More techno Utopia

20 10 2017

It never ceases to amaze what people will do in the name of sustainability……  or even believe that what they are doing is sustainable. An article from The Daily Times turned up in my newsfeed that everyone who read it thought was fantastic because it included the words sustainable, solar, and desalination….

Hope in Jordan is taking the form of a cucumber in the desert. It is not a mirage. Some say it is the future. In the arid southern desert of Wadi Araba, where scorching temperatures and dust devils leave scant signs of life, a team of environmental engineers is working on a solution for countries on the front lines of climate change, facing drought and rising temperatures.

The engineers say they are designing a sustainable farm that uses solar power to desalinate seawater to grow crops in regions that have been arid for centuries, and then use the irrigation runoff to afforest barren lands and fend off desertification.

As I continually say…… with fossil fuels, you can do anything…….

Even more frustrating, the article continues with…..

Similar ventures have had success in neighbouring Israel, but it remains to be seen whether a fully sustainable farm can breathe life into the Jordanian desert and offer a model to a country that cannot spare a drop of its dwindling water resources.

Well excuse me, but, there actually exists a “fully sustainable farm [that] can breathe life into the Jordanian desert and offer a model to a country that cannot spare a drop of its dwindling water resources”, and it wasn’t done with complicated technology that won’t be able to be fixed in ten years time, it was done with good old fashioned Permaculture Principles.

I will leave it up to you the reader to decide which way is actually the more sustainable….

Advertisements




On Biochar

23 05 2017

Last weekend, as the threat of looming downpours for much of Tasmania was forecast, I went to a biochar workshop organised by the Huon Producers’ Network, and I reckon it was the best thirty five bucks I ever spent……. I’ve read quite a bit on the matter, and have always been fascinated by Terra Preta. Having cut down some fifty trees to make way and building material for our new house, I’m not exactly short of biomass to get rid of…. I had four huge piles of the stuff, and unfortunately, sometimes even the best laid plans have to yield to reality and two of them have been burned to make way for ‘development’ on the Fanny Farm. Each time I burned the piles, I got the guilts knowing all that resource was going to waste and contributing to climate change, but having inadvertently put several tonnes of wood in the wrong place (designing my patch is an evolutionary process) and having no quick means of moving them, I just put a match to it. At least, the ash went on the current market garden patch……Image result for biochar kiln

I had some expectations of what I was going to be shown, but they were all thrown out the window…. I had been expecting to see kilns such as the one at right which are all enclosed for the purpose of starving the fire of Oxygen so as to pyrolise the wood and make charcoal. My friend Bruce in Queensland has been making charcoal this way for thirty years to satisfy his blacksmithing habit (and those of many others I might add), and he has this down to a fine art. But it appears there’s a revolution underway…..

The presenter on the day was Frank Strie, who thirty years ago emigrated from Germany with his whole family to Tasmania. “We started to plant lots of different fruit trees” Frank says on his website, “such as Cherries, Apricots, Peaches, Plums, Prunes and various apple and pear trees. And of course, we wanted to grow our own vegetables. Also, about 20 years ago we established a Hazelnut Orchard, which covers nearly one third of the property.” It’s all organic of course, and he sounds like he’s pretty good mates with Peter Cundall, Tassie’s gardening guru…… See his Terra Preta website.

20170520_104408

“The baby”

The fact that he brought three kilns on a trailer and the back of a ute all the way from Launceston just shows how versatile and portable his gear is.

The new kilns are open topped, and most interestingly, funnel shaped. They make the process faster – like maybe half the time or better – and allow for activation of the charcoal (which is what turns it into biochar) all in one go. Being able to just tip the finished product onto the ground instead of laboriously shoveling it out of the kiln looks good to this old man with a bad back as well.

