Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Monday, March 28, 2011

Weeds and the Scarcity Model

Looking out at the pasture this morning I couldn't help but think how big a waste it seemed to only have 2 animals out there to utilize that 6+ acres of great forage. And two animals that aren't feeding us at that. Just Mick the quarter horse and Sgt Pepper the donkey. We have these grand plans to eventually move back to "horse pace," plans to go foraging with the donkey carrying loaded panniers, but for the moment they just seem like they're hanging out eating our groceries.

At appropriate stocking rates, large animals are beneficial components of their pasture ecosystem, not parasites on its health and productivity.
 But then, how ridiculous is it to think like that? Two large animals grazing on nearly 7 acres of high-quality pasture aren't hurting anything. Matter of fact they're helping! In effect, by eating grass and pooping all over the place, they are speeding up the soil building process, converting solar energy into valuable humus, which improves soil structure and water-holding capacity, which makes the pasture increasingly mineral-rich, lush, and drought-tolerant. Valuable, deeper rooted forage species will then be able to colonize the pasture, creating more reliable winter and dry season forage. Which will in turn make the pasture better able to support more, and more productive, animals. The pasture has benefitted from its animal symbionts, not suffered because of them.

It's a complex system, and its appropriate use benefits every member of that system. Taken to either extreme the system suffers. Remove the animals and the soil-building cycle is drawn out through time considerably, relying on the annual rhythm of vegetative growth, death, and decay. It'll improve in time, but time is something we may not have the luxury of taking these days. Conversely, if I put too many grazing animals out on that land they will tilt the waste to growth ratio too far in the wrong direction. The growth rate of the forage won't be able to keep up with demand, the soil biota won't be able to cycle the manure fast enough, and the pasture ecosystem will collapse. We've all seen it, a half acre dirt lot with two horses standing in the corner nibbling at a lonely clump of weeds. Pretty sad. But systems out of balance generally are.

One solution to this overstocking problem is to reduce the consumption pressure, perhaps altering the type of animal on that half acre. Obviously the caloric needs of two horses are just too much for such a small resource base, but two goats might do just fine. Now we have two useful animals on the available land that can establish an equilibrium with it. The forage can now support the caloric needs of its animal symbionts, and their manure won't overwhelm the system's ability to cycle it. Now the animals have become a boon to the system instead of a parasite, for all the reasons we just discussed in the last two paragraphs. And, with the goats, the system is now producing milk and meat in a sustainable way, instead of just desperately racing to keep up with what has almost exclusively become a pleasure animal.

I've heard it said that Americans could trim 80% of their energy use without taking a serious hit to their lifestyle. Case in point, my family now lives on about 20% of the energy budget we did 4 years ago, and there are two children now that weren't there then. And lo and behold, people still come to our house for dinner! And enjoy themselves! Behavioral innovation alone, without the need for new technologies, new miracle crops, or new energy sources, can turn the resource killers into cooperative members of a self-improving system. But, just like the horse example, we have to abandon the idea that the human ecosystem can support anything we throw at it.


Not ennui. The concept of "weed" in our culture is beyond broken. Ever notice what happens to a patch of bare earth when left alone? Within a week or so little bits of green start to show up. In a month or so the bare patch is sporting a fine green coat - covering the soil, shading it from the sun, its roots hosting new colonies of soil microbes, the root channels of the pioneer plants helping water infiltrate the crusty soil. "Weeds" are Nature's way of repairing damaged soil. Cultivate your farm land, give it a month, and see what happens. From an ecological perspective, cultivation basically sets ecosystem succession back to the beginning. Nature's natural drive is to colonize that disturbed soil, first with herbs, then shrubs, and finally with trees (in most cases). Tilling, spraying with herbicides, and weeding are all regular energy inputs into a system that wants to do something else. Making it conform to the classical agrarian ideal of a proper food production system requires massive amounts of energy - organic or conventional - because we are fighting Nature's innate drive to mature. By removing the "weeds," we are forcing the system to remain in its infancy, in its most desperate and energetic state.

Now don't misunderstand me, I'm not suggesting that we let our farms and gardens run rampant with crabgrass and clivers. I'm simply suggesting that we change the way we think about ecosystem succession in the garden. After all, the weeds are there to help improve soil structure and the system's ability to maintain itself, without the constant input of energy from the gardener. In essence, they aren't competing for a limited resource pool, they are attempting to make the system self-sufficient, by improving soil tilth and texture, mineral loading, cation exchange, and water holding capacity. Left to their own devices, weeds would eventually turn a bare cultivated garden into a mature productive forest. And you'd be hard-pressed to find one of them still lurking under the mixed canopy a decade later.

