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!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Water for Every Farm

Welcome to Richmond, New South Wales: the former “granary” of Sydney, and home of University of Western Sydney’s Hawkesbury College, the oldest agricultural college in the country. I spent the last three days here with 80 Australian farmers from around the country learning regenerative farming methods designed to increase a farm’s fertility through innovative water harvesting and topsoil building techniques.

The farmers discussed the effects of prolonged drought, unpredictable commodity markets, and the impact of industrial agriculture on their mid sized family farms. All too often farmers get boxed in to the downward spiral of increasing dependency on fertilizers and pesticides, watch their land become depleted, and become desperate to find a viable way to work themselves out of the hole of debt. In fact Australia, along with other countries like India, has a very high rate of farmer suicide in rural areas.

Anyhow, I digress, and this was a fairly hopeful bunch. Farmers in Australia are supported by Farm Ready, a progressive program supported by the national gov’t that subsidizes primary producers to attend workshops and trainings that build farmers’capacity to adapt to climate change and drought. We should have something like this in the 2012 Farm Bill, don’t you think?

Together the class dug into the nitty gritty of keyline design, an integrated farm planning methodology developed by PA Yeomans in the 1950s. Yeomans recognized that Australia’s salinated groundwater combined with highly undependable rainfall made farmers vulnerable to water shortage. He also recognized that farmers were losing topsoil at an alarming rate, and that soil, carbon, and water have a closely interconnected relationship - for one, the more carbon you have in the soil the more moisture it can retain. The guy was just a wee bit ahead of his time!

We visited several farms designed by Yeomans, and it was amazing to see pastoral irrigation systems that passively provide water to hundreds of acres through a simple system of dams, channels, locks, gravity, and keyline pattern plowing. Many elements of Yeomans design methods are brilliantly applicable to the dry California hills...I can't wait to come home and find some farmers to worth with!

In the meantime, I've made my way to Allyn River Farm, north of Sydney. I'm working with a farmer named Peter who is developing a 17 acre farm (he has a little tractor and a Yeoman's plow too!). Tomorrow we'll do some surveying and earth moving to dig a few swales...

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Why Australia?

Jan. 13

For starters, Australia is the homeland of permaculture – a design system that is based on mimicking the patterns of the natural world to create regenerative, closed loop systems (see the link for a multiplicity of definitions). Since the 1970’s, permaculture has been practiced and promoted throughout the country, spawning world renowned designers and educators, several of whom I’ve come to study with.

The two main folks I came to visit are designers Geoff Lawton and Darren Doherty, also known as the “Earth Surgeons.” While I partially cringe at the analogy with modern medicine (which is a miraculous but dis-integrated practice), you get the idea. These guys are master regenerative designers; among many other things, they design farms, land management systems, and move earth around to maximize the fertility of soil by increasing its capacity to hold on to water, thereby its ability to sustain both human and nonhuman life. Sounds amazing, eh? Stay tuned and I’ll be documenting more of their work.

I'll also be visiting a network of farms, ecovillages and agroforestry projects, regenerative projects that have been in process for decades. While the U.S. has only a few examples of such projects, Australia is replete with them. So here I am!

Tomorrow at dawn I head to Richmond, at the base of the Blue Mountains outside of Sydney, to attend a keyline design class with Darren. It will be taught in the hometown of PA Yeomans, a farmer and inventor and designer extraordinaire who founded the Keyline Design principles and predates permaculture by a few decades. This is realllly exciting!!! More news soon.

A Yeoman's plow in action in California - the plow's specially designed deep shank allows for subsurface water harvesting without turning over the topsoil

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Good Bush

Jan. 12

Good Bush, Inc. : Any guesses on what this company does for a living? Not what you might think, Americans, for a translator is often required for Australianese! (I didn’t understand 90 percent of what the old postmaster said to me today, just smiled and nodded like a good Yank)…

Anyhow, Good Bush is a bush regeneration company, that, well, restores the bush - the native shrubby woodland below a thin canopy of eucalyptus that is ubiquitous in Australia. I learned a bit about bush regeneration and other interesting tidbits as I helped out in Libby’s garden in suburban Turramurra.

Libby is a semi-retired psychotherapist and an organizer of the North Sydney permaculture, a network of over 500 people who live in the northern suburbs and get together to share skills and resources. Over the last two years she has transformed her backyard from a tidy flower garden into a luscious water harvesting food forest.

We were joined for the day by Peter, and man do I wish I had a picture! He was replete with the full khaki suit and outback hat, and as we worked away he shared his experience as a bush regenerator in the Australian wildlands.

