The local farm shop

2016/03/30 deej 0

Local may be overstating it slightly, but still. We recently visited our closest and most convenient farm shop. Like real grown-up farmers.


For those who may not know, a farm shop is a retailer which specialises in equipment and supplies for farms and farmers. It’s a little like the love-child of a Bunnings style hardware store and the rural bakery/deli that inevitably exists in every small town. They carry everything from reticulation pipes & connectors to worming medications for animals to pasture seed. Which is what we were there for.


This winter is not the time for goats, or geese. This spring still may not be – there’s an awful lot of infrastructure to get in first. But eventually, goats and geese will happen. I am still dreaming of a house cow too, although my spreadsheets tell me that it’s really not financially worthwhile (the cost of annual insemination is too high to make the beef from an annual steer worth it, and milk is so cheap that I can’t use it to offset the cost of keeping a cow unless I bottom out my feed price estimates completely). But either way, we still need pasture, so I did some research, and I have the first pass of pasture seed.


Proper commercial seed, too – it’s kinda exciting. We bought 5 kg each of Irwin Hunters’ Northern Perennial Pasture Mix and SARDI 10 series 2 lucerne. Both are hardy, suited to this locality and climate in a rainfed (non-irrigated) system, and both should be effective in holding down the soil and preventing erosion as well as providing some good fodder for animals. The pasture mix is recommended at 5 – 10 kg per hectare, and the lucerne at 7 – 9 kg per hectare (or 5 – 7 if combined with something else), and as our initial pasture area is about one hectare we thoguth we’d start with that much. I will be adding some other bits & pieces to it as well – marigolds, dandelions, clover, and a bunch of herbs which are supposed to be good for milk flavour and volume in dairy animals. A scattering of flax and sunflowers for variety, and because pastures should have flowers. And because the seeds are good for butterfat content in dairy animals. Maybe radishes or chicory.


The plan is to make a batch of seedballs with this lot, to give the pasture plants the best start we can without heavy tillage. It worked in Japan for Masanobu Fukuoka, so it should work here too. So we’ll be pulling out the seedball machine in a week or two.


This was only my second ever visit to a farm shop (the first being a few years ago to pick up samples of soil bacteria innoculants). It’s still a challenge to me, with my expectation of everything being online and having at least a PDF catalogue on their website – farm shops in general seem to not really have caught on that a website is more than a glossy advertising page a la the old White Pages. Having to go in person or phone just to see if they carry the things I want is weird for me, but I can do it. I have 10 kg of pasture seed to prove that. 🙂

Our First Winter

2012/05/23 deej 0

Winter is here, and the rains have started. Or at least – we had two weeks of rainy weather, and now we have Melbourne winter weather. Cold and dry. It’s lovely for going out in, but my poor baby trees need the wet. K commented the other day that being a permahippy has the unexpected consequence of making you respond to a rainy day with excitement and happiness. So much precious water, so many things that can grow as a result.

The current objective is to extend the tree cover as much as we can before next summer, to provide shade for planting fruit trees, and to start building soil. With that in mind, we’ve been planting seedling trees, which are doing beautifully so far, and we’ve seeded the swale mounds with broad bean (Vicia faba), green lentil (Lens culinaris), and lupin bean (Lupinus spp.) seeds, which are all sprouting. It’s very exciting.

We’ve made (or attempted) a first generation of seed balls, containing some tough, drought tolerant tree seeds (mainly wattles and black locust), pioneer shrubs and groundcovers, and flowers. Flowers for our soon-to-be-established bees, to bring birds and insects onto the property, and just for the joy of flowers – which is, I think, a highly underrated motivation.

The seed ball making wasn’t a complete success. It’s difficult to get red clay powder, or in fact any powdered clay, here so we used bentonite clay which is sold to be dug into garden beds to assist with water retention. It works, but it isn’t ground up very finely, and when you add minerals to it in the form of rock dust it ends up being quite gritty. On top of that, our compost was a little bit gritty as well, with wood fibre in it that hadn’t completely broken down. As a result, our mixture was reasonably granular, and didn’t nucleate as well as I’d hoped. We did make seed balls, but it didn’t go as smoothly as expected.

Lessons for next time? Don’t add rock dust – just sprinkle that out separately on the ground when we broadcast the seed balls. Use the finest clay powder available. Use a more fine-textured compost. I should relax and not be quite such a perfectionist about it.

UPDATE: And after all that, the seed balls worked out fine. We broadcast them last weekend, as well as digging some more swales and starting the Polish swales, and planting another load of tree seedlings.

“The Machine” – An instructional

2012/05/09 kai 0

It’s only been 2 days since we set up this blog, and already D has gone crazy with the writings below. I figured it was probably about time I contributed somewhat to the effort and I thought the best place I could add value was in giving a bit of a breakdown on how we made the seedball machine and the costs/effort involved.

