It's drizzling outside.
That simple fact makes me want to leap about and drink lots of wine and dance and sing because it's the first rain we've had since 14 August.
With more on the way, I'll remove impending drought from my list of Things To Lose Lots Of Sleep Over and focus on telling you about our winter.
1. Earning a crust
Not content with merely being an enthusiastic consumer, Farmer Wan is now officially a contributing member of the NZ wine industry. He's personally responsible for pruning 9,870 of Marlborough's 24 million grape vines, a feat that took all winter.
I, in keeping with my role as a damned fine writer, spent the frigid months in my stuffy, overheated office and surfed the Net under the pretense of working.
With our finances back in a semi-liquid state, we immediately bought a sprayer, a wood chipper and food.
2. 2014 saffron harvest
It wasn't a good season. Last year, we ended up with just under 41 grams. This year, we didn't even reach 20 grams. But we had reassuring feedback from Mark, the guy we grow for:
Although your volume wasn’t as much as you want/expected, the quality is exceptional. Beautiful colour and aroma and it has a really nice feel to it indicating that the moisture content is spot on. . .
So we must be doing something right.
3. Fodder willows
As part of the permaculture strategy of "many elements for one result" we're aiming to future-proof Muntanui against drought by planting alternative sources of livestock fodder.
I've done a fair bit of research into fodder trees and shrubs, both native and exotic. I decided to start our planting this year with something relatively easy: Japanese fodder willows (Salix schwerinii 'Kinuyanagi').
This is a vigorous shrub willow, reaching 3-4m and producing up to 10 tonnes of edible dry matter per hectare per year -- perfect over summer.
In July, we planted 60 willow poles in a trial plot on our worst bit of land (it's unproductive anyway, so good for experimental stuff). Farmer Wan's sister was staying with us at the time and helped with the planting, so we named the area Fiona's Block in her honour.
If the poles strike well -- and they're doing okay at the moment -- we'll plant 300 more next winter.
4. The Bionic Hound
It hasn't escaped our notice that Buddy The Dog seems to have a strange effect on people. Confirmed dog haters, frightened little kids, nervous older parental types -- they all end up enchanted with him.
I've just discovered that he has snuck into the boot room and scoffed all the cat's food, so I am most emphatically not enchanted with him right now. However, there's no denying that the Buddy Effect is a real and powerful phenomenon.
With that in mind, I thought his fans might like to see how he brought us three thousands steps closer to bankruptcy this winter.
This medical procedure has a long name which I've blocked from my mind and an even longer price tag which I can't for the life of me forget. It's what happens when your stupid dog ruptures a cruciate ligament.
For the first 6-8 weeks post-surgery, he was confined to quarters and only allowed out on a lead for five minutes a day to do his business. We really loved that bit when it was snowing.
He goes for his next x-ray in a week. I'll keep his devotees posted.
5. Third anniversary at Muntanui
Our third anniversary slipped by on 28 August. After a frosty start, it was a sunny day. One of our heritage faverolles chooks resumed laying and produced her first egg of the season. The plovers returned from wherever they go over winter (Western Australia, I think) and started attacking any other birds that came near them.
It was a good day. We were happy. And there'll be plenty more of that to come.
Posted by Farmer Nik
Hay: growing it. Cutting it. Baling it. Buying it. Swapping stuff for it. We spend a lot of time thinking and talking about hay, which is only natural, given that it's what keeps our animals from keeling over and carking it in winter. Until we can supply enough ourselves, we'll never feel really secure.
This year, we're looking at swapping some of our lambs for half of our neighbour's hay and we'll cut and bale the grass in the orchard as we usually do.
We started our first cut towards the end of November. Wielding the scythe was hot, hard work and I was dreading the prospect of spending three or four days doing little else. Then the farming gods took pity and sent us an angel in the form of Pierre, the French backpacker. We gave him a ride into Blenheim one afternoon and he, in turn, came back a couple of weeks later and stayed at Muntanui for eight days. Not only did he cook us an amazing three-course meal and improve my French, he also helped Farmer Wan to complete the scything and then stuck around to assist with building The Machine.
