabitants. The land is a great place to be inspired for living more mindfully and gain confidence for choosing a path of living in closer connection with each other and nature.
Projects at Small Footprint ecovillage
To fullfill their vision of inspiring many individuals for an ecological, communal lifestyle they started a training centre from which they give workshops on different aspects of ecovillage life (both social and practical). The training centre is a separate cooperative from the one which owns the ecovillage. With this training centre they host for example the ecovillage design education (EDE) course this fall. During my stay there was also a one-day wild edible plants workshop and a weekend training for teachers of the GAIA school. The trainings they offer are experienced by participants as very inspirational, not just because of the topics, but also because the ecovillage can offer a break away from their regular lifes to gain new perspective from being in natural surroundings and in a community setting. It seems this aspect to their vision has been realised of being an inspirational training centre has been realised. (Read my blog about the experiences of the volunteer program they hosted during my stay here).
The ecovillage houses a permaculture vegetable patch of around 500m2 with several greenhouses. They make their own fertilizers from composted horse manure, from charcoal of their mass ovens, nettles, urine and other residues from the community and they practice mulching with their own straw and leaves. They also harvest their own seeds and grow many varieties of each crop. They envision to start selling their organic, locally adapted seeds in the future. On the 30 hectares of farmland around the manor land the community grows a heritage variety of rye and buckwheat crops which cover the lands practically year round. The biggest bottleneck for their gardens is manpower since the community is quite small and the work needed to be done much. Luckily there is some volunteer help in the gardens. Food grown in the gardens is sold to the community and a little bit outside the community, providing a (very minimum) income for the women working in the gardens and resources to buy farming equipment etc. (Read more about this in my blog on their ecological gardening practices here. )
The ecovillage also houses a department of the Tallinn GAIA school. Hosting a primary school with about six children attending now. The school was run right from the start of the ecovillage, mostly for the children of community members. The manor land already had a school building on the property when they bought it and the ecovillage initiators had close contacts with the main GAIA school of Estonia in Tallinn, making it relatively easy to start teaching her). Now, there are also some children from outside the ecovillage attending. Originally mostly community members were teaching here, but now there are several teachers from outside the ecovillage.
Chocolate, honey and microgreens
Perhaps their most well-known product are the raw, organic chocolate bars which they make and sell in the community. This production has however been declining a bit lately due to lack of initiative from community members to promote the product and sell it in other places. They are now looking to put some fresh energy into this production and to rebrand the chocolate bars.
Lastly, there is also some honey production in the ecovillage from one woman who started holding bees. In the past, they also had a green sprouts and salads company, using a greenhouse for sprouting microgreens all year round. They were selling these to restaurants in Tallinn and provided the 2018 ecovillage conference with over 500 participants with salads every day (read my blog about that conference here). Due to lack off energy or declining enthusiasm for the community members they stopped this business, but in the beginning years this was a good business to get some income while the ecovillage was just starting.
In daily life the community members share all lunches and diners together, this is not obligatory off course but members take turns preparing the meals every day. In principle, every member is expected to put at least seven hours of work per week into the community. The members commented that they stopped registering this however, since everyone was making more hours anyway. Most community members have a part-time job outside of the ecovillage to gain some income. When they arrived on the property in 2014 all the buildings needed a lot of renovation work and the group started living in the school building for the first winter, all sleeping in the same big hall. Many initiators refer to this as a very cozy time when they were all dreaming together. Over the years they spread out over the buildings on the property, living in tiny apartments in various buildings and the first floor of the main manor house. They still all use the one main kitchen in the manor house for cooking and washing, and the sauna building for showering. Compost toilets are spread across the land and inside the manor house they also have some water toilets. Traditionally they take a sauna together every sunday evening.
There is space for around twelve guest to sleep in a shared room on the first flour of the manor house. There are also some guest rooms in the school building, all these spaces make it easy for them to host larger groups for training programs.
In summertime the veranda is the main hanging space for community members, where they eat and relax together. Some members comment that in winter time they do not really have this type of livingspace and feel that it has really been missing in the community. Especially since only recently (during my stay) the veranda is really starting to feel like a homey space. The past four years they have been too busy renovating and starting all the projects that they did not have time to make a nice, homey space. During my stay, the community life during the day is relaxed and goes at a slow space. Quite some members leave during the day time to their jobs, others work on some renovation projects. Only for the meals we gather together and sometimes there is a communal evening activity.
