Monday, March 18, 2019

A permaculture gathering

There is a young organization here in Wisconsin that is promoting perennial agriculture. Since I am trying to informally use a permaculture approach to our land, I decided to go see what others in the area are doing. The Savannah Institute hosted a gathering for permaculture approaches to food production couple months ago, so I signed up. ( I'm just now posting this!)

My first impression was, there are a lot of people here! Sometimes, when we chose an interest or specific path in life, it might seem eclectic or lonely, but the internet has enabled a lot of people to connect with their tribe(s). We are of course a tribal species. And let's face it, alternatives to conventional agriculture have been ascendant lately, so I thought the showing was good.

Second impression, since I knew no one there, was that there was a kind of "look" to the assemblage. Kind of farmer hipster look? Not suburban, but not full on bibs or clodhoppers? Or maybe I'm just out of touch on fashion for younger generations who also happen to be drawn to the land. Dunno.

I saw mostly young folks, but a few grey hairs sprinkled though the group. The oldsters were  pioneers, early adopters of sustainable food production methods. Good on them. The younger folks seemed to be very networked, and of course, full of enthusiasm, but short on resources to see their plans come to fruition very quickly.

Presentations covered orchard and fruit production, progress of hazelnuts as a new midwest crop, business plans for starting farmers, marketing, research reports, collective efforts, and so on.

Other thoughts on reflecting on the two days: There was a lot of enthusiasm there, both in the younger set, but also in the older folks, who were happy to see others taking up the quest. Farming is hard work, and trying to step away from conventional food production is even harder, but it felt like many there were "mission driven", to borrow a phrase.

The system as it works right now does not make it easy to acquire access to land, either conventional or alternative ways of growing food and stewarding the land. So these young folks have a tough row to hoe, so to speak. I wish them well, as they are the future.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

The road not taken

Just got back from a train trip from our home in Wisconsin to California and back. We took the route that goes through the Sierra Nevada mountains, and then on in to the bay area.

Sometimes we were next to the interstate, and sometimes, we were off on our own. Had a bit of trouble getting through the deep snow, ended up stopping in Reno, bussing the rest of the way.

Got me to thinking about the condition of the rail system, and what it could have been.

Its genesis could be said to have started with Dwight Eisenhower in 1919. He was part of a cross country Army convoy, to assess military mobility and status of the existing roads. It was a disaster, and the roads at the time were pretty bad, making quite an impression on him.

So, when he later was president during the cold war, the perceived need to easily evacuate cities and mobilize military forces prompted the creation of the Interstate Highway system. Signed in 1956, it took 35 years and almost $500,000,000,000 to build. ( that's with a B)

It created a lot of jobs and spurred economic growth, but what if he had championed another solution?

What if he had decided that the better choice was to upgrade the rail system, and overlay that on the nation's terrain instead of highways? After all, a lot of the right of ways were already secured.

It might have gone like this:
- a network of rails similar in arrangement to the interstate.
- upgraded rails, with a couple more tracks on each route, with beefed up bridges and rail-bed capacity.
-intermodal hubs to enable quick offload to trucking for the final miles to destinations.
-modified curves and bed stability to allow speeds up to 100MPH, maybe more.

And here would be the positive side effects if this option had been taken.
-more energy efficient freight hauling with large energy and money savings resulting.
-cheaper highway system, with much less semi truck traffic to tear it up, and lower load capacities, with cheaper construction and maintenance costs.
- a better infrastructure to piggy back passenger train travel, making for fewer car trips needed.
- probably less air travel, both for freight and for passenger travel.
- traffic in between towns would revitalize small towns, most of which now are bypassed by interstates.
A couple shots of our trip through the Sierras ( sorry for poor quality, overcast and through a train window)

Hard to tell scale, but these cuts through the drifts were done with giant snow blowers, and the cut is higher than my head in most places, and about ten feet in a few places.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

half way there

Just finished burning half of the firewood I split for this winter. Since it is toward the end of January, I think we'll make it to spring.
(This does not include my contingency cord of wood in the old shed) A cord of wood is a volume four feet by four feet by eight feet. ( 3.6 cubic meters)

So I wondered, on a long term sustainable basis, how many acres of woods does one need to heat their home in our climate?

