Farm Photos

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Permaculture Continued

I am excited to have the opportunity to dig further into Permaculture. This term that’s thrown around a lot and seems to have this ‘mystery’ element surrounding it because people really don’t know what it is. In fact, that’s because there are two versions of the word: permaculture with lower case ‘p’ is often used casually to describe any way of life that is attempting to live in harmony with Nature. Permaculture, upper case, is the name of Bill Mollisons’ published philosophy and model of farming. Will our little farm be designed using the principles of Permaculture? Sure, we will incorporate many different techniques, philosophies and ideas. Our little farm will be an experimental zone while we figure out which farming practices and designs make us, and the land, happy.
What is it:
Permaculture is a set of principles under which a person designs or adapts a farm or garden practice. It is also a general education in ecology, agriculture, ancient practices and innovative farming techniques. No one has ‘a Permaculture garden’ or ‘a Permaculture farm…’ it’s a garden or a farm designed using Permaculture.
The word stands for Permanent agriculture, and is an accurate description of what it accomplishes. The idea is to plant something that will produce year after year while also expanding as a system and it must not waste Nature’s resources (i.e. water, soil, biomass).
Permaculture Principles:

1.       Observe and Interact: By taking time to engage with Nature we can design solutions that fit our particular situation.

2.       Catch and Store Energy: By developing systems that collect resources when they are abundant, we can use them in times of need.

3.       Obtain a Yield: Make sure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work you are doing.

4.       Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback: We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well.

5.       Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services: Make the best of Natures abundance to reduce our consumptive behavior and dependence on non-renewable resources.

6.       Produce no Waste: By valuing and making use of all the resources available to us, nothing goes to waste.

7.       Design from Patterns to Details: By stepping back, we can observe patterns in Nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs with details filled in as we go. “can’t see the forest for the trees”

8.       Integrate rather than Segregate: By putting the right things in the right places, relationships develop between those things and they work to support each other.

9.       Use Small and Slow Solutions: Small and Slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, they make better use of local resources and produce more sustainable outcomes. 

10.   Use and Value Diversity: Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides.

11.   Use edges and take Advantage of the Marginal: The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place, these are often the most valuable, diverse, and productive elements in the system.

12.   Creatively use and Respond to Change: We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing, and then intervening at the right time.

David Holmgren has set up a website, PermaculturePrinciples, where he explains each of them in greater detail. The principles are practical, they make sense, and it seems that most would agree on them. I would bet that my great grandfather probably practiced something close to this, even if he considered his knowledge common sense. You would be surprised how many people don’t let concepts like these ones sink in, particularly when designing a farm. 

It all begins with the house, the house is central to a permaculture design. You are in the house most of the time, why shouldn’t your farm design cater to that fact? The immediate area surrounding the house is considered zone 1. There are zones in Permaculture, like concentric rings with the center being the main dwelling. Zone 1, the closest ring to the center, is where you want all the elements of your farm to be located which take the majority of your time.

For instance, if you have chickens that require daily feeding and letting out, you’ll want them in zone 1. Similarly, if you have a starter greenhouse where you will be looking after starts on the daily you’ll want that in zone 1. But if you have an orchard, which will not need daily or even weekly maintenance then it may go into zone 3 or 4 which are further from the home. 

A food forest, for example, is one technique, model or style of design. It can be independent of any other system and a garden to itself. Or, it might be an element of a larger zone system where you have a food forest in zone 4 or 5 of your farm/homestead that you planted with a 10, 20 or 30 year plan. Because the idea behind a food forest is that it’s self-sufficient and you don’t have to be there every day, it would be in a distant zone further from the house. Other elements of this system may include a kitchen garden in zone 1 or a pasture with grazing sheep in zone 3. 

Permaculture zones:

The rings are all dependent upon your particular situation. Say you’ve got a major hill on one side of the house, the zones will only extend out on the side that is accessible. Also, let’s say you have a dairy cow, grazing animals are usually kept in zone 3, but you need to milk every day and you may not have room in zone 1 for a pasture. So now you will design the zone 3 pasture with a small access point touching zone 1 where you can build a milking stall. Again, may sound like common sense, but you don’t want to be the farmer who talks about “how much hard work it is” when you have to wake up and walk across two pastures, open four gates, disturb the other animals and do it all with only a flashlight just to feed the chickens in the morning.

