26 February 2009

Making liquid dish soap

Finally got around to making a batch of soap. It is my second batch, and I am still a bit intimidated by the lye. I was also terrified of my pressure canner the first few times I used it, especially on the wood stove!

This soap used half beef tallow, half lard, and that seems to be a popular combination of fats, for consistency. My first batch was pure lard, and it was a great laundry soap, and dish soap. I like the creamy coloring that the tallow gives this soap. Although I'm not sure it came out so great, there was a bit of separation, it seemed that the two fats did not want to dissolve at the same rate in the lye solution. I kept stirring gently for at least 20 minutes and it only ever got to a lumpy honey consistency, not well blended. And there was a little bit of separation in the mold, like some of the glycerin had separated out. But it will work just great for laundry and dishes regardless. One batch of soap (4.4 lbs fat to one bottle of lye) does us for a year or more.

There were some great soap making tutorials up on blogs in the Fall, thanks especially to Throwback at Trapper Creek. But I haven't seen anything about making dish soap, or jelly soap. Jelly soap is the consistency of a good stock, and it can be mixed with water to use in hand pumps or as a liquid dish soap. I keep all of my bits of soap, too small to use, and I added them to the crumbles left over from cutting the bars of my new batch of soap. The recipe for jelly soap is 1 lb grated soap to 1 gallon water. Boil for 10 minutes.

I water it down, half jelly soap, half water. It does foam up with a bit of agitation, and works great for dishes. Cuts grease and leaves glass sparkling! We need a little jingle playing in the background. I thought it might work great for people using homemade soap in laundry machines. I use the bars with my ol' washboard. But this liquid soap would dissolve well in cold water wash cycles.
The kids are growing fast! The have doubled their size in two weeks, and are just about able to make a vertical leap over a 4 foot gate! Good thing we are planning to tether them in the summer. They have been nibbling on hay, but are just starting to actually eat a bit of it. Penelope is consistently giving 3 Quarts of milk a day, which is great for us, and as soon as the kids are weaned, we will have extra milk to make yogurt and cheese and butter! I did try some of the goats milk in the cream separater, and it worked, so I should be able to make goat butter.

25 February 2009

A conversation on ecological sustainability: Part 2

In my post A conversation on ecological sustainability, I made these statements: "I no longer believe that over-population is the dominant problem, or even the root cause of many of our ecological crises. I firmly believe there is more than enough for everyone alive right now on this earth to be nourished, clothed, housed and enabled with dignified work. This is not an utopian ideal, but an ethical principle." I am aware that overpopulation is one of those controversial hot-topics, which is why I feel it is so important to return to this issue and keep churning it.

First off, by simple mathematical equation, arriving at a concrete number for the carrying capacity of the earth, no matter how large or small, requires a calculated footprint for each human being. If we take the current available arable land on this earth as a base, in order to calculate how many human beings can live on that land mass, we need to know how much land each person requires. So which standard of living do we use? When we first began homesteading, one reason we moved into an underpopulated rural area was because we thought that we needed 100 acres to homestead on a largely self-reliant basis, and these depopulating areas held the best chances that we would be able to afford a piece of land that size. In the three years we have been on a 100 acre parcel (10 ac cleared pasture, 90 ac wooded), we have found, through practical experience and meeting the majority of our material needs, that we need a lot less land. Really, 10 acres would almost be too much. Even with wood as our sole source of heat and cooking fuel, and harvesting wood for building all of our barns, fencing and sheds, we have only begun to thin 4 to 5 acres of bush that was clear cut 20 years ago. The trees we harvest are primarily quick growing poplar and fir, and they are not large, average diameter of 6-8", and at least half of the trees we used were dry-rot because the regrowth was crowded and had not been managed. So if we were harvesting our wood out of a sustainably managed woodland, with hardwood for fuel, we need only 2-3 acres, at most. As we develop more solar hot water and solar cooking technologies, we need even less. And this sustainably forested area could also serve as a source of grazing for goats and rabbits, wildlife habitat to shelter natural beneficials in the garden, and food sources such as bramble fruits, orchards and nuts.

As for arable land for gardens, grazing, hay and grain, we first thought that we would run out of room on the 10 cleared acres. And these unamended, unimproved, tired pastures were just enough to carry one dairy cow, a horse and some pigs and poultry, so our first approach was to improve the pastures to increase the carrying capacity. The real revolution for us was to change the kinds of livestock we carry. One dairy cow provides enough milk and dairy products for a large extended family, and without a sustainable community approach to dairying in this area, this one cow was consuming most of the land resources as well as our time and energy, and even with my best effort to use up every drop of milk, in reality, we were producing too much. In switching to goats as dairy animals, and grazing animals such as rabbits and ducks instead of the grain intensive pigs and chickens, we are now able to meet our dairy, egg and meat needs (including growing the grains to raise them) on less than half the land. So as we continue to improve pastures and soil, we can grow all of our food (except coffee, tea and salt) on less than 3 acres, in Zone 4b. The carrying capacity of this zone is just about equivalent to the marginal lands surrounding deserts, we have a 3-4 month growing season, and 8-9 months dormancy, trees grow slowly and pastures do not provide more than one cut in a season. It is the same in a semi-arid climate where the growing season after the rains is only 3 months, with the dormant dry season extending throughout the rest of the year. So in a temperate zone, we could easily decrease our footprint by half or more. A large majority of the land mass of this earth is in the temperate band, if these lands are managed on a sustainable scale, using very low-tech methods and traditional fuels and foods, I would suggest that one acre is plenty to support one adult and a child. If we then continue to innovate, improve and build soils, push back the deserts, and use the types of methods Bishop's Homegrown detailed, the potential is endless.

