Thursday, March 11, 2010

Chronic Blogger Syndrome

I confess; I’ve displayed the symptoms of a typical blogger.

For the first few weeks I eagerly and energetically documented and shared my observations. I marveled at the ordinary, and shared the minutia of my journey. Slowly the day between posts turned into days, then weeks, and obviously my dedication has begun to wane...

Though not for lack of interest! The last several weeks have been so rich and full I’ve scarcely been able to process my own thoughts, let alone translate them in to a legible form.

Since I last posted 20 days ago I have visited six projects in three different states, and traveled approximately 2,556 kilometers. On a whim I temporarily postponed my trip to Tasmania and took a not-so-brief detour…

Here is a very brief summary.

The adventure began with visiting a few farms outside of Melbourne with friends Matty of Dalpura Farm, and Canadian permaculturists Michelle and Rob Avis.

The first stop was a visit to keyline-designed Taranaki Farm, an inspiring 400-acre cattle ranch that is slowly being transitioned from a conventional cattle ranch to a cell grazed, keyline designed example of regenerative agriculture. (Taranaki is one of the hosts of the Regenerative Agriculture workshop series coming up this year, again sponsored by the Australian government's Farm Ready program).

Owner Ben Falloon took us around and showed us the farm.

The brilliant design includes a dam that uses the “road as a roof,” catching water off cleverly placed and graded roads; forest strips that provide wildlife habitat, windbreaks, and perennial cattle forage for the dry season; and a rotating pasture layout that will surely bring regeneration to this brittle piece of land in dry Victoria.

We also got to see the world-renowned compost tea injecting keyline plow that Ben designed and built; you can read about it on Ben's great blog.

Nice work, Ben Falloon and Darren Doherty! I look forward to seeing how this place evolves.

Then came a trip to nearby Daylesford Organics, a family run organic farm with the best looking farmer I’ve ever seen…

Meet Bingo, the canine chicken protector who lovingly protects his flock from predators like foxes. Farmers Brendan and Kate utilizes the chickens as portable tillers and fertilizers, a la Joel Salatin (my new American farm hero). Three flocks of chooks are rotated around the farm in chicken tractors, scratching up finished garden beds and leaving behind their homemade fertilizer. In the meantime these little tillers and fertilizers generate over $20,000 year for the farm by laying around 12 dozen eggs a day. Not bad.

From Daylesford we packed up again. On the way out we hit a cafe and market to grab a cappuccino for the road, and were tickled to see Brendan and Kate's "local low mileage organic beans" lovingly displayed at the counter.

Happily fueled with caffeine, we began the journey across the dry dusty badlands of Southern Australia, a severely degraded, salinated, overgrazed, hot, dry landscape…

….only to arrive at an oasis amidst the desolation.

Welcome to the Food Forest, a family run permaculture farm that doesn’t just survive but actually thrives on 10-12” of rainfall a year.

What an inspiring place!

The Food Forest is by far the most grounded, balanced, abundant demonstration farm I’ve ever been, and they do it in the most harsh environment imaginable. A few days of “work” included winemaking, ciderpressing, fig preserving, apple harvesting – in short, the harvesting, processing, and consumption of delicious food.

I will definitely be writing more about this incredible place soon. In the meantime, check out their educational YouTube channel.

From South Australia it was a few days back on the road, happily processing every detail of the journey with Rob and Michelle, and pondering geeky permaculture topics like the question of appropriate scale, and debating various ways to build soil in drylands.

After dropping off several enormous boxes of Food Forest pistachio and carob at David Holmgren’s 5-acre homestead, Melliodora, we pressed on to Melbourne to visit CERES, an urban environmental education and community center.

While this map doesn't begin to do justice to the vibrancy of the place, it gives you a sense of just how much is going on there smack in the middle of they city. Amazing.

