Monday, January 30, 2012

Saving seeds from your garden

Following on from my post the other day about starting from seeds, here's the next step to cheaper veges, saving your own seeds.  The advantage of saving your own seeds isn't just the money you save on seeds, it also allows you to breed plants that are more adapted to your climate and soil conditions.   

drying seeds from spaghetti squash, button squash, roma tomatoes, beans and spring onions,
I always have lots of little trays in the kitchen waiting for the seeds to dry.
I was never taught how to save seeds, I just started leaving plants that had bolted and seeing what happened.  Actually it seems to be quite difficult to find information about seed saving,  much easier to just buy seeds, but I find seed saving interesting and usually quite rewarding (I found one good step by step guide here).  All my gardening books explain how to grow seeds, but none discuss saving seeds, although I believe you can buy entire books just on the topic of seed saving, I haven't found that necessary so far.  From my own trial and error I've found that some veges are more difficult than others, but the more seeds you can save, the more free veges in your garden, so its worth trying if you have the time and space in your garden!

saving seeds from a giant pickling cucumber
Anything that forms a seed pod is extremely easy to save.  I have successfully saved broccoli, mustard, beans, peas, parsley, basil, marigold and spring oinons.  Seeds that are inside of fruit are more difficult to save.  I haven't perfected saving tomatoes, but they grow out of the compost anyway! I have saved capsicum and pumpkin seeds.  I haven't attempted corn or zucchini so far.  I have silverbeet going to seed at the moment and I'm not totally sure what will happen, or when the seed will be ready (after waiting for a couple of months now!), but I am happy to wait and see.

Broccoli seeds ready to harvest
For the seed pods, its generally best to let the pods ripen and dry off while attached to the plant, to ensure that the seeds have completely formed and are ready to sprout later.  If several plants are going to seed, I usually pull most of them out and just leave a couple to collect seed from, as that's usually plenty.  For small seeds like broccoli and mustard, I cut off the branch with the pods that are ready and shake them out over some newspaper, then I can pick out the pods and tip the seeds into a jar or envelope.  With the larger seed pods, like beans and peas, the seeds can be handled more easily and just removed from the pod and put into storage when they're ready.  The fleshy seeds like pumpkin and capsicum need to be spread out and allowed to dry completely, I leave them out on a little dish for a few days until they are dry enough to store.  I usually take these as I'm cutting the veges for cooking, however one thing that I'm trying to remember is is I see a particularly large curcubit on the vine that is too big for eating, just leave it there for a while longer and give it a chance to form some decent seeds.  I did this with my pickling cucumber and was able to harvest seeds.  Its hard to remember as I tend to see a giant one and in my annoyance that I didn't see it earlier, I pick it without thinking!  This also works with giant beans and peas :)

waiting for this pea pod to dry out
When storing seeds, its important to keep them dry and cool.  I have a little cupboard in our dining room that stays nice and cool, as I've explained previously, some people also store seeds in the fridge.  I keep all my saved seeds in little jars from the moisturiser I buy and any bought seed packets get sealed in plastic bags for storage.  Its also important to record the type of seed and the date of storage.  I have a few jars of seeds that I was sure I would remember easily, best to just write a label, as six months later the jars are just mystery seeds!  Some of the smaller seeds don't last long, while beans can last for years, so you need to know which batches are older and need to be used up (or distributed to friends if you don't have the space).  Permaculture groups are great for swapping seeds :)

As I mentioned before, I have heaps of spring onion seeds and also now mini capsicum and marigold seeds, so if anyone in Australia would like me to post them some seeds, please email me at eight.acres.liz at gmail dot com.  I will also soon have parsley and silver beet seeds and I still have crazy poor man's beans if you're up for the challenge of controlling them!

Parsley seeds tied back because they were sprawling all over the place!
Spring onion seeds
I have also found a website that explains how to save seeds from a number of different veges, and it has finally answered my question about the silverbeet seeds (let them dry on the stalk).

mess silverbeet seeds! (in with everything else)
What seeds do you save?  Any tips for keeping them fresh?

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Is it worth installing grid-connected solar panels?