So in my way of thinking, the trick to working with weeds instead of against them (which is awfully tiring), is two-fold. First we need to learn what the weeds are trying to tell us. Think about the physiology of the particular weed in question. For example, dandelions have a long strong taproot; anyone who has tried to pull one up can verify this. There is even a handtool on the market made specifically for reaching down into the soil around the dandelion root and extracting it. But by extracting the dandelion, we're not letting it do its job. Which is to take that strong deep taproot and bust up compacted soil. Another thing a dandelion's presence might tell us is that the soil is calcium deficient. That long hardpan-crushing taproot is also drawing subsoil calcium up into its foliage and dropping it off as topsoil (through the decay of its aerial biomass every winter) to be utilized by the next wave of succession. If we don't let them do their job, they will keep coming back to do it. They are very dedicated servants, as we all know too well!

Every weed has a job to do. None of them are there just to annoy us. The part that annoys us is simply our perception of "weed." Instead of fighting weeds constantly, mulch your beds down tight to accomplish some of what the weeds are there to do. This protects the soil from the harsh sun, disperses the impact of rain and irrigation and helps channel water gently to the soil, and provides a carbon bank on the surface where the soil biota can utilize it as needed. Placed on the surface, high-carbon mulch doesn't "eat up the nitrogen" as some folks will tell you. This is how Nature supplies carbon mass to her ecosystems, on the surface as detritus and windfall. Tilled in, carbon biomass will eat up the nitrogen, because it supercharges the soil biota, but not if its laid on the surface. This way it slowly feeds the microbes as nitrogen becomes available, maintaining the optimal 25:1 carbon to nitrogen ratio. Use the weeds to your benefit by learning to understand why they're there, and pick up some of their jobs to reduce their numbers where it's feasible.

Second, we need to rethink the end goal of our food production system. If nature wants to make your garden a forest, the lowest energy option would be to let it! Nature's fecundity is a very powerful force. Just consider the sheer capitalization of the world's big pesticide and power equipment companies! That energy and monetary investment put into squashing the competition of our favorite food crops is directly proportional to the energy Nature invests in repairing our damage. And judging by the increase in that budget, she is getting more insistent by the year!

But we don't have to watch our lovely little garden plot become a maple and privet grove. Instead, guide the succession toward species that are useful to humans. They function the same ecologically, if you pay attention to what you plant and how you plant it (that's where permaculture comes in), but instead of maples and privet, we can guide the system toward peaches and blueberries. And instead of crabgrass and clivers, we might set groundcovers of sweet potatoes and pumpkins. And the coolest part is, a food production system built on sound ecological principles functions just like a natural ecosystem! Reducing the gardener's energy input each season, and changing our most common tools from shovels and hoses to pruners and bushel baskets, as the system finds its own stride. Pest control. Check. Fertilizer. Check. Vitamin and mineral density. Always rising. And human labor inputs? Less each year.

This is how we garden in an energy descent world. By intelligently harnessing Nature's natural drive to mature instead of fighting her to produce only the high-energy annual crops we've become accustomed to. By understanding that working within background energy budgets, and properly balancing the system, we humans become an enhancement to our food production systems, and wider nature, instead of leeches on the landscape. No longer will our food production systems be dualistic, distinct and separate from nature, but they will actually become a support for, and an integral part of it. And we will find our rightful place within Nature's abundance once again. Paradoxically, scarcity is a product of growth. Our insistence on perpetuating growth at all costs, supposedly to avoid scarcity, is powerful testimony to how it has warped our perception of Nature's abundance. And weeds aren't our competition in a contractionary world, they are our allies. It's really only our minds that have to change to effectively cope with descent.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The K-T Boundary Revisited

I like to envision people like us as the tiny proto-mammals scurrying around the feet of the bohemoth dinosaurs during the final days before the end of the Cretaceous and the beginning of the Tertiary period of geologic history, the killer asteroid already visible during daylight hours. Too small to draw any notice, too small to be worth the calories spent catching us, flexible, adaptive, highly mobile. Our ancient ancestors, whose feathers were just becoming hair-like and whose skin was probably, platypus-like, just starting to secrete a milky fluid not yet localized to a nipple, were never considered to be a threat to the dominance of the giants that ruled the Earth. In fact if dinosaurs could laugh they probably would, at those strange early proto-mammals, and step on them just for fun.

