harvest_kids

The buzz about small scale Bee-keeping

We have been bee-keepers for close on 6 years now, and we do it for a few reasons, we have an orchard that needs pollinating, we grow vegetable seed for re-sale so often bees are required there, my wife makes soap, hand creams and lip-balm and she often uses bee’s wax there. I use bee’s wax when tying flies, OK I don’t use much but I still need some bee’s wax.

Lastly, fresh unfiltered honey on the comb is a delicacy that will require you keeping your own bees or knowing a beekeeper that will sell you some. Honey can store indefinitely… I must stress the ‘can part’ because invariably it does not in our house.

Now when I say we are bee-keepers I say that in the loose sense of the word, a professional is an Apiarist… we are bee-keepers. I feel a distinction should be made, as professionals run their operations (as it should) like a business. We mere bee-keepers just keep a few hives to keep our family and the occasional lucky friend in honey once or twice a year.

For the uninitiated most honey in South Africa is imported from China under much controversy and disrespect for our laws, the public’s health and the serious Apiarist in South Africa. ALL honey in South Africa needs to be labelled with the country(s) of origin, and if it’s a local beekeeper it needs to have his contact details on it. Imported honey legally needs to be radurised…. basically a nice way of saying that it’s been stuck into a nuclear reactor to kill of anything that may be in the honey, Good or Bad.

Unfortunately, bad honey is being brought into South Africa and at the same time bringing with it new diseases. One of the most recent and devastating  of the imported diseases is “AFB” American Foul Brood that was believed to have been brought in with contaminated honey that was fed to our local bees. What a lot of guys are doing is blending South African and imported honey to make it more ‘acceptable’ to the consumer. As if a little bit of poison should be acceptable.

I encourage everyone that I talk to too either have a hive or two or find a reputable Apiarist that you can buy honey from. Cut out the importer and make him feel the pain of deceiving the South African consumer.

OK onto the good stuff, now that I have had my little rant. There are many different styles of bee hives that one could look at. The two most common are the Langstroth and the Top Bar Hive (TBH). Langstroths are used by all the professionals as it a workable design that allows Apiarists to move hives around easily when they follow a honey-flow or are doing contract pollination. TBH’s are the ‘new generation’ of traditional hives that are making inroads into the bee-keeping world. Beekeepers will argue until the wax melts about which design is better, and the merits of each.

Newly completed hive, not even dry but the bees are moving in already
Newly completed hive, not even dry but the bees are moving in already

For us ma’Plotters we prefer a TBH for a few reasons, not being an expert and not needing to move hives from one place to the next, the much larger TBH holds a larger swarm, the hive is in a more natural configuration for the bees, when opening the hive it tends to lose less heat (or so I’m told), because the hive is so large there is less chance of the bees swarming off as they have room to expand the colony. This in turn give a larger honey crop to the bee-keeper… which is why we are keeping bees.

Now, my design is a mix of various designs but the original idea can from the late Tim Jackson and his son Crispin who made a plastic hive of similar proportions. I use Marine Ply as the wood for my hive. It’s a bit more expensive, however I find that it lasts very well, especially with a lick or two of Waksol sealant every other year.

Unlike most TBH’s that just use a top bar and no frame, I use a full size Langstroth frame (Brood Frame) that will allow me to wire and spin the combs if required. We don’t wire our frames as we harvest both the honey and the wax. But the option is there if we ever need to. I like having options as it gives one flexibility if our needs ever change. If you don’t harvest the wax you will get a higher honey production as the bees eat honey to produce the wax. Re-using the wax saves them a lot of work making new wax. Any frames that have beautiful straight comb we try to return to the hive.

It was going to be a cold spring evening (2009) so I helped the swarm in.
It was going to be a cold spring evening (2009) so I helped the swarm in.

Many Apiarists say that it’s hard to keep the brood and honey separate, as the queen will lay eggs all over the hive. I have found that if you separate the storage and brood frames with an empty frame the queen most often will not cross the gap and lay eggs in the storage combs. A simple solution that would cost most “langstrothers” a queen excluder per hive.

How much honey do we get, I estimate that we pull about 20-30 kg’s per hive per year. Yes I could get more, but I like to leave more than enough honey in the hive for the bees to live off in winter.

If you are keen on starting out with bees have a look at this book. Written by South Africans for South Africans, it’s a very good introduction to beekeeping for the self-sustainably minded person.

It will give you a good grounding in how hives work and it even has information on queen rearing, something that I have not tried but I believe is very rewarding.

harvest_kids

Poultry for Sustainability

Am I the only one, or have you also noticed in recent years that young girls are ‘developing’ at an earlier age? My firm belief is that this phenomenon is intrinsically related to the amounts of hormones, antibiotics and associated junk that have been fed, injected and variously sprayed onto the food that makes up the bulk of modern diets. This in turn is passed onto us and our children. Generally we have no way of monitoring or ascertaining what pesticides, drugs and poisons are being added to our foods, we just believe that ‘they’ would never do anything that is harmful to us. Mmmm, somehow methinks that people are too gullible. ‘They’ are more concerned about profits and fast turnaround times than the health and wellbeing of the dutifully trusting public.

Proud Koekkoek Cock
One of my Koekoek Cocks.... a good looking bird if I may say so myself

So, where does one start in the first step of providing a healthy source of meat for your family? One of the first animals that most people on farms and smallholdings decide to acquire, are chickens. The reason for this is generally the ease of obtaining birds, and for many the perception is that they do not require much in the way of housing or feed. Or so it’s believed, very few people realise that a poorly managed flock becomes a constant financial drain on the resources of a farm, especially one that is trying to be self-sustainable. What people do is either get a few birds from a local auction, get ‘passed on’ birds, or they pick up some day old chicks from a roadside vendor, all in my opinion are poor choices.

Black Australorp pair
The beautiful Black Australorp is a firm favorite in South Africa

Most people believe that any bird will do, and they like the idea of a multi coloured flock running around their farm. The problem here is that you never know what kind of bird you are getting. A mixed flock may look nice and homely, but invariably it has major limitations. Not all birds are equal. Generally if they have been bought off auction, it’s the runts and poor layers are sold off, this is not even thinking of the sick and diseased birds, or the diseases and parasites that are transferred in an open auction environment.  So you are literally starting off on the back foot, with poor stock. It is very difficult to build up a sustainable flock if your foundation birds are made up of the unwanted birds from another flock.  The day old chicks on the roadside are very often males only. Battery birds are sex-linked to be able to sex the chicks on day one, the females are kept for mass egg production and the males being worthless, are sold to vendors that sell them off to the passing trade. These males make very poor meat birds, and not much good for anything else. I have a friend that recently bought broiler birds from a local auction, they looked fine and I could not tell what breed they were. However the lady that sold them assured us that they were top quality broilers. Three weeks later, these chicks have not gained much weight and honestly look as if they are still only a week old. So, the lesson here is, when you are at an auction and looking at any kind of livestock. Beware! Don’t take what’s said for granted.

It’s always best to do a bit of research into what kind of bird is needed for your family, before you rush out and ‘just quickly get some birds’. Are you looking for egg production, a meat bird, would you prefer a dual purpose bird that is good for both meat and eggs? Or are you a vegetarian that does not want the birds for any kind of consumption but would rather have a scratcher to assist with bug control in the veggie garden? There are chickens for almost every requirement that you may have, but how do you find out what is the right bird for you? This is an individual choice, and needs to be made with some kind of plan in mind. Setting out your goals and requirements are paramount. From there you can work out what is needed in a breed to sustain your family.

White Leghorns are great producers of white shelled eggs
White Leghorns are great producers of white shelled eggs

Our first flock of birds was a rush purchase for egg production. We bought a flock of 30 laying hens from a friend at work. Based on our understanding and calculations, we would be able to run a small profit from almost day one. The birds were duly delivered and we waited expectantly to make our promised deliveries of free range eggs. However, the birds were just not laying as expected. After much discussion amongst those in the know, we found out that a diet of grain and free-ranging was not conducive to high egg production. These birds have been specifically bred to be fed a high protein diet, they required 18 hours of artificial light every day and they needed to be housed in closed batteries. Not something that we wanted. We wanted real free range eggs, locking them up to increase production went totally against what we believed. Once we realised our error, we could not even slaughter the birds for our own consumption as they were not meat birds, they were purely egg layers.