We also thought that we would run into water issues, even here with a large snow pack and heavy precipitation, because we moved on here with a shallow, hand-drilled well. The well consists of a 2" diameter pipe drilled down to about 25 feet. The water table is usually between 10-15 feet below the surface, but it replenishes slowly because it is only ground water. We are not tapped into any water veins or the fossil water 100" below the surface that our neighbors access. We have to manage our water usage, both in the summer if we go 3-4 weeks without much rain, and in the winter when the ground water and precipitation is locked up as ice and snow. We have often thought of drilling a deeper well, or of using water catchment to meet our non-drinkable water needs. We cannot irrigate the garden on this scale, and even meeting the water needs of the dairy cow began to drain our well, especially in the winter. We mulch the garden and build up water-retaining humus in the soil, and only water tender transplants. On this level, even without rainwater catchment, we use about 10 gallons a day to meet all of our water needs, including livestock, garden, laundry, processing our canned food, etc. Our shallow well only taps the groundwater in a small diameter around it, I would guess that our water footprint, in an area with heavy precipitation to be only 10 cubic feet of ground water. Mr. Fritillary farmed on the edge of a desert, and using permaculture and water management techniques such as heavy mulch, shade houses, etc, he was able to catch enough water for 6-12 months with 5 inches of rain off of a 112 square foot roof. Most semi-arid zones receive 5-10" of rain a year, so with the appropriate rain catchment and storage techniques, water needs can easily be met on the land scale suggested above.

So now for manufactured goods, materials such as metals that require mining, electronics and technology such as solar panels and wind generators. We do our best to make either life-time purchases or buy used goods. We spend well under $1000 a year on purchases such as electronics, bicycle parts, solar panels, generators, tools, grain mills, cookware etc. And that number gets smaller each year. We could easily meet our fiber, clothing and leather needs on the footprint given above. We do not purchase things that are considered "consumables" or pure entertainment. Local theater, arts, artisan crafts and the like are sustainable ways to fulfill our desire to express and entertain one another.

Our power system is on the same micro-scale. We meet our power needs, including powering a laptop, radio, mp3 player, cell phone, household appliances (including a fan in the summer), small power tools, lights and electric fencing on 1200 Watts a month. On this scale, designing and building a power system to meet household or community power needs are easily achievable. Villages in Africa are building their own wind generators out of "scrap" and bicycle generators to power their cell phones, laptops, radios, lighting, etc. The more localized the power generation, the more efficient, because power is lost the further it is pushed down a line. Google is beginning to source renewable power to run the large server farms that provide the Internet. By locating these server farms in appropriate places where there is a consistent power source like tidal, geothermal or wind/sun, we can sustainably build up the global communication network that the Internet provides. Access to the internet can be broadcast over radio-waves, requiring only simple receivers, and data can be stored on-line at these renewably powered server farms, eliminating the need for fiber-optic lines, tele-communication satellites and power-sucking desktop computers.

Transportation is a pretty easy issue to resolve, it just takes a lot of reworking, and restructuring the way we live, but it is technologically and practically possible for us to transport ourselves and our goods without the use of fossil fuels, with low-impact mining and manufacturing. For ourselves, we use bicycles as local transportation, even through our winters, and carpool trips to town a few times a year. But we are working on an electric bicycle design, using a tandem and a trailer, powered by a compact marine wind generator to keep the battery charged. With this bicycle we can comfortably carry 100 lbs in the trailer and 50 lbs on the bike, and travel 100 miles a day at a maximum.

We do not usually "boast" of these facts about our life because we are typically met with a combination of pity and aversion. But we live this way, and are comfortable, nourished, healthy, happy, fulfilled, we have friends and a great marriage, so as far as standard of living, I think we are very well-off. We work hard, but we are not breaking our backs. We live within restrictions, but we are not stagnated by poverty. We are not Luddites by far, and use the latest innovations in technology when they improve our quality of life without harming another's. These are ethical choices, at heart, but they are also practical solutions. It has been a kind of experiment for us to live this way, and because of what we both have learned, we also have a high sense of security and confidence that we are able not only to survive, but to thrive and contribute to our community under incredibly adverse conditions, including the climate disasters to come. I looked into the definition of pragmatism, because I know that I am no longer an idealist, since we have been living by and redefining the ideals that we only held in theory when we lived in an urban environment. By the definition below, I believe, if these kinds of labels really matter, that my approach to this issue has been entirely pragmatic.

"The goal of pragmatist theorizing is not to solve abstract philosophical problems but to attain knowledge of a concrete, social reality and to focus on the problems of actual experience. This knowledge and experience will then direct political action and social change: theory and practice are interrelated. Based on this experiential and practical foundation, pragmatists hold, among other things, that there is a plurality of values and meanings, that human action can better the human condition, and that there is a relationality between the experiencing subject and the experienced object."