Then the rock hit the Yucatan, shook the very ground beneath their feet, and ejected massive amounts of dust into the atmosphere. But it was the aftermath of that catastrophe, not the catastrophe itself, that really changed the world. The skies were darkened for years after the impact, plants were starved for light, the seed bank was largely exhausted in vain, food chains collapsed, dinosaur prey starved, and the irrepressible masters of Earth fell from glory forever. They had filled up the construct, maximized the calorie load on offer while the hot Cretaceous sun poured down on a green ferny earth, grown to gigantic proportions, and when food started coming up short, the ones who couldn't adapt screamed and thrashed about, but perished nonetheless. And, as Paul Stamets says, fungi inherited the Earth.

Our deep ancestors that managed to stay low and out of the way of the violent starving beasts, the ones who were able to adapt their diet to the offerings still available - largely detritus, carrion, and mushrooms I would imagine - survived to pass on their genes. And after about 60 million years, the hominids descended upon the landscape with their predatory binocular vision, their complex brains, opposable thumbs, upright bipedal posture, and an ability to cooperatively exploit the rest of Earth's biota that was previously unknown.

And we got good at it. Too good.

First agriculture and meat animal domestication, then horse power, which greatly increased our ability to work and travel (spend energy), and dairy, which greatly increased the number of calories we could derive from the maintenance of one animal. Villages, cities, mutual politics and religion, which in turn drove an ideology that justified military action against the "infidels" - i.e. pretty much anyone who didn't share our politics and religion. And over time a local culture based on village life, farming, horse power, sky god worship, and expansion, took over where the dinosaurs left off. We are the ones who have now filled up the construct during sunny weather. We're the ones who developed the ability to utilize every energy source on offer, strained all the food animals out of the ocean, and suppressed and murdered anyone and anything in the way. Our mental monoculture has damaged, infested, and destroyed the bulk of humanity's languages, food crops, art and literature, biodiversity, fresh water, and topsoil.

Which is completely natural! We are just another biological population among millions after all. And that's what biological populations do. They consume and expand, and eliminate resource competition, until they overshoot the carrying capacity of their ecosystem. Only this time we had millions and millions of years of ancient solar power stored up in stable, highly portable forms to exploit on the way up. The background human carrying capacity of planet Earth has never been more than one billion. ONE BILLION humans who lived close to nature and within her diffuse energy budget. Those billion humans knew intricately the seasonal patterns and fluctuations of food and medicinal plants, the movements of animals for food and power, had no electricity, no internal combustion engines, no Farmville. They ate what they hunted, gathered, and grew, lived simply, made art and pottery, told stories, went to church and other village rituals, and their energy use didn't even register compared to ours.

Peak oil was our K-T boundary. It was the upper limit on cheap energy expansion. Our population will crash at some point. Whether that's catastrophically, or through a managed multi-generational descent, is anyone's guess. But it will happen. There's nothing out there in the stars that is better than what we have right here. Not for all of us anyway. I like to imagine a small pioneering group of humans soldiering on into the galaxy, meeting other life forms, maybe even finding a planet hospitable enough to live on. But if we can't make it work on Earth, we're not going to make it work on Mars, or Europa, or Titan, or Alpha Centauri's worlds. It's fun to dream about, but it'll never happen.

However, anyone who's read my blog for any length of time knows that I believe there's a silver lining in this story. Those small proto-mammals that were able to adapt survived and went on to fame and riches that even the dinosaurs could have never imagined. Earth's human population will collapse. Wider nature will recover. Dams will break and fish will spawn upriver again. Mature complex forests will regrow. Concrete and glass cities will crumble over time. Levies will fail and floodwaters will rejuvenate bottomland once again. The remaining humans will eat cleaner food and have far less need for pills; obesity, cancer, and diabetes will loosen their iron grip on us. Empires will revert to states, states to chiefdoms, and chiefdoms to tribes. Layer after layer of parasitic bureaucracy will disintegrate. Round-up will be something we do with livestock, not something we spray to kill other living things. Topsoil will accumulate and water will run clean again. Evolution will undergo a flowering event. All of this will happen in an energy descent pattern. Already IS happening.

We're four years into the pattern now, and there's not a damn thing anyone can do to stop it. And that makes what we're doing just that much more exciting to me. We are the advanced guard of planetary restoration. Geoff Lawton would say that we are the weeds that can repair the Earth. All we have to do is be resourceful, adaptive, and stay out of the way of those hungry thrashing dinosaurs.

