Monday, 15 December 2008

Weekend Report

Friday was full of rain, and boded poorly for the weekend ahead. We'd planned to go fishing at some stage over the weekend, but with the rain looking to be set in, we weren't sure when we would get the chance.

Saturday dawned clear of rain, though still cloudy with a bit of a biting wind. We decided we'd best get moving on the fishing plans, so set out to Lake Carcoar. After about an hour of driving we pulled in to find "no fishing" signs (hidden amongst the plethora of other things you aren't or shouldn't be doing out there). Sadly, as the lake is down at 14% or so of capacity there is a problem with toxic algae, so they've put a stop to fishing. All the lads had dropped off to sleep about 10 minutes before pulling in to the lake reserve, so we quickly settled on a trip to Lake Canobolas, which necessitated completing the round trip via Orange and out to that lake.

It worked out well in the end. The lake was fairly quiet in terms of visitors, most being turned off by the poor weather. The eldest son caught his very first fish, a redfin carp, with the gear he got for his birthday back in September. It's the first time we've had a chance to get out fishing since then, and I hope a catch will make him remember the experience with something other than dread.

After an hour or so we packed up the gear and walked over the top of the dam wall to the swings on the other side, and spent a while on a few trips down the flying fox (great fun, even for the big kids), and then headed off home again.

Sunday came up rainy again, so after congratulating ourselves on choosing to go fishing the day before, I got ready to head out to the new block to do up some measurements for the placement of the shed. Once we sign on the dotted line and get our engineering drawings back I'll need to be able to put in a DA, so need to know the best spot for it. Not sure if all of that will happen before Christmas at this rate, we keep getting stalled by different things. As always, such stallings are sure to work out for the best, so we're not too concerned, though we are keen.

I was back home by midday, and spent a bit of clear weather making the kids a tarzan rope swing, and clearing out some of the dodgy stuff in the greenhouse and potting a few bits and pieces on into larger pots. We've got a fair idea now of what hasn't taken from the winter cuttings, so we'll have to start a summer cuttings round very soon.

In the garden we've had an amazing abundance of fruit this year. We've been eating berries and currants for weeks now, and we've still got a lot to go. I guess we'll have to get started on some jam making soon. All the primitive plums are loaded, ripe and ready to go. Our first Japanese plums are showing a good amount of colour, and should be softening soon. The peaches, well, the birds are starting to sample those, so hopefully there'll be some left for us when they're ripe, as they're still pretty green at the moment.

On the selling front, we're holding off on going to the real market for now, interest rates have declined enough that we will be able to put money into the new block and pay for the usual stuff, though I guess it's risky if we hit a period of inflation due to declines all round in the economic world. At this point it's a wait and see approach, at least until after the silly season.

As of next week I get my annual (sort of) holidays, so hopefully three weeks of relative bliss. In case I don't post before then, I wish you a merry festive season, and all the best for the year ahead. Things are going to be challenging all round, which should make for interesting times...

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Max And Cornelius

Max Powerdown and Cornelius Copian were stuck in a small village, surrounded by trackless desert on all sides. They had no idea which direction to travel in, nor how wide the expanse of desert was. All they knew was that they needed to escape the village, which was slowly dying, and move to a better place.

Within the village were two stalls. One, a purveyor of food, the other selling second hand wares and handcrafted goods. Max and Cornelius each had one hundred dollars in their wallets to spend.

Cornelius examined the food stall, and then moved on the to second hand wares shop. He was inspired by what he saw there. An old boiler, some lengths of copper tubing, and a serviceable pram immediately caught his eye. He considered for some time, and then decided that the best course of action would be to spend his funds on these items and cobble up a steam powered perambulator to speed across the desert, though this would mean using up the best part of his monetary resources. Max on the other hand, had considered these things, and believed a different approach was in order, stocking up on food and water, and a slow march across the desert. The funds he would be left with would allow him to take advantage of any opportunities or cope with any problems that might arise during the journey.

Max and Cornelius discussed their respective plans, going over the merits and problems of each. Cornelius proposed that Max invest in his project, allowing them to purchase resources to build a steam-car twice the size to accommodate both of them. Max argued that this would require twice as much wood and water, and so get both of them only half as far. On the other hand, he indicated, if Cornelius were to purchase food, sacks and waterskins then they would be able to carry much more food and water, as well as having more monetary resources available during their journey.

"Who knows what we might need to purchase once we make it out of this infernal desert?", Max finished.

The two argued for some time, and eventually agreed to disagree. Cornelius spent ninety-five of his one hundred dollars on the items to build his steam-car and set to work. Max spent thirty dollars on three sturdy extra-large waterskins, a large hessian sack and enough food to last himself two weeks. Climbing to the top of one of the stunted trees that surrounded the oasis at the centre of the village he examined the desert around and picked a likely landmark to aim for, a rocky hill out at the edge of the horizon. After drinking deeply from the oasis and filling his waterskins, he slung them and his sack of food over his shoulder and set out.

Two days later Cornelius had completed his steam-car. He filled it up with water from the oasis, collected a load of twigs and branches and set a small fire under the boiler, stowing the rest on board. Climbing the tree as Max had done, he spied the same landmark and determined that it would be his destination. He purchased himself a sweetmeat for luck with his last five dollars and boarded his steam powered perambulator, setting out at a clipping pace across the sands.

By evening Cornelius reached the rocky hill, and found Max camped there. He was hungry and thirsty by this time, and asked Max whether he might impose upon his generosity and share his food and water. Max considered this for a time. Cornelius indicated that it would be to their mutual benefit, as once he was free of the desert he would send help back. Max thought this was reasonable enough, so shared food and water with Cornelius.

The next morning, the two scrutinised the horizon from the lofty vantage of the hill, and spied a thin streamer of smoke out at the horizon. They agreed to make it their mutual destination, though Cornelius would need to take a more circuitous route due to a wide expanse of rocky ground visible in the near distance. By their calculations Cornelius should reach the destination in about two days, whilst it would take Max six days, even by the more direct route.

So they parted, Cornelius speeding ahead in the steam-car, Max trudging along at a measured pace.

The source of the smoke turned out to be further away than they had estimated. On the second day of travel out from the hill, the steam-car was still a day away from what could now be seen to be another small village. At that point, the last of the wood burned away in a puff of smoke and the steam-car shuddered to a halt.

Cornelius did some quick calculations and judged that Max was still two days behind, but somewhere over to the west in amongst the rocky ground. He, on the other hand, was still two days walk from the village. A check on the boiler revealed he had enough for a day of travel at most, but nothing to carry it in.

Should he drink his fill and hope he could make it to the village? Should he push his steam-car to the village, even though it would require so much effort that it might take him three days to get there and that he may run out of water before he reached half way? Should he head west in the hope of catching Max? Cornelius was at a loss, and slumped down into the sand in a state of despondency.

Meanwhile, far behind, but still well provisioned, Max trudged along in stoic fashion, unaware that his fellow was caught in such a plight.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Livelihood Security, Worlds Apart

The FAO or Food And Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, has a publication available called "The household livelihood security concept"

It is interesting reading mainly because it highlights something of a disconnect between attitudes toward the condition of people in the third world, and a certain blindness to the plight, soon to be so greatly magnified, of people in the first world. We suggest and assist people in the third world to actively work to improve their livelihood security, yet in the first world we often have rules, regulations, economic and social hurdles to taking similar affirmative action to ensure security of livelihood. Indeed we actively encourage people to be more dependent on external agents for our livelihood, we are exhorted to it with every advertisement we see.

The start of the paper discusses how the idea of food security was once based on national and global food supplies, and how this changed when the people researching in those areas realised that it ultimately came down to whether individual families had access to the resources needed to secure the food. In a nutshell, a country could be awash with food yet people could still be starving if they didn't have a penny to their name.

Ideas about food security developed from the 70's through to the present day to gradually include a deeper understanding of the factors that contribute to food security. It was discovered, for example, that people don't necessarily choose food over all other needs when they have constrained resources:

People may choose to go hungry to preserve their assets and future livelihoods. It is misleading to treat food security as a fundamental need, independent of wider livelihood considerations.
So for example they might choose to go hungry rather than eat the seed for next season's crop. This evolution in understanding has resulted in the "household livelihood security" concept.