So to re-state our belief that overpopulation is not the problem, to us, it is not a question of whether the solutions are out there, the question is whether those of us who have been used to a higher material standard of living are willing to make these changes before it really is too late.

In doing a basic google search for concrete numbers on the arable land available on earth, I found this page:

Surface Area of the EarthEarth has a surface area of 196,940,400 square miles, slightly less than a perfect ball with a diameter of 7913.5 miles (which is the mean diameter of the Earth - see "Prove it" under 103).

The surface area of the seven continents and all the islands of the world is about 57 million miles, while the total area of the six habitable continents (Antarctica excluded) is around 52 million square miles.

Including Antarctica , over one fifth of the globe's land mass is under water (oceans, lakes, rivers, etc.) or ice. This leaves about 45 million square miles of exposed land.

The human population on earth has crossed six billion. If we distribute all the exposed land evenly among all mankind, 133 people would have to share one square mile. What that means is that every single person on Earth, man woman and child would have close to five acres of land for his or her use. More precisely, each person would get 209,000 square feet of land, or a square plot of land 457 feet on each side.

Not all this land can be used beneficially however. A significant portion of the Earth's exposed land is unhabitable or cannot be used for any agricultural purpose. Large portions lie in the far north. Large portions are extremely arid. Large portions are very mountainous. In sum, only about one fourth of all the land on earth, or somewhat more than 12 million square miles, is arable.

Today, over half of the arable land in the world is in fact not under cultivation. Bringing the unused land into service in many cases would require huge investments of money and effort, and would do considerable damage to the environment. For example, only about 28% of the arable land on the African continent is used for growing crops. Immense tracts of forests or jungles would have to be cleared to bring the rest of the arable land on that continent to productive use.

Thus, only about one eighth of each imaginary plot of land distributed to each person is land which is under cultivation. In effect, each person has a piece of land about 26,000 square feet (a square 161 feet on each side or just a bit more than ½ an acre) at his or her disposal on which to grow all that he or she needs.

I believe that this is possible, and if our earth were being tended on an ecologically sustainable scale, we would be building soil and increasing the amount of arable land. By this I do not mean huge agro-tracts of monocrops, because these farms contribute to the loss of soil and arable land. I am starting to digress into another branch of this issue, so I will save the rest of this discussion for the next blog.

24 February 2009

Buried in snow

Boy did we get a winter snowstorm yesterday. It was hard to tell how much snow actually fell because the wind blew fiercely for 24 hours, from the North-East, instead of the usual North-West. But we got at least a foot of snow, and the wind blew up some drifts that we could hardly believe! In some places, the drifts are 8-10 feet deep, not piles of snow from snowblowing or banks along the road, just wind blown drifts! We haven't had any major melts yet this winter, so it is all accumulated.

Here's the barn, you actually cannot see the back end of it so there is no where to push the snow, but we learned from last winter and made our roofs strong enough to handle this kind of weight, even if we get some rain. Pilgrim's barn door is on the left there, he has a bit of a slope down into his semi-submerged basement level pad now. But boy does the snow keep the wind out, and it is great insulation. It was blowing a gale yesterday, but inside the barn it was perfectly calm and warm.

Even out in the windswept fields, there is 4 feet of snow, the top rail of this fence is buried and it was 4 feet high.

Some of the snow sculptures created by the wind.

Anyone else ever see these little guys. They are hard to see because they are so small, but I call them snowfleas. They come out for a day or two in the early spring. I don't know whether they come out of the ground, or out of the wood, but they cover the snow like soot. In good record keeping fashion, I recorded when they came out last spring, and again this year. Perhaps they are our "groundhog" because they didn't come out until March 22 last year, and we had a late spring with snow on the ground into the second week of May. And this year they are predicting a warm and early spring, and these little guys were out on February 16.

Note: Just found out what these little guys are, amazingly, they are called "Snow Fleas", not just my nickname for them. Even more amazing is that they eat decaying matter, as well as roundworms. So having these little guys around will help us keep our parasite levels low in the pastures and barns. Still don't know if they are harbringers of spring, but I suspect that they are.

Encouraging change in your community

Well, I'm posting my responses back up as a new blog again because I would like to keep this conversation going. We had to take a few days to sort out how to respond back to the over-population theory, and I'll be posting more on that later this week. I also wanted to say thanks to Bishops Homegrown who really detailed a lot of the solutions that I only threw a passing reference to. But first off, I wanted to respond to Farmmom and Trapper Creek, fellow rural homesteaders who see a lot of the same things we see around us.

Farmmom and Trapper Creek, living out in the country as you both are, I am sure you see many examples of the devastating mismanagement of natural resources practiced in market-driven big-ag. And your own examples of low-input sustainable food production provide a stark contrast to this model. Because of this contrast, we often feel that we are living in a different world than our neighbors, which makes communication difficult because we lack a shared vision, and share only a few common goals, such as the notion of a continued quality of life for the next generation. But our notions of how to achieve that common goal is a wide gulf to cross. We greatly sympathize with both of your frustrations at being daily confronted with what seems clearly to all of us, not just a misuse of resources, but also an ethical issue. What Trapper Creek's cabbage growing neighbor does with his soil, water and crops affects all of us. It is painful to see that food go to waste, especially in the face of empty food banks, and the hungry children and families in our own communities. Every year that Prince Edward Island has a bumper crop of potatoes, the potato farmers collectively dump many thousands of tonnes of perfectly good potatoes into the ocean just to keep the price up. They report this fact on the local news in the Fall, and at the same time, the local food banks are broadcasting public service messages asking for donations to meet the high demands of the Christmas season and winter months.

