Sunday, October 1, 2017

September: Ducklings, chicks, guinea pigs

In permaculture the late Toby Hemenway said that at a certain point your system "pops." And things get so much easier. I don't think we're popping just yet, but it is getting a lot easier this spring, as compared to last spring. Even though this past year has been a terrible drought year for Cape Town, the water retention in our soil due to many tons of manure (a goal of 14 tons/year, concentrated in particular areas of the food forest and garden) and hay has started to be noticeable. Don't get me wrong, the drought is really serious and is changing how we use water. But building the soil has meant things are not nearly as bad as they could be. We haven't irrigated at all for about four months, and our farm is lush and green. Even our veggie garden is giving us asparagus (which we are not eating... waiting another year), spinach, cabbage, a lot of peas, artichokes, and pepino melons without any watering. Ok, it's been winter and the rain is going to go completely soon over the hot and windy summer months. . So I shouldn't be too smug. I'm just hopeful. We're currently setting up drip irrigation from our reservoir to our annual garden, using hand pumps and a small water tank, so I'll take photos of that for October. Let's hope it'll be sorted by then, as we're going to need to start irrigating our vegetables in the next couple of weeks.

This month, Noah and Eli also went into the coffee business. They've been wanting to do something that would earn them a small income, and roasting organic beans is within their skill level. The Good Food Club (our food buying club) is still too small for bulk coffee orders, so making our own seems like a fun opportunity. We're still figuring it out-- given what I said last month about opportunities to earn money etc. Having the chance to have ownership is perhaps practice in giving, saving, spending-- so we'll see how it goes. They have a few things that they would like, and I think in some ways it's easier for them to prioritize and figure out their desires when they have a little more ownership.

We have had baboons raiding our property every day for the past two weeks or so. They are likely very hungry, and there are several large developments of gated communities going up right now. The southern peninsula is changing rapidly and we're hoping we have enough time to build our farm into a kind of oasis or something. Not to be wildly ambitious or anything... The baboons are quite a threat-- they can be very dangerous, and are actually entering our house-- this male is about Eli's size. Here, this guy managed to get all our bananas and pasta.

guess we were eating too much pasta anyway.
the kids (now including Hana) are out of the car and running to the beach faster than I can think.

Roasting coffee with a heat gun: this second hand heat gun has lasted us since 2012!
This little guy is an olive house snake. We encourage snakes on the property because the rats (including the mole rats!) are much worse, and most snakes are non-venomous and shy. 

to church!

This is my view in my container office. It's a tiny space, with my feet resting on bags of rock dust and surrounded by (too much) stuff. I love looking out and seeing the bananas, the tamarillo, our greywater reed bed, pomegranate.

We continue to be super grateful to Akim from Green Guerrillas, who is teaching Noah so much. This month he was part of the team vaccinating weaner pigs, and giving them their tattoos. He got to do one subcutaneous injection, and then another day got to cut up two pigs. 
In Boston we managed to find a second hand goggle and snorkel, that the kids are eager to try out, even though it's still too cold to really swim. 
So many of our ducks started sitting as soon as the weather got warmer. We've been trying to decrease the numbers of babies and combine flocks-- by eating eggs and giving moms chicken eggs (More on the chicken eggs, below). Still, we have thirteen baby ducks so far. 

We should probably have wondered why the chicken eggs under the ducks (we've occasionally put one or two in a clutch) have never hatched.  Actually, we did wonder, that's why we though we'd try just putting chicken eggs (no duck eggs), so the timing should work etc. We'd replaced two full clutches, when we discovered that the ducks actually kill the chicks and then eat them whenever they feel peckish. Uggh. We tried watching and immediately removing eggs when they started to hatch, but this was only partly successful. It was hard to watch all the time. Still, we managed to save 5 chicks, who are now living in our kitchen. One little bantam/silkie had lost a wing and been tossed far from the nest, but is a survivor. 
Newly hatched.
The world keeps giving us guinea pigs. We only have males now, so that we're not contributing to guinea pig overpopulation. These guys do roam a bit, but only in our vegetable garden, which is a lot safer than the property generally. The guinea pigs are a big part of Eli's life, and he spends a lot of time thinking about how to make their lives more fun.