We are at roughly N43 latitude, with pretty cold winters. ( It got down to -18F (-27C) yesterday, and they are forecasting -26F (-31C) for Tuesday night, but these are about as cold as it gets)

Tending outside chores was not too comfortable.

I did some googling at forestry and wood heating forums, and a rough average is 1/2 cord of wood per acre that can be harvested in perpetuity. There is obviously a wide range, depending on soil, rainfall and climate. Since we have been burning around three cords each winter, I need six acres (2.4 hectares) to heat our home.

In the rural areas of America, and here in Wisconsin, there are no natural gas pipelines, so most people heat with trucked in propane, though some regions heat with diesel fuel. And what about the cities, where by far the most people live? Natural gas is relatively cheap right now, but it will not last. There is a lot more to sustainable living than this but just the one example of home heating shows how precarious things could get.

I've been fortunate enough to afford buying land which has around  15 acres (6 hectares) of woods, so this home will be ok if fossil fuels fade, especially after I get more good quality trees planted. But what about everyone else? Even if they could afford the land, there is not enough for everyone.

This is an old photo from last fall. It is about 1.5 cords, or half of our annual firewood use. We currently have around eight inches of snow on the ground.

Friday, January 4, 2019

top predator job opening

In southwestern Wisconsin, as in some other areas of the U.S., the white tailed deer has made quite the comeback in the last few decades, and is in fact a problem for the ecological balance in many areas.

We killed all the wolves.

Deer are overeating their terrain, preventing any new trees from taking over as older trees die, and generally affecting the "normal" plant community distribution.

I'm not sure it was quite the intent, but now we need to step up and take on the job of being one of the predators with a specific role in the ongoing predator prey balance that goes on at all scales in a complex ecosystem.

The new twist here, is that because of the overcrowding, CWD ( chronic wasting disease, a form of prion infection similar to mad cow disease) had been spreading through the herds, as there is more deer to deer contact. Hunters are actually encouraged to take more than one deer in specific areas that the Department of Natural Resources has determined need thinning. We need more predators.

So this winter, I did my part and took a nice buck, which we will be eating soon. I'm not what you would call an avid hunter, or very good or dedicated at it. If the deer were not wandering around in our woods, I would not go elsewhere looking for a hunting site. In fact, I get bored sitting in a tree stand for hours in the winter cold, but had some good luck and took a good shot.

This is the deer after I field dressed it and drug it out of our woods.

I view deer hunting as one more part of land stewardship. The DNR does annual assessment of deer populations, and sets deer harvest regulations to try to keep a good balance for the ecosystem health. In my area this year, one deer hunting license permits you to harvest one buck and four does. That is a lot!

Monday, October 15, 2018

winding down the garden season

Almost done with the garden this year. Still to do: harvest Brussels sprouts, plant garlic for next year, and lay down composted cow manure in the rows to mellow over winter. We've had a very wet fall, with the area having record flooding. Lucky for us, we are not in the flood plain, so no damage here, but it's been hard to work in the  garden or stay on top of mowing.

We are trying one more ( always one more!) thing this fall. Because of the slope of our land, and easily eroded silt soil in some areas, we do not till the entire garden. We leave sod everywhere except right in the row. It looks funny, and the rhizome like grasses constantly move back in to the rows, but it's the best thing to do if we want to keep our soil. So we mow our garden all summer.

The new thing is taking the flattest fourth of our garden, tilling it all up, and planting winter wheat.
Luckily, the heaviest rains finished before the tilling, but we've still had some erosion. I hand broadcasted, and raked in as best I could, aiming for one inch ( 25mm) of cover.

The wheat has sprouted, and the stand is not too bad for how it was done, I just hope it was thick enough to crowd out weeds next spring.

Because the rest of the garden areas are too steep to risk full tillage, this is the only place where we'll attempt it, so it will make our rotation scheme a bit tricky for the next year. We have come to realize that we are planting a bit too much for the two of us, anyway, so a 3/4 garden will also be a good move.

We'll hopefully be grinding our own wheat next summer. I'll report on how it goes.

The last of the root crops: Beets, cabbage, rutabagas, and parsnips for the root cellar.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

one hen

one hen

Our oldest laying hens are now 3 and one half years old. Our oldest rooster is also. While we have lost a few to undetermined illness, the losses have been rare and isolated, so I haven't felt the need to intervene. Overall, they are doing fine.

