Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 review

End of the year and progress continues slowly on our farm. We put up a lot of food, traded for a lot more, and are in pretty good shape for the winter, but am already thinking about enhancing things as the seasons progress. Will hopefully get a prototype water collection system off the barn set up this year, with greater capacity once I get the basics worked out. Right now, I've got two IBCs and three rain barrels, so there is plenty more capacity that could be added.

Other major steps in the coming year are continued terracing of the hilly yard with conversion to garden strips and completion of the garden deer fencing and gates.

I will start closing in a chicken coop area in our pole barn in February, and getting ready for our first batch of chickens. I am trying to apply Harvey Ussery's principals, even though it is not a standalone structure. Have started the material list, and will begin buying stuff in January. (soon!)

We'll probably order our chicks in April. We plan to get some dual purpose breed, maybe black Australorps, something like that, and get straight run. The cockerels will end up in the freezer, some of the hens we'll keep for eggs.

Here is a shot of the electrical work coming along in the barn. I had decided to frame, insulate and drywall the workshop with electrical installation afterwards, running it all in EMT. I now have energized circuits in the workshop, and am starting the runs to the rest of the barn. Bending EMT or conduit requires a bit of math and geometry, so I'm taking it slowly, trying to avoid creating scrap.

I'm putting lots of outlets in the workshop. The lights are cheap fluorescents I already have from using to start seeds in the spring. I've simply got them hanging and plugged in, so I can lower or move to use for seed starting once more instead of buying all new lights. All have their own pull cord, so I can have on only as many as needed, saving electricity.

On other fronts, we made our first batch of cheese, a quick mozzarella using citric acid and rennet instead of a culture. It was just OK, but we will get better. is a great source for homesteaders who want to get supplies at small scale quantities. We found them very helpful for us first timers.

I am already signed up to take a wild food foraging class this spring, and in this coming year we hope to sign up for other classes being offered by the Driftless Folk School, which has just opened up a permanent campus very near us.

Right now, as the year ends, we are getting the seed catalogues from everyone, so it won't be long before we start garden plotting and rotation layout to get our seed orders roughed out.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Touring the San Joaquin Valley by accident

Just recently got back from a long car trip to California to visit our son. Shot our carbon footprint stats all to hell, but that is another discussion. We car camped, stayed with friends, and did a combination of knocking of the miles on interstates, and getting on to state roads to get closer to the real America. Yeah, I know, happy motoring a la Kunstler, but we want to stay connected to our son as best we can across the miles. Not sure how long people will be able to do this, but for now, we can.

Saw some of the typical amazing scenery that can't be captured in snapshots, saw endless miles of uninhabitable dry terrain, and saw much of the industrial but unsustainable ag that feeds us all.

Coming through the Tehachapi pass, we of course saw all the various wind turbines, from the latest large designs, to some of the original clunky tax shelters. Due to a very old road atlas, and refusal to use GPS, we ended up coming out of the hills on a state road that we had no idea where it would lead. We never did find the campground we were hunting. So what ended up happening was we came through the town of Arvin, down at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, America's salad bowl and supplier of year round fruits and veggies.

We have all been hearing for months now about the severe, once in a century ( or epoch?)  drought hitting California, so it was a bit surprising to see what appeared to be business as usual. Mile after mile of fruit trees, nut trees, grape vines, vegetable fields, all irrigated. There were even CAFO dairy operations sprinkled in to the mix, with semi loads of big bale hay trucked in and stacked ~20' high. Not sure were the manure was going or how it was handled. I have to say, it was all impressive and looked well run and organized.

The town of Arvin is ~90% Hispanic, ~30% under the poverty line, and is of course where those who farm the land live. Leaving town, we saw the occasional walled compound out in the fields, no doubt the original farmhouses of the actual landowners.

As we sped north, we began to see less irrigation, more and more dry, fallow, and unfarmed land. As the land would look without all the water from Colorado and the Sierras. This is what it will all look like when irrigation is no longer viable. Not sure if these fields were out of production because of the current drought, or if this was just too far to run the irrigation canals, but it was not a place I'd want to live. It was a good reminder of how fragile the current industrial ag system is, and how little it would take for much of the country to be cut off from much of its food supply.

On the way back, we saw long stretches in Nebraska in more traditional corn, but irrigated. I don't know if it was Ogalalla water, but based on the location, it probably was. That is ending soon as well.

Plant your gardens, eat seasonally, put up preserves, get busy relearning the way we ate before California fed us all.

