Sunday, December 16, 2018

Vegetable gardening: biting off more than you can chew

A lot of vegetable gardening advice emphasizes starting small and growing your garden very gradually. This advice assume that it is better to grow a small area well than a large area badly. Or that you'll burn out attempting to keep up with a larger garden if you're not experienced enough. The goal of this narrative is help you garden long-term, rather than giving up, which seems a very good thing and is probably true.

And yet...

I fear this approach promotes perfectionism. I think the size of your garden depends on your personality, available space, water, and whether you have opportunities for free sources of carbon/nitrogen (manure, bags of leaves, etc.).

Finally, we have hundreds of granadillas and some other dillas coming along.

We're harvesting a lot of tomatoes, basil, spinach and zucchini, and our other kinds of squash and peppers are coming along pretty fast, so hopefully in a month we'll be eating those also.

can you see the bananas in the background? and the bags of dirty raw wool. I came to terms with the fact that my windfall of wool was never going to become a beautiful carpet, and am using it as a really useful mulch. This year is all about Serious Mulching.

Our reservoir stores our rainwater for irrigation (and to have a nice place for dragonflies and frogs). Behind it are 2 of our beehives, 2 mango and one quince tree (and a lot of kei apples, all around). 

I've actually never eaten Hubbard squash before, so I'm REALLY hoping we like it, because we have so many.

So I am an advocate, within reason I guess, for gardening a large area badly... or rather, as best you can. I'm not entirely convinced I could garden any area (big or small) brilliantly. I think "better to do a small area well!" narrative is condescending and promotes a sense that if only you were knowledgeable enough, you're guaranteed a great vegetable yield. Which in turn leads to increasingly protected and controlled types of gardening-- hydroponics is perhaps the epitome of this. While experience is a wonderful teacher, I don't think there are ever any guarantees of success; failure should be considered normal, unless one is completely dependent on success for survival. Try again! Use all the resources you have been given! One of my favourite neighbours has a truly amazing vegetable garden, and even with their skill and experience, they lose a lot of food because the baboons have decided their garden is a good place to forage. Even when you're doing everything excellently you can still lose crops.

On our property, last year I wanted to get things set up to vegetable garden in a serious way, and then put effort into improving over time. It's definitely more space than I can actively manage, and yet... I would prefer to extend myself and potentially grow at a scale that puts a serious dent in our food needs. I've already learned a lot-- I just need to work to find the time for weeding or watering or picking off insects (I've got starting seedlings covered- because there it's just as easy to do a lot as a little).  The costs of a crop also decrease significantly as you scale up-- in the case of our garden, we can take on weekly deliveries of free manure and hay because we are trying to improve the soil in a fairly large area (it is much more difficult to get these free inputs if you're picky about quantity). I am not against short-cuts when necessary: I had enough time and had made enough compost to start a couple of new beds in our garden, but not enough time to start another round of seedlings-- so I just bought seedlings for the new beds. With the garden bed prepped and set to lay empty for longer if I started from seed, a tomato plant only had to produce a few tomatoes to pay for the purchase.

On a small scale, I tend to be no more attentive a gardener than on a larger scale-- I think we have limited control of each season's crops so I am a strong believer in focusing on making sure the soil is in good condition, then hedging my bets and sharing with critters and weeds if that's the way it goes (I'm lying about being completely sharing here: don't talk to me about mole rats. Here, some lies are just better than the truth. The truth being that I can't figure out how to kill those mole rats.) If a weed gets out of control, I generally only fight it for a short while, and then I plan for the next crop to be better-- usually I won't lose everything at once (except for that one time that pig razed the garden). I also tend to try to grow various families of vegetables in 6 different places at once (I'm insane), trying to remember (I keep pretty terrible records) where they were last year and where I've added compost most recently. I figure while we will have losses, there will be something that does well. Over time, I'm developing a feel for the space and the water needs of a variety of vegetables. I no longer mulch the vegetable garden with waste straw or unprocessed horse manure, as it creates too many weeds-- the soil is good enough that I can make compost, and this year I invested in a load of woodchips to help with weed pressure.

With vegetable gardening and small-scale farming-- especially if we did not learn from our parents or grandparents, or we are not living in the house or region we grew up in-- we don't have a whole lot of time to build our skill sets. There's an urgency to get going. So go ahead and do whatever you need to do, and don't worry if you fail (certainly don't stop because you failed).

Our advantage today is that we have access to virtually infinite information, so can improve our skills rapidly. Yet so many of us are living in different climates, and different soils, with different conditions, and we have a limited time.  Each crop takes time to grow, and if we're really lucky, we have a maximum of 30 or 40 opportunities to grow a crop before we get too old, move, or die. Then there's climate change.... We have the advantage (or burden) of being able to grow year round in Cape Town, so with planning we can grow 3 or even 4 crops in one place in a year.

Some other things that cause burnout are overly high expectations and/or expecting that you can control a space. That, and very low vegetable prices due the dominance of very large scale supermarkets and Big agriculture. For me, it has been very meaningful to commit fully to staying in the space we're in, and improving the soil on a large scale. Digging in, literally, and being along for the ride long-term. The size that's actually actively cultivated year to year may change according to how many seeds I start or how organized I am-- but the potential to grow a lot is there.

I'm cheering you on in your vegetable gardening efforts.

Friday, September 21, 2018

A snapshot of things that come up unschooling three little kids

A lot of this is likely to change as we find a new rhythm with my parents on the property, but I thought my last post about unschooling was pretty abstract so I wanted to be more specific today. A lot of people ask about unschooling if you work or do other things-- and this is us-- we juggle and it works out!

The last few months of building my parents house has meant our schedule has been complicated and busy, and coincided with Noah (8) and Eli (6) getting really into Minecraft (and now Terraria), while Hana (2) has needed a lot of our hands-on time. Part of me thinks that they got so into Minecraft because we were not as available to do fun and interesting things with them, and because the winter has brought a lot more illness this year than previous years. So the boys have played a lot of Minecraft. I say that totally fearful of judgement, and yet supportive of their strategy because our house has remained peaceful and happy during a potentially intense, overstretched time.

