Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Monday, February 21, 2011

Virtually Free Protein

Yep, there's one form of protein that really is damn near free. Good fat from oil in the nuts too. Our farmhouse is surrounded by 90-year-old pecan trees. And, mentioned more for their aesthetic appeal than their protein, they draw in some beautiful birds, from northern flickers and pileated woodpeckers to kestrels and bluebirds. Quite an avian parade really. Oh, and fox squirrels! Sorry I don't have a picture of the fox squirrels, but they are really wonderful, and regular visitors too. The tree in the foreground of this photo is sporting a branchful of resurrection fern, Polypodium polypodioides - always loved that Latin name - and they make me feel so at home, back on the coastal plain after all these years of wandering.

Speaking of a protein source that just keeps on giving, here's an update photo from the oyster mushroom post back in November. We've been getting flushes of oyster mushrooms at least weekly for a couple of months now, maybe a pound at a time. Not enough to go commercial yet, but we haven't bothered to modify the climate for them either. We just wait until a humid spell in the weather comes along, and like clockwork, they flush a couple of days later. And man, are they ever delicious! We eat them with scrambled farm eggs for breakfast, in spaghetti sauce over spaghetti squash "noodles," or just sauteed in butter for a snack. A note of caution about indoor cultivation of oysters though: they are extremely aggressive colonizers of just about any biological substrate, including wood. Hehehe, sounds like a doozy of a story coming, doesn't it?? Well, it wasn't me this time, but a permie friend of mine told me he grew an oyster tabletop kit in his bathroom to benefit from the regular humidity, and boy did they ever! They sporulated and colonized his bathroom vanity and fruited from the countertop! I don't think that's what the mycological dealers had in mind when they called it a "tabletop" kit...

Oh god, here comes the ASPCA...I once spent a good couple of days defending urban farmer and author Novella Carpenter's honor from the bunny-huggers. And to be honest, not everyone in the US thinks of rabbits as dinner. Most people in this country are so spoiled on a few prominent meat animals that they've lost all connection with the myriad other things we used to eat in healthier times. Rabbits being one of the main ones! This is Timothy, our new Belgian lop x Flemish giant buck, named after one of his favorite foods. He's a cool cat; I like Timothy. And that's OK, because he isn't food. He's a pet, and both of my children love him. They feed him weeds, chard, and turnip greens, and carrots, and apple cores, and...he's a bit of a piggie really. But big, and I expect he'll throw big babies too. He took over the small chicken tractor, which was really built for him. Or with him in mind anyway. He eats the bermuda grass, the split-leaf cranesbill, the wild mustard, and really loves the henbit.

Which is only right, because Henbit is his first wife, and a pretty darn sexy bunny if you ask me. She's a New Zealand doe who had two fine litters of 8 and 12 kits, sired by Timothy, before we got her. You can see her nice little nesting box in the back of her cage in this photo, but I'll have to work on a more attractive rainfly than that Rubbermade cargo lid bungeed overhead. Neither of these rabbits had ever touched the earth before they arrived at Small Batch Garden (take that, ASPCA!), but now they fill their days by munching on fresh greens, getting some dappled sunshine under the pecans, and scratching cool little spots in the earth to lay. Oh, and having crazy bunny sex. We bred them today, after a week of settling in - once at breakfast, once at lunch, and once at dinner. Doesn't take them very long. You put Henbit in Timothy's cage, he mounts her, has an epileptic seizure, and a full 6, maybe 7, seconds later he's lighting up a Camel and scratching another notch on his headboard. Meanwhile, poor Henbit's mostly annoyed, completely unfulfilled, and waiting for a ride back to the casa, where 32 days from now she'll pop out a clutch of bouncing baby bunnies in the aforementioned nesting box, with nary a penny of support from ol' Timbo.
But talk about cheap protein. Those kits will spend 8 weeks on the tit, and a full two more in the larger chicken tractor finishing on pasture, and will dress out at 4-5 lbs apiece, ready to fricassee. Add some fat to that fricassee though, because they are really almost too lean. That's what the ducks are for, but we'll get to that post later. Their orchard is still under construction, and the Welsh harlequin and blue runner ducklings won't arrive until the end of March. But I've got some cool ideas for stacking functions with ducks in the orchard and gardens to show off when the time comes.
Eventually we'll tie every animal and every plant in our system together, in multiple loops that build redundancy and resilience in the system. In permaculture-speak, "every element serves multiple functions, and each function is supported by multiple elements." It's the exact opposite of modern agriculture's dominating and prescriptive cookie cutter style, where "this is the way, and nature be damned." I'll show you some useful ideas, and maybe you can show me some too. Why else would I be going to all this trouble?! Why, to sucker you into giving up your secrets, of course!
Till next time, all our best from Small Batch.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Innovation Over Convention No Matter What That Means

Tilling is a terrible thing to do to the soil, but even I will do it when the circumstances demand it.

Someone who I consider to be "a good online friend" sent me a note recently, gently chastising me for considering trading in our recently-gifted but problematic pickup truck, and old fuel-efficient Camry, for a larger farm truck. I told her that we were using the change to push our behavioral innovation forward by demanding a cut in our number of trips to town to compensate for the difference in fuel efficiency. There's only so much room in the budget for fuel, and we aren't about to start cutting elsewhere to compensate. We now drive the 6-10 miles one-way almost daily, sipping gasoline in the Toyota at a very meager rate, filling up maybe every other week, but this new truck we're eyeballing is a Ford F-350 diesel 4x4 crew cab. It's a monster! No doubt about it. The thought of driving something like that makes my liberal skin crawl.