We now had to rethink our entire poultry set-up. What we wanted was a hardy dual purpose bird that would do well free-ranging, with a grain based diet to supplement their protein requirements. In addition it had to have a high egg and meat production that would provide us with a good protein source. Personally I am partial to indigenous animals so naturally we had a look at what was available. I started speaking to an expert poultryman and he was able to supply me with some day old Koekoeks, these birds were considered for many years as one of South Africa’s finest dual purpose breeds. The Koekkoek was developed in Potchefstroom by line-breeding three top class heritage breeds. The Black Australorp (Meat and Eggs), the Plymouth Barred Rock (Meat and Eggs) and the White Leghorn (Eggs) from this mix the Koekoek was developed and a unique South African breed was developed that fit the bill for a locally robust and productive bird. Unfortunately, it has now fallen out of fashion due to the commercial Ross, Cobb, Hiline and other breeds that are now used for concentrated meat and egg production. The Koekoek has over the last 6 years been the main breed that we have worked with on our property. We have been through a number of generations of this amazing bird that is a consistent layer and a wonderful meat bird. As to being hardy, I can attest that we have had birds that have easily survived -8 C winters with no additional heat or supplementation.

A good looking Plymouth Barred Rock Cock
A good looking Plymouth Barred Rock Cock

My advice to new or prospective poultry owners is to firstly understand what you want from a breed, each breed has strong and weak points. Then find a breeder, or two (try get Cocks and Hen’s from two separate lines) that keep the breed you are looking for. A good place to start is the classifieds in agricultural magazines or The South African Show Poultry Organisation. http://www.saspo.org.za First decide if you want to buy adult birds or if you are prepared to take on chicks and raise them. If you take chicks they will be cheaper so you can get more birds for your money, but you will need to have the correct set-up to raise them. Such as infra-red lamps, drown proof waterers, chick food dispensers, a cosy well ventilated draught free place, and the right food. All of this comes at a cost and needs to be factored into the equation. Depending on the season, it can take you up to a year to get them to the point of laying your first eggs. Birds generally start laying at 6 months, however if you start them late in spring or summer you could have birds that don’t come into lay before winter and you might have to feed them the whole winter before you get your first eggs in spring.

If however you decide on adults, expect to pay a premium, as the breeder has already got them to a breeding age, taken the mortality losses and fed and cared for them. Expect to pay at least a few hundred rand for a trio of pure-bred birds. The cost however will be paid back in higher egg production and better slaughter weights than anything generally available from an auction. One word of caution when purchasing from Show Poultry breeders. Make sure that you ask for commercial stock and not show stock. Don’t fall for the idea that you need show quality birds, show birds often do not have the ‘working traits’ that one would need for self-sustainability. Many working breeds have been reduced to pure show breeds and do not have the desirable traits that the traditional working birds used to possess. This I believe is a failure on the show breeder’s side as the original robust genetic integrity has been traded for prestige on the show bench. Very good examples of this can be seen in the low fertility or inbreeding found in Indian Games (Cornish Hens) and Wyandottes. Two of my favourite breeds, that I have stopped working with due to the poor genetics available in South Africa.

Golden Wyandotte hen showing the beautiful lacing on their plumage
Golden Wyandotte hen showing the beautiful lacing on their plumage

The satisfaction that you gain from running a purebred flock is immense, excluding the additional benefits of quality meat and eggs, you are able to use the birds in trades with others looking for high quality birds. We have used our birds to trade for other desirable breeds as well as selling birds directly for an additional income or to pay for their own keep. The difference in quality is clearly apparent when two birds of differing quality are placed next to one another. To have a flock of birds that even a novice can see are superior is a worthy achievement. I want to encourage you to have a good look at the heritage breeds of poultry that are available in South Africa. Within these breeds lie the future of your self-sustainability. They are genetically robust, they are able to provide and reward your families with quality meat and eggs, and this for very little input and maintenance as opposed to factory breeds. Lastly, you will have the honour of keeping alive rare and fast vanishing breeds that may very well provide the basis and genetic blueprint of future breeding stock.

The next meat bird that many people try, are turkeys. Here is a bird that is almost guaranteed to frustrate, as they are notoriously difficult to raise and breed on a sustainable basis. Nearly all of the turkeys that are sold in our supermarkets are Large Breasted Whites. This is a highly selected variety of turkey that is unable to reproduce, the turkey hens need to be artificially inseminated to produce viable eggs. Basically the ability to self-perpetuate has been destroyed in favour of faster growth and more breast meat. The mind boggles at what needs to happen on a turkey farm ensure the successful production of the next generation of ‘healthy meat’. We won’t even go down the mental logistics that this act requires, suffice to say it does not bode well for the genetics of turkeys, where nearly all the birds bred by this method are from an incredibly small gene pool. With such limited genes in the global turkey population, all it will take is a viral outbreak to wipe out an industry, and bring upon the world a disaster of tremendous proportions. The same applies even more too chicken populations, thankfully without the artificial insemination issues….. yet.

Turkey Tom in full display for his girls
Turkey Tom in full display for his girls

With free-range turkeys the story is a lot different. The Tom’s (the males) have a harem of female hens that they preen, puff and generally show off for. Egg production is a hit and miss affair that may or may not work out. Often the turkey hen forgets where she’s laid her eggs and starts a new batch elsewhere. Two year and older hens seem to have better success and hatch rates. Once the little chicks hatch, this is when the next danger period starts. They are notoriously prone to the slightest infection or draught. A common saying goes; ”If the weather report says bad weather will arrive tomorrow evening, the chicks start dying tonight.” However once they are past the initial few weeks, what a pleasure. Being able to watch the fluffy little chicks transform into beautiful glistening bronzed adults, with sunlight reflecting off their iridescent feathers, more than makes up for all the hassles of the first few weeks. Turkeys are predominantly grazers and go through a surprising amount of green food, always make sure that they have some form of greens available. Winter may be a problem, what we do is plant a lot of cabbage and other brassica’s to supplement our birds in the dry winter months. One thing I can say is that free-range turkey is without a doubt the best flavoured meat that you will ever taste. Unfortunately, there is no way to get real free-range turkey meat than to do it yourself.

Finally, a word on using your animals for the table. This issue is by its very nature, sensitive. I for one look at the issue from a sustainability and health view. Trying to become self-sustainable and being an omnivore presents unique challenges. Some will vehemently disagree with my beliefs and frankly they have the right to do so. Each person has their own self entitled belief system that is shaped by their perceptions and worldview. My belief system allows me the luxury of meat, for others it may not. The fact that our family consumes meat is compounded by the need to provide this protein source in a healthy and ethical manner. Either I buy plastic, hormone laden meat from a shop or I produce it myself. The idea of eating meat that has been unethically raised revolts me and I take great pleasure in being able to feed my family with healthy meat, meat that has been bred and raised on our own property, where the animals have led a contented life without the multitude of stresses that occur in an unnatural factory farm environment.

The slaughter of these animals is a solemn and dirty task, there is no pleasure in this act. It is however required to get this food source onto the plates of my family. What it does do for our family is underpin the cycle of life that we as humans are so quick to gloss over, or are even loath to consider. Especially when one picks up a clean and sanitised pack of chops, or de-boned chicken breasts off the supermarket shelf, without a second thought as to what was required to get this protein source to our tables. Uniquely, every one of my children understands exactly where the drumstick or chop that lies on their plate comes from. They have been intimately involved in raising and feeding our animals, and as such understand the work involved to get this food onto their plates. This in itself provides a profound respect and insight into the value of our animals and what I believe is an integral part of the noble pursuit of becoming self-sustainable.