I'm not [yet] an unschooling mom who totally understands when my kids want to spend large chunks of the day gaming, but I have learned that it's all in how your perceive the situation (even if there are limits how far you can stretch yourself in the moment). I have said on various occasions to Eug "I think they are playing too much Minecraft!" I like that that hasn't led to us reverting to control. If a partner or another loved one was doing something you were concerned about: you might talk to them, see if they perceive an issue, discuss how to support them, protect your own boundaries, see what their motivations were or what they were going through or getting out of their approach. This is more or less what we've done,  and it's been an opportunity to reflect, and to think through how to support the kids in their interest, while also figuring out the extent to which they're playing to numb difficult feelings. It has been a chance to notice and appreciate that they have found ways to to meet their own needs and spend their days tremendously gracefully during a busy time. I appreciate that they'll know themselves better from these few months-- we talk about what we're doing with our days and why-- not in judgement but with interest, to reflect and think through choices and options. In doing this, I also notice that I'm making not-perfect choices: I have kept up with farm chores and propagation for our nursery, and with from-scratch cooking-- both of which require a huge amount of time and energy-- because that's was what I needed to do for myself. Yet this has come with costs and I could have sat with Noah, Eli and Hana more than I have done. So I'm working on doing that, now. In an ideal situation, we'd be giving them plenty of opportunities to connect and do other things if that's what they want. We were working to bring up the adult-child ratio on the farm, and so the temporary trade-offs seemed right to us.

Most days, either Eug or I wakes up early to start work (I sometimes go into work when I need to be at meetings, and then I leave very early to avoid traffic), and the other person gets to wake with the kids, start coffee and oats, feed the animals, and check on the state of the farm with Hana. When Eug is working, the boys don't play Minecraft because we don't have enough devices, so the kids and I will do something inside together, or work on something out on the farm (or sometimes I'll work on something, and they'll just join me). I bake a lot with Hana and occasionally do some cooking with Noah; Eli's favourite thing is to play boardgames and make up elaborate stories together. When with Eug, they'll often play Minecraft, with Eug in the background participating where he can (he'll sometimes play with them also).

Eug and I will switch after a few hours, and whoever is caring for the kids will make lunch. In the later afternoon, we will either be with individual kids, or Eug will work on the house and I will take the kids out to the beach, or to a couple of classes they participate in (clay lessons, swimming lessons, speech therapy, Scouts). I do speech therapy practice with Eli, while playing Star Realms, his favourite card game! It's not rushed most of the time. I will sometimes walk down the street with one or two kids, to our nursery and check in on how things are going. The kids will sometimes pair up and play together for a while-- legos, magnatiles, or telling stories outside, until something happens (If Hana is involved) and conflict comes and goes. I sometimes feel very busy if I look at the number of jobs I seem to have in addition to my actual full time job at the university. Then I settle into the actual day: what I actually need to do, and it is always doable-- though the issue of our kids' less visible needs is definitely something I'm thinking about more, as I tend to go from one task to the next, and kids are not tasks.

Amidst the imperfection, all three kids seem to learn what is relevant to navigate their day-to-day life, and what they enjoy-- I remain convinced that we can learn naturally, given interested and supportive people around us. We try to offer lots of interesting options, which sometimes are taken up, and sometimes aren't. I am not measuring whether they progress similarly to others of their age, though I do try to observe if they are stuck in a rut and if we can help. I do marvel at all they know from our reading of copious fiction and non-fiction together, and from watching Youtube-- this is even without me understanding all their skills from playing Minecraft-- and those are abundant. We discuss so many things together during the course of the day. I read quite a lot for work (and enjoyment), and talk to them about what I'm learning, and about what I'm learning about farming, also. All three kids can spot a spekboom from 100m (CUTTINGS MOMMY-- they even know the spekboom-on-pavement map of our routes and sometimes will generously say "There's a spekboom coming up soon, you can stop the car"). They know the kind of pelargonium that only grows naturally on Ou Kaapse Weg, know the difference between English, Dutch, French and Spanish lavenders (I learned this like a month ago) and can identify which chicken laid which egg based on size and colour. They know how to care for many different animals. More than what they know or don't know, we are learning how to relate to one another, and how to relate to other people, also.

Star Realms

We still get to the beach a lot

Soap carving

Found a lizard tail- it was still moving!

matching Minecraft and real life stones

Silvermine dam- it was too cold to swim so we walked around the dam instead. I could not keep up with my 2 year old, which is a bizarre twist.

dinosaur tea party.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Some experiences unschooling

A few people have recently asked about how and why we are unschooling, and in the moment I usually mumble something incoherent about autonomy. I wanted to reflect a little more deeply here, though not comprehensively, as supporting our kids' education is inevitably complex. Noah would be in Grade 2 this year, and I've written about unschooling in the past (though I cringe at some of those posts). School can seem really innocuous to those who thrive in those settings (or seem to), so I'm grateful for a firstborn who is sensitive and challenged so many of my assumptions.

The experience of unschooling, to me, has been a move away from outcomes, towards the journey, and towards connecting with my kids. If you've ever read this blog, you know I plan and scheme and will suffer seemingly endlessly for a goal (I think this is partly a result of school). This can serve me well, at times, but it also means I struggle to be present for the ride.  It also means that my tendency is to think of the future for my kids-- and inevitably, because I'm that kind of person-- to constantly be measuring my kids' successes.

In fairly Calvinist (conservative Christian) settings as a child, during college and our early years of marriage, there were a lot of fairly awful ideas about children. Alongside these were also quite negative ideas of God-- and these were tightly wrapped up in a highly patriarchal social structure. What was terribly confusing is that God (and parents, leaders, and teachers) did not necessarily have to be kind or considerate-- they could do anything and say it was "for our own good." A consequence of being in this kind of setting is that one cannot trust one's own feelings. Don't even get me started on what it was like to be a girl and a woman in these settings! Not only could we not trust our own desires and motivations, we also could not trust God to be good, all the time. I am not sure if this influences how kids in schools are being taught around the world-- I am outside of that world right now-- but I want to move away from my tendency to see my children as vessels to be urgently filled (with skills, or knowledge, or even values), whether or not they want that skill. While self-reflection is powerful-- I want my kids to be the ones doing the reflecting on their desires and motivations, not me or another adult. In this sense, unschooling is less about learning and more about relating-- knowing that in healthy relationships it is easy to learn and grow.

There are a lot of people who believe God is always good who don't unschool, so I think my experiences are the result of a particular, non-universal, journey. Still, unschooling has brought a helpful consistency: In imagining a more relational, less capitalist, less power-based, less shame-filled/competitive society, a lot of ideas align, albeit messily (and inconsistently). We can enjoy our lives while remaining responsible and responsive to our contexts.

So as I grow with our kids, the value of unschooling is less about outcomes and more about finding ways to be consistently kind and support our kids, while being careful to attend to our own journey, responsibilities, and boundaries. It is a way to trust our children and try our best to connect with them, which is harder than it sounds. It does not mean leaving them to do their own thing, but finding opportunities for them to get to know themselves, and to shine. It means creatively finding ways to meet all the needs of all family members, and be explicit when we are struggling to do so because of financial, time, or energy constraints. What I want them to feel is an abundance of opportunity, and an abundance of love-- a complicated abundance, given friendships with those who have much less than we do-- but abundance nevertheless.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

August 2018: building my parents' house, no electricity, no drainage, no stove

Noah started a YouTube channel of his own...

