Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The best surprises

Last night after dinner (an amazing congee made with the chicken bones salvaged from our Taranaki Farm feast and some roadside-stall-peas from down the road) Oski and I went down to the dam for our regular water-gathering exercise. We wandered along the dam wall, inspected the blossoms and listened to the frogs. It was a beautiful evening, and we were both feeling happy. And then I looked up the hill, and saw our little house, and our growing garden, and I thought "wow".
Olive at Nelson's on Christmas day 2011

This time last year we were also spending quite a bit of time down at our dam. We had been in Bega for less than 2 weeks, and were picnicking on our dam wall several nights a week. I, for one, couldn't get enough of "the land" and wanted to be there every waking moment. But of course there was work and family and a rental-house-garden to attend to. I think it's safe to say that in those moments of picnicking, we had no idea of what was in store for us. We were pretty naive about the massive journey we'd embarked upon and it's only now, looking back, that we can go "man, that was BIG".
Down at the dam, inspecting next-door's horses - October 2011

We'd bought our 7 acres in March 2011, with vague ideas about building a home with some strawbales and growing some food, sometime in the next 3-5 years. But then a perfect job came up, I got it, and our 3-5 year plan turned into a 2 month plan. Just like that. So we up and moved this little family of ours to a new town where we knew not a soul, in a quest to build ourselves a meaningful life centred upon the growing and preparing of sustainable and ethical food, and doing as much as we could for ourselves with our own hands.
'our' plum tree - December 2011

We left our extended family and many beloved friends several hours up the highway.  We upheaved our family arrangement from both of us working part time and spending more or less equal amounts of time caring for the kids, to me being the 'breadwinner', working full-time, and Pearl being the 'stay at home' (personally, this has been the biggest and least welcome of our transitions). We left behind our ever-reliable and available babysitting, meaning that time alone together has become outrageously precious and rare. And in the middle of all this we started building a house.
breaking ground - March 2012

Yes, we've had help - lots of it - but there have also been many many hours spent, just the 4 of us, working and working and building and digging and rendering and then rendering some more. Our little house went up in April, amidst rain and tears and a whole lotta love. And then our landlord sold our rental house, so we embarked upon several months of moving between friends and house-sits (forging glorious bonds with new friends in the process). A week before my 34th and Olive's 6th birthdays, and 9 months after we had arrived in the valley, we moved into our very own unfinished handmade house and immediately started tending the plants and trees that will, in time, feed us.
Olive tending chickens at our Angledale house-sit - June 2012

Concurrent with the aforementioned (highly abridged) journey, we were revelling in the discovery of an astouding and surprising community of people. We had high expectations of the community we would find in Bega, which was, I suppose, potentially dangerous. But now, a year later, knowing many many beautiful and inspiring and generous and kind and quirky friends, we can safely say that our expectations have actually been surpassed. We had no idea that strangers in this new town would volunteer many hours of their lives to help us build our house, offer advice and sketched diagrams of various construction techniques, give us plants and seeds and cuttings, hug us when we cried because it was all a bit too much, look after our kids for us so we could move house, help us lift the too-heavy stuff into our storage container, give us building materials and lend us tools and trucks, and come and help when we got bogged or drained the battery in our car. We had no idea that we would be actively embraced by a community of people who were interested in what we wanted to do, many of whom had done it before and could gently show us the way. And we, in turn, have thrown ourselves wholeheartedly into the community that has embraced us so warmly. We've taken jobs and volunteer positions, helped friends with kids and blown-sideways gers, we've attended workshops and field days and courses and seminars, Olive started kindy at our beautiful local public school, where we are currently working on starting a veggie garden, and we have made beautiful and surprising friends.
Per and Olive on our first day at Bega Valley Public School - February 2012

It has been nothing short of incredible to be swept along by all of this and I know that the whole shebang would have been a heck of a lot harder had it not been for the support we have received from all corners - family, strangers, and friends new and old.
Oski in the main street of our town - May 2012
We know now that this is most definitely where we want to be. We feel it when we leave, and we feel it when we return. This place - our land, and our community, and our funny little dam wall - is our home. And this feeling has probably been the biggest and best surprise of all.

Monday, October 29, 2012

"We need to create farms that are aesthetically and aromatically romantic."

We've been on a 3-day road trip to Victoria and back. It was long. We got a little bit cranky at times and the kids went a bit stir crazy in the back seat. But it was so worth it. We travelled through some beautiful countryside, ate too many crackers and lemonade fruits, spent time with some old friends and their gorgeous kids, picnicked by a mountain top lake and toured Taranaki Farm with Joel Salatin. 

