Friday, December 17, 2010

Muck and mystery

Pods from the tagasaste (Chamaecytisus palmensis) on the swale. A new prostrate cultivar has been developed for grazing which eliminates the need for bi-annual cutting.

Muck and mystery is the description that a scientist colleague of mine gave to permaculture when I told him I was interested in it. Muck is certainly right - I have come to love mucking around with muck in its many soil-improving forms: manure, compost, mulch, worm castings, and so on.

As the for the mysteries, well they are slowly revealing themselves as hard-won knowledge. And lately I've been to some great workshops and field days that have thrown even more light on the ways in which we may be able to design farming systems that provide ecosystem services.

Pasture cropping field day with Col Seis

In October, I attended a pasture cropping field day outside the pretty Victorian town of Avenel, 114 km north of Melbourne in the Goulburn River Valley. NSW farmer Col Seis, from Goolma in central west NSW, gave a workshop on pasture cropping, hosted by the Broken Catchment Landcare Network, an umbrella network of 23 landcare groups operating in the Broken and Goulburn Catchments.

Col Seis talks pasture cropping to local farmers at a field day in Avenel, October 2010

This workshop was a great way to round off the academic part of my year - in second semester I did the subject 'pastures and rangelands'. While native grasses for grazing was on the course material, pasture cropping was not.

Pasture cropping refers to the practice of no-till sowing annual crops directly into living perennial pastures. In Australia, pasture cropping tends to refer to winter cereal crops sown into summer-growing native perennial pastures. The pasture can
be grazed right up to time of sowing and the stock is put back on the pasture after harvest to graze stubble and green perennial grasses.

In Col's case, on his property Winona, this means direct drilling winter cereals (oats, wheat) into native grass pastures made up predominantly of summer-active native grasses such as Kangaroo grass (Themedia triandra) but also some winter-actives such as Wallaby grass (Austrodanthonia).

Conventional broad-acre cereal cropping in south eastern Australia has tended to involve either fallow periods where the paddocks are sprayed out with herbicide to prevent annual weeds prior to the next sowing or 'ley farming' in the drier inland parts of SE Australia. Ley farming involves a pasture phase of 1-5 years duration (pastures tend to be annual-legume dominated - clovers, medics) followed by a cropping phase. As with the higher rainfall areas, the paddocks are sprayed out for annual weeds prior to cropping.

In contrast, pasture cropping maintains perennial ground cover on the paddocks at all times, and with vegetation (native perennial grasses) that is well adapted to the soil. The potential advantages are an increase in soil structural stability, and hence water retention, decreased soil erosion, decreased inputs (including decrease in herbicide use), and more efficient use of rainfall which has the potential to reduce salinity.

Col's presentatation was both down to earth and inspiring. He comes from a pioneering farming family and has the experience, knowledge and results that make farmers and scientists alike sit up and listen. He talked specifics about grazing management strategies, advising heavy stocking (also called 'mob stocking') of no more than ten days duration, followed by 30-100 days of recovery depending on stage of growth of the native grasses, and growing conditions. It was interesting to hear the extent to which the recovery period is based on close observation of pasture growth.

The heavy stocking rate is designed to:
• reduce the bulk of the grass
• manage weeds
• produce litter
• prune perennial grass roots to conserve water
• transfer nutrients to paddock

While annual grasses and legumes don’t like growing through litter, perennials do.
The grass litter and trash generates mulch that works to limit the weeds and is also trampled in by stock, contributing to soil organic matter.

For more information on pasture cropping, including some scientific research that's been conducted on Col's property, see:

Agrowplough in action
Out in the field, we looked at native grasses and and at soil renovation machinery, specifically the Agrowplough, which was demonstrated. Agrowploughs are Australian designed and built, and have been designed specifically for zero-till cropping and pasture systems.

