June 9: bread is life

2016/06/09 deej 0

Someone said to me recently, joking about our mutual bread-making habit, “Bread is love. Bread is life.”

 

It may have been said in jest, but there’s a certain truthiness to the statement as well. Bread has been central to a lot of cultures around the world; to the best of my knowledge, the East Asian cultures whose main subsistence grain was rice through most of their history are the only ones in which bread hasn’t played a central role (cooked rice replaced bread for those cultures). Even the Australian Aboriginal peoples appear to have had a tradition of breadmaking long before they met any European colonial influences.

 

I have to admit to never having made traditional damper myself. I’ve made the schoolroom version, which is basically soda bread (scone dough), sometimes enriched with spinach and/or feta cheese, wrapped in tinfoil and then baked in an oven (rather than in the coals of a fire, as is traditional). I’ve certainly never made bread from the seeds of native plants, nor have I even ground my own flour from wheat or rye grains (although I’d really like to get a mill and try that). I have made both yeasted and sourdough breads from scratch, though, as well as using a bread machine, and I love it. There’s something deeply satisfying about kneading the dough until it genuinely stops being a sticky mess, the proteins change their structure and hydrate, and the dough becomes “silky smooth” (or at least satisfyingly even-textured and significantly less sticky).

 

My current sourdough culture is derived from the wild yeasts of my kitchen, which makes me happy. Every time I make bread with it I think to myself, this is what a healthy kitchen smells like. I think a good dose of beneficial wild yeasts and lactobacillus are the modern equivalent of the old stories about brownies who live int he kitchen and keep a home safe and healthy. (As an aside, I find it really interesting that pre-scientific people described spirits as invisible entities which could cause illness, in the case of evil spirits, or health, in the case of friendly spirits – sounds a lot like bacteria and other microorganisms to me.)

 

So, for those who’d like to follow me down the dark paths of kitchen technomancy, here’s my method for a sourdough starter (stolen wholesale from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, of River Cottage).

 

  • In a large bowl, mix about 100g of bread flour (at least 50% wholegrain, e.g. wholemeal, spelt, or wholegrain rye) with enough lukewarm, chlroine-free water to make a batter the consistency of thick paint. You can use rainwater, or dechlorinate tapwater by boiling it and then letting it cool; the chlorine in regular tap water will kill the wild yeasts you’re trying to encourage.

 

  • Beat the batter well, then cover it (with clingfilm or a lid) and leave it somewhere warm and dark. A warm kitchen is fine, or a pantry cupboard. Check it every few hours until you see bubble forming on the surface, indicating that fermentation has begun. Don’t be concerned if this takes overnight, especially in cold weather. Be patient.

 

  • Your starter now needs to be fed regularly. Whisk in about 50 – 100g of fresh flour, and enough dechlorinated water to maintain the thick-paint consistency. Keep the starter at normal room temperature, unless it’s summer and you’re in Australia, in which case you may want to keep it in a cool place if you can (or feed it more often, as heat increases activity). Be aware that the starter will start to die at 40 degrees C, so don’t let it get too hot – just like any other pet.

 

  • Feed the culture another 50 – 100g of flour and some water every day, removing some of the starter first if your bowl is getting too full, and after 7 – 10 days you should have a healthy sourdough culture. It should smell fruity and sour, like a good plain yoghurt.

 

Hugh says that you should not  be tempted to bake a loaf until the starter has been going for at least a week. In practice, I’m impatient and I did exactly that. It worked. The second loaf, a few days later, did rise better, but the first loaf was perfectly edible if you don’t mind a dense, chewy, more-than-half-rye bread (I used organic rye flour to start my starter).

 

If you’re going to bake every few days, and the weather isn’t too hot, you can keep your starter at room temperature and feed it every day. If you want to go longer between baking, add more flour to make a stiffer dough out of the starter – this way it will need feeding for a few days. You can get your starter to hibernate by putting it in the fridge, and it should keep for about a week without being fed. You’ll need to let it sit at room temperature for a few hours to reactivate it before using it again though.

urban agriculture and space habitats

2015/12/09 deej 0

I’ve been thinking a lot about space, recently. As in, spaceships and stars and planets. I know, I know, that sounds like it has nothing to do with our fledgling smallholding – but in reality it has quite a lot to do with it.

When I say I’m thinking about space, I mean I’m thinking about humans going to space. Space habitats and the ecosystems we’ll need to support them, producing enough food not just for a few scientists but for entire villages of people living in colonies on the moon, or Mars, or Venus, or even in permanent space station habitats orbiting the Earth. Recycling water and air, nitrogen and carbon and all the micronutrients and elements that we need to survive.