You should want to be lazy. Laziness should be the ultimate goal of the whole ordeal. Not laziness equal to irresponsibility. We will always have a responsibility to the land and anything we create. But we should be aiming to reduce our workload and letting Nature do more of the work so that we can have time to focus on the reasons that drew us to Nature in the first place.

It's important to realize that Permaculture is one of many practices involved in creating a whole sustainable future:

" Fortunately, for the past half-century some pioneers have been preparing the agriculture of the future, and their ideas are now moving to center stage. Organic no-till, permaculture, agroforestry, perennial polycultures, aquaponics, and biointensive and biodynamic farming— long considered fringe ideas—are now converging as serious components of a sustainable agriculture."

Bates, Albert, and Toby Hemenway. "From Agriculture to Permaculture." State of the World 2010: Transforming Cultures from Consumerism to Sustainability: the Worldwatch Insistitute (2010): 47-53.

How to learn:
If you want to learn more about Permaculture design, you have to take a course from a certified instructor. They are spreading rampantly and can be found in most metropli. There are also institutes, and according to
“Permaculture Design Course was developed by Bill Mollison to teach principles and foundations of sustainable design. All PDC courses offered throughout the world must follow the same format (see course syllabus and course outline below) to assure that the integrity of certification process is upheld. Permaculture Institute is among many other organizations that offer PDC. For a list of PDC offered by the Permaculture Institute, go here

Some Other Readings and References:

Veteto, James R., and Joshua Lockyer. "Environmental anthropology engaging permaculture: Moving theory and practice toward sustainability." Culture & Agriculture 30.1‐2 (2008): 47-58.
David Holmgren; The Essence of Permaculture;2007

Monday, January 28, 2013

Mark Lynas

So, I've heard some buzz about this guy Mark Lynas...who recently 'came out' in support of Genetic Modification of food crops after years of being an anti-GM activists. Then, when one of my family members sent an email I couldn't resist taking a look.

Personally, and especially after my last quarter at Evergreen and my visit to Washington Tilth, I share the opinion of Sequim farmer Nash Huber when he says something along the lines of if those of us committed to ecological welfare stick to what we do and teach our own solutions, depend on our own ingenuity, then we will prevail. After all, I doubt that laboratories are oil-crises proof.

When Michael Neff, a WSU biotechnology professor and GMO advocate was asked at the symposium what should be done about this potential risk his answer was essentially this: Well, I know you’re not going to like hearing it but I think the only way organic farmers will stay in business is to accept GMO crops onto their farms. Of course this comment was met with resentful murmurs throughout a room of organic farmers.

I could speak in my own words about all of this, but I've written too much on the subject to go on and I know that others do it better than I. So, I want to direct you to Doug Gurian-Sherman, the head scientists at the Union of Concerned Scientists: Citizens and Scientists for Environmental Solutions.

Here is his rebuttal to Lynas' statements upon his reversal of 'position':

Science, dogma, and Mark Lynas

I suppose it is hard for journalists to resist a good story: Mark Lynas, former green activist, has seen the light. The pronouncements of converted GM critic Lynas have garnered coverage from several respected media sources, despite often being misleading, wrong, or questionable scientifically.

Lynas’ main charge is that criticism of genetic engineering (GE) in agriculture is anti-science. His focus is on what he calls “the antis”—activists opposed to genetically engineered crops—but by setting up this straw man, and ignoring complex scientific concerns about GE while making summary judgments about its safety and value, he appears to be attempting to discourage real scientific debate.

What is especially disappointing, though, is the uncritical reception Lynas has received from several journalists like Andrew Revkin and Michael Spector. As University of Michigan ecologist John Vandermeer points out, Lynas’ pronouncements are sophomoric—they suggest a young student’s simplistic and sometimes incorrect understanding of science—and biased in their selectivity. That they have been received almost as gospel is surprising. The Economist called supportable criticism of Lynas, on GE and pesticide use, tendentious. Really? But dismissing debate is not?
Contrary to Lynas’ pronouncements, science does not proceed by fiat. His summary judgment on the debate about GE—that “it’s over”—is misinformed at best. One could pass this off as a rhetorical flourish, but the overall context of Lynas’ talk shows that he is quite serious. While there is broad consensus on climate science, there is anything but on many aspects of GE science. As anyone who has read my blogs or reports over the past several years knows, I have cited numerous solid peer-reviewed studies that question many aspects of the safety, impact, or sustainability of GE as it has been developed, and will probably continue to be developed.

