Making Biochar

4 02 2018

Having attended a biochar workshop last year, and literally having tons of left over wood from cutting all those trees for the house build to burn, I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to arrive to make some biochar as an additional improvement to the market garden. Now I have three able bodied youngsters, keen to learn this technique, we finally got stuck in……

Last thursday at the Geeveston Feast, I again ran into Clayton who visited me and my building project many moons ago, a designer and draftsman in the concepts of eco houses himself; Geeveston is full of interesting people…. He too is a great fan of biochar, and was in fact at the abovementioned workshop….  we got talking, and he said he’d got hold of a an old hopper that he’s been using as a kiln, but because it’s made of much thinner steel than the kilns Frank Strie showed us in Huonville, he told me it wouldn’t last long, and was therefore experimenting with making it in situ. After all, the Amazonian Indians who invented the stuff never had steel, and they managed OK, so I decided to have a go….

IMG_20180203_114549

Digging the trench, unloading wood from the ute

 

As the ground in the second half of the market garden was well worked, having had the rotary hoe over it three times to mix the compost, sheep poo, crusher dust and dolomite, the lads had no difficulty digging. We started with a cone shaped hole in which wood scraps left over from the moving of the chicken house were burned. I had watering cans full of overstrength Seasol at the ready to quench the embers and charcoal. Once quenched, the fire was buried with the soil dug out of the hole. It all went smoothly, with charcoal taking maybe 45 minutes to be created. The rest of the wood though were larger and longer branches, and Facundo from Argentina suggested digging a trench next rather than a hole.

IMG_8854FullSizeR

 

I thought it was a good idea, so we filled up the back of the 4WD with branches and moved them the 100 metres to the chosen area.

 

IMG_20180203_183246

Charcoal

IMG_20180203_183541

Quenching with fertiliser

Everyone likes a fire, and this lot was no different…! The trench was easily six times bigger, and the flames were too, but the wood being so dry, it burned very cleanly and soon enough we had a trench full of charcoal. The rest, as you can see was soon enough achieved, and my valiant band of charcoal makers are keen to get stuck in and finish off the big pile of trash I have to get rid of.

Will it work? Watch this space is all I can say…..

UPDATE

By day three, we were getting bolder and bolder, and decided to start digging trenches that went the whole width of the market garden, improving on the amount of time rquired to move all the sticks etc…. the weather has been mightily good to us, so we made the most  of it, and the pile of wood that was in the way of building a new fence to finally allow a new zone for a few heads of cattle has been cleared up. All that’s left to do for that particular project is to somehow convince Pete to come back and finish the sawmilling! The machine’s only been here for almost two years after all…

IMG_20180206_122504

IMG_20180206_191706

Advertisements




More soil building on the Fanny Farm

26 01 2018

I always try to source my materials as close to home as possible, and sometimes that can be frustrating…….! My ever so knowledgeable neighbour told me some months ago that Dolomite was locally available, and dirt cheap at that. Of course, he has about seven times as much land as I do, and when he buys some, he gets, well…  seven times as much as I need.. and it comes by truck of course, and all I wanted was one ute load. So I rang the guy who runs this enterprise, and the dolomite saga began…

When I first rang him, it was “next Monday”. Luckily I rang first, and I got “sorry, there’s no one there today, but on Wednesday…”  Sounds like Tasmania all over.

Anyhow, I eventually got my Dolomite. The depot is inside Ta An’s ‘sustainable’ plywood factory (!) whose trucks drive past my shed at least four or five times a day, and who knows how many during the night. The place never seems to stop with logging trucks going in the forest, as well as out. Don’t ask, I don’t know, and it could only occur in Tassie!

I had been on that road once before with Glenda many years ago while we were still investigating which part of the Huon we might choose. We only had a tourist map, and we somehow got lost in among the forestry roads that criss cross this logging area, and they weren’t on the tourist map, and I still didn’t have a GPS. We eventually saw signs pointing to Geeveston, and at least I knew where that was! We even drove right past this place, not realising of course that one day we’d own it…. The poor little hire car took a pounding on the incredibly rough roads, the sort that shake the fillings from your teeth. So I knew what I was in for, except that an unloaded ute with 65psi in its tyres was even worse….

IMG_20180125_092854

3m high mountain of Dolomite

I eventually found the mountain of Dolomite waiting for me, and the biggest front end loader I’ve ever seen, designed to fill trucks for Matt’s place, not a one ton ute! The machine has a weighing facility, so the operator knew how much he was serving me, and I got 1400kg for fifty bucks…… which in the shops might buy three or four 20kg bags. Let me tell you, I’m getting my money’s worth out of those old utes…

Rather than going back the same way with a now overloaded ute (they’re

IMG_20180125_093522

Ouch……!

only rated 1300kg max) I opted to do the loop back through Huonville which is farther, but with way less than half the distance of rough gravel road. By the time I got home, I had less than 1400kg anyway, because even at just 60 km/h, I was donating acid rectification material to the whole Huon Valley as it flew out the back..! It’s just like flour in texture, and any wind will blow it away. Nonetheless, the car still looked way down on its haunches by the time I had it parked in the middle of the next half of the market garden.

IMG_20180125_181744

My wwoofer Nathan and I spread the entire load over the area to be worked, and now it just needs more compost to be worked in to finish the job, if the job ever gets finished….

Dolomite is an anhydrous carbonate mineral composed of calcium magnesium carbonate, ideally CaMg(CO3)2. It’s used to modify the pH of acidic soils like we have everywhere (mostly) throughout Australia, but here in particular. It’s why apples and cherries do so well here, they love acid soils, as do most berries like strawberries, blueberries and blackberries. The problem with acid soils is that they dissolve the nutrients you want in your veggies, and until you rectify the pH back to normal, adding those nutrients is a waste of effort……  but we’ll get there.