Here is just one shot of the desolation, as we were leaving the San Joaquin Valley, and heading toward the hills and the Coast.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The rogue keystone species

Permaculture's third principle as identified by David Holmgren is "Obtain a yield". Makes sense; of course you need to get some net positive return for efforts, or you as an individual won't last long, and extending to a group or species, you will go extinct. There is a lot packed in to that principle though.

How do you decide how much of the annual bounty of growth is yield? If one is striving for a sustainable, long term system, how can you tell whether you are raking off too much yield, and degrading the future? The direct input output of our garden, for example, would typically account for the human hours expended, some dollars spent on seed, gas for the tiller, electricity for the well pump, and maybe even some accounting of depreciation for the aging of the tiller. But what about the state of the groundwater table, the nutrient levels in the soul, the disturbance of the soil microbial community, the tilth, organic content, the area biodiversity, even the oil wells in the middle east that the gasoline came from? One could go on and on a long time, noting the admittedly small, but non zero impacts of our tomatoes and sweet corn on the wider world. And much of it does not come down to dollars and labor hours. Nature does a different sort of accounting than man, and cares not about dollars or quarterly earnings.

Ecosystems are very complex, and for that matter, not static, but changing all the time, mostly on a time scale hard for us to see. One pattern that ecologists have identified is that in natural systems, there are often some niches that have less redundancy that others, or provide a critical service, such that the behavior of a single species has outsized impact on the overall ecosystem. These are called keystone species, because they kind of make the system work, similar to a keystone in an arch making the arch structurally sound. The Wikipedia entry does not mention humans as a keystone species, but to my mind we are, and have been altering the landscape to our and other species mutual benefit for a lot longer than recorded history.

Unfortunately, we went rogue a few hundred years ago, learning to take much more than a sustainable  share of the annual solar driven yield, so we have been destabilizing the ecosystems all around the world. This trend only got worse after we started using stored fossil carbon energy to really overshoot the planet's capacity. The only humans who are in balance with their surroundings these days are extremely few, and are derided as primitive.

Can we, like the prodigal son, come back home? Whether mother earth "forgives" us or not, can we gain enough wisdom and regain our integrated relationship and stop the dissipating, adversarial relationship to our ecosystem? Since the 70's, ( and even before, really) some have seen and spoken out about the wrong path we are on, and now, in the 21st century, there seems to be a renewed call for change, so there is no longer an excuse of ignorance. Really, the obvious signs of degradation are hard to deny at this point. Simply because of the end of the fossil fuel era, we are in the early stages of overshoot returning to baseline, but it could be so much less traumatic if we quickly and willingly transition to collaborative ways to work in natural systems to meet our needs. We are beginning the return to a low energy life one way or the other.

My wife and I are slowly learning how to create a stable, sustainable homestead, and learn skills that we all will need in the generations to come. Permaculture is a mental template or set of guidelines for doing so.

In the mean time, about obtaining a yield, here are a couple photos from our garden harvest this year. Yes, I know that these annuals, in a garden that I rototilled and watered all summer, so are a few steps removed from a permaculture ideal. But we also added over 1000 hazels to the main field this year, so we are making progress.

Here are the potatoes in the bin I just built, still using cedar scraps from the sunroom rebuild two years ago. These were from seed potatoes we saved from last year's harvest, and they did quite well.

And here is the last of the collards. We will be eating a lot of collards this winter. They are great in soups. Patsy is dehydrating some, blanching and freezing some.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

too many variables

Just look at this photo of our garden and the unusual disparity in size between the brussels sprout plants. These three, and these three only, right next to each other, are easily twice the size of all the others.
We started around 30 plants, all from the same packet, all in the same conditions during all phases, but something different happened right here in the garden. We aren't the greatest at record keeping yet, but I doubt that it would reveal anything. There are so many variables, and you have to be observant all the time, not knowing what event or pattern will cause what effect. Obviously, I'd like to replicate whatever happened here, but for now, I'm just scratching my head.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

the next project

Need to run power to the pole shed, and I need to tie in to this mess.

Call the utility location service- check
rent a trencher, order and install ~ 320 ft underground cable to correct depth- check
order and install panel, breakers, EMT and lighting in shed-check
install outlets, run all conductors-check
tie in to this load center in the house-hmmmm
need to investigate this a bit more, and hopefully not have to do another drop and run from the road.

Monday, July 7, 2014

full summer photos

Here are some more pictures of the garden, and a visitor.