Andrew, a local also known as Stretch – and so tall he can’t fit in photos – was also there to ably assist Frank; he’d organised20170520_121304 lots of firewood and stacked it in piles of graded sizes along with cardboard and kindling. We actually got three kilns started; from a smallish one designed for hobby gardeners, to something that will make a cubic metre at a time (and double up as a BBQ!) to the farm sized device I could probably use but can’t afford….. though there is now talk of buying one as a community resource which is a darn good idea!

The idea of the funnel shape is that as the air outside is heated, it rises up the sides, and when it reaches the lip, a vortex effect is created causing the air to be sucked into the kiln speeding up the burn. The ‘big one’ even comes with a skirt that acts as a venturi, speeding up the air as it is squeezed between the kiln and skirt at the lip of the kiln. The effect was clearly visible, though nigh impossible to catch in a still photo.

20170520_12091720170520_120927

The ‘smothering’ effect is created by simply adding more and more firewood to the pile. Before combustion is complete, the fire is quenched (with water on this particular day, but normally a liquid fertiliser would be used) from the bottom up. The bottom of the kiln is plumbed to a pipe which can be used for both removing excess liquid, or adding it under pressure from an IBC on, say, the back of a ute. On the day, Frank used a garden hose, because we could not do what he normally does because of where we were….

20170520_135217

20170520_144712

On the day, the kiln was not filled to capacity due to location and time constraints, but you can clearly see the results. The big kiln even comes with a winch to tip the biochar out for easy work, and if it wasn’t for the fact I’m far too busy house building and counting my remaining pennies, I would buy one tomorrow,

To learn more about biochar, here is an interesting link supplied by Frank that anyone keen on this process would find enlightening. I think this is definitely the way of the future, a bright light among all the rubbish we see every day about renewable energy and electric cars. This has the potential to sequester huge amounts of Carbon, and even more importantly, prepare farm soil for the post oil era looming on the horizon.





Is eating no meat actually doing more harm than good?

18 05 2017

I spend more time on the internet arguing wih vegetarians/vegans than any other group of people……  I so wish they would get off their high horses and start supporting farmers who do the right thing…. and that goes for all you meat eaters out there who buy meat from supermarkets….  STOP IT!!

This opinion piece was originally published by Farmdrop on 4th May 2017.


The younger generation are positively redefining the way we see ourselves in relation to food and the environment.

I grew up in the late 1960s and so I consider myself a bit of a hippy. That decade marked a fundamental mind-set shift in the way people saw themselves in relation to the world. At the time, it was difficult to pinpoint where these ideas came from; many of them simply seemed to come through intuition.

I mention this because, for the first time since the late 1960s, I feel like another shift in consciousness is occurring among the younger generation, particularly amongst so called ‘millennials’.

There is a new field of scientific study called epigenetics which shows that all living organisms constantly interact with their external environment and that these influences can prompt changes in gene expression which can be passed down through the generations. Plants, for example, have epigenetic responses to the environment they grow in, as a result of which a plant may have a subtle difference in its genotype from its parents. Even more interestingly, certain epigenetic traits can stay dormant for several generations, only to find full expression at a later time.

So I suspect that the changing shift in consciousness towards food production and sustainability may actually be partly epigenetic. Perhaps the radical energy of the 1960s is now finding expression among millennials, albeit in a slightly different way.

For these reasons, as an organic farmer of almost 45 years, I have never been more optimistic about the future of farming. However, I am growing increasingly concerned about the large number of people turning to diets that may not necessarily be either healthy or sustainable.

If we are to move to a genuinely sustainable food system, then I think we all need to become much better informed about the sustainability or otherwise of different food systems. Only then we will be better placed to challenge the huge amounts of misinformation on so-called sustainable diets which are encouraging people to avoid all meats and animal products, despite the reality that in many (if not most climates and regions) it is difficult to farm in a truly sustainable way without livestock.

What is the problem with food and farming?

It has become a cliché but it’s true: supermarket food is not cheap and comes at a heavy price. The industrial application of nitrogen fertiliser has contaminated our water systems and atmosphere with dangerous nitrates; the subsidised production of fructose corn syrup has driven an increase in obesity and diabetes; and the excessive use of antibiotics in animals has caused a resistance to these drugs amongst humans.