EDIT: 27 March 2011. In Spring of this year (Sept-Oct) we will be supplying day old heritage chickens of a variety of breeds. If you are interested please sign-up to our newsletter (On the right side of this page) and we will keep you informed as to what we have available.

harvest_kids

Bargaining, Bartering and lessons in haste.

We live in a world where most things can be bought electronically, you can pay your bills, buy things, sell things (yes I’m guilty) browse the local super market, even buy individual songs online and not just the whole album.

What I’d like to do is talk about an almost lost art. Bartering and bargaining and haggling for a desirable item.

Bartering has been with us from when man first had the ability to perceive value. The value of an item is generally defined in today’s world as a price, and in South Africa it’s generally in Rands. That price has the tendency to increase every few months. Contrary to what most people believe, it’s not that the item is getting more expensive. It’s that the money that you have in your hand is losing value. But that is a whole other discussion.

So back to bartering and bargaining. I love to haggle, I feel it’s one of the best ways to get the best value for your produce or your hard earned cash. There is skill in bargaining and bartering, it’s a skill that is often learnt the hard way, by getting the raw end of the deal. This post is hopefully an instructional post, where you can learn from our mistakes, and possibly some of the info that we have picked up by going to an auction or flea-market with people who know more than us.

Here is one of our “failed” attempts at barter. I say “failed” as it’s debateable as a failure, we achieved what we wanted… in the end. We also learnt some valuable barter and bargaining lessons and about patience in training animals… something my wife says I need a lot of. Patience not training! Ok that’s debatable as well… onto the story, please.

A few years back we decided to get a milk cow, after much research we decided on a Dexter. As they were a good dual purpose breed that did not produce milk in excess with a fairly high butterfat content and also would not be too heavy on our grazing. At that point the value of Dexter’s suddenly shot from being an almost unknown breed into the limelight and prices doubled accordingly (and they are still rising). We could just not afford to pay cash for a cow. So we set about planning on how we could get a Dexter for ourselves.

We also keep Pedi Sheep, an indigenous breed that is hardy, requires minimal inputs, needs no de-worming nor dips and the ewes drop 3 lambs every 2 years. They are the perfect sheep where minimal maintenance is required, and compliment organic grass fed meat production. We started off with just 4 sheep seven years ago and now eat at least 5-7 rams that are 100% organic and grass fed every year. Our flock fluctuates between 20 and 30 animals, mostly ewes and slaughter rams. At the same time that we were looking for the Dexter we had a surplus of ewes in our flock that we needed to cull. So I put and ad in the Junk Mail for a swap, 4 Pedi Ewes for a pregnant Dexter Cow or one in milk. I thought it was a lopsided trade as a pregnant Cow was worth more. However a few days later a guy from Potch phoned and agreed to the trade, he had a heifer that was ready to drop her first calf in 3 months time. He offered to bring the heifer to me if I added a ram in as well. I jumped at the trade and he came round the next day with our new heifer. We were ecstatic! We dreamed of cream, butter, homemade cheese and real full cream milk.

Dexters are known for their calm nature, sweet disposition and ease of handling, we named her Lacey and she was madder than the March Hare. She was not pregnant and had never been ‘handled’ in her life. What an introduction! We only found out about the lack of ‘pregnancy’ two weeks later when she came on heat, but it was too late to complain. Anyway almost three years later, after much patience and time, we have her trained, she milks easily, she’s dropped her first calf and she’s due to have her second in 3 months time.

So what did we do wrong?

1)      Did not have a look at her before we agreed to the trade. When looking at animals or anything in fact, try to arrive a good 30-45 minutes before you said you would. This allows you to see how the animal works with people. Most people will try to have the animal in a stall or stable before you arrive, so you can’t see how she reacts with people. If it’s an item, people often do the clean-up just before you arrive. If you get there early you may see what the item is really like and get a better bargain.

2)      If you are buying an animal for a purpose then make sure that the animal is trained/able to do what you expect. Ask for a demonstration!

3)      We did not ask for a vet’s certificate of pregnancy, alternatively we could’ve had our vet on-hand to confirm pregnancy. I would have had the upper hand in bargaining with her already transported to my property.

4)      I did not ask anything about her history or breeding. She’s 100% pure Dexter, but we could have questioned more on her temperament (foul) and how she is handled (with difficulty) if she was lead trained (she wasn’t), did she allow petting and stroking (she didn’t) was she used to people working with her (she definitely was not).

5)      Lastly, we were so happy that someone agreed to a trade that we jumped at the first opportunity, with both feet and no clue. LOL it was great, and we can laugh about it now, but it could have been a lot easier…. and we would have gotten our own milk a lot sooner as well. That extra year of buying milk cost us more than the value of a trip to Potch, a Pedi Ram and the charge of a vet’s call out together.

We spend a fair amount of time at our local auction/flea-market, below are a few of the tips that I have employed to good effect.

1)      As a rule, wherever I spend money, I ask for a discount. The worst they can say is no. This was illustrated with my daughter yesterday. She bought two books at CUM Books and I told her to ask for a discount. She was shy and said they would not give her a discount. So as she was paying, I asked the assistant if we could get a discount and she obliged with a 10% discount. If we had not asked, we would have paid full price.

2)      If you are going to a flea market, and something catches your eye. DO NOT pick it up immediately. Rather pick up an item near it and inspect it and comment on how nice it is. ask the price and put it back down. This lets the seller know you may be price sensitive. THEN pick-up your item and ask the price. He will probably drop his price slightly and tell you. Inspect the item and if it’s used then mention that it’s in nice condition. You like it, however the dent/rust etc should qualify for some discount. If it’s a new item, then ask this simple question. “Is that the best you can do?” while you are waiting for his response, put the item down, to affirm in his mind that you are really considering walking away. Most of all keep quiet, he who talks first loses!

3)      In the same vein, don’t point out an item, nor rush over and comment on an item. And lastly don’t tell the seller any information about the item that you may know and he may not.

4)      If it’s a bulky item that you may need to carry around then counteroffer at a lower price and say you will pay cash now and pick it up later. He may be concerned that you will find a cheaper version down another isle and accept. This works both ways as sometimes you do find a cheaper/better condition one down the next isle 😉

5)      Note that once you walk away at a spoken price if you come back, that is the price that you will pay.

6)      Never haggle a seller down to your price and then walk away, that’s just bad form.

7)      One trick that we like to use is if we are haggling on a particularly desirable item and the seller just won’t budge, my wife (or I depending) will say out loud, that I only have X to spend, if I can’t get it at that price tough. She then walks away. I apologise and put the item back. Often the seller will cave and give it to me at that price.

8)      Bargain hunting at the end of the day while they are packing up is great. You can often get some stunning bargains while guys are packing-up. Especially if they have had a slow day.

9)      At an auction there is typically a minimum acceptable bid, most times the auctioneer will either have a schedule of minimum prices. However at informal actions, after an item is put up for sale and the bidding has run, the auctioneer will often look at the seller and confirm if he will accept your price. If you were bidding right from the start and countered every bid you may still not have reached the sellers minimum price. (or he could just be sly and bump his price by a R100.00 to cover the action fee) He will see that you are very keen on his wares and will push for his price. However, if you only entered the bidding right at the end, your reluctance to bid would be seen as reluctance to spend money and he may just accept the final bid, especially if he was unhappy with the outcome.

10)   Another auction trick that occasionally works is to jump in early and push the bidding with big increments. If your target price is say R1200.00 for a calf (the real value is around R 1400-1500), the auctioneer starts at R200.00 and it goes in R100’s from there(for some reason people always want the bidding to start as low as possible, I’d love to know why? Also people always prefer bids in small increments so when a big bidder suddenly bids it scares them off). What you do is right from the start on each counter bid, name the price (say R400)and then name the price (R800) again and name for a third time to your target price(R1200). Never more than three bids and two bids is better. SOMETIMES it scares the other bidders that they might suddenly overpay for an animal so they back-out and you win the bid at your price. It’s a risky game and you HAVE to know when to stop. Naming the price gives the bidding power to you and not to the auctioneer, and it unsettles other bidders. This only works every now and then but it’s a nice trick to have up your sleeve when the right animal comes along.

