One of the biggest modern myths about agriculture is that organic farming is inherently sustainable. It can be, but it isn’t necessarily. After all, soil erosion from chemical-free tilled fields undermined the Roman Empire and other ancient societies around the world. Other agricultural myths hinder recognizing the potential to restore degraded soils to feed the world using fewer agrochemicals.
When I embarked on a six-month trip to visit farms around the world to research my forthcoming book, “Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life,” the innovative farmers I met showed me that regenerative farming practices can restore the world’s agricultural soils. In both the developed and developing worlds, these farmers rapidly rebuilt the fertility of their degraded soil, which then allowed them to maintain high yields using far less fertilizer and fewer pesticides.
Their experiences, and the results that I saw on their farms in North and South Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Ghana and Costa Rica, offer compelling evidence that the key to sustaining highly productive agriculture lies in rebuilding healthy, fertile soil. This journey also led me to question three pillars of conventional wisdom about today’s industrialized agrochemical agriculture: that it feeds the world, is a more efficient way to produce food and will be necessary to feed the future.
Myth 1: Large-scale agriculture feeds the world today
According to a recent U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, family farms produce over three-quarters of the world’s food. The FAO also estimates that almost three-quarters of all farms worldwide are smaller than one hectare – about 2.5 acres, or the size of a typical city block.
Only about 1 percent of Americans are farmers today. Yet most of the world’s farmers work the land to feed themselves and their families. So while conventional industrialized agriculture feeds the developed world, most of the world’s farmers work small family farms. A 2016 Environmental Working Group report found that almost 90 percent of U.S. agricultural exports went to developed countries with few hungry people.
Of course the world needs commercial agriculture, unless we all want to live on and work our own farms. But are large industrial farms really the best, let alone the only, way forward? This question leads us to a second myth.
Myth 2: Large farms are more efficient
Many high-volume industrial processes exhibit efficiencies at large scale that decrease inputs per unit of production. The more widgets you make, the more efficiently you can make each one. But agriculture is different. A 1989 National Research Council study concluded that “well-managed alternative farming systems nearly always use less synthetic chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics per unit of production than conventional farms.”
And while mechanization can provide cost and labor efficiencies on large farms, bigger farms do not necessarily produce more food. According to a 1992 agricultural census report, small, diversified farms produce more than twice as much food per acre than large farms do.
Even the World Bank endorses small farms as the way to increase agricultural output in developing nations where food security remains a pressing issue. While large farms excel at producing a lot of a particular crop – like corn or wheat – small diversified farms produce more food and more kinds of food per hectare overall.
Myth 3: Conventional farming is necessary to feed the world
We’ve all heard proponents of conventional agriculture claim that organic farming is a recipe for global starvation because it produces lower yields. The most extensive yield comparison to date, a 2015 meta-analysis of 115 studies, found that organic production averaged almost 20 percent less than conventionally grown crops, a finding similar to those of prior studies.
But the study went a step further, comparing crop yields on conventional farms to those on organic farms where cover crops were planted and crops were rotated to build soil health. These techniques shrank the yield gap to below 10 percent.
Consider too that about a quarter of all food produced worldwide is never eaten. Each year the United States alone throws out 133 billion pounds of food, more than enough to feed the nearly 50 million Americans who regularly face hunger. So even taken at face value, the oft-cited yield gap between conventional and organic farming is smaller than the amount of food we routinely throw away.
Building healthy soil
Conventional farming practices that degrade soil health undermine humanity’s ability to continue feeding everyone over the long run. Regenerative practices like those used on the farms and ranches I visited show that we can readily improve soil fertility on both large farms in the U.S. and on small subsistence farms in the tropics.
I no longer see debates about the future of agriculture as simply conventional versus organic. In my view, we’ve oversimplified the complexity of the land and underutilized the ingenuity of farmers. I now see adopting farming practices that build soil health as the key to a stable and resilient agriculture. And the farmers I visited had cracked this code, adapting no-till methods, cover cropping and complex rotations to their particular soil, environmental and socioeconomic conditions.
Whether they were organic or still used some fertilizers and pesticides, the farms I visited that adopted this transformational suite of practices all reported harvests that consistently matched or exceeded those from neighboring conventional farms after a short transition period. Another message was as simple as it was clear: Farmers who restored their soil used fewer inputs to produce higher yields, which translated into higher profits.