We had a solar panel salesman call up and ask to come out and talk to us about his product.  I thought it was a good opportunity to do some easy research.  We'd been thinking about solar panels since my parents-in-law installed a few.  We weren't sure if it was worth doing or not.  This is my analysis of our situation.

Depending where you live in Australia, most states will pay a feed in tariff for solar panels on your property connected to the grid.  However, if the power goes off, your panels get turned off to keep the lines dead (for the safety of those working on the lines to restore power).  Our biggest problem with electricity is losing power during storms, so panels that turn off aren't that useful.

At the moment the cost of grid-connected solar panels is also subsidised by the Australian Federal Government's renewable energy certificate (REC) scheme.  The panel installers buy from you the right to sell "renewable energy certificates" on your behalf.  These operate in a market, so the price fluctuates and the installer takes a risk in offering to buy these from you, assuming that they can sell them on the market for a certain price.  Economics, yuck!

Nobody knows how long the feed in tarif price will be so good (44c/kWh in Queensland at the time of writing) or how long the REC scheme will last, so there's a feeling that its a good time to install solar panels, just in case everything changes after the next state and federal elections.

Our situation is unique in that our work subsidises our electricity bill as part of our salary packages, we get about $1200/year toward electricity, which pretty much covers all our electricity bills, so I wasn't sure if installing panels would be worth the money for us.  Our work will still pay for everything we buy from the grid, but during the day, the panels will supply the house and sell any extra electricity to the grid.  Normally you can just work out how much you would save on your electricity bill by not buying electricity and how much you will receive in electricity sold to the grid, but I can only include revenue in my calculations, as our electricity is effectively free anyway.

I was interested to find out more though, so we had a chat to the solar panel man and a few other companies, online and in person.  This how I worked out our situation, you can substitute your own figures based on your energy usage and your state's/country's solar panel schemes.

Work out how much electricity you use, day and night
You can get your daily usage from your electricity bill, but wanted to know how much electricity we used during the day (when the solar panels are generating) and how much you use at night, so I could work out what we would really save (as our work will still pay for everything we use).  The best way to work this out is to read your meter morning and evening, depending on your sunset time, for me in the sub-tropics this doesn't change much, but if you're further from the equator the seasons could make a big difference.

In my case, we use about 16-17 kWh/day, and this is fairly evenly distributed between day and night (meaning that most of it is "baseload", ie too many fridges!).  

Work out how much electricity you might be able to generate
This will depend on the size of your system and the amount of sun you get.  The Clean Energy Council has published a Consumer Guide to Solar PV, which has a table of typical daily energy production (kWh) per installed capacity (kW) for various cities in Australia.  The typical system sizes in Australia are 1.5, 2 and 3 kW.  The maximum size eligible for a feed-in tariff in QLD is only 5 kW.  I evaluated the energy production of 1.5, 2 and 3 kW systems, using the 4.2 kWh/kW/day figure measured for Brisbane.  As this is an average figure, I considered a range of 3.6-4.8 kWh/kW/day.

From my calculations, the electricity produced per day would range from 5.4 kWh (worst case, 1.5 kW system) to 14.4 kWh (best case, 3 kW system).  As our electricity is effectively free, we really need to generate more that we just during the day in order to cover the cost of the system.  This means that the minimum system size for us is 2 kW, as that would just cover our daily electricity use on average, however to ensure that we get a consistent return, we'd be better to get a 3 kW system.

If you are paying for your electricity, then any production of electricity is a saving for you, and the amount you feed into the grid is an extra bonus. 

Work out how much you will save
As I mentioned above, we only achieve a saving if we generate electricity.  With a 3 kW system, our savings would be $100-250/quarter.  If we weren't getting our electricity for free, our savings would be $240-380/quarter (assuming we paid $300/quarter normally), and even the smallest 1.5 kW system would save $80/quarter in the worst case scenario.

Find out how much the panels will cost you
I wish I'd done the ground-work above so that I could known what system I needed BEFORE I talked to the salesmen!  But I didn't know anything about solar, so it has been a little circular, but now that you've read this post, you can do the research before you talk to the solar companies.

The companies that I approached told me about the various products available, and this is where it gets really difficult to make comparisons.  The system consists of panels, an inverter and all the bits the hold it on the roof, as well as the labour to install it.  While some companies may appear cheaper, you really need to check on the quality of the products, the warranties and the qualifications of the installers.  The products available seem to range from cheap (designed and made in China), medium (designed in Japan/Germany, made in China) to expensive (designed and made in Japan/Germany).  