We’d first seen a seedball making machine on youtube in a video which, sadly, I’ve not been able to find again. There are quite a few other videos out there but it was really the only one that showed how it had been made from start to finish, including the seedball scoop. I really liked the idea of a machine (especially after making 600 of the buggers by hand) and it seemed like a fun construction project.

D seemed pretty keen on making a bicycle powered one after seeing the milkwood video and I also liked the idea of it being independent of power. Not to mention that anything that allows me to avoid mains power is probably a good thing.

My first sketch of the machine (to the right) was pretty much from memory of the original video we saw. It consisted of basically;

  • A table on which small wheels were mounted upwards
  • A large barrel with two open ends, mounted on the wheels to turn
  • A belt going down to a roller below the table
  • A second belt going to the power source of the machine, in this case a (badly drawn) bicycle, but a motor in the original. (We had an old dead bicycle carcass (2 flat tires and a bent rim) given to us for free. Check your local areas for bike exchanges or friends wanting to get rid of old bikes. It’s usually easy to find something useable.)


My thought was that the bicycle could easily be swapped out with a motor at a later date if we felt we wanted to do that. The core of the machine is an old olive barrel. It’s perfect in that it’s robust, large and already has a curving lip at the top and the bottom should you choose to cut these off. Ensuring that your mixture stays in the barrel with minimal fuss. It’s a 190 litre barrel and cost us $20 from a local person selling them off.

The original design called for a frame of wood, kind of like a table with a opening in the top and a solid floor below the feet with a axle mounted on it. However while talking with D’s step-dad T, he mentioned that he had an old broken Bunnings saw-horse, cutting table…thing in the garage that might suit. It was perfect! It even folded down! I turned it upside down and removed the broken wooden support surface. I then screwed 2 lengths of wood longwise across the two legs.  This was all flipped over and used as the base for the barrel.

To this I added 4 x trolly wheels purchased at Bunnings. These were a little tricky to find in the maze of Bunnings and come in a variety of sizes, I ended up choosing 4 with a diameter of about 8-10 centimeters. This seemed large enough to give the barrel enough clearance to turn while still maintaining a good surface area contact. These were the most expensive part of the final design at $19 each, but you could probably use any second hand trolly wheels you can get your hands on.

Do make sure to place your wheels and check that your barrel clears the wooden rails before attaching them, or there shall be embarrassment later. Also make sure that your wheels are aligned both side to side and longways or your barrel will sit crookedly and bounce/jostle while it turns. Here is a shot of what your creation should look like if all goes well.The barrel will turn easily and smoothly at this point with no jumping or sticking.

Now to power it! My original design called for an axle under the barrel that took a belt from axle to barrel, then a second belt from axle to power source to turn it. Once again T came to the rescue of my overcomplicated design and asked why we couldn’t just run a belt directly from the barrel to the wheel, given there was now a nice gap in the front of the “device” table. I agreed that this was a fine plan and we ran a test string from the bike directly to the barrel to see if it worked. In the picture to the right you can see the original thought for the axle (a PVC pipe with a looser PVC pipe over it) still in place. This was later removed.

In order to run the string/belt we removed the rear tire of the bike so the string could fit in the groove where the tire normally goes. This worked well and seems to be impossible to get to “jump” out through abuse.

In order to hold the bike in place we created a fairly simple rear wheel “hold-up-a-thinger” out of some scrap wood, nails and two D-nuts. A base line of wood (here a board that we had spare, but any flat piece should work) with two uprights measured for placement and angle to be just outside the rear horizontal swingarm of the bike. Sadly I have no close ups of this available but might add this later.

We then used two angled D bolts to go around the swingarm and through (outwards) the two uprights. Securing these in place with washers and nuts. Make sure your uprights are tall enough to hold the wheel a good 6-10 CM clear of the base board when bolted on. Next we used our test bit of string from the wheel to the barrel to give it a go: SUCCESS!

The string actually worked surprisingly well. It was a slightly stretchy string, almost elastic, and very cheap from Bunnings. ($8 for 10 meters). It worked so well in fact that I, with much sadness, pushed aside the (rather expensive) rubber belt I had bought and decided to just stick with the string as the belt was quite wide and did not sit well in the bicycles wheel groove.

After this there was just the business of getting the bike level and comfy to ride. For this we simply built an upside down “T” shape out of wood that just fit between the front forks of the bike with the wheel off. Next we drilled a hole right through the top of the post at the right height and ran a long bolt through it that would fit into the axle slots on the front fork. Finally we mounted the frot forks on this and added washers and a nut to clamp it down solidly.

Viola! A finished seed ball machine.

I’m looking forward to “giving it a spin” as it were. Total cost breakdown was as follows.