I guess Lynas can be forgiven to some extent for asserting that the safety of GE for human health and the environment has been settled, since this is a common misconception, as I discussed in previous posts at some length. He seems to be echoing equally mistaken utterances from what should be reliable science sources, like the board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

A few specifics

Here are some of the incorrect or misleading points that Lynas makes about the science or development of GE. I have made most of these points elsewhere in reports or blog posts, so I am not going to elaborate on them here. More detailed discussion, including links to research papers, can be found at those sources.

Lynas argues that we need GE because other agricultural methods or technologies can’t address food production and sustainability challenges. GE may contribute, but as my reports and others have pointed out, breeding continues to outpace GE and likely will continue to do so, and agroecology is much better at addressing many of these issues, especially over-reliance on scarce resources and pesticides, and resilience in the face of climate change. He needs to read the work of Matt Liebman at Iowa State University or Jules Pretty at the University of Essex, to mention a few, or the internationally-endorsed report of the IAASTD, authored by several hundred scientists and other experts.

Rejoice, he sayeth, GE has reduced pesticide use. A recent study by Charles Benbrook shows that in the U.S., the biggest user of GE, pesticide use has gone up dramatically due to GE herbicide-resistant weeds, mismanagement, and the monoculture system that GE supports. Millions of acres of glyphosate-resistant weeds are causing real harm, such as increased tillage that increases soil erosion. And as Mortensen and colleagues have pointed out, the next GE crops, resistant to older herbicides often linked to harm to farmers and farmworkers, will probably increase herbicide use still further. Resistance to Bt by rootworm in the US, as Aaron Gassman has shown, is likely to lead to increased insecticide use, and more resistant insects are occurring elsewhere, notably stem borer in South Africa and bollworm in China. All this is a reflection of a bigger point about ecosystems science at the landscape level, which Lynas does not seem to acknowledge: that GE has been developed as an adjunct to monoculture agriculture, which is inherently vulnerable to pest damage and pest resistance, and is less resilient to climate change impacts.

Misguided regulations are stifling GE. Lynas incorrectly cites a recent report commissioned by the pesticide industry’s own trade group, saying that it documents costs of about $139 million to navigate regulations on GE. Instead, the report states that the large majority of those costs are for R&D and other expenses rather than regulatory compliance. Breeding, which continues to be more successful for all types of properties that Lynas mentions—drought tolerance, increased yield, nutrient enhancement, pest resistance, and more—costs about a million dollars per trait. Failure of GE traits, such as virus-resistant sweet potatoes in Africa, needs to be considered more seriously as one possible explanation for the dearth of available GE traits so far. For example, regulatory costs cannot explain the limited success at producing GE drought tolerance, or the lack of success in reducing demand for nitrogen fertilizer or increasing yield potential. These are of interest to huge companies with deep pockets, and make up potentially huge markets, so regulatory costs are not a sufficient barrier to explain their lack of development. Yet companies (and academics that would be glad to sell successful traits to those companies) have been working on them for many years.

Lynas claims that gene exchange between different organisms is common, and therefore use of genes from various sources in GE is not an issue. This is a great exaggeration, at best. Exchange between species, or horizontal gene transfer in the vernacular (HGT)—which Lynas mistakenly calls gene flow—is common between bacterial species, but this is irrelevant to GE food. It is also true, as Lynas mentions, that some viruses insert their genetic material into food plant genomes. But the range of genes involved is extremely limited compared to the ability to use and combine genes from any source with GE. Plant viruses typically have fewer than 10 genes, for a very limited number of functions, which is a far cry from the millions of different genes potentially available to genetic engineers. There are a few cases where plants have acquired a few genes from other organisms, but these have occurred over a period of millions of years, and are rare.

The main point is not whether I am right and Lynas is wrong about any specific bunch of data—there are many wrong turns as science plays out—but rather that debating data is an important part of the process of science that Lynas seems to want to derail, despite his rhetoric to the contrary. Science is as much a social process as it is the pile of data that seems to be the basis of Lynas’ conception of it. It is also about bigger issues that science is unavoidably enmeshed in. Issues involving political economy–social sciences, anyone?–allocation of scarce public science resources, environmental justice and so on. Trying to dismiss all of this and default to some narrowly defined vision is more akin to dogma than science.

Reweaving the world: The Emergence of Ecofeminism

I must admit, I had a welling sense of disinclination when it came to reading ecofeminist manifesto’s. Just the word ecofeminist would be enough to scare away a lot of different people. I was honestly uncomfortable. Yes, I realize that this fact alone may be evidence that I myself am a victim of a patriarchal society. 

