"We must achieve the character and acquire the skills to live much poorer than we do. We must waste less. We must do more for ourselves and for each other. It is either that or continue merely to think and talk about changes that we are inviting catastrophe to make. The great obstacle is simply this: the conviction that we cannot change because we are dependant on what is wrong. But that is the addict's excuse, and we know that it will not do."
—Wendell Berry

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Serendipity and Cold Rooms.

Beginning the layout or "will it actually fit where I want it"?

Here is one of the latest big purchases. Finally we will be able to properly store our produce. Mostly this will mean hanging meat after slaughter as well as curing hams and bacon. Until now we have been forced to hire or use someone else's cold room. This has made the cost of our food a lot higher than it really needs to be. It also means that the meat is not as good as it should be. Beef, properly aged, should be hung for two to three weeks and at over $100 per week to hire a cold room it gets hung for a lot less I can tell you.
So we went to a rural garage sale a few weeks ago. This is an experience I recommend. No tables of old Cd's and baby clothes, No this sale had tractor parts and attachments, workshop tools and cultivating equipment, trays for Utes and even hot housing large enough to drive a tractor in which came in fifty metre sections. Now this was my sort of sale.
We actually went to have a look at the hot houses and did indeed end up buying a fifty metre section although that is a story for a future post. So we looked at attachments for tractors and seed drills as well as a rather nice chopper motorbike which the littlest cloud farmer was most impressed with. Then as we were saying our goodbyes and doing the ritual shaking of hands, the child bride spotted a piece of cardboard from a beer carton pinned to the wall as a sign.
It simply said "cold room. fairly large. $4000".
Now we have been trying in vain to find a cold room, fairly large, for under $7000 for some time now so you can imagine our interest. To find one locally that we can avoid having to pay freight on is even better. Not surprisingly, we promptly bought it after a quick look to ensure it was indeed a cold room and that it was fairly large.
Progressing. The body is mostly complete.
Now the challenge of assembling it began. It was already disassembled when we bought it and I could only get a rough idea of its layout from the owner. This meant it was sort of like doing a jigsaw puzzle when you have no idea what the end picture is supposed to look like.
Nevertheless I have managed to work it out without too much trouble as you can see above. In any case I will surely post more pics of it soon. Probably with the chilling carcasses of some tasty pigs hanging in it.

On Terra preta again.

Jim raised a good question regards the last post:

Ulf, I am wondering why you say you are just doing the "Terra pretta" treatment for a couple of seasons while I understand the traditional Amazons seem to do it most years in the same area of their gardens.
In recent months I have had a couple of fires going to boil water and as soon as I was finished I was able to pour water over the remains of the fires and both times ended up with a bucket or so of "clinky" sounding charcoal. It is in the interow area of the garden so hope it is doing good for the vegies.
We also live in an area where we rely on indoor winter fires for heating. We keep over burning our fire box day after day and end up with just white ash. I know others in this area who insist on emptying out their fire boxes daily, and in so doing throw out a lot of charcoal and they just dump it, throwing away a valuable garden resource.

In principle the charcoal puts a layer of carbon into the soil which in turn creates an environment for the bacteria that create Terra preta. Even though the charcoal will be gone in a decade or so, the soil will be changed and become self renewing. Tests have shown that when black soil is removed from the beds in the amazon it actually grows back over time.
I suspect the annual burning by the Indian peoples in the amazon was to gradually enlarge the beds each year rather than continue enriching the same beds. I was not aware of any of the peoples living in the Amazon still creating these beds. I note that many of the original beds were very deep, sometimes over six feet deep! This would require a lot of burning indeed. Possibly this meant a concentrated effort for several seasons in the same area.
In reading about the old ways of farming I constantly find references to farmers using the ash from the fire in their fields. White ash yields potash of course and the charcoal enriches the soil as described above. To throw it out would be a dreadful waste. Perhaps your neighbours would give you their ash if they are not going to put it to good use?
One very interesting old process describes layering the white ash from the fireplace with chicken manure in barrels over the course of winter. Come spring this is then broadcast over the fields for a sort of super mineral compost. Apparently the time it has to age together increases its potency. I will really have to try this sometime!

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Terra Preta

It is said that any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic to those who do not understand it.
There is an ancient magic trick used by the Indians of the Amazon. Black earth known as “Terra Preta”. In essence, nutrients in the soil will bond to charcoal and retain the soils fertility. Even in the wet tropics of the Amazon there are garden beds over two thousand years old that are good enough to plough and grow in today. Now this, I contend, is an ancient piece of technology that smacks of sheer bloody brilliance! And we, with all of our soul destroying civilizations, have not until just recently really understood this. Therefore magic.

Over winter I burned tonnes of cuttings from the old lychee orchard to make charcoal. Hard but satisfying work that smacks of this wizardry. You light a big fire in a deep pit and when it is hot enough, cover it and bury well. Working by the light and heat of the fire in the darkness and cold of a winter night was a surreal experience. There is a particular scent of burning charcoal that is unlike any wood fire, it stays with you. Unearth this in a couple of days when cool enough, and there is a rich haul of charcoal. Not ash you understand but hard, grey charcoal that will musically clink and ring when shovelled. And how we shovelled, but it was worth it and will have a lasting effect on that garden where it has been spread. I will burn charcoal again next winter but after that never more. There will then be enough buried in the garden that it will change the soil for hundreds of years to come. Fertility that our grandchildren can use.
The soil has become a thing of life and richness. Originally red and leached by the rains of the wet season, it has become darker and has a rich humus-like scent. In winter I dug in huge grey loads of charcoal, spread a tonne of wet straw and poured black peaty compost into the soil by the barrow load. And then soil changed as if by some magic trick. In a matter of days there was a different scent and feel. Everything I have planted has a darker and richer colour this year and grows so much faster. There is a saying that you become part of the soil as it becomes part of you. I understand that now. I have put much of myself into this garden and it feeds us, body and soul, in return.