Breaking Ground – Sandy, Limestone Infested Ground

We broke ground last Friday. Sand. Then limestone. And did it over and over again to the point of exhaustion. Loved every moment of it and still feel sore days later.

My partner and I made a trip up to the block on Anzac Day and soon realised it was, indeed, a special public holiday. We had trees and irrigation supplies to purchase but nothing was open until 12pm. With respect to the fallen soldiers, half a day wasted. Eventually we were back on track and bailed our first shovel full of dirt at 2pm. Hard labour, it was. The ground, whilst sandy and soft, was freckled with limestone. To be expected in that part of the world. This had its pros and cons. Pro: free building materials and a good workout. Con: the sore wrists I am typing this with today, and the sheer time it took. We worked into the night under the beam of the car headlights. The challenge didn’t stop there. There was no water. Turns out there is no mains in. A blockage perhaps? Onto the council, who are responsible for the supply. Thankfully, my friendly neighbour ran a long hose from his bore tap, which made our bucket trips to water in the figs, olives, gojis, and feijoas, a bit shorter.


We planted the trees in a medium of loam with chook shit, grape marc (the byproduct of wine production), the sandy loam we dug up, and a pinch of rock dust. The irrigation will have to wait for this weekend – thankfully the trees were treated to 19mm of rain this morning – and some swale building and mulching.


An Update

Yikes. I have been a bit neglectful of late, haven’t I? I’ve had a lot on my plate. A health scare – all good, things are now fine. Lots of work – the day job, the business, and Pip Magazine. I have tried to spend a bit more time outdoors on the bike and in the hills. Socialising fits in there somewhere. And, unfortunately, the blog has been the thing to give. No matter, it’s back in mind so I shall try and write more regularly. In fact, I have a lot coming up to write about. I am making a trip out to the block in the next week or two – over one of the long weekends – to do some work and camp a couple of nights. On my list of things to do:

– Build soil;
– Lay some temporary irrigation;
– Plant some fruit and nut trees;
– Perform an inventory on the scrap materials laying around the block; and
– Observe and interact some more.

In other news, I signed up to the Geoff Lawton Online PDC. I know, I know, now is probably not the right time to be taking something else on, but hey, it’s a once a year intake and seemed like good value for money. I have watched a lot of Geoff’s videos in the past and enjoyed them.

I am two weeks into the course and I am looking at pulling out. Thankfully they offer a full refund should you withdraw for any reason within the first 30 days. Reason being, I haven’t really got the time for it, and the course content so far hasn’t been enjoyable. Geoff, standing next to a whiteboard, marker in hand, looking like he is ready to write something on the board. Oh, the anticipation. But he doesn’t. He just drawls on and on, in broad terms, with few examples. Not my style at all. I love a good example, as he has given in many of his free videos; where he has performed case studies on permaculture designs in action. Explaining them thoroughly and in everyday language. I wished for more of that – and it may come later in the course – but I am not hopefully, and don’t want to miss out on the refund.

Anyways, that’s enough from me for now. I am working on a post about running a business following Holmgren’s permaculture principles that I shall post sometime over the next week. Until then, share the surplus.

Just Ask

People are scared of asking for things. They fear rejection. “But what if they say no?” So what? They might say “Yes” or “Yes, but if you meet these conditions…” The only way you’ll find out is by asking. By taking a risk. The consequences of which may not be significant at all. Perhaps just the opportunity to ask somebody else.

I walk past a building demolition site every day. Finally, today, the building was reduced to but a pile of rubble. But within that rubble was about 10 pallet loads of good red bricks. Perfect for several projects I have planned at my block in the Mallee. The boundary fence was emblazoned with the name of the firm responsible for the demolition. I gave them a call. Unfortunately, in this instance, the materials are due to be taken away later on today. I can’t arrange transport with such short notice. However, the helpful project manager on the phone informed me that I was welcome to call them when I have got transport at the ready, and they’ll point me in the direction of a demolition site that may have available some materials to my liking.