Agrowplough coulters and tines mounted on a display unit. The shape of the tine is designed to avoid soil inversion (the dragging up of deeper, less fertile soil up to the surface where it is mixed by the action of the plough), shear and compaction.

All grassed up

Grasses identification workshop - Dr Graeme Lorimer in wetlands on the Mornington Peninsula

Then, in November, I spent a weekend peering closely at native and introduced grasses on the southern Mornington Peninsula. Dr Graeme Lorimer of Biosphere Environmental Consulting ran this workshop, which was organised by a group called SPIFFA (Southern Peninsula Indigenous Flora and Fauna Association).

We learnt about grass morphology and how to use this to identify grasses using different sorts of keys. And we looked at grasses down a microscope and saw the amazing action of grass awns that spiral and bend in response to moisture levels.

Rain-fed garden madness

Growing in the patch now: garlic, potatoes, tomatoes, rhubarb, sweet corn, and jerusalem artichokes. Groundcover of various clovers and woolly vetch, for weed control and nitrogen fixation, are cut back in the growing season to allow sun to reach edible seedlings. Borders include comfrey (flowering now), canna lillies, wormwood and nastursium.

In the patches, keeping check on rampant growth brought on by the rain and humidity has been a big job.

Herb patch, Peninsula, the curry plant (Helichrysum angustifolium) is the light-couloured shrub towards the back of the patch.

In the peninsula herb garden, I've planted a curry plant (Helichrysum angustifolium) which is doing well. The horseradish is also kicking along and I should be able to harvest it and maybe even divide it soon.
Garlic, peninsula patch

Garlic hanging to dry, peninsula patch.

The garlic is ready to harvest so I've started digging it up and hanging the bulbs to dry on the line, after which I'll plait them and hang them up in the shade between the tanks. Should be enough there to last us at least 6 months.

Yarrow in the inner-city patch

In the inner-city patch, yarrow seems to like its sunny spot beside the pergola. Chervil sown in October responded to the heat and is now paying its way in fish dishes, along with the French tarragon.

In the bathtub I've put a couple of pots of water chestnuts - the soil in the pots is held down with stones. The bathtub is aerated (for mozzie control) with a small solar-powered bubbler.

Loquat and nastursiums in blue pot, inner-city patch. Marjoram and rosemary to the left; bay tree to the right. Bottlebrush behind.

Seedlings of cucumber, eggplant, zucchini and tomatoes are doing well and the beans have already reached the netting of the domes. The grapes on our pergola have finally taken off, as have the two (male and femaile) kiwi fruit plants - we are well on the way to getting good shade coverage for summer.
Cucumber seedlings (mini white) ready to be planted out, inner-city patch

Came across this excellent podcast from The Guardian website on on food security and food justice. It asks whether crops and increasing corporatisation of agriculture are really the only true solutions to hunger in the world. We learn that food security is as much a political problem as an agronomic one, perhaps more so. Interviewees include Raj Patel, author of the fabulous book on food justice Stuffed and Starved; Olivier de Schutter, the UN's special rapporteur on the right to food; and Oxfam UK's head of research Duncan Green.

Happy festivus

Marie Antoinette

Friday, October 15, 2010

Paying the true price of food

Spring bounty: open sausage sandwich with beetroot, rocket and tamarillo chutney

Beetroot growing has always been a bit of a hit and miss affair for me. This spring was no exception. Pulling up the mature beetroots in the inner-city patch produces mystifying results - a big, fat beet, and right beside it a gnarled, grumpy looking one.

I tried using the microwave to cook a few beets this time, with pretty good results. But I'm also loving them just grated and dressed simply with red wine vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper.

Now that spring has sprung there is much to do in the patches. The worms are getting some five-star treatment - I've been feeding them a potent cocktail of magimixed old bread and coffee grounds. Judging from their reproductive rate, I think its kind of like giving them viagra at this time of year.

