Tuesday, January 31, 2017

January 2017: Penguins, secondhand legos, farm calories, co-ops

In the immensity of global politics, my sense is that we must press on, with the hopes that many small actions over many years (as well as special actions and special resistance), will be right and helpful, while owning up to our inevitable complicity in causing harm. So in that spirit, our monthly update:

This month got our first family Wild Card, which allows us entry to most National Parks in the area. This is a big deal because now we actually live near to a lot of national parks: Silvermine, Cape Point, Boulders. For non-South African readers, this means we can swim with the penguins all year round, which is basically our homeschooling curriculum this year. You have Sonlight or whatever, we have Penguin-Swimming. All of this hinges on the assumption that one cannot but be learning when surrounded by penguins.


Noah's perspective on the acquarium

Noah's perspective of Cape Point

Wild ostriches

With much of the infrastructure of the farm in a good place, this year I'd like to do something as close to the ConPact of The Non-Consumer Advocate as possible. No new stuff. But we'd also like to follow the kids interests where they lead. Which has led me to think anew about how one navigates trying to be non-consumerist and support the kids learning, when one often needs to go in unexpected directions based on their interest.

Fuzzy got big, likes legos.
I discovered that there is a really strong second hand market for legos in Cape Town, which means we could still get legos for the kids without buying new stuff. So not just penguin-schooling. Penguin + Lego schooling. We also were able to find a body board and flippers second-hand-- which constitutes a second-hand curriculum because of the whole Penguin-swimming thing. On the other hand, Noah is currently really into X-Wing, a Star Wars tabletop game we found ourselves with last year. In South Africa, X-wing expansion packs aren't available at all, and we'll almost certainly buy one or two new if we eventually visit N. America.

The first month of the year brought with it our first ducks for eating. Eating our first ducks was hard, but it brings into focus what we're trying to do and allows us to think through our options (veganism? probably not yet). Out of 10 ducks (4 months and older) ready for eating, we sold/bartered three. We have 13 younger ducks that will be of age as we process the older ones (2 at a time, every two weeks.) So unlike people who raise chickens for meat and do one huge batch at a time, we'll do two every two weeks for now. This works for us because we don't have consistent refrigeration, being largely off-grid. Eating our first ducks... a bit small... kindof tough.... probably a way to gradually wean ourselves off meat and think more carefully about food. Less River Cottage, more Bear Grylls or whoever. We're at this stage financially where up to now we have forked out for very expensive, free range/organic meat, and though we only eat meat once a week, I'm struck by all that bit of meat involved, just for me to eat it in a few minutes. That is, I think eating a nice bit of sustainably raised meat once a week might well not be at all sustainable. Perhaps it's just because we're amateurs, but it seems like it might be better to eat more duck eggs or fewer ducks. Though these things are not nearly as black and white as vegans and vegetarians might hope.

Our neighbours were having trouble with their geese eating their trees, so we swapped three youngsters and one adult female muscovy for 2 large Emden geese.
Very big, beautiful geese. Please don't think about ring-barking our fruit trees, geese! Check out Eug's fence building skills...
The hope-- which I know I keep repeating so bear with me-- is that the more diverse a farm is, the more productive it can be without becoming unsustainable. At some level, it also means more labour. It seems like we have just enough capacity for us to keep ducks happy free-ranging when eating about one duck a week-- which means about 25-30 ducks at any one time. Free-ranging ducks means the ducks-- taken alone-- are not nearly as efficient at feed conversion etc. as they might be in a factory operation, or even a large scale organic operation where they harvest at 70-80 days (Ours are over 120 days). In terms of efficiency and feed costs, 5 chickens seem to be better (27 eggs or 2000 or so calories a week for 4 hens), as compared to 4 ducks (1 duck for eating, or 1200 calories a week), but this is probably related to how we're managing them.

All these eggs and meat? Currently only about 7% of our total calories (not even counting the calories brought onto the farm as feed). Add honey, and we're up to about 10% of our calories. This year I'm hoping to experiment with different ways of decreasing the amount of grain consumed by our chickens and ducks. Right now the ducks (30 or so) and chickens (6) consume about 45kg of mixed grain every month, which is much less than their total calorie needs, but still quite a lot of grain. I tried sprouting barley but I couldn't keep it going, there were too many other chores.

As our annual garden gets up and running this winter (or whenever the rains come), we'll hopefully start to get significant calories from the vegetables grown in our annual garden. We're eating quite a lot of moringa (yet this amounts to only 400 calories, or less than 1% of our calories). All to say, one year in and our calories are still mainly from outside the farm. Our farm is set up to provide a LOT of fruit calories in the long term. We'll also eat a few geese every year- who seem to have the best feed conversion of all because they just walk around eating grass.