The product that you choose depends on how long you expect to stay in the house and risk that you're willing to take.  We're not intending to stay here forever, but don't want to deal with a faulty product, so I would stick to the medium price range.  Of the companies we talked to, some had their own installers that travel and some contract to local installers.  I prefer the first type, as you know they have experience with the product.

The prices for a 1.5 kW system ranged from $4000 to $8000, add a few thousand as you go up in size.  The 3 kW systems ranged from $7000 - $10 000.  But be aware that you can negotiate different inverters and panel support systems into the packages, which can help you to get a better price (although potentially reducing quality).

Divide cost by annual savings to give a rough "pay back period"
In my case, considering the potential revenue only, the pay back on the 3 kW system, at average generation rates, is about 10-14 years.  However, if I was also paying for electricity, the payback would be more like 5-8 years on the same system.  The pay back on the smaller systems is longer as the feed in tariff is about twice the amount we pay for electricity, so you really have to repeat these calculations with consideration of your own situation.

Decide if its worth doing
For us the 10 year pay back period is just not good enough, we'd be better spending that money investing in a system to support us off-grid when we lose power.  However, if we were paying for electricity, then a 5 year pay back would be acceptable, given that it should also add value to our house.  

Our situation may change, we may change jobs, or our company may stop subsidising our electricity, and if that happens I can re-evaluate the calculations to see if we should invest in solar panels.  I just hope that we don't miss out on good rebates or fail to lock in the good feed-in tariffs, but that's a risk we have to take.

Of course there are also environmental concerns to consider.  Unfortunately grid-connected solar probably isn't as good for the environment as one may initially think.  If you are still connected to the grid you are still relying on "thermal" (coal) power overnight.  The worst part is that those power stations don't stop and start quickly, they run inefficiently at partial-load during the day, so they can supply you at higher loads during the night, especially if you use a strategy to get maximum revenue from your panels by using more electricity at night rather than when you are generating your own power.  If you really want to avoid carbon emissions you need to buy only "green power" from renewable sources or install an "off-grid" system with battery storage.  Otherwise your main contribution is to fund product development for better solar panels.

Have you installed solar panels?  What is your experience?  How did you come to your decision?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Dump shop finds

When we took our old BBQ to the dump I had a an opportunity for a quick look through the dump shop.  (I should also point out that the only reason we didn't put the BBQ on freecycle is that we took off the wheels and the hot plate for upcycling, and the burners were very rusty, so it was better off as scrap).  The dump shop is even cheaper than op shops and you can find some really unexpected things there.

I was incredibly excited to find the 1980s Australian Trivial Pursuit game with ALL THE PIECES AND CARDS!!!!   I have wanted a copy of this for ages, yay!  We have an old monopoly game from the markets, but that game just gets so boring it makes us fight, and we've had to resort to playing cards lately.  This should provide hours of fun.

I also found a couple of books, one about travelling in the Northern Territory and one about resources in Queensland.  I got all of this for $5.  Bargain! 

Do you use a local dump shop?  Or do you think I'm gross? :)

Monday, January 23, 2012

Growing from seeds

Planting seeds rather than seedlings is a significantly cheaper option (if you think about it, for some vegetables you get about 6-8 seedlings for $2 or about 100 seeds for the same price), as well as giving you so many different heritage seeds to chose from.  Even better, if you start saving your own seeds its virtually free, apart from a small amount of time and effort.  This is truly sustainable gardening and way easier than it sounds.

I have had very limited success with planting seeds directly into my garden, I think its just the clay soil, its too  heavy and the clods are too big, I also blame the slugs which have eaten baby seedlings to the ground before they get a chance to grow!  Strangely though, things that I haven't planted intentionally keep sprouting up in odd places this year, like beans and tomatoes, so I don't know what I do wrong when I WANT to plant things!  Anyway, this means that I mainly stick to planting in separate containers and transplanting into the garden.  This gives me control over the soil, the water and shade for the seedling (as well as being more work as its something else to water).  I did use the seedling trays from seedlings that I had bought previously, but I find them too shallow and they dry out too quickly.  Since then I've been using big red tubs and planting into either toilet rolls or small pots.  I keep some water in the bottom of the tubs so that the seed beds never dry out (even though this is supposed to cause root rot, I've had no problems with it).  The toilet rolls can be planted directly into the garden, which is good for plants that don't like to have their roots disturbed by transplanting.  For less delicate plants, I will plant a few in a small pot and then move them when they get too big.