I’m sure there are many other tips that people have for haggling on price and bartering, if you would care to leave a comment we could all benefit from your experience.

harvest_kids

Planning an Orchard..

There is not much left to now in our season, but if you are determined to do something in your garden that you are sure to gain years of pleasure from, an orchard is the way to go. It need not be a full blown orchard but even a few fruit trees will make an immense difference in your persuit of self-sustainability.

The idea of a conventional orchard conjures up vast plantings of a single type of fruit tree, orchards full of well manicured trees that are control-watered, sprayed with fungicides, pesticides and fertilized according to a regimented plan. They are pruned to allow easy access with mechanical harvesters and then they are scheduled for replacement on a short term cycle. All of this to ensure maximum production and predictable cropping, within a very narrow production schedule. The fruit is most often picked early, treated with waxes or chemicals to inhibit any unwanted growth of fungi or moulds. They are then probably force ripened utilising an artificial external environment that can use temperature, gasses, or additional chemicals to ensure that your ‘healthy’ fruit is delivered to your local grocer in the best state possible for sale to you, the health conscious individual. The scary thing is that you could be eating a ‘fresh’ apple, that when bought from your local grocer could be as much as 8 months from when it was picked from the tree, not too fresh any more is it? Any locally produced apple (or fruit for that matter) bought out of season has been artificially tampered with.

I would like to propose a real alternative to what is available to the average person on the street. This alternative is planting your own orchard. Whether you only plant some trees in old wine barrels, a few trees in your back garden or a full blown orchard on your farm or plot, having one’s own orchard is a thing of beauty. Designing, planting, feeding, tending and watching your orchard grow from knee high plantings into fruit bearing tree’s gives one a unique satisfaction. Tasting your own first fruit picked straight off the tree and eaten immediately is a truly unique experience, one that can never be compared with the best of organic store bought fruit.

In today’s world it’s a rare thing for the average person to own their own orchard, and it’s not often that one gets to plant an orchard. If you are lucky you will get to plant one, or probably at the most two orchards. The greatest limiting factor to having your own orchard is space. Many of you who read this site will be people that have an active interest in self-sustainability and are owners or are soon-to-be potential owners of a smallholding or farm. Our family did the rural migration about 7 years ago and have not looked back since. We are still learning the lessons and enjoying every step of it. However, even if you are not looking at a smallholding and are more interested in urban self sustainability, you should not feel excluded. There are many ways that you can have your own producing fruit trees, first take out those botanical abominations, Flowering Plums, cherries and other useless exotic trees. They were designed for lazy gardeners that wanted the show and not the mess of dropped and rotting fruit. (They would not be dropped or rotting fruit if you used them!) Plant a fruit bearing tree in its place. If you are still limited for space you can plant dwarf trees into an old wine barrel or large pot. This gives you the additional versatility of have trees that would not normally grow in your area as you can move the tree out of frosts or killing winds in winter. A dwarf tree is generally created by grafting a normal tree onto dwarfing rootstock to keep the size down, either for small gardens or for putting into large pots. Have a chat to your local nurseries and see what they can do for you. Don’t make the mistake of planting a full-size tree into a pot, you will only come unstuck after a few years.

Another option for those with limited space, is to graft a number of varieties onto a single rootstock. They will need to be the same kind of tree naturally, apples onto apples, plums onto plums etc.  I have a friend that has a few trees in his garden that have been multi-grafted and he grows 3 or four different peach varieties off a single tree, with each variety ripening slightly later than the next, so he has a constant flow of peaches. There are many ways for you to get around the space issue, all it takes is a bit of imagination.

One of my dreams was to have my own orchard with fruit and nut trees that would provide my family with wholesome produce. It is not our intention to have a commercial operation, just one that would provide for us and possibly a bit left over to barter with neighbours and friends. So based on that departure point, we started planning what fruit trees we could plant. My initial idea was to have an orchard where different trees produced fruit over the whole summer season. Mainly because we could have fresh fruit available for our own consumption for an entire season, without having to resort to the grocer for fresh fruit. Secondly, we could stagger our fruit preserving over the whole season so that we would not be inundated with bucket loads of fruit in a space of just a few weeks or months. Next, we would have lower waste as the chances of getting tired of a particular type of fruit would be reduced. Lastly anything that did go to waste could be re-cycled into pork and provide us with another healthy, organic protein source.

Now, I’m a great believer in learning from someone else’s mistakes and hard earned lessons. So we set about chatting to nurserymen and owners of existing orchards, specifically asking them what to plant and how to go about creating the ultimate orchard. Each person has their own ideas as to what the best way is to plant an orchard. What we did was take all of the advice and distil it to our circumstances. I would like to set this down mainly to get people excited to plant their own orchard and secondly, those that are thinking of creating an orchard, NOW IS THE TIME. Winter is one of the best times to plant fruit trees, Spring is possibly the second best.

The first thing that we learnt was that an orchard that has staggered ripening is possibly one of the worst planting methods. Especially if one is looking at an organic orchard where the closest thing to a harmful chemical or pesticide is the exhaust fumes from our milk cow. Next come pests, fruit fly is one of the prime threats to your ripening fruit. Having staggered ripening will give fruit flies and other pests a start in early summer and allow them to increase exponentially through the rest of the season, almost guaranteeing a total crop failure in late summer and autumn. Based on that information we opted for an early ripening orchard. We would rather have a lot of work early in the season and minimal fruit loss than loose fruit to fruit fly and other orchard and fruit pests. A late ripening orchard was also a possibility, however we decided that due to the number of established fruit trees on neighbouring farms we would do better to get our harvest in before pests made the move from those trees onto ours. We finally planted a 38 tree orchard with mixed fruit from apples, pears, two kinds of nuts, cherries, pomegranates, peaches, nectarines, apricots, plums, olives, fig and a few others. We also planted 3 kinds of grapes and are busy with our berry section. The only fruit that is still outstanding on my list are Kiwi fruit and I have reserved a special place for those vines, when I find a supplier with both male and female vines.  All in all, our orchard will provide enough for our families seasonal fresh fruit, annual jam requirements, dried fruit and some left over for me to play backyard brewer with. Any waste goes to the pigs or sheep. So all in all it’s a balanced orchard that will allow us to have a broad spectrum of fruit and a busy early summer preserving and drying.

Something else to look at are ‘bridge trees’ these are trees that ripen in the ‘off’ season and allow pests to survive and gain an early foothold in the next growing season, one of the most common is the loquat. The Loquat is a winter bearing tree that will give pests a source of sustenance and accommodation in the off season when the pests should be dormant, killed by the cold or lack of food. So if you specifically want one of these trees plan accordingly. Unfortunately you may need to resort to chemical remedies in this situation.

I’m not going to spend much time on what trees to plant as each area in South Africa has particular types of trees that will do better than in other areas. We live on the Highveld and would dearly love citrus trees in our orchard, but with winters that can get to – 8 C so this is not an option for us. But we do grow stunning nectarines, peaches and other deciduous fruits like sweet cherries, almonds, apples and apricots. Something that many people cannot grow as they do not have the required cold for proper dormancy of stone fruits. Speaking of cold requirements, many fruits require a period of cold to set fruit properly. This is typically termed as chill units, and trees (depending on variety) require between 300 and 700 hours of chill for them to complete their dormancy correctly and set fruit properly the next season. The trees that are most affected by chill units are deciduous trees. Chill units are counted as temperatures below 18 Deg C. The chill units are also offset by warm days or nights and typically you would like an extended run of cold to ensure a good fruit set. So if you are in a warm area and would like to have deciduous stone fruit, check your annual weather charts and work out if a stone fruit will produce in your area, just because a tree is available in your local nursery does not mean that it will produce in your garden. Growing and producing are two totally different things. I for one will always think twice about buying from a nursery that is offering fruit trees that are not suited to my area. Especially if they do not give the correct advice or caution about it’s bearing ability in your area.