You might recall that last year, we played around with the idea of making mini-bales and haysacks, neither of which was very practical or sustainable. The Machine, however, is different. It produces decent-sized bales (still not as big as standards, though) and the design allows for a satisfactory degree of compression. Although it was designed for baling pine straw, it still works well for hay. There's a picture and instructions for use at http://essmextension.tamu.edu/pinestraw/baling.html and the plans can be downloaded from here.
The plans didn't stipulate the length of the twine slots, so Farmer Wan adjusted them to suit: 360mm long by 40mm wide. He also had to replace the lever, which snapped (due to his unearthly masculine strength and power -- the man's a demi-god, I tell you) while he was compressing a bale, .
This solution is still time-consuming but it's definitely better than anything else we've tried so far and it will suffice for the small amount of hay our orchard produces. Next year, we'll have to look at other options because Farmer Wan's just sowed a new hay paddock. More on that another time.
Posted by Farmer Nik
Happy New Year! 2013 was a cracker of a year at Muntanui and we're hoping this one will be even better. I think it will be -- if we're able to overcome our biggest challenge yet.
In 2014, the last of our savings will run out. Without that financial backstop, we're facing the very real prospect of being broke. Impecunious. Fiscally challenged. Impoverished. Indigent. Penniless. Insolvent. Poor.
A little scary, I'll admit.
It's easy to play around at farming and being sustainable when you know that if it all goes belly-up, you're covered. Sell a few eggs here, flog off a couple of plants there, make your own bread from scratch and feel virtuous and proud that you're living the dream.
And we are living our dream, no doubt about that. We're as happy as tiger worms in a bathtub full of additive-free cow shit. We just have to work out how to make it pay more. So, before our impending penury forces Farmer Wan to do anything desperate (like this or this), we'll get creative. We'll ruthlessly cut our expenses (all future visitors to Muntanui: please bring alcohol and lots of it), we'll barter and we'll make the most of hitherto-unexploited opportunities. We've put together a couple of cunning plans and we'll share them with you, in good time.
Meanwhile, here are some pretty pictures taken around the garden in early December, back before it started raining and didn't stop.
Posted by Farmer Nik
There are many different kinds of "hot beds" in the world and all sorts of instructions for "making" them but here I'm talking about using the heat generated by a compost heap to germinate seeds and grow plants very early in the season. Sorry.
France: a hotbed of horticultural excellence
I first read about hotbeds in The Winter Harvest Handbook by American organic market gardening guru, Eliot Coleman. He referred to the incredible 19th century market gardeners around Paris who used hotbeds to supply the city with fresh vegetables and fruit all year round These growers also exported vast quantities of produce over the pond to Britain. Each market garden was usually no bigger than one or two acres but they were very intensively cultivated and extremely productive.
I filed this information away in the back of my head until the NZ Biodynamic Conference back in May, where I spotted Hot Beds, a great little book by British horticulturalist and hotbed expert, Jack First. There are detailed instructions in the book on how to construct, fill and maintain hotbeds and I thought I'd like to give it a try. (Translation: I bullied Farmer Wan into making one for me.)
Step-by-step instructions on how to build a hotbed
1. Build the outer frame
The bigger the outer frame, the more raw material it will hold and the longer the hotbed will stay warm. Farmer Wan made ours from untreated eucalyptus, 2400mm long (the sun-facing side) by 1800mm deep (or 8 ft long by 6 ft deep). The height varied at each corner because the land was sloping but on flat ground, it would be 750mm (approx. 2 ft 5in).
2. Fill the outer frame to the top with manure mixed with straw
Horse stable sweepings are best for this because horses produce copious amounts of nitrogen-rich urine, which is great for getting the composting process started. We settled for red clover straw, cow manure and Farmer Wan peeing on the heap whenever he felt the urge.
3. Build the growing frame
This should fit comfortably inside the outer frame with room to spare. Farmer Wan made ours 1800mm long by 1200mm deep (6 ft by 4 ft). As you can see, it slopes. This prevents seedlings from being shaded out.
4. Make the lights
These cover the growing frame and keep in the heat. They should extend just past the growing frame so that rain runs off and doesn't flood the seedlings. Farmer Wan made three separate, lightweight frames. Traditionally, these were covered with glass but he used polytunnel plastic to cover ours.
5. Fill the growing frame with growing medium
We used a soil/compost mix with good drainage.