For larger seedlings, or small seeds where you just want to broadcast a whole lot of them, I use a large pot. I don't want to fill the entire pot with seed-raising mix, so most of the pot is compost, with a layer of seed-raising mix for the seeds to start off in.  That means that the whole pot can hold moisture and provide some nutrients to the seedlings as they get started.

I do think its worth using a decent seed raising mix.  I have tried to use compost instead, but I found that tomato seedlings appear in every pot!  But I make that expensive mix go a bit further by using a layer of compost below the seed-raising mix in the larger pots and reusing the seed-raising mix after I transplant seedlings.

I keep my seedlings under cover, because if it does rain, we can get 100 mL at a time, which can flood my tubs!  And big rain drops can destroy tender seedlings.  I tend to water with a watering can or with an old spray bottle, so that the seedlings receive a fine mist of water.

When you have a seed-raising system organised, you can work out how many seeds to sow to achieve successive plantings and have fresh veges in our garden all year round.  Its much easier to control gluts and famines if you are raising the seeds yourself instead of being limited to buying 6-8 seedlings at a time.

At first I made a seed raising bench from at old gate propped up on some old boxes, but then my fabricating husband came to the rescue and built me a lovely new table.  Note also the old net curtain that I pull over the  seedlings to stop the soil drying out and deter the birds.

See some other great tips for a cooler climate from Northwest Edible Life here.

Do you grow from seeds?  Any tips?

Friday, January 20, 2012

I'm still sprouting... and other creations!

Since I first posted about sprouts after reading about them in Nourishing Traditions, I've been continuing to grow them regularly.  Alfalfa has to be my stand-out favourite, it works every time with no issues and its great to have some on hand in the sprouter or in the fridge to use in summer salads and sandwiches.

Alfalfa is my favourite sprout
I did branch out and try fenugreek.  This is a very useful herb and the seeds smell beautiful, so I couldn't wait to taste the sprouts, but my first few efforts ended in tragedy.  All the sprouts clumped together in the middle of the jar and there wasn't much sprouting action, they just ended up rotting, very frustrating! I tried several times following some of the advice here.  I put less seed in the jar, I broke up the seeds/sprouts to make sure they didn't clump together and washed them carefully.  I had absolutely no luck until a friend gave me some different seeds, which did work.  The lesson here is don't give up on sprouting!  Try some different seeds, something will work for you!

fenugreek worked eventually (and tastes sprouty)
when I got some decent seeds, DON'T GIVE UP!
I was also insprired by this post on hummus (and found out that chickpeas are called garbanzo beans in Spanish/the USA), as I'd heard that I could use sprouted chickpeas to make sprouted hummus, but had no idea how to even make normal hummus, so this was a good place to start.  I found another recipe for sprouted hummus, and it turns out that instead of soaking and cooking the chickpeas, I can just start them sprouting instead.  This seemed like a good idea, as cooking the beans uses a lot of energy, time and patience, whereas sprouting is low energy and easy, as well as the extra goodness of sprouts!  As I never stick to a recipe, I mixed up the two recipes and ended up just blending the following ingredients.

Sprouted chickpea hummus
  • 1 c sprouted chickpeas
  • 1 clove garlic
  • a bit of  lemon juice
  • splash of extra virgin olive oil
  • some chopped parsley
  • 2 t tahini 
It would have been nice to get the mix a little smoother, but my mini food processor was struggling as it was!  It had more of a pesto texture, which gave me my next idea.....

ingredients - forgot the garlic for the photo!
(note that lemon juice is in the bottle on the right, I squeezed a
huge bag of them and froze the juice for later)

After, yum!
I also made Macadamia nut and basil pesto (recipe here), as we had an excess of both basil and nuts (not from our tree, just they've been cheap at the markets lately).  My husband helped me to crack about a cup of nuts and I made the pesto in our mini food processor, with a little of our homemade strong cheddar cheese, it was delicious!

so much basil!