I believe that a few of the farmers and food banks started to work together, and the food banks would accept bags of potatoes, but most food banks have restrictions on the types of produce they accept. And although the farmer gets a tax-writeoff for the donation, it does cost him money to harvest the crop. I wondered if a U-pick style would work, basically the biblical gleaning method. But I doubt that many of the families that must rely on food banks in difficult times would harvest and either store or process the food. Perhaps it would require a new approach to donating to a food bank. Instead of donating money or peanut butter and canned goods, people in the community could donate their time to meet the farmer half-way and either harvest or process/bag the “excess” produce. In some cases, even setting up a community food-kitchen to can the produce so that it can be stored and distributed by the food bank.

Of course this would require some sort of politicking and educating on the municipal level, and food safety standards would need to be met. But I would imagine that this kind of approach would open the door a little wider between “us” and the big-ag farmer who has been doing the same thing for years and perhaps cannot afford to take the risk (or cannot quite see the way) of dramatically altering the way that he farms. It does not work to approach the farmer in opposition, nor would it work to shove books and literature into his mailbox to try and “educate” him about a new model. We need to build a bridge to reach across that gulf. And that is usually harder to do than any of the work that follows.

We have a neighbor with a small farm, who grew up surrounded by big-ag, and who believes that the Green Revolution of chemical farming is the only way to feed the world. He uses roundup in his garden, and everything that goes along with that approach. He often ridicules our organic approach to growing food, and sees us as eccentric idealists. But we keep the conversation going, and we see him watching what we do. He looks through our garden, and sees that we have fewer pests or disease, year after year, than he has in his garden, and that we often get bigger harvests. He also watches our animals and how healthy they are, and that we have treated common ailments without antibiotics. He never openly acknowledges these things, we just watch him watching us.

When we planted our grain without any “inputs” and no herbicides, he came over and walked through the field and basically told us that we would not get much of a crop. But in the fall, when we had harvested a decent crop of grain, and most of the grain fields around here were lost because the farmers could not get their harvesters over the soggy fields, or had lost the crop to fungus, our neighbor kind of gave us a nod. He did not openly approve of our methods, instead, he put his own sheep and goat manure on his garden for the first time in decades and came over to explain to us how he would not need to buy so much fertilizer next spring. It was amusing to see him explain it to us as his own idea that had occurred to him when he thought back to the garden his mother used to grow when they were too poor to afford fertilizer, and not as any sort of response to what he had seen in our garden. He has good memories of his mother, and it is kind of a basic human response that we sometimes need to associate a new or opposing idea with something good from our past experience in order to accept that new idea, no matter how much physical evidence and data we are confronted with to try and convince us. We don't pay much mind to his ridicule of organic farming because we know it is backed up by years of thinking that way, and we don't much mind whether or not he openly learns anything from us, we have just kept the conversation going, and kept our door and our garden open to him, because he has to make up his own mind in order to change his well-worn beliefs and well-trodden paths. So I guess that's what I've got in response to your question Trapper Creek “any ideas on educating everyone, besides just keep plugging away as we are?”. Keep plugging away. Keep churning the issues, like churning butter. And keep the conversation going.

On a personal note, I've just read this out to my husband and he laughs and says to me that this blog is beginning to sound like a Dear Abby advice column. Ha! Oh my. Sorry if it sounds that way to you all too, I guess I'm full of advice and organic fertilizer! In truth I'm writing this out as “advice” and ideas for myself as well, and using your comments and this blog as a sounding board.

It is a lot easier for me to learn how to grow vegetables than it is to learn how to communicate well with people, especially people I do not share many common views with. My conventional education did not teach me much in the way of communication skills, conflict resolution and emotional intelligence, and by hiding in books most of my life, I got away without learning these skills. About a year ago, I found a great site about emotional intelligence and communication skills, it is practical and I like the way it is written (it's not flaky), and I find that most of what the author says is true. I am finding that these skills are just as important as "survival" or homesteading skills because in order to start acting on some collective or collaborative solutions, we need to be able to sit down at the table together and work some things out. Here's the link.

22 February 2009

Bouncing some ideas around

Wow, what a great discussion, thank you all for your honest thoughts and feelings, and your consideration of alternate views. We have regretfully been unable to make it down this week to respond and contribute more to the discussion, the woman who runs the Internet access center here is awaiting her first grandchild, and was out of town this week. She is back just for this morning, so we only have an hour on the net today. Most likely we will be back on Wednesday, after an approaching snowstorm blows over us.

The last thing I did on Monday, when we were here last, was do some research on climate change, and I found a great link. NASA Earth Observatory It shows real time pictures from satellite of features, weather events and ecological impacts. I have been looking for something like this, to be able to step back and take a look at the bigger picture of what is happening on our planet. It shows some images of the bush fires in Victoria, Australia, and only from this heightened view can you really get a perspective on the size of the area burned. It also shows images of drought and crop failures around the planet. And it explained our North American and Northern European deep freeze in January. Stratosphere Influences Winter Weather.