Joel Salatin addressing the crowd from within the portable pig pen
We first learned of Joel Salatin four or five years ago while reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and a couple of years ago I had the good fortune of hearing Joel speak in Sydney when he was brought to Australia by Milkwood.  I was captivated and moved by his charisma and smarts and wit and amazing oratory skills. What's interesting for me to reflect on is that, at that talk, two years ago I was listening purely as a consumer, albeit one attempting to consume "ethically". That night I ran into an old friend and we talked of our various plans to leave the city one day. I probably uttered the words "We're thinking we'll move to the far south coast in 3 to 5 years". Ha! Within a year we were here and living on our land. But even then as I uttered those words to my old friend, our future move was premised upon a yearning for a more self-sustaining way of life. Now we're here we're thinking differently, self-sustaining yes but now we know we also want to help feed our community. We hope that one day we will be able call ourselves farmers. 

Happy, healthy milking cows enjoying their "salad bar"
Oscar, making some new friends on the farm
The trip to Taranaki was an attempt to see a beyond-organic, regenerative farm in action and to be inspired, once again, by the beautiful oratory of Mr Salatin. We weren't alone in our desires: there were hundreds of people on the tour and such an eclectic mix too. There were hipsters and old-school farming types, non-believers wearing Coke t-shirts, members of a Christian sect, Muslims, elderly people, Jewish people, young wannabe farmers and so many kids. It was a joy to behold this mixed mob traipsing around the farm. 

Happy cows in foreground, portable milking shed in background
Our first stop was the portable milking shed where Joel talked about the limitations of capital-intensive industrial agriculture. The average age of farmers in the U.S and Australia is around the age of sixty. One reason for the ageing demographic is the massive cost associated with the massive amounts of infrastructure required of the modern industrial farm. As young farmers cannot afford to get in, old farmers cannot get out and as Joel says this indicates a system in decline. The approach at Taranaki is to make use of portable, low-cost infrastructure such as this portable milking shed. As the cows are moved frequently, the milking shed can go with them. And as the cows are moved onto fresh pastures regularly they are happier and healthier and there is less stress associated with a milking shed that comes to them. The milk from Taranaki is raw milk and as you'd probably know it's illegal to sell raw milk for human consumption in Australia so it is sold as bath milk. Joel, in his usual acerbic style said, "We now have a government that decides it's ok to feed your children cocoa puffs, twinkies and Mountain Dew but that raw milk is injurious to your health". 

Piggies, doing their piggy thing

Next stop were the pigs in their temporary enclosure. The pigs have no permanent home but are moved around the farm wherever they are required to do their Piggy pigerator thing. They're enclosed in electric fencing for a period of time while they break up the ground, creating periodic disturbance and allowing the seed bank stored within the ground to come alive and help increase the biodiversity (and hence fertility) of the pastures. It was pretty special to see them up close breaking the ground with their noses and to see in practice what Joel encourages, which is to learn our lessons from nature. He points out that the pigs are just being pigs but in the process replace potentially tens of thousands of dollars worth of machinery. Their ongoing portability means that there's no piggy stench and I can attest to the "aesthetically and aromatically romantic" pig enclosure, as well as the rest of the farm. Few flies, no bad smells. It's all about creating a farming system that is portable, carbon-centric, solar-driven and perennially based. This is the farming of the future. 

Beyond "free range" chickens

Chickens in, around and under their tractor
The next stop was the beyond free range pasture raised chicken and their portable chicken tractors. The chickens follow the cows, as in nature birds follow herbivores, so the chickens are moved in to clean up after the cows thus creating a loop that mimics nature. The chicken are protected by Maremma dogs, however it was pointed out that regenerating the land also helps prevent against fox attack. You see, the creation of extra ponds and dams helps a vibrant diversity of life to flourish across the farm. This extra life means the foxes are less interested in eating chickens as they have many other food sources. 

We also met the beautiful herd of beef cows who are moved (with the help of electric fencing) often across the fields. While the farm has permanently fenced pastures these don't prescribe where the cows go or for how long. It's all about the grass. The state of the grass dictates where and when the cows move. This constant cow movement and the requisite grass increase and decreases ensures more and more carbon is sequestered into the ground. This grass farming is the most efficient way of storing carbon in the soil, more effective than planting trees or growing herbivorous crops.  

And we met the broiler chickens in their portable enclosures. They also get moved around the fields. They have short but happy lives. We ate their brethren for lunch and they were delicious. 

