Inputs vs Outputs

Read this from a chap that has a 204 acre organic permaculture farm:

“The key selling point for me was to shift the focus from output to input. What I mean is that conventional farmers all seem to have tunnel vision on the output side of the equation, perpetually chasing a higher yield, while not paying enough attention to the input costs associated with doing so (man hours, fuel, pesticides, herbicides, etc.). That was ok when these oil-dependent products were cheap. Today, variations in the costs of those things on world markets can have a huge effect on a farmers success or failure, even moreso than weather.”

Being Strangled by the Australian Dream

A colleague of mine opened right up with me today. She is in her 40s, married with two kids (10 and 14) and two years ago got into a mortgage up to her neck. The kids are in private schools. The daughter does piano lessons. The son plays soccer. They live a 45 minute drive from work. Sometimes my colleague has to catch the bus to work which can take up to an hour and a half. Twice a week they take their son to soccer practice across town, which means they don’t get home until 10pm.

This just sounds like the Australian Dream.

My colleague migrated to Australia several years ago from Central America. She told me, with tears in her eyes, that, in many ways, she feels she has taken ten steps backwards. Her and her husband work to keep afloat, and there is little money left for entertainment and definitely not enough to work on the projects she feels will make for a more comfortable life–landscaping the backyard and putting solar panels on the roof–or travelling back to Central America to visit family every few years.

She told me that she longs for the day when she will be comfortable. When she doesn’t have to worry about money. I stopped her and apologised in advance for being so bold. I told her: “Sometimes we have to be less fixed on getting more money to satisfy our needs and instead reduce our needs so the money we currently earn is enough”. She agreed. She and her husband are going to sit down together soon and really work out what it is they want out of life. Is the mortgage necessary? Perhaps they are better off renting, or buying a cheaper house. Do the kids really need to go to a fancy private school? And are they perhaps more wise to move closer to work to cut down on the money and time they are losing to the commute?

(I am placing this post in the the “Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback” category as it is terribly apt.)

Community Food Grant Program Axed: A New Oppportunity is Born

The scrapping of the $1.5M Community Food Grant Program isn’t the end of the world. As much as it will lead to communities most in need thinking twice about going ahead with their community garden or farmers market project, it brings to bear new opportunities. I think the conversation has gotten to the point where its seems too important to not go ahead over some government funding. Provided planning laws don’t change to inhibit these projects, the barrier of entry remains relatively low. And you can always just do it without permission. But the opportunity, I think, is going a step further to harnessing the power and energy of the crowd and using crowdfunding to fund these project.

Soon after the election of a new conservative government in 2013, the Climate Commission, an agency set up to advise on the science and economics of carbon pricing, was axed. There was uproar, people weren’t happy with this move. The leaders of the commission, mostly well-respected scientists, went out and spoke to the crowd. Within days they had gathered $1M in funding, from the community, via crowdfunding platform, Pozible.

I have supported a number of crowdfunding campaigns from local theatre productions, to a couple trying to rebuild their tiny house after losing it to a fire, to a permaculture magazine.

Running a crowdfunding campaign is relatively easy. All you really need is a compelling idea–which you would have needed to get the government funding anyway–and group of supporters. I reckon it is probably a more engaging way to gain community buy-in than dealing behind closed doors with council to apply for a grant. Here are a few tips for using crowdfunding to help fund your community food project:

1. Get out there in the community and talk to people.
2. Ask the people you speak to you follow you on social media (set up a Facebook Page for your project), this way you can easily stay in touch.
3. Set up a crowdfunding campaign using the likes of Pozible, and share it on social media and anywhere else you can.
4. Don’t neglect other fundraising avenues like community sausage sizzles, pot lucks, and good ol’ fashion asking.
5. Be as frugal as you can. To start up a small community garden doesn’t need to cost much money at all. Employ things like tool sharing, reuse what you can, and take to the likes of Gumtree to buy what you need.