The last couple of weeks should remind us that we have one job left to do that will not necessarily take care of itself. When nuclear power plants crumble like the rest, radioactivity will severely threaten our chance to make things right. But once again there is hope in the Kingdom Fungi. Many mushrooms in Europe and western Asia were highly radioactive after Chernobyl, but they were able to digest the radioactivity over time. Mushrooms are vanguard species, feeding on death and toxins, dropping spore and attracting insects, which attract birds, which leave manure and seeds that mature into thriving ecosystems, and like the years following the K-T boundary, they will no doubt be major players in the dark uncharted territory of energy descent. I encourage all of you to engage the fungi, form alliances with them, and enhance your food production systems with this much-maligned group of misfits. They saved our asses before and they'll probably do it again. Stamets' books Mycelium Running and Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms are two titles I highly recommend. Be the mushrooms or be the proto-mammals, but the last thing in the world you want to be right now is a dinosaur...

Twenty-five posts and one year of blogging...thank you for being part of it!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Turning the T-ides of March

This is an idea I've been tossing around for a while now. Mentioned it over at Kunstler's blog last night, but thought I'd sit down and draw out a more formal proposal in writing here at Small Batch. The idea comes out of our discussions of supply chain efficiencies - the shorter the supply chain the less embodied energy it takes to run it. Consider a food chain of 3 steps: 1) primary producer grass converts solar energy into lignin, cellulose, and other carbohydrates; 2) grass is eaten by grazing cow, which burns some of the stored energy in the grass for metabolic upkeep, but fairly efficiently converts the rest into beef; 3) cow is eaten by top predator human, who has a very limited conversion rate (let's just call it a remarkably inefficient conversion rate), requires a broad spectrum of vitamins and minerals for proper function, and carries on a lot of high energy activities with the caloric energy from the cow he ate.

Every step up the food chain is earmarked by a lower energy conversion efficiency. To quantify, let's say that for every 1000 Calories of grass energy the cow eats, 200 Calories of cow is created. Then for every 200 Calories of cow the human eats, 2 Calories of human is created. So by this example, the human in this short food chain represents a solar energy conversion efficiency of 0.2% (2 divided by 1000). And this entire food chain takes place on one acre of Earth's surface area, with no external inputs, and assumes that any outputs are all returned to the system.

Imagine what happens to that primary solar energy in numerical terms when you start moving the cow from one place to another with oil, bringing him feed that was planted with oil, fertilized with gas, sprayed with oil and gas for pesticide protection, irrigated with water pumped out of the ground with coal, harvested with oil, cleaned and packed with all kinds of industrial human and machine power, shipped with oil, distributed on feed lots with oil, or coal-fired electricity, the cows are watered with water pumped from the ground once again with coal, then the cows are rounded up and shipped to the coal-powered abbatoir with oil, cut and packed with more coal and oil, distributed to market with...you probably get it by now. "Efficiency" in this food chain has long since passed through zero and headed into the red, and we are orders of magnitude away from the conversion efficiency of the first example. In other words, we're fully funding the cost of our food chain with our fossil energy lottery winnings. And growing completely out of touch with actual sustainable production efficiencies in the meantime.

Now let's apply the same logic to so-called carbon "offset" programs. If we are buying carbon offsets from a large firm, housed in an electrified building, running lights, water, heat, fleets, insurance, and 401(k)s for its employees, with even just a few layers of internal bureaucracy (links in the food chain), answering to a regulatory authority, paying taxes to another multi-level bureaucracy, printing promotional materials and internal paperwork (both the firm and the regulating authorities) - my god! Whew, OK, so you can see pretty quickly that any sort of net ecological gain supposedly granted by the carbon offset purchase has long since been eaten up by the complexity of the food chain involved. Dr. Odum's EMERGY accounting rears its ugly head again, and it is not friendly to American business. Even the ones that are supposed to be engaged in beneficial activities.

So, are carbon offsets, as typically administered, a complete waste of time, money, and energy? You bet your ass they are. Just like everything else done at a large scale, there is no such thing as a net gain. Large scale anything deteriorates pretty quickly as cheap energy starts losing its, well, cheapness. Which is where we're headed with energy following peak oil. We can love solar, wind, and hydro, and geothermal, and whatever is the next great savior, we can believe in them with all our hearts and minds, and we can even use them to some benefit in transition, in small, local applications, but the return on our investment will never be as good as it was with cheap and very portable oil. Therefore growth is over. Life from here on will be better described as "adaptation."

And so the contractionary phase of human history begins.