Carrot harvest, inner-city patch
Even though I failed to thin these baby carrots, they still did OK. Most we consumed raw - sliced thinly and dressed with tahini dressing: tahini, olive oil, balsamic, parsley, dash of lemon.

Seeds being raised for spring plantings include: cucumber (mini white), eggplant (Listada di Granda), Sweet corn (bantam), pumpkin (golden nugget), cauli (all year round). Direct sowings include: lettuce (freckles), royal oakleaf lettuce, coriander (slow bolt), chervil, basil (sweet genovese), dill, and of course tomatoes (tommy toes).

On the peninsula, the garlic is coming along very nicely after some frantic weeding to keep the cohabiting potatoes from taking over.

Garlic on the peninsula
There always seems to be enough potatoes for dinner - often they get pulled up while weeding. A few in each haul are old (they've been in the ground a few seasons) and are not good eating, but I'm now experienced enough to pick these without cooking them first!
As the wet weather continued in late winter and early spring, the dam overflowed over the back and we were thankful for the spillway. As I looked at I couldn't help but remember how last year we'd laughed at the idea that we would ever get enough rain for this to happen.
Peninsula dam spills over the the back
Compost tea has gone out onto the fruit and nut trees and I'm planning on doing a small microscope course so I can test the quality of the compost and the brew. My partner is making improvements to the brewer design and we've been getting some good advice from a local compost tea expert who runs a business brewing and supplying tea to wineries and horticulture enterprises in our area.

I'm also looking forward to attending a pasture-cropping field day coming up in Avenel.

The baking continues - fruit and nut loaves are now firmly on the weekly roster.

When I'm not reading for my course, I'm working my way through the articles of Glenn Davis Stone, an agricultural anthropologist who I discovered through an article in Salon. The Salon article covers his work on adoption of GM cotton in India and it is such a refreshing change from the polarised GM debate that teaches us so little about what GM means on the ground. He's also written more generally about GM in a fantastic article 'Both sides now: fallacies in the genetic modification wars, implications for developing countries and anthropological perspectives'.

Paying the true price of food

The TV news has been full of scenes of angry farmers protesting the proposed irrigation cuts in the MDB. I despaired for a while and then started to daydream . . .

What if our farmers groups and agricultural industry bodies (Farmers Federation, Apple and Pear Australia, Meat and Livestock Australia) were to run media campaigns to educate consumers about the need for increased food prices rather than lobbying against policies designed to protect the environment (carbon taxes, reduced water allocation, etc), or running lame tv ads exhorting us to eat more apples.

It costs money to farm in a way that conserves rather than degrades the environment, and the costs can’t all be borne by farmers, as those angry scenes in Murray Darling Basin farming towns remind us. As consumers, it’s all about what we do with our discretionary income – if those of us who can afford it start spending less on electronic gadgets we don’t need and more on food that is locally, sustainably and ethically produced, maybe we can make conservation farming an enterprise that gives farmers a ‘right livelihood’.

These campaigns need to make a direct link between stupidly low food prices in our supermarkets and exhausted agricultural soils, ghost farms made unproductive by unsustainable farming practices, and algal blooms in our waterways.

We might even get some compound effects from a campaign like this – it might become hard for supermarkets to run ad campaigns based solely on price cuts for consumers, which seems to be their preferred modus operandi these days. Woolworths might start running ads telling us they’re charging us more so they can pay farmers higher prices to do the right thing by the land and our children’s future.

Well, one can dream can't one . . . .

Marie Antoinette

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Raindrops on my window

Swale and dam after rain, early July 2010

Rain drumming on the roof is such a lovely sound. And this winter, its been a constant soundtrack to our lives. On the peninsula, the results in the swale are a joy to behold.
Swale, east wing after rain
Animals have been munching on the trees on the west wing of the swale. We're guessing wallabies. Although we've never seen them, our neighbour reports that they are around in relatively large numbers this winter. So we've put those trees in tall plastic jackets.

