Thursday, November 12, 2009

Design Project Four :: A Rural Homestead

OK let's take a look at an existing parcel of land and do a bit of planning with the end goal of a working homestead that produces not only most of what the residents need and want but also produces extra to generate income. This particular parcel is made up of open land that was formerly farmed shown in yellow-green and areas of existing forest shown in dark green. You can see the existing residence and detached garage at the end of the driveway that connects them to the road.

Moving forward I've removed the colour that indicates which area is open space and which are is existing forest but I've left the outline of the forest so we can keep an eye on it during the planning process.

There are several locations that lend themselves to becoming ponds for water cleansing and storage as well as a place to raise fish, frogs and other protein sources and to serve as habitat for all the animals living on this and the surrounding properties. Pond and stream construction will be a major undertaking so it's best to locate these early in the process and to do this work as soon as possible.

Next I've highlighted areas to remain as existing forest areas. These will serve as habitat for animals and plants and also as a sustainable fuel source for home heating and cooking. They can also be sustainably foraged. One area at the northern edge of the parcel is shown as a reforestation project.

The next image shows tree replacement in several previously forested locations in the form of two different types of orchards. Near the residence you can see row orchards with fruit trees. These will also have cover crops grown under that trees and will serve as a place to pasture poultry. The mixed orchards shown further from the residence will contain a more varied selection of trees including maples for syrup, oaks for acorns, fruit and nut trees and hardwoods for lumber. This mixed orchard will be more intensively managed than the areas left as existing forest but will not be clear cut and replanted all at once. Old trees will be cut for lumber for construction projects on the property and for fuel and new trees will be phased in. The end goal is a managed forest that is not as natural as the native mature forests of this part of the country but not as non-natural as the row orchards.

Certain areas are fenced in and will serves as rotating pastures for cows, sheep, goats, poultry and llamas. I have always wanted llamas.

Row crops will be grown between the main residence and several new residences and out buildings shown below. The main circulation paths are also shown below. Notice how most of the row crops, new structures and pasture areas are outside the outline of the existing forest.

The final plan tries to consider the needs of those humans who inhabit the site as well as the other plants and animals that share this parcel of land. It has a diversity of ecosystems making it a more flexible, adaptable homestead.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

IEA whistleblower - time to take the quotation marks off "peak oil"


The Guardian is reporting on two IEA whistleblowers.
The senior [IEA] official claims the US has played an influential role in encouraging the watchdog to underplay the rate of decline from existing oil fields while overplaying the chances of finding new reserves.

The allegations raise serious questions about the accuracy of the organisation's latest World Energy Outlook on oil demand and supply to be published tomorrow – which is used by the British and many other governments to help guide their wider energy and climate change policies.

'There's suspicion the IEA has been influenced by the US' Audio

In particular they question the prediction in the last World Economic Outlook, believed to be repeated again this year, that oil production can be raised from its current level of 83m barrels a day to 105m barrels. External critics have frequently argued that this cannot be substantiated by firm evidence and say the world has already passed its peak in oil production.

Now the "peak oil" theory is gaining support at the heart of the global energy establishment. "The IEA in 2005 was predicting oil supplies could rise as high as 120m barrels a day by 2030 although it was forced to reduce this gradually to 116m and then 105m last year," said the IEA source, who was unwilling to be identified for fear of reprisals inside the industry. "The 120m figure always was nonsense but even today's number is much higher than can be justified and the IEA knows this.

"Many inside the organisation believe that maintaining oil supplies at even 90m to 95m barrels a day would be impossible but there are fears that panic could spread on the financial markets if the figures were brought down further. And the Americans fear the end of oil supremacy because it would threaten their power over access to oil resources," he added.

A second senior IEA source, who has now left but was also unwilling to give his name, said a key rule at the organisation was that it was "imperative not to anger the Americans" but the fact was that there was not as much oil in the world as had been admitted. "We have [already] entered the 'peak oil' zone. I think that the situation is really bad," he added.
I don't typically repost news stories but this one just isn't going to show up on MSNBCFOXCNN so I thought I'd share the great work of the Guardian. Read their story in it's entirety.