I was hesitant about asking at first. “They probably have rules about letting randoms on site to collect stuff”. Apparently not. The project manager was glad to hear of the prospect of some of these valuable materials being put to good use. For the rest will end up recycled into aggregate, or worse, in a landfill.

If I had of gotten a “No”, I would have just asked the next demolition firm I saw.

On Downshifting: Reducing One’s “Standard of Living” Needn’t be Unpleasant

After many brushes with this encounter, I have come to realise that middle class people in affluent societies hate people asking them to consider taking a cut to their standard of living for their own benefit. By taking a cut to their standard of living, I don’t mean moving from an apartment to under a bridge. By taking a cut to their standard of living, I don’t mean because the government has sanctioned this with reductions in welfare benefits or the lowering of the minimum wage or workers rights. By taking a cut to their standard of living, I mean voluntarily doing so, and doing so in a way that brings more pleasure than suffering.

My blogging pal, Jessie, also known as Rabid Little Hippy, wrote a superb piece the other day on ‘insourcing’. Insourcing means the opposite of outsourcing. Whereas outsourcing is about palming domestic tasks off to somebody else, e.g. lawn mowing man or house cleaner, insourcing is about bringing those tasks back and doing them yourself as a way of saving money and seeing them as meaningful elements of life.

Insourcing is a vital component of the voluntary simplicity movement. Voluntary simplicity, according to one of its champions, Melbourne-based environmental philosopher, Samuel Alexander:

“Voluntary simplicity, or simple living, is a way of life that rejects the high-consumption, materialistic lifestyles of consumer cultures and affirms what is often just called ‘the simple life’ or ‘downshifting.’[1] The rejection of consumerism arises from the recognition that ordinary Western-style consumption habits are degrading the planet; that lives of high consumption are unethical in a world of great human need; and that the meaning of life does not and cannot consist in the consumption or accumulation of material things. Extravagance and acquisitiveness are accordingly considered an unfortunate waste of life, certainly not deserving of the social status and admiration they seem to attract today. The affirmation of simplicity arises from the recognition that very little is needed to live well – that abundance is a state of mind, not a quantity of consumer products or attainable through them.”

By taking a cut to their standard of living, I mean voluntarily simplifying or downshifting their life. Usually, it’s the material trappings that get the flick first. Perhaps moving into a cheaper, smaller, less fancy house is the right approach. Perhaps cancelling the Foxtel subscription is a good idea. So why should your average lower- or middle-class Joe or Josephine consider downshifting or simplifying their life? The most compelling reason I see is cost of living. Whether cost of living is in decline or not–many economists say it’s in fact on the rise–it seems to be the thing hassling most. They are struggling to make ends meet. A lot of these people do live affluent lives whether they like it or not. They have big houses filled with material possessions that cost a lot of money to procure and maintain. One only has to see what constitutes “affordable housing” in the Australian landscape to know this is true. My point is, most of us live well beyond our means and could easily and happily live well below them.

It’s easy to require less than require more. People that are struggling tend to want more rather than less. They might get a promotion or a higher paying job, which based on their current standard of living should make their financial life easier. But what tends to happen is they increase their material life to match their income, however the material life usually goes that little bit further to ensure there isn’t much breathing room. Imagine you did depart your life and opted to live under a bridge and forage for food while maintaining your income. Finances would not longer be a problem but your standard of living certainly is. Well, thankfully I am not suggesting we go to such extremes. It might mean just downgrading the house a little. It might mean getting rid of the extra car and cycling some of the time instead. It might mean cancelling the Foxtel or magazine subscription. It might mean less visits to the salon. It might mean growing more of your food. All these things have a tangible impact on your budget.

I had conversation with somebody on Twitter earlier today, who inspired this post with his resistance toward such a suggestion. He is struggling to make ends meet and blames the economy, government, capitalism and the overall paradigm. Don’t get me wrong, I am with him. I believe that the current system quite deliberately affects the lives of the ‘99%’. However, I suggested to this chap to consider insourcing more of his life. Perhaps he could grow some of his own food. He lives in the inner suburbs of Sydney where growing space is tight, but there are all sorts of options available to him–taking up guerrilla gardening, joining or establishing a community garden, and so on. He wasn’t interested in my suggestions as they “don’t pay the rent”. If your saving $50 a week on your food bill that’s absolutely $50 you have to put towards your rent or something else. Such seemingly trivial gestures do have a tangible, monetary impact.