So your best bet is to speak to the local growers in your area, they should be your first stop. They have been growing fruit trees in the area for years an they will know what works. I’m horrified at some nurseries that offer totally inappropriate fruit trees to new or unsuspecting gardeners and will sell unsuitable trees without batting an eye. Take a drive down some back roads and stop in at a few farms where you see fruit trees growing and have a chat, hey you might even make a new friend or mentor, it’s also the perfect way to find your dream property.

Finally a word on planting your trees, all fruit trees like well drained soil, so dig your holes 1 meter cubed, it’s a fair whack of work but at the end of the day (actually 3 or 4 years later) you will be well pleased with the results. We fill the hole with 100% pure compost that has been well compacted and then back fill the last 30 cm with topsoil. In addition, before the hole is filled we insert a length of 40mm black irrigation pipe that we use to water the trees. Our trees get watered once a week via this pipe and all the water is then directed at the root level and ensures water conservation and water retention in the soil. The trees roots will also become established at a lower level thus ensuring that the tree is well anchored. Finally, every 6 months each tree gets two barrow loads of compost added to the top surface where it creates a living mulch encouraging earthworm and beneficial gogga populations to aid in soil health.

harvest_kids

Frugal Living – Making the most of what you have.

The whole idea of self-sustainability encompasses a number of issues, eating what you grow, processing and storing food for later use and generally trying to minimize your need to purchase goods and items from stores.

The whole ideal is admirable, and goes a long way to improve your health, finances and general self-satisfaction of not being an everyday “sheeple”. A person reliant on other peoples productivity to ensure your comfort. I have written before about the immense satisfaction we find in setting a meal on the table where everything is a product of our property and own effort. However this is not the only place where one can step out of the mould.

There are many instances where one can make use of traditional “throw-away” items in ones household by putting them to a second use, or even with a bit off effort make a store bought item at home that is firstly healthier, secondly tastier and thirdly more cost effective.

Below I have a list that was quickly compiled between my wife and myself of different ways that we stretch our hard earned rands. This list starts off with simple to implement ideas on frugal and self-sufficient living, some of which has been passed down from my Grandparents who lived through the Depression era, they did many things to stretch their wages, most of which has now been lost to our instant gratification generation. When you get a chance to speak to one of the older generation, ask them what they did to “fill-the-gaps” in their monthly budget. You may be surprised at the wisdom, knowledge and insight that comes out.

One of the first things that we started doing was saving all of our old wax to use as firelighters, candle stubs, the scrapings off the candle stand, or that red/blue wax off the cheese that you buy. All of this generally gets thrown away. We put it into a container and when we have a braai or need to light the fireplace, those candle ends get wrapped into newspaper and make a fantastic fire lighter.

If we have run out of wax pieces we use an old egg carton that has some used kitchen oil. You know that brown ugly oil that “has” to be thrown away. Don’t! It makes a great firelighter with either egg boxes or newspaper.

Peet a good friend of mine says that in the old days his parents used to dry out all of the used teabags and then drop them into a jar of paraffin. They used those to light the wood stove on their farm. I have not tried it, but I can’t see why it won’t work.

Another fire lighting trick I learnt from my grandparents who used to have a gas stove. There was always a saucer next to the stove for used matches. When lighting a new ring, Ouma used to take one of those used matches, get it started on one of the existing flames and use that to start a new ring. Who says a match can’t light twice!

Another thing I learnt from my Ouma is to save and use the netted bags that you get fruit and vegetables in. She used to roll them up and turn them into a pot scourer. A quick way to make sure you get the most out of everything you buy. I find that the green bags with the rougher plastic make for great scourers, the orange bags also work well, they just don’t last as long. Use some fishing gut and a darning needle to give it a few quick stitches to hold the shape that you desire. We also save the bags to keep our own produce in. They are great for drying beans, garlic, chilies, onions etc as they allow for good ventilation and easy identification.

Living on a farm one gets a lot of mosquito’s and we go through a fair amount of Peacefull Sleep every month. I can’t stand the new mosquito stick dispensers, as they are finicky to use and the stick often falls out and rolls around on the ground. Have you applied a mozzie stick with grit in it? Not a pleasant experience. Also, they sell these sticks as weighing 34 grams, but you can never use the full 34 grams, there is always about 10 or 15% left in the cup at the bottom. Nicola saves all the finished ones and once she has a bunch she will make-up 2 or 3 sticks by scraping the cups out, then melting it in the microwave, she then just reuses one of the original sticks and cups for the “new” stick.

We make our own soap, but this would work for anyone that uses soap. All the little pieces of soap that start to fall apart, (Homemade soap is a big culprit) get dumped into a 5lt ice cream container. Once the container is full we then do a melt and pour exercise with the crock-pot. Weigh the soap and add 10% water and set the dial to low. Let this bubble away for most of the day and stir every hour. Don’t open the lid too often, or you will lose a lot of moisture. Once you are happy with the melting process, just tip the lot out into your mould(s) and let it harden. We can make a good 10 months supply in this way. (but it does take about 2 or 3 years to collect the 5lt tub full) If you make your own soap, then the bits that are cut or peeled off (we use a vegetable peeler) to make the bars look good, can also go into the tub.

Nicola also uses the soap bits to make a washing gel, she starts with small bit and adds boiling water to get the soap to a gel stage. All the bits must be melted or else you get sticky soap bits in your clothes. She then dumps about 1/3 rd cup of the gel into the machine and presses play. It works just great.

We buy 50kg bags of feed salt from the Co-Op for our animals. This salt is clean, white and non-iodated. We will open the bag as we get it and take out what we need for the next few months, this is stored at home while the remainder of the bag goes up to the stables. It’s a coarse salt and our cost is 1/10th of what you pay in the store for coarse salt.

Talking about the Co-Op, we actually get quite a bit from there for our own use. Bear in mind that the grains given to animals come from the same source as the grains that are diverted for human consumption. We used to buy all our wheat in bulk from the Co-Op, and grind it for real whole wheat flour. Now we grow our own Hard Red Winter Wheat for part of the year and buy the balance in. This flour makes a great loaf of bread, the nice thing is that it has all of the essential oils that are processed out of the “plastic” whole wheat flour bought in the shops. We also use this to make puffed wheat to add to muesli as well.

Making your own roast peanuts and peanut butter. We learnt this by trial and error. Either buy (Co-Op again) or grow your own fresh peanuts. Lay them in one of those blue/grey oven pans and put the oven onto roast. For about 3kgs of peanuts, use 2 tablespoons of olive oil and stir the oil in until all the peanuts are very slightly covered in oil. Then put the tray into the oven. Stir every 5 or so minutes and do this until you are happy. I like to use the grill in the last few minutes to get a bit of toasting on the finished nuts. Just make sure you are watching ALL THE TIME, this part burns very quickly. Salt and/or season to your own taste.

To make Peanut butter. Take the roasted peanuts and put them through a hand mincer two or three times with a fine mincing plate. This will give you a chunky peanut butter the more you send it through the finer the “butter”, but you will never get it to the smooth consistency of store-bought smooth peanut butter. Add a little oil to make it more spreadable in your last stage. This stores perfectly well in the cupboard and needs no preservatives. If the oil separates you have added to much oil in and you can either remove it for a stir-fry or mix it back in. I recon it would be at least a 60 or 70% peanut oil and it’s great in a stir-fry.

We make our own Muesli, generally we will buy rolled oats, and different bran fibers from the store and from there it’s build from scratch. The oats and fiber make the base of the muesli. Honey from our hives is thinned just a bit with water and this is drizzled and run through the mix. This whole mix is then, baked in the oven to toast it, stirring regularly so it won’t burn. Once it’s all done, we also add homemade puffed wheat, puffed corn and sometimes even strawberry popcorn. Depending on the season and what dried fruit we have on hand it all gets mixed in. We have worked out our costs and it’s marginally (about 20-30 % depending on season) cheaper than store bought muesli ….. but way healthier.