Household livelihood security is defined as adequate and sustainable access to income and resources to meet basic needs (including adequate access to food, potable water, health facilities, educational opportunities, housing, time for community participation and social integration). Livelihoods can be made up of a range of on-farm and off-farm activities which together provide a variety of procurement strategies for food and cash. Thus, each household can have several possible sources of entitlement which constitute its livelihood. These entitlements are based on the household's endowments and its position in the legal, political and social fabric of society (Drinkwater and McEwan, 1992). The risk of livelihood failure determines the level of vulnerability of a household to income, food, health and nutritional insecurity. Therefore, livelihoods are secure when households have secure ownership of, or access to, resources and income earning activities, including reserves and assets, to offset risks, ease shocks and meet contingencies (Chambers, 1989).
The ironic thing is that aid organisations are developing programs to improve livelihood security in third world regions, but right here in the first world we are beginning to see cracks appearing that indicate that we have very little in the way of livelihood security, or even an understanding of how to go about getting some.

From WSJ - More Utility Bills Go Unpaid we read that more and more people are having their essential services disconnected, leaving them without many of the elements of "household livelihood security" as the economic crisis deepens. Whilst talking about the situation in the US, no first world country is immune.

State regulators say they have noticed that power shutoffs have moved up the economic chain. "We're seeing an uptick in middle-class people who have never been in this situation before," said Eric Hartsfield, director of the customer-service division of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities.
As the situation gets worse, many in the first world will be faced with a reality very similar to, or worse than, that of people within the third world, entirely due to a total lack of livelihood security.

Security implies a measure of resilience and adaptability in the face of changing conditions. Your average suburban shop assistant has a very small base of non-practical skills to fall back on, and you could pretty safely put money on the guess that food production or wildfood harvesting aren't in that repertoire.

This is yet another argument for people to begin learning to be generalists and to stop outsourcing so many of the essentials of their existence. Everyone needs to take stock of their livelihood security and work at improving it. More of the market economy needs to be recaptured and withdrawn back into the household economy to ensure survival during tough times.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Rhizome Growth, In Action!

Have you ever encountered a new idea that draws together various scraps of ideas in your head, so much so that you begin to see examples of it all around you? The first time I ever encountered the idea of systems analysis as a lad was a bit like this. That you could examine the interactions of things and deduce systems of activity was the most amazing thing to me. This surely led to an appreciation of things like permaculture and computer programming, though the two may seem to be from opposite ends of the earth.

Anyhow, I'd like to give you a link to what I think is rhizome growth in real life:

A New Patch In The Neighbourhood

Gavin now has a new seedling rhizome node right next door, I would guess in the largest part due to his example and enthusiasm, as well as due to his ability and readiness to assist with getting started. Gavin's neighbourhood now has the potential to be more resilient as a result.

I see the rhizome idea as being a model of an ideal system. Sure, most ideals remain just that, but it is an ideal that ties together a lot of different threads, and answers some unanswered questions. It's also being implemented at this very moment. What we end up with will most likely not follow the exact plan, but I don't believe it was intended in that way.

Hamlets in the city might end up being, rather than extended family groups, groups of 5 - 10 neighbouring homes, all working together to provide their own food. Hamlets in the country may well follow the model more closely, where there is more room and more work for children and the elderly, especially as PO kicks in and there is less opportunity outside of the home. Still, there is nothing I can see to prevent existing community living structures from existing well within the framework.

As I see it, the core tenets are those of self-reliance in small groups (ideally sized to foster that self-reliance) linked together in networks that by their nature provide an impetus against centralisation of authority and management, and that facilitate local trade over non-local.

This kind of growth is something that we could rationally expect to occur during tough times. The only reason we wouldn't see such networks forming would be in the case that existing centres of power act to hold on to that authority, for example comandeering farmland and creating government distribution centres for food, would quickly put a stop to such growth. Anti-stockpiling laws and confiscation of food would be another. Both things we would hope would never occur in our society and day and age.

Friday, 31 October 2008

Two-Step To Rhizomes

Two-Step To Rhizomes

I remember stumbling across Jeff Vail's Rhizome a year or two ago, giving the information a cursory examination and then wandering off onto other things.

The last few weeks, for whatever reason, have seen me involved in a few different discussions as to how we approach the future, what plan is best for dealing with the multiple crises we face as a society.

So it was with some joy that I re-discovered Rhizome. This time around I spent a lot more time reading up on the various ideas that go together to make it a whole, and the more I read, the more I liked. It fit well with a lot of my preconceived ideas (and ideals!).

The fundamentals (as I understand & interpret them) are that the countryside is dotted with hamlets, each of 10 - 40 people from a family group. Each group supplies itself a certain base level of self-sufficiency. It is able to care for itself. This is handled via combinations and permutations of permaculture, forest gardening & biointensive methods of production. Surrounding each hamlet's productive area is an area of "managed wilderness", akin to permaculture's zone 5, though this area is a buffer for bad times. When crops fail, the inhabitants turn to this region and apply hunter/gathering to the natural bounty to feed themselves. Each hamlet also supplies one or more specialty items, which are used in trade with other hamlets at gatherings that are arranged to occur loosely throughout the network.

In addition to the resilience arising out of the level of self-sufficiency for each node, it offers resilience on the network level as each hamlet depends and is depended upon by it's neighbours for both specialty items and to maintain the freedom that such a non-hierarchical structure brings.

This summary necessarily hastens over a lot of the realities, and many of them are discussed in detail on Mr Vail's blog, so that should be your first port of call if you wish to know more. Start with What is Rhizome?

In re-discovering this plan for the future, I was hit with something of a revelation. The seed, and often seedling, of Rhizome already exists in many parts of the world. Households such as our own, and others far more advanced than ours, form the basis of the future network of hamlets.

We're not yet hamlets, but we have a measure of self-sufficiency somewhere above the negative value assignable to most of the western population. We produce some specialty goods that we trade with others upon occasion. Even a pot of jam in exchange for a jar of olives is an exchange that is occurring along the lifelines that will one day connect together the hamlets of Rhizome. They are an existing and active economy outside of that reliant on the hierarchical structures of modern society.

I'm aware, via my time at Aussies Living Simply, that there are other regions with active communities linked together in this way. They might not be direct neighbours, but they are operating within a network that meets many of the other criteria put forward as a part of the Rhizome idea. Aussies Living Simply and similar sites are, as well as bringing together neighbours, in effect creating the wider network connections beyond the immediate geographically local ones. This connecting is as fragile as the internet and so will one day need to be replaced with the robust solutions Mr Vail proposes, but it is a good start.

The question that naturally arises is, where to from here?

That Rhizome could be implemented in an across the board, one-off change of policy & practice is obviously (very!) highly improbable. That it might be a natural continuation of the growth of that which already exists is much more highly probable. If we simple living types keep doing what we are doing, and keep bringing others into the fold from time to time, those decentralised networks will naturally expand. Regardless of whether we are in the city or the country, it's that measure of self-reliance, and the network of like-minded people, that really matters. Obviously there are certain implementation problems when based in the city, but they should not prove insurmountable.

Without counting "doing what we are already doing", I can see two fairly obvious steps to facilitating the growth of Rhizome out of the current system:

1. Be prepared with excess foundation.

In the same way that you have frames of foundation ready for when you receive a new swarm of bees, so you should have many of the elements of a self-sufficient garden & forest waiting to be applied to new land. Put aside a small (or big!) corner of your land for a nursery and always have plants growing within it. Cuttings of your favourite useful herbs, some tree, herb and vegetable seedlings, and if you're keen even some grafted fruit trees.

Try to give some away every year as advertising, or even sell them as a sideline, so you don't end up with a whole heap of old stock. When ever you meet a potential new "rhizome node" (yes, they are people too, I imagine) load them up, even if they need to come back with the trailer. Help them out with planning out their gardens if they desire it, but otherwise be there to offer them assistance, advice and support. Supply the additional nutrients and energy that will help this seedling grow into a mature tree. It is of ultimate and infinite benefit to both parties.

2. Develop as many specialist skills as you comfortably can.

It falls upon those of us at (or in my case, within distant sight of!) the forefront of this new social model to prepare for teaching others. We need to learn more than just one or two skills, we need to be comfortable with as many such skills as possible, and have whatever resources, tools and books are needed to back up and expand upon the basics of those crafts. To go one further (and perhaps easier than learning them all), stock up on references for a myriad other skills that we just don't have time to tackle, having them ready for others when there are more to share the joy. Many of us on this path are inclined to do this anyway, so this is perhaps just one more useful argument to justify innumerable hobbies and a bulging bookshelf!

