Friday, July 1, 2016

June updates: Tilapia experiments, fencing, rain and five free chickens.

The rain came this June. We'd been waiting and waiting, as it was almost two months later than usual. No photos this month because, in an embarrassing tragedy, we cooked our camera in the woodstove. In other news, our woodstove is great. 2 pieces of wood is enough to heat our house for the night.

On to the farming updates: This month we started to receive regular deliveries of landscaping waste from two different landscaping services (thank you Samantha)!! Following the work of Akira Miyawaki and David the Good and others, I'm really into this idea that you can grow a forest really fast by layering a 30-60cm of biomass over the surface of the soil (in our case, beach sand). To an extent this is an experimental leap, but the arguments I've heard for this approach are pretty convincing, and already the soil around many of our trees shows remarkable change.

There's another reason I'm excited about landscaping waste: I have a couple of repeat conversations going with Eug, one of which goes along the lines of: Could we maybe get some goats? I mean I'm just kidding. Ha! Obviously not. If I ask for goats again, remind me we still need to build my parents a house. And then a week later, I start on about dairy goats again. We're NOT getting goats right now, but I'm hoping that getting waste from landscaping companies will eventually lead to good, consistent, forage for dairy goats. Buying or growing food for goats immediately puts them in the realm of financially impractical for our farm. Even though this farm is not only about saving us money, we do want to experiment with doable, helpful stuff, and, to the extent we can, avoid ridiculous stuff (see alpacas), though obviously the line between the two is woefully fuzzy. If you're buying in all your goat feed and you're living on a relatively expensive piece of land near the city, it may be better to just buy your milk and cheese. With substantial free forage, though, the costs change and it becomes much more practical. Either way, if I start talking about dairy goats in the next two years, remind me: Not Yet. And don't tell my parents that they'll be babysitting goats when they move onto the farm.

We started to build fencing for our annual garden, plus some space for a small nursery for baby shrubs/trees/plants to get bigger and stronger before they get planted out. The reservoir will also be fenced off, because my kei apple-Natal plum living fencing was pitiful for actually saving the lives of any non-swimmers. The fencing we're putting in involves 3m posts, set in cement. We already had some cement because the foundation of our house is crumbling because we had such awful builders (in other news, our roof leaks) and Eug spent some time reinforcing the foundation. Anyway, hopefully our fencing will be enough to keep chickens and ducks away from the asparagus, and be one layer of safety between kids and the reservoir. When I was getting quotes for wire mesh for our garden, I got sick of patronizingly being called Lovey, Dearey, or Sweetie by businessmen so I temporarily added my title to my email signature to see what would happen. The result: against all evidence to the contrary, I became a man to the wire suppliers, even after talking on the phone with men, having a double-barreled last name, and presumably sounding like I could maybe not be a man. There are millions of women doctors in South Africa, and yet still we have this problem.

This month we decided to get Mozambican tilapia, because there were some fingerlings up for sale just a few blocks away from us, for R5/fish (US$0.32). We bought 20 tiny fish. In our reading about stacking functions to get as many calories as we can from the land, tilapia were always part of the plan. I didn't expect we'd be getting them so soon, and I'm not sure how they'll do or, truth be told, if they're still alive in there. We're not feeding them. We don't have a pump. It's a little cold in Cape Town for this type of tilapia, so we're looking at ways to add a bit of heat.  We're adding lots of aquatic plants, and the ducks are pooping in the water (which the tilapia eat, and which also causes algae blooms, which they also like to eat). If we kill all of them, it'll be a  R100 ($6.70) learning experience for Eug, me, and the boys, which seems a reasonable risk, as learning experiences go.

Since we're talking about animals, lets talk about what the other animals are doing: first: the guinea pigs poop and don't eat much, so I'll call them even. They do manage to help us learn about Eli's emotions, who spends a lot of time with them, and they're well cared for. We tried tractoring them Salatin style, but they kept on escaping and Eug and I would spend hours coaxing them out of bushes. Which was very funny but left very little time for farming and house cleaning. So now we bring the grass to them...Our neighbour has just gotten five male guinea pigs, and has asked whether we'd like them to meet our female guinea pigs... mmm...