My parent's house is built. This time around, the person managing the build was lovely, and we were able to implement all we learned from our last construction attempt (just you wait until we build a third house... no...wait...).

another red house!
As with all construction/renovation -- in our family at least-- things started to get really hard at one point around two months ago. We had no electricity, little water, no drainage (our greywater system was dug up to make way for my parents' house). We also had some unsettling break-ins, and our whole family got unusually sick. All the while Eug was taking a very active role building parts of the house, and I had to keep up with work and both of us still need to care for our kiddos (who, admittedly, have been playing a lot of minecraft).

Previously when I had heard about homesteader burnout, my response was a pretty smug, "you don't know how tough I am." I am sorry for that smugness. I think burnout is very normal because homesteading is often illogically difficult, and when you're in the thick of it you can't remember exactly why you're sitting cold, dark and sick in a modern city. Self-righteousness just feels stupid! At that point, we often end up at the McDonald's playground, though this time we didn't-- not because we're above it but just because somehow the brief satisfaction no longer feels worth it (if you want to get serious about being frugal, buy a nursery and track all non-essential spending to how much more you could pay your employees.. no wait, don't! Seriously, though, the nursery has changed my experience of money in a pretty visceral way.).

In these experiences, we are learning homesteading is less about self-sufficiency and more about learning about deep interconnectedness-- our dependence on the grid, on not having our stuff stolen, on the weather and our surrounding ecology/soil, on technology, on our fragile health. Even though we can sometimes produce some of our own food, we're inherently vulnerable, and understanding that vulnerability increases our empathy for those around us who are indeed cold, in the dark, and sick (and maybe even hungry) in our supposedly modern city. It's still possible to keep learning from our mistakes and to slowly work on resilience-- not to make ourselves invincible but to learn to be more peaceful, empathetic, and hopefully less exploitative.

Part of resilience seems to be making peace with hardship and imperfection, and being able to cope with our own smallness and lack of control and knowledge. For the first time, in the thick of it, we haven't just fantasized about moving somewhere where we imagine we wouldn't have problems: we're rooted here, at least for the next while. I am constantly learning new things I didn't know I didn't know. There's a spiritual dimension to this process, which for me takes the drudgery away and replaces it with a sense of wonder.

In hard times, there's anger and indignation and a sense of helplessness-- perhaps it is this age of Trump (though perhaps there is also the Eritrean-Ethiopian peace to look to in amazement and hope). I am not sure where it comes from or where it will go, but there is injustice and inconsistencies in our own lives that could take a lifetime to work out, so perhaps it is not right to direct anger towards an other (Here I don't mean to advocate apathy). Again, there is something to be said for empathy in absurd situations, for the bigness and goodness of God, and tapping into that rather than into the despair enacted around us.

Hana has been cutting her hair and, unrelatedly, bringing a lot of grass to Bubbles...

Minecraft and orange juice...
Potato planting. Our vegetable garden has been a bit of mess with grass taking over, but we've planted a lot of potatoes  and garlic because that was what I could wrap my head around, and with a few hours work I'm cautiously optimistic about the growing season ahead.

With building we haven't had time to think too much about farming -- either starting seeds or caring for fruit trees. Thankfully it is winter, so watering is taken care of by the rain. Perhaps because of the winter, we still had a fair amount to eat from the garden, and there's quite a bit of self-seeded vegetables emerging. I can see that a little bit of consistent work (primarily involving improving the soil) over several years is cumulative-- we may well get as much food this summer as last summer, despite my lack of attentiveness. Having kids is also helpful- I plant with them, with more attention to the process and less to whether we'll grow anything. I figure a pack of seeds is a pretty affordable homeschool lesson, right? And over time, we have a garden.

On optimism: I remember two early goals on my farm googledocs spreadsheet: to have around 20 granadilla vines throughout the farm, and to have around 10 tamarillo trees. I struggled to start tamarillos from seed, and granadillas kept being destroyed by ducks or weevils. At the time it seemed impossible and things kept failing. Two years later, this goal is no problem-- 16 granadilla vines are already well established and some more are newly planted on my parent's fence, with plenty (60 or so) ready to be sold or planted depending on space and irrigation. We were able to get just one tamarillo to a good size, and it fruited this past fall. I planted some tamarillo seeds from this one fruit haphazardly (aah, to have an abundance of seeds instead of the pitiful 10 included in those seed packs) and now I have maybe 100 tamarillo seedlings (though they still need to survive planting into the ground.) Anyway, gradual incremental learning and soil/infrastructure development is meaningful, and the historical view is always helpful when we're facing challenging times.

Also helpful: going to visit penguins at low tide, before any tourists arrive.

(running alongside, not towards-- we respect the penguins' space! )

While Eugene and I have generally been a little tired and worn out with the many demands of the last couple of months, we press on! I'm guessing that many more happy, exciting and hopeful updates on our farm will follow- and many more photos!

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Our goose died

Our male goose passed away a few days ago. He's been ill for a long time, ever since he had a stroke in December. Our female goose keeps calling for him. There's something very poignant about the sadness of a goose losing it's mate. We'd been nursing the male goose for 6 months... Carrying him in and out of the kiddie pool, feeding him by hand at times. I feel sad because winter suddenly set in and I didn't think to bring the goose into our house until it was too late, and maybe he could have had longer.

Then I wonder how it happened that I am bringing a full grown goose into the house to lie down in front of the fire. Caring for this goose even after we knew that he and his mate would probably never give us eggs or meat-- it brought me back to the economics of farming. The economics of our farm often don't add up. As pressed for time as we are in this season of our lives, to spend time on a dying goose verges on absurdity. As you may guess if you've read a few posts, I go between painstakingly calculating our costs (time and money, time is money??) and outputs to convince you that farming is a great idea, and giving up on the economic value. (and of course, you might just say the geese have ended up as pets, which I suppose is also true) I focus on the frugality of farming because I don't think it is enough for people who love farming to farm... maybe it is, or maybe more people will grow to love farming as the world shifts and shifts again?