The lacinato kale is well ahead of the grass, but we dare not let the grass get any bigger. Weeding is starting to ease up a bit after the June flush. Mid summer weeds should be trying to slip in shortly.
 Here is a shot of the new north garden, with the potatoes on the right, and the jacob's cattle beans on the left, both looking great. You can see the new deer/rabbit fence we put up this spring. We decided not to mess around, and sprung for cattle panels and 9 foot t posts. Bottom two feet is regular rabbit fence. It's pricey, but the cattle panels don't need stretching or corner posts, will last forever, and we can move and modify easily if we choose. Each row in the north garden is ~100 ft long.
 Some of the native black raspberries we have found growing here and there. Many are almost ripe. If we move quick, we might get some before the birds. Once our planted raspberries bear next year, I think we may have to net about now.
 I don't have the camera or the skills to get a better shot, but just wanted to show that we finally got the hummingbird feeder up, and the locals have found it.
And here are the tomatoes, filling out nice. We planted all Roma type for sauce.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

our driveway

getting used to the new computer, learning to manipulating files, images get applications ("apps") to do what I want. So here is the first post with the iMac.

This is our driveway, looking up toward the road. I had started mowing the driveway along the sides, when I noticed that the honeybees ( feral?, from some neighbor I haven't met yet?) really digging the birds foot trefoil. I decided the center of the drive could wait a while. And besides, it's quite festive. This plant really likes marginal soil. Hard, gravelly areas are where it seems to thrive. Reminds me of how the chicory loves the side of the road, which is usually gravel around here.

Dogwood, and maybe you can see some sumac on the left, apple trees on the right, and up in the distance, some box elder and some more wild apple trees. We are slowly replacing less desirable with trees that like the climate but are of more use to us humans.

I've finally started taking more photos, and will probably be blogging more about the farm and our permaculture transition after our move to the farm in a couple weeks.

ok- one more

All our brassicas looking good; kale, broccoli, collard greens, brussels sprouts and cabbage. Actually, the whole garden is looking great so far. This red cabbage is just starting to head, and only very minor bug signs. For those of you wondering what all that grass is doing in our garden, we are on a slope, with easily eroded soil ( so our neighbor farmer says, who tilled this area many years ago). In another part of this field, you can still see the remains of washed ruts, slowly filling in and stabilizing with sod. Level ground is hard to find on our farm, so we just till in the rows, (perpendicular to slope as much as possible) leaving the sod in place. So far, it has worked ok. The true width of the row will be more apparent once this is weeded again. The rain so far this summer has been great, but as we all know, the weeds like it too.

Monday, June 16, 2014

going up the country

Well, the water doesn't taste like wine, but it tastes pretty good. ( Canned Heat, for the younger of you ) The move is next month, and we have been busy with house selling, move planning, and as I've mentioned, the garden is twice as big this year, so needs a lot of attention. Finally gave notice at work, and it did feel odd, after 35 years. I kind of feel like I'm finally stepping toward my true calling,  or coming out of the closet, since I don't share a lot about my views on sustainability and the problems my employer contributes to. There are only one or two that I can truly explain where I am coming from, the rest are from another culture, to them it would not compute.

And also because even though we've been working toward this for five years, it really made it feel real in the here and now since we have a hard set date. Fellow workers are a bit surprised that I'm retiring, "only" 58, worried I'm sure if I will have enough money and security? Maybe make them wonder if their retirement will be secure, no matter how long they work?

In addition to all the fun projects I listed a few months ago to do in the workshop, we have tons of more pressing things to get done.

A very partial list
trench and run power to the pole shed
modify main panel, open up room for circuit to the barn/shed
install lights, outlets, wire up the pole shed
finish the deer/rabbit fence in the north garden
build gate for the north garden
start replacement of the south garden deer fence with the permanent one, complete with gate as well
build terraces and herb garden next to the house
build the rest of the removable covers for the upper terrace garden
complete the upper terrace gardens
mow and hand trim around the nut trees in the field
trench and insulate the top foot of house foundation exterior
fix the north downspout and drain tile
fix the gutter covers and clean gutters
start the barn mods to make a coop out of one end
build stairs to the west loft in the barn
(barn, shed, interchangeable terms according to mood and who you are talking to)
paint, caulk windows on house
fix garage door opener
chip the sumacs we've cut down, spread around as mulch for fruit trees
modify the deer fencing around the fruit trees, make bigger
mount the rain collection IBCs in the loft, run the piping from the roof to them, and set up overflow, first flush, outlet to gravity drip irrigation hoses in garden
reinforce the loft framing to take the water weight
mud the drywall joints, paint, trim the workshop
finish hanging, trimming the double door in to the workshop
build shelves, work benches in workshop
split firewood laying in yard
build more wood storage racks
finish the shade garden pavers and sitting area
cut in tees and valves to upstairs plumbing so we can drain and shut off upstairs in winter.
build stairway cover to shut off upstairs in winter
build shelving in downstairs library/bedroom closet
begin building first hugelkultur mounds with the rotted elm, oak, pine
cut down, cut up, split three standing dead elms for next winter
build the second composting toilet

these are all in addition to weeding, watering, harvesting, processing our garden veggies.