Chickens and ducks: Before the prospective chicken population growth, the ducks (6) and chickens (6) were eating 1 25kg bag of feed every month, at a cost of R220  (about US$14) for 12 animals. They also get scraps and do a lot of free-ranging (I think ducks probably get 2/3 of their food from foraging, the chickens 1/2). Male is huge from this diet-- at 6 months, he's significantly bigger than Hana (yes, that's our 8month old daughter). I'm starting to reduce our feed costs by buying a huge bag of vegetable scraps from a neighbour who has a farm stall, and starting to sell eggs every month and reduce our feed costs a bit more. As the ducks start to produce eggs and meat, the economics of chicken and duck-keeping begins to shift even more. Barring massive theft, we should recoup our startup costs within a year. There were a few changes to our chicken population: one of our chickens-- dear Pecky-- got stolen, and the same day someone offered us an unwanted Boschvelder rooster who is adjusting to farm life. Then this week, we were offered four free laying hens by a retiring farmer, and two by a friend living in the suburbs, and some other people asking for us to adopt their roosters. Once those hens are delivered, we'll have 11 hens, and may take one more rooster, so that we have two roosters for the 11 hens.

So my take home so far is that keeping free-ranging ducks and chickens does involve some up front costs. Provided with scraps and forage, they make a lot of economic sense, especially since there is a very large market for truly free-range eggs if you're in an urban or peri-urban setting.

Anyway, here's to a wonderful second half of the year. Thank you so much for reading these updates-- sorry they're not more exciting right now.

Friday, June 10, 2016

May updates: Slow research, more trees, pink reservoir, chicken swap, sleep experiments


Ok, so it's no longer May... but I'd been hoping I'd take more photos of the plot, so here it is, a long rambling, poorly photographed update:

Our days have been getting more of a rhythm (I say rhythm to sound less uptight. Actually it's a schedule). It's only getting light around here at 7:30am... winter is here. Our days are not spectacularly interesting, but I write about it here both to remember this time of our lives, and to share with others of you who are homeschooling multiple kids and both trying to work. Eug works first, from 7:30-9:30, and we basically go in 2 hour shifts until 4 or 4:30, when we eat and start farm chores and house cleaning (also known as hard labour) for two or three hours before the kids start to get ready for bed. Eug and I sometimes work in the evening, depending on whether we did the work we wanted to during the day. We are boring, but with 3 kids at home, boring gives us just enough automation to think more creatively and make progress. There's some variation because sometimes friends visit, or the kids do have swimming or drama or homeschool picnic or time with my mom and dad, but this is more or less the pattern of our days.

During my morning work slot, I visit Masiphumelele and interview people in the township. I don't think any university would want me as a tenured staff member (and I clearly am not super invested in that outcome, given that I'm writing here without a pseudonym), and yet the idea that I can support my family (even in the short term) by talking with people and listening to their stories is nothing short of remarkable. In my experience of research, there's often this gap between what one would like to know about and what you have resources to research. For my PhD, I was in a rush because I only got funding for three years. So three years it was. It felt like a race to convince others (and myself) that I'd done something worthwhile. This time around, I am basically being given permission to do the best I can. I'm not sure what will come after the post-doc, so I feel almost no pressure to rush into an analysis for the sake of it. It feels like a gift. I'll leave it at that for now, though I know there's a lot more to say about this stuff.

I guess not knowing what will come after the post-doc could feel like pressure, but I'm putting all my hopes on the farm to feed us. Haha. Kidding, kidding. I'm putting all my hopes on the outrageous geniosity of Eug. Ok, also kidding, not because he's not a genius. He is. Please buy his books and write raving reviews. Please. No I'm not begging. (please).

Ok, so exactly how practical is paid-off farm as a source of our food and a small income? As far as I can tell, not very. For the farm to pay our bills, at least in the next five years or so, we would need intense effort that is physically impossible for us right now (or we'd have to pay people rubbish wages to do our farm work for us). In three years or so, given a lot of hard labour on our part, I think we may just be able to balance the food we produce and eat, and the food we sell to earn enough to buy the bits we won't produce (flour, oil, rice). But even that's ambitious. We still do have other bills that I don't think selling food could cover: internet, car expenses, farm maintenance, lessons for the kids, property taxes/trash pickup. Which is to say, on an acre with a family of five, our living costs can be significantly decreased, but we still need some money from working or something. We could obviously cut back if we needed to, but our standard of living would decline. I'm not sure what my point here is: I guess it's me giving a nod to the fact that we can't save the world one personal homestead at a time. Our efforts are likely an example of privilege compounded: we can work hard with the prospect of something slow, relatively unprofitable and beautiful because we have few external stressors and no struggling family members. Which is not to say homesteading is a bad idea. I'm about a big a fan as Wendell Berry as you get, but we cannot cut off our connections to political and social systems and processes, despite adapting and adopting simple lives.