With the cost of meat going through the roof, one of the fastest ways to stretch a mince based meal is to throw in a brinjal. Just chop up the brinjal into small pieces and throw it in, it seems to take on the flavors around it. Brinjals were for a long time the bane of my life, I can remember my father making many various versions of brinjal dishes to try and introduce us kids to the pleasures of brinjals. We kids wanted nothing to do with them. His frustration was palpable. This year is the first year that I have come to appreciate the beauties of this stunning fruit. Sorry Dad.

We have a special in our family called the 3 Day Chicken. Not the most appetizing of names but let me explain. We grow and slaughter or own birds, so for a family of 7 we need to take out 2 birds on the first night and they are generally roasted. Each person gets a portion and the balance is kept for the next night. The following night we will have a chicken stir-fry, chicken salad or a similar meal that uses de-boned chicken pieces. The remainder of the chicken and all the bones then gets turfed into a stock-pot and boiled down into a broth for chicken soup that is either frozen or eaten the following day… that’s the story behind 3 day chicken. So instead of “gutsing” ourselves on two birds for one meal, then throwing the bones to the pigs. We can stretch those two birds into 3 meals.  It’s a great way to use everything on a bird and use it properly, and the pigs still get the bones.

Those are just some of the things that we do on a regular basis, we do these for a few reasons. First I think it’s because we actually enjoy the processes. Secondly we don’t have a time-thief (TV) and actually have the time to play around with things. Next, it’s healthier. It’s also better for the environment and reduces our load on landfills. Lastly, you get to save money, learn a new (old) skill and not waste opportunities.

We and I’m sure other readers of this site would love to hear your hint’s, tips and suggestions of how you make your “buck stretch” so please feel free to leave a comment below.

harvest_kids

Magic Shelf Issues

To illustrate a point, I’ll use a real life example. A friend’s daughter spent a few days over at our place in December. Dani is almost like a daughter to us, she is in fact the daughter of our closest personal friends. At dinner she said that she would like to help milk our cow the next morning. The next morning once most of the milking had been done, Dani got her chance at milking the cow, she was given a quick lesson in how a cow’s udder worked and an explanation on how to strip the milk from the teats. I must say that she did an admirable job on her first try. She was only given the opportunity to strip the last, so there was not much milk on offer (we normally do this with first timers) but she got about a cup’s worth of milk out. My wife said that she would strain the milk for her back at the house, and then she could drink it. Her immediate response was “Is it fresh?” we all had a good chuckle and thought it quite cute, however the implications of that seemingly innocent question are far reaching.

Another illustration which we have had a few times is the following scenario. We like to involve the children that visit us in collection of food that will go onto their plates, so they often help to lift, pick and clean veggies for our meals. We have come up against resistance and horror from these kids, as they say the veggies are not fit to eat because they have been grown in the dirt or they have dirt on them.

The only exposure that kids have to food production nowadays is the permanently stocked shelves in their local supermarket. These magical shelves are the sole providers of food, every time they walk into a store the shelves have food. The only fresh food is produced by these shelves! So if the food did not come out of a shop then it’s not fresh. If the food does not come in a clear poly bag, nicely washed and packaged it’s not fresh. If the food has not got a label on it…. It’s not fresh.

The daunting thing is, if food needs a label it’s probably not fresh.

Just think about that statement guys, when was the last time you ate a meal, just one meal where everything on your plate did not have a label? Even the fruits and veg in your local grocer or supermarket are individually labeled or bagged…….. Maybe it’s not just the kids that have magic shelf issues?

In some European towns we have seen farmers markets that literally appear and disappear in a matter of hours, these are held every day in some areas and as few as once a week in others, however one can walk up to the bakers stand and buy a few rolls or a loaf of real crust bread, stroll next door and buy some fresh veggies or maybe a seasonal entrée and a few meters further you can get some real smoke cured meats, we have even seen freshly slaughtered fowl available. All of the produce on offer was grown or produced by the seller. Often there is only a price and no description and one is hard pressed to identify what is on offer. It’s simple, one is expected to know what everything is….. just by looking at it.

In just one generation, the loss and lack of knowledge of the real food chain is astounding. Some kids genuinely believe that stores produce the food that they eat. They have no concept that there is a real live, dirty, smelly chain of events that needs to be performed EVERY DAY to ensure that these stores have food available on the shelves.

Society is so far removed from the often grubby and uncomfortable process of food manufacture that they do not, nor care to understand that food production is a process, they only see the final result of often an entire years hard work and effort. Most of this work and effort is by the farmer, a person whom they never see or meet and is often ridiculed and negatively stereotyped.

Most consumers only see the final product, the lifespan of that final product is often less than a few days, and sometimes even considerably less. No consideration is given to what was required to get that perfect, glossy, poly wrapped food item onto the magic shelf.

So guys, here’s the challenge. Try and eat one meal, just one, where everything is fresh. No labels and preferably locally grown. Drop me a mail with your adventure in trying to procure and eat a “real” fresh meal, I’d love to hear from you.

To illustrate a point, I’ll use a real life example. A friend’s daughter spent a few days over at our place in December. Dani is almost like a daughter to us, she is in fact the daughter of our closest personal friends. At dinner she said that she would like to help milk our cow the next morning. The next morning once most of the milking had been done, Dani got her chance at milking the cow, she was given a quick lesson in how a cow’s udder worked and an explanation on how to strip the milk from the teats. I must say that she did an admirable job on her first try. She was only given the opportunity to strip the last, so there was not much milk on offer (we normally do this with first timers) but she got about a cup’s worth of milk out. My wife said that she would strain the milk for her back at the house, and then she could drink it. Her immediate response was “Is it fresh?” we all had a good chuckle and thought it quite cute, however the implications of that seemingly innocent question are far reaching.

Another illustration which we have had a few times is the following scenario. We like to involve the children that visit us in collection of food that will go onto their plates, so they often help to lift, pick and clean veggies for our meals. We have come up against resistance and horror from these kids, as they say the veggies are not fit to eat because they have been grown in the dirt or they have dirt on them.

The only exposure that kids have to food production nowadays is the permanently stocked shelves in their local supermarket. These magical shelves are the sole providers of food, every time they walk into a store the shelves have food. The only fresh food is produced by these shelves! So if the food did not come out of a shop then it’s not fresh. If the food does not come in a clear poly bag, nicely washed and packaged it’s not fresh. If the food has not got a label on it…. It’s not fresh.

The daunting thing is, if food needs a label it’s probably not fresh.

Just think about that statement guys, when was the last time you ate a meal, just one meal where everything on your plate did not have a label? Even the fruits and veg in your local grocer or supermarket are individually labeled or bagged…….. Maybe it’s not just the kids that have magic shelf issues?

In some European towns we have seen farmers markets that appear and disappear in a matter of hours, these are held every day in some areas and as few as once a week in others, however one can walk up to the bakers stand and buy a few rolls or a loaf of real crust bread, stroll next door and buy some fresh veggies or maybe a seasonal entrée and a few meters further you can get some real smoke cured meats, we have even seen freshly slaughtered fowl available. All of the produce on offer was grown or produced by the seller. Often there is only a price and no description and one is hard pressed to identify what is on offer. It’s simple, one is expected to know what everything is….. just by looking at it.

In just one generation, the loss and lack of knowledge of the real food chain is astounding. Some kids genuinely believe that stores produce the food that they eat. They have no concept that there is a real live, dirty, smelly chain of events that needs to be performed EVERY DAY to ensure that these stores have food available on the shelves.

Society is so far removed from the often grubby and uncomfortable process of food manufacture that they do not, nor care to understand that food production is a process, they only see the final result of often an entire years hard work and effort. Most of this work and effort is by the farmer, a person whom they never see or meet and is often ridiculed and negatively stereotyped.

Most consumers only see the final product, the lifespan of that final product is often less than a few days, and sometimes even considerably less. No consideration is given to what was required to get that perfect, glossy, poly wrapped food item onto the magic shelf.