The idea for starting an ecovillage arose from a group of people who met each other at gatherings from the Estonian ecovillage network. Some of the initiators had travelled along other ecovillages in Europe and/or taken courses in ecovillage practices like sociocracy, sharing circles and non-violent communication. Most of the initiators had however never lived in community before. All initiators contributed 10.000 euro to become a member of the ecovillage, with this money they bought the plot as a cooperative and covered some renovation expenses. Now, everyone pays a monthly fee for the living space in which they stay. They made the construction so that when someone wants to leave the community, they receive the initial investment back.
When they started the ecovillage they had the expectation to grow to a community of maybe around fifty people in five years. The many buildings on the property and the big lands around it surely allow this number. Now, four and a half years later, the community is however shrinking from the original size. They speculate that ecovillage life is perhaps not (yet) so popular because in Estonia practically everyone already owns their own piece of farming land somewhere in the countryside where they grow their food or can go to for spending time in nature. Community members also mention that they notice that the desire to live in community with others is quite low in Estonia. They feel that everyone in Estonia slightly interested in ecovillage life knows the project by now and has visited it. During my stay, several community members were about to leave the community for different reasons. Some mention that the commuting distance to Tallinn is too much and they need to have a job there. Others have some difficulty with the huge amount of renovation work needed to be done and the lack therefor of a homey feeling. There has also been some personal situations between community members which they were not possible to resolve, resulting in several initiators moving away from the ecovillage.
During the course of the ecovillage project they have had several set backs, concerning the old buildings which were already on site. The buildings in the ecovillage are old, have very thick walls and are big. This makes them very difficult to heat in winter time and cold in the summer time. The community uses wood-fired mass ovens for this mostly, consuming a big amount of wood for the many spaces. In some other buildings they discovered a mould which made it impossible to inhabit them. They have managed to get rid of this mould with a extensive sand treatment, however the risk of it returning remains. There is also a lot of asbestos used in all of the buildings on site, a building material very commonly used all over Estonia which is not acknowledged as very toxic here. In general they have been spending huge amounts of energy on making the buildings liveable. Also, with the big buildings, their footprint in terms of energy use for heating and electronics is not that low. They have plans however to create a solar panel field on their farm land to be self-sufficient in electricity usage.
Living and deciding together
They have an organizational structure and decision-making method based on sociocracy and almost all community members have taken a course in this practice. During the household meeting which I attended they did not really use this practice however. The community members explained to me that for daily decisions they just hold normal, quick meetings because else they experienced it to be too time consuming. Only when a big decision has to be made they really use the sociocratic approach of coming with a proposal and having a structured meeting around it. Last time they did this was past September. They also mention that they are with too little community members to really have an organizational structure with circles as proposed by the sociocratic method. In the future when they grow they hope to be able to practice this more structurally to decrease everybody’s workload.
To enhance community feeling they practice a bi-weekly heart circle for sharing deeper emotions. However, they notice recently that this method is not really getting them any further in creating deep connection between community members. During my stay they were experimenting with some new formats for the heart circle to really listen to each other again.
Times of change – looking towards the future
The nature-rich manor land with surrounding heritage-crop fields have been stunning to live and work at for me. Meeting all the community members and their individual stories and motivations for dedicating themselves to ecovillage life here has been inspirational. They hear from everybody coming in Small Footprint even for a small visit that they see the huge potential here and feel the appeal of this special place. Staying for longer periods here has created a healing and empowering effect on many individuals, something the ecovillage can be incredibly proud of already. For me personally it has been an incredibly valuable time for inner reflection, learning about holistic lifestyles and living in community and for gaining practical experience in ecological gardening through helping out many hours in the gardens.
Despite the setbacks they have had to face and quite some community members leaving now, the remaining inhabitants have hope and vision for the future. They acknowledge that things will change now and that they are in a transition period: coming out of the first few initiating years and evolving into a new stage of the ecovillage. The project can be seen as quite ambitious, to take on 30 hectares of land with numerous abandoned buildings on site with just a small group of people is challenging. Starting many projects also right from the start is admirable, but it resulted in the energy of all community members being demanded to the maximum. I notice that already just by wanting to have all lunches and diners communally, the energy of half the community members goes to running the kitchen and household. The members now see all their experiences so far as a learning opportunity and they are confident they can grow together. They are sure that as long as they invest time in connecting to each other and collaborating for striving after their common vision and values for the place, Small Footprint has a future one way or another.
Sitting in the new sunroom we spend time brainstorming about the future, and ideas for different activities to boost the ecovillage project are flying across the table!
Read more about Vaike Jalajalg on their website: https://vaikejalajalg.ee/
Join their upcomming ecovillage design education course: https://m.facebook.com/events/%C3%B6kokeskuse-m%C3%B5isamaa-m%C3%A4rjamaa-78237-rapla-maakond-eesti/ede-estonia-the-basics-of-holistic-lifestyle/539626533208732/