The Ethical Omnivore

2017/01/27 deej 0

Some philosophy to start the day. 🙂 This may be controversial, you have been warned.

 

I disagree with veganism on ethical grounds. Not the veganism which is based on some (incredibly rare, but real) allergies or food intolerances to any sort of animal protein, but the sort which is based on an ethical regard for animal welfare. I have quite a lot of vegan and vegan-tending friends, and I know this’ll touch a nerve for most of them, but – I still think it’s true.

 

This is not about not wanting to eat dead animals. I get that. I understand the idea that killing an animal or having one killed for our benefit, when we don’t actually need it (vegetarian proteins are entirely adequate for human health) is a bad thing. I especially respect people who say that they couldn’t personally kill an animal, and as such they think it’s wrong for them to eat meat. I feel a lot more comfortable eating my own animals – animals which have had good lives, have been fed well and given as utopian an environment as I can manufacture for them, and which I know for a fact to have been killed painlessly and with as little stress as is humanly possible. I don’t feel good about eating an animal which has suffered for my benefit. I literally call traditional intensively raised chickens “torture chicken” to my friends & family, to make them think about the difference in the lives of higher welfare and free range birds. I’m increasingly inclined to only eat animals which I have raised, or which have been raised by people I trust to give them the kind of life I would want them to have.

 

I even understand not wanting to take advantage of animals which are raised to produce milk, or eggs, or leather, or honey. Dairy cows arguably have a worse life than beef cattle do, and dairy calves are usually killed very young (and not even as veal for human use – we’ve gotten so fussy that a lot of dairy calves aren’t a good enough grade for use as human food, so they’re mulched or made into pet food) to keep their mothers producing more milk for human use. Male chicks from chicken farms breeding laying birds are ground up alive to make high-protein meal, which is often then fed to the layer and breeder birds. Overbreeding of honeybees has led to such weak queens that the hives’ immune systems are weakened and the hives are susceptible to diseases and parasites which add to Colony Collapse Disorder (although not as much as neonicotioid pesticides do). So don’t think I don’t get it. I do. I would miss honey, but if I thought bees would be better off if I gave up honey, I would do it. (I gave up tuna because I feel bad about eating endangered species which can’t be farmed, even though it’s really delicious and I do miss it.)

 

But there are two problems.

 

First – refusing to engage with animal-based agricultural industries means that your preferences about the welfare of the animals no longer affect the decisions of the farmers keeping those animals. You are effectively arguing that everyone should be vegan, otherwise your choice makes very little difference to the animals whose health and happiness you are concerned about.

 

Second – humans and our various associate species (domesticated animals) made an agreement a long time ago, between their ancestors and ours. We agreed to provide them with a good life, an easy life of always-available food and water, safety for their babies, and what medical care we could give. In return, they agreed to provide us with the products of their bodies – meat, milk, eggs, honey, leather, wool – and with companionship, support, and labour. But while we have the option to get out of that agreement, they no longer do. They rely on us entirely, and so we are responsible for the wellbeing of their entire species as well as their individual wellbeing.

 

When we refuse to use animal products, we make it economically unviable for farmers to maintain the species who produce them. And we owe those species. We owe them care and food and an easy, good life for their descendants, forever. Because we have changed them through domestication to the point where most of them can no longer survive without us, we cannot in good faith simply abandon them. If we no longer need them, then we will no longer keep them, and they will become extinct. How many people would really keep pet cows, goats, or sheep if milk and meat and wool weren’t a factor, or chickens if we couldn’t eat their eggs? Enough to maintain genetic diversity in the species, and keep it alive? How many people even have enough space to consider keeping that sort of pet? How many people keep pet horses (not including horses kept for riding, or for pulling carts of various sorts for human recreation)? Horses, which are intelligent, loyal, genuinely affectionate companions equivalent in many ways to a dog. There are very few pet horses which don’t also serve a purpose through their labour.