Roaming by our bananas. I've planted quite a few bananas over the past couple of years, with mixed results. The cages help a lot with random things showing up and eating them down to the corm. Our climate is a little cool for bananas, so the hot compost pile helps keep the bananas warm. 

Peas! This is Hana's favourite September food.
Guilty: she picked all these secretly, before they were really ready for eating....

There are no tadpoles at Noordhoek Common! Evidence of the drought-- usually there'd be a lot of tadpoles by now.

Climbing Oak

This area would also usually be a little swamp-- the kids play as though the swamp is there, so it's noticeably absent this September.


We had two swarms of bees on our property within two days, which I think came from one of our hives splitting. The first swarm I was able to catch in a new box, but the second moved off before I could anything, as I didn't have a good box ready. (Interestingly, they rejected the box I did have, and all bees do-- they seem to know something is wrong with it!) So we currently have 3 hives plus one new empty hive my dad quickly bought, in the hopes we could catch the second swarm. Though our honey supply is not very good, I really loved getting this swarm, and love learning from my dad and seeing how calm and helpful Noah is in interacting with the bees.

Friday, September 1, 2017

August 2017: Using waste for urban farms, lots of ducks sitting, unschooling and power

Farming, heading into year 3!
Farming in an urban space can seem like a poor use of space, especially when there is really high density right next door, and a desperate need for adequate housing. Sometimes I think that it would be great for our family to have more land to work with (!minicow!), and for this land to be less threatened by developers. We have intermittent pressure to succumb to rezoning (our land is currently agricultural, within Cape Town city limits, which gives us quite a bit of freedom-- to own bees, livestock (though with rules about how many), and chickens/ducks). Our response to this is partly pragmatic-- we really want to stay here and raise our children here, and don't want to have to start over. It's also spiritual and connected to calling, though perhaps in a very tangible, we-don't-have-a-five-year-mission-to-change-everyone way: what we are doing is connected to where we are living. 

The other thing is that, while urban land is much more expensive and not very good for growing, there is a lot of organic waste in the city, and diverting this waste from landfill makes urban agriculture fulfill a role that isn't easily fulfilled by other types of farming, or other types of urban action. This month, one of our sources of waste diversion was large amounts of spent brewing grain. I'm working on scaling up our worm farm to take on more barley. The ducks and chickens eat some, but it ferments quickly, so we have to have a bigger/faster plan to turn the grain into something helpful for the farm.

Rain came to us in August-- it hadn't in July (usually our rainiest month). Our trees have responded by budding and leafing out. Our winter seems to last about one month-- our stone fruit were dormant only briefly. I am loving the signs of life around and about, and the hope of a summer that brings a lot of growth, and maybe even fruit crops. Tiny almonds are starting to form on at least 7 of our 9 almond trees. Our trees don't look like YouTube permaculturist trees seem to at the beginning of year three. Partly that's because of our drought, and some have been in the ground just a few months, some a year, very few two years. I think it's partly that the journey is truly slow, and that we have to be very patient.

Of course it's also a time of a lot of work: making sure trees have everything they need to grow, checking irrigation, prepping our annual garden to be on a drip system. Right now, our biggest long-term struggle is around mole rats. We have a LOT of mole rats, which can destroy an established fruit tree in a matter of moments. We've been planting with wire as a way to get trees established, but in the long term the wire will decompose, so we have about 2 years to figure out how to get rid of the moles.

Unschooling, money and power.
In a way this is its own post, but I don't seem to have the bandwidth to make a separate post so this is it: 

We continued to do many of the same things as before: Noah got to dissect pig organs, which is totally the type of thing he loves. He also got to make a lot of dog food, for which he earned organic biodynamic bacon for our family! It continues to be up and down and up again, but the trajectory is firmly positive, so we keep at it. The time it takes to talk through stuff, and to work through our own stuff as parents is good. I sometimes worry that we don't offer the certainty that small kids need-- I apologize a lot for being quick to judge, for being nitpicky, for nagging. But we keep at it. This month, despite the cold, we went to the beach a lot, continue to go to clay lessons pretty often, and generally we learn a lot together. As Hana edges towards two, I do feel things begin to shift as we suddenly begin to have 3 children, not 2 kids and a baby. 