No matter how one looks at it, we can be certain that agriculture will soon face another revolution. For agriculture today runs on abundant, cheap oil for fuel and to make fertilizer – and our supply of cheap oil will not last forever. There are already enough people on the planet that we have less than a year’s supply of food for the global population on hand at any one time. This simple fact has critical implications for society.
So how do we speed the adoption of a more resilient agriculture? Creating demonstration farms would help, as would carrying out system-scale research to evaluate what works best to adapt specific practices to general principles in different settings.
We also need to reframe our agricultural policies and subsidies. It makes no sense to continue incentivizing conventional practices that degrade soil fertility. We must begin supporting and rewarding farmers who adopt regenerative practices.
Once we see through myths of modern agriculture, practices that build soil health become the lens through which to assess strategies for feeding us all over the long haul. Why am I so confident that regenerative farming practices can prove both productive and economical? The farmers I met showed me they already are.
It’s hard to believe I’m on my second apple harvest…. nor can I believe how different this year’s is from last. I guess having a record dry winter followed by a record wet one should be a clue, but I was never expecting a total loss from the Pink Lady crop…
Seeing Matt next door harvesting apples, and having this keen as mustard Sicilian wwoofer chomping at the bit to get things done here, I decided to drive the 4WD over to the ‘Far East’, where last year I had my very best apples, all borne out of total neglect. I only seem to go there once a year to pick apples!
Having the 4WD this year meant I was able to reverse down the steepest bit of land on the block all the way to the bottom, knowing I’d be able to drive back out again. I didn’t do this last year because I had zero confidence I would be able to get back up the hill with a 2WD ute, and as a result, those apples were never harvested…. it’s a long uphill slog when you’re carrying maybe 30 or 40kg of apples.
With all the winter rain we’ve had, the Blackberries have been doing overtime, and picking apples down there literally means drawing blood..! But the Fannies were just amazing, by far the best ones on the whole property.
Vincent (the wwoofer) who surprised me with his knowledge of horticultural issues was pondering why this is so, but we’ll never know I guess. It’s just amazing how these apples were almost not affected with black spot – a normal by product of wet conditions which absolutely everyone down here is complaining about – nor the dreaded coddling moths. Maybe it’s the soil, maybe it’s the better drainage from the steepness (though Matt reckons he has the same problems up the back of his block, and it’s even steeper) maybe it’s even the presence of so much Blackberry? Black spot is after all the result of monoculture….
Most Pink Lady trees didn’t even have apples on them, and those that did….. well look for yourself and see the total disaster…..
…. and the Pink Ladies was staggering…
The difference between the Geeveston Fannies
Because Matt’s crop is also badly affected – he said to me that one single black spot equals 100% infection – he’s decided to go into juice production for selling at markets. So we struck a deal. We would juice our apples for cider, in exchange for roughly half a bin of apples. Which is all I had to give him anyway! Black spot may affect the appearance of the apples for shops, but they are just as nice to eat, skin and all, especially when you know they’ve never been sprayed with poisons! It’s simply amazing how people will buy poisoned apples that look perfect, but not organic poison free imperfect apples that are just delicious…… and of course black spot is invisible in apple juice!
So the following weekend, we drove the 450kg of apples we’d collected next door, and started juicing
Fanny juice has this amazing golden glow to it, and it’s the nicest apple juice you’re ever likely to taste…… because you won’t find any anywhere in the shops for starters! It’s such a pity that in the fermenting process, all that colour disappears from the resulting cider.
Vincent and I went home with 120 litres of juice in fermenters, which should last me until next year’s harvest, as I’m still drinking last season’s cider. And very nice it has turned out too.
I met Daniel Zetah this past summer, while interning on a small-scale vegetable farm in northern Minnesota. He arrived one Thursday in a white, well-worn Toyota, together with his fiancée, Stephanie. They brought with them two coolers full of meat (which they raised and butchered themselves), a few baskets of vegetables, a live turkey and her poults, two dogs, some camping equipment, and an old friend from their eco-village days who they had fortuitously seen hitchhiking along the side of the road. Daniel had interned on the farm years ago, and he was now returning to be married.
I learned over the course of their visit that Daniel had spent years living in Tasmania, where he had been a “freegan” (someone that scavenges for free food to reduce their consumption of resources), and full-time environmental activist, then a permaculture student, and then a natural builder. I learned Daniel had spent nine months on The Sea Shepherd—an anti-whaling ship vessel that uses direct-action tactics to confront illegal whaling ships—and played a very active role in Occupy Wallstreet.