 

I think it would be a tragedy to allow these species, in all their diversity, to go extinct. We would lose something intensely human by losing those old relationships with our associate species. I think we are responsible for them, and as such we should work to breed healthier animals which live well and don’t produce obscene amounts for our benefit at their expense – but that are still useful to keep. Heritage breed chickens which lay every couple’ve days are healthier and happier than battery-bred birds which lay every single day and live half as long because they use up the calcium in their bones to make egg-shells. Heritage breed sheep and cows are often smaller and friendlier than the modern types which are bred for pure production potential, and we should be keeping those breeds if we can, and maintaining them. We should care if our pork comes from heritage breed free range pigs, or factory farmed animals which can’t be free ranged at all because they get such bad sunburn if they go outdoors. We should care if our chicken comes from heritage birds which mature healthily, or from cross-bred “broilers” which are killed at six weeks old because if they live any longer they are literally crippled (broken legs, crumbling bones) by their muscle growth outstripping their bones ability to hold them upright.

 

So I think we should, generally, eat less meat. Maybe even less dairy (or at least we should be willing to pay the actual costs of production for dairy products – and other foods). But I think opting out of consuming or using animal products at all is not actually the most ethical decision. I think it’s a much better option, ethically speaking, to be very aware of where your food and clothing comes from and to actively support farmers who are offering their animals (and plants!) a good life and high welfare.

 

I hope this sort of idea encourages people to think about their food choices more carefully. If you don’t want to consume animal products, that’s your choice, absolutely. And if eating animals or animal products squicks you, totally don’t do it. But if it’s an ethical choice, maybe you could think about how ethical it actually is, and how you could do the most good for animal welfare through your purchasing and consumption choices.

slow starter

2017/01/16 deej 0

New Years has come and gone, and I’m still just starting to settle in to 2017. It feels like a really slow start to the year somehow.

 

The hot weather has arrived, and we just went through a 24 hour power outage because the lines gather dust during dry weather and then a cool spell or a drizzle of rain (water falling from the sky! Weirdly, that does happen sometimes, even in midsummer) can cause fires on the lines or in the transformers. Which seems bizarre to me, but that’s how it is. It’s prioritised our desire to get a nice, big solar install set up, so we’ve got quotes coming in for that. Also my desire to build a solar cooker – so watch this space, and I’ll post the project when we make it. If nothing else, we’ll take it with us to Blazing Swan, and do some festival baking.

 

It might seem late in the year to talk about New Years Resolutions, but like I said –  it’s been a slow starter.

 

I’m not much for making annual promises to myself to change my life, although I know it’s a positive experience for lots of people; I’ve always figured that if I want to make some sort of change in my life, I shouldn’t really need to wait for the end fo the year. Mostly it works pretty well for me (although I do have to keep a goals list, so I don’t forget about any of the good ideas I’ve had and haven’t quite gotten to actioning yet). I do see the appeal, though – the changeover to a whole new year is a kinda magical time for me, a holiday and a time for thinking and for personal renewal and self-care.

 

So instead of a resolution as such, or even a word to characterise my aims and ambitions for the year, I have a new tradition: learn a skill each year. It’s something K used to do, and has decided to take up again, thus inspiring me to do the same. We each choose our new skill in the Dec – Jan period, and then learn and practice over the year. K is learning card magic, and the associated sleights of hand. I was tempted by a new language, but instead I’m thinking that this year I’ll learn to use my potters wheel properly, to throw a pot.

 

I did pottery classes as a kid, and I have used a potters wheel before – but not for a very long time, and I don’t think I was very good at it when I did it then. I have a beautiful potters wheel, bought for me as a present a couple’ve years ago, and now I have space to use it now. So I’m going to get some clay, and watch some YouTube tutorials, and learn me a skill. Expect a great deal of frustrated whining when it doesn’t just work straight away 🙂

 

What about the rest of you? Does learning a new skill for the year appeal? What skill would you pick?

starter trees

2017/01/10 deej 0

We’ve hit the new year with all the right energy, planting trees. There are all these sayings about trees, like “the best time to plant a tree is ten years ago; the second best time is now” and “a society grows wise when [people] plant trees in whose shade they will never sit” (implying planting trees for the benefit of future generations), and it all boils down to: trees taker a long time to get established. Start them as soon as you can.

