2016/01/08 deej 0

One of ethics of permaculture is ‘right livelihood’, which is a boiled down abstraction of the idea that people should be able to make a living – being environmentally conscious doesn’t necessarily mean giving up on commerce. Which is good news for those of us with a mortgage. I want to be ethical in my interactions with the rest of the world, even the financial ones, but I also want my bills to get paid.

On that front, although this property is home now, and a test bed for a great many ideas and experiments (such as my dino-chook project – more on that in a later post), it is also intended to be a productive farm. Not just productive in terms of providing us with fresh, ethically produced food with low food miles and a certainty of no pesticide residues, but in terms of producing things for sale, to make a profit with which to pay for things we can’t produce ourselves (including mortgage repayments). I don’t think that Gallifrey Forest Farm will be making enough to free us entirely from our day jobs any time soon, but.. well, let’s call it an aspirational goal.

For this aspirational goal to become reality, we need some profitable enterprises. In order to count as profitable, an enterprise must bring in enough money to cover not only the associated production and packaging costs (e.g. fertilising the trees which produce the fruit, sugar to add to the fruit, bottles and labels for the resulting jam, etc.) but also the cost of our time. I have a notional minimum hourly rate which I would bill myself out at as an IT contractor. This rate is less than my day job currently pays me, but it’s enough to pay my share of the bills, and working on farm stuff is much more satisfying to me than my day job so it works out. If the amount of time that I need to spend working on an enterprise, billed at that minimum hourly rate, pushes the cost of the finished item past what someone would reasonably pay for it, then that item just isn’t profitable. And since estimating how much time something will take is actually part of my day job, I’m pretty good at it.

The end result is that a lot of farming enterprises which look superficially cool are almost immediately off the list. Milk, for example: keeping goats or a house cow to produce milk for our own use is definitely worthwhile, but selling milk just isn’t. The cost of producing and packaging and certifying it leaves a very, very slim profit margin (or no margin, depending on packaging choices, wholesale costs, and the cost of animal feed). Cider, on the other hand, seems like a good option. Wine has weird taxes placed on it, but cider and beer don’t. I don’t like beer, so there’s no chance I’ll be able to work out how to brew a good one, but I do enjoy a good artisanal cider (for anyone in the US, I’m talking about hard cider, with alcohol in it – not just apple juice).

This also works out well for me because one of my passions is heritage fruit tree varieties. So, with cider production in mind, I’ve been looking at lists of old apple varieties, and making a shopping list. I’ve whittled it down to 32 varieties, mostly dessert apples (i.e. good for eating fresh) with a few cider-specific types for the astringency and acid I’ll need for a good cider. Today I planted the first six trees, which I bought as bare-root stock last summer and have been keeping in pots since then. Only another 26 trees to buy and plant.

It made me happy, planting them. Even in the heat this morning, dripping sweat as I dug holes for them and hauled watering cans full of water to settle them in, it felt good. Next step, a couple’ve boxes of apples from the market, an apple press, a brewing kit, and some experimentation. Who’s in to taste-test the results? 🙂


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 🙂

flopsy, mopsy & cottontail

2013/04/29 deej 0

I’ve spent the last few weeks researching rabbits. I have my reasons.

First reason is that K indicated an interest in spinning, and I thought I’d look into how viable it would be to have a little cottage industry setup selling yarn, and possibly raw fleece. (Answer: limited to zero for making any actual money/profit)

Your basic wool animal is a sheep, but I dislike sheep. I’ve never met a bright one, or one that didn’t stink, although I’ve been assured by people who like sheep that they don’t inherently stink. After sheep, there are goats (cashmere goats, which produce cashmere, and angora goats, which produce mohair), alpacas, and angora rabbits (which produce angora).

At the same time, I’ve been reading and thinking about the Russian domestication experiment with silver foxes. Short version: the researchers took mostly-wild foxes from a fur farm and bred them for domestication, using a lowered fear response to humans as demonstrated by least avoidance behaviours and lowered agression as the main selection criterion. Within 8 generations they had adult foxes which wagged their tails like dogs, whined and fawned for attention from their keepers, and showed a diverse range of colouring and coat patterns. After 50-some years of the breeding program, the domesticated foxes are adorable, completely domesticated housepets.

I’m absolutely fascinated with genetics, and I really want to replicate the experiment. But not with foxes. Keeping foxes is illegal in Australia (even assuming we could live-trap enough for a starting gene pool), and there are hefty fines for doing it. I considered ferrets, but they’re tricky to breed (female ferrets which go into season and aren’t bred will often die!) and there probably isn’t much call for super-domesticated ferrets. Ferret fanciers don’t mind the slightly bitey nature of ferrets, and non-ferret-fanciers won’t have a ferret anyway. Rats are an option, but again – what do you do with your super-domesticated rats? Rat fanciers will keep rats anyway, and other people will still dislike them. Rabbits, though – rabbits are a possibility.