I grew up in evangelical settings where we had to not only be sure and right and have all the answers, but we also had to convince everyone else we had what they were missing. So bear with me when I do that, it's a habit that is hard to break. Part of our urban farming efforts began as entirely evangelical (YOU MUST ALL FARM) but farming has a way of messing with one's sense of certainty and control. There is a world of wonder and contradiction on our farm, where you don't get away from money (for example, our animal feed costs more than eggs would, though we can sometimes sell ducks or chicks, our financial benefits are very haphazard and fuzzy) and yet-- perhaps only if you have the financial margin to do so-- we do find ourselves emerging from that hard logic of economics. We edge away from supply and demand thinking, in the sense that money gradually gets less important. Of course, we've had to do a lot of work, and a lot of careful saving, in the context of a cutthroat capitalist economy to get where we are-- i.e. no mortgage and student loan debt etc. Habits are very hard to break. But I hope one day money will factor much less in my life than it does now, and there's some tentative evidence that this is possible-- not because we're so rich money doesn't matter, but because we're not measuring everything in those terms, or buying much from the monied economy. We're not going to live without money, and we're owners of stuff, but our relationship with money has shifted a lot already, and I think it'll shift a lot more.

As we produce more, money becomes a tool for fewer things, and we get more resourceful. But it's more than that; it is gradually less important to measure value in terms of money, or to measure at all. Even though I am stuck in my head so much, as part of working within a university structure, I am stuck in my head much less than I used to be, because there are so many chores to be done and little kids to be cared for. I like it. 

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

On working and owning land in urban South Africa

Now and then, we see the land invasion trucks, accompanied by police trucks, hurtling down the street to stop a shack from being built further into the wetlands. Occasionally, like this morning, we wake up in the morning and we hear a surge of hundreds of voices— sometimes singing, sometimes angry and shouting. Less frequently, thankfully, we hear the noise of rubber bullets and water cannons or smell the smoke of tires burning. It always feels very close. Our fence is just diamond mesh, after all— no electric current, no solid wall. Transparent. (admittedly with lots of baby spiky plants as a token of our security intentions)

Most of the time, our farm is peaceful and quiet. I watch the chickens scratching and try to resist the temptation to plant more seeds while I’m supposed to be writing or studying or reading a student's work. 

How do good intentions fit into this picture? Perhaps good intentions are not really the point. 

When people look at the map, or when friends visit from Masi, they sometimes say “hey! Eug and Jo have a farm and lots of land right next to a township where people are suffering and squashed together. There’s something wrong with this picture!” And they would be right. 

We might reply “we bought this land for a fair price, and we could have bought better land, in a more convenient and safe place, more cheaply. We are working for good things for this community and neighborhood.” That would be true, also. 

So the problem is less that we have land or a house (Many of you reading this blog have a much better standard of living than ours—and if you have access to Amazon and Ikea you almost certainly do), but that our neighbors have a standard of living that is unconscionable.  

From the limitations of this, my one perspective, I’m convinced that part of the solution to this, a seemingly impossible problem, is: We should actively seek out the lowest standard of living that our happiness allows for (and, to the extent of our influence, seek out policies that do the same). Wealth only increases happiness until our essentials are covered, right? Yet it feels never-ending. When taxes increase, or you face unemployment, you should still be able to pay fair wages to everyone who supplies you with goods or services (this follows up the entire chain, not just those directly employed by you: it includes the person in Malaysia who made your child’s hotwheel car… something that I haven’t quite figured out yet). We should aspire to lives that do not take (or even 'earn') more than our fair share, which is terribly difficult if you have access to so much stuff, but which can be a progressive, gradual set of choices.

We should strive to produce as much as we can, or at least understand the world from the perspective of the producer. Not the manager of the factory understanding the supply chain, but the person actually sowing a seed or sewing a garment. My perspective has changed so much with each dead animal or failed crop, and it is so painful when I hear a customer at our nursery complain about our price increase from R10 to R12 ($1) for a plant, knowing how difficult it was to grow it. 

Capital is concentrated in the top end of consumption chains, and when I see my peers I think part of this picture is that we’re so busy, and we’re literally the beneficiaries of capitalism— we have higher degrees and responsible jobs and are trying to cobble together enough childcare to raise our children well. We’re probably a bit stressed a lot of the time because we think perfection is somehow within our grasp (and if you are in the U.S. you may be stuck with a lot of debt). 

Our land is just starting to become productive after being vacant for over five years. The past few years we have been working harder than is sustainable, because I feel so much weight of responsibility to use our land wisely. Yet if you saw our land, you might (rightly) cast it as under-utilized. Give us some time. Utility should not be measured just by economic productivity or human density, it should be measured in terms of values, perhaps (in the case of land) in terms of the depth and strength of commitment to make a space ecologically productive over many years. 

I guess my point is that when it comes to land, farmers must have the margin to take the long view and set up farm systems carefully and wisely (not just in a day and a rototiller). Specifically, if financially we'd had to make the whole acre productive right away, we would have made choices-- rapid clearing that would likely have made the soil worse, paying people marginal salaries to help us. There is land all over South Africa that has the capacity to become sustainably productive, given the right resources and better economic policy, but it takes time (longer than a political term) and care and is often a thankless task, though you would be right to argue that parts of SA have a much better climate for some kinds of farming than Cape Town. 

Despite the challenges, when it comes to small farms, I am all in. For health, productivity, and sustainability in the context of climate change: small farms are vital, even within city limits and even in the context of densely populated settlements. For vegetable production in a city like Cape Town (with year-round growing): we should be growing our vegetables within city limits. 

For those who arrive from the Eastern Cape to Cape Town, trying to get enough money to educate their children and improve things for themselves: people who live in zinc shacks and do domestic work: where so often the employer sees themselves as magnanimous and the employee furtively thanks them for the hard manual labour they have received. In academic conversations, to talk about expanding options for farming in the Eastern Cape is seen as insulting (why would they want to farm? why should they not have access to the city!?) and shortsighted (people are coming, cities are the inevitable future) at best. 

Yet in saying that the options for farming should be expanded and supported I do not mean that anyone should be excluded from the city, or that cities should not grow in proportion to population growth. I mean that farms should be getting smaller and more people working smaller pieces of land, not larger, that food supply chains can and should be shorter, and that mechanization has harmed our food system in significant ways. Of course, mechanization has also benefited our food system: Threshing wheat or grinding corn are unromantic tasks that I am loath to take on. Yet the point where ecological forms of land management and continuous soil improvement become impossible, farming has become unsustainable— at that point farms have become too large. 

So, we should have pathways and tools to farm on large enough pieces of land for subsistence (I have read, and experienced, that 1 acre is a full time job for 1 person), and we should receive the extension services and support for this to be a viable, dignified option, so that farming is not something you run from the first opportunity you get. One should have the capacity to live a dignified (nourished) life on even marginal farm land, improving that land and making it more productive. 

For those of us who are not farming, there should be ways to live simply, to produce at least some of one’s food, and not outsource jobs that are too dirty and uncomfortable (unless they are outsourcing with a good, livable wage). We should not leverage our super-educated brains for maximum money, as others leverage their bodies to produce our food, build our houses, sew our clothes and care for our children. (I may not yet have the words or tone to express this idea as anything other than a tired, opinionated rewriting of Marxism. But I will get there one day!)  