Then it was off to Tasmania, which brings us to the present! I’ve been surveying and keyline plowing and researching and designing a temperate food forest…

And I did all of that traveling with no internet (hence the lack of blogging) – oh yeah, and no tent. I realized at the first campground that while packing my travel bag I threw in the rainfly and not my tent (oops). So I slept in some interesting places, including the top of a picnic table where I got surrounded by fierce Australian possums in the middle of the night.

Anyhow…more on all of the above in the very near future.

I swear.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Lessons from Dalpura

I've spent the last week at Dalpura Farm, south of Melbourne, learning about silviculture - the design and management of forest systems with a goal of harvesting forest products for human use.

I am fascinated by the notion of forests as a resource base - forests play a crucial role in maintaining biodiversity, nutrients, and stability in an ecosystem. If managed carefully, they can also be a sustainable source of food, medicine, timber, fuel, forage for animals...the list of their functions goes on!

The thrilling part is that we as human beings can interact with and even enhance these forests, either by designing agroforestry systems (selecting useful species and maintaining them in a farm environment) or managing existing wild forests (by thinning, pruning, and clearing).

This curiosity led me to visit some well-known examples of agroforestry - farms that incorporate forests in to their production systems.

At Dalpura, I had the pleasure of working alongside two wonderful characters.

On the left meet David Griffiths of Geometree, a farm planner and tree specialist, who leads the forestry aspect of Dalpura. And on the right, sidekick Matthew "Matty" Fahey, a woodworker of Wood Mage, and an arborist and farmer who lives at and manages the complex workings of Dalpura Farm.

We spent the week thinning a block of eucalypt and acacia trees planted for timber; it's been a fascinating visit. Here are a few things I've learned.

1) Eucalyptus can be beautiful!

Those of us from California are accustomed to turning our noses down at the weedy "blue gums" that grow like mad monocultures on our hills. But if managed appropriately in the right environment, eucalypts grow straight and true, and can produce beautiful, rot resistant hardwood used for furniture, fencing, and framing in less than 30 years.

This is a kitchen that Matty built with Red Ironbark (eucalyptus tricarpa). Beautiful! Who'd a thunk?

2) Select species carefully - you can not force a tree to grow straight by pruning.

Just because you can harvest beautiful timber from a tree in the wild does not mean that it will translate well to a farm crop.

For example, while the red ironbark is a beautiful timber, generally it is not a straight-growing species. In the wild, you might be able to harvest 1 out of every 500 trees for straight timber. And you can not prune a tree to force it to grow straight. So if you plant a block of red ironbark on a farm, you will still probably only get 1 in 500 to grow straight, which is not a good success rate for a farm crop!

Here's what's left at Dalpura of the red ironbark experimental plot.

A clearcut agroforestry plot is a pretty depressing sight.

3) Forestry is not necessarily regenerative.

Planting trees is generally thought of as a good thing, a no brainer way to improve any piece of land. But just because you plant trees does not mean you are building soil, or increasing the fertility of the land. In fact, at one of the farms in the area that I visited, the erosion in the agroforestry plot was deplorable.

Here's a picture of me (I shouldn't be smiling! it's not funny!) acting as a measuring stick against the sunken piece of land under a forest at the
Bambra Agroforestry Farm
. The soil was totally bare, with no ground cover – not at all what you would see in a healthy forest system. The lack of topsoil has caused massive erosion in multiple places on the forest floor.

In addition, often vast swaths of native forests are chopped down to plant timber monocultures.

In this photo you can see a monocrop of pinus radiata which is widely used as a framing timber in Australian building industry. Diverse and healthy forests must be cleared to make way for this monocrop. There's nothing regenerative about that.

4) Scale matters.

In huge monocultures, agroforestry can be destructive. But small forest systems designed into farms can provide timber and firewood for farm use, lend shelter and windbreaks for livestock , all while creativing habitat for native birds and wildlife.

We visited the sheep farm of the founder of the
Otway Agroforestry Network, which exists to promote agroforestry to farmers to see a great example of a well-functioning system.