 

Trees (and shrubs, and other deep-rooted perennial plants) are essential for a food forst, or any forest-like permaculture system. They’re also really useful for rehabilitating damaged or degraded landscapes, especially where salinity is a problem (deep-rooted perennial plants lower the water table and reduce salinisation of surface soils by salty groundwater). Many trees are also highly productive, giving a higher yield per area in terms of food value produced than most annuals, often with less care, maintenance, and irrigation.

 

But trees are harder to get established than annuals. They are longer lived and therefore slower growing, slower to mature and reach productivity, slower to get established. And fruiting (or otherwise productive) tree species are often quite delicate in a WA context, and don’t handle the heat or the dry weather very well. There are exceptions, but usually permies will want to start out by planting some nurse trees, to get some soil bacteria established and shade the ground a little to stop all the moisture baking out of it in the summer. If they fix some nitrogen, or have some other use, all the better. Some of these phase 1 trees will continue on in the final forest system, while others may die natural deaths (fast growing short-lived trees will naturally be senescing when your main canopy starts to mature) or be removed (and mulched or used for timber) to make space in the canopy for the productive trees to grow into.

 

After three years of trial and error, and research, we’ve got a pretty good handle on what trees work well in the context of the Perth hills (600 – 800 mm rainfall per year, mostly over winter, temperatures ranging up to 42 degrees C in summer and down to zero degrees C in winter, possible light frosts in winter, sandy laterite gravel soils with some clay content, high fire risk in summer) with minimal additional irrigation. So here are some of our top picks for the stage one planting on a degraded site.

 

  • (1) Wattles. Not all wattles are native to the area, but they seem to behave as if they are. They’re fast-growing, nitrogen fixing, and shade-providing, making them excellent nurse trees for later planting fruit trees. We’ve put in all species with edible seeds, meaning that they’re also a food producing plant: jam wattle (Acacia acuminata), prickly wattle (Acacia victoriae), mulga (Acacia aneura), silver wattle (Acacia dealbata), coastal wattle (Acacia sophorae), and dogwood (Acacia coriacea). Grow easily from seed; fast growing.

 

  • (2) Empress Tree or Princess Tree (Paulownia tormentosa). These need a bit of babying for the first year or two, but once established they’re virtually unkillable. They coppice well (i.e. resprout from the roots), and they create beautiful deep shade with their large, soft leaves. They’re fire retardant (i.e. they’re hard to burn, and fires will generally stop at them as if at a firebreak), and their flowers are a very good nectar source for bees. Grow easily from seed; fast growing.

 

  • (3) Jacarandas (Jacaranda mimosifolia) are hardy, tough, and beautiful. Their only real use (other than shade and soil stabilisation) is that the flowers are a good nectar source for bees, but I love them. Flowering jacarandas have always been my marker for spring. Grow easily from seed; fast growing.

 

  • (4) Illawarra flame trees (Brachychiton acerifolius) need a biut of support through their first summer, and they suffer quite badly from defoliation by grasshoppers, but they’re pretty tough. Their seeds are theoretically edible (were used for food by some Aboriginal groups), but the seed pods contain irritating fine hairs similar to the glochids on prickly pear cactus. They can cause blindness if they get into your eyes, so be careful handling the seeds and seed pods.

 

  • (5) Honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) are similar in appearance to jacarandas, with feathery leaves, but they don’t have the showy flowers of the jacaranda. Their seed pods (and leaves) are useful as stock feed, though; high in sugar and minerals. There is some indication that honey locusts may be nitrogen fixing, although they are non-nodulating – it’s controversial, but they do show many of the characteristics of nitrogen fixing trees, including thriving in low N soils. Grow easily from seed; fast growing.

 

  • (6) Olives (Olea europea) are not fast growing trees, but they are very hardy. They need very little support after their first year in the ground (although extra water and fertiliser will encourage them to grow faster), and are a commercially productive tree. Propagate from cuttings of known varieties.

 

  • (7) Casuarina or Allocasuarina species – I’m not actually sure what species the ones we have are, as they self-seeded from local stands. Could be Allocasuarina decussata, or possibly Allocasuarina huegeliana. Whatever exact species they are, they produce copious quantities of pollen for the bees, and the foliage can be used as livestock feed for ruminants. Given they volunteered (self-seeded), they must grow easily from seed, and they do grow fast. I’ll try deliberately planting some seeds this autumn and see how that goes.