One way that there has been synergy between unschooling and other aspects of my life is in relation to power, money and "earning" your place. One criticism of unschooling seems to be based in the idea that one earns one's place by working hard in school, perhaps by suffering, perhaps by working at a job you don't really like or doing things you don't really like. That escaping this is somehow dangerous. It's a grim drivenness that is very hard not to fall into as an adult. I sometimes will say "hey be careful with that, it took me time to earn money to pay for that!" Then I cringe. That's not the reason I want them to be careful. I want them to be careful because I'm worried that they're going to be a jerk, however defined, in the future, or because I really like whatever they're playing with, or because I want them to respect material goods. The message I hear so much of the time is that we must teach our kids the value of money, that they must be prepared for the "real world." Kids must even "earn" their pocket money.

When we live in a society as socio-economically unequal as ours is, one of the hardest things to figure out is how to navigate this idea that one's hardworkingness defines one's success. This gets woven into earnings and money. I don't think this perspective of "you earn what you have" is good for kids, at least not without nuance. When kids earn their pocket money, for example, they risk internalizing that their value is somehow related to this ability to earn, and counterintuitively also get the sense that earning money is pretty easy. For example, in our neighbourhood, there's no way most kids could earn money for toys, and it seems silly to imply that that is for lack of effort. That is, amongst the well-off (that includes the middle-class) it's ultimately the parent earning the money or building the social connections needed to earn-- all of which could well be valuable, except if it teaches kids that resource-poor people should put in more effort. 

A better narrative, which I think is consonant with unschooling and which better reflects our reality, is this: "we are really lucky and will share whatever we have with you (and others)". Life is not lived in the abstract, of course, and sometimes I give my kids a confusing mix of these two narratives, and they have their own navigating to do. 

Unschooling has something powerful to add to dreams of a kinder world: kids need dignity, parents share what they can constrained by their own background and values, and what we have is not what we deserve. If we know ourselves well enough perhaps we will not need so much, we will not need to prove our worth either to ourselves or to others quite as much. Which is not to say that one cannot work towards all those things without unschooling, but that it's been a helpful framework for me.

I suppose it is also worth acknowledging that unschooling is a manifestation of power; we're open to it because we are doing well financially. A lot of people (particularly in wealthier countries) say that homeschooling is not only for the privileged. I disagree, and think it is totally an expression of privilege, at least right now. Yet I don't think it is necessarily a negative expression of privilege-- I don't think schools or our community is worse off for wont of our sending our kids to school. We have time and energy to be better connected to all ages in our neighbourhood, and to spend most of our money within a very small radius. The task is to make alternatives to school better and more accessible to more people. 

It is a struggle -- it's yet another layer of privilege. But it feels better to own it than to feel self-righteous about one's brilliant choices. I feel very frustrated at people who are super smug about consuming only organic local food: not only are you enjoying physical (health) privilege but you also get to feel great about your choices! The task in both cases is not necessarily to say that organic local food isn't good, but to acknowledge the world in which only a few people get to eat like that, and work towards changing that, step by step.  

Noah got to climb with my dad again!

pig heart dissection at our neighbour's place...

Watchtowers at Soetwater beach...

This is a game called Timeline (bought while in the U.S.), in which you guess the order of historical events (albeit a very Euro-centric history). Noah likes to memorize the cards to give him an edge on his opponents when we play. Even though he can't really read, he's memorized a lot of the cards.

We were so grateful to friends who sold us their entire collection of trains and duplos, very cheaply, after their son grew out of them.
Did you wonder how the seal is doing? Not well. We're going to check today in case there's a skull in it for us. We've cobbled together almost a complete skeleton, from a few different seals, but never been able to get a skull-- seeing this decomposition I can understand why, as the skull is clean well ahead of the rest of the body.

Free the frogs and dinosaurs. never seems to get old...

The dam was notably deeper, thanks to a much better August of rain.
We arrived to our spot to find that this Keurboom tree had fallen over because its roots were pretty shallow, right next Silvermine dam. The kids took turns jumping, before we realised we might be able to root it again...

Wait, we can stake this in the ground, and maybe it'll be just fine! We'll check.

This is our cat's first kill. We were going to dissect it, but our scalpels were a bit blunt so Noah said "let's not." and we gave him to the chickens instead. 