The back to the land movement should not be just a super upper class thing (yet it should also not be a thing that we tell the poor to do). This is not River Cottage. As societies, we should prioritize understanding the basics of what it means to sustain ourselves: from what it takes to build a structure, to what it takes to grow our food. We are poorer for not knowing. I have heard activists in the city say proudly that they are not land owners… they are able to move freely and they are not taking land from anyone. Yet we all put their money in a bank somewhere (and that bank uses their money to buy shares in companies, which buy up land) we buy things, many of us travel, and we all eat, and in that way we are all using land somewhere. Owning land, and farming it, incurs responsibility and a depth of attachment (and moral ambiguity) that is altogether different from buying more responsibly at the farmer’s market. That is not to say one is only moral if one is farming/producing, but that our moral responsibilities are enacted in many different ways, even in a place like South Africa where access to land is deeply contested.  Perhaps part of imagining a different world is to realize that parts of our existence are in grey areas, our perspectives limited, and that we moving through the world imperfectly (whether farming or not).

Friday, May 4, 2018

(Not) Self-sufficient in Cape Town: Lots of honey & vegetables, failed olive oil harvest

Our fellow workers on the farm are confronted by endless work, lack of tools, seed, lack of variety and stimulus in their daily work. They are indeed leading a hard life and a poor life. But they are trying to rebuild within the shell of the old, a new society, wherein the dignity and freedom and responsibility of man is emphasized. And there is no place better to do it than on the land. (The Catholic Worker, October, 1939) 

One of the most important and growing costs of the modern way of life is ‘cultural fraud’: the promotion of images and ideals of ‘the good life’ that serve the economy but do not meet psychological needs, nor reflect social realities. (Richard Eckersley)

We've been living on our farm for over 2.5 years now, so I'm thinking again about what we do and don't grow here, and what our lives are like. It's not 1939, and we're not living communally, but the Catholic Worker movement does provide inspiration, and also speaks to the challenges of trying to produce our own food. The lines between producing poorly and producing "well" are fuzzy, and figuring out how to make our small, 1 acre farm more productive is as much about good stewardship given highly contested (and scarce) city land as it is about a romantic idea of feeding ourselves. I also list out foods to make food more visible, and the processes of growing (and not growing) less abstract.

It's still early days in the life of our farm. Also, our story is definitely the story of part-time farmers who support ourselves through off-farm work, and who struggle to find the time to farm. Still, I'm coming to think that a lot of descriptions about how difficult and expensive it is to become more self-sufficient in food emerges from early (in)experience, bad farming conditions and running out of energy or money too early on. I'm still very inexperienced, of course, and one cannot quickly change one's farm environment (our sand is not going away any time soon), but eventually things start to shift. The soil starts to get better. There are a few successes. So my farming motto, if I had one, might involve the word "persistence," and be about not taking these few years of unusual drought as proof that (urban) farming isn't efficient, doesn't "work," or is too difficult. It can be very efficient, but only if you have a lot of margin to survive inevitable failures-- every farm is different and so even if you are very experienced, I imagine it takes some time to acclimate. As a side note, I think this means that if policy were to better support farmers (urban and rural), it might involve providing greater margin (financial and in terms of time) to survive early failures (and more time to build up the soil and infrastructure slowly so that a farmer really understands what systems they're adding and why, and how to fix them if things aren't right).

We still buy big bags of potatoes and onions, which are staple items for us, but we produce most other vegetables (I'm afraid to say that on the internet, as we're always one chicken invasion away from disaster). This year, my plan for the garden includes (weather and pest permitting) a large crop of garlic, sweet potatoes, potatoes and onions, enough tomatoes to preserve for the year. I can't really calculate the calories on the vegetables we produce, but despite the drought we eat greens a few times a week (I know it should be every day), produced a pretty good crop of squashes, pumpkins and tomatoes, and are still getting a lot of peppers, eggplant and cape gooseberries from our lingering summer crop.

We're close to getting a lot of fruits and should produce enough fruit for our family's consumption, and possibly more than enough, in about 2 years, but for the most part we still buy fruit as our trees are taking a while to mature-- not helped by the drought! We got some peaches, some apricots and blackberries this past summer, have a fairly continuous supply of gooseberries we eat every day, and have a large crop of tamarillos (currently), guavas (still ripening), and bananas (still ripening) and granadillas/guavadillas are finally on their way. We're hoping next year we'll start to harvest some citrus, pomegranates, almonds, figs and plums. Then in another couple of years we'll get much more citrus and nectarines, apples and pears.

Our trees produced a lot of olives this year, and we tried to make olive olive oil with our Piteba press, with disastrous results (Hana mercifully overturned the "olive oil," so we didn't have to actually make the decision whether to use it or not). We're going to try peanut oil rather, then work our way back up to olive oil... So we're going to be buying in oil (or at least nuts) for a good while. We were able to give away some olives to friends so at least they weren't wasted.

The Not-Pinterest version of making olive oil...

Thanks to my dad and our three hives, we're suddenly in a position to stop buying sugar. My dad did not take honey from the bees over the summer at all, because both of our two hives had swarmed (I managed to catch one but not the other). It's not that sugar was exactly eating away at our food budget, but having a row of honey jars on the shelf feels wonderful.

If we need to get about 3 million calories per year as a family, the amount of honey we produce is significant-- if we ate most of our honey ourselves we could get over 10% of our calories from honey produced by 3 hives.

Honey stores on the top right (and foraged seaweed on the left.... odd but free and full of good nutrients)

Not counting our duck eggs (which come and go depending how well they hide them), we consume about 500 calories a day from eggs-- and could probably consume more, when we include duck eggs. Again, this could be up to 10% of our calories as a family.

Ducklings, olive trees...

Anyway, so what's the plan for the future?
Buying in the short term but hope to stop buying in a few years time
  • Some feed for chickens and ducks (about 40% of their diet)
  • Almonds
  • Macadamia nuts
  • Potatoes/sweet potatoes
  • Onions
  • A lot of different fruits.
Still buying in the long term?
Good food club: buying stuff in bulk for 25-30 families.
  • Olive oil
  • Maybe meat (once/twice a month).
  • Cat food, budgie food.
  • Milk/cream*
  • Butter*
  • Cheese*
  • Lentils
  • Raisins
  • Blueberries
  • Flour (possibly sometimes also in the form of pasta, or we might going back to making pasta!)
  • Coffee (green beans, which we roast)-- though I think over time we'll produce enough robusta coffee beans for a month or two of consumption. We have 3 robusta coffee trees (and one arabica, which we keep indoors) and are growing more from seed-- ultimately once we have enough shade, my goal is to have 25 shade grown robusta trees.
  • Chocolate 
  • Brown rice
  • Rolled oats
  • Peanuts
*Although I don't have any definite plans to produce any of these things ourselves, I am still dreaming about getting a few dairy goats (Nigerian dwarf gots), maybe in three years' time, especially if I can organize enough organic waste from landscapers to offset their feed.

