Plausible marketing options – initial thoughts

2015/06/30 deej 0

I’ve been thinking about agriculture – well, for some time now, actually. Thus the currently-in-progress Masters of Sustainable Agriculture. But I’ve been thinking of it in our specific context for the last few weeks.

I would like our farm to be more or less self sufficient. I don’t mean in the homesteading survivalist sense, although producing as much of our own food as we can would be cool and is one of the goals. I mean in the overall part of the local economy sense, that the things we produce can either be sold directly or used by us to offset our living costs enough that they are effectively cost neutral. The benefits we get either in money or bartered goods, or in using the things we produce ourselves and so not having to buy their equivalents is at least equal to the cost of producing them.

It’s a fairly ambitious goal. I know that. I’ve probably done more market research on price points for various products and what the costs of production are for those products than is normal.

I have no definitive conclusions yet, but I have some ideas. There’s Farmhouse Direct, a virtual farmers market set up by Australia Post to allow producers to sell direct to the public while sharing the marketing benefits of being on a single, well-maintained website. Physical farmers markets are an option too, but since I’m counting the notional cost of labour in the costs that these products have to offset, the time required to sit at a market stall all day on a Saturday makes the offset difficult – even calculating it based on minimum wage, and I would like to pay myself more than that for my own labour.

My latest idea, based on the number of people who have enquired about buying some of our eggs from us due to concerns about commercially available eggs and poultry management practices, is a sort of co-op / CSA notion. I genuinely love my chickens, and I intend to get more, as well as some other farmyard poultry – but there’s no real way I can use the number of eggs that they’ll produce. And I really want a miniature cow, and a couple’ve milk goats, but again – there’s only so much cheese I can make or milk I can use in the time I have available. So I thought, perhaps I could ask some friends and family and co-workers if they’d be interested in paying a monthly subscription fee to pay for the upkeep of the relevant animals and receiving a share of the produce in return. If we set it up well then as the olive grove and the orchard start to produce, the shares would include fresh fruit (and maybe jam, seasonally) and olives (pre-pickled, not raw inedible ones).

I don’t know if it would work, but I know a lot of people who care about the provenance of their food enough to keep animals but don’t have the space, time, or mental bandwidth to do so. Even chickens do take a certain amount of time and energy, and they don’t work in apartments or with very tiny back yards.

There’s more research and thought to be done, I’m sure. But – those of you who have my contact details, drop me a message if you’d be interested and after the house is up we’ll talk.

On that note – the earthworks have started! The builders have told us the house will be on site my the middle of July, and we should be in by late August. Which is super exciting 🙂

hot chocolate: Theobroma cacao

2015/06/23 deej 0

The middle of winter is stormy, wet and grey. More so than it has been for the last few years, which is making me regret the fact that my water tanks aren’t in place yet to catch some of the rain – but at least the swales are catching it. The whole property is green, and the soil is starting to look like something living in a lot of places, dark and crumbly and full of mycelium. We have clover sprouting and fungi springing up all over the place, and a few of the lupins from last year must have self-seeded because there are lupins growing.

Living here, the seasons are a bit backwards from what you expect. Summer is the dead time, hot and dry, and winter is green. Cold, sometimes, but wet and lush and fertile. I imagine winter as a cold-fingered fertility goddess, full of the promise of life.

cacao fruitUnfortunately, that doesn’t help me get out of bed in the morning when it’s still dark and cold. So today’s post is about something that does help with the dark and the cold: chocolate. Or, more accurately, Theobroma cacao.

Cacao trees are the source of chocolate, and have been cultivated for that purpose for more than 2000 years. Thery are native to Central and South America, and there are archaeological records showing that the Olmecs living in Mexico and Guatemala established their first cacao plantations around 400 BCE. By 250 CE the Mayans depicted cocoa in their elaborate hieroglyphic writings and on carvings and paintings.

Cacao is a smallish, evergreen rainforest tree, naturally growing as an understorey plant in tropical forests. It grows to be 4 – 8 m tall, rarely up to 20 m, and requires the shelter of taller canopy trees to protect it from direct sunlight. In cultivation, cacao trees are often grown under banana plants, coconut palms, or other large, tropical trees. Cacao grows best in regions of high humidity and stable temperatures, areas found only in the tropical zones within 20 degrees north or south of the Equator. It is a pretty tree, with smooth, brownish bark and glossy, bright green leaves, 20 – 30 cm long and 7 – 8 cm wide. The trees live for up to 100 years, but cultivated trees are considered economically productive for only about 60 years.

cacao flowersCocoa trees begin to bear fruit when they are three to four years old. They are cauliflorous, producing their clusters of small flowers directly on the trunk and older branches of the tree. Flowers are yellowish white or pink with red style, filament, and calyx, and are produced throughout the year. In the wild, cocoa trees are pollinated by midges, and only about 5% of flowers receive enough pollen to start fruit development. The fruit is a yellowish, red or brown colour when ripe, 15 – 20 cm long, and egg shaped, with white pulp around the seeds. The pulp is edible, and can be fermented to make an alcoholic beverage. The cocoa tree bears two harvests of cocoa pods per year. Each pod (fruit) contains 30 – 40 seeds.