Unlike what some will have you believe, ‘downshifting’ shouldn’t be punishment. It doesn’t need to lead to suffering. Benefiting from free entertainment like visiting the art gallery or museum or going for a hike in a national park can be just, if not more, fun as paid options. Since when did tomatoes in June and having somebody clean your house hold the monopoly on pleasure and success? Sure, growing your own food isn’t for everyone–for some it might be considered punishment–but when put in perspective and seen for its many benefits, it might just be the thing to make one’s financial life and thus, overall life, that little bit better.

[1] See, e.g., Charles Wagner, The Simple Life (1901); Juliet Schor, The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, and the New Consumer (1st ed, 1998). The term voluntary simplicity was coined by Richard Gregg, an American lawyer and committed follower of Gandhi. See Richard Gregg, ‘The Value of Voluntary Simplicity,’ in Samuel Alexander (ed), Voluntary Simplicity: The Poetic Alternative to Consumer Culture(2009) 111-126.


On Business

I am a business owner. I started my business, almost 3 years ago, to give me more flexibility in my life and to apply some of my values to the world. I have described this The Simpsons scene elsewhere, where Moe is about to list his new company, Makers Moe bourbon, on the NASDAQ, and he is told by some libertarian friends to enjoy his last night as a democrat. As though his new fortune will inevitably change his political leaning and personal values. This too has been an expectation thrust upon me. I find myself discussing ideas on Twitter and as soon as the topic of business or economics is other tweeters assume that I am not a business owner. For my views where business is concerned are unconventional for a business owner. Here’s a few observations I have made as a business owner about business:

Many businesses fail because their managers are incompetent or a lack passion or a mix of both.

One could be forgiven for thinking that every business owner or manager knows every thing there is to know about business and has tried every technique to achieve business success. When a business fails, it’s always somebody else’s fault. How many stories have you heard about a business collapsing because of an incompetent CEO or proprietor or that they have lost their passion and know that it has impacted on their ability to manage? No, instead it’s the trade union or carbon tax or regulation or economy or lack of consumer confidence or some new development down the street that has caused a decline in foot traffic or the loony socialists. Somebody or something else is to blame. This bothers me. Take some responsibility.

 Growth isn’t the be-all-to-end-all for me.

I am happy where things are at with my business at the moment and see no need to grow for the sake of growing. “But what if your customer base takes a slide?” That’s always a possibility, of course. But I have a steady enough flow of new business and a nice little waiting list to consult if need be. And I am confident that with little adjustments to marketing here and there, the flow will increase. It’s exciting when your business is a part of a community rather than against one. I have no fixation on growing for the sake of it. In doing so, one increases their vulnerability–the more you grow, the more you have to lose. Slow and small, and understandable and human, is how I like it.

I don’t spend a cent of marketing.

Not one cent. I have done, in the past. And will do, in the future. But at the moment social media, Google and word-of-mouth are proving effective enough. This is another element that relates to permaculture. One form of permaculture, rests on the yields of perennials. It goes, that you put the hard work in early on–building infrastructure and soil, planting trees and plants, and then, later on, you can just sit back and enjoy the spoils. Well, I put the hard work in early on and it’s paying off. That said, I have no intention of becoming complacent.

It’s all good and well to say do what your passionate about but eventually your passion will become a job.

My business is in the cleaning industry. I am not passionate about cleaning. What I am passionate about is the environment and what I love about my business is the opportunity it gives me to talk about the environment and how we can ensure that our households don’t impact on it disproportionately. I am in the cleaning industry but my conversations range wider than that and I find myself talking to my clients about transportation, waste management, and all aspects of our carbon footprints. I have no problems broaching these topics as my clients range from hardened environmental warriors to the curious. It’s a conversation they enjoy having, if not instigate.

Back to the header: keep in mind that you might turn something you love into something you hate by following the cliche of doing something your passionate about. Or not, who knows?

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?