This is not because I believe a single person, or even family, can accomplish everything that needs to be done. It's because someone has to be prepared to help others learn these skills in the future, and there just aren't enough of us to go around at the moment. As the tenuous Just-In-Time by-the-skin-of-our-teeth society we live in starts to fail us, we will have more and more willing students. Without our preparations there may not be the knowledge and resources for them to even consider getting started, and the road to their (and by relation our) success will be so much longer. Our planning and preparation may spell the difference between an excessively frugal, grubby future and one of leisurely, agrarian indulgence. It may be the difference between water and beer, milk and cheese, wooden and metal spoons, bark shanties or stone homes.

We will see, if things continue as they are, a time when both grandparents and children remain in (or return to) the home for longer periods of their lives, when households naturally swell up beyond the nuclear size. Siblings may migrate out of cities to bunk with country family members, bumping the household up to the status of a hamlet. The natural decline of our civilisation will drive this aspect on it's own. In the same way the growth of new hamlets will occur as new families move out into the country, and the spaces left in the cities are filled by remaining neighbours spreading out their hamlet estates.

Our job, as the ones already on the path, is to be prepared to welcome and assist newcomers, get them a few steps along the path to the stage of self-sufficiency so they can as quickly as possible become productive, self-reliant members of the network, providing benefits to the new society as a whole.

Monday, 27 October 2008

What's Happening

It's been a busy couple of weeks here at the farmlet. We've finished off a few more jobs around the place, and also completed our enclosed area out at Lyndhurst. We've even started to fill it up with some of our resource pile, though it's going to be a relatively slow process.

On the sale front I've put together a website with a partly interactive map of the place listing all of the fruit trees on the block, and a photo gallery that currently covers only the outside of the place. Pictures of the inside are dependent on keeping ahead of the kids messing the place up ;-)

The vegetable garden is coming along nicely now. We've had a couple of light frosts, but I'm covering all of the plants up with a couple of plant pots inverted over them (with a bit of lawn clippings in the top to cover the holes) and this has been keeping me out of trouble. Hopefully we'll see an end to the frost soon. The beans and zucchini are rocketing along, tomatoes and cucumbers are a bit slower, still suffering a touch of transplant shock and the cold nights we've had lately. The first bed of sweetcorn seed is in but, again due to the cold, has yet to show itself through the mulch.

Now that we're essentially reaching an end to the works required here we've started to sketch out some plans for the new place. We're thinking that if we install a water tank, and pipe and pump to get some water up from the creek then we should be set to put some trees and things in this Autumn. We will need to fence off a house block, and figure some way of keeping the pasture down, but doing so will mean that no matter when we finally get the house underway we've still gotten a head start on getting the fruit trees up and running. That's one of the hardest parts of leaving this place. The older trees are now loaded with fruit, yet we're walking away from that to be set back by three years. At least with a plan like this we might only be three years behind rather than five or six if we leave it until the house is finished.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Off To Market

We reached a point the other day at the Flood Street Farmlet. A special point, where we realised were faced with spending the rest of our lives finishing up all of the odd jobs and changing things here and there, to get it just right. We could see that we would potentially carry on in that fashion for quite a while to come. We seemed to be procrastinating over putting the place on the market.

We're unprepared, very unprepared for moving, but then, we've never really been prepared before, and we've moved a fair bit. The DW put her foot down and said she wanted the place on the market, wanted to be off on our next adventure. I "ummed" and even "aarghed". I said "what about if we just get job X done?" ... "and then perhaps job Y?", and it was pointed out that this was why we were never going to put the place on the market if we did not do it straight away.

I like to finish (some) things. The problem is that a home, especially the unusual kind of home that also includes food production elements, is an ongoing, life-long project. It never stops growing and changing, so the bar for "complete" was always going to be creeping off into the future. Each job done was seen in terms of better saleability (well, sort of, I've always enjoyed changing things around, even in rental properties), but they would only reveal more jobs needing completion that also affected the perfectness of the place (let me tell you it's far from perfect!) I needed to accept that it would never be perfect, and that it needed to go "as-is".

And so we made the call and the agent has been for a tour. He tells us it's a challenge. Not because the place is bad, mind you, just because it is relatively unique, given that it's a big house on a big block in a small village, with the orchard, berry patch, vege gardens and poultry houses. It's a lifestyle in a package, but that in turn somewhat limits it's appeal to only those within the demographic to which that lifestyle appeals.

Sure, it could sell to anyone, but the value of the changes made over the last few years would not be apparent or worth anything to such an "anyone", which is where the challenge lies. The "anyone" might see all the changes as needing a bulldozer to make the block suitable for something as horrendous as subdivision.

Within a fortnight or two the contract will be drawn up, and we'll be able to go on the market. We've got that long to finish off a few jobs, and transport a lot of our resource piles away to neaten the place up. And a lot of mowing to be done. And, a lot of hoping, for we sincerely hope that someone with similar ideas to ourselves comes along and takes up the Flood Street Farmlet challenge.

Given the current economic climate I doubt we will be able to be choosy. "So you plan to bulldoze it eh? Can't sell it to you then, sorry!", sounds all nice and idealistic, but when it comes down to it, our resources are currently spread thin, and we really need to concentrate them again so we can get moving on the new place. Time and money spent on this place would be so much better spent on our new block. It's up to the next people taking this place on to put their stamp on it, and much more stamping on our part will only make it harder for them ;-)

Friday, 12 September 2008

Global Approach To Emissions

The debate in Australia over carbon emissions and what we should do about them seems to have devolved largely into a conflict around the facts that we are a small nation, with a small population, and anything we do will have little effect on the overall outcomes. If the big nations like China, India and the US are not on board, any effort we make will be swamped. This is the core of the argument against action. A lot of sensible voices are pointing out myriad reasons why we should act anyway, but those messages don't carry much weight with the people who hold the purse strings.

In reading through some commentary on the Garnaut report this morning it occurred to me that the solution is actually rather simple, though perhaps simplisticly so I do admit. Still, simple ideas are often the best!

We take our internal action, putting in place an emissions tax scheme, rather than trading scheme. We want a penalty, direct, to the point, no mincing words and actions. A tax is a direct way of reducing production and consumption of emissions. It does not allow for fudging and swapping, it gives no favouritism, and like the Terminator, it never sleeps and it never gives up. The dirty coal fired power plant needs to know it's doing the wrong thing, not think that it needs to be a bit more clever in how it trades it's emissions. Trading schemes are another layer of distraction and obscufation, another game for peole with money to play, at the expense of the masses.

Following that action we put in place a series of external actions aimed squarely at those nations that have chosen not to take action. Every import from a country that isn't doing something about climate change is taxed in proportion for the full measure of the emissions it is producing, similarly every export to that country is taxed to make up the shortfall from it's lack of action.

This sends an immediate and undeniable message to the other nation, as well as creating a market signal within the local economy. We are encouraged by prices to shop locally, to manufacture and produce locally. At the global level we are encouraged to trade with nations who have taken steps to deal with emissions, in preference to those who have not.

If the "Made in China" plastic toy in the MacDonalds happy meal is now costing $5 or more thanks to the carbon taxes we are putting in place on them they will swiftly disappear from the meals. Similarly, every tonne of coal sent overseas would need a tax applied that was proportionate to the damage it will do when burned. If they're not paying the tax internally, then they're paying it to the supplier.

No country, and no transaction with a country should be immune, even down to currency exchanges. If a country does not want to do something about it's emissions, it's up to the rest of the global economy to do something for it, to force it's hand in the matter.

In addition to the basic signal, that unless they wish to play climate-change ball their economy will be wound back by external forces, it immediately provides an imperative to implement a carbon tax within their own borders. I know I'd rather have the tax money working in our own economy than someone else's.

It should be mandated that the tax revenue be spent on non-polluting energy projects, and on green manufacturing, housing and transport. It's there to help fund the shift to the new economy. Such actions would hurt, both at home and abroad, but either way we are going to go through a period of pain before we come out the other side. Better a period of swift adjustment than a drawn out and painful alteration under the weight of a changed climate. Better to siphon the funds from the damaging elements of the global economy to support the healing and renewing elements.