The ingredients

the finished product, yum again!

Do you sprout?  Any good recipe suggestions?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Drying herbs

Over summer, I have such an abundance of herbs, its hard to believe that in winter they will all die back and I'll have to resort to using bought dried herbs again.  This year I had a plan, I wanted to dry my own herbs, the aim was herb self-sufficiency!

I had borrowed an Excalibur drier from a friend a few years ago and managed to dry some parsley, as well as tomatoes and apples, before I gave it back.  Our thoughts on this drier were that it was HUGE and loud, but very efficient at drying.  With our small kitchen, and an aim to mainly dry herbs rather than worrying about fruit (as we don't have access to any cheap/free fruit at the moment), I wanted to use something smaller (and therefore cheaper).

I did have a very brief  attempt at air drying herbs, but in our humid climate, all I achieved was mouldy leaves!

As an early Christmas present for myself I bought the Sunbeam food dehydrator in December.

Sunbeam food dehydrator - "healthy and natural snacks"!
I decided to start with the sage plant as it was in need of a good trim anyway.  It turns out that herbs actually grow better if they are pruned regularly, however its difficult to use all that summer growth and in the past much of it has ended up in the compost, or the herbs have been scragly, woody and out of control!
Sage before...
....and after the trimming
First I washed the leaves, then spun them in the lettuce spinner, then arranged them in the drier......

Washing the sage leaves

Spinning the sage leaves
Loading the dehydrator

Running the dehydrator

The instruction booklet that came with the drier recommended 2-4 hours for drying herbs.  After 4 hours the leaves were still not dry.  At 9pm on the day of drying (having started around 10am), the leaves were still not dry!  Now I'm not complaining, because I knew that I wasn't buying the best dehydrator on the market, I just wanted something that would get the job done eventually.  I don't think I'll ever use it for fruit (although that uses a higher temperature setting, so it might work quicker).

Anyway, I turned off the dehydrator overnight and left the leaves in there to continue drying, then I turned it on for a few hours the next day until the leaves were dry.  I wanted them to be crumbly dry, so that they would keep for a long time.

Having dried a large jar of sage, I decided to try oregano.  This time I washed and spun the leaves the day before I put them in the dehydrator, so they were not as damp when I started the drier.  I also used fewer leaves and so only needed 3 trays in the drier.  I left the leaves on the stalks (as suggested by the user manual).  This time drying didn't take quite so long, but was still run over a few afternoons until I was satisfied with the results.  I can't decide whether leaving the stalks is a good idea, as that just seems like more plant material to dry and it can be more work to remove the dried leaves.

My plan is to keep drying herbs so that I have a good supply over winter and so that the herbs keep growing well over summer (with regular trims).  So far I've dried oregano, basil, sage, thyme and mint.

The herbs I've dried so far....
and then I tried silverbeet, not sure what I'll use it for, but why not?

Do you dry your own herbs?  Or other foods?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Natural Sequence Farming - using Peter Andrews' methods at Eight Acres

Peter Andrews is an Australian farmer who has worked hard over several decades to observe, experiment with and understand the natural cycles in the Australian landscape.  The focus of his work is the role of plants in controlling the distribution of water and fertility in the landscape.

I read Peter Andrews' books "Back from the Brink" and "Beyond the Brink" a couple of years ago and I decided to read them again recently to refresh my memory.  I'm so glad I did, because I had forgotten so much and I found that some of the things that didn't make sense the first time really clicked into place this time.  There's no way I can summarise all the ideas here, if you are interested in improving the fertility and water-holding capacity of your land, as well as reducing your input costs (fertiliser and irrigation), you really need to read the books carefully yourself.  However, I can summerise the ideas that we are applying on our property.

Farms don't need expensive inputs
Peter has developed a system based on his expectation and experience that farms should be viable without expensive inputs of fertiliser and herbicides.  Interestingly he's not actually pro-organic farming, he just wants to save money.

8 Acres Application: farming on a small scale means that we're not trying to make a profit, just feed ourselves, so of course we'd prefer to use cheap or free inputs (especially as we miss out on all the tax benefits that larger farmers can access).  We also prefer systems that don't use much of our time and labour (spreading fertiliser and spraying weeds is hard work!) and we support organic systems in general, as we want to eat chemical-free food.