So this week, while we have been snowed in at home, and fighting off cabin fever!, we came up with an idea, and would appreciate some feedback.

We are thinking it would be helpful, especially for gardening and homesteading newbies, to compile some of the tutorials and practical information from this blog, and our experiences in community food systems, and were thinking of creating topical PDF e-booklets. We were thinking of focusing these skill booklets on those who have few gardening and food preservation skills, limited budgets, and limited access to land. As we head into these economic and climactic adjustments in 2009, people who have never grown or preserved food, are going to be starting up gardens as a way to feed their families, and like many others, we would like to help these families meet their needs. These booklets will also focus on community approaches to organizing, such as seed saving, grains on city lots, and non-vegetable foods such as meat, dairy, eggs and honey. Our homestead has been a kind of experimental farm for people who need to start growing their own food in one year, with few tools and less than $1000 a year, to invest in seeds, tools, land, knowledge, etc.

Blogs and Forums are excellent tools for networking and sharing ideas, and for writing out our individual stories of adaption and change. But blogs and forums, although they can provide tutorials and advice, do not necessarily compile and organize this incredible wealth of experience and practical skill. Gardening books can be helpful, but they are an expensive form of information for those on a low budget. We are looking at publishing these booklets under the Creative Commons License, and and then started playing with the idea of putting them up as wiki pages, or as a collaborative website, so they can be updated and amended with new information from all of you homesteaders, urban gardeners, and community organizers. There is a lot of data, experience, and practical information coming from every corner of the world wide web for the backyard gardener, and subsistence homesteader.

Here are some basic topics to start with, that we feel we could contribute some fresh perspectives to, from our own experiences:
Garden Planning
Meet your Staples from the Garden
Garden and Soil Preparation
Crops for Beginner Gardeners
Hygiene in the Organic Garden, preventing pests and disease
Food Preservation on a Low Budget: Drying and Fermenting
Extending the Growing Season on a Low Budget
Seeds: where to get them, hybrid or OP
Seed Saving and Community Seed Lending Libraries
Small Scale Grain Production, even in the city
How to meet your Egg, Dairy and Meat needs in your community
90% Down Power Systems for less than $2000

So what do you think? Would a wiki site be a helpful tool to gather and share our knowledge with others? Many tutorial style blogs could be simply copied in, and linked back. Do you think you would contribute to the wiki? Would you use the site to search for specific information? Or have you found something like this already on the net? What kinds of topics would you find helplful?

We are looking forward to reading all of your thoughtful and thought provoking comments to the last blog post... until then.

16 February 2009

A conversation on ecological sustainability

ChicagoMike wrote a comment to the last post What we grow, and a slight digression, and it deserved a longer response than I could fit into a comment, and it is a vital and timely conversation to be having, so here is Mike's comment, and my response below.

ChicagoMike: I do have to disagree on a key point though. This planet is really only able to support 1 to 1.5 billion people. Population is the problem. Humans are "stealing" sunshine from the past (fossil fuels) which support agriculture and society on a massive scale. When the fossil fuels run low (obviously a lot of differences on the estimate), the agriculture and technology which support our current and growing population will fail, and Humanity will be making a huge adjustment. Mainly, shedding about 80% of its population. These events will not happen overnight in some cataclysm, but will occur over decades. All large cities will become unsupportable and the world will have some heavy times ahead. This is a long way off, but it is almost inevitable. Nuclear power plants, windmills, and solar cells do not make fertilizer. Lets just hope that we don't irrevocably damage the planet in the readjustment. Check out The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler.

Grow the Change: ChicagoMike, I am familiar with the over-population theories, and sympathize with them to a degree since I thought this way at one point along my environmental path. These theories largely came out in the 80s, along side the environmental conservation movement that saw “nature” as something untouched and pure, and human interaction as the problem. Studies have come out since then, showing how human activity has shaped the ecology of this planet for at least 80,000 years, for better or for worse (see anthropology studies from Aboriginal Australians). Out of this has come a new theory of environmentalism that does not look at the conservation of nature, so that “nature” can take care of itself, but rather sustainable resource management. Meaning stewardship, we have inherited the earth from previous generations who shaped it, for better or worse, and we are responsible for handing these natural resources on to the next generation.

The reason I no longer believe that over-population is the dominant problem, or even the root cause of many of our ecological crises, is that our “modern” systems of production, food, manufacturing, transportation, etc, are lavishly and shamefully wasteful and inefficient. This unthrifty attitude arises from a market based on cheap and supposedly abundant non-renewable resources, including fossil fuels and fossil water. Take food as an example. Studies have come out giving conservative estimates that 30% of food is wasted (thrown out, spoiled, left in the field) along each way station from the farm to the plate, in our modern, industrial, fossil fuel based, Green Revolution, farming model. So if a farm produces 1000 lbs of produce, about 30% is lost (due usually to market considerations, either ripening later, or not conforming, etc), so 700 lbs goes to the processor/packager and another 30% is lost, 490 lbs head to the retailer of which 30% is lost (as many of you dumpster divers can attest to), 343 lbs makes it to the family table of which 30% is thrown out. The original farm used up the fossil fuels as well as fossil water to produce 1000 lbs of food, and only 240 lbs actually made it into a body as nourishment. Now, most of you reading this practice more efficient methods of bringing the food from the farm to the table, and either compost or feed your livestock with your table scraps. Out of 1000 lbs produced in our garden, without any fossil fuel or fossil water, we use 100% either on the table, in the barn, or in the compost pile. As is true in many gardens and sustainable food systems, but still not the majority.