Our greatest global challenge at the moment with respect to top-down action is overcoming the inertia and disillusionment created by inaction within the giants of the global economy. If every smaller nation on Earth with a desire to get working on the problem signed on to a treaty to enact such penalties then the recalcitrent nations would quickly realise they'd better get moving to catch up with the bandwagon. If states and towns did it within the borders of countries then it sends a notice to the wider nation.

We cannot nicely ask the powers that be to care for the Earth, we already know they wont listen. They will do as much as they need to do to mollify, and not a whit more. We need to insist that they do it, and if they don't we need to do it for them. The single greatest hurdle at the moment is that the people who can take such high level actions are very unwilling to do so. They're more interested in preserving the economy in it's current state.

It's like a fruit tree, some years you prune a little, other years you need to be more drastic and prune out some of the larger limbs, otherwise future fruiting is going to be seriously compromised or even non-existent. It's time now for the saw rather than the secateurs.

Monday, 8 September 2008

Projects Update

First off, the project for turning the small metal drums into an ash processing facility was something of a failure. The glorified seive was way too small to process enough ash rapidly, and there were a few technical issues with the way it was set up.

All is not lost though. I found a nice solid fine sieve at the rubbish dump a few years back, that I stuck on legs and put a funnel under. I used it for sieving sand and earthy materials for making seed raising and cutting mixes. The DW was threatening to dump another load of ashes up the back, along with the valuable cargo of charcoal, so I quickly knocked up a second sieve to sit on top of the first, with a coarser mesh. The coarse sieve captures the large chunks of charcoal suitable for the forge. The lower one gets all the smaller bits that can go into potting mixes and into the ground as an agri-char or bio-char, and the ash goes into the funnel and then into a bucket. For now the ashes are being stored in a feed bag in the shed. I'll be taking a pH reading of the soil around the place and over at the new block to see where it might be most profitably applied.

Over the weekend before last I also constructed a new set of front steps for the house. The old ones were rusty red-painted steel steps, rather steep (yes, all two steps of them :-) ) with a big size difference between the different treads. The new ones are solid hardwood. I dipped into the bounty from the cattle yards I salvaged a few months ago and put them together. They've had their final coats of linseed oil applied and have been installed.

We've also discovered the joy of limestone toppings. Extremely cheap at about $28/cubic metre, they set like concrete (almost) and look good enough to walk on. We're going to turn all the muddy walking tracks into a decent surface. If only we'd tackled it before we started planning on selling the place!

Things are looking really good in the glasshouse, many of the cuttings have taken, even a few of the plum tree cuttings are looking like they might make it through. Still not sure about the apples though. They're normally a few weeks behind the plums, so I won't get an idea of whether they're going to make it for a bit. It's not all rosy though, the tallow tree cuttings have browned off, I'm thinking due to the extra heat and the fact that they had not yet formed sufficient roots. I've got my fingers crossed, as the tree up the back often gets hit by frost and loses it's leaves, and then comes back a few weeks later, so the cuttings may be as resilient.

Out at the new block, I've got a couple of posts in for a new bit of boundary fence. The previous owner's sheep are making free with the land we've bought that falls outside the fences, so it's high time these commons were enclosed. More seriously, stage one is a small section that will create a sectioned off area for storing my resource (junk) pile, where the goats agisted on our land cannot get to it. We'd hate for them to get injured climbing over piles of steel with all sorts of sharp protrusions, so we need an area they cannot get to.

I was also looking at putting the sheds etc in this general area as well, though I've still got doubts about it being the ideal spot. It is close to the house, but it is also crammed into a corner against the boundary, limiting the options for future expansion. The trouble is that other areas close to the house are all down on the worst of the slope, making access tricky at best, or too far away from the house. A shed or three is not an easy or cheap thing to move, so a bit more thought is in order before we start setting plans in stone.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Ashes to Ashes

In The Garden

Green with a gun has suggested using the ashes on the garden. I have until now avoided this, recalling warnings we were given when first starting out in gardening that it would alter the pH of the soil and damage it's structure. In the interests of finding the facts and deciding whether we really do have a winning solution I thought it worth investigating some more.

Research across a range of sources reveals the following elements may be present in wood ash, with quantities being dependent on the wood burned, and the ground that the tree grew in. In all cases hardwood ashes have more nutrients (and more ash) than softwood ashes. The values below are all from Northern hemisphere sources, and there's a chance our local Eucalyptus would come up with slightly different numbers.





15% - 30%

Generally in the form of calcium carbonate. This is the same stuff we get in lime, which is used to raise soil pH from acid towards alkaline.


3% - 9%

In the form of potash


1% - 3%

As phosphates.


1% - 3%


0% - 1%



A number of the trace elements are often classed as “heavy metals” and considered to be pollutants rather than valuable nutrients.

According to the PDF:


wood ashes are 40% - 50% as effective at altering soil pH when compared to lime. The other sources indicate that the constituents of ashes are water soluble therefore fast acting, in contrast to lime which takes longer to do it's job.

All sources indicated that wood ash should only be used on alkaline soils, and if using large amounts pH should be tested every year or two.

A number of other warnings were supplied, paraphrased, condensed and/or summarised below:

  • Don't use ash at the same time as applying nitrogenous fertilisers. The fertilisers will gas off the nitrogen as ammonia in the high pH, so you're wasting resources. Wait for a couple of weeks for the ash to do it's thing then apply the nitrogen.
  • Acid loving plants should not have wood ash applied to them e.g. Blueberries.
  • Alkaline should not have ash applied to them, and neutral soils should only have it applied very carefully in small quantities.
  • Ashes should not be applied where potatoes will be put as they may promote potato scab.
  • Don't use ash from stuff other than wood. You never know what you'll get.
  • Don't use ash on your seedbed at time of planting or on seedlings, ash salts are quick acting and relatively strong, so will burn the seedlings.

Another use for wood ash is as a pest control. It can be liberally dusted over infestations of pear and cherry slug to great effect. It was the solution of choice applied during my childhood, and I recall with some trepidation the act of spreading the stuff around.

Some representative sources on wood ash in the garden:


Totally Practical: Wood Ash

Wood ashes from your yule log can help your garden grow

Use caution with wood ash on your lawn and garden

Wood Ash in the Garden

WOOD ASHES - How To Use Them In The Garden

Is Wood Ash Good for Garden Soil?

In Soap and Fuels

Wood ashes (from hardwood trees) can also be used to make lye. Lye is generally made by soaking water through a barrel (with a perforated base) of ashes. The stuff that comes out the bottom is lye water, and needs to be concentrated for use by boiling off the excess water. This is pottassium hydroxide, rather than sodium hydroxide. This is good news if you're looking for a complete on-farm process for making biodiesel, as pottassium hydroxide is the stuff that is used to make ethanol-ester biodiesel, and ethanol can also be made on-farm, unlike methyl-ester biodiesel (which uses sodium hydroxide) See the following if you want to know more:

Making lye from wood ash

Ethanol biodiesel

A comprehensive guide with pictures covering soap making from lye is available at:

Traditional Soap Making

Another blog indicates that soap from potash lye is a jelly or soft soap, and requires hardening up with the addition of table salt if that is the aimed for product. According to the resource hard soaps are made with sodium lye.

Making Pioneer Soap

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Plans For Drums And Other Melodies

Back to the mundane world of pseudo-farm life for a post.

I've got a couple of plans fermenting at the moment, thanks to the gift of an apple bin full of 20 litre drums. Nothing like a source of raw materials to inspire all sorts of ideas. Hopefully not a case of having a hammer and everything looking like a nail...

Project number 1 is a charcoal and ash separation plant. I've been separating the charcoal and ash from the house fireplace so that I can make use of the charcoal in the forge. It's a messy job using a scrap of mesh over a bucket, so this little bit of work should make it a whole lot more efficient. The picture below shows the main cradle, there will be another similar one beneath it without the mesh windows. This will catch the ash and channel it into one drum, the charcoal will go out the end into a second one.

I'm still toying with the idea of grading the charcoal into two lots, those pieces of a size to be useful in the forge and other smaller bits that can be used in the garden as biochar. That will involve a very fine mesh in the upper window and a larger one in the lower window and some modifications to the catching cradle beneath to allow a second drum.

All that needs to be done now is find a use for the ash. At the moment this is being stored in a feed bag in the shed. With the exception of turning it into lye and hoping I can get hold of enough fat for soap I'm currently at a loss for ideas...