Update: Here are some examples of successful crowdfunded Australian community food projects:
Clarinda Community Garden and Art Space
Flinders University Community Permaculture Garden straw bale gazebo
Bank Street Farmers Market

 

On Transportation: My First Taste of Coaching it to the Block

The coach left Adelaide at 8:30am and I was walking on my land by 10:45am. I spent most of the trip staring out the window–it really was a glorious day of weather. And knocked off a chapter and a half of Rob Hopkins’ “The Power of Just Doing Stuff”. The trip cost me $19.40 each way, so a total of $38.80 which is comparable to what it would have cost to fuel a car. I was back on the coach at 2:43pm on the dot, and alighted the bus in Adelaide at 4:48pm (20 minutes ahead of schedule).

The VLine Speedlink coach.

The VLine Speedlink coach.

The VLine (Dysons) coach was modern and comfortable and reeked of New Bus Smell. The check-in staff at the Adelaide Bus Station and the driver were friendly and professional and made the trip a breeze.

Could I make this trip regularly–probably departing on a Saturday and returning on a Sunday when I have some infrastructure in place? Definately. The VLine coach service is affordable, efficient, and a pleasant if relaxing way of making the journey out to the Murray Mallee.

Visiting the Mallee Permie Block

I visited the block yesterday. I haven’t seen it since the one and only time I visited it before I put in an offer. It’s different than I expected, in a few ways. The boundaries weren’t as I remembered. There are more clearings than I recall. There are more scrap building materials that have been left behind. And it’s a hell-of-a-lot prettier than I first imagined. I spent 3 hours at the block sitting, walking, observing and exploring. I dug some holes with a metal rod I found. The soil doesn’t appear to be as sandy as I expected. It’s white and loose in parts, red-sandy loam in others, and where many camp fires have burnt years ago, it’s starting to develop a nice humus.

I bumped into three locals on my visit. Both my next door neighbours and a bloke from up the road, who was cycling to the post office to collect the weekend paper. On one side there is Neville, a semi-retired, 80-something-year-old, farmer turned concrete-worker. We talked about work, small business, bushfires, and community. Then I met Teresa on the other side. She is a 40-something mother of grown-up sons, who lives by herself and loves the peace and quiet of the town. She was really pleased to hear that I had purchased the land and intended to follow permaculture principles in how I developed it. She said “it’s a bastard to grow plants out here sometimes” and suggested my first priority be to “build the soil”. She loved the idea of a straw bale house, and commented on the insulation qualities of this building method. She offered me heaps of scrap building material that she no longer needed – more limestone than I can poke a stick at, two old galv rainwater tanks, trellising, an old garden shed, and old avery, and a heap of roofing iron. She also offered me a place to stay and shower if I need it. Oh, community, you’re alive and well. I also met Ron. He is a leather-worker from up the road. He was going to participate in a straw bale building workshop a few towns over a couple of years back, but life got in the way. He has three books on straw bale, he told me. And one day he intends to build a small workshop, in which to do his leather work, out of straw bale. I offered for him to help on my project. He is keen to lend a hand when I get bailing.

If Zone 6 is community, well, I have done a fair amount of observing and interacting already. This was one of my objectives of this, my first trip out to the block since settlement: to meet locals and tell them of my plans. Fitting in isn’t necessarily my aim, but getting along with people certainly is. And so far I am off to a positive start.

I shall let the following pictures express more about what I observed at the block. I feel a comprehensive analysis is only a few posts away.

 

Pigs face (Carpobrotus rossii) grows like crazy as a groundcover across the block.

Pigs face (Carpobrotus rossii) grows like crazy as a groundcover across the block.

Some of the useful materials left behind by the previous owner. The old galv rainwater tank (of which I now have 4) is destined to be turned into 5 raised garden beds.

Some of the useful materials left behind by the previous owner. The old galv rainwater tank (of which I now have 4) is destined to be turned into 5 raised garden beds.