I think that a lot of the techniques which are useful for urban agriculture and peri-urban (urban fringe) agrculture in the here-and-now are also applicable to setting up self-sufficient space habitats and extra-terrestrial colonies. And equally, a lot of the techniques that might be researched and developed for use in space are also applicable, with minor modifications, to urban agriculture. Aquaponics and aeroponics are the most obvious examples, recycling water and nutrients to produce fish and vegetables (in an aquaponics system) or to use minimal water for maximum vegetable production (in an aeroponics system). Insect farming is another example, everything from raising crickets as a food source for ourselves or for fish (fun fact: you can also include crickets in the diet of chickens, for the protein, and even in the food for your cat or dog) to composting with black soldier flies, the larvae of which again provide high quality fish and poultry feed. The main point is to have closed systems, or as closed as possible when we are removing nutrients by eating some of the produce.

Composting toilets are also a thing, since recycling those nutrients is going to be essential in space and is increasingly essential here on Earth. The amount of soil which is being lost to erosion each year means that we need to do absolutely everything we can to retain and enrich the soil we have. Of course that includes composting food waste and animal manure as well as humanure, since nutrients are nutrients.

Any sort of ecosystem that we were to set up in space – or in an urban environment, as a relatively closed or self-sufficient system – requires careful planning around the types of plants and animals that we raise. We need enough different foods to provide both the nutrition and the energy (calories or kilojoules) that we need to live, and if we keep animals at all then we need enough food to provide them with their nutritional and energy needs as well. And, as any biodynamic practitioner will tell you, we also need enough carbonaceous materials (e.g. the stems of cereals and grasses) to allow for effective composting. Unless we use only hydro-, aero-, or aquaponic (water based) systems, in which case we still need some way of recycling the nutrients in waste food, non-food plant parts, and manure.

What combinations of plants provide us with the minimum viable diversity of diet to live well? Which ones combine nutritional efficiency with high production – and what does that mean for our diet? Rice is far more productive than wheat or corn under ideal conditions (yields of 4 – 8, and up to 22 tonnes per hectare for rice, compared to 1 – 4.5 tonnes per hectare for wheat accoirding to google), so should we try to move away from our western, wheat-based diet? Or should we try to breed more productive wheat varieties? And what animals should we keep, to maximise production while minimising the space we need to use?

Fish seem to be an obvious choice, along with insects to feed them, but which species of fish? Trout, tilapia (illegal to keep in Australia) and carp have been raised in aquaculture systems very successfully, and both will breed in captivity without outside intervention. Barramundi are harder to raise because they are more inclined to cannibalism when crowded, and they do not breed naturally in captivity. Catfish grow well and will breed in captivity, but they do not like being crowded and will fight and injure one another.

Then you start down the road of poultry (chickens, pigeons, ducks, quail, ..) and small ruminants (miniature goats or sheep, or even miniature cattle). Smaller animals such as rabbits or guinea pigs are possible too. Or will we simply have vats to produce artificial meat instead? And what about pets? Do pets have a place in the system, even if the only work they do is to provide us humans with companionship and the associated psychological benefits? (We’ve decided that they do, that both cats and dogs have a place on our farm simply because we believe that we, as humans, are poorer and lonelier when we don’t have dogs and cats in our lives).

I don’t have answers, but I’m working on it. I want to go into space one day.

 

existentialism

2014/10/21 deej 0

This is a nerdy post – because I am, fundamentally, a nerd. A plant-loving dirty-finger-nailed wannabe farmer nerd, but a nerd nonetheless. Or geek. Whichever the fashionable term is at the moment. Also, it’s kinda long. Sorry about that.

I believe that technology – computers, robots, spaceships and space travel – are awesome. I’m also aware that technology is a spectrum, ranging from more efficient shovels to bicycles, the idea of surgeons washing their hands before surgery through to vaccines against cancer-causing viruses, sailing ships to electric cars to rockets that can take a human to the moon and back safely, signal fires through to mobile phones. Technology is a set of tools. Really neat, amazing tools, but just tools. Not good or evil, just useful to further the desires and abilities of the people using them.

I look forward to having better technology available, to forming a true endosymbiosis with my phone or computer, having the extra memory and processing (thinking) speed that could give me. I look forward to being able to regrow a new organ from my own stem cells if one of mine fails, or replacing a limb or joint with a functional cybernetic one if I need to. I anticipate every person having these same benefits – technology is the antithesis of elitism and class division, because the technology gets cheaper and easier as we get better at making the tools we want or need.

None of that means I don’t care about the environment, though. I’ve been a gardener even longer than I’ve been amazed and intrigued by computers (I planted seeds and helped harvest fresh peas very shortly after I could walk on my own, and I was a precocious child). I care passionately about sustainability and species diversity and the inherent value of the natural world. I also care passionately about the efficiency and effectiveness that methods such as permaculture and holistic management allow. I’m a technodruid, if you like.