The second project will be a roller that I can drag behind the ute to compact road base. We've got quite a bit of road building to do out at Lyndhurst, and I'd like to do the early stages of it using hard work and the ute if possible. The plan is that we'll get truck loads of local road base dropped in the rough area, grade it out fairly level (now there's a project, building something to allow this task to be done with the ute!) and then roll it firm with the roller.

I've previously built a person powered roller by punching a hole in the bottom of a drum, fixing a bit of gal pipe centred through the drum, liberally greased, and then filling it with concrete and basalt rocks. A series of these that can be slid onto a longer pole and then hooked into a harness to be towed behind the ute should work well enough. I've also considered using two 44 gallon drums to do it, which would produce a better end result, but such a contraption would need to be made on-site as transporting the finished product out there would be tricky, to say the least.

In other news, and other plans, we've finally settled on a basic plan for moving forward overall. It was stressful for a time there trying to figure out the best way to juggle all of the competing demands to try and get ourselves out onto the new block. We've given up thinking about a full blown shed at this point, our outgoings so closely match incomings that having the resources to do that isn't going to happen for some time.

Instead we're going to get a shipping container moved out there, which is an economical means of securely storing the majority of the “junk” (resources!) currently in the shed. We will also be moving the site office out there and working on rigging it up as my office. This should involve a phone line and enough power for a single light and a laptop (assuming I can fit my current systems onto a laptop and run them with sufficient speed and reliability) The laptop should last for three or four hours on a charge from home each day, then continue with a top-up from whatever alternative power system we can implement for the remaining hours of the working day. We'll probably need a bit of power for the actual phone and answering machine, I don't really fancy going back to the old tin can catch me if you can style of communication.

Once we know I can work out there we can move into rental mode. We've minimized the stuff we need to cart around, and removed the inconvenience of re-establishing a home office every time we need to shift to a new rental. Rental mode means selling mode. We can stick this place on the market and get into the rest of the project. The added bonus will be that if I'm working out there daily it will be easy to water a few trees in the morning or evening, so we can start to get some real plantings going on out there.

Once we've sold this place we'll be in a position (as long as the economic sphere keeps it's spokes in place for a while yet) to build and kit out a shed for temporary accommodation. Then it's on to building the house itself. For the shed we are thinking a rammed earth construction. We were going to go with a skillion roof for ease of sticking it together, but sizing the timbers on that for a decent span leads me to believe it would be cheaper to go with a gable type roof. I've acquired some curved I-beam that would make a nice roof shape, just have to find some way of calculating spans and designing webbing to suit. Should be fun :-P

It's a grand plan, ambitious and all that, but I figure if I can build the charcoal and ash separation gizmo then anything is possible!!

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Searching, But For What?

I subscribe to a mailing list on the subject of peak oil, well a couple actually, but one in particular. In general the mail sent to these lists is passing on news relevant to the realm of peak oil debate and discussing that news. There are the occasional digressions as with all such lists, and then there are the questions on solutions, and debate over those. There is no general thread of looking for solutions, just reactive comment on solutions presented in the media.

A number of peak oil focussed forae suffer from a similar problem. They are news filters, which serves a purpose, but that seems to be their entire rationale for existence. Occasionally someone comes along and asks about the feasibility of some alternate source of energy, and is generally given the bad news. I wonder to myself, what is the point of trawling through all this stuff if the best that can be offered is essentially “there is no hope”?

There are of course no solutions to peak oil, as such. There are only responses. These responses can occur at a number of levels in society, and as many prominent thinkers have pointed out, the best responses are at the local and personal level. The effects of change at these levels will ultimately filter up through all other levels of society.

Accepting the realities of EROEI as a limiting factor in all debates over responses, along with the realities of finite resources, we are presented with a very simple set of possible responses. Well, it seems simple to my mind, perhaps I'm missing something.

There is one possible positive response. Reduction. Plain and simple. We don't use as much “stuff”. We reduce our population to sustainable levels, and at the same time reduce our consumption to sustainable levels. We live off the natural increase of the environment whilst allowing enough for the other species of the Earth and leaving the capital as an investment.

There are a raft of negative responses. There's no point detailing them, a look over some of the main peak oil sites will readily illustrate the general themes.

Given that there is only one plausible positive response, in what light do we consider suggestions for alternatives within our various ways of life?

Questions on the feasibility of alternative energies are invariably met with the response, “if we converted X% of our output of Y product to Z fuel then it would only replace a squillionth of our current demand.” and the discussion comes to a halt there.

Yes, this is an honest appraisal of the thermodynamic realities we are faced with. Still, it seems to miss a valuable point. In light of our single positive response what impact would such an alternative energy have? How can it be used within the context of a world that has embraced that single positive response? The respondents to the original questions only seem to consider the question in terms of preserving the status quo. What if the question were couched in terms of a new worldview, where we have taken the necessary steps under the positive plan? What gains may we see from it?

We need to give up on the idea of having lives like they are today. Our lives tomorrow will be nothing like they are today. Once we can do that, we can consider options in a new light. Biodiesel will not fuel a future that's like today. If the future is one where we have reduced population, reduced consumption, where 90% of the population walks to where they need to go, produces vegetables in their back yards, collects rain water off their rooves, then biodiesel could well allow farmers to continue producing bulk grain crops. It wont allow us to motor to the corner store 500m down the road, but it might allow us to get grain after that 500m walk, and have bread for lunch after the walk back again.

A lot of peak oil discussion is still operating from basis of attempting to preserve our current way of life, it is innate to the mindset of the people considering options for the future. We will not get ahead, we will have no meaningful discussion with respect to alternative energies, until we accept the condition of reduction in the first instance and from there go on to consider their feasibility. A future 1kWhr per day per household lifestyle is a much greater possibility than a 20kWhr per day per household lifestyle. The possibility of achieving that are orders of magnitude greater. If we throw our hands in the air and give up because we cannot achieve the 20kWhr lifestyle then we are shooting ourselves in the foot, cutting off our noses to spite our faces.

While ever we are wasting out time and energy searching for ways to escape the unavoidable realities we are missing many valuable chances to take opportunities and courses of action that will lead to our ultimate benefit in the future, a future markedly different than our current state, but at the least possessing a rational balance of modernity and sustainability.

Above are some Chinese Tallow Tree (Sapium sebiferum) cuttings. These guys will produce the most oil per hectare of any crop short of algae, according to some sources, and the infrastructure required is going to be a lot less.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Carbon Shock, Trees & Sheds

I'm having a bash at Green With A Gun's carbon accounting. At this early stage I'm tracking most things, but estimating water and power use from my records, which are pretty extensive. I'm a compulsive grapher of such things, and get excited when a new water or power bill arrives, until I realise that I have to pay for it as well as graphing it... I figure we're going to get the worst up front, and in future months when we have a chance to make some changes we can measure the figures more accurately.

So how do the numbers look so far? Pretty poor to be honest.

For a household of 5, two adults and three kids, we're going to be spending more than ¢1200 this month, leaving us with a deficit of over ¢700. Can I put it on the credit card???

There will still be numbers for purchases, compost, rubbish & recycling, and fuel use to come in over the course of the month, but the big numbers, water and power use, are already in there, and they're huge! I thought we were doing fairly well given that I work out of home, one of the reasons for the big power bill I guess, that and the oversized off-peak water heater we were left by the previous owners, designed to fill the massive spa for lazy lounging in steaming bubbly water, a legacy of times before people considered the environment in advance of leisure time activities.

Still, there are surely ways to reduce this overall usage, even given the fact that we wont be spending up big on major changes due to the fact that we are hoping to move on sooner rather than later. Teaching the kids to turn off taps and lights properly would be a good start, and being more rigorous in turning off my computer would help as well. Until we get the power and water down then everything else is dwarfed in comparison. A bit like changing to compact flouro light globes and then driving to the corner shop four times a day.

Yesterday I potted on the elm seedlings we started last year. Eighteen tiny elm trees now in individual pots. They'll be grown on for another year before being planted out in one of the hedgerows-to-be out at the new farm. We've got six oaks begun at the same time that will go out this winter if I can organise some form of tree guards for them. I'll have to choose my month carefully for those, ¢900 back on the account would be nice! I'm leaning toward some recycled apple bins, knock the base out of them, and replace a couple of the boards on the north side with old netting, as well as slinging a bit it over the top. We've got a gully full of the stuff, ready to be recycled, so it seems like a carbon saving plan to me.