Weeds are good
Weeds have deep tap roots compared to grasses, so can bring water and minerals to the surface that would have been out of reach of the grass roots.  This means that weeds are valuable in the landscape and should not be poisoned.  Also more advantages of weeds are described here.

8 Acres Application: we do still dig out and control weeds that we believe are detrimental to our cattle (honestly, we have seen them munching on lantana and we'd rather they didn't have the opportunity, this is what we've been doing), however all other weeds are allowed to live and we slash regularly to create weed mulch.  We never use burning to control vegetation on our property.  Obviously this is much easier on a small property than on a larger one, and I suppose that's one of the advantages we have here. On a larger property it would help to use mob-stocking, where cattle trample what they don't eat.

Plants maintain soil pH
Plants alter the soil pH in order to access certain minerals.  If minerals are lacking, the soil will become acidic.  Modifying the soil pH using lime or dolomite will not correct the underlying imbalance so is not a long-term solution.  Its better to let various weeds grow to rebalance the soil minerals.

8 Acres Application: Our soil test revealed that our soil was acidic and required copious amounts of lime and other minerals to correct the deficiencies.  We haven't rushed into spreading around the lime, and I'm glad now that we took our time.  It looks like we're better to focus on improving the fertility in general and letting the plants correct the pH and mineral balance over time.  However, the soil test wasn't a waste of money, this allows us to make sure that we are feeding the cattle mineral supplements for the minerals that they're not getting from the plants in our paddocks.  Eventually the minerals in their manure will contribute to the soil too.

Green surface area is important
Green surface area is the total amount of green in the paddock, including grass, weeds and trees.  Trees can create far greater green surface area than grass for the same land area because they occupy more vertical space.  Green surface area builds the fertility in the soil by dropping leaves that build top soil AND attracting birds and animals (= manure), so the more green surface area the more fertility.  Peter suggests that approximately one third of a farm should be treed, one third cropped and one third grazed.  The trees should be planted on the high ground so that the fertility is transported downhill to the other two thirds by water/gravity.  The thirds don't have to be solid blocks, but can be spread out over the farm.

8 Acres Application: We don't have the water for cropping, so our property will only need trees and grazing area.  We probably don't need one third of the area in trees as grazing using less fertility than cropping.  We have a steep property divided into 4 paddocks, and large gum trees remain in each paddock for shade.  We wouldn't want to plant all of the top of the property with trees and potentially lose the use of part of that top paddock, however we could increase the number of trees by planting more trees at the top of each paddock instead.  This would contribute to the shade available as well as the green surface area.  I would like to plant frost hardy fodder trees (eg pigeon pea and tree lucerne) , so that we have some green matter for the cattle to eat over winter.  Need to investigate this further......

Salinity is caused by badly sited dams and removal of trees
This is one of the more confusing concepts in Peter's work and I didn't really get it until the second reading.  He says that salinity in the groundwater is controlled by a layer of freshwater sitting above the denser saline water underground.  Trees help to maintain this layer by exerting a vacuum on the freshwater, holding it in place.  Rather than trees consuming all the water (one reason that they have been cut down in the past) they actually hold the water near the surface.  However, bare ground allows the rainwater to enter the ground too quickly and can cause the fresh and salty water to mix.  In addition, dams on the surface will exert a positive pressure and push the fresh water into the salty water.  Salinity travels horizontally in the ground until it reaches the surface of a slope and appears as a salt outbreak, it does not travel upwards, as commonly thought.

8 Acres Application: unfortunately we have seen this concept at work around our creek area/small dam, but we have no control over it as its the neighbours' large dams and clearing activities that are causing the problem.  All we can do it maintain the trees and vegetation around that area to try to control the water table on our property.  This is when small scale farming is difficult, you rely on your neighbours also taking an interest in maintain soil fertility and for the most part, ours aren't doing anything to help.

We don't plough any of our land and as I said above, we are letting the weeds grow, this has to help prevent increasing salinity.