I’m not talking about actual druids or neopagan religion here – and no offence to any practicing druids or neopagans. The kind of druids I’m thinking of are the sort in Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying games. The druid is the caretaker of the wilderness, a character who uses nature-based magic and has a deep connection with plants and animals (and sometimes with the landscape itself).

So, all of that said, posts like this one (The Dawn of Cybernetic Civilisation) on PermacultureNews.org make me sad. So many people in the environmentalist and permaculture communities talk about technology as an evil thing. Many of them don’t really understand it, and they seem to view it as a thing separate from us humans. It’s not. Technology is as close to us, now, as our skin and our breath. We are our technology, just like a honeybee is her hive. We create tools only because we want to use them to make our lives and our childrens’ lives better.

I notice very few of these people refusing to use buses, or bicycles, or even computers and the internet. Do you know why that is? because these things are useful. Maybe even essential. The internet, that source of terror and surveillance, brings us closer together across distances that our ancestors couldn’t even imagine. The petrol engine, even with all the harm it’s done to the environment through emissions we didn’t realise until fairly recently were a problem (two or three or five decades is recent in the scale of an entire culture and species realising something), also made it possible for us to look at the planet from outside. If we had never gone into space, never seen for ourselves the fragile bubble that is our life-support system, we might never have realised that we are responsible for protecting it both for its own sake and also for our survival.

I think we should remember that change happens no matter what we do; we can ride the wave and change along with it, or we can go under. Technology exists not to make us into unthinking cogs in some great machine but because we built it and used it. if we become unthinking cogs it is because we chose to do that.

Everything is a choice. Technology can only oppress us if we choose to be oppressed by it, or to ignore it, or to allow ourselves to be oppressed by other people using that technology. If we choose to be enabled by it, just think what we could do.

 

Images sourced from Wikimedia Commons:
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File:Curiosity_Rover%27s_Self_Portrait_at_%27John_Klein%27_Drilling_Site,_Cropped.jpg

A failure of marketing

2012/10/05 deej 0

In a dry(ish) climate like ours, water is life. Where there is water, plants grow and animals (and people) thrive. This is fairly obvious to anyone who’s experienced our baking hot summers.

Gallifrey isn’t on mains water, so even if we wanted to use the output of the dams and the desalination plants, we can’t. The water in the deep aquifer is fully allocated for agriculture in the area, so we aren’t allowed to sink a deep bore or well. We are allowed to sink a shallow bore, and according to our neighbours the water isn’t saline, but drinking water from the shallow aquifer isn’t recommended – “not saline” has a variety of meanings in WA, and most of them aren’t good for human kidneys in the long term – and it’s a horribly unsustainable use of the resource. So we’re basically reliant on rainwater.

That’s not as bad as many people around Perth seem to think. We get 500 – 700mm of rain per year; the official average is closr to 700mm, but the real current average is closer to 600mm, or 500mm in a bad year. That’s a lot of water if you have tanks to keep it in. Easily enough to live on, and keep a kitchen garden going if we’re careful.

Water tanks, though. In WA, people seem to buy either plastic water tanks or Aquaplate steel tanks. Aquaplate is galvanised steel with a plastic membrane bonded ot the inside, for those who don’t know. Neither of these options appeals to me. I know that the plastic is food grade, approved by all the regulatory bodies, but I just don’t like the idea of long term water storage in plastic. How many years did we have BPA in most of our plastics before we discovered that BPA is seriously toxic? Plastic is too new a material, and there are too many potential toxins, known and unknown, for me to be comfortable with plastic being in direct contact with all my drinking water. Call me a conspiracy theorist – and if nothing toxic has been discovered in these plastics in 30 years, I’ll say you were right.

Plastic tanks also have very poor fire resistance. Since we are in a bushfire prone area, that’s also a factor.

So, you can also buy old fashioned galvanised steel tanks without the plastic liner. It’s unusual, but you can get them. These are well known for being unreliable – they corrode and spring leaks very quickly. And they’re plated with zinc, which probably isn’t ideal for drinking water either.

If you’re prepared to get fancy, you can buy concrete tanks, either precast or poured in place. These tanks are massive, and once the concrete has cured they don’t leach anything more dangerous than some lime into the water (which changes the pH of the water, but not significantly). However, concrete isn’t 100% waterproof – water molecules wick their way intot he concrete unless you use toxic admixtures to waterproof the concrete or put a plastic liner inside the tank. These water molecules aren’t a big deal – you don’t lose much water that way – except to the steel rebar with which concrete tanks are reinforced. Water causes steel to rust, and rust takes up more space than the original steel, and then you get cracks. Which allow more water in, which causes more rust, which causes more cracking. Of course you could use something other than steel to reinforce the tank structure – but no one does. I have no idea why not.