In the photo above, you can also see the re-mulching that's been going on in preparation for summer. Its a big job - hopefully if I get it right, it will only need to be done once this year. Last September, I put cardboard down and chip on top to hold back the weeds. This job is about taking out the weeds that have come up since then, putting down some compost, cardboard over the top, and them mulch on top of that. That means lots of wheelbarrowing mulch and compost up and down hills. Sometimes, I long for a bobcat . . . . .

Its wattle-flowering time and on the peninsula, the splashes of colour stand out against the lush wet greenery.

As part of a long-term plan to restore indigenous perennial native grasses to parts of the peninsula property, I've been doing some internet research on re-establishment of native grasses and identifying what already exists on the property. Microlaena stipoides is already established in swathes around the property. It loves being beneath the trees in filtered light, and moist(er) conditions.

Also on the property is some Poa labillardieri.

Poa labillardieri, peninsula property

Inner-city patch
In the inner-city patch, our postman swiped his bike past the pepino bush growing along the fence, and I had to harvest the green pepinos. Not sure what to do with them, but I'm thinking that since they're in the tomato family, I can try using a recipe for green tomato relish.

Green pepino harvest, inner-city patch
The cold weather has meant that composting takes a little longer than in summer, but its still getting hot enough to send the worms scurrying to the opening of the barrel to escape the heat.
Compost temperature probe, not so hot, but hot enough.
Worms escaping the heat.
On the baking front, my cousin has returned from Israel and a stint on a kibbutz where he learnt how to bake, particularly sourdough. So we baked a fruit-and-hazelnut sourdough loaf together. Oh my was it good.

The dough is rolled out so that the sultanas, hazelnuts and cinnamon can be distributed evenly.

Rolling up the loaf

The final product, and a plain sourdough roll we made with spare dough

Visitors on the Peninsula
In June Diane Greenwood and friends visited the Peninsula site to take a squiz at the swale and chat about permaculture generally. It was raining so we only had time for a quick look with a brief detour to the compost tea brewer. Di and her crew were on a 'Permaculture weekend away' that was jam-packed with interesting permie-related activities.

Marie Antoinette

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Agroecology at home and abroad

February harvest from inner-city patch: tommy toes, chillis, green peppers and spaghetti squash

Apparently in February, while I was in Uganda, my partner was trying valiantly to eat his way through the spaghetti squash (Cucurbita pepo) harvest. I planted a few in early spring and by January they were threatening to take over the garden.

Nick Romanowski in his amaranth patch, March 2010.
In March I went to Grains and Grasses workshop run by Nick Romanowski on his property in the Otways. In the pic above, Nick is in his amaranth patch showing us different varieties.
Chestnuts drying on rack at Nick Romanowski's

Romanesco zucchinis at Nick Romanowski's place
These amazing zuchinis apparently keep well for months out of the fridge due to their thick, tough skins. I think the variety is Romanesco.

Autumn on the swale
On the swale, there has been good growth on the nurse trees, especially the tagasastes. We had to irrigate regularly throughout the long dry summer.
Good growth on the swale, Autumn

The compost tea system has been scaled up to a 1000-litre tank, purchased from eBay. On the advice of a local compost tea expert, I'm now using fish hydrolysate instead of seasol in the additives (fish hydrolysates are fish parts digested into liquid form by natural enzymes at cool temperatures). I also invested in a good backpack sprayer with a nozzle that sprays relatively large droplets and adjustable pressure to keep the pressure low. We had enough tea to spray all the trees on the swale, including the nurse trees, as well as the other 20-odd fruit and nut trees on the property.

View of the compost tea tank from the top: the blower is attached to the side of the tank. The blower hose enters the top opening and coils through the tank, blowing air into the tea. The tea bag is suspended in the tank. Additives, including the fish hydrolysate, are added directly to the tea through the opening in the tank.
Chip ready to be spread out over the back of the dam.

