Archive for June, 2010

Gone gardening, etc for the summer

By Tom Read

See you in September!

Everybody needs a break now and then, so I’ve decided to give journal-writing a rest for the summer. Instead, I’ll concentrate on the many projects piling up around our homestead, plus enjoying a visit from my nephew, plus helping out as a volunteer at Texada Island’s Sandcastle Weekend, plus going to get our new puppy in mid-July. And keeping on looking after our ever-growing numbers of chickens, pigs, bees, trees and gardens.

Maybe we’ll see an increase in real estate activity over the summer, too.

I also hope to find time for some simple pleasures, like reading a few novels, going for a swim at Raven Bay, cooking and eating fresh food from the garden, and engaging in good conversation with friends.

So I want to wish everyone a fine summer. I’ll be back in this space at a weekly pace starting on Friday, September 10.  Until later….


Too busy to post!

By David Parkinson

Someone out there may have noticed that my usual Monday deadline came and went without a post. In my defense, I can only say that I’m pretty busy getting ready for the first Annual General Meeting of Skookum Food Provisioners’ Cooperative, to be held tomorrow (Wednesday June 23). I expect to have plenty to say about that, and maybe about other things, when I return next week.

Solstice snapshot

By Tom Read

Overlooking the kitchen garden at mid-day, just before the Summer Solstice, 2010

Time passes quickly for busy bees like me. Today I startled myself when I belatedly realized that the longest day of the year is but a few days hence. Many years ago I enjoyed a tradition of all-night bonfires on various northern California beaches with friends to celebrate the summer solstice. But in my present life on Texada Island that won’t be an option this year. From mid-May to mid-October, most outdoor fires are banned by order of the Province of British Columbia, regardless of weather or forest conditions. Thus, no summer solstice bonfire for us.

Instead, here are a few snapshots of what we’re doing at this mid-summer moment:

— Today we took a dozen fertilized chicken eggs to our friend An so she could place them underneath one of her broody hens. We are grateful for An’s help again this year — our sleek, young Dark Cornish hens seem amenable to Lord John Marbury’s amorous attentions (our rooster), but once again they have shown no interest in becoming mother hens. If the hatch-out with An’s surrogate mother hen is successful, we’ll raise the resulting brood as meat birds in one of our chicken tractors on pasture, and they’ll be in the freezer by late fall.

— Our pastures are awash in flowers just now, which reminds me of bees. I’m stewarding a couple of hives as a new beekeeper (coming up on two years).  This summer, I’m trying to encourage the bees to migrate from my existing, rather dilapidated hives into a proprietary type of beehive called a “DE hive” (named after David Eyre, who invented it). It’s working, slowly. Why didn’t I just follow the easy path and replace my old hives with additional standard replacements? Answer: the DE hive seems not only better designed all around, in my opinion, but it’s also smaller and lighter, thus easier to manipulate for a fellow like me with a trick lower back.

—  Our country homestead needs deer fencing on a new field, rock-picking of a new gardening area, expanded irrigation system, new dog run, and I’ve got to do something this summer about the moss that’s beginning to get established on our roof. Plus, we’re behind on planting our summer crops due to a cold and wet spring. We need every hour of these long days to make a dent in our “to do” list!

And that’s the way it is at Slow Farm on this mid-summer Solstice.

Sharing should be easy

By David Parkinson


Canada Border Services willing, this week will bring something I’m very excited about: the region’s first commonly-owned cider press. For just about as long as I’ve been living here and hearing about the Powell River Fruit Tree Project (now known as Skookum Gleaners), I’ve been hearing people say, “Someone should get a cider press that we can all use” — or words to that effect.

But one thing we can all admit — even though sometimes we go around acting otherwise — is that words alone won’t make this sort of thing happen. For reasons which are not very clear to me, we struggle to get from the desired outcome back to the simple steps needed to get started. I get frustrated fairly often when I hear people saying that we should do such-and-such, or someone should do this or that, and then leave it at that, as though coming up with the first idea off the top of one’s head is a real start towards making something happen. In fact, implementing the solution to a clearly stated problem is, like most things, the product of discipline and hard work. There are few shortcuts that aren’t dead ends.