6. Monitor the temperature of the hotbed
This was a good excuse to buy a great new gadget -- a digital thermometer with a metre-long probe. The hotbed temperature should be stable or starting to decrease before it's sown with seed. For the first couple of weeks, we took temperature readings every two or three days but we slackened off towards the end. It took a while for the bed to get cranking but at peak, it reached just under 40degC -- more than 20 degrees higher than the ambient temperature.
7. Sow seeds
On 19 August, I made shallow furrows in the growing medium and filled them with seed-raising mix. I sowed three rows of lettuce, a row of English spinach and a row of corn salad (a.k.a. lamb's lettuce). On 24 August, I sowed four rows of a carrot/radish mix.
8. Water and cover with lights
Once the seedlings are up, they need adequate ventilation. The lights should be raised on calm, sunny days to provide airflow, and replaced before the temperature starts to drop in the afternoon.
I'll give you a progress update soon.
Posted by Farmer Nik
Muntanui Solar Power Station produced its first 1MWh of electricity at precisely 08:00am on Tuesday 13th August.
1MWh is just under a quarter of our annual usage. It has taken one third of the year to produce it, but we will be producing well above our requirements for the remaining two thirds of the year.
It took slightly longer than anticipated originally -- in fact, twice as long, due to it being the middle of winter.
Power production is once more on the rise as we head into spring and we are looking forward to being in credit with the power company until next winter.
Posted by Farmer Wan
You know that feeling when the dentist is picking through your mouth and not tutting at you and not poking at anything that sends you half out of the chair and you're almost convinced that maybe this time there'll be no work required and you feel all weirdly excited? That's how we felt in early 2012 while we waited for the results of our soil testing.
We knew our dirt was acidic and would need liming but had no real idea about all the other elements that make up soil and in what proportions they'd arranged themselves at Muntanui.
If we re-visit the dental analogy, it turned out we needed a root canal, a wisdom tooth extraction, three additional one-hour appointments and some serious anaesthetic.
We should've had our soil amendments spread in autumn last year but we kept getting distracted by saffron harvesting and livestock emergencies and Farmer Wan working in Oz, etc. The spreading finally took place this year, on 12 June -- a bit too close to winter but again, there were other priorities.
On the day, a nice man rocked up in a big truck, opened a valve in said truck and drove up and down our lumpy paddocks releasing white powder until it ran out. Then he headed away to where his trailer was parked, re-filled, came back and drove around again.
This went on for about an hour. The air was so thick with white dust we couldn't see anything else. The tiniest of breezes sent it wafting down the road to our neighbour Helen's place. She later thanked us for the free fertiliser.
I was working in the tunnel house at the time, feeling smug because I'd had the foresight to wear a mask. It made no difference -- I still ended up with the worst sinus infection of my life. I was sick for three and a half weeks. So important safety tip, people: when your paddocks are being spread with 18.42 tonnes of bacteria-inoculated fertiliser, go and play somewhere upwind, preferably a few kilometres away.
Spring will show us how effective this process has been. We'll probably have our soil re-tested in summer and I'll get to experience that dental chair anticipation all over again. I'm hoping for a quick clean and polish. Fingers crossed.
Posted by Farmer Nik
Over the course of a weekend back in May, our minds were blown, our senses were bombarded and we set off on a new farming tangent that will change the way we do things here forever.A nice, big steamer for the compost heap. Thanks, guys!
The catalyst was the New Zealand Biodynamic and Gardening Association's 2013 Conference.
Yep, biodynamics. What's that? you ask. Well, it's basically turbo-charged organics; very concerned with building up soil and fertility. It treats properties/farms as unique, living entities, just like the people who inhabit and work on them. Biodynamic teachings also recognise, and allow for, influences coming from outside the planet: not just the sun and moon but also the planets of the solar system and the constellations.
Then there's the stuff to do with burying manure-filled cow horns for six months and sticking other stuff in deer's bladders and hanging them in trees, etc.
So maybe you think that's extremely weird. No worries. Lots of people do. My logical, scientific, atheistic Farmer Wan definitely struggled with some of the more "out there" conference sessions and we met a lovely wine grower who sat scowling with her arms and legs crossed for most of the weekend. The more esoteric the subject matter, the further down in her seat she slumped.