I learned, too, that after ten years of vegetarianism, Daniel had become a big-time carnivore. As I had recently given up meat in an effort to mitigate my environmental impact, this choice struck me as incongruous. We ended up having a conversation about ethical and environmental eating, which challenged, angered, intrigued, and enlightened me. Daniel and his wife returned to their once-farm in central Minnesota, to finish packing and preparing to move to Tasmania. I called him at home to get the whole story, and record it for this article.
Would you describe yourself as a long-time farmer and environmental activist?
Not at all. I used to be a redneck. I used to race cars and motorcycles and snowmobiles… I was a motorhead. I don’t want people to think I was always like this, because then they’re like “oh, they were just brought up that way by parents that…” it’s like no, no: I was raised by wolves.
I ate nothing but garbage growing up. Until I was probably in my early 20s I ate nothing but shit. Like, garbage, American, supermarket food. When I would go shopping, I would buy the cheapest food I could possibly find, I was literally after the cheapest calories I could possibly find at the supermarket, right up until my mid-20s.
When did that start to change?
Well, I met a girl that I ended up getting married to and she was vegetarian, and so I started eating a vegetarian diet. Which is still completely disconnected and completely clueless as to what you’re eating and where it’s from, it’s just you’re not eating meat. And that’s where I was at for probably a good eight years, until my early 30s.
Eating shit tons of grain, lots of dairy and cheese, but just no meat.
But then I met a guy in Tasmania that basically just said “Dude, what are you doing?” and kind of told me in a very blunt manner that what I was doing was really not conducive to what I was telling myself I wanted to do, which was actually care. He just told me the blunt truth, and I couldn’t refute what he was saying. It was tough… but, like…
A lot of people, when you tell them the truth, they get pissed off, because their egos can’t handle it, and so they want to dismiss what the person said, but I couldn’t do that in this situation. I was just clueless and when this guy gave me a clue, I couldn’t return to being clueless.
So at that point, I started looking at labels of everything that I was eating, it’s like whoa okay, so now I’ve got to worry about this and this and this… and it was a rabbit hole.
The more I learned about what was actually destructive the more I had to look for on labels and after a time I couldn’t actually shop at the supermarket anymore because there was nothing I could eat there in good conscience and then I started shopping at the food co-ops, and then I ended up as a two-year freegan –freeganism.
And I thought that’s my way out of guilt, my way of absolving my guilt from staying alive and eating food, is just eating food that’s getting thrown out, so I spent probably a good year and a half in Hobart, eating nothing but discarded food from restaurants and from market stall owners, and I got to know all of them by name, and they would just save me a set amount of food, whatever they had left over, and I actually had a rounds, so I never actually had to go to the dumpster, I just went straight to the source.
What were you doing?
I had quit my job, and I was a full-time environmental activist, because when I started going down this rabbit hole and learning more about peak oil and climate change I was like, ‘oh god’, here I was, just a couple years ago being completely clueless, and then this guy told me this stuff, and now I have the responsibility of the world on my shoulders, to tell everybody what I know, and I just thought at the time that it was literally a lack of awareness by people, and that if people like me would just get out and talk enough that it would all be okay, but I had no idea that it wasn’t a lack of information, it was just a lack of willingness to change. So that’s what I was doing, was just going around and speaking to school groups, speaking at different engagements… I was going to the state government of Tasmania and doing lobbying for energy policy reform, studying energy policy really really heavily, reading everything I could about climate change and human behavior, trying to figure out a way to engage with people that would allow them to absorb what I had to tell them. But yeah, that’s what I did for a year and a half.
And where does the Sea Shepherd fit into this?
I was living on my boat, when the Sea Shepherd pulled up and docked next to me. So I ended up going over there and volunteering. They invited me to come along, so I sold my boat, and ended up on that ship for about 9 or 10 months. So then I was a vegan all of the sudden, because the ship is a vegan ship. So I didn’t really have much choice. And I remember seeing the disconnect there—seeing people eating these soy based meat replacers, and veganase, and all this horrible packaged shit, that had all these ingredients that were grown in industrial agriculture, but they were eating them quite happily, knowing that there wasn’t any animal product in it. Their idea, their reasoning behind being vegan, was apparently to minimize animal suffering, but in my mind, they were actually causing more harm than they [would] if they were eating meat.