Rome wasn’t built in one day, and neither was the Fanny farm.

IMG_20180125_181740

My new pump in action, watering in preparation for the three day heat wave about to hit Tasmania





More planning at the Fanny Farm

27 10 2017

At my neighbour’s recommendation, I have been attending a Small Farm Planning course run by the NRM, a government funded natural resource management organisation and one of three in Tasmania whose role is to protect, sustainably manage and improve our natural resources for the shared environmental, social and economic benefit of the community. I highly recommend anyone going down a similar path to ours to attend such a course……

Even though on the first Saturday I wondered what had I done; it felt like I already knew everything I was going to be told! To be fair, it seems to be largely planned for total novices, and having a Permaculture Design Certificate under my belt and ten plus years experience in Queensland means I am not really a novice, even if I am not a real farmer!

We were given an aerial map of our properties, with overlays showing what sorts of soils we had and a bunch of other stuff that I already knew very well. Other attendees were told to put clear overlays over their maps and start marking wind directions, wet areas, shading problems, fences, etc etc etc……  which is permaculture 101. I already had this done, and the look on the mapping lecturer’s face when I produced my masterplan was priceless……..  “who did this for you” she asked…..  why I did I replied! I’ve been ‘here’ for two years for chrissake, and walked over every square inch of the Fanny Farm thinking about little else than what I was going to do with it…. not only that, most of it is started.

The second week was a lot more interesting, as it was held on a farm, rather than a lecture room, which happened to belong to one of my neighbours’ friends. We talked about soils and pastures, and while I know a fair bit about soil already – having made many tonnes of the stuff over the years – I am new to pastures.

The soils bit was particularly interesting, because in Tasmania they are classified 1 to 7, with one being good enough to eat, and seven being largely of no use. We have class 4 soils, which is as good as it gets in the Huon Valley. What was utterly fascinating though was that in the whole of Tasmania, there are only, wait for it, just 3055hA (or 0.1% of private land) of class 1 soil, 20537hA of class 2 (0.8%), 84139hA of class 3 (3.4%), and 599647hA or 24% of the same stuff we have on the Fanny Farm…… If that doesn’t indicate to you just how bad Aussie soils are, then I guess nothing will…. 72% of Tassie’s soils are ordinary to crap. Even more amazing is that out of the 20 or so people attending this course, we are the only ones with class 4…. Little wonder we are zoned “significant agricultural land”.

20171021_100204

Simon discussing organic soil building on the family farm they have held for some 150 years….. Just look at those Geeveston Fanny trees…!

Simon told the story of how twenty years ago, his father started complaining about rocks beginning to appear out of the ground. It turns out that the problem was actually soil ‘shrinking’, and exposing the rocks that used to be below ground…. they changed their practices to the methods Joel Salatin and Alan Savory use, and all the rocks disappeared, going back to where they belonged, under good quality soil….

It is now obvious to me that the reason so much time is spent on pastures over the duration of the course, is entirely due to the fact anything worse than class 4 is only good enough to grow sheep and cattle. I have put so much work into my class 4 soil to make it viable as a market garden – over a tiny portion of the whole farm I remind you – that it also dawned on me that WTSHTF in not too long from now, anyone walking out of Hobart looking for food that’s no longer on supermarket shelves, and thinking they can just walk to farms full of goodies to eat, will be bitterly disappointed……  high energy foods like vegetables need class 3 or better soils, and they are all located in the North West of Tasmania, a very long walk away….  They’d better be good runners, and bring sharp knives along. Or guns. I can vouch that sheep can run very fast!

Those farms are there of course, they do exist…. but they are few and far between, and you’d have to know where they are.

Interestingly, we were also asked to bring a soil sample. I dug a spade square piece of dirt at random, complete with the green stuff on top. My sample was ignored by the presenters – talking about poor soils seems more interesting – until my sample was paraded as a perfect example of “improved pasture”. I of course had no idea….  all that green stuff is just grass, except it isn’t. I can now identify half a dozen different kinds of grass, and more importantly recognise the stuff that’s no good! We were even told that great pastures need 70% clover coverage. When asked if the Fanny Farm was that good, I had to say we must come pretty close….. now that spring has sprung, the clover is making a comeback, and it is everywhere……. and yet, even after maybe 15 years of this clover having been sown after the apple trees were all pulled up, it is still only class 4.

20171013_121741

Veronique, French Canadian wwoofer, unloading crusher dust for market garden

Any vegan who thinks soils can be quickly fertilized with green manure has no idea what they are talking about. On just 240 square metres, I have grown green manure, added four tonnes of compost and 750kg of sheep manure…..  and still the soil looks to me like it needs organic matter. I recently added half a ton of crusher dust to add texture to the clay, and that’s on top of a couple of hundred kg of lime and dolomite.  Making soil is hard work and expensive……

20171026_175701

This is what well prepared soil can produce. I never managed to grow artichokes like this in Queensland….

In between classes, our ewes have lambed, and I have eight chicks in my new Sheraton Chicken Coop waiting to reach a size safe enough to release with the mature chickens. My new Indian Game Birds are also producing eggs, 20 of which are in Matt’s incubator, and another dozen under a broody hen in the top chicken coop.

I’m also currently selling about seven dozen eggs to a local cafe.  This farm will eventually feed us, but one has to be patient. Soil is no miracle.





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….





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.