So guys, here’s the challenge. Try and eat one meal, just one, where everything is fresh. No labels and preferably locally grown. Drop me a mail with your adventure in trying to procure and eat a “real” fresh meal, I’d love to hear from you.

harvest_kids

Organic GMO’s and Perpetual Poison

It’s been a while and I do apologize. There have been many things going on over the last month and it’s been pretty non-stop, both in the garden and on the work front. Which is great, but hectic.

Over the last month I have seen two articles that have concerned me. The first one is that the GMO organizations are now making rumblings about organic genetically modified organisms. In my last post I said that they would love this. Well it looks like it’s started. Can you imagine the problems that this would cause in the industry, we already have government ominously silent about the labeling of GM foods, the potential now is that we could have GM seeds labeled as “organic”. What a way to destroy and industry.

Just thinking about the implications makes me rile and I want to scream out that this cannot be done, however that just wont work. The GM industry at this point will use every trick in the book to ensure that they get the generally dumb public (GDP) to accept without a second thought that what they are peddling in good for them. They have had a bad but limited exposure in the general media. Mainly I believe due to the fact that they have paid “scientists’ to help promote their wares to anyone that will listen.

It’s the simple case of people (the GDP) wanting to believe that “they” would never do anything bad for our (and the planets) health.

This is how it works. Government is looking at a new crop type, this one just happens to be GM. So they set up a committee to investigate this new crop and if it would benefit South Africa as a whole. On the other side, you have your interest groups (let’s say a Pro-GM interest Group and a Anti-GM Group) these will speak and submit information to this committee about the pro’s and con’s of this new technology.  The Pro-GM group will throw everything in their considerable arsenal at this committee, from International “Fact Finding Missions” where the only facts are made up by themselves, to lavish hosted breakfasts and dinners with all of the trappings of caring for the environment and nature, with “top scientists” that will give promises and more facts about how good this poison is for the poor people it’s supposed to help, this  can go on and on ad nausea.  On the flip side we have a few small Anti-GM organizations that are supported by a miniscule fraction of the willing public who now have to go up against a monstrous corporate that will do everything to shut the up and shut them down.

If you were looking for advice, who would you listen to? The guy that is successful with a big house and flashy car and private jet, that can show his success. Or the guy in the average middle class home and a volla that although is 100% paid up is still driving a volla!

What is not seen is that the guy in the middle class home is not looking for your money, he is looking to show you how to get out of debt. The guy in the big house and flashy car NEEDS your money to keep his lifestyle going.

This is the GMO industry, they want to trap you into buying their poison every year, and if you don’t buy it you will starve. The OP and Heirloom seed industry is 100% behind you growing and saving your own seed every year. We hope to never sell you the same seed again, strange but true. The idea is for you to save your own seed and pass it on to the next person and for them to do the same. This is the best way that we can fight these guys.

The next article is one that is very scary for anyone that buys-in any compost or mulching material. Have a look at this article where gardeners are seeing plant die-offs for years after and application of infected compost. My advice is for you to make your own compost from scratch. If your garden is contaminated with one of the chemicals listed in the above article you probably will have to wait close to ten years before you can be sure of no unnatural die-offs. This is a very worrying scenario, especially when one believes that their source of compost should be “clean”

harvest_kids

Of Blight and Bent Cucumbers

Now I know I’m going to get a whole stack of emails saying that I’m beginning to sound like a doomsayer and that I think the sky is going to fall. Yes, I know, I know. I’m not saying let’s run scared for the hills, what I am saying is look at what’s happening elsewhere and take appropriate actions to prevent or minimize the damage in your own lives. Remember that we are just going into spring, the northern hemisphere is at the end of their growing season, so what happened there is a good indicator of potential problems in our season.

This post is based around a few articles that I have read over the last week. These are not fringe loonies that are publishing the articles (normally the first thing I look at) these are articles that have a real impact with regards to what we are trying to do, become self-sufficient and provide healthy living food for our own families.

The first article is on the unusually early and severe outbreak of Late Blight on Tomato crops in the US. Although the impact of this specific outbreak is limited to the US and should not have an impact on us, there are some important lessons that can be learnt from what it said in the article. All of the information can be applied locally or in fact anywhere in the world as similar growing, transport and sale methodologies are used in the seedling trade.

The first thing I find extraordinary is that the prime vector for the transmission of Late Blight is the distribution, sale and planting of infected seedlings (They call them ‘starts’). If you think about it, most seedlings are grown in highly intensive environments and all it takes is one diseased plant to infect a whole truck/nursery/farm/garden with minute fungal spores that will continue to spread the infection unnoticed. Something I have blissfully overlooked on many occasions.

Next there is a 20% increase in the end user costs for a packet of tomatoes, it’s the end of summer in the US and they should have bargain priced fresh produce right now with all the harvests coming in. But not so, my maths may be a bit wonky here, but for me a 20% increase in prices translates to at least a 20% loss of produce. Scary if you think about it, and they still have a month to go before field tomatoes get whacked by killing frosts.

With the financial crisis in the US they have had an increase of over 7 million home gardeners this year. This is mainly due to people trying to lighten the load on their monthly bills and stretch every penny. Most of these people take the position of buying seedlings to speed-up the growing cycle, or try to get around the issues of germination. Planting a seedling is much easier, I do agree. However, looking at the side effects I’m more than happy with the extra effort and to wait the extra time by growing my own from seed.

The next article is on a looming food crisis in the UK, without dissecting the nuts and bolts of the article I would like to mention a few things that strike me about this article (and many similar ones from around the world).

First, when things like this are published in a Nanny State like the UK it’s normally a primer to get people aware that they are going to have a problem, it more a case of ‘they’ know it’s going to happen, so how do they break the news to the GDP? (Generally Dumb Public) There have been food riots in many countries around the world recently. Most notably in the EU and Balkan States, but also in the UK and elsewhere.

If countries like the UK and EU are bleating about food crisis and lack of food supply, don’t you think it’s about time we started to prepare for a possible food shortage or crop failure on our side? On the flipside it could also be another GM propaganda tactic to gauge peoples feeling on Food Salvation via GM crops?

Next. The Great and Powerful EU is looking at ‘relaxing’ its idiotic Bent Cucumber Laws, specifically to get around the duel problems of the cost of food and the supply of food. So maybe there really is a food crisis and it’s not just propaganda.

It makes one sick when one thinks of the amount of waste generated in a first world society that regulates the curvature in a fruit. It will then relegate an ‘over bent’ fruit to lower quality class, that is often not sold but just dumped. It’s as if eating a bent fruit will give you dyspepsia, crooked teeth, or some other debilitating 1st world disease.

It’s even more ludicrous that if sold ‘bent’ fruits must be labeled for use only in cooking… come on, as if they have a lower nutritional value than unbent ones. What are they going to do, have sidewalk cucumber police checking your salads for bent cuc’s? I can just see the waiter in a trendy French Café “Oops, sorry officer but it’s not bent, I just slipped with the knife.” Just another regulation that will need to be enforced in an overly regulated society.

What on earth would they do with a basketful of heirloom tomatoes? Every single one looks different and is a different size and shape!!!

harvest_kids

Our Journey to Self Sustainability

This is an article that I wrote for the second edition of Shared Earth Magazine, if you are looking for a good mag on practical tips and idea’s on how to become self-sus then get yourself a copy of this mag or subscribe. (If you subscribe you’ll get a free sample selection of our heirloom seeds)

Many times we have had people come over for a visit or a braai, and they gush with amazement at how we live our lives, they express wonder at our vegetable gardens, our fruit orchard, free range chickens, pasture finished turkeys, and grass finished lamb. Often we are able to put a meal before our guests that is entirely off our own property. They marvel at the succulent full flavoured meat, the amazing veggies and deserts fresh from the garden. Very often they will assist in picking and preparing the veggies straight out of the garden. They often say that this is the life that they want to have, or dream of having. I can however, honestly say that not one of individual has made the jump from perceived urban security to a rural grow your own lifestyle. Why? I think most are just too scared. They see what we do, but don’t know how to get there. Also they are in a rut, too used to life in the city and only dream of what they would like to achieve. This however, is not an article about bashing poor urbanites, this is an article that hopefully will inspire urbanites to let loose and enjoy life on their own piece of paradise.