Of course, it's not all about calories. It's also about micro-nutrients, living close to the land, raising our kids, etc. It's just that we're still highly dependent on much largee farms to stay fed. I don't think it's appropriate to live close to the land just for the enjoyment of it, it has to also be for sustenance, or else one is just exporting your food production elsewhere.

These calculations are motivation for me to focus more on vegetable production this year. We've made the beds, prepared the soil, and this winter it'll hopefully be time to focus on planting veggies. The garden beds have also benefitted from our first round of humanure.

Next month, we're holding the first market day of a Good Food Club (basically a once a month co-op) we've started here in the Deep South. It wasn't our idea: we've been part of another group over the mountain for a few years. But we agreed to start one on this side of the mountain because of the election of he-who-shall-not-be-named, as a way of building bridges rather than walls. Bridges between different people in our community, and more direct lines between farmers and customers, supporting small farmers. It felt right for us, especially during this time when we're not producing very much of our own food. Lets hope it's a good move for our community and for us-- Please pray with us that it goes well.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

December updates: Tenth anniversary, Christmas, cherries, yet more animals...

Eug and I celebrated our tenth anniversary this month. We didn't exactly do anything to celebrate, but neither of us minded. When we were just married a year or two it mattered a lot to me that we celebrated in some kind of fancy way, but now there are a million daily actions, and the memories of so many more, built up over the years, as reminders of grace.

We visited a cherry farm a couple of hours' drive away for a couple of days at the beginning of December. It was an experiment to remind us that travel right now is an awful business. We went to Butterfly World on the way there, and to Eagle Encounters on the way back. In between Hana screaming. The boys really loved both places. Of course, the real reason I ever want to drive anywhere north is to stop by Tulbagh nursery. It's totally not the right time to be planting but I heard bananas were R25 ($1.75) at the moment, and who can resist the lure of growing more bananas. Certainly not I. The boys hate it when we drive into the nursery parking lot, because they know there are likely going to be trees around their ears when we drive out. Oh well. I'm already planning our April purchases, this time with a more empty car...

Noah saw an old leaking canoe and wanted to try it out... by himself. I was scared but Noah can swim, and we were nearby, so it felt like an opportunity for him. After finding himself in the middle of the pond, he was briefly scared then managed to navigate back to shore. The next couple of days he spent hours paddling.
returning safely to shore. Eli really liked pulling the boat back to shore, but didn't want to go in the canoe- he knows his own limits pretty well.
getting a ride.

Picking cherries. Our climate is not cold enough for cherries, so going to pick elsewhere is part of my cherry master plan. We picked enough for quite a bit of jam and a lot of eating.
yet another pet snail.
On the way home from Ceres, we stopped by Spier, which hosts Eagle Encounters. Eagle Encounters was perfect for the kids. During tourist season, I think it would usually be too overwhelming for them, but we just missed the tour group, which meant we got amazing one-on-one attention and learned about all their rescue animals. This is a bearded lizard, Eli's favourite.

Noah and a python.  

The boys take a drama class at one of our neighbours', and this month there was an end of year celebration. Wow, it was overwhelming. SO MANY CHILDREN. But they got medals.

Coffee first fruits. Our first harvest is enough for about 1 cup of coffee... so we're a ways away from self-sufficiency. 

We caught this very sweet wild rabbit to get it sterilized and out of our annual vegetable garden. We now have 2 small rescue bunnies who sleep in our house and spend the day outside. 
One of ducks emerged from sitting on eggs (unsuccessfully) completely covered in fleas. Apparently fleas attack when ducks are sitting. These spread to our chickens. Noah has been completely committed when it comes to screening and removing fleas with tweezers and dusting the animals with diatomaceous earth (DE). DE actually works, which I find amazing. It seems to also have worked with a major aphid infestation on one of our citrus trees.

Everyone (every single animal we own) likes to eat banana leaves. In other news, our first set of young ducks are ready for eating in January.

Our lovely neighbours suggested that we join them in the evening at our nearby beach (just near Kommetjie lighthouse) for some stand-up paddleboarding. Their 10yo helped take the boys around the bay. Noah got to paddle around by himself a bit, too.

My dad and I tried to help a lady remove a swarm of bees. It was tough going: a huge swarm in a network of ivy...

cutting away the swarm... Can you find the queen? We couldn't.

In the end we removed the swarm but couldn't attract it to our box so the bulk of the swarm moved on. Disaster, but good bee experience...
Our version of homeschool. Ha! Just kidding. This is the one hour of the month when the legos were put away and Eli was not threatening Hana with violence. It is not representative but it's beautiful so I'm just going to look at it and remain hopeful. If you're in this place alongside me, ask someone to send you some 3 D dinosaurs. They'll do the trick.