This forest strip was healthy and well-maintained. The trees were pruned straight so they would be valuable as timber, and the sheep happily flocked towards the protection the trees provided.

I'm eager to experiment with incorporating timber systems into farmland back home, applying these general lessons to a different climate with different species. Should be a fun challenge!

This weekend I'm heading to the Food Forest in South Australia with friends Michelle and Rob from Canada, then back to Melbourne for a 10 hour ferry ride to Tasmania! I head on to Fairweather Farm to help friend Trevor and family renovate their organic tomato farm in to a showcase of water harvesting, soil building, polycultural, regenerative agriculture.

More soon!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Closing the Loop

In a world where less than 1% of the planet’s fresh water is available for human consumption, it is curious to notice how people in overdeveloped countries choose to utilize precious water resources.

I often wonder what our grandchildren’s children will think of industrialized cultures; it is hope that inspires me to imagine them laughing. “Can you believe it?” they’ll say, holding their bellies and bursting with amusement at the ridiculousness of their elders. “They used our precious fresh water to flush their SHIT away!”

Over 884 million people globally lack access to safe water supplies – that is approximately one in eight people living on the planet whose water has been contaminated, generally by human excrement. In fact, over 5,000 people die worldwide everyday from drinking or bathing in water containing contaminants.
[i] And we in the U.S. use over 5 million gallons daily just flushing away our waste.

From a health and a resource perspective, it’s hard to imagine a more inefficient system than a water flushing toilet. It contaminates water, and wastes our “waste.”

Anyhow, I digress. This blog posting was inspired by thechore of the day at the Permaculture Research Institute.

It was time to empty the composting toilet system, and I eagerly participated, curious to see how human “waste” could be utilized as a resource – quite a feat for our fecophobic world.

Here’s a quick rundown on how the composting toilet works.

The composting toilet system at the farm is simple; a normal looking bathroom, with two normal looking toilets. Just like any toilet, you pull your pants down, and empty your delivery into the hole that is attached to a chamber below.

(In industrialized cultures, that’s where your relationship with your poo ends – instead of taking responsibility for your shit, you simply flip a button and send it downstream, confident that someone else will take care of it, somewhere…).

Once the delivery is executed (whether yellow or brown), you add a scoop or two of sawdust, a carbon-based material that aids the decomposition process and helps balance out the nitrogen so that (smelly) ammonia isn’t released.

And people keep pooing away in to the chamber below, until it’s full. Then it sits for a few weeks, and meanwhile you switch to using the other toilet. If used properly with the right amount of carbon added, it won’t smell and won’t attract flies.

Simple as that.

When we went in yesterday to empty the chamber, my curiosity had mingled with a bit of dread. But I was determined; I had my gloves on and my nose plugged, prepared to feel the morning’s oatmeal churn…

Alas! I was shocked (dare I say thrilled?) to see that in less than four weeks, the excrement of fourty people into a chamber had turned into a rich, humus-looking, stinkless mass - unidentifiable as human waste.

(Fellow toilet cleaner Dave, pictured below, agrees).

Granted, it had not yet heated up to the process of destroying all of the potentially dangerous pathogens found in human excrement. That requires a heat of 50-55 degrees Celsius for several hours, easy to accomplish in any hot compost pile. Once the humanure has been decontaminated through a composting process, it is essentially a carbon sponge that can act as a substrate to grow beneficial microorganisms for the soil – a valuable resource for any backyard garden.

Though I am generally in favor of decentralized systems, where we can personally observe how our actions impact our local environment, I’m not necessarily saying that everyone must process their own waste on a household scale.

In fact, there are plenty of examples of sane ways to process effluent on a local scale, such as the
Ecological Wastewater Treatment Plant in Arcata, California. The facility utilizes the microorganisms on a plant's roots to break down pollutants in the water.

Or the Living Machine concept developed by
John Todd which also filters sewage solids out of water using plants and their associated bacteria.