Food production is just one example, this model of inefficiency is almost universal. The power companies lose a large portion of the power they produce pushing it along the lines to your house, internal combustion engines are stupidly inefficient on fuel, Canada still allows 5 gallon flush toilets for goodness sake, and in the Tar Sands of Alberta they use 2 barrels of oil to produce 1, I could go on and on about the reckless waste of our natural resources. And the biggest myth is that “we need fossil fuels to actually feed all of these people”. We do not, but our economic infrastructure does. The markets of the rich nations would fall (or be transformed), and they threaten to take the rest of the world with them. But I am sick of being blackmailed into apathy, and I know I am not the only one.

So the way I see it, we actually have the choice, either an 80% “shedding” of population, meaning mostly children, elderly and economically vulnerable people, or we can reduce our consumption of resources by 80% simply by not wasting them, and using our intellect to build smarter more efficient systems. I find it interesting that the estimated carrying capacity of the planet is 1 to 1.5 billion people, because I think this is just about the population of the “western” nations, and at our current use of resources, that is all this earth can support. These theories of overpopulation run dangerously close to eugenics and ethno-centricism. This is not a personal attack on you ChicagoMike, this is a Post-Structural and Post-Colonial critique of these theories of overpopulation, see Foucault or Spivak.

Often cited in the over-population theory is the desertification of marginal lands around the Sahara. Overgrazing and overharvesting of wood for cooking fires are cited as the cause of the expansion of the desert, and the loss of arable land. Narrowly speaking, this is true. But is it not true that if they had planted a tree for every one they cut, the desert would not advance? So is it not a management issue, rather than a population issue? So it is also an education issue.

It is perhaps the case that this earth is at or near it's carrying capacity, especially with climate change on the horizon. The question I ask is why has the population increased so dramatically in the last 30-50 years? Is it really fossil fuels and fossil water, or is it the money that has been made from mining these resources? I believe it is economic development that encourages population booms, and not necessarily access to natural resources. And as more money is made from the sale and consumption of these resources, they become less available to the increased masses of poor, who then become an easily exploited labor pool.

It's a complex issue, but I firmly believe there is more than enough for everyone alive right now on this earth to be nourished, clothed, housed and enabled with dignified work. This is not an utopian ideal, but an ethical principle. We can live without a speculative and debt-based economy, and we can grow food, transport ourselves, produce power and goods, communicate and innovate without fossil fuels. The problem is, I believe, that most of us are taking more than is our share, if we believe it is a human right to have an equal share of our ecological inheritance. And yes, that share gets smaller as population increases, and as adults, our share is transferred every time a child is born. As great as the ecological crisis is, it is also the easiest to solve. Even greater, and more problematic because it is a philosophical and ethical issue, is the human rights crisis we are facing.

13 February 2009

Just kidding, no really, Kidding!

They have finally arrived! Penelope went into labor Tuesday morning, and delivered two healthy male kids.

Her teats filled up with milk early Tuesday morning, so I knew it was the day. She started labor contractions around 8am, and had finished delivering both of them by 10:30. And she passed the placenta around 2pm. She is doing very well, and produces about 2.5 Quarts of milk a day so far. This is the first actual birth I have witnessed. I always missed my cow's birth by about 15 minutes. It happens quicker than I think it will. So here's a few pics of the first one coming out, he was bigger. I was busy drying off the first one when she delivered the second kid. The second one was smaller and just spilled out.

The kids are healthy and strong. This is Ficus, the firstborn, just hours old.

And Ferrum, smaller, but louder!

09 February 2009

What we grow, and a slight digression

Lisa L. asked if we could share what all we are growing in 2009. These are the food crops we are planting in the garden. We are also planting 1/2 acre of feed oats and 1/2 acre of feed wheat. I have listed an estimated yield as well, but these numbers are specific to the condition of our garden soil as well as our gardening zone (Zone 4b). Our best ground has only been worked and amended for two years, after being turned from tired pastures that had been cut for hay but not grazed or fertilized for at least 15 years. The grains are going into the pasture where we strip grazed our chickens, and turned and worked last summer.

Sorry I'm not yet web savvy enough to put this into a table using html, it was a lot more readable that way...