Well even if you’re eating CAFO meat, which– that’s horrible, don’t get me wrong, I think everyone should stop immediately eating packaged meat if they don’t know where it came from– but if you’re eating all of your calories through a vegan diet, let’s face it, most vegans I know anyway, and I’ve known many many many, most of their food is heavily processed, and most of those ingredients are coming from– I would say the lion’s share of those ingredients in a vegan diet—are soy based, and soy, like, growing soy beans is not an easy thing to do for the land. Most, I would say 99.9% of soy beans grown, are grown in a monoculture, and they rely on outside inputs for fertilizer, they rely on lots of toxic chemicals to be sprayed on, for insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, more and more they’re GMO in the seed. So it’s all kinds of bad.
So at least with meat, it’s more concentrated, at least the misery is more concentrated. And if you’re eating stuff that contains palm oil and high fructose corn syrup, or anything with corn or soy beans, anything that’s grown monoculturely in industrial agriculture. To me, the misery is just more spread out.
I mean, I grew up with cows, and I love cows more than most people I know, but why is their right to live more than the right for a whippoorwill to live or a snake to live or a mouse to live? Why is it that their rights trump the thousands of species that die in monocropped, industrial agricultural fields every year. Why does it trump all the species that have damn near gone extinct, or have gone extinct, since industrial agriculture has plowed up millions and millions and millions of acres of prairie in this country and destroyed their habit? Like why do their rights not exist?
I mean, and this is the same thing: I love whales, that’s why I was on that anti-whaling ship, but why does the whales right to exist supersede that of those other beings? Just because they’re cute and they’re big and they’re high profile? So we only like big animals? It just didn’t really compute with me.
What happened when you got off the Sea Shepherd?
After I got off the Sea Shepherd I ended up moving to a small village up in the mountains of Tasmania called Lorena, to do a permaculture course—my first permaculture course—and ended up getting offered a job by an awesome guy that was building straw bale houses in that valley, and I ended up staying there for a year and a half/ two years. That’s when I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which helped me realize the complexity of our food choices.
There is no magic bullet. There is no one way to eat that is going to be just devoid of guilt or devoid of the creation of suffering. There is no way to exist without killing something. And that concept I guess was missing for me, and it’s still missing for a lot of people. They believe, and they’re allowed to believe, due to their disconnect of not understanding how anything is grown… they just go to this magical place called the supermarket, and these magical trucks come in the middle of the night, and magical ferries put all this stuff on eye level shelves, where you just go in there and give this magical money to somebody, and they give you all the things you need to survive. That’s all really convenient, but it’s really disconnecting. And as long as you’re doing that, you can believe this myth that you can eat and survive without doing any harm to anybody else, and that myth was shattered when I read that book.
As a result, I decided that I needed to take more personal responsibility for the calories that were keeping me alive, and I decided that if I ever hit an animal with my car again, I would feel like I had to eat that animal, and the same day that I decided that, I hit a humongous wallaby, and I decided that I was going to bring it home, and go through the process of gutting it, skinning it, butchering it, cooking it, and eating it.
That was the first time I’d eaten meat in over 10 years.
And that event set you down the path towards raising livestock?
Well I guess that path led to learning more and more and more, and realizing, that while there is no magic solution for what a human being should eat, or what the perfect diet is, in terms of minimizing suffering of other beings, there is an ideal diet for each region and each situation, and where I chose to farm, which is south-central Minnesota… that bioregion, was a tall-grass prairie or an oak savanna biome, and that oak savanna biome evolved over hundreds of thousands of years from grazing animals.
Like, I can’t eat grass, I can’t break down cellulose, but I can eat meat. And the fact is that every time we plant some kind of a monocultural crop, we have to effectively destroy an intact ecosystem to do that, because it’s an annual. Annuals are only meant as a tool in nature to stabilize soil that has somehow become open to the elements, that’s their job, they come up right away, after a flood or a tree falls or whatever, and they stabilize that soil so it’s not going to erode, and then overtime the perennial plants will say “okay, we got this. Thanks for doing that, you did a good job, but we’re back now and we’re going to be an intact ecosystem of perennial plants and grazing animals.”
And so I realized that I wanted to gain as many of my calories from that perennial ecosystem as possible, and in this biome, I can do that quite easily with nuts, and with some vegetables that we grow non-monoculturally, wild edibles, wild greens, berries, nuts, fruit, and with meat!