Thursday, November 05, 2009

CSA 2009 all wrapped up

Recently Gene Logsdon posted a great bit about how anyone with land should not be without a source of at least a little income.

If you have some land, even an acre, you have the means for making at least part of your income and in the process gain a more secure life. Surely that is what it means to “have a job.” Our society hasn’t endorsed that notion yet, but I think that we are evolving toward that kind of economy.

We are only beginning to recognize how many income possibilities that a little piece of land can provide. We know about market gardening but most of us do not yet appreciate its reach...

You can read the rest here.

There is no doubt that some of those people who do have land lack the knowledge and experience necessary to grow food for themselves or for sale to others. This lack of production This however isn't especially problematic if someone is willing to read, listen and get her hands dirty. Growing food isn't especially difficult. I say this as a longtime gardener and someone who spent this past season as a market farmer. The tough part wasn't actually growing the vegetables or even scaling up production so as to have more veggies to sell. I made production-related mistakes all year long mind you, but the harder work was the marketing and distribution of the food.

One of he ways I accomplished this was through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. I partnered with two other farmers and created Cold Water Creek Farms. You can read all about our season at our blog.

Cold Water Creek Farms

For 20 weeks we helped feed 50 families and it was an absolute rollercoaster; at times frustrating but overall an excellent experience. One of my farming partners attend a CSA workshop several weeks ago and the woman running the workshop stressed several times that new farmers should not attempt to set up a CSA program during their first few years. I understand why. It's one thing to learn all the production techniques necessary to grow lots of food. It's quite another to put together a CSA program, recruit people to participate, take money from them, handle the logistics of delivering food from the field to those participating and keep in contact with all the CSA members; to say nothing of the amount of educating most members will need. I'm not sure I agree though that new farmers shouldn't give it a try. It is a great way to sell food and the risk is shared with those who are eating it.

I posted weekly updated so CSA members would know what was happening at the farm. This took a lot of effort. I also included recipes because many of my members were unfamiliar with how to cook using fresh, whole ingredients. Too much squash, worms in the corn, non returned food containers- it was a lot of working keeping everyone moderately happy. And all of that coordination and communication had to happen after the vegetables were planted, watered, weeded, harvest, etc.

Our final CSA pick up was last Tuesday. It's too soon for me to look back with clear eyes and critique the season as a whole but I thought I would share some information fresh on my mind for anyone interested in using the CSA method as a way to distribute food. I'm going to do it in the form of advice directed just as much at myself (I'll be reading this in a few months as I decide what to do next year) as at anyone else.

1. Investigate the many different models of successful CSA around the US and the rest of the world. Elizabeth Henderson and Robyn Van En have written a great book about the CSA way. _Sharing the Harvest_. These isn't one right way to run a CSA so take a look at what others have done before you get fixated on a particular idea.

2. Stay away from high maintenance people. Incidental this advice works well regarding spouse selection too ;-) but here I'm suggesting that farmers stay away from CSA members likely to be overly picky or those who think that participation in a CSA means having their food chewed for them. I think a healthy mantra for marketing a new CSA program is to undersell the benefits and overachieve in terms of results. Don't promise the moon because even if you actually deliver the moon you've just met your obligation. Promise a moon rock and then deliver a huge, well-polished piece of the moon that exceeds their expectations. Especially avoid people who think that because they aren't buying from the grocery store the CSA food will be cheaper.

3. Require participation in the form of work. A really great way to help people understand how much work goes into growing food is to have them help at the farm. On-farm projects need to be carefully planned and should include labor for all ages and skill sets. Once an individual has weeded or watered she'll have a greater appreciation for the work done by the CSA farmers.

4. If possible recruit cooks. You want as many of your CSA members as possible to be good at cooking. These people will appreciate fresh ingredients but they are also likely to share great recipes.

5. Plan in vacation weeks. If you're planning to have a 20 week CSA season be sure to charge members for 18 or 19 weeks and build in a one or two week break. You can decide which week will serve as your break or you can let members use their break week when they are on vacation. This way you as the farmer get the opportunity of a break and perhaps your members don't have to pay for food on a week when they are out of town.