Another of the galv tanks. This one might make a good fire wood shed.

Another of the galv tanks. This one might make a good fire wood shed.

The next door neighbour has used the block for storage, he makes these wonderful concrete products. At least I have a place to sit for now.

The next door neighbour has used the block for storage, he makes these wonderful concrete products. At least I have a place to sit for now.

From the front, looking north.

From the front, looking north.

Looking north from the 'driveway'.

Looking north from the ‘driveway’.

The main clearing.

The main clearing.

Native vegetation.

Native vegetation.

I went for a walk in the scrub behind the block and found this old truck.

I went for a walk in the scrub behind the block and found this old truck.

This is what some of the soil looks like. Sand or sandy loam?

This is what some of the soil looks like. Sand or sandy loam?

Pip Magazine: Australia’s New Permaculture Magazine

As some of you know, I have been helping Pip Magazine to build their community for the past month. What is Pip Magazine? It’s Australia’s newest–and only dedicated–permaculture magazine. It aims to help people build, connect, create, eat, grow, and nurture their way to a better life and better world. Pretty noble objective, don’t you think?

To make Issue #1 a reality, we have used the power of crowdfunding to partially fund the cost of printing. Crowdfunding, using the Pozible platform, was chosen in the spirit of the permaculture principle, to “share the surplus”. It’s a way for people interested not only in permaculture, but sustainability, social justice, gardening, and food ethics, to make an impact on something bigger than perhaps their own projects. It’s a way for the community to (1) make a statement and (2) be part of something that aims to make a difference to the world.

Well, the crowdfunding campaign has been a great success. The initial goal was $9,500AUD and we’re currently sitting at just shy of $10,500AUD. The aim now, with only 35-hours to go, is to push it up to $13,000AUD. Pretty ambitious, aye? Well, with the power of community behind us it is a real possibility.

What’s in it for you? Well, by pledging $20+ you pre-order a copy of the magazine. Various pledge-points can also select some great gifts such as the Pip tote bag, permaculture calendars, ethically-made jewellery, Formidable Vegetable Sound System’s fantastic CD, “Permaculture: A Rhymer’s Manual”, and vouchers towards some great permaculture courses. Oh, and you’re helping get this great magazine off the ground!

To make a pledge: pozible.com/project/175807

The Pip Magazine website: pipmagazine.com.au

Follow Pip Magazine on Twitter: twitter.com/PipMagazine

Like Pip Magazine on Facebook: facebook.com/PipAustralianPermacultureMagazine

Observe and Interact: On Buying a Shed and Camping

Observation is the first principle of permaculture.

Writes Mollison:

“Collecting a large set of observations on occurrences, or samples of a set of phenomena, and sorting them on the basis of likeness-unlikeness (by establishing systems and system boundaries, categories, and keys to systems).  This process often reveals common characteristics of diverse elements, and leads to an understanding of common traits, suggesting (by analogy) strategies in design” (Mollison, 1979).

Writes Holmgren:

“Good design depends on a free and harmonious relationship between nature and people, in which careful observation and thoughtful interaction provide the design inspiration” (Holmgrem, 2002).

All the other permaculture principles and techniques rely on this one principle. Without observation, one does not understand their situation.

I am working through this principle at the moment–not that observation will ever cease. I am working out exactly how I ought to interact with my land. I want to build a house and have gardens but where should I place that house and the gardens? Where’s the best place to build the house to keep in cool during long, hot summers? How might I deliver nutrients and water to the plants? Conventional thinking doesn’t require us to go through this phase–at least not to a meaningful degree. You can effectively plonk the house where you like, and the garden, and tweak it with an array of inputs until you get the result you’re after. Place the house in a spot that gets thumped by the hot afternoon sun? No worries, air conditioning will take care of that. Place the fruit and nut orchard above the dams? No worries, an electric pump can keep it irrigated. Permaculture is about creatively solving problems. Out of the box thinking.