Yet all the committed biodynamic practitioners we met and spoke with were grounded, intelligent, practical people. And really nice. And party animals. We made some wonderful new friends at that event.
"It doesn't matter if people believe in it or not," a successful farmer and one of New Zealand's biodynamic luminaries told us. "Biodynamics is a system. If people follow it, they'll get results."
Alrighty, then. So less than a week later, we'd stirred up our first batch of Preparation 500 and were trundling it around one of our paddocks in a wheelbarrow, spraying it over the ground with a small manuka branch and bickering over the right way to go about it. Not the most auspicious of starts but a beginning nonetheless.
The conference set a lot of things in motion for us, with the decision to finally get a tractor being the first. At this stage, I can't see any major conflict between the permaculture design plan for Muntanui and the application of biodynamics for our soil. Neither philosophy is meant to be dogmatic, so they should be able to live with each other. We'll see.
Posted by Farmer Nik
On 2 April 2013, the Muntanui 5kW Solar Power Station was officially commissioned and came on line. It is now supplying power, not only to Muntanui, but also the surrounding properties and anyone else connected to the New Zealand power grid.
It was a long time in the planning and execution. We placed orders for equipment back in October 2012. The solar panels arrived in late November and the inverter and cabling in January. Installation of the panels and inverter took a couple of days in late January and then there was a wait for the power company to supply the new import/export meter. In the meantime, we arranged for power cables to be run through a trench from the shed to the house.
Here are a few technical details:
22 x 230W PV-TJ230GA6 Mitsubishi Solar Panels
1 x SMA SB5000TL Solarworld 5kW Inverter
Our average power consumption at this time of year is around 13kWh per day. Working on the basis of approximately six hours of useful daylight, this gives a required system size of 2.2kW. We decided to go for the most we could afford now and sell excess power to the grid, hence the 5.0kW installed. It was not cheap and certainly nowhere near as cheap as systems being offered for sale in Australia these days. But, as with most things, you get what you pay for. We have Japanese manufactured panels and the inverter is from Solarworld in Germany, both good quality and reliable suppliers.
We missed out on all of the great weather in Feb/Mar and, as you can see from the graph below, production is already slowing down as we get into winter. Our second day of production was a satisfying 27.55kWh. We have already produced a total of 400kWh and look forward to celebrating our first 1MWh in about seven weeks time -- depending upon the weather, of course.
We haven't yet received our first power bill to confirm import/export prices. It will be interesting to see how that works out.
Now we shall be looking at ways of reducing our existing usage to enable us to export as much as possible back to the grid.
Posted by Farmer Wan
It was Thursday 13 December and stinking hot. Farmer Wan and I were making our first cut of hay in the orchard. Our orchard is approximately one quarter of an acre in size, which equates to 1,011.71 square metres or .101171 of a hectare. I’d just like to say that it feels a hell of a lot bigger than that when you’re cutting it with a scythe.
In order to forestall my breaking down and sobbing bitterly when contemplating the enormity of our task, I made up a song – a little scything, hay-making song – and sang it very loudly and off-key (on purpose, of course, for comic effect). It’s sung to the tune of We Are The World, a composition that was considered very worthy for all of about ten minutes, way back last century:
We are the world
We are the farmers
We are the people gonna grow your food
So you’d better not harm us
We are the world
We are the growers
So you’d better come to Muntanui
And get to know us
Farmer Wan came up with the last two lines, so we’re both to blame for the end result. As for the bit about growing everyone's food, well, I'll get back to you once I've managed to grow our own.
The hay crew (image courtesy of Cat Davidson)
After two days of scything, a further two days of diligent turning with a pitch-fork, and one could-have-been-but-wasn’t case of heat stroke, the weather turned. The hay was beautiful but still not dry enough to bale. Fortunately, we had help in the form of Clan Davidson, dear friends who were visiting from Scotland and Oz. They helped us rake the hay and stash it under the Biggest Tarp in the World. A few days later it was ready. But we weren’t. Not by a long shot.
The problem was, how to bale hay when you:
a) don’t have a baling machine
b) don’t have enough hay to interest a contractor
c) are trying to come up with solutions that don’t involve large amounts of fossil fuel and cash.