The real problem is that none of the costs of all this damage is charged to the people who use it and, on the other hand, the positive effects of sustainable farming are not supported.

The current policy framework supports a dishonest economic food pricing system, as a result of which, the best business case is for farmers to grow using industrial methods and for retailers to buy the commodity products from industrial farms, process the hell out of them, package them so the consumer knows nothing about their backstory and then make a profit by turning that around.

So we need new incentives and disincentives, which ensure that the polluter pays and those who farm in a truly sustainable way are better rewarded for the benefits they deliver.

But what are the most sustainable farming methods?

There is no doubt that agriculture and farming is one of the most significant contributor towards climate change. Cutting back on the biggest pollutant (man-made fossil fuels) is very important but to actually reverse climate change – take CO2 out of the atmosphere – then we need to change the way we farm, particularly in relation to the way we look after the soil.

This is because organic matter in the soil is a store of carbon, thereby mitigating harmful emissions in the atmosphere. Britain’s soils store around 10 billion tonnes of carbon, which is more than total annual global emissions of carbon dioxide. Moreover, high levels of organic matter are also the basis for soil fertility, releasing nutrients for healthy plant growth and ultimately food. In other words, the amount of organic matter present in the soil is essential, both for combating climate change and ultimately improving our health.

The problem is that industrial farming methods have depleted organic matter in the soils. In the East of England, around 84% of the land’s carbon rich soil has been lost and continues to disappear at a rate of 1 to 2cm per year. That represents an enormous amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere.

Sustainable food systems are therefore about much more than simply avoiding nasty chemicals and antibiotics, they are about building organic matter in the soil through crop rotation and mixed farming practices.

It is possible for farmers to reduce the emissions from agriculture by re-introducing rotations in the way they use their land – introducing a grass and clover phase that builds soil organic matter, which is then grazed by ruminant animals on rotation, who fertilise the soil further, and results in an ability to grow healthy crops.

According to the International Panel on Climate Change, it is estimated that 89% of all agricultural emissions can be mitigated by improving carbon levels in the soil.

How can you have the most healthy and sustainable diet?

Everyone, at least in principle, wants to eat a healthy and sustainable diet, but we are all very confused about how to do it. If you asked 10 people what the most sustainable and healthy way to eat was then you would probably get 10 different answers. A few might say vegetarian or vegan (the numbers eating a vegan diet has increased by 360% in the last decade) but I think that a large scale switch towards vegetarianism may not necessarily be compatible with sustainability.

In my opinion, many people have been led astray by bad science. The tools used by scientific researchers in the past, and whose published papers have prompted changes in people’s diets, were not based on sound science. It was said that red meat and animal fats should be avoided, both because they are unhealthy and because ruminant animals (cows and sheep) are largely responsible for harmful methane emissions.

But it turns out that neither of those positions are necessarily true.

The study that prompted Governments in Britain and the United States to recommend people to reduce their intake of fats was not based on solid evidence. It is this study that encouraged the food industry to replace fats with added sugars, and we are only now understanding the damage these do to our health.

And the studies that recommended a reduction in red meat consumption on grounds of reducing its environmental impact only look at certain factors in isolation rather than the whole food system. Land-use is often considered as bad in all instances, even though raising livestock is sometimes the only productive land use option available. In roughly two thirds of the UK’s agricultural land area is grass and the only way we can turn that into a good soil that stores carbon and grows healthy crops is to have ruminant animals grazing on a rotation system to fertilise the ground.

These flawed assumptions have had significant consequences for the way people eat. Beef production has halved since the 1980s and the consumption of lamb, arguably the most sustainable grass-fed meat for the land, has plummeted. While new evidence is now showing that animals fats are good for our health and cattle grazed in the right way can actually reduce carbon emissions by creating fertile soils.

Where do we go from here?