Marin County (home sweet home!) is even in the process of piloting a very progressive compost toilet program.

These are all potential models for a semi-centralized, but ecologically sound, waste processing system.

Nonetheless, it’s pretty empowering to know that we can safely and effectively process our own waste, conserve our water for more precious uses, and convert “waste” from a problem to a solution.

And to pick up from my last posting...I feel one step closer to my steak dinner now that I know my poo fertilized the soil that grew the grass that Red ate!

Team Humanure: Mission Accomplished!


For more titillating reading on the topic, you can download (for free!) the entire PDF of the Humanure Handbook. A good book to have on hand in the bathroom. :)

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Meet Red


This is Red.


This is Red.


This is Red.

This is Red’s mama, Poppy.

And his papa, Billy.


And this is Red, a one year old bull, on the afternoon of his transformation - from living, breathing being to food on our plate.

He spent his last day with the goats in the home pasture, while the rest of the herd was sent out to pasture so they would not be traumatized by witnessing his death.

Red was slaughtered in the loving hands of his caretaker and master; it was not very dramatic. He was roped in the pasture, and after a quick prayer quickly sliced through the adam’s apple, and held down by three (strong) men while his muscles spasmed. He bled to death. It was quick and painless, and Red was surrounded by people who knew him in life and honored the passing of his spirit.

We spent several hours cutting up the carcass into separate cuts of meat. It was amazing to see a T-bone, top side, and flank steak miraculously peel away from the carcass under the hands of an experienced butcher. Everything was cut up, labeled, and packaged to freeze, from the liver to the tongue to the legs - if not for human consumption, then for the dogs (they eat well around here).

When we finished, all that was left were the entrails, which were wheelbarrowed over to the chicken tractor. Three days later, Red’s guts are now full of flies and maggots which the chickens are quickly consuming. While the stench of rotting guts is unbearable (if you happen to walk past that section of the farm), it is comforting to know that every last inch of Red is being put to use, or recycled back in to the system. Not a cell of his body is "waste."

Witnessing little Red’s slaughter and butchering was powerful, especially after having taken care of him for a few days, since my farm duties include taking the cows out to pasture each day.

But the moment when I suddenly felt overcome with emotion occurred around midnight after the slaughter was cleaned up, and our bellies were full of the most delicious steak I have ever had.

Geoff and I took Bluey (the cattle dog) out to the field, and we brought back the herd of nine cows, one less than usual. I was nervous that they would smell the death on us, but they were responsive and docile, peacefully walking back to the paddock where they are kept at night. They passed the site of the slaughter, and kept plodding on.

I breathed a sigh of relief.

The herd had almost reached the shoot to the home paddock, and then as if on cue, all nine of them pivoted simultaneously, and slowly turned around to stare at the site of the slaughter a few hundred meters away. Billy the bull, patriarch, and Red’s papa, began to wail.

And then I witnessed a site I never imagined – a herd of cows mourning. They lined up single file and walked to the site of the slaughter, circled around, and moaned and brayed.

Never have I felt more connected to, and thankful for, the food that I eat. As I stood there in the darkness, quiet and in awe at the herd's expression of loss, I was overcome with gratitude for the cow that filled my belly, the grass that fed the cow, the soil that fed the grass, the microbes that fed the soil…

Zaytuna Farm

Welcome to Zaytuna Farm, home of Geoff and Nadia Lawton and the Permaculture Research Institute in a subtropical village known as The Channons, New South Wales.

In Arabic, Zaytuna means olive; the farm is named after Al Zaytuna Mosque, a famous mosque in Tunis where many Moslem scholars have been trained.. Geoff and Nadia are practicing Moslems, and the farm is run with a strict set of rules that adhere to their religion.

Since I arrived almost a week ago, I have joined a crew of about 20 volunteers, students, and interns who help maintain the farm and education center. We hail from all corners of the globe: Mexico, Holland, Jordan, Canada, Japan, the U.S., France, Saudi Arabia, New Zealand, Australia are all represented.