If we're serious about our desire to do something positive for the planet it absolutely must be done at a local level. The old "think globally, act locally" slogan is so worn out, but it is profound in the accuracy of its message. Anything done on a large scale - Heifer International, World Wildlife Fund, the Sierra Club, whatever - is going to have a positive carbon impact. And while the intentions of some of these organizations could certainly be praised, the full energy accounting of their operations points in the same direction as the activities of Halliburton and Monsanto. Maybe just at a slower pace. Heifer isn't racing to destroy the biosphere like some of the others are...

But that's a hard crossroad for most people to get through, the idea that, in order for human activity to be sustainable, it has to be extremely local. The days of the 3000-mile salad are coming to a close. Hell, the days of the 300 mile salad are probably coming to a close. We can't just plug a solar adapter into our long supply chains and keep doing our thing. It's our thing that has to change. Not by some altruistic choice either, but just by the reality of the situation.

And it's not that chaos will necessarily ensue in the descent scenario, ushering in some kind of Mad Max future, as lots of people think, but the length of food chains, the length of supply chains, will absolutely shrink and shrink steadily from here on out, as the market realities of ever-more-expensive energy come to bear. "Buy Local" won't be an option forever.

My sister the psychologist doesn't believe in true altruism - a personal benefit must always be a driver of the action - but this type of carbon sink I'm proposing sets out to disprove her hypothesis, because in order for me to convert donations and offsets to a net positive carbon sequestration, we have to keep the regulatory authorities (e.g. the IRS) out of the mix. Any taxing or regulatory authority adds a devastating link to our food chain, undermines the intention, and eats up most of the investment as metabolic waste. Don't tell the IRS that I compared them to metabolic waste. But seriously, that's what they are in ecological terms. So this has to be very simple: donator/offset purchaser contributes directly to the grower who impliments the sequestration activity. I've taken courses on how to capture carbon effectively, and will design contributions into a master site plan very effectively. More effectively than a hundred experts hand-selected by the most dynamic firm in the land could manage...because it's just me. Here's the take-home lesson from this post. E. F. Shumacher would love it. Small is Beautiful. Large is wasteful. End of story. No further debate required. Just you and me putting carbon back into the soil where it belongs.

I'd almost rather you just did it yourself. After all, wouldn't that be removing another link in the food chain? But an email donation is about as "weightless" as a non-local economy can get. We have 300 acres here in a hot humid climate that I will spend the rest of my life rehabilitating. By the time I die the soil here will be deep and rich, covered in permanent vegetation, and home to many more animals than it is today, both in numbers and species richness. Hopefully there will be more people making their way on this land too. It will serve as an ark of regional biodiversity, and as genetic and theoretical stock for regreening the southeastern United States. Many more gardens and ecologically-sound farming operations will spring from this one. Mineral cycles will be restored. Water cycles will be mended. In exchange I will send you a receipt for the exact amount you invested, showing what part of the system your altruism put in place. I will benefit from it in other ways besides cashflow, like increased fertility, integrated pest management, dietary diversity, and the ability to propogate life-enhancing (saving?) biological materials.

Every month I will post, as I have done since we got to this farm, photo updates and ideas for improvement. As a contributor your input will naturally become more valuable. We will put on workshops to spread these memes, these adaptive ideas, to our neighbors, so that they can benefit from their own self-reliance, and reinforce community strength. You should really do this in your neighborhood, but if you're not quite there yet, or don't know what to do, and you have enjoyed reading about what we do, your contribution will still benefit the larger ecological community, which really just means you. And in time you'll gain enough working knowledge to be able to repeat our successes (and avoid our failures) in a cellular way, adapting to site-specific conditions. Growth by gigantism is a thing of the past; it won't work the same in contraction. Competition and scarcity are not part of this model. This is the creative commons, and we will only improve our situation through open communication and cooperation.

Remember to avoid the Forum today.

All our best from Small Batch.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Pictorial - Early Spring 2011 at Tonic

From the header photo, pan left a click. This is the only out-building that I have full control of at this point. It's right in the middle of our garden system, and I'm dividing it into two parts inside - chicken coop at the back and tool shed at the front. You can see the chicken run fenced out to the left about 10', and angled back to the right, up to the gate that leads to the 2 back gardens. Next I'll be building a roof joist structure over the chicken yard and hanging poly-coated chicken wire over it. I'll need to prune the pair of hollies behind it up a notch so I can attach the poultry wire to the roof, around the trees. After that they are welcome to grow back down into it. On that wire I'll be growing fuzzy kiwis. My big spring nursery order just charged today actually, all $635 of it, and will ship out on Friday, so I need to get busy on the structure. I bought a male kiwi, and 3 varieties of female fuzzies - Hayward, Exbury, and Saanichton. Hayward is the one you see in the supermarket. There's already an unknown fuzzy planted behind the fence, just out of view. Unknown gender anyway. If it's female it's a Hayward, if it's male it's taking up space. And if you've grown kiwis, you know that they take up a lot of space. They recommend planting them on 20 foot centers! I couldn't believe it until I saw them growing. My god...