I'll be trying to get pictures up next time. So far, the garden is looking the best yet since we started five years ago.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

listen to the curmudgeons

Reading a collection of Edward Abbey's writing, and of course, he being a world class curmudgeon,I thought about it a bit. Why are they as a stereotypical group grumpy in the first place? There is a nucleus of truth in stereotypes.  As I slowly transition in to that certain age, I am definitely feeling the curmudgeon facet of my personality grow and express itself. And here is what I'm thinking so far.

There is good damn reason for EVERYONE to be pissed, but as we age, several realizations occur. First, with longer residence on this earth, the perspective changes. There is more ability to see long term trends, particularly of degradation. You haven't been fooled by the moving baseline like younger folk. Second, anger at oneself for being (however small)  a part of the problem for possibly a long time. Third, frustration in seeing that most people are caught up in the rush of survival, and even when they wake up, look around, and see what is happening, realize that there is almost nothing that can be done about "our predicament". And fourth, with proximity to the grave, all the paths not taken and life not lived and wrongs not righted come to the front.

The price of wisdom is steep. Wisdom that evolves in to acceptance and inner peace is fine for some, for others of us, being a curmudgeon is the way to go.

Here is a quote from Edward Abbey, especially for engineers, technicians and scientists out there.

"........engineers and technicians have no interest in our personal preferences except as data to be tabulated and attitudes to be manipulated. They love us no more than we love them; and they certainly have no love for the earth. What is perhaps most sinister of all is the fact that in this worldwide drive to reduce life, human and otherwise, to the limits of a technotronic system, there is not even a mind at work. Many brains, but no mind. Nor heart nor soul. There is no intelligence directing this enormous and enormously complex process; merely the cumulative efforts of thousands of specialists, experts, each sequestered in his tiny niche in the technological apparatus, each unaware or indifferent to the investigations of all but his closest colleagues, each man in his way an innocent. How can we think of a man who spends years studying the behavior of hamsters in an electrified maze as anything but a harmless idiot? Yet the results of his study, combined with the studies of other similar harmless idiots, may result in knowledge useful, let us say, to a central police agency concerned with the problem of controlling an urban populace in revolt."

BOOM- right in our face. How do you think of that man. How do you think of yourself? Listen to the curmudgeons. Become one.

News on the move to the farm later.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

malthus interrruptus

Here is something I wrote a while back in response to an article link that was sent to me.

Here is the article, and my response follows.

I’ll start off by presuming this article is serious, and not an onion rip off.

Assuming that, this guy is a cretin and wrong on so many levels. BTW- Casey you shit- getting us riled up at random intervals gratifies what twisted urge?

First, Malthus was mostly wrong, but not entirely. A key issue he did not consider, or even know about, was the multiplier effect of fossil fuels in man’s ability to exceed the carrying capacity of the land. The coal fired Industrial Revolution was just getting going when he wrote, so its effect in agriculture and human logistics was still in its infancy.

Taking this in to account, the Malthusian trap is not eliminated, but merely delayed and made worse by much greater population overshoot. (Google St. Matthew Island reindeer for an extreme example of what population overshoot can look like)

Here are a few logic and factual problems with the article.

Extrapolation of trends without justifying that the trend will stay linear.

Extrapolation of trends without understanding the relationship of all the dependent and independent variables.

Ignoring or not defining or not understanding boundary conditions in establishing the status and future state of the system.

Here is a good one from his article:

"The science of human sustenance is inherently a social science. Neither physics nor chemistry nor even biology is adequate to understand how it has been possible for one species to reshape both its own future and the destiny of an entire planet."

Ummm- His logic would make one think that since individually, physics, chemistry and biology can’t explain human sustenance, we must rely on social science to do so. No, we must take ALL OF THEM in to account. And by the way, add one more- ecology. While the word “Ecology” has been politicized, oversimplified and overused, it really is one of the sciences, and the principle one to use in understanding just how much of the biomass pie we humans can get away with taking without crashing the system.

An implicit assumption of his is that the ecosystem can be modified and shifted to man’s ends without potential for upsetting its stability. On a small level, there is plenty of resiliency in the system so that we can acquire a large fraction of the biomass  with reasonable sustainability . However, the ecosystem is a SYSTEM, and the constituent parts work together in a mutually beneficial balance that has taken millions of years to develop. Changing the entire planet to a vast single acreage of corn, to exaggerate, would cause collapse. Where that line is beyond which the tipping point occurs we do not know. To continue in that direction without knowing is one definition of hubris.