 

  • (8) Frangipani (Plumeria spp.) are surprisingly tough, and can be grown very easily from cuttings. They give good shade, and drop a lot of leaves in winter, providing some good soil-building biomass. I can’t find a corroborating link right now, but the petals of the frangipani flower are edible, and can be added to salads. I have not done any toxicity testing, so eat at your own risk, but I have eaten them with no ill effects.

 

Amusingly, fig trees don’t make this list. People think that figs are tough and hardy, and they are – once established. Getting them there though.. they have to be babied through their first 2 – 4 years in the ground with extra water and a lot of care. We have killed four baby fig trees learning this.

 

Pomegranates should be a good option, as long as they are in full sun. So far our pomegranate experiments have not done well, because we mistakenly thought that full sun in Europe would = some midday shade in WA. Not true. After 2 years of not growing and barely surviving, with permanently yellow leaves, we gave in and dug the 2 baby pomegranate sup, and moved them to a full sun location to see what would happen. One didn’t survive the transplant, but the other is thriving for the first time ever and actually growing. I’ve ordered some more young trees, which will go into the ground when they arrive in nice, sunny locations, and I’ve planted some seeds from a supermarket fruit to see what happens. If they germinate reasonably easily, I may import some new genetics from the US and the middle east in seed form and start playing with pomegranate breeding.

 

Apples, pears and quinces do remarkably well if provided with a bit of additional water in summer (not much water is needed to keep them alive, but they need it regularly – twice a week). They do summer complete defoliation from the grasshoppers though, so either spray them with insecticide (neem oil is great) or net them. Guinea fowl do help keep the grasshopper population down, but they don’t provide sufficient control to keep the trees alive without spraying or netting.

 

The next experiments (currently in seed trays, hopefully germinating soon) include moringa (Moringa oleifera), graceful honey myrtle (Melaleuca radula), and bottlebrush (Callistemon spp. – locally collected seed). We also have poplar (Populnus nigra) and willow (Salix spp.) cuttings growing, to plant out this autumn, and some lilly pilly (Syzygium smithii) seedlings in the ground to see how they go.

 

The experiments never end though. I want to try putting in some tagasaste (Cytisus proliferus, also known as Chamaecytisus palmensis) and leucana (Leucaena leucocephala), and some black mulberry (Morus nigra) seedlings. I’d like to try some riberry (Syzygium luehmannii) plants too, if I can find some.

 

summer

2016/12/14 deej 2

No matter how much I like the longer days (getting home when it’s still light!) and warmer weather, I also dread summer a little. While the long, hot, dry days and the coastal breezes may be perfect for a holiday or a day at the beach, they’re not so good for growing anything. The dry summer season is as harsh in its own way as the cold winter of the temperate areas of the northern hemisphere.

 

The theory is that our forest orchard will be reasonably self-sufficient once established, requiring minimal irrigation or care. That theory has a downside though – it takes years for a forest (or an orchard) to become established. The trees are going in, gradually but steadily, but for their first few years they’ll need a lot of support. Daily watering through summer, wire cages to protect them from rabbits and kangaroos, spraying for insect pests, and more. I’d prefer not to spray for insects, but there is only so much you can do without poison. The guinea fowl seem more interested in eating my hibiscus plants than they do in eating ticks or grasshoppers, and there are too many trees already to hand pick bugs off them all. We have plans to try traps for the grasshoppers this season, half filling bright yellow buckets with molasses-enriched water to attract and drown them, and spreading bran sprayed with a bit of molasses-water around the trees (the grasshoppers & locusts eat this, gum up their digestive systems with it, and die – in theory), but we’re inevitably going to end up spraying as well.