When the seeds are ripe, they rattle in the capsule when shaken. If the seeds are separated from the capsule, they quickly become infertile, but if kept in the capsule they retain their fertility for a long time. When ripe, the fruit are cut open and the seeds surrounded by their sweetish acid pulp are allowed to ferment so that they can be separated from the shell more easily. The fermentation is also essential in the development of the chocolate flavour. The seeds are then usually dried in the sun, or sometimes in a steam drying shed.

cacao illustrationEach seed contains a significant amount of fat (40–60%) as cocoa butter. Their most noted active constituent is theobromine, a compound similar to caffeine, which makes up about 1-3% of the seed. Chocolate and cocoa are prepared by grinding the beans into a paste between hot rollers and mixing it with sugar and sometimes other ingredients (such as starch or milk powder). Cocoa butter is the fat which is removed from the cacao paste during manufacture; it is a cream coloured solid which smells like chocolate but tastes bland.

Cacao trees will produce 300 – 900 kg of dry cocoa beans per Ha, and given that the recommended planting density is 800 – 3000 trees per Ha, each tree might produce anywhere from 100 g to 1.25 kg of cocoa beans per year – call it an average of 500g of beans per year. The beans are roasted, then cracked and the shell and germ removed, leaving the nibs. Nibs make up about 87% of the bean, so each kg of beans produce about 870g of nibs. The nibs are then ground into paste called cocoa liquor, which is about 50% cocoa butter. So each kg of cacao beans can produce 430g of cocoa powder and 430 g of cocoa butter. Alternatively, you can produce chocolate – using 300 – 700 g of cocoa liquor and up to 20% as much cocoa butter as there is cocoa liquor per kg of chocolate produced (the rest is sugar, milk powder, and vanilla). So for each kg of cacao beans, you could produce about 500g of 50% dark chocolate, and 185 g of cocoa powder. Using our average of 500g of beans produced per tree each year, with one tree you could produce one large block of chocolate per year (250g) and 2/3 cup of cocoa powder (90g).

What cacao needs:

  • Water – The distribution of annual rainfall for regions in which cocoa is grown is 1250-3000 mm per year. The rainfall must be well distributed and any dry period should be no longer than three months.


  • Humidity – Cacao is typically grown in regions where daytime humidity reaches up to 100% and night time humidity is between 70 and 80%.


  • Sunlight / Shelter – Cacao needs shelter both from direct sunlight and from wind damage.


  • Soil – Free-draining, fertile soils with a depth of at least 1.5 m are preferred. The pH range is from 4.5 to 7.0, preferably close to 6.5.


  • Space – Density may range from 800-3000 trees/ha with about 1200 trees/ha being common in Malaysia. That means that each tree needs 3 – 12 sqm of space.


  • Warmth – Cacao requires warm, stable temperatures, and is killed by frost. The ideal range of temperatures for cocoa is minimums of 18-21°C and maximums of 30-32°C.

cacao tree
What cacao has to offer:

  • Chocolate! (Edible seeds, fruit pulp, and oil from the seeds). Each tree should produce enough seeds to make 250g of chocolate and 90g of cocoa powder per year.


  • Attractive, ornamental tree for landscaping if your garden is located somewhere within its climatic tolerance.


  • New trees from seed or cuttings, marcotting (air-layering), or budding.

cocoa beans


Images sourced from Wikimedia Commons:

All the animals

2015/06/12 deej 0

kittiesWhen I was little I wanted a house of my own, and a dog and a cat. I didn’t realise then that goats and cows and alpacas and chickens and so forth were an option. Now I do.

We’re working on the house part. And we already have three cats, who are the most adorable purr-faces ever, as well as four chickens, and three quail (it used to be four quail, but one of the quail died a couple’ve months ago for no apparent reason). And I do still want a dog. I also want some more chickens, some guinea fowl to control the ticks and grasshoppers, and probably some ducks. Possibly in some sort of duck-ponics system (there will be a future post on that).

At this point, I sound like I’m bird-crazy (especially when I add that I also want to get pigeons, for meat, and some more quail, and maybe a pair of geese). But it isn’t really birds, or not just birds. It’s all the animals. Fur, feathers, whatever.