Another big job that my partner and I undertook was applying chip (chip from trees felled on the property) to the back of the dam, and planting it out with native (mostly indigenous) shrubs, grasses and groundcovers.
With the help of my dad on his tractor, nicknamed Nigella (don't ask), my partner and father spread the whole lot over the back of the dam in just one afternoon.

The plantings have taken longer, and we've been doing 50-odd plants each weekend. We source most of the tubestock from an excellent local reveg nursery, Peninsula
Bushworks. Species include hop bitter pea (Davesia latifolia), Knobby club rush (Isolepsis nodosa), Australian indigo (Indigofera Australis), Poa labillardieri, Poa poiformis, and Lomandra longifolia.

Plantings on the back of the dam.

Eating from the patches
In May I harvested some horseradish from the Peninsula herb patch, planted a year or so ago, by digging around the root and breaking off a piece. I wasn't sure what to do with it so I tried grating it and adding vinegar. Oh boy was it good - we had it with steak, and added it to potatoe salad and then the rest disappeared on sandwiches. It was really hot and so very tasty.

Horseradish going strong, May 2010.
The stalwart Jerusalem artichokes turned on a bumper crop again, so much so that I decided to leave most of the tubers in the ground, and will just dig them up as needed, rather than freezing them like I did last year. We've been eating them raw, sliced thinly in salad with rocket, which now grows wild all around the compost heap pretty much all year round, as well as in soups and risottos.
Jerusalem artichoke and rocket salad
Apart from the Jerusalem artichokes, rocket, potatoes, and herbs, there has been little coming out of the patches, mostly because I've been busy with study and a new job. But we did get an amazing tamarillo harvest from the tree in the inner-city patch which my partner turned into chutney.

Tamarillo chutney, ready to be put in jars.
Tamarillo chutney

I've updated the links section with some new websites, including a US Library of Congress bibliography for wild edible plants that includes links to some great websites on the subject. I've also been reading the US Union of Concerned Scientist's report, Failure to Yield, about GM crops, and have been checking out some of the excellent news stories in Raj Patel's feeds.

UN on board with agroecology

Courtesy of Raj Patel's news feed comes that story that the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter is about to release a series of reports urging a rethink of current mainstream agricultural policies in favour of agroecology.

Another issue being tackled by de Schutter is the increasingly rapid pace at which developed countries are buying agricultural land in the developing world. Apparently these large-scale acquisitions have accelerated since the 2008 global food price rises, and are on an upward trajectory.
"Between 15 and 20 million hectares of farmland in developing countries have been the subject of transactions or negotiations involving foreign investors since 2006. This figure is equal to the total area of farmland in France and to a fifth of all the farmland of the European Union. The land which has been most in demand is that which is close to water resources and can therefore be irrigated at a relatively low cost in terms of infrastructure, and land which is closest to markets and from which produce can be easily exported. Among the main target countries in sub-Saharan Africa are Cameroon, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo,5
China is said to have acquired 2.8 million hectares in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to create the world’s largest oil palm plantation (New Zealand Herald, 14 May 2009)." (Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter: Large-scale land acquisitions and leases: A set of minimum principles and measures to address the human rights challenge, December 2009, UN General Assembly).
De Schutter's 'minimum principles' to guide such acquisitions are designed to protect the food security rights of local people. One of his ideas is that in relation to land investments in net food-importing countries, agreements should be put in place providing that a certain minimum percentage of the crops produced on the purchased land be sold on local markets, and that this percentage may increase, in proportions to be agreed in advance, if the prices of food commodities on international markets reach certain levels.

That's it from me this time
Marie Antoinette

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Permaculture in Uganda

My two-month stint at assistant program manager on the permaculture project at Sabina School in South Western Uganda is now over. I've just published a story about it on the Permaculture Sabina blog.

Now its back to Australia, and back to studies - biochemistry and agricultural economics loom ahead this semester.

Marie Antoinette