Solution Mark 1 was based around the idea of a wool press:
After four hours of very hot, scratchy and tiring work, we had 30 micro-bales – probably enough to feed our cattle for a week. Although we’re not afraid of hard work, we concluded that this method was just too labour-intensive and therefore, unsustainable.
We made the second hay cut at the end of January/early February. Solution Mark II to the baling problem was the Hay Sack, basically a great big bag stitched out of bird netting with a strong tie threaded through the top. It’s rodent-proof, it lets air circulate and it’s sort-of stackable.
Fun factor and sculptural qualities notwithstanding, we know our Hay Sacks aren’t really a solution either. They're not practical for the amount of hay our cows will need over winter.
We still think it’s worth the effort to cut as much hay as we can ourselves because the orchard stuff is the best grass we've got – weed-free and full of yummy clover. And it doesn't cost anything except time. But we always knew we'd have to get in more and, given that we were teetering on the verge of drought for eight weeks, we were worried that no-one would have any to spare, and if they did, that it would cost a fortune.
Enter the wonderful Gary and Kirsten from nearby Waireka Downs farm. They'd contacted one of our absentee neighbours about mowing his paddocks and asked us if we'd like some. So we now have 141 bales in our shed, it only cost us what it cost Gary to operate his equipment and we're set for winter ... we hope. And while the bovines are happily munching hay in the snow, we can plan how to increase our own hay cuts next year.
Posted by Farmer Nik
Huge thanks also to the Shaw family who transported Gary's hay to us and helped stack it.
All stabilised and ready to deplete the national grid
1. Making merry
Ah, Christmas. It only seems like 41 days ago.
We lovingly adhered to all the festive Muntanui traditions for our third Christmas here, the most notable being the Ritual of the Tree. It goes something like this:
1. Farmer Wan locates a suitable wilding Douglas Fir (they seed from the plantation next door), cuts it down and carries it home slung effortlessly over one mighty shoulder.
2. Farmer Nik spends all afternoon decorating it.
3. Anywhere from fifteen seconds to six hours after the decorating process is complete, the tree topples over. This year set a new record: the tree began falling as the last bauble was still being draped over its branch.
Best. Pav. Ever.
On Christmas Eve, we met a lovely Belgian couple and invited them to come to Muntanui the following afternoon and sample that most Kiwi* of summer desserts, the pavlova. Luckily for me, it was the best pav I've ever made. New Zealanders everywhere breathed a sigh of relief, national pride intact.
New Year's Eve was a very sedate affair, spent in the company of some of our neighbours and Farmer Wan's brother Malcolm, who'd touched down from Scotland a few hours earlier. While it's true there might have been drinking, dancing and singing, only one of us had to spend all of the next day in bed to recover. I'll leave it to you to guess who that was. The winner gets to help us scythe the orchard.
We've also been making general merriment of late because it's summer, we love summer and being happy in summer is kind of mandatory.
*Aussie friends, take note.
Two people, two scythes, a useless dog and a bloody great orchard.
2. Making hay
This one will get a post all to itself. The content will feature much physical effort, much scratching of heads to come up with creative solutions to all sorts of challenges, and a song.
I don't want to give too much away lest I spoil your hunger for this future hay-making narrative but I will share this about the song: it played a vital role in our first hay cut. It boosted morale and that's very important when you want to make hay but have no tractor, no baler and no money.
I wouldn't be surprised if the song catches on. When I share it with you, you'll see why. Maybe it will become a kind of hay-making anthem. Maybe we'll make an album and get rich and spend all our days lying around on tropical beaches reminiscing about how we used to scythe our orchard and sing funny songs.
3. Making progress
Work's underway on our solar power system; one side of the Polytunnel of Love is totally complete and functioning well; and we've decided that Farmer Wan needs a licence to bear arms. Details on all this and more to follow soon(ish).
Posted by Farmer Nik
About Ewan and Niki
Scottish mechanical engineer with a deep and abiding passion for good food. Outstanding cook. Builder of lots of stuff. Cattle whisperer. Connoisseur of beer. A lover rather than a fighter.
Kiwi writer and broadcaster who hates cabbage, even though she knows it's good for her. Chook wrangler. Grower of food and flowers. Maker of fine preserves. Lover of dancing and wine. Definitely a fighter.