He takes a simple observation, that man has been able to leverage his intelligence to get more biomass for his use than would otherwise naturally occur, and tries to use this as justification that this trend can continue indefinitely and he can therefore completely “delink” from the dependency on the energy flows of the natural world. Good luck with that.

OK, so let’s examine some evidence. Granted that crop production has trended up for decades, and the increased population is evidence that sufficient energy is being harvested that populations continue to climb. However, many indicators are flashing red, and no solutions I know of are in the pipeline. Here are a few.
World fisheries are in collapse. This source of protein is declining.
Irrigated cropland has depleted many aquifers, resulting in less production, and in some cases, desertification. Many more are nearing depletion, including here in the U.S.
Topsoil continues to be lost throughout the world, even in many areas of the U.S. that have switched to no till methods.
                Phosphorus, a key fertilizer, is nearing depletion in the next 20-40 years at current rates of use.
                ALL modern high production agriculture is fossil fuel dependent. Crude has been bouncing around the $100/barrel range for over two years, and that price signal has not brought enough oil in to the market. This is an indicator that oil is not likely to go down to past prices without prior massive demand destruction. This means that the cost of food most probably has a new, higher basement level, with attendant disruption (Arab Spring, anyone?) It also means that we are most probably at peak oil, meaning that food production cannot continue to climb through increased fuel use, but only through improved fuel efficiency. Political winds aren’t blowing in that direction here in the U.S. these days.

                There are multiple sources listing other key indicators that are trending in bad directions. I won’t chase any more down for now. The point is, this guy was able to put a shit opinion article in “the newspaper of record”, and apparently the editors were ok with it.

Coincidentally, the latest entry on the “Do the Math” website is rather timely, and gives lie to the notion that overpopulation is a third world problem.
(ya gotta read the whole thing.)

OK, rant off.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

grow lights

So, the 2014 garden seed order was even bigger than I had suspected. Oh, and I guess we ARE doing sweet potatoes this year. Need to read up on that. We will be expanding the garden area considerably, squeezing in new sections as close to the house as possible, and as flat as possible. After looking at the list, I went to the store to buy more lights. Bought more starter trays also. (Some were wearing out anyway, going on their fourth year) A lot of plants need to be started indoors both to save money and to fit in the growing season. (We are zone 4B in the new USDA hardiness numbering system).

So here is the new set up in my workroom. This is just the ones I could fit in the photo, there are more behind me.
Nothing in the trays yet, just had some set out to get the light adjustment close. Onions will be the first we plant, since we are starting from seeds, and then some cool weather stuff like broccoli. Other new crops this year- collards and flint corn for making our own corn meal.

Tomatoes ( 100 plants!!) will start around mid April, since our 90% confidence last frost date is like May 26. We will be putting up more deer/rabbit fence also, so we want more of the veggies for US. Each year, we plan to grow more and more of our own food, and preserve more also. Any ideas for what to do with all the once used canning lids? We are trying Tattler, but aren't sold on them yet. Have had a higher incidence of non sealing, they seem to be touchier about getting the ring tightened just right during canning.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

seed catalog season

Yes, we've been flipping through the catalogs that find there way here, both from companies we've bought from, and from some we've never heard of before. I'm told we are going for 100 tomato plants this year, so maybe we are done seed shopping! That is going to take a lot of room, so we might be expanding the garden more than I had planned for.

New plants for this year- still mulling that over. Last year we did a lot ( too much) cabbage. We put up a lot of cabbage in various ways, and I did my first batch of kraut, but did not tend it carefully, so it lost its crispness. Taste was ok, just not that palatable.

Anyway, we will try a couple new varieties of dry beans this year. My sister in law grew some flat green beans (Roma) we really liked, so I think we will try them also. We've been saving back bean seeds for a few years now, so we are expanding the bean planting each year also. We were surprised by how the lima beans (our first try at them) finally came through late in the fall after just sitting there all summer, so we'll keep them on the list.  I don't think we'll try sweet potatoes till we move.

So yeah, the catalogs tend to get us excited about the upcoming garden year, and Jonny's is one of the best.  I'll bet I saw 20 sticky notes hanging out of it tagging selections. I have already set up the sawhorses, plywood and heat mats in the basement.   I will hang the grow lights when it gets a little closer. Major project for this year besides expansion is redoing the deer fence to a more permanent structure. Next year will be when we finish the terraces in the east yard, start the terraces and cold frames on the south slope, and redo our asparagus and rhubarb beds.