I mean having one animal, that’s eaten nothing but grass all its life, and that grass is actually benefiting from it because that whole system evolved to have that animal in it, as part of it, so it’s putting its nutrients back into the system in the form of urine and feces, it’s eating and trampling the plants, and putting litter back in the soil, feeding the soil microorganisms, and it’s all just this beautiful cycle that annuals can’t match…
So by killing one animal that’s going to feed me literally hundreds of meals, versus eating soy beans that I know are just destructive, it just seemed to make so much more sense.
And I felt like as long as I was growing that food and preparing that food, and preserving that food, and getting at least 90-95% of our calories from our land, I’d felt more peace in just being than I have in years. Because I felt that burden lift.
Even when we’re clueless I think we have this burden, like this unconscious burden, of just being, because we know deep down somewhere in our core, that what we’re doing and what agriculture is doing, is just bad. And so when I broke that tie, and that reliance from annual agriculture like that, I just felt much more peaceful. Even though I had to shoot animals directly in the head and watch them die, that I knew and loved, I felt still that I was actually more peaceful because I was causing less death and suffering in this world than I had before.
Even more at peace than when you were a freegan?
When you’re a freegan, you’re removing yourself from all responsibility. Which is good, because… it’s one step to say “no” to bad. And that’s what vegans do. And that’s having some kind of an impact, on how many resources flow towards that bad system, of keeping animals in confined barns, standing in their own shit, but it’s not actually benefiting, or creating, what you want to see.
And what I want to see is systems that are going to mimic natural systems and be good for everything, not just the humans or the domesticated animals, but the wild species as well. I want to see food that is grown in those systems in harmony with an intact ecosystem. And if I stop eating CAFO meat, like I said, that’s better than bad, but good, on the other side, is actually supporting those small farmers that are doing agriculture in a completely different way.
And it’s the same thing with vegetarianism. It’s admirable that people care enough to want to do something different from most people, which is not to give a shit about what they consume, but it just doesn’t go far enough, or look at the bigger picture enough, to realize that they are also consuming things that are producing suffering in this world.
Like I used to eat so many grains, I can’t even tell you, I probably ate most of my calories through grains. And anyone that’s actually been to an annual grain farm, and watched what needs to happen for that to be grown, will have no other illusions that it’s harmless. Because it’s far from harmless. Especially, like, most grains are not organic, but even organic stuff.
I’ve traveled enough and seen enough things grown around the world to know that even organic food, most of it, 99% of it, is grown in monocultures. Go out to California and see the organic almond orchards that go for miles and miles and miles with not one other species in the mix, it’s just those trees, there’s no biodiversity at all, all of the native animals are gone, because all of their habitat is gone.
Like that is not sustainable, that is not ethical, it’s just bad. But because technically they’re not spraying toxins…
I look at organics kinda like I look at vegetarianism. Organic food is better than bad, but it’s still not good. And so if your goal to be better than bad, by all means, just buy organic food from people you’ve never met from the supermarket or co-op. Better than bad! But if you want to go a step further and actually try to create a system that’s going to feed people into perpetuity, and not destroy the ecosystem, you gotta do better than bad. You gotta do good.
So now you’re heading back to Tasmania, and you’ll be trying get your calories from an intact, local ecosystem?
I’ll be eating a lot of wallaby.
This interview was conducted August 1, 2015. Daniel and Stephanie are now kicking off their new life in Lorinna, Tasmania. You can learn more and connect with them online at newstoryfarm.com. And you can check out their new project at facebook.com/ResiliencySchool/.
Another inspirational guest post from my friend the potter, Steve Harrison…… Self sufficiency at its best.
The heat wave continues. It continues not to rain. The tomatoes continue to ripen and get sunburnt. The cucumbers continue to die off in the heat and the dry. The corn continues to shrivel and desiccate. Some plants handle the dry and the heat better than others. Clearly cucumbers have a strict upper limit past which they just die! No room to negotiate. They curl-up, shrivel and turn to dried paper over night. Watering twice a day didn’t help. Perhaps we might have to use shade cloth during the summer months over these sensitive plants in the future if our local climate continues to heat up and dry out like this. Global warming – what global warming? We have tried to prepare ourselves as well as we can. We have dug 4 dams over the years to collect all the ground water that passes our boundaries, some more effective than others. We usually have enough water in the dams to provide us with irrigation water for the gardens and orchards to get us through the summer heat.
There have been years when I had to pump all the remaining water in the lowest dams up to the higher ones to reduce the water surface area and reduce evaporation.