Build contours across slopes to distribute water and fertility
Creating banks along contour lines to catch freshwater and backfilling some of these with organic matter which will spread fertility is an efficient method to distribute water and fertility across a hillside.  This is similar, but not identical, to using swales in permaculture design.  Swales are usually dug into the bank and may hold water for some time, this is not ideal for preventing salinity, as discussed above, so Peter recommends creating mounds so that water sits on the surface for a short time only.

8 Acres Application: we recently did a permaculture course and were thinking about building swales.  We haven't decided how and where to build them so that we can still slash the paddocks.  I think we will end up building something closer to contours anyway, as that will be easier on the tractor!

Climate change is caused by loss of vegetation cover
Peter Andrews proposes that climate change is not caused by carbon dioxide, rather from the loss of the cooling effect of all the trees that have been cut down all over the world.  I have to say that it kind of makes sense, even if its not the only cause, surely it has to be a contributing factor.

Plant more trees, let the weeds grow and be careful how you store and distribute water!


Have you read Peter Andrews' books?  Have you applied his principles on your property?

You may also be interested in One Straw Revolution.  See more sustainable farming books here.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Real food trifle (and meringues)

Without having a religion or kids to give Christmas a higher meaning, for me, its all about the food!  Christmas is not complete without good food, with my two favourites being ham and trifle (not mixed together!).  We bought a delicious ham from our local butcher (although not nitrate-free, or organic, will try harder next year!).

This year I volunteered to bring a trifle for Christmas lunch with my parents in law.  But when I thought about my traditional family recipe, I knew I was going to have to be creative, because its not real food!

Traditional recipe for trifle (not real food):
  1. Take one supermarket sponge cake (full of additives, yuck, and even better if you can find one "reduced to clear", as it will already be nice and stale) and break into pieces.
  2. Drizzle with sherry
  3. Make custard from custard powder (not real food) and milk, pour over sponge
  4. Drain a can of peach slices (from goodness knows where) and place slices over the custard
  5. Whip cream and spread over peaches
  6. Chill and serve
Note that the Australian recipe also includes jelly, hello food colouring mixed with sugar!

for example....

My recipe for local, real food trifle:

  1. Bake sponge from farm fresh eggs (whip 3 eggs, beat in 1 cup sugar (I know I said I wasn't eating sugar, but this is Christmas, if I wasn't so nervous about making sponge cake, I'd have used honey), fold in 1 cup flour and 1 tsp baking powder, stir in 50 g melted butter, bake at 190degC for 30 min), don't know why it has to be stale.  Break into pieces.  
  2. Drizzle with alcohol appropriate to fruit in step 4, I used Malibu for a tropical coconut flavour.  I also used some passionfruit pulp in this layer :)

  3. Make custard from farm fresh eggs and milk/cream (beat together 5 egg yolks and 1/4 cup honey, heat 1 cup milk and 1 cup cream in a pot with vanilla (I didn't have vanilla so I used chai spice mix, yum), stir milk into eggs mixture (strain out the chai first), return to pot and stir until thick (don't forget to keep stirring or it will go lumpy!!), pour over sponge.  

  4. Use local fresh fruit - this time of year mango is the obvious option here, but you can use berries, or stone fruit, or could use local canned or frozen (obviously defrosted for eating) fruit if there's nothing else available.                          

  5. Top with fresh whipped cream (WHY is cream in Australia "thickened"???  I struggled to find cream that is just cream, with no extra thickeners (I would have used cream from Bella (our cow), but it would take weeks to get one cup from her at the moment, so I had to buy some)).

I served the layers separately as some people didn't want cream and some didn't want mango, so there are no amazing shots of a beautiful real food trifle, but it tasted great!

The custard recipe came from Nourishing Traditions and the sponge from my trusty Edmonds cook book (unfortunately their custard recipe used Edmonds custard powder, I literally did not know that custard was made any other way until recently, I blame Edmonds for this, what a clever marketing system!  By the way, the ingredients for custard powder are corn flour, colour and flavour, no eggs, that's not food!).

Now if you've been following my instructions you'll see that the custard required 5 egg yolks, so after I'd finished, I had 5 egg whites leftover.....

so of course I made some merringes from all the egg whites, they look pretty,
but I can't eat many,  too sweet!
note that I did all of this with an old hand beater, sore arms for days....