My point in making this list is just to admit that we're not trying to produce everything, and that independence from industrial food takes a lot of time and effort. If one wants to maintain a decent standard of living in the in-between, the industrial food system is actually what makes the transition possible-- knowing that I can go and grab crappy ice cream, for example, is sometimes what gives me the self-control to cook lentils. In fact, the bottom five things on that list that are mainly imported, most notably oats, which we eat daily (usually from Australia or Germany), short grain brown rice (usually from the USA), which we eat  couple of times a week, and peanuts (usually from China)/peanut butter. In the future, it may be that we actively work to make some of these things become less important in our diet so that we can rely even more on food grown on the farm, or it may be that other life adjustments take priority. We would like to keep improving the productivity of the farm, but at a certain point that could mean selling or giving away food, and spending more time reflecting and sharing how our farm fits into broader food movements, rather than endlessly adding diversity.
The challenge of envisioning real utopias is to elaborate clear-headed, rigorous, and viable alternatives to existing social institutions that both embody our deepest aspirations for human flourishing and take seriously the problem of practical design. Real utopias capture the spirit of utopia but remain attentive to what it takes to bring those aspirations to life. What we want are utopian destinations which, even if they are themselves unreachable, nevertheless have accessible waystations that help move us in the right direction. (Erik Olin Wright
The hard thing is remembering that although there's an endless list of things to do, the projects must be paced somehow, and daily life/work should not have to wait. There will never be a time when the farm is complete. There's also no such thing as a perfect diet or a perfect farm; it seems to be all about learning what to try and when, for our unique context, and not going too crazy in the attempt.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Lots of different composts and many ways to improve soil

Start of winter cropping... One thing that's really challenging (and wonderful) in a Cape Town context is that there's always something you could be planting, so planning bed rotations for the year becomes really complex. I'm trying to think of ways to grow a large winter garden because we don't have to irrigate from May-September, provided the rain comes.
I like David the Good's approach to composting a lot-- i.e. compost everything!

Actually, about David the Good: I love his videos, I think his take on gardening is interesting and helpful. Also: He supports Trump?!?!! And seems to have such a different perspective on many things I value. My conclusion, abbreviated: We must be reading very different things and converse with very different people-- our experience of the world is very different and somehow, this has led us to profoundly different sets of conclusions on some things... yet a lot of similarities in our day to day life, I suspect. I find it so interesting that someone I admire so much online is occupying such a different world. So my vague sense from this is that we should try to be kind to the people around us, and try to keep writing and spreading an inclusive type of kindness, with the knowledge that our vision is super limited so... don't be too dogmatic (this is not to be confused with me saying that Trump is ok). There's so much out there we don't see or imagine.

Anyway, back to compost-- I wanted to share some experiences because I've been composting for a long time, only sometimes successfully, and I use a lot of different approaches:

Chop and drop:
We have a lot of Port Jackson (acacia saligna, an invasive but nitrogen fixing tree from Australia), which we chop and leave in place- this is classic permaculture and ultimately the idea is that you don't have a lot of outside inputs coming onto your farm. I'm also multiplying comfrey as much as I can, also to do chop and drop next year if I can get it big enough. In the meantime... we clearly are bringing in a lot of free sources of fertility, and making use of various manures (human, chicken, duck, guinea pig...)

If you don't have a lot of space, vermicomposting is brilliant and effective for kitchen scraps, and you can't really beat vermicastings in terms of quality of compost. That said, if you have a household with more than a couple of people and eat at home most of the time, the quantity of compost can quickly overwhelm your worms (and even kill them, or attract rats). In our experience, it's a good idea to be persistent (get through the fruit fly stage!), it's also a good idea to scale up gradually. In terms of the quantity of compost you get out, I think vermicomposting requires a lot of patience relative to other kinds of compost-- as in two years of patience. I often wonder if people know that going in, if they'll be more willing to weather the fly times and the rat times. When we were still a family of four, we already needed a MASSIVE (240L) bin.

So, worm composting is the absolute best option for kitchen scraps in a household that doesn't have chickens, and that needs small amounts of very high quality compost (I know there are also large scale applications, but I have less experience with those).

Check out our many worm bins:
The very unromantic reality of our largest worm bin. As you can tell our minimalist dreams have given way to hoarding cardboard and seed trays... While our municipal bin is totally a pain to harvest from, because of its size it's also extremely resilient and a great source of worms if we're having any trouble with our other bins. And we do also harvest castings, as the worms are well established. 
These are the classic tote bins with holes drilled in them-- I'd recommend these for most households, you can always just add a new layer if necessary (looking back, adding many totes is probably better than getting a really huge bin like we did). We have five totes-- 3 for regular farms and two just for cat litter.
These are the two bathtubs on the border of our property, under some trees. They're a bit further away from the house, so it's harder to care for them. But they're large and I think over time they'll be an integral part of our household. I made the mistake of feeding them spent brewing grain, which very quickly got extremely dry and hot... so we're building up again after that mistake!

You can see that at the moment, because of the pig and everything else eating our scraps, the worms mainly live on newspaper. 

We don't have enough to feed all of them, so I feed them manure at times, and have two bins where I take compost out fairly regularly, whereas I leave the two bathtubs alone right now. I have one bin that is just for cat litter, and I will never harvest from that: it's just so that we don't throw cat poop in the trash.

Worm composting is a kind of cold composting, so it's not a good idea to compost things where you're very worried about pathogens, unless you're never going to harvest from that bin. In a drought situation, vermicastings are truly phenomenal for increasing the water holding capacity of small volumes of soil (i.e. if you doing row gardening, it'll make less of a difference), particularly if you're gardening in raised beds or containers. Generally, vermicastings tend to be bacteria-dominated, which means that it is great for vegetables.

Ok, so while we love vermicastings it's not our only type of composting: we do a few types of hot composting:

Humanure compost
Our humanure compost gets very hot, but as a failsafe we also leave it for one year so that the pathogen cycles are broken. The issue with this is that the volume of compost is much less than it would be if we did a rapid cycle of hot composting. So sometimes this is a bit sad because a year's worth of humanure for five people, mixed with a huge amount of straw, ends up being just enough (fairly phenomenal) input for a few fruit trees. So it's not a huge quantity, but it's going to have a compounding effect over the years.