I disconnected the petrol powered fire-fighting pump from the pottery system and carried it into the dried out dam floor, then ran a temporary poly-pipe line up the dam wall and over to the next dam, concentrating all the water up there. I repeated this 3 times until all the water was concentrated from the other three dams into the smallest dam. This provided us with enough water to keep plants alive for another 2 to 3 weeks longer in the summer. On two occasions we have run out of water in the dams altogether, having pumped them all down to mud. We said good bye to all our fruit trees and let them wither. Fortunately for us it was only another few weeks before it rained again and nearly all the trees survived. Only the oldest and weakest died. As in life.
We collect all our own drinking water in water tanks, from the rain that falls on our roofs. There have been times when we got so low in reserves that we only had a few weeks of drinking water left, and as it was from the bottom of the last tank, it was getting a bit murky with sediment. We had to ask a group of potters that planned to visit, if they wouldn’t mind bringing their own drinking water with them. It is possible to buy drinking water and get it delivered in a tanker truck. We have never got that low that we have been forced to buy drinking water. We’ve always managed on our own. When we came here, with virtually no money, we bought some second hand water tanks that were very cheap because they were old, and old water tanks don’t like to be moved. These old rusty tin tanks slowly corroded away with age, however, as we settled in over the years and started to be able to save some money, we were able to replace these old water tanks with new ones, one at a time as they slowly turned to rust. I became quite a dab hand at getting inside the old tanks and either cementing them up to extend their life span, or later, using silicon rubber to fill small holes. Of course patching-up old water tanks rarely works, it just gives you a few more leaky years. Because as we all know, rust never sleeps.
Eventually, after 20 years we saved up enough to get a ‘cast-on-site’ concrete tank built by an itinerant tank maker who was passing through the area, several of us in the village put our names down. We all lived to regret it. He dudded all of us in different ways. He acquired the nick-name of ‘Tank-Boy’ from one of the locals. Tank-boy never worked when you were watching, he’d turn up, always late, and if I was home working in the kiln factory where I could see him, he’d make some excuse to leave again. I don’t know where he went, perhaps to other jobs, where there was no-one at home. He was completely shonkey. He worked in chaos with rubbish all around him. He had to borrow my spanners to tighten up the bolts on his metal form-work. On the day of the big concrete casting, there still wasn’t any steel reo mesh in the bottom of the tank. When I came home from working at the Art School all day, the tank was cast. I suspect that my tank has no reinforcing mesh in it’s base. When it was all finished and he’d gone with his cheque. I finally got to look inside to find that the concrete was so badly cast, that there was steel mesh showing on the inside surface. It would soon rust out and crack the tank apart if left, so I had to climb inside and re-render the holes and patches with a special concrete primer and then render the surface with cement. 2 days of work. The final insult came when I found that he hadn’t fitted the tap into the tank properly, just cemented it onto the outside. As soon as the tank started to fill up with rain water, the tap just “popped” off. I had to get inside again and chisel out a proper hole through the wall of the tank and then fit a 2″ threaded brass pipe through the wall with flanges and sealant on both ends and screw it up tight. Then I fitted my own 2″ tap to the outlet. This part is the only part of the tank that is well done and is still working well 20 years later. The concrete on the other hand is full of cracks and ‘weep’ lines. The concrete roof in particular is in shocking state of cracks.
My friend Dave who runs a truck with a ‘Palfinger’ hydraulic crane and moves all my kilns for me, plus other jobs like stretching orchard netting over garden frames, had a tank built by the same guy, a year or so later, west of Mittagong. Dave came home to find the plastic down pipes missing from the guttering on his shed. Tank boy had sawn them off to make support pillars inside the tank that he was casting for Dave. We compared notes and it turned out to be the very same guy. Quite a strange man.
The time for having fun and making pots is over for a while now. I have to find some paying work, so it’s back into the factory/toy-shop to make some kilns to earn some money.
One kiln finished and ready to deliver with another being welded prior to galvanising.