The permacultural theory behind the kiwis over the chicken yard is that they are awesome shade producers in summer, vigorous as it gets, keeping the chickens cool, but deciduous, leaving the sun shining through in winter. They will benefit from the chicken manure, positioning their roots to take advantage of the windfall without burning from the heat of their nitrogen-rich manure. The kiwis will shield the poultry from predators, drop fruit on them in season (I can't help but think of the apple trees throwing fruit at Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz), and host other birds, lizards, and beneficial insects. And hopefully, if all goes well, I'll be able to walk into the chicken yard with a basket and load up on dangling kiwis. They will be a treat for growing seasons following cooler winters...like the ones we've been having lately. We've had about 1200 chill hours this winter! (We're a 400 zone.) Might even get to sample my friends' apricots and filberts this year. Mine are still too small to matter. Back to the picture, the boxwood is coming out, and runner beans will grow up a trellis to the roof, with a bed of tomatoes in front of them. As soon as tomorrow I'll probably start laying a brick porch in front of the shed. The floor inside is nice flat brick and there's no reason for it. Bring 'em out where they can be enjoyed.

Pan left another click and you see mostly play yard, which is really more of a clothes drying and chicken tractoring yard at the moment. The big chicken tractor is back near the orchard fence. The hens are really enjoying the massive flush of henbit and mustards. The big mesa in the middle of the photo is a pecan stump! Big tree. The chicken tractor back left of it is 8'x4', if that helps with the size reference. We're thinking about smoothing it out a bit and burning a chess board into it. We could carve some big checkers and chess pieces to play when the weather is nice. What's showing is probably not even half of the play yard, and you can just see the corner of the pasture top left of the photo, before you get into cotton field.

Back right of the pecan stump are four tall posts set in a square. That will be an arbor for a nice long draping blue wisteria, and the entrance to the orchard from this side. I want something kind of dramatic for the kids, to mark the change in garden "rooms" where they will play. I'll build a low bench between the posts on both sides after it's covered, for a secret place for them to chill. (Or for Mama and Daddy to chill for that matter.)

Behind the play yard, where you see the tilled strips and mounds of mulch, is the orchard. Most of my nursery order will go out there. From south to north, north being the fenceline shared with the pasture, there are blackberries, my trial okra/peanut/duck/Stropharia mushroom polyculture, a pathway, the production tomato and basil bed, a row of apples, a variant of the three sisters guild, a row of pears, a different variant of the three sisters guild, a row of peaches (the three mounds you can see left of the tilled strip), another variant of the three sisters guild, a row of plums, and then a strip of perennial peanut for the ducks to graze on. I say three sisters, but it'll be more like four or five. I'm adding the Anasazi's cleomes for insect attraction, and potentially some improved amaranth, for grain variety, if the locals don't chide me too much about planting pigweed! East fence will be covered in bunch grapes, and west fence all figs and muscadines. Pomegranates on the section behind the chicken yard, that is just out of sight. There's another fruit tree tucked in the corner between the arbor and the chicken yard, an Illinois Everbearing Mulberry, which will drop fruit on all of the poultry for 3 straight months in late spring.

Ducks in the orchard, geese and turkeys in the play yard, and chickens in the run and wherever else we need them to be, like in the orchard to help break pest cycles in the fall. More food items to be found for them all in situ each year. Eventually I'm shooting for a closed system for ducks, geese, and turkeys, all of our native birds. Chickens, which originated in the south Asian rain forests where ecosystems regenerate at breakneck speeds 12 months a year, are probably a lost cause for energy descent in the U.S., unless you live in Hawaii; they have naturalized successfully there. Keep them while you can, they're great. And the fresh eggs are phenomenal. Nothing like store-bought "eggs." But I wouldn't confuse (modern) chickens with long-term sustainability in the temperate U.S.
Come down from the roof and sit at the desk, turn your head to the left, and this is what you'll see. A lush pasture just coming into its spring glory, with our new quarter horse Mick happily grazing away. His little buddy Sargeant Pepper is barely visible at the water trough. First donkey I've been around, and I rather like him. Mick seems to too. He came with the name Pepper, but since he has two parallel black stripes on his upper arm, we added Sargeant to it. Love that Beatles album; maybe we could name our next donkey Billy Shears. Donkeys are great pasture guards. They can't abide any canids in the pasture, which is good since we have plenty of foxes, coyotes, and feral dogs to contend with, and the pasture fence is the weak side of our gardens and poultry areas. Glad to have him here. And Mick is awesome. He's about 15 hands, a former jousting horse for medieval festivals, and is just silky smooth. He's 14, but we hope to get many more good years out of him, riding and possibly pulling logs out of the woods, or a cart to market. Our goal is to return to a horse-paced economy within our lifetime, whether the rest of the industrial world does or not. For sure the kids will learn to ride on him. We'll keep you updated on that one.