The place hums with activity, community, and hard work.

On any given day I could be:

Planting, mulching, weeding, watering or harvesting the main crop.

Propagating a huge selection of trees for agroforestry.
Laying down irrigation.

Chopping and dropping in the food forest, a complex human-designed, perennial food producing system that mimics a natural forest.

Feeding or harvesting the products (milk, eggs, meat) of chickens, goats, and cows.

Building infrastructure, such as tent platforms, a straw bale building, or a water harvesting swale.

Life is busy on the farm. Some of us get started at 5:30 am with Geoff, and there is learning to be had until around 10 pm when we wind down and head to bed.

I won't post many pictures because the internet access is limited. And sorry the blog has slowed down as I've settled in to life on the farm!

More news soon…forthcoming postings on titillating subjects such as what cows eat for breakfast, fascinating realizations about California weeds, and my top ten favorite Ozzie words.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Bubble Bubble, Toil and Trouble!

My idea of heaven is making potions - mixing plant ingredients together to make healing elixirs is one of my favorite activities.

Today we made a few fertility potions - for soil fertily, that is.

Over the last two days I pruned part of the orchard and food forest, mowed the alfalfa field (YES!!! tractors are soooooo fun), and gathered all of the materials to make a beautiful pile o' compost.

Check out the ingredients of our monster compost pile, all harvested as waste and surplus from the farm: arrowroot, banana stalk, alfalfa, wood chips, sugar cane, leftover mashed grain from beer brewing, chicken bedding, cow manure, tagasaste, and pigeon pea.

We chipped the big stuff and made a pile about a meter and a half wide and tall... the photo doesn't do it justice, it was massive!

The afternoon saw the debut of Peter's new compost tea machine, a system designed by Australian soil biologist Paul Taylor. We placed an air pump on top of a 55 gallon drum, with a "tea bag" in the middle that contained 12 cups of rich compost. Fill the drum with water and a cup each of liquid kelp, fish emulsion, and humic acid, flip on the pump to aerate it for 24 hours...and voila! An extremely nutritious boost for the soil.

Tomorrow we'll pull the trailer with this rig out, attach a pump and a hose to the bottom, and use the tea as a foliar spray and soil amendment throughout the farm.

Here's a link to some wonderful how-to information on compost tea and liquid fertilizers from Mark Krawczyk, a friend and designer in Vermont. He recommends you can also use potions of nettle, comfrey, and horse tail as additives to your fertilizer to boost soil health. These mineral rich plants are also hugely medicinal in the human body as well.

Coincidence? I think not!

Colonizing Rock Dust

Lantana (lantana camara) is an extremely invasive plant in Australia that takes over vast areas and decreases biodiversity, stifling out other forms of life.

While it is seen by many as a highly noxious weed, apparently it has one hugely rewarding quality - its roots are a universal host of mycorrhizal fungi, which form a hugely symbiotic relationship between a plant's roots and the fungus. The mycorrhiza in the soil provide the fungus with relatively constant and direct access to carbohydrates supplied by the plant, and in exchange the fungus makes minerals and nutrients available to the plant's roots. Mycorrhizal fungi are a hugely important component of any healthy soil, especially in forests, but are often missing from our depleted soils.

According to Darren Doherty, you can encourage the growth of fungus in rock dust, so today I did a bit of an experiment. I screened out some rock dust from a pile of gravel, poured it into a plastic bottle, wet it down, put holes in it, and buried it top down underneath a stand of lantana.

In about 3 months, Peter will pull the bottle out, add water to it, and, and spray it in his food forest to increase the funghal activity there...

For more interesting reading on soil health, check out the Soil Doctor and the work of Dr. Elaine Ingham and the Soil Food Web info. Good stuff!

OK, time to head north to Robyn Francis's Djanbung Gardens in Nimbin to work on her place for a few days before a design course...stay tuned for the happenings on her small 5 acre farm!