As it’s February now we are approaching the end of Summer. Everything is ripening and we are very busy in the kitchen in the evenings. The kitchen echoes to the sound of the fermenter ‘blurping’ away as it converts our grapes into wine. I took the afternoon off from kiln building and stainless steel sheet-metal work to harvest half of our shiraz crop. This year the vintage is quite early. In past years the shiraz was vintaged in March, but with global warming, everything has moved forward a month, more or less in line with all our other fruit crops. Since the early seventies when we first moved here ripening has occurred earlier and earlier, and it snows less and less. It hasn’t snowed here in Balmoral for years now and it must be at least 5 years since the Hume Highway was blocked by a sudden snow fall. The shiraz aren’t fully ripe yet, not as ripe as I’d like them to be, but the black birds, wattle birds and the friar birds have found them and more importantly, have found that they can just squeeze through the 65mm hex mesh ‘chook’ wire that encloses the garden. We will need to re-wire the garden completely with smaller mesh, if we are to keep them out in the future. I only want the little insect eating birds in the garden, not the larger fruit eaters. I suppose that we are lucky that it has taken the birds 15 years to work out that they can get into the garden and help themselves. I plan to re-clad the garden walls with 30 mm hex mesh in the future, if fact, as soon as I have the time and money. I already have a 50 metre roll of white plastic orchard netting left over in the shed from when we netted the vineyard 20 years ago. This is enough to cover the top. I have kept it wrapped up in black plastic up in the barn loft, so that it wouldn’t deteriorate from ultraviolet exposure.
If only I’d known all this when I started! I could have saved myself a lot of time, effort, loss, angst and money. In my experience of life. I start out knowing nothing and learn as I go, usually by observation and then by asking questions. Most people respond well to genuine enquiries, but there are a few stupid people who think that everyone should know what they already know and respond in a Neanderthal sort of way. I can do without them. I don’t think that they know as much as they think. They say that they don’t suffer fools gladly, but all of us are fools until we get ourselves educated and as there is always something to learn, I’m a perpetual fool. Even experts are fools in another field. There was one particular shop keeper in Bowral that I’m thinking of! The Neanderthals prove themselves redundant in the long run. Mademoiselle Fifi and I have learnt to live our lives, by living it, on the job as it were, from trial and error – A lot of error actually, but we persist, and good-will always shines through and it’s been mostly fun. A complex mixture of hard work, fun and the emotional rewards and comforts of that hard work!
This year we are experimenting with whole bunch maceration for the shiraz vintage. I have picked the grapes a little early, before the birds eat them all. They could be sweeter, but never mind. In a perfect world I’d wait another week or possibly two, but the wildlife won’t allow that. I have two fermenters working. One with and one with-out French and American, lightly toasted oak shavings in the must. I’m trying whole bunch maceration again this year, I have enjoyed a few very nice wines made by this method, that some of my friends and associates have either made themselves or given to me as presents. The product can be quite tannic from the extended close infusion of the tannins from the skins, pips and stalks in the vat. This is not a bad thing. But takes time to soften out. Just about all red wines. Well, actually, all quality red wines, are made by extended contact with the grape skins. The better wine makers who want the best results for their wines also perform a ritual, called ‘plunging the cap’. No, it’s not a ritual humiliation performed on youngsters in british private schools. It’s a way of getting the maximum contact with the grape skins with the fermenting juice. All the colour in red grapes is in the skins. The juice is clear, hence champagne, a white wine, being made from red Pinot noir grapes as well as chardonnay grapes.
With prolonged contact of the skins and sugars, the yeast slowly converts the sugars in the juice to alcohol. The alcohol is the active ingredient that dissolves the anthocyanins that produce the red colour. I’ve read that the red is good for me. I certainly hope so. I like to think so, just as I like to drink it. I won’t know for another year or so whether this experiment has worked well enough or not. It has become quite trendy recently to ferment wines on wild yeasts. I have decided that there is enough at risk in making our years harvest of shiraz grapes into wine without adding the uncertainty of possibly loosing it all to a rogue wild yeast. So I have taken the precaution of using a known, reliable, cultivated red wine, shiraz, yeast.
After all these last few weeks of dry heat, it has finally rained. We have 32 mm. of slow soaking rain and it is really nice. All the plants are responding well and shooting out new growth.
Mmselle Fifi is out and about in the garden with her baskets harvesting whatever is ready to be eaten on the day, any excess is cooked, concentrated and otherwise preserved in some way for later use.
Yesterday, she was out harvesting some of the red ‘isabella’ grapes. Perfect for making dark grape juice. So far she has pasteurised and preserved 14 litres of the delicious stuff, so fruity, fragrant and sweet. A perfect drink for a hot summers day or any time really. So far she is about half way through the crop. A crop that we otherwise wouldn’t have got if we hadn’t put it entirely under netting a month or two ago.