What my friend didn't put her finger on right away, despite her ample tendencies toward systems thinking, and what I didn't pin down right away either (but felt), was the concept that the planet is now 4 solid years deep into a robust contractionary phase. Trading my Camry for a useful farm vehicle wasn't going to change that. It was only going to make my life easier. Her response carried the implication that I should be setting the bar for my readers, and while I whole-heartedly agree with that, it's not exactly how Nature works. And that was what was subconsciously stuck in my craw. So let me explain.

David Holmgren, in Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, talks about how competition is a normal part of our experience, and that, like individuals competing for calories or mates, ecosystems themselves compete for available energy, unconcerned with the general fitness of adjacent systems. There's no equal opportunity ecology, and a robust, adaptive ecology will always mine and retain energy from less adaptive, less fit systems nearby, whether that energy is in the form of organic matter, minerals, water, or whatever. This is the natural ebb and flow of ecology.

With this giant truck I could move my whole family, livestock, firewood, lumber, biomass, coolers full of produce, and go anywhere on the farm, road or not. By selling the small 4 cylinder we would cut insurance and maintenance costs in half, and benefit mentally from having only one vehicle to worry about. Yes, it gets barely half the gas mileage, on a good day with a tail wind, but in a quest to live a slower, more local life, it also encourages us to prepare better, to be better planners. It forces our hand to consolidate trips to town, and raises our awareness a notch about loose, high-energy and largely unnecessary, movement. The truck is also a diesel, so it uses the same fuel the rest of the farm fleet uses, and is more adaptive to homemade fuels in an uncertain future. The four-wheel-drive feature is priceless in a rural scenario.

When we were urban farmers we would have never considered such a switch. But we are very much rural producers now, or rapidly on our way to being such, and living in the sticks has its demands. With a vehicle like this one, I can imagine being able to make my own fuel from low-energy perennial biomass, using it sparingly of course, and travel on highly-deteriorated roads for a long time to come. I could never do that with the Camry; the ground clearance in that car is miserable. I don't expect a Mad Max, Heinbergian last man standing type of future, but I do think that those with the ability to move around at least a little bit in their region will be a boon to society. At least during the transitional generation(s). Surely we will learn to live without motor vehicles eventually, but I've been driving for 20 some odd years now, and have grown somewhat accustomed to it! Just like I've grown somewhat accustomed to eating, and I am going to fairly extreme lengths to ensure that I and my family will be able to do so in the future, come what may. I respect food now far more than I ever did before I started growing it, and I don't see why driving a useful vehicle should be any different.

I'm looking forward to the day when a gallon of gasoline is appreciated for what it actually is: about a week's worth of hard human labor. Where that mental break comes, at what price per gallon, is anyone's guess, but according to my friend in Burgundy who prompted this post it isn't at $6, much less at $3.25. We have a long way to go before we stop driving. I want to appreciate and utilize oil for the amazing tool for work that it is, not burn it flippantly cruising the strip. And two gallons of fuel in the truck will accomplish far more useful work than one gallon in the car. Way more than double.

Besides, it's the roads I'm more concerned about than the ability of the people to afford to drive. We will drive our cars and trucks till the bitter end, no doubt, it's just who we are, but as taxing authorities steadily hemorrhage revenues, road conditions will steadily deteriorate. This isn't conjecture; it's already happening. Just drive between Nashville, TN, and Spokane, WA, like I did a year ago, and see what you think. I-90 across the Idaho panhandle is in shambles (with reportedly zero money in the 2010 budget for repairs to boot), and almost the entire balance, excepting perhaps the wealthy stretch between Butte and Billings, MT, is not far behind. Do it in a large truck, the kind that drives the U.S. economy, and it is punishing.

But all this aside, the primary point of this rant is that we are past peak exploitation now, and there's nothing we can do to change that. (Sing it with me!) When I buy a large useful truck to accomodate what's becoming a successful and adaptive life, you can rest assured that more than enough other people are downgrading their energy use to compensate for that increase. The net movement is contractionary, and will be for a long time. It's as natural to acquire energy (let's say a big truck that can transport food and fertility) as it is to produce offspring; and it's equivalent to the example above about the fit ecosystem mining energy from the less robust neighboring system. As natural as it gets. I can't sell carbon-negative grass-fed beef without moving around thousands of pounds of meat at least once or twice a year. I can't heat a house with wood, instead of coal or gas, if I can't get firewood from the forest to my house. And I won't be of any use to less fortunate passers-by stuck in the mud (what used to be a good hard road) of a summer deluge with a car that can't even get out of the driveway.

My friend in France was right to point out options to this decision. But in the end, the EMERGY analysis, per the late University of Florida ecology professor Howard T. Odum, of the situation supports this decision. What we can accomplish with this truck represents a net reduction of household energy use. We're back to that full environmental accounting business we talk about occasionally around here, and it pencils out in favor of the gas-guzzling truck this time. Although I do want to thank Laura for forcing me to do the math!

Adaptive behavior is its own reward, and sometimes it pops up in unusual places. Don't be afraid of the unconventional, even when it puts you at odds with your ideological peers. After 450 years of success in one of the most unforgiving human environments on Earth, the Greenland Norse vikings starved to death, surrounded by fish so thick they must've been able to walk across the fjords on their backs in season, just because of a cultural taboo against eating fish. Imagine the pleasant surprise that rebel who chose to eat those salmon would've discovered if he had decided that living was more important than fitting in. Now more than ever, we can't afford to let convention dictate innovation.

Cheers, my friends.