Concrete tanks can also crack due to the temperature differential between the inside of the tank, which is cool and wet, and the outside of the tank which is exposed to sunlight. There doesn’t seem to be any way to get around that except shading the tank, and possibly insulating th eoutside of it.

The final commonly used material for water tanks is stainless steel. The stuff your kitchen sink is made out of. It doesn’t corrode (well, it does, but very slowly, giving it a 40 – 70 year lifespan), crack or leak, and it doesn’t leach toxins into the water. It’s durable, and although the seals (usually made from equally inert silicone) can be damaged by fire, the tank itself shouldn’t be harmed. It’s not even much more expensive than a plastic or Aquaplate tank, and can be less expensive than a concrete tank. But.. it’s completely unavailable in WA.

The manufacturers of stainless steel tanks have failed so miserably to tell the public about how much better their product is than the competition that a lot of them don’t get enough sales to keep them in business. Certainly not enough to encourage other people to get into the business. There are two manufacturers in QLD, and another two somewhere in NSW or VIC, and one in TAS. None of them are willing to even give me a quote to ship or freight a tank over to WA. There used to be two manufacturers in WA, maybe more, but they went out of business. Not enough interest in a product which is clearly better than the alternatives, with a longer lifespan. People just don’t think of stainless steel, or if they do think of it they assume it’ll be impossibly expensive.

That is what I call a failure of marketing. Also, very frustrating. Not sure yet what the solution is.

What is burlapcrete?

2012/09/20 deej 1

One of the joys of setting up Gallifrey is getting to try a lot of the things I’ve been interested in for a long time but haven’t had the opportunity to implement. Things like putting in swales and designing a food forest, like large scale outdoor sculptures (I haven’t done any of that yet, but I’m thinking about it), like building a straw bale house, and putting in a big vegetable garden in a good location where I can grow tasty things. Gardens give me so much joy, I’ve wanted to build one of my own for as long as I can remember.

The vegetable garden is, relative to the whole Gallifrey forest project, a small bit of work. It’s also something which can be set up before we’ve got the house built and are living up there, because vegetables don’t need daily attention as long as there’s some kind of automatic watering system and they’re protected from pests. So I designed a vegetable garden.

The design is a mandala pattern, based on a flower mandala I found on the internet. It is centred on a circular open space, with benches for people to sit and rest and admire the garden. This area is surrounded by six stone fruit trees (two cherries, a peach, an apricot, a plum and an almond) which will provide some light shade in the summer for both the people and the garden beds. The trees should all flower at much the same time, providing a springtime display like the Japanese and Korean cherry blossom festivals, but in miniature.

Surrounding this central area are six raised garden beds, for annual vegetables, and siz in-ground beds for perennial vegetables and more spreading annuals. Both the raised and in-ground beds will be hugelkultur beds, to improve the water-retention of the soil without affecting the drainage. This has the added benefit of using some of the dead wood which is currently lying around on the property acting as a fire hazard.

The raised beds we decided to build using earthbags. Partly this was because I wanted to try building something with earthbags, and partly it was because the misprinted grain sacks are cheap and the gravel and dirt to fill them is free, since it’s dug from the site. We have to dig the area out anyway, because the in-ground beds have to start out as holes in the ground which can be filled with dead wood and then topped up with topsoil and compost. The alternatives (building raised beds with bricks, or buying corrugated iron to make them with, or similar) are expensive and/or much more time-consuming.

Earthbags, though, have to be rendered. The bags are made of polypropylene, which is almost indestructible in the dark, but degrades in UV light. Immediately I thought of trying burlapcrete. What is burlapcrete, you may ask. That’s a good question. The short version of the answer is pretty simple – it’s concrete laid using hessian fabric (otherwise known as burlap, or sack cloth) as a substrate and support. Basically the same idea as ferrocement, but instead of using chicken wire or rebar to strengthen the concrete.

There’s a bit of information available online about this idea, mostly in forum posts. Notably, John Annesly’s 2004 blog post on the subject is very thorough, and suggests various concrete mixes as well as offering some very useful general advice.

What we did was mix up a standard rich cement mix (1 part portland cement to 3 parts plasterers’ sand), but mixed it to a much wetter slurry than normal. The consistency was more like runny yoghurt than thick, creamy cement. Then we dipped lengths of wet hessian into the mix, and draped them over the filled and placed earthbag walls. It worked remarkably well, even with just one layer. The raised beds are solid enough to walk on without the cement shell cracking, and they look pretty good, I think. Especially considering we didn’t really know what we were doing until after we’d done it.

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