Vegetable: variety; Row ft or Sq ft; Expected Yield
Potato: Gold Rush (russet); 120'; 150 lb
Potato: Yukon Gold; 240'; 300 lb
Potato: Norland (red); 120'; 150 lb
Potato: Hermosa (early white); 120'; 150 lb
Potato: Purple; 120'; 150 lb
Beet: Lutz (winter keeper); 100'; 125-150 lb
Carrot: Scarlet Nantes; 200'; 350-400 lb
Parsnip: Andover; 100'; 100 lb
Turnip: Golden Ball; 100'; 125-150 lb
Garlic: Chesnook Red; 128'; 12 lb
Leek: Lancelot; 20'; 15 lb
Onion: Stutgarter; 350'; 200 lb
Broccoli: Early Italian; 45' (30 plants); 10 lb heads, 2 lbs sprouting seed
Brussels Sprouts: Jade; 12' (8 plants); 5 lb
Cabbage: Jersey Wakefield (summer); 12' (8 plants); 12 lb
Cabbage: Bartolo (storage) 36'' (24 plants); 75-100 lb
Cauliflower: Symphony; 12' (8 plants); 12 lb
Kale: Blue Curled Scotch (summer); 10'; fresh summer greens
Kale: Winterbor; 10'; fresh greens into December
Chard: Rainbow; 15'; fresh greens
Lettuce: Simpson & Optima; 20'; fresh greens
Mesculun: Mild Mix; 50'; fresh greens
Spinach: Bloomsdale; 30'; fresh greens
Cucumber: Garden Sweet; 6' (2 plants); 40 lb slicing
Cucumber: Pickles; 12' (4 plants); 80 lb pickling
Pumpkin: Naked Seeded; 48' (16 plants); 240 lb (5 lb Pumpkin seed)
Winter Squash: Sweet Kuri; 48' (16 plants); 200 lb
Zucchini: Black; 18' (6 plants); 60-120 lb
Ground Cherry: Aunt Molly's; 60' (20 plants); 80-100 lb (10-12 lb dried)
Tomatillo; 6' (2 plants); 20 lb
Tomato: Roma (canning); 30' (10 plants); 100 lb
Tomato: Cherry Fox; 12' (4 plants); 40 lb (5 lb dried)
Tomato: Latah (early slicing); 12' (4 plants); 40 lb
Tomato: Yellow Plumb; 6' (2 plants); 20 lb
Pepper: Long Red Cayenne; 24' (12 plants); 6-10 lb
Pepper: Carmen Sweet; 24' (12 plants); 6-10 lb
Green Beans: Provider; 360'; 150 lb
Pole Beans: Kentucky Wonder; 120'; 30 lb Green Beans, 10 lb Dry Beans
Baking Beans: Jacob's Cattle; 120'; 10 lb Dry Beans
Shelling Peas: Thomas Laxton; 200'; 40 lb Shelled Peas
Dry Peas: St. Hubert; 120'; 25 lb Dry Peas
Chickpeas: n/a; 600'; 60 lb
Lentils: Green; 600'; 60 lb
Grain and Seed Crops; Row ft or Sq ft; Expected Yield
Hard Red Spring Wheat: Hoffman; 1/8 acre or 5500 sq ft; 400 lb
Hulless Oats; 1/8 acre or 5500 sq ft; 250 lb
Spelt; 1500 sq ft; 75 lb
Hulless Barley; 1500 sq ft; 75-100 lb
Millet: Proso; 2400 sq ft; 60-75 lb
Quinoa; 1200 sq ft; 25-50 lb?
Amaranth: Golden; 1200 sq ft; 25-50 lb?
Popcorn: "Popcorn"; 120'; 12 lb popcorn kernels
Sunflower: Early Russian; 100'; 20 lb?
Poppy Seed: Mauve Flowering; 240'; 5-10 lb
Sugar Beet: "Sugar Beet"; 600'; 400-600 lb (200 lb syrup)
Mangle: Mammoth Long Red; 600'; 400-600 lb (fodder crop)
Herbs; Row ft
Anise 12' (seed)
Caraway 18' (seed)
Coriander 21' (seed)
Cumin 12' (seed)
Dill 15' (seed)
Fennel 12' (seed)
Alfalfa 30'
Basil 21'
Betony 10'
Catnip 10'
Chives 9'
Chicory: Coffee 30'
Comfrey 24'
Ephedra 4 potted plants
Lavender 5'
Lemon Balm 5'
Marjoram 18'
Mint 10'
Mullein 20'
Parsley 12'
Peppermint 5'
Oregano 10'
Rosemary 2 potted plants
Roseroot 2 potted plants
Sage 10'
Skullcap 20'
Stinging Nettle 10'
Thyme 10'
So you can see, this is a pretty basic garden as far as varieties or specialty crops, there aren't many thrills or novelties. Our priority is to grow a garden that nourishes us for a year. We place a priority on staple foods, storage crops and grains. At this point, we only put a minimum of effort into non-staple foods that require intensive methods in our climate, like peppers, or summer vegetables that can only be stored well by freezing such as broccoli and greens. It is a no-nonsense garden. I would love to have time for more flowers. We can really only eat out of the garden for 3 months at best, the other 9 months we must rely on the pantry. Our gardening season is too short for succession crops, except for lettuce and radish, so up in the north here, it is an intense growing season with one planting and one harvest. Any foods that require more than they give back are either cut altogether, or reduced to a manageable size.