The first piece of my design will be applied in the coming weeks and it is the result of careful on- and offsite observation. You see, the scenario isn’t constrained to the block of land. It also encompasses state of mind, relationships, time, location, and monetary costs. The first piece will be a storage shed-cum-camping hut. I have settled on a 20’ shipping container. The reason I chose a shipping container is:

  1. Versatility–it’s essentially a watertight metal box that can perform, to quote Mollison (2011) again, “many functions”;
  2. Cost–a secondhand 20’-er costs about the same as a similar sized garage that would require a lot more work to place onsite;
  3. Environmental–I liked the idea of reusing something with a relatively high level of embodied energy rather than buying / building new; and
  4. It will double as a storage unit down here in Adelaide, which I can use to store salvaged building materials I acquire and then transport up to the block when it is full.

These reasons all stem from observations I have made of the situation. You will note, most are offsite elements. What about onsite? Well the key things I have had to observe are to do with the siting of the container. Fact is, my analysis confirms that I do need a storage shed. But how to site it? I have observed things such as where there is habitat and vegetation, where the water runs and pools, how intense the sun is in particular spots, where the cool spots are, and access for delivery. Sure, it could be placed under a big tree for shade but what about delivery, because there are other trees in the way? And what about the bushfire risks? And what about having a nice northerly aspect for winter solar access? I have settled on the spot that will cause the least amount of disturbance as possible, and will provide the most benefit. This spot is relatively open and clear with some protection from the hot afternoon summer sun. Further, there is space to build shade if required. The container will have the closed end facing north, the doors facing south onto the road, for easy receipt of materials I may need to store. The north end I will turn into a camping hut. I will line, with stud work and insulation, around 1/3 of the container and install a large window overlooking the view and to benefit from the winter sun. Shade from the summer sun will be provided for by a structure covered in edible climbing plants like grapes, passionfruit and choko. A large rainwater tank will be placed to the west of the living space to provide further insulation against the hot afternoon sun. The west side is also a prime candidate for some straw bale treatment. Not only to improve insulation, but as a way of learning the ropes–a non-structural project that I can stuff up on is probably the best place to start.

The fact that I want to have a comfortable camping space on the block comes back to observation. I realise this project is going to take a while. The straw bale house is at least a year off. In the meantime, I want to have the ability to visit the block as much as possible and observe a lot and interact a little. To not afford myself this ability would potentially see me rushing into things without having a good understanding of the situation, which could compromise the quality of the design and overall experience. Some weekends–I can picture it now–will see me head to the block on the Saturday morning bus, and just sit there and look and listen, before coming home to the grind on the Monday morning, having learnt a lot.

The observations I will make–that I am making now, too–will aid in making educated decisions and respecting the land. And it will make the whole experience a lot more intimate.

~

Holmgren, D. (2012). “Essence of Permaculture: A Summary of Permaculture Concepts and Principles Taken From ‘Permaculture Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability”. See: http://holmgren.com.au/downloads/Essence_of_Pc_EN.pdf

Mollison, B. (1979). “Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual”. Tagari Publications, Sisters Creek, Tasmania.

Mollison, B. & Slay, R. M. (2011). “Introduction to Permaculture” (Second Ed.). Tagari Publications, Sisters Creek, Tasmania.

The Norm Defier

You might’ve read this piece when I first wrote it, admittedly I did that with the assistance of a couple of glasses of wine. It was a bit out of the blue and lacking in context, wasn’t it?

I wanted to write this while it is fresh.

I just got asked. “Don’t you want to maybe move to another city, try that, and do this build later on?”

My response, to this fairly typical, middle-class person: “Don’t you want to go off-grid and live simply?And work and have a mortgage later?