I love propagating trees, as I'm sure I've mentioned before, but we're faced with two challenges now that we have enough land to put in (almost) as many trees as we can imagine. Water and protection. Whilst the water is around, getting out to the block weekly during summer may be a challenge, though Mum has kindly offered to help out there, so one challenge may be surmountable. Hares and roos are the other challenge. There isn't much we can do about the roos, they're a part of the environment that we need to learn to live with, but the hares, well, we might be sampling a few new dishes in the coming months. I hear jugged hare is a winner.

I'm also working on some plans for a shed. I've recently come into possession of a large pile of steel that would be suitable for the roof spans on a nice shed. After spending some evenings over the weekend working up a suitable rough plan I did some costings. Then I compared those costs to some kit sheds that are available. I was in for a nasty shock. Even with the savings from all the steel, the major component of the cost of the shed will be cladding and roofing. Roofing alone would cost over $6 000, walling another $4 000, so changing the walling material is only going to reduce the cost to around $10 000, before the costs of fitting out for temporary accommodation. The kit shed costs around $10 000 complete (not including fitout for accommodation of course), with the added bonus of not needing to visit engineers to get it certified, and certainly enjoying an easier journey through the council gauntlet. We're not rushing into anything just yet, who knows, another couple of tons of steel could turn up, or a shed's worth of corrugated iron, but at this stage the sensible option would seem to be the kit shed. Now, what can I possibly use 20 odd curved spans of I-beam for?

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Misappropriated Revolution?

I finished reading a book called “The Owner-Built Homestead” by Barbara and Ken Kern last night, originally published in1977, though it indicates the original copyright year was 1974. The book has languished on my shelf for a number of years now, being referred to sporadically and in a piecemeal fashion. With our new project in it's formative stages I've dusted off a number of books like this and read them cover to cover to make sure I don't miss anything useful.

Last night, as I read the final chapter I came across the following gem that caused me some concern. Please forgive any transcription errors, and unconscious changes of spelling to my native tongue:

Homesteading is a self-reliant way of life on the land, and wholesome food production may well be the first step toward achieving self-reliance. This momentum toward self-reliance and self-provision has been, in recent years, appropriately labeled the Green Revolution. It has been quietly moving forward as families return to the soil to raise their crops and their children. Nothing seems substantially to impede it's progress.

I've enboldened the shocking bit. All through the recent years of my life I've known the Green Revolution according to the standard of the day, that it referred to the scientific conquest over nature. As I drifted off to sleep I thought about this change. It's quite common for different groups to use the one term in different ways, but these two uses of the term seem to be diametrically opposed. One refers to a shift of lifestyle back closer to the earth, the other to a shift in practices that facilitate a movement of people away from the land, and a gradual destruction of the earth.

A quick search of the internet seems to indicate that the first use of the term “Green Revolution” in it's modern context is ascribed to USAID director William Gaud in 1968. To quote

The term "Green Revolution" was first used in 1968 by former USAID director William Gaud, who noted the spread of the new technologies and said, "These and other developments in the field of agriculture contain the makings of a new revolution. It is not a violent Red Revolution like that of the Soviets, nor is it a White Revolution like that of the Shah of Iran. I call it the Green Revolution."

Speech by William S. Gaud to the Society for International Development. 1968.

The full text of the speech is available at:

So it would appear that William's use of the term predates it's inclusion in the book by at least 6 and maybe 9 years, though I imagine greater research would perhaps dig up references to the term in a lot of old homesteading literature from those times.

No matter which way it went, whether it was the chicken or the egg, the science based revolution gained the association with the term, for better (and in my opinion) or worse. Reading through the speech, the following sticks out, and I wonder what impact such a statement has had:

Is the aid program in trouble because economic development does not matter - because it is not important? Nonsense! Development is the burning obsession of more than half the people in the world. Development as Pope Paul has said, is the new name for peace. Development does matter and it cannot wait.

Pope Paul said that development is the new peace? Development that now works for the rich and fails the poor? The following from sums it up nicely:

Yet far from bringing prosperity, two decades of Green Revolution have left Punjab riddled with discontent and violence. Instead of plenty, Punjab has been left with diseased soils, pest infested cops, waterlogged deserts. indebted and discontented farmers.

It has often being suggested that the Green Revolution was the only alternative by which India and the rest of the Third World could have increased their food availability. Yet, until the 1960's India was successfully following an agricultural development policy based on strenghthening the ecological base of agriculture and the self-reliance of peasants. Most of the states were undergoing land reforms and measures were taken to secure tenure for tenant cultivators, to fix reasonable rents, and tjo abolish the Zamindari system. Ceilings on land holdings were also reduced. The 'land transformation' programme put forward by the Ministry of Agriculture, achieved major successes. Infact, the rate of growth of total crop production was higher during this period.

I don't want to “buy a vowel”, I want a consonant. And that consonant would be the letter “d” and we can replace our “n” and get a much better picture. We know how powerful words and phrases can be, that the pen is mightier than the sword. If only the Green Revolution as we now know it had been correctly labelled as the “Greed Revolution” and left the subsistence movement with the name “Green Revolution” where might we be today?

To finish with another quote from Barbara and Ken, speaking on the Green Revolution:

As one unsung poet puts it, “Don't look for it's soldiers in the city. Most of the real ones are long since gone to their domesand gardens, with goats and chickens the day was won. You will now see only plastic imitations who will starve yelling, “What's it all mean?” - not knowing that the revolution has come and gone and was won in a patch of beans.”

Obviously the closing years of that decade was one of hope for sane and rational living.Unfortunately what was seen as a shift gaining momentum appeared to lose that forward drive during the 1980's and 1990's, floundering against the renewed vigour of capitalism and corporate agribusiness.

The movement is still there, but it still remains a subset of society, a fringe group, probably similar in proportion to what it was when Barbara and Ken wrote that book. The trouble is that we are now faced with greater and more pressing concerns, such as climate change and peak oil, and the apparatus of government and business that has congealed around society is operating to the direct detriment of the homesteading movement (whatever it may be called in people's own societies). These concerns were there back in the 1970's, but they were neglected in the intervening years, so the danger they present has increased dramatically, and our chances of taking action, and of that action producing useful results, have been proportionally reduced.

Here in Australia we face numerous challenges on our path to becoming small farmers, and that's before we even get to the stage of thinking about sticking something in the ground or on the field. Sometimes it seems that the powers that be have done everything possible to make self-reliance a difficult and demanding path to follow. It is likely that this is an unintended side-effect of the push to make things easier for big centralised corporations, but it has it's effect regardless of the ultimate motive.

Reclaiming the Green Revolution is probably beyond us now, and as it was such a catchy, pithy phrase, it is a great shame. All the same, the self-reliance revolution must go on. Perhaps it will be the Golden Revolution, powered by the sun, ushering in a golden age of harmony with the earth?

Friday, 30 May 2008

Another Quick Update

Yet another month flown by! I wont bother making excuses for not posting, they're the same as the usual ones ;-)

I've calmed down since my water crisis, and essentially given up on the idea of having a lot of massive dams, at least for the moment. We've decided we'll have a single large dam to the capacity of our maximum harvestable right, situated at the bottom of hill, where three gullies feed into one. It's a nice spot for a dam.

The rest of our water needs we will handle through swales/contour banks. This will help prevent erosion on our very steep block, as well as ensuring any water that does fall takes the long way round on it's journey to the creek. If we can maximise the work it does then we'll be as well off as if we stored it in the first place.

We're still tossing up a lot of ideas for cropping, nothing has been settled yet. Having our water plans sorted out (sort of) allows us to make some more serious decisions, at least with respect to dumping some ideas. We wont be growing a commercial crop of hazelnuts for one, though we may still have a crack at some olives.

We're also toying with the idea of a bit of herbage. The DW really loves herbs, and so do I, so I think they'd be perfect given our inclinations. We will of course have to do a lot of market research before we move in that direction, but it allows an avenue of diversity. One of our axioms for this adventure is "not all of our eggs in one basket".

Part of our building process involves putting in a 5m or bigger stock grid on the council road (it's not theirs yet, and they may be sent the bill for it before they can have it, lol!) and we've been covered a lot of suppliers for prices. Thankfully we found a relatively local supplier who has them for half the price we've been quoted to date, so that is a bit of good news. I just hope we can take advantage of it before steel prices shoot through the roof.