The feeling had grown after reading the first essay in Irene Diamond and Gloria Orensteins’ Reweaving the World, by Charlene Spretnak. It first sounded a bit like man-bashing. She talks about “patriarchal obsessions of dominance and control,” “fear and resentment of the elemental power of the female,” “Patriarchal attitudes that condition men to demand a large number of offspring in order to prove virility,” toward the end of the essay she writes:

“Around us we see immensely destructive thrashing of patriarchal leaders who cannot even name the pain and ignorance that drive their greed. In their frenzy they push 10,000 species into extinction each year…” 

Do I agree? Yes. But, I don’t think this is the way to change people. I’ve got to consider, though, what she was writing for and when she was writing it. I check the copywrite date (which I should’ve known prior to opening) 1990, of course! The ‘technocratic alienation and nihilism’ that she talks about was, in some ways, worse than ever. Consumerism and corporate greed ran rampant and unchecked, they destroyed unimaginable amounts of life from rainforests to oceans. Industrial agriculture was booming and biotechnology seemed to offer promise for the starving and overpopulated. The volume on Ani Difranco and Alanis Morisette was topped out, in my house too. Okay, it doesn’t sound like a whole lot has changed but I think it has. There is a growing awareness and a great deal of interest in being ecologically responsible, community oriented, ethically driven. It occurs to me that people like Spretnak, Diamond and Orenstein are all in part responsible for that growing awareness. Real things have happened to people like rising fuel costs, climate problems, foreclosures, and layoffs that have forced them to reconsider their life trajectory, their definition of success. Caught within that process of change, they are more open to learn about sacred earth, rhythms and cycles of life, nature-based spirituality. She says that people are lost; well I think they feel lost and they want more than a new app. for their i-phone. They know this isn’t the way, that capitalism is unfulfilling…they are already looking for another path.

When I got to Brian Swimme and Riane Eislers’ essays I was primed, and both of these were actually inspiring. How to heal a lobotomy was entertaining and accurate altogether:

“I speak here from my own experiences as scientist. It is quite possible that the lobotomizing taking place in the standard scientific training surpasses that carried out in all other educational processes, even seminaries and business schools, and that’s saying something.” –Swimme, page 16

He is drawing attention to the fact that science cannot and never will be able to measure meaning, beauty, aesthetics, morality, character, or Truth with a capitol ‘T’. He uses an example of how unimpressed scientists were upon discovering the birth of the universe.

“Arthur Eddington…regarded the discovery of the universes beginnings as ‘abhorrent.’ Even more revealing is the phrase chosen to name it: the big bang.”

Unimpressed isn’t the right term, perhaps numbed would be more appropriate. They don’t have the level of universal care, or the capacity to see the whole of something for what it is. I know this, just like many ecofeminists know similarly, because if scientists could see the whole for what it was…they would have seen something beautiful and amazing and something which makes so much sense. At the risk of sounding like an ecofeminist: A vast womb of endless potentiality which, when introduced to a physical element, explodes with activity and growth and expansion, evolution. The genetic code of the universe is her child. We are part of that, we are the children of the original womb.

They would have seen what Riane Eisler calls the Gaia tradition, and perhaps that is a true tradition, but really she is clumping together a bunch of ancient matriarchal traditions.  In my opinion, she leans heavily on ‘what women have done or can do versus men.’ Her solution a partnership system, and its based on replacing masculine associations of domination and violence with values of transformation and actualization. I like this idea and I think it is a step.

I feel like it all has to do with balancing the masculine and feminine energies within each human being. It is a duality, just like day and night or ascending and descending currents within the body. However, because we all connect specifically with one gender energy (this is not universal to each person or to sex) we grow and develop differently. We develop differently along different lines of development.

For example, Carol Gilligan shows that while females develop from being ‘selfish’ when young to ‘tribal or community care’ and eventually to ‘universal care’ while males tend to go from ‘selfish’ to ‘tribal rights’ or rights for those you care about to ‘universal rights’ and eventually to universal rights and care. These paths lead us to the same universal care (which includes care for Nature), but the way we get there is different depending on which gender we identify with. In Keith Witt’s book Waking Up: Psychotherapy as Art, Spirituality and Science, he suggests that the fact that masculine and feminine types develop differently points to the possibility that they are different lines of development. That fits into my ‘masculine and feminine’ energies idea.