So, in the case of the desire to have a commonly-owned cider press, we have to work backwards to understand what we can do to make that happen. And here we can easily bog down, hampered by a lack of imagination or a lack of exposure to innovative solutions to a pretty common and simple problem. After all, people throughout history have figured out how to avoid having to force everyone to own the same tools when those tools aren’t in use every day. We have lost our flair for the commons, dazed by cheap commodities and a perverse economy that rewards the illogic of gluttony and waste.

One solution is: buy a cider press among a group of family, friends, and neighbours. And from what I hear, this solution is in practice out there in the hinterlands, where there are enough people with enough apple trees so that there is both a real need for a common solution and a network of mutual trust in place to make it work with minimal effort. This is a fine solution when those conditions are present.

But what about the more common situation, where we see a widely-dispersed network of people with few trees, many of whom do not know one another? In and around Powell River there are many homeowners and tenants who have a few fruit trees on their property; but these trees produce nowhere near enough fruit for these people to start seriously considering getting in on a cider press, let along buying one for their personal use. Only at the level of the whole network of trees could we produce enough cider to justify the purchase of a press.

Also, this network is so disconnected and spread out that there is little hope of creating the sense of common need or mutual trust needed in order for people to work together for the common goal of sharing a cider press. Somehow someone or something needs to pull the network together, and we need to create an entity which people can trust to do the right thing by individuals and by the community at large. It’s unlikely that any individual tree-owner is going to take this task on. It’s one thing to say that someone should get a cider press to deal with this problem/opportunity; but who will buy the thing? Who will operate, maintain, and store it?

If any person or organization were to own and operate equipment which could be held in common for the use of the entire community, we would want that person or organization to be open and transparent to participation by anyone with an interest in using that equipment. In the case of our cider press example these people would comprise owners of trees, people who want to make cider, and others in the community who would benefit from having access to local cider.

The question of a shared cider press is only one among many examples which we could easily come up with, from shared hand tools all the way up to a community farm or vineyard or brewery. It’s simple to imagine cases where a great number of people can benefit from the collective ownership and control of assets which few individuals are likely to buy on their own. In a sense, it is a simple problem to solve, and yet we struggle to find a solution. Our economy has evolved to make it almost necessary for everyone to have to own the same commodities as everyone else, even when shared ownership would do so much to reduce the burden of individual ownership on people, on the economy, and on the environment. We place convenience high above environmental stewardship, and the result is a lawnmower in every garage, even though one per block would be more than enough to keep the lawns mown.

There is a growing movement out there, epitomized by websites like Shareable and the P2P Foundation, seeking sensible collective solutions to problems like this one. I’m amazed by the number and variety of creative solutions that people are developing in order to enable us to work better together, reducing the load on individuals while strengthening community networks of sharing and collaboration. Not to mention reducing the stress on our stocks of non-renewable natural resources and on the the systems which support life on the planet.

The solution we chose is to purchase the cider press through Skookum Food Provisioners’ Cooperative. This organization is completely open and democratic, so anyone wishing to have some say in the use of the cider press is free to join and participate. There are other models we could have chosen for collective ownership, but the cooperative model is ideal for situations like this one, where people benefit collectively through access to resources that are hard to access individually. If we had 100 people buying together, this cider press would have cost about $13 per person: less than the cost of a night at the movies with a bag of popcorn. Well, eventually we will have more members than that, so that the cost (and benefit) of the press will be spread wider and wider.

As long as there is an organization which people can trust to manage the purchase, maintenance, storage, and use of shared resources, then we can have valuable community assets at a low cost to individuals and with a high degree of accessibility for the many owners. It is a simple and brilliant solution to a set of problems which are becoming more pressing all the time.

Texada School says “thank you!”

By Tom Read

A vocal jazz rendition of "Theme From Spiderman" resonates around the village of Van Anda from Texada School's playground last Friday, part of community appreciation day at the school

“We may be small but we’re mighty.” That’s Texada School Principal Carol Brown’s apt description of our community’s little (28 students this year) but vigorous school.