My message is simple: a healthy diet should work backwards from the most sustainable way to farm, and that ideally means eating the foods produced by mixed farms using crop rotations which include a fertility building phase, usually of grass and clover grazed by cows and sheep, but also pastured pigs and poultry.

Industrial farming has been an extractive industry. We have dined out on the natural capital of the soil that previous generations have laid down for us. We need to fix that because the environment in which a plant or animal is produced goes a long way to determine its nutrient value when consumed by humans.





Feeding 9 billion

16 01 2017

I have just been tipped off to this fantastic Joel Salatin video…… I think it’s ironic that Eclipe, a fan of Polyface Farm, is in complete disagreement with Joel who is totally anti hi-tech farming. In fact, like me, Joel believes in walking away from the Matrix (exemplified in this video by McDonald’s), and he lets both barrels go at the establishment…..

Enjoy.





One down, five to go……

28 12 2016

It’s raining. Which is good, because it’s watering the first of our six market gardens, and bad, because the house site was just starting to dry out nicely….. and now it isn’t. Bah humbug…….

Having slashed and rotary hoed the first patch of garden, the task of starting garden beds and planting them was next. The rotary hoe quickly found a 50kg rock, aka an immovable object, which I dutifully dug up with a mattock and crowbar…. good thing it didn’t weigh any more, I was only just able to lift it into the wheelbarrow for disposal.

img_0339I marked out the paths and beds with building string, then hoed out the paths which were subsequently raked downhill onto the beds, creating terraces. The paths will also act as mini swales during the heavier winter rains, and the soil is so good, it may just hold onto the water too..

Five bags of sheep poo were then applied and hoed into the soil for good measure, you can’t have too much organic matter!img_0340

Glenda planted kale and pumpkins on the first (lowest) bed, and once the whole patch was done, we planted snow peas, sweet corn, cucumbers, and broccoli seeds. There’s a bed left over for beans, and we might do that tomorrow.

On the weekend, we even sold our first batch of zucchinis from the poly tunnel, such as it was, but it’s a start, like everything else around here! We should have a bumper crop of tomatoes soon; they’re later than I would have expected, but everyone around Geeveston (and the Huon) is complaining that the whole growing season is late this year, which surprises me as we had such a wet winter….. or maybe it’s the cause?

indian-game

Indian Game Chickens

I also bought some Indian Game chicks I’m going to try to breed as a source of meat. They are pretty big birds too, and should be great scratchers in the gardens when needed with those stout legs….! Quite beautiful poultry actually.

The power station passed its first milestone of sorts, now that we have extracted a whole 100 kWh of electricity from the batteries.

It’s all going very well, powering up the dam pump more frequently now we have things to

20161226_144925

Our first 100kWh….

water, even boiling water in kettles for the purpose of killing weeds and grass….

The next big thing we need to do for this particular project is move a big pile of soil (covered in weeds!) sideways to fill the remaining windrow furrows left over from the apple orchard days. Hopefully, that will also help in slowing the flow of water down to the house site, those furrows act like gullies in heavy rain… once that’s done, the fencing will be finished around the six garden patches, and one by one they will be turned into gardens just like the one we’ve just finished. It’s a big job, lots of hard work, but very rewarding.





Building soil on the Fanny Farm

18 12 2016

With the new chicken pen finished, and at least half the new market garden finished – the other half is awaiting the moving of a huge pile of soil 30 to 40 metres away to fill in more furrows between existing windrows – the time had come to prepare the first area for production. Everything takes time, not least this project…….