This is Easter, the Bourbon Red tom turkey that a friend gave us a couple of weeks ago. He's called Easter because that will be doomsday for him. (Or more likely the Vernal Equinox; the unbelievably pagan methods for determining the date for Easter are too complicated for a simple druidic soul like me;) We've been offered a breeding pair of Royal Palm turkeys, and really want them, but having two toms and limited accomodations is a bad deal. So off with his head! And he does look delicious. Never processed a turkey before, I'm guessing it's a lot like cleaning a chicken, although I may need a bigger stock pot. He's hard to hang onto, so I probably need to do the deed at night while he's pretty much blind. He has been instrumental in pushing forward our habitat development for free-ranging turkeys though. Since he arrived I've planted two Sawtooth oaks, some red ripper peas, a few prolific winter squashes, foxtail millet, and lots of perennial peanut. I'll add a bunch of muscadines, some chufa, goumi, brown-top millet, honey locusts, hawthornes, Maximillian sunflowers, hippy wild roses, and more I haven't thought of yet for sure. They love grasshoppers, so I'm thinking if I can plant something that grasshoppers love out in the turkey habitat, I can draw them away from the gardens and into a trap! Any suggestions?

Here are 12 little bitty new additions to the farm. I love baby chick time every spring! We have 6 Auracana pullets - always searching for those blue eggs, and 6 straight run Blue-laced red wyandottes. They are stunning in full adult color. We may keep a roo and breed them if we get some really pretty ones. I'll probably end up giving a few of these to family members that want to start using chicken tractors in their gardens, because I certainly don't need 15 chickens. (We have 3 now.) I think I could produce the eggs I need, for us and to give away, with about 8-9 chickens total. And I'm definitely not about overstocking my system just because I have the space. This is the first time I've had an old water trough to turn into a brooder, and I really like it. Nice tall sides keep the bitties in and secure. We used an extra cupboard from our kitchen project last season, with a fireplace screen over it for protection. Pretty makeshift. I need to have these guys cleared out by the end of the month when our American Buff goslings and Welsh Harlequin and Blue Runner ducklings arrive. Which means I need to have the poultry run finished so I can move the laying hens out of the tractor and these guys in. Then they'll need to clear out of the tractor before the rabbit kits are old enough to go out on pasture...I think we can make this work??

Mushroom project is on the march. Here are the first dozen shiitake logs (pecan in this case) laid up and labelled. Since this picture I've added another 32 pecan logs and 90 oak logs. They are in the 4-week rest stage following harvest, and preceeding innoculation. Once the tree's anti-fungal compounds have broken down, I'll plug some of them and put them in the laying yard. Others will be reserved for demos later this year. We finalized today to teach a session on growing mushrooms at the Georgia Master Gardeners convention in October in Macon. Pretty excited about that one. Next up I'm doing a talk on enhancing the home garden with fungi for the Tifton Garden Club next Monday night, and then an all-day workshop at the Spring Folk Life festival at the Georgia Agrirama on April 2nd. This tiny stack looks so manageable!

Come see us at Tonic Permaculture in Tifton, GA, and this will be the first view of the garden from the entry gate. The salvaged-brick walkways of the kitchen garden are started, and the construct is mostly built. The rabbits are moving around in their tractors, scratching and fertilizing the few beds remaining to be built, and the horses are galloping happily in their pasture. Nearly everything has broken dormancy now, from an early nectarine that's just about done blooming to figs and boysenberries that are just starting to unfold their tiny leaves to grapes whose buds are just today starting to swell. We've only been here for 2 months, so it has a long, long way to go, but it's happening. It's a bit overwhelming some days, when it seems like there are more time-sensitive items on the list than there is time to get them done, but a deep breath and a good night's sleep helps with that immensely. I already see some places where we can improve the bed-to-pathway ratio without making it feel cramped, and maybe a set of beds that could be realigned to help the flow. By this time next month I'll have 3 more species under my care that I've never worked with before, but it keeps me on my toes and my nose in the books.