Well, let me wrap a bit of context around it now. I was having a chat with a colleague. He asked me how I am going to pull off this project within the current structure of my life. I told him that there is every chance my partner might end up in another state for work. To that he asked the question. He was taken aback by the answer, but this is something I am familiar with. I am moving way outside the norm and people feel uncomfortable about that. And what’s why I want to pose the question, clearly and directly, and have a discussion about this with people from all sorts of perspectives.

The norm. The Monday to Friday, work-and-play, have some kids along the way (perhaps), norm. What is it meant to achieve? Why don’t more people challenge it?

Yes, yes, I know it’s a bit of a rhetorical question. One that I absolutely possess a strong opinion on. I am just curious as to what other people have to say, for it is obviously something we are very interested in–apparent by the vigor which which some defend it. 

 

On Being Car-Free, Shipping Containers and Transportation

I don’t drive. Never have, and don’t really have the intention to learn. To most, the cars conjure up visions of independence, convenience, and accessibility. For me: money, money, money… oh, and boredom. Why would I drive when I could be reading a book? Yes, yes, I come a unique, perhaps insulated (perhaps naive) position, but I am okay with that. I have never felt like I was missing out.

Well, until, recently. For a second, I was a bit worried about how I was going to start the project. The first step is usually the hardest. I have this block of land with nothing on it in the middle of Murraylands. I wanted to start by building a shed. First, I thought, I’d buy a used shed off Gumtree. Most require the buyer to dismantle. That would require me, and a mate with a vehicle, to spend a day dismantling the thing, move it, and then reassemble it at the block. Or I could have paid somebody to do this. All this considered, I would have probably spent $2,000+ doing this plus a few weekends hard work, with nowhere to stay—other than a tent, I suppose. The next option was to buy a brand new shed and have it delivered and then slowly assemble it—with a mate or my father. Again, I would be looking at the same sort of money and time, and would require assistance.

Then the obvious solution dawned on me. A shipping container. I have done the phone around and for just over $2,000 I can get a 20’ shipping container in decent—watertight—condition. Add to that delivery of about $450. The best thing about choosing a shipping container is that it is complete. I would head to the block perhaps the weekend before delivery, do a little site preparation and that’s it. The structure itself is complete and can be used to store things. Straight away.

What’s more, many suppliers will allow you to keep the container on their premises and access it as a storage unit in the interim. This suits me perfectly. As down here in Adelaide I want to buy building materials and need a place to store them. By doing this, I can have them delivered directly to the container. And when the time comes I can relocate it and its content to the block, saving on an extra load of freight.

On the subject of transport, I have been phoning around local and Adelaide-based freight companies and suppliers asking for quotes. Naively I thought it would be cheaper to buy in Adelaide and freight it to the block. Wrong. To have a pack of 90x45mm timber delivered by one supplier in Adelaide would set me back $240 just in delivery fees. Fortunately, a chat to the local Mitre 10 (in Tailem Bend, 30km from the block) revealed that I’d pay an extra $0.75/metre for the timber but the delivery fee is a piddling $40. I’m happy to hear this as I would prefer to support local operators, and indeed this store is family-owned.

So the plan is this. I shall purchase a shipping container and start accumulating building supplies, which I will have delivered directly to it. I found some ripper corrugated iron on Gumtree the other day for $5 a sheet (1800mm lengths). Once I have a full load, I will have the container delivered to the block. Then, I intend to line half of the container and use it as a camping space—so that when I am working at the block I have some place comfortable to sleep. Actually, I am getting ahead of myself. Over the next week I intend to go up there for only the second time, to take measurements, do some sketching, and chat to some of my new neighbours.