It's all about "vertically stacking" the farm with a variety of animal activity. This ensures a regular income stream but also allows a farmer to set up systems that more closely mimic the natural world hence limiting the need for costly infrastructure, costly chemicals and costly pharmaceuticals that harm us, the earth and the animals involved. 

Taranaki Farm has been designed as a keyline system to ensure the increased hydration of the land. This is another way that they are increasing the resilience of their farm. As Joel pointed out, nature isn't always kind so "it's up to us to build resilience into the landscape" in order to better withstand extremes of heat and cold and floods and droughts. 

We concluded with Joel wishing us all well in our food producing endeavours and echoing Wendell Berry's statement "Eating is an agricultural act" when he reminded the consumer in us all that "Everyday we get to vote three times on whether we want a land-healing or a land-degrading food system" and with that we feasted on farm fresh pasture raised chicken and local sausages, hand made bread and home made icy-poles. Good times. We left with our hearts and tummies full.

As we drove away we felt so happy as we considered how the "vertically stacked", portable, carbon-centric, solar-driven, perennially based regenerative farming system is so possible for any size farm, it's an entirely adaptable model. Our brains are busy ticking over what we might be able to do with our little 7 acres. We drove and we drove, finally collapsing into bed in Albury. Then today we drove some more....

As we drove down Brown mountain and saw the Bega valley spreading out before us we smiled and commented on how beautiful it is. We've just driven through many many hundreds of kilometres of country and while much of it was very lovely, it also helped us to see that this place we've chosen to live in is really quite spectacular. How lucky we are. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

"It feels like our little house has lost its virginity"

newly erected solar array seen through incomplete pergola

We've been living in our tiny strawbale for around 11 weeks now and up until 4 days ago we were living without electricity. You see, it was going to cost us $50,000 to connect to the grid. We were still living in Sydney when we learned this and it made us nervous. Off-grid solar? It just seemed so risky, so extreme but the 50 grand price tag helped push us through the anxiety to a place of calm acceptance. Then we moved down here and it seemed like every second person we met lived off-grid and no their batteries hadn't exploded and many of them had fridges and washing machines and tv's. All of a sudden, off-grid seemed totally banal. But in the flurry of building and getting the place in some semblance of liveability, electricity dropped down the priority list. 

Life without electricity hasn't really been that hard. But even while I say that, I'm aware that it was not so hard because we had access to electricity and could charge things up at friends' houses and at our workplaces. I don't want to get all pious "electricity, who needs it?" because that would be nauseatingly disingenuous, but it is possible to live a good life for a time without it. We got used to early nights in bed reading by headlamp, the noisy gas light and the fragrant flickering light of the many beeswax and mandarin candles we were burning. We read a lot and had very limited screen time. All good things really. But we started to yearn for music, especially as Oscy's favourite toy for a while there was a little synthesiser that played terrible versions of "Let It Be" and "Jingle Bells". Horrifyingly, the kids seemed to view this music as necessary soundtrack to their play so they'd be jumping on the trampoline or playing in the sandpit with this heinous elevator music playing all around them. Annie and I would laugh in desperation at the ridiculousness of our situation. No music but this!

Needless to say, music was the second thing we turned on, after a light, once our system was up and going. In the last four days we've been revelling in many old and new favourites so the bird and frog song on our land is now punctuated by The Decemberists, First Aid Kit, Hem, Poor Moon, Gillian Welch, Neko Case, Mumford and Sons, The National... All our old friends. Annie was so overwhelmed with joy to be hearing the Decemberists for the first time in our little house that she cried real live tears of happiness.

Will you check out that brightness?!
Most people we spoke to with off grid systems bought the components themselves but we "cheated" a little and got a custom made pre-wired system. Yes it is more expensive to do it this way. But for us science dunces, it felt like the right way to go. We spoke with Phillip at Living Power about what our power needs were - a light, a lamp, laptop, mobile phone charger, small fridge, Magimix food processor, stereo, sewing machine and he designed a 1.2kw system to meet our needs. We're still getting our heads around how to work with the system. For example, we can't let the batteries run below 70% capacity too often or else their life will be shortened. Given they are expensive and pretty nasty chemical wise, we need to prolong their life as long as possible. So we're monitoring and assessing, though we have a sneaking suspicion that Phillip is pretty good at what he does, and he has been extremely obliging and helpful, patiently answering all our (probably silly) millions of questions. 