I guess what I am saying, and what I feel overall that ecofeminists are trying to say, is very similar to some of the esoteric and occult traditions that I’ve studied over the years (which must be why the book goes on to talk about the Bible and Eleusinian mysteries, which I will look forward to reading). That at times throughout the ancient past, humans had balanced masculine and feminine energies. This balance brought about an understanding which was more whole than the one we have today. Understanding about who we are, our true character, our place in Nature, Earths place in the universe and the sacredness in all of those essences and cycles. Today, our society has oppressed its feminine energies for some time and has become off-balance. This has given rise to a choppy, unstable and disenfranchised understanding of our purpose and future. Our relationship with one of our mothers…mother Nature, has suffered tremendously to the point of becoming abusive. There is something intuitively more nurturing about a mother god, the care factor replaces the hard handed justice of a male god. Not that we couldn’t have male gods who practice universal care.

 Riane Eisler:

“The way a society structures the most fundamental human relations- the relations between male and female halves of humanity without which our species could not survive – has major implications for the totality of a social system. It clearly affects the individual roles and life choices of both women and men. Equally important, though until now rarely noted, is that it also profoundly affects all our values and social institutions – whether a society will be warlike or peaceful or bent on the conquest of our environement.” Page 26

Sumerian goddess Inanna

Friday, January 25, 2013

Chicken Coop Construction #1

This will be the first of two posts documenting the construction of our chicken coop. We’ve been told over and over; start with chickens to get used to animals on the farm. Chickens have a bunch of useful qualities, like giving eggs and nitrogen rich fertilizer. They also make great insect police to keep pests out of the garden. We won’t be eating our chickens, and will not need to replace them regularly so we don’t need a rooster to fertilize any of our eggs. These will just be our girls, our posse of breakfast and nitrogen machines.
What do chickens need?

·         The most important thing to consider when building your own coop: Safety. There are many predators (especially in the Washington woods), who see your chickens as an easy dinner. Some of which you don’t often think about like owls and hawks. Make sure that there are no gaps or openings through which an animal can squeeze through, yes, even on the roof. Also, there’s this thing they call “poultry netting,” it’s a wire that’s been weaved into those little octagon shapes. A determined raccoon or weasel can stick an arm through that netting so be aware that if you are going to use poultry netting, you may need to double layer it at least around the bottom of the coop and run.

·         The actual chicken ‘coop’ is an enclosed box, room or space where the chickens can go at night to feel safe and be out of the weather. Typically, the coop is just an area filled with straw and a roosting bar, for the hens to hang out. Also within the coop are your nesting boxes. Hens should only be using the nesting boxes to lay eggs…so you don’t need one for every chicken. You actually only need between two and four boxes for up to ten hens.
·         Your coop is ideally off the ground, to discourage mouse or rat infestations and a small ladder should be installed so the chickens can enter and exit comfortably. Additionally, the coop needs a door so your hens are totally sheltered from wind, rain, predators and frost.

·         Aside from the coop, you need a run. This is a fenced outdoor area to let the hens out into during the day so they can scratch, eat insects and soak up daylight. Chickens need a significant amount of light to continue laying (something not everyone knows) and as winter approaches they will lay less and less. A simple 40 watt light bulb can be hung from the coop during the dark winter to encourage more eggs.

·         Inside your coop, you want to make sure your hens have access to lots of fresh water, dry straw to lay in and feed.

There will be four of us hoping to eat from our little flock, so we want about six hens to start with. Andy and I want to leave lots of room to expand our poultry in the future and perhaps even get some ducks as well, so we are building a larger coop and run.

Andy standing in the spot where we decided to build the coop.

Digging and leveling...
The previous landowner left a large pile of these railroad rocks. We will lay them down to level the coop site and help the coop drain should it get wet.

Rocks down, time to get some wood.

Sourced wood from Craigslist, nothing beats recycling!

Andy, giving me a lesson with the skill saw...

We like Colors!

Andy and I being
Carried the first frame to the spot...

First we designed our coop. It's simple, just a rectangle; but we wanted it tall enough to walk into. We decided on three doors: one to walk into the run, another to access the nesting boxes for eggs and another door to access a storage closet where we will put straw and feed. Additionally, the coop itself will need a chicken door that can open and shut to let them into the run every morning.

Other than designing and planning, the doing process has taken us about three full days: one to pick up wood, level the spot and lay rocks. It was really a full day and a 1/2 of cutting and painting. We're still in the middle of assembly now, we still have to build the coop-box. The days are short, so we try to work with as much sunlight as possible.