He talked about last year’s fires in Victoria, which killed over 200 people and destroyed thousands of hectares of farmland and homes. Apparently Australia has had the hottest decade on record, and they can no longer count on the cool southern storms that used to come like clockwork in the summer, bringing the cool rains.

In addition to climate change, land management practices have altered dramatically as suburbia spreads into the nearby bush, clearing everything in it's path to make space for parking lots, shopping malls, and brick homes.

In the past, aboriginal people who relied on their local bioregion as a resource base managed the bush in order to ensure a large supply of the raw materials they relied on to survive. Though they didn’t farm the land in settlements, they managed the wild in a way that increased the population of the useful plants they relied upon.

Interestingly enough, they used controlled burns as a land management practice. This kept the amount of fuel in the forest at a minimum, and also kept the rainforest from encroaching upon the grassland savannah that they relied upon for hunting. While the natives visited the rainforest to seasonally collect food and medicine, it was the grassland that sustained the population of protein that they hunted.

Sound familiar, any Californians and M. Kat Andersen fans out there? Native people in Northern
California used a similar practice of burning in the oak savannah ecosystem (the NorCal equivalent of the bush), and for similar reasons. Vedddddy interesting...

Sydney on Foot

Jan. 11

Monday was my one free day to be a tourist before the whirlwind begins, so I set out on foot to check out the bay. Exploring Sydney on a hot, humid summer day, laden with sleep deprivation (almost three days with less than 3 hours sleep!) was quite an experience - kind of like walking underwater, in slow motion.

I spent most of the day exploring the Royal Botanical Gardens (see above, not my photo), a huge park that runs along the water downtown and spans from the iconic opera house all the way to charming Wooloomooloo (yes that name is for real!) where I stayed. I napped under an enormous carob tree and the trees buzzed with the cacophony of a richly diverse subtropical ecosystem. Between watching sacred ibis birds divebomb tourists and scantily clad Sydney-ites parade around the harbor, it was an entertaining day.

The city is amazingly oriented around the water, with the bay expanding its fingers in every direction. The water is buzzing with boats, and the culture of the harbor permeates everything – food, fashion, activities… (Jen you would absolutely love it here! The nautical vibe abounds!). Imagine the natural beauty of the SF Bay (almost) combined with a sort of San Diego beach vibe and a bit of LA sprawl. A pleasant enough combo.

I had a lovely evening with my hostel mate, Patrique, a French financial analyst who lives in Luxembourg and is in Oz backpacking for five months. We cruised the streets, discussed politics, drank a cold beer and ate sushi. Quiet and kind, he slowly revealed that aside from being a consultant to a large private bank in Luxembourg, he has a deep love for ... food and cooking. He hopes to open a restaurant and reconnect people to healthy, affordable food. ?!? So NOT what I would have expected when the chic banker politely introduced himself to me. I love being surprised by people.

Tomorrow I head to the outskirts of the city to stay with Libby, a woman who heads up the urban permaculture guild of north Sydney, to check out a few urban permaculture sites.

Topo Gazing and Roach Coach Commons

Jan. 9

The first leg of the plane ride was vastly entertaining, as I studied the topography of the Western U.S. unfold from 30,000 feet in the air.

Coming in to the Salt Lake City region, the topography of the mountains is deeply etched into the earth. It is easy to visualize the path of rainfall flowing out of the hills, draining the watershed, perfectly illustrating the “anatomy of a landscape” that P.A. Yeomans describes in his classic treatise Water for Every Farm. More on that later.

My first adventure was a six hour layover in LA, where I got scooped up from the airport and launched to my former stomping grounds of Venice by an old friend – Alex the cyclist, designer, activist, and all around creator of beautiful things.

He whisked me off to eat some tasty street food – apparently Los Angeles has finally found its “street food” identity. Chicago has the hot dog, new York has pizza, and LA has…foodie food trucks! This hopping Friday night found Abbot Kinney lined with literally dozens of food trucks each specializing in a particular food, from the Korean taco truck to the grilled cheese truck.

Southern California is notoriously obsessed with the automobile, and it was somehow fitting to see how the combo of food and vehicles brought people out – literally hundreds of people roamed the street looking for an inexpensive, tasty bite of trendy food around elaborately decorated food trucks.

How classic of LA to create a commons around an automobile.

After all, Los Angeles is the city that sold its extensive public transportation network of light rail public to automakers Ford and Chevy back in the 50s. They quickly filled in the underground tunnels and built the miles upon miles of freeway network that ubiquitously laces the region.

And though not sustainable or local or organic or any of the things one might ideally look for, it sure was tasty.

A Vietnamese pork BBQ sandwich and order of kimchi French fries later, my tummy was full of grease and satisfied for the last leg of my journey. Onwards, it’s 14 hours to Sydney!