The Behmanis family left a comfortable life in England to farm on a remote property in Kurzeme, Latvia's westernmost region. Their green and simple lifestyle challenges assumptions about what the good life is really about.
Since the restoration of independence in 1991, many Latvians have moved abroad to build careers, find love or broaden their horizons. Some have eventually come home again, bringing a spirit of adventure to a new life in the old country.
Sandis and Eva Behmanis lived happily in Manchester, U.K., for a decade. But in 2015, when their then-five-year-old daughter Emīlija began refusing to speak Latvian at home, they realized it was time to go.
“No matter where you are, you should remember where you come from,” says Sandis.
Returning to Sandis’ hometown of Skrunda, 150 km west of Riga, they bought “Trīsuļi,” a farmhouse so abandoned it could barely be seen through the weeds and turned the place into a model of self-reliance.
Set on just a couple of hectares of land squashed between a state-owned forest and a railway line, without running water and miles from a paved road, living at “Trīsuļi” is not for the fainthearted. But the Behmanis fell in love with it at first sight, and with hard work and imagination, they have fashioned a cosy home there.
The family are disciples of permaculture, a system of agriculture utilizing compost, mulch and raised garden beds to produce high yields while constantly enriching the soil. The vegetable patches, berry bushes and fruit trees provide much of their food. Sandis works part-time helping a neighbouring beekeeper and sells car parts on e-bay, but they grow most of what they eat, so money isn’t a priority.
Everything is useful. The family even gather fly amanita, a toxic, red-capped mushroom most foragers steer well away from, which they dry out and make into an anti-inflammatory cream. The chicken coop, a wheeled thing plonked down wherever the garden needs some natural fertiliser, is protected from foxes by… well, taking a leak (foxes are wary of the smell of humans).
“I regularly go out and on my territory they stay well away,” Sandis cheerfully explains.
Of course, things aren’t perfect in Latvia, and Sandis visibly fumes about bureaucracy. So, when power company Latvenergo quoted an astronomical 120,000 euros to hook “Trīsuļi” to the grid, he set up some solar panels and a diesel generator, meeting all the family’s needs - internet, fridge, lights and all.
Heating is also off the grid, thanks to a self-built rocket mass heater, a highly efficient wood-burning stove made of clay, stones and scrap metal. Sandis also plans to build a subterranean greenhouse, which by making use of the constant temperature underground can function year-round.
This creative spirit is a magnet for green-minded souls. “Trīsuļi” recently hosted a permaculture festival, attracting mudbrick house builders, heirloom seed collectors, artisanal goat cheese makers and other alternative folks. One of them said they are united by a desire to stop whining about what’s wrong with the world and instead build the sort of place they want to live in.
The Behmanis family seem well on their way to achieving that.