The Texada Island community has responded warmly to Ms. Brown’s leadership, enthusiastically supporting the school in many ways. Just to name a few, community volunteers provide hot meals one day a week, give kids extra academic help, conduct ongoing workshops on social and historical topics,  and contribute funds for extra-curricular activities, including field trips. Yesterday (Friday), the school formally thanked the community of which it is a part, and Linda and I were privileged to attend the festivities.

And what an abundance of festivities! Not one, but two very talented youth jazz groups from Powell River gave a concert to be remembered. Community volunteers (mainly husbands of local teachers) put on a delicious picnic lunch barbeque. A much-anticipated mural unveiling took place — an art piece designed and created by students with the help of a local artist that interprets our island’s industrial heritage of mining and logging.

While I enjoyed the entire event, the most meaningful part for me was the one-on-one reading session that started the afternoon. I got to sit with a student named Austin while he read to me from some of his favourite books. In the end he departed from the program a little by asking me to read a few stories to him. I know that parents do this routinely, but as a non-parent I found the experience an unexpected pleasure.

Austin and I enjoy a one-on-one reading session earlier in the day

Maybe that’s what healthy communities do best — help connect people who otherwise might not learn to appreciate each other.

And the weather on this special day? Perfect!

Backyard experimentation

By David Parkinson

Sub-irrigated planter or self-watering container: overflow hole visible near the bottom

Small-scale and urban food production is certainly catching on all over the place. Every day I see more articles about backyard gardening, permaculture, community gardens, CSA programs, and all other kinds of schemes that people are trying out to shorten the distance between producer and consumer. Anything that turns consumers into producers is especially exciting, since that is one guaranteed way to put some amount of direct control and personal responsibility into people’s hands.

But, as anyone who grows food will tell you, it’s a lot of work; and not only physical labour but also a constant or near-constant project of thinking up new plans and new approaches and testing them out. This year, the two things I’m most excited about in our garden are our ten new blueberry bushes (two each of Bluecrop, Brigitta, Duke, Northland, and Reka varieties) and our jazzy set of self-watering containers, also known as sub-irrigated planters.

The blueberries are pretty obvious: ever since I was a child, blueberries have been one of my favourite fruits. For me, there is no pie like a good blueberry pie; and they’re an essential ingredient in a good bowl of oatmeal. When I got these ten bushes a couple of months ago, I learned that in their first season they will do better at rooting and getting established if they don’t put too much energy into their flowers. Which means that I was supposed to be removing flowers when they appear. Well, I did that for some time, but then my heart just went out of it. I want those berries too much!

And so now I am gratified to see a fair number of almost-berries on a few of the bushes. I can’t wait — to me, there is almost no luxury greater than picking ripe blueberries off the bush in the backyard. (I think I’ll still need to mount an expedition or two to a U-Pick this summer, though, in order to pick enough to dry the quantities I need for winter storage.)

As for the tomatoes, no decent garden is complete without a few tomato plants. But tomatoes present some interesting challenges, especially for gardeners working with a limited space: they don’t like to be drenched with water, so it’s best to keep them somewhat sheltered and away from other plants. They like real heat. They can be especially thirsty, and they need heavier feeding than many other plants. Last year, we had a few tomato plants that we tried to keep sheltered under the south-facing eave, tucked in under the branches of our peach tree. But when it rains the wind tends to blow out of the southeast, so they were not always keeping dry there. This is not the hottest side of the house either, thanks to shade from a neighbour’s ornamental cedars; but it was hard to know how we could plant them on the west side without having them out in the middle of the lawn.

The solution: self-watering containers (SWCs)/sub-irrigated planters (SIPs). I found this clever idea on the internet (where else?). The idea is simple: instead of watering plants from above, letting much of the water evaporate off the soil surface and training the roots to stay shallow, why not water plants from beneath? That way you lose less water to evaporation and dissipation into the surrounding soil, and send it right where it belongs: straight to the roots of the plant. In an Italian garden you will often see tin cans open at both ends and dug into the soil around the base of tomato plants, providing a water-tunnel to do the same thing.

The idea is simple: two buckets stack into one another. A pipe cut through the bottom of the upper bucket carries water down into the lower bucket, from which the water is drawn up into the soil by capillary action (“wicking”).