  • Bike: Donated, free
  • Wood: recycled scrap, free
  • Trolly Wheels: Bought at hardware store, 4 x $19
  • Barrel: Bought via local second hand, $20
  • Rope: Bought at local hardware store, $8

Grand total? : $104

And you could easily get that down by using old trolly wheels on the base from somewhere. The only addition I intend on making to the machine so far is to get one of those “no slip” bath mats and wrap it around the barrel to give the rope a slightly better purchase. It works fine as it is but you have to accelerate up at a steady pace. It can sometimes slip if you put too much sudden power into it. I’m also considering a thicker rope, but it depends on how well the current one does.

The only other suggestion I’ve had (which was genius) relates to the fact that I have an old “Magic Pie” Electric bicycle wheel lying around from when I used an electric Bike. A friend pointed out that if I wanted to safely and quickly “be lazy” I could simply pop the rear wheel off the bike and replace it with the Magic Pie electric wheel. It’s a 2kw wheel and runs off a battery pack. It’s PLENTY powerful enough to spin the barrel for hours and even has a “cruise control” button, so we could get it to a speed we like and lock it there. No muss, no fuss! So if we find peddling gets too tiring we can charge the battery up via solar and let the sun do our work for us. 🙂


Seed Balls

2012/05/09 deej 6

Seed balls are an ingenious idea, developed and pioneered by Masanobu Fukuoka. Fukuoka was a Japanese farmer and philosopher, and an early proponent of natural farming. He suggested that much of the effort that humans put into agriculture is wasted, and that we should instead be working with the natural environment. Seed balls are one way of doing that.

Fukuoka wrote “If rice is sown in the autumn and left uncovered, the seeds are often eaten by mice and birds, or they sometimes rot on the ground, and so I enclose the rice seeds in little clay pellets before sowing. The seed is spread out on a flat pan or basket is shaken back and forth in a circular motion. Fine powdered clay is dusted over them and a thin mist of water is added from time to time. This forms a tiny pellet about a half-inch in diameter. There is another method for making the pellets. First, the unhulled rice seed is soaked for several hours in water. The seeds are removed and mixed with moist clay by kneading with hands or feet. Then the clay is pushed through a screen of chicken wire to separate it into small clods. The clods should be left to dry for a day or two or until they can be easily rolled between the palms into pellets. Ideally, there is one seed in each pellet. In one day it is possible to make enough pellets to seed several acres. Depending on conditions, I sometimes enclose the seeds of other grains and vegetables in pellets before sowing.” (Masanobu Fukuoka [1978]. The One-Straw Revolution, p.99.)

It’s a very simple idea. Seed balls are simply scattered directly onto the ground, and not planted, which provides a huge reduction in the time and effort to plant any large area. The clay protects the seeds from birds, insects, and harsh weather conditions until enough rain falls to melt the clay and germinate the seeds. The seed ball contains a mixture of different seeds, and their planting is left to the elements and random selection, so that the most appropriate plant in the most appropriate position will emerge, and require the least attention. Seeds can be mixed to form deliberate companion planting guilds, or a variety of seeds can be included to ensure a varied ecosystem results. Many people include chilli powder, mint, or pennyroyal to repel ants from digging the seeds out of the seed balls, and you can also add inoculant for legumes and the spores of mycorrhizal fungi to encourage a healthy soil ecosystem from the start.

We tried an initial round of seed ball making, using 1 part seeds to 3 parts vermicompost, 1 part chilli powder, 5 parts bentonite clay with added minerals, and approximately 2 parts water. Red clay powder is hard to get here, and the only benefit in using red clay over bentonite is the mineral content. Conclusion: hand rolling around 600 seed balls takes a long time, and it gets really easy to roll them too big. It was fun, but I think it would quickly get to be less fun considering that for our 7.5 acres we expect to need something like 300,000 seed balls (at a recommended application rate of ten seed balls per square metre, or more to reclaim derelict land.).

Automation beckoned as a solution. The internet abounds with ideas and designs for machines for making seed balls. The basic premise is a barrel or drum and a mechanism to roll it in place. The dry seed ball mix is introduced into the rolling drum, and water is sprayed onto the dry mix until it begins to nucleate and form small balls. A mesh screen is used to catch seed balls once they reach a certain size and remove them from the drum.

The machine is simple and straightforward, and we would have gone ahead and built one with a motor to roll the barrel, just like all the rest on the internet, except that I saw Milkwood Permaculture’s bicycle powered machine. It’s ingeniously low tech, and can run anywhere without needing a battery or an electricity outlet. As far as I can tell, it’s also the only bicycle powered seed ball machine anywhere (or at least, the only one on the internet). Until now.

One recycled bicycle frame, modified plastic olive barrel (also recycled, and thoroughly cleaned of olive flavoured brine), some wood and stretchy rope later – we have The Machine. It hasn’t yet had its inaugural use, but it spins perfectly. Watch this space for updates.