I already wanted a pair of milking goats – I’m thinking Nigerian Dwarf goats now, since there are now true purebred Nigerian Dwarves in Australia. Apparently Nigerian Dwarf goats have been bred to produce milk which tastes very much like cows milk, without the musky, tangy goat flavour which the swiss breeds produce. It also produces the highest butterfat content of any of the dairy goat breeds, 6% – 10% butterfat, which is good for cheesemaking (my main reason for wanting goats).

Nigerian Dwarf goat doe

And I kinda want a miniature cow, because I quite like cow’s milk, and cream, and butter. There was this small farm fair day a couple’ve weeks ago, which had – amongst other things – a range of animals and people to talk about them. Llamas, alpacas, angora goats, ponies, miniature cattle, all sorts of things. Looking at the dexter cattle there, the the desire to also get a miniature cow has crystalised into a thing. It will probably be a dexter, or perhaps a miniature Galloway.

dexter cowSo I’ve been planning a grazing rotation for the orchard. I think it should be okay to graze my goats and cow (and possible alpaca) under the fruit trees as long as the goats get a copper supplement to discourage them from chewing on the bark of the trees, and the trees get protective cages. My plan involves mobile fence panels which are goat- and cow-proof, and permanently installed support posts along the boundaries of the notional paddocks to attach the fence panels to. Possibly with solar powered LED lanterns on top to provide night time orchard lighting.

It’s surprisingly complex to calculate the right sizes for the paddocks and the appropriate rotation period for a small flock, as well as how I’m going to sort out the milking (afternoon milkings – getting up early to milk before leaving for work in the mornings is just not in my game plan). All the information is for big farms with hundreds of not thousands of stock; all the smallholder info is either out of date or aimed at poverty-stricken regions of Africa. I end up reading vetirinary articles about animal welfare to get basic info such as how much water to expect each animal to need per day, and how to design a shed or shelter that will work for a cow, two goats, and possibly an alpaca.

I’m thinking I’ll put the alpaca (actually two alpacas in that case, so that they don’t get lonely) in with the chickens as rotation group 2, so that they will protect the chickens from foxes and hawks. But planning to rotate the alpacas in after the cow led to a whole day of reading and worrying about bovine pestivirus – which there’s a vaccine for. But it took a almost a day of reading to find that out, since I was heading at it from the effect on alpacas angle. The mroe I learn, the more things I realise that I don’t know. So much planning still to do.

It makes me happy, though. Even if it is months and months until we can start buying livestock or putting in the paddocks. Even if we end up making mistakes, like we did with the rabbits – although I’d rather get over the learning curve on rabbits than on something as expensive as a cow – the planning makes me happy. And distracts me from the (incredibly stressful, so very ready for it to be finished, might be done enough for us to move in towards the end of July) house-building project.

Images sourced from Wikimedia Commons:

Winter is here

2015/06/02 deej 0

It’s been just over a month since my last post, in spite of my best intentions. In my defence, in that time I’ve been recovering from a broken arm and a nasty cough. At the same time. Yes.

Not that it has anything much to do with permaculture, except in that it’s surprisingly hard to do anything (eating with a spoon I felt like an uncoordinated 5 year old – so much work to avoid just smearing porridge on my face!) when your dominant arm is unusable, the broken arm was a result of a rollerblading accident. I caught a stick in my wheel, overbalanced, overcorrected, and fell. I even did a pretty good martial arts breakfall and so avoided slamming my head into the concrete, but my right arm bounced at a weird angle, bent backwards at the elbow, and caused me a sudden burst of agonising pain. Minor occult fracture (i.e. one that doesn’t show up on x-rays), and some soft tissue damage. Pretty insignificant as these things go, but it did prevent me from being able to type at any meaningful rate for 3 weeks.

In other updates, construction of our house has finally started! The frame is up, the roof is on, and the walls are going up as we speak. The builders said it should be on site in 2 months or so, which is very exciting. We’re looking forward to being able to move onto our little farm very much.

The winter rains are here, along with the cold weather. We planted a few more trees last week, mostly Paulownias along the inside of the firebreak to start forming our shelterbelt against fire and truck noise from the highway. There were also my two seedling carob trees, each now almost a metre tall, and an olive tree that my dad gave us. The rest of the trees are still in pots, waiting for the house to be done and the need for truck access to be finished. I’m still planning to line the driveway with jacarandas and poincianas, for beautiful, dappled shade in summer and the display of flowers in the spring. The bees should love them, too.

Otherwise it’s just some more hurry up and wait. We have so many plans, but they can’t be implemented yet. Soon. very soon.