Our other option is of course to convince the landowner on the other side of the council road that it is more economical to fence his paddock off, even though he loses a scrap of grazing land (that belongs to council anyway). This option is half the price of the lowest priced grids.

The new farm is generally on hold until we get the current farmlet officially on the market (it's sort of on there now, but not properly). We're working through the painting, and have finished off the tiling, so it's slowly getting there. One of the major hurdles will be when we want to move all our accumulated resources out to the new place. Storage there is currently nil, so we're going to need to implement some solutions for that. We have contemplated containers, and may end up going that route, they're almost as economical as a shed (floorspace per dollar wise) without the construction headaches.

So many up in the air plans can get confusing and cause an undue amount of stress. Thankfully it's the weekend now and we're planning a campfire out the back tonight (in fact I think it's already lit!). Sausages, coleslaw and fire-taters, with toasted marshmallows for desert. A great way to wind down from the working week before getting into the working (but infinitely more satisfying) weekend.

Friday, 2 May 2008

Water Complexity Crisis

Over the last few weeks I've been investigating possibilities for our new block of land. We intend to run some form of commercial operation on it, most likely one or more tree crops. We don't like to put all of our eggs in one basket so spreading across a couple of different crops will meet the goal of resiliency (in addition to the myriad other subsystems we intend to implement for our own use.)

One of the first concerns was irrigation. The region is reasonably well watered with an annual rainfall around 800mm per annum. Certainly not coastal, but good enough. In planning such an enterprise a person generally tries to consider worst case scenarios, and in this instance we're looking at how we would survive a total drought for a year or more.

The answer to this is by having stored water on hand to irrigate the trees. If we can get them through the drought period, even without returning a crop, then we live to try another day.

A landowner has a right to harvest a certain amount of water on their land, known as their "harvestable right", which is set as a proportion of the annual rainfall in an area. Our factor is 0.08, which is 0.01% of the average rainfall or thereabouts (though I am sure there is some much more arcane way of working this out used by the folks in power.) To calculate the size of dams allowed on the property from this, one multiplies the factor by the land size in hectares to arrive at the number of megalitres of storage allowed.

So for our modest estate we come up with a figure of 2.24ML. This is deemed to be sufficient for domestic and stock watering, which seems fair enough.

The real problems arise when you need to consider irrigating a crop. Based on our scenarios we would need somewhere in the vicinity of 10ML to survive a total drought in reasonable condition if we were to plant just 1ha of a tree crop such as olives. If we give up the desire to get a crop off in drought years and irrigate only to keep the trees alive then this could be reduced to 4ML, perhaps.

All of this seems fair enough, we'd be quite willing to pay for the privilege of being able to trap extra water falling from the sky (even though this irks a part of me) but the problem is, how?

It might seem as simple as paying the appropriate licences and getting on with the job, but sadly, no, it's not that easy. It's actually so difficult that even the people in the government department in charge of all this stuff cannot explain it clearly.

They start out with "You need to buy a water allocation from someone else." and that's where the flow of useful & sensible information seems to end.

So I ask "Are we buying part of their harvestable right?" and the answer to that is "no".

It seems harvestable rights are immutable, inalienable, untradeable.

So I ask the next dumb question: "Where does the water for the water allocations come from then, if everyone has only got 'harvestable rights' that cannot be traded?"

From what I could discern there are people out there who somehow have a water allocation beyond their "harvestable right". I have no idea how they would have gained this allocation given that the system apparently cannot create new water allocations, but I guess that's just one of the mysteries of bureaucracy that we just need to accept.

If I wish to get my enterprise secure with respect to water I need to find someone who has water and who wants to sell it. The trouble is a quick check on the government register of water allocation sales shows not a single one in the last two years in our catchment. A search on a national water trading website shows that there are currently none for sale either, so at the moment I've reached a dead end. I'll check in with a few stock and station agents in the region to see what they know, so all might not be lost, but with the mines purchasing water left, right and center, I don't hold out much hope.

There are of course other ways to skin a cat, and we will proceed with our primary course of action which is storing water in the soil itself, but we will be operating without the backup of dam-based storage for the times when the soil goes crispy. I guess that way we're not taking all of the excitement and risk out of the enterprise!

Thursday, 24 April 2008


I'd like to apologise to anyone who still stops by to see if anything has changed! It's been an awfully long time since I put up a post.

A lot has happened in the months since the end of January. A lot is still happening, so this is just a short note to let you know I still exist, and will attempt to resume something like normal service soon.

We have our new block of land, and have been getting it ready to have some animals agisted on it. We've also got the repayments on it, and interest rates have gone from 7.8% to 8.5% in the few months from November last year. Amazing stuff!

We've got our current liferaft (the Flood Street Farmlet of course) informally on the market now. I say informally as it's not being put with any agents at the moment, and is offered at reduced cost as we haven't finished things like painting, tiling etc so it doesn't look as good as it will shortly. Still, if somebody wants it now they're welcome to it :-)

It seems things are heating up across the world with respect to peak oil, peak everything, and the general crisis of civilisation. Some recent blogs by folks far more dedicated than I can hope to be at the moment. Of course they also have a lot of very intelligent and scary things to say!

And, if you're getting the feeling that you're in the midst of history in the making:

Take care, and I promise to write something a bit more substantial soon!!

Friday, 25 January 2008

How Relocalisation May Work

In the last week there has been a flurry of activity over at The Oil Drum on the subject of relocalisation. It began with an essay by Stuart Staniford, titled The Fallacy Of Reversibility which looked at the future prospects for relocalisation. There was a followup piece analysing this essay, mainly aimed at pointing out the holes, called Is Relocalisation Doomed by Sharon Astyk. Green With A Gun has also made some important points on the issue, and certainly a lot easier to follow.

There are now hundreds of comments on the articles, arguing to and fro about their merits and the general future of relocalisation and/or society. It's a lot to wade through, and as with all such commenting, there will never be a consensus. I'm setting out here to put together my thoughts on the matter. These thoughts have kept me awake for the last night or two (or three) so hopefully by setting them down I might get a peaceful night's rest. It is not a quantitative analysis, more a discussion on probable mechanisms that would influence a change in social behaviour to bring about something resembling relocalisation.

To begin, Stuart approaches the subject of whether relocalisation will result from peak oil from the perspective of the supplier. This, I think, is a major flaw in his analysis. Any change does not proceed from one element of a relationship alone, but is the result of the changes in both sides. Supplier and consumer are intimately linked in the case of food supply, and by only looking at the supply side of the equation we are missing at least half of the case.

Boiled down, Stuart is asking "will industrial agriculture become unprofitable due to peak oil?" and unfortunately this is missing the heart of the matter. It's not whether industrial agriculture will be profitable or not that tells us whether relocalisation will work post-peak oil.

The first question should be "what is relocalisation?". This will give us a basis that will allow us to consider the situation in the correct light.

To my mind relocalisation is about sourcing your goods and services in the local economy. An adjunct to that is that the local economy must step up to the plate and supply more goods and services to meet the demands of local consumers. That's it in a nutshell. Keep in mind that supplier and consumer are always intimately linked, one accepts feedback from the other and vice versa.

Nothing in that description implies the continuance or otherwise of industrial agriculture. There is also nothing in it that says industrialised agriculture cannot be used locally. We must insert a caveat, that obviously fuel and parts for the maintenance of machinery are generally not locally available commodities, but a profitable enterprise should be able to deal with those issues.

Relocalisation is more about the spatial relationship with sources of goods than the sources themselves. Sure other issues can be brought into it, such as of ethical production, but these are sideline issues to the central issue of distance. I'm not sure whether it fits the purist relocalisation philosophy, but I believe trade over distance will continue to a degree even in a relocalised area, but that trade wont be in the goods required for our day-to-day survival.

Whilst relocalisation covers things other than food, the focus here is on food, due to the critical part it plays in our continued existence. I believe the ideas expressed for food can be applied to other things with some consideration.

I do appreciate that Stuart was most likely approaching the issue in the fashion he did in order to prove that whilst there was broadscale industrial agriculture there was no impetus for suppliers to turn to any other model of production, but I personally see this as playing around the fringes of the true issues that need to be considered. It's not about whether the supplier needs to turn to some new model of production, but about whether the consumer needs to.