Guava's were our best (*only*) fruit tree crop this year. They kept coming for a while. Okay, there were 10 total. But they were big and tasty so I'm counting it a win.

More beach as we prepare for spring...

Blue bottles on the new moon. Check out that sting! 
It can be hard to find napa cabbages (Chinese cabbages) for kimchi here, so we grew some... Okay, we grew six. Enough for some kimchi.

You know how I said we weren't going to eat our ducks any more??? Well, in August 5 of our ducks went broody on eggs. We keep removing them but have to be a bit careful about how many we remove, because if they stop laying completely then it can be a while before they start up again. Here, I switched out 13 duck eggs for 13 chicken eggs, as we'd happily have more chickens (and have 4 other ducks sitting on a mixture of duck and chicken eggs-- we've never had success with hatching chickens out of a mixed nest, but I'm hoping a nest of just chickens might just work out. I'll know next month!

friendship. Sortof. cat licks guinea pig, but not sure if she's just tasting her.

tamarillo! hoping for fruit this season...


Bear lime getting its spring growth!

pomegranate in spring-- by now we have over 20 pomegranate trees. Again, I'm hoping some will bear this year.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

July 2017: Unschooling, vegetables, no more duck killing

July! We're coming out of the fog of our trip to the US and Canada, which felt like it took about three months out of our year. (A month before, a month there, a month after). Even though our trip didn't turn out quite as we hoped, coming back I've noticed we're taking all these leaps, maybe because the kids are growing up, or maybe because we were outside of our comfort zone and that caused unexpected growth. Perhaps because we saw people we love and were able to take stock, in a small way, of where we've been, where we are, where we hope to be.

This month I've had to evaluate my work (like, the paid stuff) for the next few years... I'm set to work until the end of 2019. I am so grateful that I was able to negotiate to continue in a space where I can largely work from home, which is not the case for many people in academic research. I am also able to do research largely in my own neighbourhood, which means that my (public health food) research meaningfully intersects with our farm dreams.

Unschooling sometimes requires leaps of faith, but I think usually what is best is if you take progressive tiny steps of trust, rather than leaps. When it's tiny little steps of trust, you're able to see signs of growth and flourishing, whereas when you're trying to take a leap, it sometimes implies that you ignore signs from your family, waiting it out, thinking you haven't yet landed after the leap. When we've decided "no bedtimes!" "No screen limits!" it generally doesn't go well (I think it is too confusing for the kids!), but when it's gradual: when we sit with our kids and help them decide what they love on an iPad, or when we're open to the possibility of a gradual shift in bedtime routine, it goes much better. Which is to affirm that it's centrally about the fruitfulness of the process, rather than the destination. Which isn't to say we should endlessly tweak things until the process is perfect-- I sometimes do that! I think it means we try to rest in relationship with our kids, as best we can.

One irony about being on the farm is that a lot of times the kids are indoors. We came to a new awareness of this when they were bouncing off the walls at bedtime, and we realised they hadn't done any exercise all day. We don't force them to do chores, though I suppose sometimes we do coerce Noah (trying not to). The kids love the animals and I want to keep it that way... I'm not quite sure how to make the farm a joy and not a burden that takes us away from them. Perhaps as it becomes less of a burden (uhh... labour of love??...) to us, we'll be able to invite the kids into sharing the process in a way that feels less like we're trying to unload the burden of our values onto them. So Eug and I spend quite a bit of time doing chores, and if the weather is good then usually the kids sortof gravitate with us. Anyway, we've been intentionally getting outside on the farm a bit more. I still take the kids to the beach or mountains once or twice a week, which can make it feel like they are getting plenty of time to roam and exercise, but actually this is not the kind of daily, continuous bursts of speed they seem to need.

Our duck population was large, and we'd finally found a duck stew we really enjoy and were regularly killing ducks (6 since we got back from our trip). There were two major problems with the duck farming strategy. One was that it never got any less time-consuming, though dry plucking first did seem to help. So Eug would spend his entire working day on a Saturday killing two ducks-- they took about 90 minutes per duck, and each duck gave us just one meal for the five of us. So we knew this was not a great approach to meat, after all. The plucking is just too difficult for us as a regular part of our week, and an entry level mechanical plucker costs about R9000 here ($750). Hard to justify right now.