6. Include CSA members in the planning of what to grow. Just because you love eggplant doesn't mean your members will. And the kinds of vegetables a CSA membership wants will change from year to year. Keep current regarding what they want.

7. Share your failures with your members. Don't just update them regarding your success. Let them share in the failures as well. IF the flea beetles destroy you eggplant crop let your members know. Then they'll understand why the eggplant never should up in their weekly produce allotment. It will also make them feel more a part of the risk embodied in farming.

8. Keep good records. Be sure to document what your members get each week along with all your information regarding what was planted when and where and how much etc. Good record keeping will make future CSA production much easier. It will also serve as a way to market to future CSA members. Take lots of photographs. Also be sure to keep good records regarding the money. Photocopy checks, make sure you know who paid, how much and when. You will not remember I promise- write it down!

9. Include lots of recipes. I mentioned recruiting cooks. A well run CSA will mean lots of education. Yes everyone should know what collards are and what they look like and how to cook them but everyone doesn't know this. You will have to teach some of them.

10. Keep your seasons short. If you can grow food 8 months out of the year that's great. However I don't recommend a 32 week CSA season. Break it up into shorter seasons. Offer a spring CSA for March through May. Offer another season starting in June. These shorter seasons will allow you or your members a regular reset button. If someone needs out or if an unforeseen event occurs it will be easier to adjust if you're not locked into a really long commitment.

If I think of others I'll update this list. I thin a CSA program is a great way to sell and distribute food. It takes planning and a willingness to communicate and educate others about the local food economy. It can be a very rewarding experience.


Design Project Three :: A Neighborhood Farming Effort

This week we're going to examine a strategy aimed at expanding the area available for growing food in a particular neighborhood. It happens to be the neighborhood where I live. The map above shows my town. My neighbor is marked by an asterisk. I don't have an abundance of sun in my yard so a few years ago I went looking to see if other people had more sun and were interested in growing food. Here's my neighborhood.

Here's my property in red.

I started by going across the street and asking my elderly neighbor if I could garden in her backyard. Then I recruited Eric who grows food in his backyard and is transitioning into a career as a farmer. Next I was able to start a garden in the backyard of the rental house next door to my property. It was part of a bartering arrangement whereby the landlord agreed to take down a few dying trees and in return I now grow food on her property. All of these active gardens are shown in dark green.

Several other people have expressed interest in helping to grow neighborhood food and/or have offered a sunny spot for a garden. These properties are shown in light green.

The biggest single area under cultivation is the vacant lot down the street. I've had some sort of a garden on that property for four years but this year it has been greatly expanded. It's shown in yellow.

Next we have the people interested in buying food. In years past I have given extra produce to these people, sometimes just leaving it on the backdoor step of neighbors I've never met as a way to start up a conversation. This year some of these people might formalize the relationship by becoming paying customers. These folks are shown in blue.

Other people in the neighborhood have offered compostable material, especially fallen leaves and grass clippings. Most of them have also expressed interest in helping to grow food and/or buying it. In fact most of the property owners represented on this map have overlapping interests in this neighborhood farming effort. These people are shown in orange.

Lastly there's the elementary school right around the corner. They have a great courtyard perfect for growing food and quite a bit of land out back that could be used to grow a great deal of vegetables. Frankly I haven't had the time to seriously address this opportunity... yet.

All of this needs work. Yes we have 462 gallons of rainwater storage capacity at the site across the street from my house and 12 raised beds and a great old apple tree. At the vacant lot however we don't have enough mulch stored for this coming growing season and we'll have to use municipal water unless I can find enough people willing to put in a decent rainwater harvesting system. A formal work schedule has yet to be developed. And the school, a huge opportunity, has not been included as of now. In other words this is, like any collective effort, an ongoing project that I imagine will continue to evolve. But it is the beginnings of model of expanding food production efforts beyond the boundaries of one particular property and out into the surrounding community. I can't wait to see where we go from here.