I will touch briefly on a related issue for a moment. There is a lot of talk about calls for large proportions of the population to return to producing their own food as a part of the relocalisation ethos. In Stuart's essay it seemed to be assumed that this would be enacted by a movement of people into the workforce of existing farms, that there would be some economic spur that would drive the farmer to take on physical labourers in place of machinery. I think this is also a misunderstanding of relocalisation. Such a thing would not come to pass at least until it cost more to run machinery than it did to hire labour. Whilst that state of affairs is entirely possible, as Stuart was able to prove it's not likely for some time to come, at least not from a purely economic standpoint in relation to the farmer's bottom line.

Let us consider the consumer, strangely absent from Stuart's analysis, yet central to the reasoning behind relocalisation as a mitigation strategy for peak oil.

Relocalisation is currently a voluntary exercise. It is an activity undertaken by people and communities as a form of insurance. Why insurance? By patronising local suppliers, demand will increase supply, according to economic theory. With an abundance of local suppliers a community or region becomes insulated against shocks to the industrialised mechanisms of goods supply.

I feel this is one of the core paradigms of the relocalisation movement. Forseeing disruptions to stretched supply chains (often global in extent) localities hope to minimise the impact of such disruptions on their daily lives, and therefore upon their chances of continued existence.

The push for relocalisation is not going to come from the bottom line of the grower, but from the consumer. Whilst we have abundant transport fuels to run the current networks everything is okay. As soon as supply declines to any great extent then trouble begins. It does not matter whether a farm in the U.S. is economically viable post-peak oil if the people reliant on it's produce are half a world away in Australia and the goods never arrive because the transport company is unable to purchase fuel.

This highlights the fact that one of the primary motivators is going to be the cost and availability of transport. The cost of getting the goods to market, where this remains possible. Farm gate prices will have an influence on the final price, but these are compounded along with the cost of transport, and the overheads and operating profit of the end marketers, to give a final price. As this goes up, so the affordability of the food decreases.

This leads us to the second factor that needs to be considered when trying to understand what may push people to relocalisation, spending power. Let's consider a "case study" to illustrate some points.

A consumer earns $800 per week working. Of that $800, $200 goes to driving 40km into the nearest town to work on a daily basis. A further $300 is spent on food for the family and the rest goes on mortgage/rent, and sundry other expenses.

As the price of food increases due to the increasing input costs (fundamentally, fuel), we will have inflation (if I understand economic theory correctly!) and the standard approach to combatting inflation is to raise interest rates. So as food costs increase and mortgage/rent payments increase.

Our hypothetical consumer does not want to give up her job, so cutting back on fuel use is not an option. Due to the troubled housing market, moving is not an immediate option. The non-essential sundry expenses go first, and then the budget of food needs to be trimmed. Over time this happens again and again. No more chocolate biscuits, then no more biscuits at all. No more pre-packaged meals. No more soft drink. Before too long the consumer is at a point where they are forced to buy raw foods (if they know of such things, perhaps they have starved for lack of 2 minute noodles by this time) and create their own meals.

The essential message (if sense prevails) is that the consumer gradually moves to a state of producing meals from raw foods. They are now caught between a rock and a hard place. Further increases in price cannot be dealt with by making the diet more raw, they can only be dealt with by reducing the amount of food available.

Now of course there are a multitude of humans, and every one will have a different response to such a situation. Perhaps they turn to charity, move in with relatives, etc. Some though, will have thought ahead and now be growing some proportion of their own food, likely to be mostly vegetables. So begins one aspect of forced relocalisation. Not forced in the sense that everyone will be required to do it by some authority, but forced in that there is an outside factor or influence driving people to it.

The final element of relocalisation to be considered (here at least) is that of the source of food. Currently the majority of people shop in big chain supermarkets. The buying power of these organisations means that food can be brought to the consumer at a price that is often lower than the input costs to the producer. I am personally acquainted with horticulturalists who have left the industry due to the fact that they were getting paid less for their produce than it cost them to grow it.

Now many people would argue that this is a push toward economies of scale, that larger farms will take the place of these smaller, family run enterprises, and one of the central assertions of Stuart's piece is that such large farms will remain profitable throughout.

It is already a fact that our local farmer's market is cheaper than the local supermarket (when I say local, both are 45km away from the village where we reside) The farmer's market is well supported, but only occurs fortnightly.

Again, talking of sensible choices, as fuel prices rise, and following them food prices, we should still see a difference between these two means of obtaining food. Word would get around as people began to search for cheaper sources of food. Patronage at the market would increase, local growers currently supplying to the central markets would hear of this and change the way they do business, moving to sell through the markets. The markets may then run weekly, or daily even, as demand from the consumer spurs the suppliers on.

The cheaper prices at the market still generally mean that the supplier is getting more than when selling to the wholesale market, as long as the farmer is willing to go to such lengths. I imagine that other forms of market selling will come about, such as local agent systems where the fellow who enjoys the hurley burley of the markets collects produce from a group of more socially reticent suppliers and takes it along weekly or daily.

And so relocalisation would come about through the forces applied upon the consumer by the system, and then applied by the consumer back onto the system. As budgets are squeezed by increasing prices consumers move from the ease of driving to the nearest supermarket for pre-packaged meals to sourcing rawer foods closer to home in an attempt to maintain their existence. To be sure this will not happen as a rule, and not be across the board, but it is a mechanism that will result in relocalisation without conscious intent.

As indicated in the beginning, this is a consideration of hypothetical mechanisms that could drive relocalisation, an attempt to look at the factors that were missed in Stuart's essay. It lacks numerical backing, and also suffers for the fact that humans are, if nothing else, an unpredictable species. Still, if the chains of cause and effect outlined here are logically consistent, then it is certainly a possibility, though whether it is a probability remains to be seen. If ever I get a holiday again I may try to put some numbers to it.

Monday, 21 January 2008

Done, Perhaps? Well Shorn, Certainly!

First an update on the state of Billie, the new girl on the block, for the folks who have expressed a desire to see how she turned out after her run through the beauty salon. A much more visually and aromatically appealing creature :-) About a third the size as well.

Our professional goat wrangler friend tells us she is probably around 2 years old, and in good condition considering her recent lifestyle. Once shorn she had a toenail trim, drench and vaccination, and then kitted out with a collar. We were also informed that she has very nice fibre, so next shearing, when it hopefully wont be so infested with weeds and bugs, it might be a candidate for spinning.

Over the last few days she has already become much more tame. She enjoys a good scratch, though she needs to be caught to give her one. Once you've begun you can let go and she'll stand there enjoying it. She also doesn't run for the hills when we come near, so we're making swift progress. We're hoping that by the time she's willing to come when called for a treat of some kind then we'll be able to let her off and she wont immediately trash the fences in an attempt to escape.

As I hinted at in the last post, this weekend was spent out on the new block, doing the work that is required to "start construction" so that we can preserve the building entitlement when the boundary change goes through.

It was a wet, wet, wet weekend, especially Saturday, though a few showers went through on Sunday. This is the first time in some time that we've had decent rain, which I considered quite ironic. There was no way I was going to put off the work for an extra week, so went ahead regardless. I arrived on site at about 8 am on Saturday, and the bulldozer arrived half an hour later. Work commenced shortly after that.

My tasks were to get the new access installed, and when the earthworks were complete install the erosion control. Initially we were thinking we'd go with strawbales for this aspect of the project, but thankfully my FIL had some of the real stuff from one of his previous projects, so I was able to put that to use. Strawbales are very hard to come by at the moment, so we may have had to wait to get them.

Below are some pictures of the progress of leveling the house site.

Below, the job is done...

Below is a picture of the new access, about half way through the work. I still had to string some wire up on the left hand fence. We will need to introduce about a foot of fill into the "driveway" to bring it up to level. You can just make out a hummock of dirt at the foot of the left hand gatepost, which represents roughly where it will need to come up to.

The earthworks were completed by about 3pm on Sunday, fences and erosion control by 6pm. All in all it was an action packed, sometimes miserable and wet, weekend, but we got the jobs done, and maybe, just maybe, we might be only a couple of weeks away from settlement on the block. Then the fun will really begin. Our only concern at this stage is whether we have installed enough erosion control. We wont know the answer to that until the certifier gets back tomorrow and can get out and have a look at it. Our fingers are firmly crossed...