A 1.2 kw system is not really very big. So there's a little bit of a careful balancing act at play whereby on sunny days the system gets  much more power than it can store so we need to think through our energy usage and balance it out across the day. It's amazing how even on a cloudy day we get a lot of energy. Yesterday was a semi-cloudy, little bit rainy, little bit sunny kind of a day and when we checked the batteries at sunset, they were at 102% capacity. Yeah I know, how is that possible? I'd already charged the phone and computer and the fridge had been running all day. So it showed us how much energy can be derived from a bitsa day like that. In fact, the cloudy day with a bit of blue sky can be better for solar gain as the cloud magnifies the light. How interesting is that? Tomorrow is forecast to be a partly cloudy day so I'm getting reunited with the Magimix - mushroom pate, sweet potato humous and coriander, parsley pesto anyone? 

Afternoon of solar installation, again yes, the unfinished pergola

It took three days to install. Bruno our electrician thought it would take two. But our 45 degree pitch strikes again! If you want a super-easy, super cheap build go the skillion roof but if you want cute sleeping lofts and maximum solar gain go the 45-degree pitch. Bruno told us that the 45-degree pitch, while a total bastard to work on, is optimal for capturing winter sun. Lesser pitched roofs will capture too much sun in Summer and not enough in Winter. 

We felt strange in those first couple of days of installation. Annie said she felt like our house had lost it's virginity. The beautiful galvanised roof was being covered in technology and the rough handmade walls inside were being technologised as well. In some ways we felt like we were being greedy. Electricity: did we really need it? Maybe we should do without it a bit longer? But on the final day of installation I was overcome by a really strange sensation as I pondered the fact that we would, very soon, be living off the grid. I felt all weird and nearly started crying as I contemplated the fact of getting energy from the sun. I know, I know solar power, its not new or profound. But in that moment it was something about knowing exactly where our electricity was from, that it is now and forever from the sun, and feeling so good about it, that I was practically moved to tears. 

(The cost of our solar system was $7,200 and the installation was around $1,000.)

Monday, October 22, 2012

Yep it's been awhile...

It's been busy round these parts of late. 
We've been to the circus, we've spent some much needed time with a very special friend and her gorgeous little one, we've had quite a bit of vomiting, we've had helpful and happy visitors, we've had extraordinarily busy times at work, we've had rain, we've had cubby building, we've had pergola building, we've had stair carving, we've had solar system installing. The busyness combined with our total absence of electricity has meant slow times for our blog.  The busyness has also meant we've kept a pretty poor photo record. Luckily Olive has maintained the photo record with her precious impressions of herself and life around her. 

Now I'm here it's hard to know where to begin…

My dad couriered our solar system down from Sydney a couple of weeks back. A lovely and generous act. We had a local electrician booked into install it and we were feeling excited. Then, on the eve before installation it started to rain and it just kept raining. Then it got really windy, so it was really rainy and really windy which are not optimal conditions for solar panel installation. Of course the irony for us was that the last big rain we had was back in April during our straw bale building workshop. And so one does wonder about the confluence of rain and building projects but anyway, we weren't too fussed about the delay given we've been living without electricity for more than two months, another week or so made little difference. For the most part we were happy for that rain, we had all our fruit trees and new Spring plantings to think of. Also our duck dam was turning into a puddle. I have to admit, that on the rainy rainy day I spent quite some time in our loft eating biscuits and watching the water rushing into the dam. Living here on our land during the rain was good. It helped us to see how much more we can do to develop better water management systems on our little piece of hill. Yes, more dams and more tanks but also more swales to slow the movement of water in the ground. For it is said that the most efficient way to store water is in the ground. So yes we have been adhering, in a very committed fashion, to permaculture principle number 1 - Observe and interact. 

Rain on the hills, rain in the valley
Little orchard duck dam filling up.. Yippee
Just before the big rain, Annie's dad Alf came down for a couple of days to help us with our pergola. The pergola project was stalled, mainly on account of neither Annie or I knowing how to get it moving. Yes we built a house but we were totally daunted by the pergola project. We need the pergola area to provide some extra undercover area, for while we are finding the size of our tiny straw bale pretty fine we do get a bit tested on very rainy or very cold days as the kids start to bounce off the walls and there's really no room for that sort of shenanigan. So now we have an almost-finished pergola and it feels good. We've planted pumpkins and Scarlet runner beans to trail up the sides and over the top to provide a quick-fix shade solution for this Summer but we're on the lookout for a longer term solution for Summer shade and Winter sun - grapes probably, kiwi-fruit maybe.Have you got any suggestions?