Do you have a favourite Christmas dessert?  Do you convert traditional recipes to real food?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Molasses for cattle supplement feed

Living in a sugar refining state like Queensland gives us easy access to a by-product called molasses, which we feed to our cattle.  If you don't live near a sugar refinery, its probably not worth trying to source it.  However, if you can get some molasses cheaply, it is a great supplement feed as, according to our text book "Dairy Cattle Science", it contains:
  • calcium
  • cobalt
  • copper
  • iodine
  • magnesium
  • potassium
  • iron
  • biotin + various other B vitamins
  • other trace minerals
These are all the good things in sugar cane that are removed to make pure sucrose sugar for us humans to eat, see why we shouldn't eat refined sugar?!  In Natural Cattle Care, Pat Coleby mentions briefly that consuming excess sugar in the form of molasses can make cattle more attractive to insects, so we don't feed molasses during summer when buffalo flies and ticks are a problem.  However it does provide valuable energy in winter when our grass dies off.

We have been buying molasses in 20 L drums and feeding a slurp to each of the cattle with their grain in the evening, but ever since my husband realised that it would be WAY cheaper to buy a 200 L drum he's been planning to make a tank stand.  And here is the final product, full of molasses and in service.

The main challenge was rolling the full drum off the back of the ute and onto the stand AND getting the tap at the bottom.  I can tell you that old tyres, a car jack and a determined husband were integral to the process....

Do you feed molasses to animals?  Do you include it in your own diet?

Monday, January 9, 2012

Tanning a steer hide - update and answers

Thanks everyone for the comments on my first post about tanning our first two steer hides.  I was asked a few questions and I've done some more research since then, so I thought it was time for an update.

I was asked to provide a photo of the fleshing tool, so here's the one we got with the kit.  My husband made I similar tool from metal, so we'd have one each.  If you're not a metal-worker, then you can probably use any blunt tool (or bit of metal) that's large enough to grip each end.

Also, because I only described our process, I didn't go into detail about the other methods available for tanning hides.  From my research (google and books I mentioned in the last post), the following methods are possible:
  • chrome tanning (the method we used)
  • "brain tanning" - using either the brain or other oily mixture to coat the hide
  • tanning using tannin from the bark of certain trees (would love to know which Aussie trees to use, Oak seems to be a common one for the US)
  • smoking the hide (apparently this doesn't keep as long and can go quite stiff)
  • someone told me to use baking soda, but I couldn't find out anything else about that method
Any of these would be more self-sufficient options, but as we had no idea what we were doing when we started this, we decided to try to keep things simple by buying a kit.  Also, we've been able to re-use the tanning solution twice now, so it doesn't seem worth trying another method while we still have viable tanning solution. 
As the solution that we bought didn't have any instructions or an ingredients list (dodgy right?) we assumed the worst possible ingredients.  As sulphuric acid, chromium sulphate and alum are commonly used for chrome tanning solutions, we assumed that the solution contained these chemicals.  I looked up the Material Safety Data Sheets (google again) for each chemical to double-check the safety precautions.  Alum is harmless, but chromium sulphate is both toxic by ingestion, and an irritant by inhalation and skin contact.  Sulphuric acid in sufficient concentration can cause burns.  The appropriate personal protective equipment for this process (especially when working with the undiluted solution) is therefore gloves, goggles, splash-proof apron and a well-ventilated area.  Once the solution is diluted it is safer, but still be cautious about splashing it on your skin or near your eyes.  

Another important point is never add water to acid, always add acid to water.  This is because the solution heats up as it mixes and if you are adding acid to plenty of water you'll hardly notice, but if its water to a small amount of acid, you will know about it, the heat could be sufficient to cause the liquid to boil, which is even more dangerous!  To be safe, we put the water in the wheelie bin first and added the tanning solution to that.

Some of the other methods listed above would be safer in terms of human health and environment (still don't know how to dispose of the chrome tanning solution, part of the reason we keep it in the wheelie bin!).  
Rinsing the hide after tanning was done by hanging the hide over a gate and hosing it with the pressure cleaner (not sure what these are called in other countries, so included an example photo below).

I'm happy to answer any further questions, and I'd love to hear from anyone else who has tried this.  Please leave a comment below. 

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