The second problem was bigger: Noah has never gotten used to our eating ducks. He's actually ok with pigs and chickens going to slaughter, but never ducks. Everything I've read suggests that children under the age of about 10 are intuitively matter-of-fact about the process, but for Noah each duck death felt like a trauma (though we've certainly never had him actually witness it. He was happy to be part of the rooster processing). Which added to the labour (I needed to take the kids off-farm, and it was by no means a learning opportunity, though raising the ducks has certainly been), and to the sense that the process just didn't add up. His tears were an expression of very real pain... not really what we were hoping for as far as farming goes... So no more duck killing and eating. We're gradually selling the ducks we already have, and will keep just a few for the sake of our farm's diversity, for eggs, and in case Noah changes his mind or we have more time. It has been a major lesson in meat production, but at least we can say we tried it. I feel huge gratitude now whenever we eat meat, and am thinking more about how we should eat on the farm.

I imagine it will change as the farm changes. Right now I am spending a lot of time thinking about our vegetable garden. Growing vegetables year-round seems to be one of the best things we can do as a next step. We have a lot of trees in the ground-- I would love to put more trees in, but with the drought the question would be how we could water them next summer given the layout of the farm. In August I'll be focused on setting up water systems for vegetables (a small hand pump, together with a pump coming out of our reservoir). Vegetables can be very water intense, but we'd have systems in place to make it as efficient as we can, and then, I am sure, begins a new stage of learning. I've grown vegetables here and there, but this is a real effort to supply a much bigger portion of our diet with vegetables we grow ourselves.

Anyway, we are living and learning. We had our first taste of home-grown guava this month, which Noah said was "magical." While it is sometimes hard to see what exactly we are doing, or whether our kids are maturing, our kids say excitedly each night "I can't wait until it's morning!" That seems like enough.

Noah is helping out on the neighbour's farm once a week, feeding 100 pigs and 200 chickens. It's lovely for him-- he's learning and growing from the experience.
Barley feed!

Chicken feed!

Noah also got to go on a hike to the nearby waterfall with just his grandfather! There hasn't been nearly enough rain for winter, but the waterfall is still flowing, which is a really good sign.
I didn't expect that Cape Point would be the kids' favourite spot in winter, but it is. Noah and Eli are in this picture, as they run out of the car so fast that they're by the ocean before Hana is even out of the car seat. 

We found a dead seal on the beach, and did what anyone would do...

inspect its large teeth.

Drag it up away from the waves, so that it wouldn't be pulled back into the ocean...
... and come back weekly to see how the seal's body was doing... (week 2 it was completely buried, but week 3 it was back)

Week 3: The skull is almost ready for relocation...
We saw a Cape Clawless Otter, which made me extremely excited. Can you spot it?

Otter is still in the picture!

The kids felt that if they approached on all fours, the otter would not be scared and run away. Mmmm.


Cape Point has the most amazing shells. We go at low tide so that we can look at a lot of rockpools, and we put them back carefully.

Unsafe modes of transport. This is a directionless trolley gifted to us by someone. It's basically used to crash at high speeds.

These waves are extraordinarily cold. 

Epsom salt crystals. 

building with spielgaben. 
Another winter's day, another.... beach???

Silvermine hiking
Big girl doesn't need a ride anymore.

She does, however, need to pick up every single rock on the way.

Boys ran ahead and had to circle back to find Hana and I.
penguin babies are everywhere. 

We had the entire penguin beach to our selves, because the penguins are all hiding in the bushes with their babies, and it's the middle of winter.

Noah made me call a ranger about this adolescent penguin because at first she looked... dead.. and then... uncomfortable stuck between two rocks. But she's just a firstborn, waiting for her younger siblings to grow up so her mom can come out of the bushes, onto the rocks to hang out with her. A metaphor for first borns of all species?

Mid winter swimming.

with auntie Kim.

These are our annual beds. 2 years and a lot of labour (and a lot of horse manure) in the making... finally ready and starting to grow stuff.

starting to grow vegetables...

Noah's toad raft... our reservoir is a good breeding ground for endangered toads, but if they get in they can't really get out.

Eli's Toad raft...