A man stands in the forest, kitted out in heavy-duty work boots and trousers. Anton Küchler is digging a deep hole with a pickaxe in a steep slope in the hills of the Emmental Valley. A root has gradually worked its way into the spring that supplies water to his farm, blocking the outlet and leaving him short of water. Previously the water flowed freely through a pipe to his house where it was pumped to the kitchen and bathroom. That provided plenty of water to cook and take showers – at least until this root got in the way. In contrast, his guest toilet works on a different principle that keeps it dry all year round: instead of flushing, the waste is simply covered with leaves and composted.
This is the lifestyle Küchler has chosen: “Living in a village or town isn’t for me. I like things to be more extreme!” says the 41-year-old, who studied environmental sciences at ETH Zurich. He and his wife Simone bought their house in the Emmental region of the canton of Bern 13 years ago. Though now separated, they still both live on the farm together with their two children Silvan (13) and Ronja (11). The community also includes three other adults – two men and a woman – as well as temporary helpers and guests who lend a hand in return for board and lodging.
Enriching, not exploiting, nature
Life here involves plenty of hard work. The community runs the farm according to the principles of permaculture, identifying locally available, renewable resources and utilising them to achieve self-sufficiency in food, water, energy, heat and building materials. The idea is to enhance ecosystems and increase their productivity: “It’s only a matter of a few decades before fossil fuels will be unable to meet rising demand. In the long term, we will need to be self-sufficient with the resources available on our doorstep, combining these with a rich vein of knowledge and social organisation,” he argues. The permaculture movement has already inspired people right across the globe – and the numbers are growing all the time. Permaculture is a counter-discourse to globalisation, with each individual and group starting their journey by making sustainable use of the resources in their local environment.
The Balmeggberg community has already extended this concept to far more than just the spring and composting toilet. As well as drawing energy from their neighbours’ solar panels, they also collect their own firewood for heating and cooking, use solar collectors on their roof to produce hot water and run a wastewater treatment system to deal with their own sewage. They are also largely self-sufficient when it comes to food, growing vegetables in the garden in summer and storing whatever is left for the winter. Tomato plants thrive in the greenhouse, and they even grow their own mushrooms. “We produce roughly one third of our food, including lots of vegetables, eggs and even meat,” says Küchler. Their milk, cheese and cereals come from neighbours or from farms down in the valley. Rice, pasta and whatever else they need comes from the shops.
“I had always imagined living this kind of life,” says Küchler. He grew up in a detached house in Sarnen in the canton of Obwalden. His father is a Swiss lawyer and his mother, who originally hails from the Philippines, studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. The environmental disasters that occurred in the 1980s made a lasting impression on Küchler. His memories of the Chernobyl nuclear accident – two days before his ninth birthday – are particularly vivid. His concern for the environment was also influenced by the Sandoz chemical spill in the Schweizerhalle industrial complex, the two Gulf wars, and discussions about the hole in the ozone layer and global warming. “I knew I wanted to make a difference by working in this area.”
Stepping up, not dropping out
This goal inspired him to take a degree course at ETH and move into a shared flat in the heart of Zurich’s old town. After obtaining his degree, he spent eight months working on farms as part of his Swiss civilian service. This was a formative experience that showed him just how much the lifestyle suited him in practice as well as in theory. But he didn’t see this move as dropping out of society: “It was more like entering into real life”. He and his wife Simone came across the 300-year-old farmhouse with six hectares of land and forest and decided to grab the opportunity with both hands. Küchler’s parents helped finance the purchase. “But it’s fair to say they were slightly puzzled about what we intended to do up here!” he says.
Küchler certainly has plenty of irons in the fire. His courses on how to establish permaculture projects are becoming increasingly popular. He runs the courses in a large yurt next to the farm, with three additional yurts serving as accommodation. Yet all the members of the community also have steady jobs in addition to their life on the farm. Simone Küchler teaches nursery school and music, while Küchler himself runs a business as an independent sustainability consultant and permaculture designer. He is currently working on the development of a cooperative settlement in the neighbouring village of Trubschachen, which he is planning in accordance with permaculture principles. “It’s aimed at people who want to make farming part of their lives without immediately taking on their own farm,” says Küchler. Other projects include a multigenerational housing scheme comprising 20 apartments in Langnau, which the developers hope to build from local wood, largely avoiding the use of metal, plastic and adhesives. The building will include solar collectors and a photovoltaic system, which will cover some of the residents’ heating and energy requirements. The plans also include nesting features and food for wild animals in the exterior spaces and building facade.
Küchler recently returned from the East African nation of Tanzania where he was working on a project to make the use of charcoal more environmentally friendly. “A lot of people use charcoal to cook their meals in developing countries – and that’s causing deforestation on a massive scale,” he says. He argues that there is an urgent need for sustainably produced fuels. “So we’re showing farmers how to make and sell briquettes from crop waste such as corn stalks.”
Compromise is key
He may sound idealistic, but Küchler favours a pragmatic approach: “My work is based on the sense of joy and deep respect I feel for nature. I don’t pretend for a minute that what I’m doing is enough to solve the world’s problems,” he says. “But if I simply wait for the big players to make the world more sustainable, things simply won’t happen fast enough.” His goal is clear: to help people lead lives based on local, renewable resources that they simultaneously strive to protect. And he often uses his own farm as a testing ground to achieve this goal. “It’s a long process that requires huge amounts of time and effort.”
He notes, however, that life on a mountain farm is not the only way to apply permaculture principles, insisting that city dwellers can also get involved. Küchler argues that what it ultimately comes down to is making the best possible decisions on a daily basis, whether in the office or in the kitchen. “And that inevitably includes compromises such as the car that enables me to live in the Balmeggberg community in the first place.” Ultimately, he feels that he has found the combination that works best for him: “I spend half my working day doing hard, physical labour in nature and the other half on my computer. Having to choose just one of those options would be unbearable!”