The green manure I planted there soon after the house site excavations were finished was starting to go to seed, and looked promisingly ready for ploughing in… so I slashed it with my trusty Honda brushcutter. This machine is part of the ‘use fossil fuels while you still trimmerheadcan’ strategy…. after literally burning through two plastic auto string feeding heads for it, I replaced them with an alloy fixed string device that is proving way superior. With wet grass now a metre high, and uneven ground left over from the orchard heydays, mowing is very difficult, and this machine has been priceless, working long hours on 98 octane fuel. Because it’s four stroke, it starts first time every time too!

gardengreenmanureOnce slashed, the rotary hoe I bought last year was started again, and the grass clippings and green manure was laboriously ploughed into the soil. The plan is to eventually not disturb the soil ever again, but after years of cattle roaming all over it, me driving utes over that section of grass, and lately the excavator, the ground needed to be de-compacted…

I then added lime for Calcium (most Australian soils are Calcium deficient) and a starting point for rectifying the soil pH. No doubt further pH testing will be required later until I’ve got that right……gardencompost

A tonne of compost bought locally was then unloaded off the back of the ute by my better half, and the whole lot was rotary hoed again to get it all thoroughly mixed in.

The chickens were then allowed in to start scratching around and adding their bit to the soil. I need lots more chickens before this system starts working properly, but like I said, everything takes time…… we have one clucky chook sitting on a dozen eggs at the moment, so there are more on the way, and I am trying to source some meat chicks, because they are very good at tractoring soil.

The main pipe between the pump and the cube atop the power station was then cut, a T piece inserted, and a a one inch riser installed for access to water from our wonderful dam…..

gardenwaterCharlotte and Fanny might be back soon, and they will be able to see the progress since they left. Nothing will be planted there for a while, as it will take some time for all that new soil biomass to settle in. We’re getting there though……. and I will have another couple of French wwoofers here in February for some more action.

gardenchickens





Rezoning the Fanny Farm…..

24 11 2016

When we first arrived here, there was a lot of infrastructure. Most of it was certainly useful, not least the dam of course, but much of what was here did not make much sense, permaculture-wise. I surmise that most of that was down to the fact there never was a zone zero to start with, ie, the kitchen! In fact with no house at all, and a shed never designed to be lived in and in completely the wrong place, it was left to me to rezone everything to make it work.

20161111_100602When the neighbours’ house, which I think might have been the original farmhouse, was excised from our property forty years ago, strange things were done….. to start with, said farmhouse is totally surrounded by our land. One of their sheds is the boundary line…… something that would never happen today. Then someone built a chook house, leaning against said shed. Being on the southern side of this tin shed, it never had access to sunlight, and let’s face it, chickens like sunlight as much as people do!

A new French wwoofer called Charlotte turned up recently, and we got stuck into dismantling this useless chook pen, for relocation at the market garden under construction, the idea being to integrate the birds into the garden system to clear them once harvested, and fertilise the resulting bare dirt in readiness for the next crop. This will be done in rotation, hence all those gates (four of which I brought from Queensland as a cage to raise the load level in the ute!) Permaculture 101……

Then Fanny (yes, Fanny, from the Fanny Farm!) also arrived and between the three of us, 20161116_143139we’ve done a lot of work (actually, they work much harder than me….) putting recycled posts from Matt’s farm all over the joint, and some from the chicken run that was attached to the lean to affair we dismantled.  Waste nothing…! Then we removed low hanging and overgrown ‘pig wire’ from the fencing near the road that was of no use whatsoever. That was recycled to prepare for the new chicken netting that will be hung off it soon.

20161124_120120Today, the roof and front wall for the house arrived. I decided to order the lot in one go, just to have the iron for the new chook house’s roof. In any case, I’ve decided to spend all our money up front before the banks go under. Not taking any chances! My two young French wwoofers and the delivery guy and I unloaded the ton and a half of corrugated iron off the truck. After lunch, we put up the tin, and screwed it down. Another job ticked off the list.

Having useful wwoofers is just amazing, and they are such great company, allowing me to practice my really rusty French back to life. They also keep on insisting to do the cooking, and why should I refuse, especially when the results are really nice to eat?20161124_151355

As you can tell, I’m having a really terrible time. All the plants we put in the polytunnel are doing extremely well, especially when compared to the tomatoes I killed last year in the frost at the back of the shed. It’s all coming together, our planning application has even gone into Council…  I just need the house site to dry off completely so we can start putting profiles in for the digging of the foundations.

20161124_152824