On a sustainable footprint scale, to digress a bit, we are beginning to question where human settlements should be centered. Living an agrarian and domestic life above Zone 4 is not only hard, it is an inefficient use of resources. It takes more land, more fuel, and more grain to live here. Domesticated grazing animals are only on pasture for 5 months of the year, so it takes twice the pasture to grow enough grass to store through the winter. We need a larger garden, and more compost to grow the same domestic garden vegetables. We also burn more firewood to keep warm through the winters. This is the very edge, the furthest extreme of being able to live a settled life off of the land. These zones have traditionally been used as nomadic grazing and hunting grounds, and are still used primarily as a source of resources, either lumber, minerals or water.

Living on the edge of a temperate climate, we know how vulnerable we are to climate extremes on our own home-front. If Canada were not a nation with the resources to import food and maintain social assistance programs, as well as implementing research and technologies that will mitigate or manage disasters, it would be experiencing local famines and out-migrations of people already, due to the extent of grain crop failures in the Prairies in the last 5 years in particular. Nations without the same resources can do nothing for their people but plead for help from the UN, and the wealthy nations of the world. It is long past time that we have a global strategy to face the coming storm.

Climate change is beginning to reshape our planet and human civilizations, and the first climate refugees are evacuating the most fragile island ecosystems. Vanuatu, Fiji, Samoa, the Maldives, Bangladesh, and the Caribbean islands have been putting their cases before the UN, as they are flooded out and washed over by 1,000 year storms. What is it to be a natural citizen of a nation that has been made uninhabitable by climate change? These islands are the canary in the coal mine, and our planet will continue to be reshaped by devastating climate swings. When national borders become front-lines in a climate war, it will be too late to prevent the famines and genocides to follow.

The temperate zones, both north and south are, and hopefully will continue to be, the most stable regions on this planet. The polar and equatorial regions are our best planetary carbon sinks, and these zones will likely experience the largest extremes.

We do not believe the theories that over-population is the main cause of pollution and famines. It is the wanton and wasteful use of resources that has created dead zones, deforestation and the climate refugees to come. In a temperate zone, a comfortable life can be sustained on just a few acres per person. So with these things in mind, we keep a critical eye on our own use of resources. At this point, living on a no-impact, zero-emission scale, is not enough. Climate famines are not inevitable, if we reach down deep, forsake our wanton abuse of planetary resources, and even forsake our national boundaries to allow the free movement of peoples onto arable land, we could pull through. And prevent what could be the greatest human genocide.
One of our neighboring clearcuts we are surrounded by at least 200 acres of clearcut on all sides, leaving no habitation or wind break, and devastating the forest ecology. There are no tree planting programs locally either.
Ten acres of cabbage on a local farm that were plowed under, we suspect because it cost more to harvest than he would get for the crop. Perhaps 200 tonnes of food, not to mention the heavy usage of fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides and diesel for the tractor, wasted.

Our greatest human potential is our ability to adapt to a perceived danger. We would still be animals if all we could do was react to changes. Perhaps what makes us human is our ability to foresee. And because we can foresee these famines, it is our greatest human degradation to ignore them, and carry on. So as much as the so-called developed nations are suffering economically, we are largely insulated from the greater emergency. And it is my hope, that difficult times remind us to open our arms even wider to those who suffer more, and that times of strife inspire us to make room, where otherwise we would be tempted to exclude.

02 February 2009

Growing your own Dry Peas

Eating seasonally in the North is quite easy in the late-summer, fall and early-winter because of the variety of foods available. Late Cole crops can be harvested into December, and crops like sweet potatoes, peppers, tomatoes and some varieties of zucchini can be stored into January. But come February, the storage crops are down to potatoes, roots, onions, winter squash, winter cabbage, and garlic. By April, most of these crops have begun to sprout, or go soft. Anticipating this, I rely heavily on the storage crops in the winter months, and save the bulk of our grains and dry pulse crops for late winter and spring.

Come early-spring, we reintroduce fresh greens and fresh herbs to our diet, but by May and June, the root cellar is bare, and the main food crops are just beginning to provide by July. So eating seasonally during these months means relying on canned or frozen food and dry goods.

In 2007, we had a bumper crop of shelling peas, so I let the last harvest go to maturity, hoping that I would have some dry peas, along with my seed. I harvested about 3 lbs of dry peas off that late crop, and after sorting out the best of them for seed, I tried some in a pot. I soaked them like chickpeas, they were just about the same size, but wrinkly, because they are a shelling variety and not a drying variety. They plumped up in the soak, and took about 4 hours to cook all the way through. They were tasty, but did not cook down to a puree like split peas usually do. So I decided to try a variety specifically for drying.

In 2008 garden I had a packet of St. Hubert Drying Pea seeds, and planted out a 30' double row. From this I was able to harvest 6 1/4 lbs of gorgeous smooth round peas. They were quite easy to grow, considering I only have to harvest once, at the end of the season. I trellised them, and they were quite productive, with 3" pods, each with 6-9 peas. The pods dried out well on the vine, earlier than the dry beans, and not many of them popped open before I harvested. I pulled up the vines all together, and brought them into a shed to pick and shell.

The true test was in the kitchen. I soaked them overnight, and they cooked down to a beautiful puree in 2 1/2 to 3 hours. They had a delicious, smooth texture, and taste great with sweet storage carrots and pungent onions. Pea soup makes a great spring food, not as heavy as potatoes, but rich in protein for heavy spring garden work.