Rabbits are only semi-domesticated, in that they still display fear responses and avoidance behaviours towards humans (unlike labrador dogs, for example, or even domestic cats), so there’s the potential for the experiment to show obvious results. They reproduce fast, which is desirable to get results in a resaonable timeframe. They’re easy to get, legal to keep, and thay’re also useful. Angora rabbits are a possible wool animal, and I was considering keeping rabbits as meat animals anyway.

However, before getting too heavily invested in the idea of keeping rabbits for meat, I thought it might be wise to try it. I’d never (knowingly) eaten rabbit. So I made rabbit stew the other day. I got a farmed rabbit form the butcher, and followed instruction on youtube to debone it (I was fine with the tiny little carcass, but K had to leave the room, and my mother made slightly horrified noises about eating Flopsy, Mopsy, or Cottontail when I told her about it). One slow cooker later, rabbit stew.

Nom nom nom. Turns out that I like rabbit. Especially with a bit of red wine, tomatoes & garlic.


As an aside, I have no idea how fibre farmers make enough money to keep going. Not only is it a negative sum, financially, to keep Angora rabbits, this is also the case for angora goats, cashmere goats, and alpacas.

The goats become (just) financially viable if you include the savings from milking them (and using that milk instead of buying milk) and eating the unwanted baby goats produced to keep the does in milk (instead of buying meat). Alpacas, similarly, become (just) viable if you breed them once a year and include the savings from eating the young alpacas instead of buying meat. Rabbits are only viable to keep for wool if you can reduce the time spent checking their health, handling them, and making sure they have food & water down to 1 minute per rabbit per day or less. How do farmers survive???



the fall of advertising

2013/03/14 deej 0

I don’t know what the crossover is between permaculture and plant nerds (and gardeners, farmers, sustainability seekers, etc.) and technology nerds, but I fall into that demographic.

And, like most people who spend any amount of time online, I hate online advertising. I despise uutoplay video and audio on websites (even non-advertising video and audio, to be fair). Ads prepended to my video feeds so that in order to watch <cool new music video> I have to sit through <boring and irrelevant advert for something I don’t want or need> are obnoxious. Even the banner ads on most sites irritate me, with their blaringly loud colours and inclination to use up to 60% of the screen. So I use ad-blocker software. Lots of people do – increasing numbers of us in fact, 50% or more of the users on some sites.

A story linked on Slashdot a few days ago highlighted the problems that ad blockers cause for a lot of journalists and news sites – if they don’t get any revenue from ads, where will they get enough revenue to survive? Advertisers are becoming disillusioned with the whole web advertising thing as a way to target potential customers, because even if some people do still allow ads, at least non-invasive ads, enough people disable them completely to make the advertising not really financially viable.

It puts  journalists in the same boat as visual artists, authors of fiction, animators and musicians. How do you get paid to do what you do? The traditional ways for artists to get paid were patronage (which, these days includes distributed patronage – e.g. Kickstarter) and busking, i.e. donations.

Paywalls are a dead-end alley, in that there is so much information and entertainment available online for free that asking for payment to even visit a news site in case there’s something interesting or important there just sends a lot of users to another site. Patronage is an option, but most direct patrons these days are corporations and we all know what happens when journalists or scientists have their salaries paid by corporations. Distrubuted patronage works best for one-of things – a documentary, an album, an invention going to market, a specific novel or graphic novel. It isn’t such a good model for ongoing work like day to day journalism and reporting.

It is possible that a journalist could ask for payments for individual articles, paywalling the articles rather than the entire site on which they reside. I think that’s a good model – let us read the first paragraph or a summary, and then ask for a micropayment to read the full article. But doing that requires a reputation for high quality content, and a niche in which the free content is not as high quality as the content you provide. In other words, it’s hard, especially for news organisations which would then have to deal with how much of the micropayment went to the writer, how much to the photographer or videographer, and how much to the site itself, not to mention the less visible employees like administrators, proofreaders, and typesetters.

Which leaves you with donations. The poor cousin of income generation schemes.

Donations are hard, but they might work. A lot of sites now include ‘Donate’ or ‘Flattr‘ buttons to allow micropayments from users. But it’s tough to know how well it works – are those webcomic authors making a decent living on donations and merchandising, or are they subsidised bya  day job or a partner with a day job? Without knowing how viable it is, journalists and news sites are unlikely to try it.

Which brings us to the actual, original point of this post: someone is running an experiment with voluntary micropayments, which is linked on Slashdot. No actual money is involved, it’s just theoretical. You add an app to your bookmarks toolbar, and then when you find content you enjoy you click on one of those links (1 to 3 cents), depending on how amazing you thought the content was. Your “tip” is recorded, and that’s it. There’s a summary page that tells you how much you would have spent, and the experimenter will be releasing anonymized analyses of the data to see if this sort of system is viable in the wild. I think it’s a pretty neat experiment. If you’re game, go sign up.