The old rooster though, has had it rougher than the hens. He's lost a claw or two in fights, and lost some comb to winter freezing.  He has been a good protector, and is pretty deferential to us humans.When he was young, he would lead the flock all over the place, from barnyard to south lawn of the house. All in all, a good rooster.

A couple younger rosters have slowly worn him down with challenges, and so this year, we have a new top rooster, and the old guy has been relegated to the fringes. Frankly, we have a couple too many roosters. Ongoing negotiations on whether to eat surplus roosters have stalled out.

The new top rooster however, is a bit selfish when finding food, and doesn't seem to be the guardian that the old fellow was. He also just hangs near the barn, leaving all the crickets, grasshoppers, and other potential goodies a bit further afield go to waste.

And of course, chases off the old guy when he tries to hang out with the flock. So the old fellow still comes down by the house, finding plenty to eat, and crowing every once in a while to let us know he is still on the job.

Interestingly, there is one hen that still follows him each day on his foraging rounds. They are both Black Australorps, and one could engage in some anthropomorphism and almost think of them as one of the bird species that mate for life. But chickens do not do that.

So why does this one hen still leave all the rest of her twenty odd sisters, and follow this old fellow around the farm?

Chickens seem to us to be a confounding mix of smart and stupid. In general, they do learn, and develop patterns that work for them, but any new twist can really cause them to lose it. Maybe we aren't all that different??

My mind wanders while doing the daily farm chores, and one thing I've wondered this fall is, why that one hen?

What extra little brain activity, genetic variation,  or chance occurrence caused her and only her to stray from the flock and hang with the deposed leader? Is it more than pure statistical probability?

There is still so much we don't know about our own brain workings, that it seems a bit presumptuous to declare that this or that animal is not thinking, or that it is complex "instinct" we see and no more.

Intelligence, or sapience is obviously a spectrum, and a dog is clearly "smarter" than a chicken, but maybe intelligence is composed of many more variables and axes of progressive change than we currently envision?

I am sure tempted to think that that one hen is just smarter than all the others.

( not my chickens, just an image of black australorps from the internet)

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Mine, yours, and ours

Recently finished reading a post industrial civilization collapse novel. It was ok, pretty typical story arc, but it did get me to revisit the whole personal possession versus communal possession balance that all civilizations try to figure out.

We have generated many words describing the tragedy of the commons, the power of private property to motivate hard work and creation of wealth, and other aspects of how humans derive their livelihood, but one observation I'm mulling over is the fact that it may be more a case of the situation decides the best balance, and there is not as much choice in each culture than we might think.

Since we just happen to be living during a once in a planetary history event, it is really hard to keep perspective about what "normal" might mean in the long haul. The rugged individualism archetype of American culture may blind us to other possibilities that would be better suited to the predicted future.

When you think about it, the whole idea having a choice in creating a system with equitable opportunity, of a chance at a comfortable life, or picking a fulfilling career, is really only afforded to us because of the respite from hard daily toil to feed ourselves provided by fossil fuels. The proportion of our populace that is not working on the direct production of food and shelter is anomalously high because of the productivity multiplier that fossil fuels provide.

I think it is no coincidence that much of the progressive, or liberal change in the last ~200 years is majorly based on the fossil fuel energy we've tapped. All the newly available ability to do work helped end the (official, government sanctioned) era of slavery, and created so much wealth that there was enough to share with a greater portion of society. It also freed up many human resources to stop growing food and focus on inventing, innovating, researching, and otherwise leveraging the resources we have extracted. ( It also creates image consultants, assistant assistants to the undersecretary of diversity, and myriad other tertiary and quaternary roles to keep a complex, wealthy economy rolling).

It's a bit more complicated than that, and I've read many essays covering various aspects of the ascent of "Western" phenomenon, but I think the norms around personal property, shared commons, cooperative group behavior will all change as we descend the energy curve, not so much from considered choice, but by survival forces.

I'll once more share my observation of the nearby Amish community, where collective effort for large tasks, the balance of personal and community responsibility is much different than the rest of us. Amish do not pay in to Social Security, because they take care of their own aged and infirm.

They pay most other taxes, but do not participate in insurance, as they have internal means to share risk.

They are the rare ( possibly unique?) case where the personal/community balance has been intentionally chosen in spite of the conveniences afforded by cheap energy driven technology.

In a low energy future, will we all become a bit more Amish?