Berkeley pile
The rapid hot composting style is great for vegetables and in contexts where you are starting out with a low volume of organic matter in the soil (like our very sandy, drought-stricken environment). You do need some space to build the pile and turn it. When I need to renew a vegetable bed (or if I have a sudden flux of leaves, to balance my regular deliveries of manure), or have some energy, it's fast, you get good compost, and you get a good volume of organic matter. And horse manure, which usually can't be helpful to my vegetables in the short term, is ready to go into the garden in just 18 days (versus the year I usually wait otherwise).

This is day 8 of the current pile, and it's already starting to look really dark and crumbly-- 10 more days (5 more turns!) to go.

Other kinds of composting:
Every week, I dump two bags of horse manure, 2 bags of alpaca manure, and two bags of straw into the chicken coop. The chickens free range on about 1/4 of the property, so we given them a specific set of the manure inputs for them to work through. I put their mixed up manure-sortof-compost directly onto the bottom of raised beds, and directly around fruit trees. It's not exactly compost, but it's not raw manure either, and it seems like a great way to get a few wheelbarrow loads of compost-like-stuff every week or two. In the long term, I'm hoping that chickens and ducks will do a lot of our composting in place, and that we can find a way to make composting for the annual garden simple, and routine (and not involve a lot of energy).

The ducks roam around our house, so we have a lot of straw around our house to mitigate the effect of their pooping. I collect the soil around our house when I'm potting up trees or making seedling mix (I have get trees and shrubs pretty big before they get planted out... ). Duck poop is fine going directly into seedling mix, and I've had good success using a mixture of coconut coir and soil from around the house as seeding mix.

Horse Manure:
I put horse manure and straw directly around trees: no composting. Not right up against the trunk, and I don't dig it in. Basically, I'm trying to increase water holding around trees-- but I actually need to do a lot more to fertilize our trees. We have a lot of fruit trees now and it is pretty hard to keep up. I also put the guinea pig's bedding directly around a tree. This style of composting is slow and dominated by fungal action, which is beneficial for the trees. The danger of this is that persistent herbicides have been put into the straw-- either the straw eaten by the horse, or to the straw that I recycle from another household. I suspect that this has, at times, caused weird leaf things to happen in my vegetable garden, and so I'm hoping gradually I'll be applying horse manure further from trees roots, and not applying it to our vegetable garden at all. For now, the benefits of bringing in 200-300kg of free organic matter each week is pretty significant.

To my family's horror, I have smelly buckets of seaweed soaking in water around and about. I'm using this primarily, diluted 1:10, for our vegetables. It has to be covered to make sure mosquitoes aren't laying eggs in there, and it is pretty gross. I'm hoping I can gradually scale up to the point where I'm providing seaweed fertilizer to all our trees, as well. I basically get a 25L bucket of seaweed every trip to the beach-- 1 to 2 times a week. I'm not systematic about it, but over time, like everything, it adds up. I generally wash the seaweed in sea water at the beach to remove any sea creatures/sand. At our farm, I only rinse the seaweed if I'm adding it directly to vegetable garden beds. Otherwise, I just add water and let it sit.

Korean Natural farming:
The core idea of KNF, as far as I can understand, is that you try to inoculate large volumes of compost with beneficial fungi and bacteria. There fermentation happening (as with soaking seaweed). I'm not being terribly scientific about it as yet, and I'm not going to specifically use precious rice to multiply out bacteria (unlike in Korea, we never have leftover rice!), but I'm attempting to multiply out my sourdough starter with fruit peels and other stuff. The thing I'm getting out of learning about KNF is thinking through options that provide rapid, cheap accessibility of nutrients (unlike most of my compost that is more like mulch with benefits). I'm still early on in understanding it, but it's an interesting approach in a very different climate (though they're also into it in Hawai'i, which is also different from Cape Town but shows that some of the principals must transfer).

Also, KNF has a cult-like figure at the center of it, so I'm only into it a little bit. I tend to be suspicious when one approach seems to self-assured and confident. There is just too much we cannot know.

Buckets of.... stuff...

Volcanic rock dust/Azomite:

This is the only input that I've purchased in terms of fertility. I bought in bulk, and I give a cup per fruit tree (and a teaspoon per seedling) when I remember. I'm not systematic about it, but I'm hoping that over time it will help to provide important minerals to our relatively ancient soils.

We have some chicken manure in places where our chickens roost, and previously I've just thrown that manure around trees, to let the nutrients gradually leach down to the tree. But as I see that the trees are needing more manure, I'm planning on soaking the chicken manure in water and giving it to the trees.

Closing thoughts
As you can tell, even with just 1 acre (and actually most of our manure and composting is focused on less than 1/2 acre still) and a lot of animals to help, a lot of thought needs to go into the soil (especially in a non-ideal farming setting like sand or drought). I suspect in a few years, I will not have to put quite so much thought into composting. A lot of people swear by one style of composting, but I think there are lots of different ways to bring fertility into a space, and each philosophy seems to have benefits that depend a lot on compost and availability of scraps/manures/etc. Also, if you just do soil without thinking about sun, wind or water, things go wrong. I think I'm realising the importance of finding a lot of ways to get water to the soil, and protect plants from wind-- they're all connected and important. If you have the capacity to completely dig up your garden, bring in a truckload of compost/woodchips, and put a lot of plants/trees densely at the get go, permaculture blitz style, I'm gradually realising that dense planting of desired plants would actually decrease the need to compost somewhat. At our scale, and my level of inexperience/busy-ness at the start, we just couldn't put in enough plants all at once (though now, inspired by our nursery, I'm starting hundreds of plants at a time).

I can definitely see why people just grab bags of N-P-K, as practicing all these different kinds of composting does take time and energy. Of things that I spend energy on, this seems like an investment rather than a sunk cost, and over time we see changes in the property and are able to grow things more easily. I don't think organic farming on 1 acre has to involve of complex composting, but I have found trying a bunch of different things, for different circumstances, appeals to me. Bringing in a lot of compost at the beginning of the farm's life will hopefully facilitate a tapering off later on.

What kinds of composting are you trying?

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Change, growing lots of vegetables, planning my parents' house.

Our street seems poised to change from primarily rural to... we're not quite sure what. So as a psychological exercise, I thought I'd write down some of my thoughts here. Our fears are rooted in the recognition that for all our dreaming, work and building, the day-to-day stuff we can't control-- whether we get in trouble for our crazy rooster and the building material constantly piling up, whether there's bike-killing traffic, whether your kids can safely go down the street-- can start to crowd out other stuff. We have neighbours who once farmed in other parts of Cape Town, and had to leave their farms because of safety -- and where daily theft forced them to stop farming, and that is also something that is on my mind. Change can feel as though the dreams we've cultivated are tenuous somehow, that they can be taken away quite rapidly.