I'm starting to think of myself as something like a farmer these days, since I work from sun-up to sundown seven days a week. Not sure where exactly I'd fit another job in. But what we do isn't really farming either. There are certain implications in the term 'farming' that just don't fit this model. Fortunately, there are a lot of young people doing similar things these days, and since this trend is not part of the competitive, Earl Butz-ian "get big or get out" mentality, there is always room for more, and always will be as long as fossil energy keeps getting more expensive. The concensus among small local producers is that we can't keep up with the demand. And that demand is growing every week.

This is a good life. Beats the pants off of the commute-and-cubicle I bought into not that long ago. It does require some rethinking about what a need is, and what is just a want, but so far Jess and I have found the path to simplicity to be most rewarding.

Thanks for stopping by. All our best from Small Batch...

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Full Circle Systems Ponder

As Michael Pollan says, gardening is a good time to think. It doesn't require your full attention, and it would be hard to hurt yourself seriously most of the time. And as one who, like Michael Pollan, tends to be a systems thinker, I was starting to feel a pang of guilt about turning pecan limbs into shiitake mushrooms. Anyone who has grown shiitake on logs knows that you have to take living wood, rest it for 3-4 weeks to allow the tree's natural anti-fungal compounds to break down, then innoculate it with the chosen spore. And here I was, standing on the lowered tailgate of my pickup, pole saw in hand, cutting this long straight pecan limb, that might have provided nuts for decades to come (though it had very little "fruitwood" when I cut it), in order to feed it to shiitake mushrooms that might last for 6 or 7 years tops. The energetics equation was upside down. In effect I was shifting my system from lower-energy perennial structures to relatively higher-energy "annual" ones. Well, maybe not annual, but less perennial anyway.
And I got hung up on this. For a minute anyway.

But then, the real systems thinker in me came to, and I felt a sudden rush of relief. Because in an energy descent context, we south Georgians have a vast surplus of pecans. We are one of only a few major pecan-producing regions in the U.S., that supply the rest of the continent with pecans. Pecans we won't be able to continue shipping away for too much longer. What to do with all those nuts? Well, we won't starve to death, that's for sure. Might be bored senseless of pecan this and pecan that, but it's a good solid menu item, survival-wise. But there will be no market value left in pecans eventually. Take a continent-sized pecan market, collapse it down to a sub-state region, and see where pecan futures head. For our region it will probably be the same for blueberries, cotton, peanuts, and peaches too. Not to mention that the two annual crops in that list will probably fall victim to energy descent even within the region ultimately. They're just too energy-intensive, and I don't see anyone volunteering to start picking cotton by hand again.

Fortunately, we can all grow a few peanuts at home if we want to, and we have enough clothing to blanket the Earth in multiple layers hanging in the closets and clothes shops of Tift County already. The term "seasonal fashion" might take a beating, but we have clothes. All the same though, I'm planting some flax this season, and probably picking up a few sheep. I wonder if we can turn slash pine fiber into cloth?

I saw a great bumper sticker last weekend at the Southeast Lawn and Garden Expo that read: "Spinning because knitting isn't weird enough." She and I are friends now. Actually she bought a shiitake mushroom log from me too! I had a demo booth going, plugging sweetgum logs with shiitake spawn, and selling them for $25 a pop. Sold out completely to a surprisingly fascinated crowd, was interviewed on camera for the regional nightly news, and have 5 more workshops lined up for this year already. Including the Georgia Master Gardeners state convention in Macon in October. I've been thinking about becoming a certified Master Gardener for a year or two now, and here I am teaching a class at their state convention! I love it.
Which takes me full circle back to the cutting of those pecan logs for future shiitake stuffing workshops, and the realization that it was OK to do so in light of current energetics trends. And not only that, but building a proper multi-storied food forest under the pecan canopy will require removing some of the lower limbs to let in more light. The food forest will yield more, and more diverse, calories per acre than the pecans alone, not to mention bear less ubiquitous crops for this region. I turned some of my mushroom earnings into persimmons and plums for the advancement of that plan.

It's time for a monthly photo update from Small Batch (which is now Tonic Permaculture btw, since we are anything but small these days). My next post will have pictures of our new Bourbon Red tom turkey, our dozen baby chicks that just arrived, a much improved garden and orchard, projects around the house, and a slow food group update.

See you again soon.