This month. we've continued our work on two patches of the food forest. My evolving vision is for the food forest to be a continuous strip around the entire plot-- thin in places, quite substantial in others. I have some vague unsubstantiated theory that continuity will allow more safe passage for more kinds of life, or something. We've put some thought into fencing, which I'd wanted to avoid but now wholeheartedly embrace as a means to make better use of our property by rotating animals carefully. We also are considering the possibility of a couple of pigs in the near future. Baddie Chicken (kept visiting the rooster next door, who can blame her) got swapped for Feather. Our reservoir is pink from an algae bloom. Operation Reservoir unsuccessful-- hopefully better news in June. I waded in some terrifyingly sewagey water near the Liesbeek to get some water hyacinth to help with the algae bloom. And finally, we're trying to help Hana sleep better... by banishing me to her rollout bed in the kids' room. Hoping that her not smelling me will mean that she doesn't wake every 30 minutes like our boys' did. So far it's working, except for the part where I'm not in my bed...the downsides of co-sleeping. We'll try a couple more weeks of it, then see if I can be introduced safely.

One beehive is doing really well, the other died.


Our sunroom is amazing for quick growth. The bananas outside were destroyed by ducks, so I'm keeping these ones indoors while we figure out where to put them on the property. They need more warmth than Cape Town typically offers, so they were thriving next to our hot compost piles, until the ducks developed a taste for them. 

Eli is obsessed with the guinea pigs.

aah, the terrifying creatures of the farm. Cape Dune Mole Rat, caught wandering while my dad and I were walking around the farm.


we renewed our aquarium membership, even though we're far away. Just feels like an aquarium year...









Friday, May 6, 2016

April updates

We're doing well here, though I don't seem to have time to blog thoughtfully about it all. We're... busy. Not busier than you, necessarily. Just busy. But I don't want to forget things, so here goes:

I've started to do some research in Masiphumelele, which means less hiding behind my computer for work, but Hana does NOT take breastmilk that's been pumped, so figuring out how to fit work in can be hard. I am really happy about my research and wish there were more hours in the day (Yup, that's shorthand for "we're leaving all the duck poop on the verandah for now"). Hard things: this and this. We love Cape Town, but we're not homesteading in a vacuum or a beautiful utopia. We are so grateful for our lives and livelihoods, and somehow these have to relate in a good, honest way to the people around us.

I've been planting out a lot of trees, but now it's suddenly hurricane-windy again, so here's hoping they make it through. I'm trying to finish a small section with trees before the winter sets in-- so that no more trees will be added, the trees can settle in and enjoy a massive amount of mulch, and I'll just gradually add cover crops and smaller perennials. I need to take some photos of it, but it doesn't really look like much yet so I don't have much to show. I've been doing a lot of mulching and a lot of pretty back breaking work, particularly if Hana is on me. I love it. It feels like what I'm supposed to be doing. Which doesn't make it less back-breaking. Pacing ourselves is really hard, because everything feels quite urgent. There's so much to do. I've really been enjoying David the Good's permaculture and gardening tips, based on a Florida climate-- our climate is not too different and we're also dealing with sand. I like his (Christian) anarchist style.

Our chickens are laying-- three of them, at least. They're like clockwork, despite the winter, which means we are self-sufficient in eggs and should have extras to eat or sell once the other three start laying.  Anyway, without further ado, here are some pictures from April.

Applying for a U.S. Passport... (Eug and I also got our absentee ballots)

Noah's birthday present for Eli: Mouse train tracks, cut and play.

Eli's birthday cake. We are not the greatest when it comes to celebrations, so it's best you don't say anything about the train cake. 

Hana in Sheila's duck jersey (made it through Noah and Eli, to Hana!) and Angie's ridiculous (and very lovely) fuzzy socks. She's growing up really fast. 

Eli's birthday with his trains from South Africa (ok, really from China probably) and clothes from Korea (ok, really from China probably).