For a simple set of instructions, see this website. We managed to get our hands on about twenty used food-grade five-gallon plastic containers from a kind friend, some PVC piping from another kind friend, and that plus a drill and a utility knife were about all it took to whip up a number of SIPs to hold the tomato starts we got from some other kind friends. Even for notoriously non-handy people like us, it was dead easy. And now we have twelve robust tomato plants out on our front steps, under the eave on the west side of the house where the sun is at its most intense in the afternoons and evenings.

It’s definitely an experiment, although there seem to be enough people out there using SIPs — often in small spaces or on rooftops where it is impractical to have large planters full of heavy moist soil — that the technology is proven to work well. Still, we will go through this season to see just how well they work and whether there is room for improvements. It’s my hope that we can divert a large number of used food-grade containers from the waste stream and construct SIPs for more people next season. It’s pretty close to an ideal technology for growing some food in a small space, and would also be good for people who may not want to spend a lot of time watering and weeding. But what a way to get people hooked on ultra-local food: there is nothing on earth like a tomato fresh off the vine; so completely different from the tomatoes in the store it might as well have another name.

Rotating pigs

By Tom Read

All piggies on deck! Almost all, anyway. That's the pallet feeder in the foreground, with bits of plywood attached for better piggy footing. The mobile pig house is back left, while you can see the modular fencing panels beyond. Eventually we'll put a door and a watering system on the pig house. The grass is gradually being transformed into fertilzed bare soil, after which we'll move the pigs, then plant a crop.

Last year’s initial pig-raising effort went so well here at Slow Farm on Texada Island that we’ve decided to try it again this year — but with a few differences.

First, we’ve taken on four piggies this time, compared to last year’s Spot and Pinky duo. The larger herd will help pay for purchased food inputs without generating much additional labour. Building on what we learned in 2009, non-purchased food inputs will continue this year. The pigs will spend their lives on pasture with ample feed grass and weeds, plus we’ll gather orchard gleanings, carefully screened food scraps from our own kitchen and leftovers from the Texada Island Inn’s restaurant (“the slops”).

Second, we’ve built an experimental rotational grazing system that we designed over the winter.

The pig house is the same recycled shipping crate we used last year, except that it’s been further modified for mobility by adding wheels, steel reinforced undercarriage and removable trailer hitch. The whole thing tows easily into tight spaces using our quad. We think it’s big enough for four 200-lb pigs, but if not, we’ll add another mobile unit as needed. Thanks to the creative scrounging and construction efforts of our friend Jim, we were fortunate to obtain the wheels, steel and trailer hitch for free from Texada’s “heavy metal dump” transfer station rather than have to buy new parts.

The fencing we started with last year was bare-wire electric, which alone did not quite work, so we backed up the wires with a stout pallet fence. This was effective but not mobile. This year we’re trying out a homemade lightweight fence consisting of eight-foot-long wood panels (made from scrap wood, naturally) with built-in electric fencing. Each panel fits with its adjacent panel by means of a slide-together wood connector, while carriage bolts and washers connect the electric wires between panels. So far, it’s working — but the herd just got here 10 days ago and they’re still a wee bit small.

We’ve also redesigned our watering and feeding approach as part of the rotational grazing system. Feeding and watering last year took place within a steel tray and rubber tub that the pigs easily upended at will. This year’s feeder is a modified pallet — it’s got shallow troughs on either side hinged for better clean-out, plus firmly attached scraps of plywood on the “deck” for better porcine footing when the inevitable mud comes along. It’s too big to be upended by a less-than-full-grown pig, yet can easily be lifted by two humans when the time comes to change pastures. Watering is currently done with just a simple tray, but our plan is to use a nipple waterer attached to the mobile pig house, fed by two water containers on top of the house.

I’m sure this current crop of piggies, so far unnamed, will find whatever weaknesses we’ve overlooked and thereby help us refine the system. Why bother with all this mobility stuff? Partly because I’m still determined to avoid using a gasoline-powered rototiller on our farm. Plus, we like the idea – and taste — of pastured pork.

Post facto

June 2010
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