a bit of pergola, looking north-east
After Alf had departed and after we had our uninstalled solar array dropped off, we were lucky enough to enjoy the company of Genn and Jeff from Boise, Idaho. It's a long story as to how we came to have Genn and Jeff to stay, needless to say we were very glad to share this time with them.  Unfortunately, in the flurry of activity photos seem to have been forgotten. However you can find them over here. My dad also came back for a visit so we had a very busy week here on our block. Many meals were cooked, many dishes washed, many beers drunk and many jobs completed thanks to the fine efforts of this trio. The finest of efforts was reserved for a seemingly thankless task of carving a staircase out of the batter wall behind the house. The ground had gone hard and crusty and we feared we would never get it done but thanks to Peps, Genn and Jeff we now have a super-handsome staircase that will lead us to a very gorgeous old gate through which we will enter the orchard, bee, duck and top dam precinct. 

Staircase, looking hot

After a week of hard labour, Peps declared the need for a wash so I fired up the fire bath for him on a mild and sunny afternoon. As he lay there in the Spring sun he declared "Some people would pay thousands for this!" Indeed they would. We have still not tired of the fire bath novelty. It is a glorious way to wile away an hour.

And amidst all this stair carving, eating, playing, cooking, laughing, yelling, drilling, digging was Bruno calmly and competently installing our little custom made off grid solar system. It took three days to install but now it is done. We were nervous but now we are thrilled, but that is a story for another time. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Pump up the Dam: A P&E fundraising sale

Our little farm is steep arrangement. The fall from the very top to the very bottom is almost 100m.
At the very bottom of our land we are extremely blessed to have a reasonably big, spring-fed dam, which is currently overflowing, even though it hasn't rained properly for months. Just behind the house, near the top of our block, we have a small, very sweet little duck pond. This pond is fed, via a diversion drain running through our orchard, with rain that is mostly harvested from the road. On account of aforementioned hardly-any-rain, this little dam is approaching empty, so our plans to use it to gravity-feed water to our veggie garden and fruit trees has been thwarted.

At present, we are driving down the hill, hand-filling 20L barrels of water (we have 5 of them), then driving back up to water our garden. We do this daily, and while our early-morning water-carrying adventures are mostly lovely, it's kind of unsustainable, especially since our garden is growing by the day. Clearly, we are in need of a pump, which is why, as soon as we have our solar-power-system set up, I will be making skirts and boleros and such in order to raise a little bit of money towards our impending kind-of-large purchase of some water-carrying infrastructure so we can get our water from here

Luscious, spring-fed, overflowing dam, with a pyjama-ed Pearlie collecting water and azolla in a pre-7am water-carrying adventure (barrels to the right)

to here

Top dam: not as full as she could be, but still looking quite pretty in the morning sun

without driving our car and/or busting our backs in the process.

If you would like to support our pump-buying, and get yourself a sweet, custom-made and probably kind of underpriced P&E skirt into the bargain, read on and pre-order your package NOW! Tell your friends! Or, even better, get them a gift certificate for their birthday/Jesus' birthday (useful also for dudes who would like to participate and are disappointed that I don't make dude-clothes)! And I suppose it would also be useful for you to 'like' this on facebook (though I find making this request inherently embarrassing and I do apologise).

Package 1: A custom-made P&E skirt, made using vintage/reclaimed fabrics and fixtures, sewed in our little strawbale house and powered by 100% solar energy! This will set you back $70 (RRP $90)
Package 2: Aforementioned custom skirt PLUS a jar of our hand-made, hand-picked preserves and a little package of super-azolla, so you can start your own azolla farm. $90
Package 3: A P&E lovely skirt AND a custom bolero (matching, or not). This lot'll be $100 (RRP $130)
Package 4: The works (ie. packages 1,2 and 3 combined) PLUS a little hand-made something extra, as a surprise treat. This is for the hey big spenders amongst you. $130

This is a fab-o opportunity to a) get some lean-priced P&E in your life and b) support a little family on a little baby farm who are trying to do some good by growing some good. So if you feel like doing either or both of these things please do send me an email so I can put you in my sewing book. Don't forget to let me know what package you'd like (or if you'd like your skirt in gift-certificate form).

PLEASE NOTE: The number of packages is NOT unlimited. We need to raise $1300 for the pump and associated pipes and fixtures, so once I reach this number I won't accept any more orders. I learned that capping can be useful in my last skirt sale, which saw me make 40 skirts in  month. Kind of hectic.

Looking forward to sewing for y'all!