Which made me consider the dreams themselves. As we moved to the farm we stepped onto a particular path, not just into a particular space. The space seems deeply important-- not only our house but also our fruit trees and the work I've put into the soil. Yet what's perhaps surprising is the number of things we can take with us if we ever have to leave: we're learning and internalizing ideas and lessons about growing food, bringing up our kids, being sortof-off-grid. Year-to-year, there'll be more things that tie us to this place and there'll also be ways in which the land is giving to us gifts in the here and now, in which we don't have to worry about the future.

A friend asked if I stopped blogging regularly because all our dreams of farming or unschooling or working at stuff we enjoyed were already fulfilled, and I was thinking about how it doesn't feel like that for me-- there's constant space for growth.* It feels like over the next ten or twenty years, we can continuously create a more beautiful productive space, but each year we learn stuff, and we change whether or not that beautiful space in my mind ultimately comes to be. And each year, there are things that do well and things that fail-- things that the kids love about being here, things that they don't love.

Ultimately, this farm, and now the nursery, is under our stewardship for as long as it is given to us (we hope for a good long time-- don't worry mom!), but I don't want to feel aggressively protective of it-- I want to hold on loosely, even if it goes against my controlling personality. Maybe that's where accumulation of property or money is particularly problematic-- they become markers that signal whether our lives are going well or poorly.

In the long-term, I hope we can be progressively more radical in our understanding of growth, as these outward measures don't speak to growth in our ability to communicate, our ability to know our own heart, our ability to convey kindness, to relate to those close to us in a non-manipulative way. All these things are not things that we are born with, even if we are "kind", there are different kindnesses for different circumstances.

Pig is doing very well... and has a lot of character.

All roads lead to vegetable gardening
These days, I spend a lot of my time thinking about vegetables. I've been growing vegetables-- at least a little bit-- since I started this blog ten or eleven years ago. For a while, I gardened on our fire escape in the summers in Boston-- probably in contravention of fire code. For a while in Observatory, Cape Town, I was all about urban gardening in a very small space. Then I got really discouraged about the difficulties of how little we produced. For the last two or so years, we've been on our 1-acre smallholding, but the first year or so I did very little vegetable gardening because our hugelbeds were not mature enough and our water access presented real challenges.

This year, I've been thinking a lot about our own vegetable garden, as well as about two school vegetable gardens (one for a preschool, another for a primary school) and also about creating a market garden at our nursery.

All in all, this has involved a lot of planning and a lot of gardening relative to previous years. Absolutely NOT all successful, but still, a lot of food produced. As with everything, gardening is an exercise in grappling with control-- doing what you can, knowing what is in the realm of possibility, and leaving some stuff alone. What I'm learning is that there are a lot of ways to garden successfully, and that just trying lots of different stuff, and being willing (and lets be honest, having the time, money and energy) to keep trying eventually leads you to good things. So it's just worth just trying.

I re-read Fukuoka's work recently (and also went down the rabbit hole of Korean Natural Farming), and what struck me in re-reading was not the techniques, but the journey. I'm convinced by the idea of working with nature rather than against it, but I think the process of figuring that out for each space is actually quite winding and indirect.

When I feel discouraged, as though growing on this scale is not efficient or that I kill too many plants, I think it's valuable to remember that most of the world's food is produced by smallholder farmers, on a very small amount of land. Large scale agriculture is what is inefficient and unsustainable. We often get fed a message that big farmers feed the world, but that is not true. While I don't really believe the average person can grow all their vegetables on a space the size of a door, just because a lot urban agriculture pinterest boards are not terribly realistic doesn't mean you can't grow a lot in a small space, over time, once you get to know your conditions and adapt to fit your circumstances. [I also think that it is meat and dairy-based diets that need larger farms, as this is where I have found it hardest, and most inefficient, to figure out how to be self-sufficient].

When I produce yucky tomatoes, I can cut the bad bits out, give them to the chickens or ducks or pig or worms, and eat the rest. When large scale farmers produces yucky tomatoes (and I'm convinced if you're gardening completely organically, you'll always have quite a lot of not-up-to-standard tomatoes) their options are much more limited, so the pressure to produce good looking tomatoes, at whatever environmental cost, is so much higher.

On our farm, as I plan better for the future, I begin to see a way to produce all our vegetables and fruit and quite a few of our calorie crops pretty efficiently. Not all our calories, by any means, but a lot of food nevertheless, and we're creeping up calorie wise. At the school garden, suddenly it doesn't take much to produce all the greens needed for two schools for lunch for 160 kids, even if we can't produce a lot of other items just yet.

Propagation by cuttings
With the weather cooling down, it feels like we finally emerged on the other side of a very hard summer. Some of our nursery stock died, some survived. On the other side, I've learned about cuttings. I even have a pair of secateurs in the car, in my bag, or even in my pocket, to whip out if someone has something nice sticking out over their fence... My kids are a mixture of embarrassed and totally into it. 

Propagation (and growing all our ginger and tumeric indoors, since our climate is not warm enough to grow it outside)

My parents' house: Connecting to the grid

We're looking forward to having my parents living with us on the farm, hopefully later this year. After six months of waiting, we thought our building plans for my parents little house were close to being approved, but not yet. It's been a really long and painful process.

So, you ask, will my parents house be off-grid? Will it be built with mud and hay? Sandbags? Tires?No, sadly none of the above. We did pursue the possibility of building with sandbags but we weren't successful -- the combination of expertise, availability, affordability and council approval is pretty challenging to get right. I hope if we ever build another structure, I hope it will be something exciting and fun (TIRES-- earthships-- are still my favourite), but this time around we feel ok about building small, but pretty conventionally.

On being off-grid-- sortof. We'll going to have many of the things we have at our house that only increase our standard of living (consider this the definitive list of things that won't significantly impact on your happiness): (1) low-pressure Solar geyser (water heater) on the roof, (2) household water going out to greywater systems-- moringa trees and banana trees, hopefully, (3) rainwater tanks (4) composting bucket toilet.

So I guess the main thing that isn't on there is our PV solar panels. Having those, rather than municipal electricity, does significantly impact our standard of living (no fridge or booster for the geyser on the roof, so sometimes no hot water) and we're pretty sure we're messing up our battery because in winter we sometimes want to use our computers at night. 

Anyway, I'm still really excited to be hopefully close to building my parents' house, and also to growing a lot of stuff on their corner of the property-- I haven't grown anything there because we knew their house would be coming, but once their house is up we'll be growing a lot more.

Noah tried out his first day-camp last week, where he learned ukulele, trampoline, and hula. Felt like a milestone-- our boy is growing up...

*I slowed down blogging because I figure there's enough content out there on elimination communication (replace with any hippie topic), and I don't care enough to evangelize on any one life choice. I also decided around the same time that I didn't want to monetize the blog.