Self- Sustainability is a very broad concept and I don’t think that any one person can have a definitive answer as to what it comprises. Some will see it as being able to grow some or all of what you eat on your own ‘patch of heaven’, others will want to include power and maybe fuel requirements, still others will see it as all of the above plus income generation. What I’m trying to get to is that different people have different requirements on what their ideals are for self-sustainability. There is no specific right and wrong, it’s very subjective and based on an individual’s world view and how that is interpreted. I can attest that our families reasons for being self sustainable has been re-invented a number of times over the last few years, taking into account many internal and external factors as well as our own personal belief system.

Our children and two friends (in red) after an afternoons harvest
Our children and two friends (in red) after an afternoons harvest

What a lot of people don’t see is the physical effort and planning that goes into our daily lives. Without trying to scare you, there are a lot of things that need to happen to get to a point of self-sustainability. Not least of all is the need to feed self and family. With our government’s suicidal stance on land redistribution, where productive commercial farms are being systematically destroyed, food is only going to become more and more expensive. For many years South Africa was a net exporter of food, this last year has seen a dramatic reversal of that trend. What better way to get around the hike in food prices than growing your own? It’s not the State’s responsibility to provide for your family, it’s yours and yours alone. Things are going to get more expensive, that’s a reality that you will need to come to terms with.

Our family’s journey to self-sustainability was an accident, we literally stumbled our way to becoming self-sustainable, and we have many tales of failed idea’s and projects. Not that we are near 100% self-sustainable yet, however we are a lot closer than we were 6 years ago. Very quickly we realised that you need to work smart if you would like to eat the proceeds of your labour. Now, before we undertake any new venture we research the pro’s and con’s of each decision and based on the findings for our families needs make the most expedient decision. Normally our decisions are based on a cost verses labour and return. If it has a high cost, a lot a labour and low return more often than not, it gets shelved and something else is done in its place. However, on the flipside, there are instances where low cost, low labour and high returns can also be a problem.

One of our first bad decisions was to plant a massive vegetable garden. Living on a plot and not having a veggie garden is like having a yacht and not sailing, it just goes with the territory. We planted almost every type of vegetable seed that our local hardware stocked, and then some. Three months later we quickly learnt that we needed to process or give away a lot of vegetables very quickly, that year a lot of it went to waste. To our dismay, after the growing season we didn’t have a lot left over for winter. Literally we had a few jars of pickled onions, some beetroot and a few bags of carrots in the freezer. We had planted too much of the wrong kinds and too little of the right. So much for self-sustainability! We have now learnt to sequential plant and stagger our harvests. In addition we have learnt many new canning, freezing and drying techniques that carry our work through the winter for us. This allows us to capitalise on the time invested in summer and use it in winter when we can’t grow certain fruits and veggies. My wife particularly loves the idea of not having to dig all the vegetables out of the garden and wash and prepare them for every meal, as they are already in the house waiting for her to pull them out of the freezer or drawer.

The best place to start is with a veggie garden, for that you don’t need a large piece of ground, anything will do. I know of people that have ripped up their entire lawn to produce food for their family. My advice to new veggie gardeners is simple, start small with a few easy to grow crops and expand every year. Nobody will be able to become 100% self-sustainable in a year, it takes years of practice and lots of trial and error. When we planted our first veggie garden (in suburbia) I can remember getting a few tomatoes, some carrots and radishes and TONS of cucumber. It was not a well balanced veggie patch and everyone that came around got a bag of cucumbers. People soon stopped visiting…. However the point is this; You need to grow into your vegetable garden, trying to go the whole hog at once will only set you up for disappointment and disillusionment.

Now that we live out on the plots, things have changed slightly, after 6 years of plot life we have slowly increased our self-sustainability every year, to a point where we are able to go through months at a time where a good 90% of our food requirements come from our own property or a property within walking distance from us.

When looking at planting your veggie garden, work out a few things first. Like what your meal preferences are. Are you able to freeze or can/bottle your produce? Do you have suitable storage space for root and pumpkin harvests? It’s no use growing tons of a particular type of veggie if only one member of the family enjoys eating it. Can a vegetable be incorporated into another ‘product’? Freezing whole tomatoes is possible if you are going to cook with them, but more efficient space utilization is possible if you turn it into a chutney or ‘sous that can be used in a variety of meals. Rather use the space to grow a crop of storable veggies or one that is loved by all.

Our family eats a lot of pasta and tomato based meals, one way that we get around the problem of buying tomato’s in winter is to freeze a lot of basic tomato and onion base in summer, we have actually been doing this for the last few weeks and have amassed enough ‘sous to keep us going till early December. In tangible terms, it means that we will not need to buy those insipid, flavourless, washed out pale pink things that are offered in place of tomato’s at ridiculous prices in winter. All my wife needs to do is open the freezer and pull out a bag of our own organic ‘sous to use as the starter for a hearty stew or pasta dish.

Looking at other crops, with the exception of brinjals our entire family eats every vegetable grown in our gardens. Sweet corn and mielies are a firm favourite in our family. This year we have only managed 10 kg’s of loose frozen sweet corn, and are still waiting to harvest a trial of traditional open pollinated Lesotho mielies. This will provide the seed stock for a 2 acre planting next summer and a few this year for fresh consumption. The 2 acre planting will mainly be used as animal feed as well as providing our family with our own organically grown mielie pap to go with our ‘sous.

Pumpkins are also a major focus, we generally grow 6 or 7 different types, from the little Gem’s all the way through to Mammoth Gold’s that top about 30 Kg’s each, some are good for storage and others for processing. Each has it’s own niche in our families diet and are treasured for their different flavours and textures. One point to remember with growing pumpkins is that they need space, if grown close to each other they will reduce their fruit set. If you want to keep seed for the following year, learn to hand pollinate pumpkins, and save seed from these hand pollinated pure varieties for the following year. We have 3 vegetable gardens as well as permanent plantings of asparagus and berries, why 3 gardens you might ask? Mainly it’s for labour reasons, as well as being able to ‘tune’ the different gardens with manure and compost.  We have one specifically for Pumpkins and sweet corn, a second close to the house for common items like tomatoes, lettuce, salad greens and green beans, with a few herb plants in between and then we have a large garden further away that produces the larger harvests like dry beans, beans for freezing, processing tomatoes, corn, potatoes, millet, beetroot, carrots, peanuts, bambarra nuts, onions, peas, peppers, melons etc.

Of late there has been much discussion in South Africa about heirloom vegetables and open pollinated varieties, that taste great and have the unique ability of allowing the grower to save seed from year to year. I can attest that many heirloom varieties are of outstanding quality and that the flavour far exceeds what which we are currently used to. The problem that we have in South Africa, is that we cannot legally import heirloom vegetable seed into our country. (Unless you jump through some regulatory hoops) It has taken me about 5 years to build up a modest collection of heirloom and open pollinated vegetables, most of them from trades with older more knowledgeable gardeners that have been saving their own seed from year to year.  Personally, we plant Heirloom and Open Pollinated varieties wherever possible, mainly as we enjoy the romance behind growing and eating a variety that has been lost to most of the world, as well as the ability to save our own seed for the following year. However where we need fast and large production we will consider certain hybrid varieties to fill this need. (A balanced Hybrid, Heirloom and GMO discussion I believe has more than enough meat for an article in its own right –Hint to Ed) Typically, I used to spend hundreds of Rand every year buying new packets of seed, very often I had to buy more than one packet of some seed just to satisfy our families requirements. Now we have learnt to save seed, we eat what we sow and sow what we eat.

Self Sustainability is an individual ideal, the worst thing that can happen is someone becoming prescriptive and telling you how you need to do it. Start small and if you enjoy the fruits of your labour then by all means expand, who knows where you will go and what you will do on your journey. Life is for living and living is for the love of it, do it with all your heart.