We harvested our first honey from our own hive this month-- 5 frames...

Christmas binoculars
Adopted a new guinea pig: Perry. Perry's friend at her old house died so she came to join us.  Little One and Golden love her-- she's a little bigger than they are.

Christmas swimming

And the duck will live with the guinea pig... (sortof, Fluffy tries to peck but Little One is way too fast).

Little one (left) thinks the new enclosure is more of a guideline. She can fit through the mesh and spends much of the day running around-- but she goes back by herself and so far no snakes have decided to eat her.
We kept our water use under the 6kL free municipal water mark for the first very hot billing cycle of summer (mid Nov-mid Dec). This is testament to having a low-pressure solar geyser and a bucket/composting toilet. We irrigated over 70 trees and shrubs, and kept 25 ducks, 9 chickens, 3 guinea pigs, 2 rabbits, and five humans in water with the same amount of water that our household previously used for just flushing a toilet. Our greywater watered an additional 10 trees and a couple of rows of sugar cane. We'll pay for some water the next three cycles, and there's still a lot of work to be done to make better use of our rainwater. Our trees are largely a ways away from bearing significant amounts of fruit, but next year we should start to see more fruit.

We've been at the farm for a bit over one year (it should be noted we have 3 small kids so your progress could likely be much faster) and our eggs and meat needs are now covered by the farm, as well as our honey/sweetener needs (though I think I'll still use sugar for jam for one more year). Although we had some unirrigated tomatoes and we're eating moringa, we didn't make heavy use of the hugelkultur beds yet, because of the drought. Of course, meat, eggs and honey are not really primary dietary needs, and we'll grapple with how the kids deal with the first round of ducks for eating in January. Although everyone says that kids under 10 intuitively understand the process, we don't eat much meat so I'm not sure Noah sees the need for it. We will figure it out together-- I am certainly a little conflicted about processing the ducks, which doesn't help. We have a five year plan for some staple crops, some olive oil, and all dairy, vegetables, nuts, and fruit to come from the farm, but our diet-- particularly our use of staples like rice, wheat flour and oats-- will have to change quite a bit before we're eating most of our calories off the farm. It's slow going, and we have to have a lot of margin-- space for mistakes not to completely derail us-- but it also gets a lot easier as time passes.

And today I'm picking up a trial quail from a neighbour (an extra male that was getting fighty) to see if our duckling enclosure could also hold some quail. Ok, the male is kindof bait to see if he'll escape and get eaten, or something will come in and find him tasty. Hopefully he'll make it and we can add 6 or 8 females in there. Quail and goats have been my longtime dream, so this is the beginning of a dream come true, so watch this space... quail central here we come.  

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

November 2016

What a month it has been, huh?

I think homesteading can get insular and isolated instead of expansive and connecting, but the point of what we're doing is not to have outrageously tasty or healthy food (I have the tastebuds and culinary discretion of a rock), but to find ways towards justice that start in the home, and even with my appetite-- my appetite for leisure and what constitutes a good life, and also my appetite for actual food. I dream about finding ways to go about our daily life that seem abundant rather than impoverishing or austere, yet are not dependent on vast supplies of money or natural resources. There are many problems with the world, of course, and our job is not to fix all of them, but it does seem important right now not to be complacent. Which is to say, homesteading is not some kind of advanced lifestyle design for us. I don't think it really makes us happier. It is not inherently easier, or even more satisfying, than focusing on other stuff. I still think it is quite an important way forward for people in our privileged (ie pretty rich) demographic. Sometimes it feels like we work towards equality just enough to stay super privileged, which annoys me no end because then we (to be clear, here I'm talking about me, not you) get to feel self-righteous AND privileged.

I read somewhere vaguely reputable that people tend to be kinder and less prejudiced in abundant communities, and that's been an important insight for me. When there's scarcity of resources (or perceived scarcity), we become more racist and more violent. This is not to give prejudice a free pass, but to say that my need for a fancy computer is not completely separate from someone's experience of violence in the township next to me. When I was 16, attending an international school, I learned deeply that we were all the same-- princes and refugee kids-- and that belief has stayed with me. Still, when I'm in settings with people who are different from me, now, it's harder to be innocent and open. So I'm trying to get back to open and humble when faced with really different perspectives on the world.