Extremely Small Scale Urban Permaculture: Stacking and Companion Planting

This article lends itself to the permaculture principle, “Use & Value Diversity”

I live in a tiny two-bedroom unit near Adelaide, South Australia. It’s single story. It has a backyard featuring a paved outdoor living area, lawn, large shrubs along the perimeter, and a token pear and mandarin tree. (The former of which got absolutely molested by parrots before we could cover it in netting.) The shrubs are placed as such to provide shade to the western aspect of the house from the hot afternoon sun. This has proven ineffectual and the house heats up breathtakingly during the height of summer. The front is adorned with a large, shade-affirming hibiscus, which attracts a plethora of bees and insects with its beautiful, pink satellite-like flowers. The ground is covered in pine chips and is dotted with a mix of shade-tolerant shrubs, mostly native understory plants. The only bit of the front yard that gets good sun is the north-eastern corner, an area of about three-square-metres which comprises blank, pine chip-covered soil and a brick planter. This is where we established our small vegetable patch. Stacking and companion planting has ensured good yields and that the ‘pests’ don’t take over. When I designed our little patch–there wasn’t so much a process, but trial and error–I had to work within certain conditions. Namely, the garden had to be raised or in pots, and had to be easily removable for when we moved house, to leave as little impact on the property as possible–the joys of renting.

blackforestgarden

According to Mollison [1] “We can construct our own variation of the forest by establishing an intercrop of taller and shorter species, climbing plants, and herbs, placed according to their heights, spade tolerance, and water requirements”. Forests, of course, are self-regulating and therefore don’t need inputs like fertiliser and pesticides to encourage growth and deter pests respectively. Mollison suggests using biological resources instead: “Umbelliferous [plants of the parsley family] and composite plants such as dill, fennel, daisies, and marigolds placed around garden beds… attract predator insects”. Angelo Eliades from Deep Green Permaculture [2] describes companion planting:

“Many pests identify their food sources through scent or the physical outline (shape) of the plant. Pests can be confused by planting companion plants which release scents which masks that of their neighbouring plants. Companion plants can also be interplanted amongst the crop plant to mask their shape, making them harder to locate, so that pests miss them altogether.”

We stacked and companioned our plants very tightly into the north-east corner of the front yard by necessity, and this had the added benefits as described by Mollison and Eliades above. Foremost, the necessity was to optimise the use of space–we wanted to get as big a yield and capture as much of the sparse sun as possible. We used a little of the ground–into which we planted a couple of species of tomato–as it could easily be made good by covering over with pine chips when we moved. Tightly surrounding the tomato plants, and to provide shelter from the wind and additional support, is a hodgepodge of brightly coloured pots containing all manners of shallow-rooted species–radish, spring onion, several varieties of lettuce, dill, and basil. Due to the height of these potted plants and the stunted growth of our tomatoes–it was a tricky season in Australia, with summer arriving late–everything is at a similar level, so in the eyes of an insect, one might expect that they are very confused indeed. Short and tall plants are all on the same level. We have created some height by planting leggy varieties of cherry tomatoes in the brick planter box. These provide shade for the delicate leaf plants on hot summer days. These plants got off to a better start in spring, due to the heat radiated by the bricks. On top of this bed is some old coconut husk hanging baskets we have planted strawberries. The strawberries are left to shoot off as they please, and when watered, the excess water drains straight onto the tomatoes. What we have created here is a veritable mishmash of complementary plants. We ensured, when we chose the species, that they indeed would compliment each other.

The stacking and companionship has paid off and seems to support Mollison’s and Eliades’s theory–we haven’t had any issues whatsoever with pests this season and not even one of the worst heat waves in the history of South Australia has killed everything off, or seriously spoilt the plants. Everyday when I got out to pick a few leaves for a side salad, I’m surprised to see them all completely intact, with not a sign of pesky intervention or wilted leaves. Further, due to the shade and support provided by each plant, moisture retention in the soil has been tremendous. The great thing about this experiment, is that it is applicable for people with the smallest of spaces. The number one reason I hear for people not planting vegetables is a lack of space.

[1] Mollison, B. (2011). “Introduction to Permaculture”. Tagari Publishing, Sisters Creek, Tasmania.

[2] Eliades, A. (unknown). “Companion Planting: Camouflage”. See: http://www.deepgreenpermaculture.com/companion-planting