 

We’ve acquired some Muscovy ducks to free range across the baby orchard as well, in the hopes that they’ll be more motivated to eat bugs than the guinea fowl. I haven’t seen them eating any flies yet, but apparently they do. The surviving juvenile guinea fowl are going to be free ranging soon as well, bringing us up to a total of 6 (4 babies and 2 adults, out of a total of 4 bought as chicks and 18 hatched). They do seem to be keeping the tick population down, but they aren’t having much of an impact ont he grasshoppers.

 

In the meantime, irrigation is a big ticket item on the to-do list. Last summer we hand-watered every day, carrying 10 L watering cans back and forth. This summer we’re trialling a gravity-fed dripper system, fed from the small water tank, for the apples. It seems to be pretty successful so far, so we’re aiming to put in similar systems (fed from 200 L barrels or 1000 L IBCs of water) for each group of trees. With luck that’ll cut our workload down to weekly check-ups, although it increases the workload now as we get the irrigation set up. There are more trees to go in this autumn, so automated watering systems are essential.

plant profile: rosemary

2016/11/30 deej 0

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) grows brilliantly in Perth. It’s commonly planted as a hedge, and can easily be collected (in Perth, it’s a great urban foraging target, because it’s planted so widely, and grows so enthusiastically). Rosemary is very strongly flavoured, but it can be used in salads as well as for flavouring food, and can also be used to make a caffeine free tea (technically an infusion). Rosemary is also a fantastic bee plant, with a long flowering period.

 

Although often used to flavour lamb or mutton dishes, rosemary works equally well with goat, pork, rabbit, fish or chicken. I haven’t tried it with other poultry (duck, goose, quail, squab, …) although I suspect it would work. It can work really well with beef too, as long as you don’t over-salt the dish. Try using the long stems of the rosemary shrub, stripped of leaves, as skewers for kebabs – meat or vegetable – for a summer BBQ. The leaves can be infused in oil or vinegar, which then makes a great salad dressing.

 

We have several rosemary plants around the house, both in the herb garden and other spots. I love the smell of it, which is released whenever you brush past it or run your hand through the foliage. I also put rosemary sprigs in my cupboards to (a) scent the sheets, blankets, etc., and (b) discourage moths. I don’t know if it actually does discourage moths, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Ours are all the traditional blue-flowered variety, but I’m trying to grow some cuttings of a variegated blue rosemary, and a pink flowered type.

 

Rosemary grows very easily from cuttings. It’s one of the easiest plants to root, along with hibiscus, pelargoniums, willow and frangipanis. Cut a piece of rosemary at least 10 – 20 cm in length, and trim the leaves off the bottom half to two thirds of the stem, then stick the end in some good compost or potting mix and keep it moist. The remaining leaves will mostly die, but the stick will start putting out new leaves in  a week or two. You can use some rooting hormone powder on the base of the cutting, but it isn’t necessary with rosemary.
 

What rosemary needs:

  • Water – Newly planted rosemary needs to be watered every day in hot weather, or every few days in cool or rainy weather. Once established, the plants are very drought hardy and can survive an entire WA summer without supplementary water if they have to. A good soak (2 – 5 L per plant) every week or two does help though.

 

  • Sunlight – Full sun. These pretties evolved in the dry hills of the Mediterranean; they don’t like shade. Established plants can handle part shade, but they thrive in full sunlight.

 

  • Soil – Well drained, sandy soils are best. Rosemary doesn’t seem to care if the soil is a bit acid or a bit alkaline, and they have some salt tolerance. They’re a good coastal plant, really. Don’t plant them in heavy clay, as they don’t like wet feet or boggy ground.

 

  • Space – An adult rosemary bush will, if left unattended, sprawl across about a square m, and grow about 1 m tall. They take pruning very well, though, and can be kept contained by pruning to size or even clipping to make a hedge. Rosemary will grow happily in a large pot as well, and can survive indoors as long as it gets lots of light.

 

  • Warmth – Rosemary likes the heat, but can handle the cold. Damaged by heavy frosts.

 

What rosemary has to offer:

  • Edible leaves and flowers.

 

  • Decorative, hardy landscaping plant.

 

  • More rosemary from cuttings or seed.

 

  • Good against soil erosion; it roots strongly and deeply without being invasive.

 

Images sourced from Wikimedia Commons:
File:Bee_on_rosemary.jpg

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