This month, we got a tiny rabbit, a baby guinea pig, and had a new set of ducks. 3 of our ducklings were killed by a ghenet-- horribly, 1 from a hole in the head, and two, seemingly from sheer fright. We have to balance the ducklings' freedom to roam with trying to protect the ducks from predation. At around 8 weeks, they're free ranging most of the day, and shut away at dusk and dawn, when it seems the predation is the worst. Losing ducklings creates a bit of a tension. It bothers me when we lose ducks. At the same time I feel more concretely that these ducks would be eaten by predators if not by us-- what we are engaged in is inherently different from nature, even as we try to give the ducks "natural" "free-ranging" abundant life. Still, when we hone in on our food needs-- on the calories best provided by animals given the constraints of time, money, land-- eating ducks makes sense. It makes sense differently over time. That is, as our farm provides more calories and I have more time to focus on growing vegetables, and the fruit and nut trees begin to bear, we may look at the few thousand calories provided by ducks every month as less justifiable (or we may be more comfortable with the process by then). I don't know.

Drip Irrigation

We are in Level 3 water restrictions this year. We're in year 2 of a pretty bad drought. It's very serious, and no use of hoses is allowed. So we were faced with difficult choices about our trees. I've invested a lot of time and energy into planting trees, and though we've lost a couple to mole rats, in general this is the year where the trees could really grow and get established.

Our overall water use is not very high, but the labour required to keep the trees watered this year was getting too much for me... add to that the water restrictions and it was time to prioritize drip irrigation. I've been hesitant about drip irrigation... scared about the unknown I guess. But when Eug said it was time, I went to the agricultural supply store in Phillippi (where many of our Cape Town vegetables come from) and got 100m of irrigation pipe, and then 100m more, plus 140m of narrow pipes to feed the individual trees. It has been a big job, but not as expensive as I'd expect (100m of pipe costs about R290, or $21), and the whole job came in under R1000. As with everything, it was a lot of work. I really hope it's worth it.

In permaculture a lot of people seem to be all about water harvesting and mulching, and my experience so far is that mulching is wonderful, and water harvesting can be helpful (ditches and contour and that) but in a dry climate, having a plan to help trees to get some sort of growth is critical, as they're pretty vulnerable when they're little. The port jackson is great as a wind break, but still, water is much more important than I initially thought. So if you're starting out in a climate like ours, think carefully about water! Even if some trees can survive, fruit trees are a lot of effort and cost to plant and hope that a few are tough enough to survive.

They don't get to go in the reservoir very often, but love it when they do!!

pet snail. very loved until Eli slipped it into my bag for me to carry, and i later reached in, snd... crunch...

Rescue bunny-- we got a rescue bunny from drama class. 

Each evening 2 lucky ducklings get to go on the hunt in our house. We tried bringing in all ten but then it was just a mess of poop and ducklings. So we've settled on 2. Ducklings are really good at catching flies. As they get bigger they get a bit slower, and gradually lazier...

Noah learned to ride like a pro this month, with his new-to-him bike

A rain spider tried to get into our house. Huge but not venomous.

a visit to the wonderful shark museum in Kalk Bay included a stop for ice cream. We got a personalised tour, so I felt too self-conscious to take pictures inside. Although it is just a converted house, the attention the kids received from a shark conservationist was remarkable and valued. And it's free and open to the public from 2-4pm.
The kids have done a couple of pottery lessons with a local teacher in Faerie Knowe. 

Noah has gotten really great at lighting fires...

Ducklings are on the move, and have grown really large. Not large enough to eat, but getting there.

This is the new strategy for helping young plants survive the ducks and moles. This is a dragonfruit...

Made a cuddle swing by tying some stretchy fabric around a table. The kids (well, the boys) haven't been doing great emotionally, so we're trying to help them and not go crazy ourselves. That's the short version.

9 brand new baby ducks at a few hours old... So far our new strategy for keeping the ducks alive is working, and all nine are still alive two weeks later. We have two enclosures-- one small A-frame enclosure for newborn ducklings and their mom; then a much larger enclosure for slightly older ducklings. Basically ducklings stay in there until they are forced out by a new round of babies. We are trying to have hatchlings every month or so, allowing us to sell the females and eat about one male duck every week. From a trying-to-break-even perspective, this approach ends up making our meat calories "free". If you don't count the costs of our own labor, or building cages and such... so not really free but maybe affordable after a year or two.

The boys love the Imhoff Snake Park. I find it a little expensive, but I guess it's pretty expensive to keep so many snakes alive...Here's a mole snake. I like knowing kinds of snakes a lot better than a year ago, thanks to Noah. I feel confident that if we meet a venomous snake on the property (there are just 3 kinds) I'll recognize it and be able to stay calm. Last time I met a huge mole snake (non-venomous, but very very large) I yelped and ran screaming away.

By the end of the month, fuzzy the bunny was much bigger and it was time for a new meet and greet (we're removing the baby rabbit soon-- rabbits and guinea pigs can't live together safely long term)

Here's who joined us yesterday: Little One. The thing that helps the kids calm down the most is watching guinea pig videos: people training guinea pigs, giving guinea pigs treats, grooming them, and so on. I'm so happy that Golden has a friend again.