Sunday, 28 June 2015

Law of the Farm Number 5: “A Cow eats grass and produces Manure; soil eats manure and produces grass.”

Cows are beautiful to watch in the pasture as they munch away at the grasses that they seem never to get bored of. We only have two cows are Pebbeslpring farm. The land is big enough to take between 10 and 20 cattle, but right now the pasture is small with so much of the ground having been overtaken by the terrible invasive Port Jackson Willow (Acacia Saligna) and the even more nasty Inkberry (Cestrum laevigatum). The Inkberry likes the lower lying wetter areas and is poisonous to livestock. The cattle find the Port Jackson quite palatable. I will see them fighting each other to get to the Port Jackson if I have just let them into new pasture. The problems with the Port Jackson, is it grows so dense that the cattle find it difficult to penetrate and the leaves grow high and out of reach because the density caused it to be too dark for  leaves near the forest floor. Also, because the Port Jackson are so densely packed, grasses can grow on the forest floor, again not good for the cattle because they like grass much more than leaves. But also with no grass or any other growth on the forest floor under the Port Jackson, the soil on the steeper slopes begins to wash away in times of heavy rain. So our attitude toward the inkberry has been to remove it wherever we find it.  We cut it down as close to ground level as we can. When it sprouts again we cut it again. Eventually it stops growing. 
Some of our cattle graze in Tsistikama

The Port Jackson, however, I have been more selective with. I have begun rather to cut them in such a way so as to leave behind a savannah of sorts. Trees spaced in a pasture in such a way as to allow enough light to get to the soil and allow the grasses to grow. I have noticed that, at least in the summer months, the grasses seem to be taller and greener in that part of the pasture near the edges where the trees are. I guess it has to do with the fact that there is a little less evaporation there because of the shade. Perhaps there is extra nitrogen there because the cattle lounge there to keep out of the heat, perhaps because the Port Jackson willow is nitrogen fixing, the grasses are able to absorb this critical nutrient near the tree and grow greener. I don’t really know why the grass grows taller and greener where the trees touch the pasture, but I know that it does and my attempt is to mimic this pattern to see if I can replicate the results.

Of course all of this stuff about pasture is quite possibly more interesting to me than it is to you. Books have been written about pasture. Entire library shelves filled. The important thing to take from the pasture is the undeniable fact that we are dealing with a living system. In a very real and observable way the cattle and the grass and the soil are part of the same organism. The grass has evolved to look, taste and behave the way it has because of grazing animals like cattle. Cattle have developed their size, shape and biology because they have evolved in the pasture eating the grasses that they do. In the same way that the predators shape the herbivores and the herbivores shape the predators. But these are not just curious facts of anatomy and biology. These are fundamental truths, absolute laws that whether we choose to or not are a governing force in all of our lives. It may appear that I, as an individual, am a separate organism to the people around me and to the things that I consume and to the things that try to consume me, but in truth, with the perspective of evolution and of time, I am not. 

So much of what I see around me attempts to convince me that I am a separate organism, that I am able to survive even without this planet; that I am separate from the earth. The spectacular project to send a man to the moon, walk around up there and take photographs of the blue planet from that far off position, is one in a sequence of events, since the beginnings of consciousness that have made us feel more and more comfortable with the argument that we, human beings, are a separate organism. Perhaps consciousness itself, in its infancy asks the question, “who am I?” Am I simply the effect of other causes? The newly conscious mind begins to see that it has a will of its own. It sees that it is not like the birds of the sky or the fishes of the sea. The conscious mind chooses what it will do. The newly conscious mind may then begin to see itself as independent completely of the ecosystem, of the environment, of the earth. “I can fly to the moon! You see! The earth is not an organism, and I am not merely a cell or a piece of tissue of that organism. I am separate.”
Of course the illusion of separateness of those on board the Apollo missions is evident to any 10 year old who will point out the earthly origins of the craft's food, water and oxygen, but somehow, the irrational illusion of "separateness" endures.

So when I sit in the pasture. When I observe the earthworm, when I appreciate the cattle, I let the picture remind me of who I am. I let the picture remind me that I am a part of an organism, an organism that is beginning to show signs of disease caused largely by  people, very much like me, that they have somehow come to forget the obvious truth that they are a small (and very important) part of a big organism. Perhaps the disease afflicting the planet is like the disease of cancer that afflicts so many of our bodies. A disease that killed my own father. The doctors say that a cancer cell is a cell that has forgotten that it is part of body, part of an organism. A cancer cell consumes energy and replicates, but it has forgotten its function in the organism it grows and grows until it kills the body that it forgot that it was integrally part of. The cancer cells form tumours that are fuelled by excess sugar. In the same way perhaps these bodies, these people, form cities distorted beyond any useful shape and size by the injection of excess fossil fuels.  

Tumours and cities behave in this way because they have forgotten the Law of the Farm Number 5 “Cows eat grass and produce Manure, soil eats manure and produces grass”

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Law of the farm number 3: “You can’t become a shepherd by reading about sheep”

Perhaps a real adventure is one where you really don't know where you are going to end up. I can see now that our adventure of perusing the farm Goedmoedsfontein has been just such an adventure. I am still not completely sure where the adventure is going to lead, but for better or worse we have caught the train and we are headed out of the station.

In March 2013 we secured and option to purchase this beautiful 10 hectares. It has spring, a stream and a dam. It has some forest, some grassland and some marsh. It is just the right distance from town, in the country, but still allowing our kids to go to school in the city. Just close enough for people to be able to drive out to the farm and buy their weekly supplies of eggs, chicken, boerewors and other fresh produce we dream of marketing from the little shop (or a ruin of a shop that we intend to renovate back to a shop) that is on the farm.
We managed to sell some property to raise the cash that helped us secure the difference between what the bank would loan us and what the sellers wanted. The funny thing is that I didn't feel so much that the "train had left the station" when the sellers accepted our offer, or when the bank approved the finance or even when I paid the deposit to the conveyancers. In fact, I only felt it on the weekend we brought nine of or our cattle to the newly purchased farm from where we were keeping them in Tsitsikama (a hundred and fifty kilometres away to the west)
I had worked hard the week before to create fenced pasture for them. It measures about 40 by 60 metres. The pasture is good. I rigged up a water supply from a rainwater tank which I haphazardly installed to catch some runoff from the roof of the cottage. We loaded these cattle up on a hired trailer on the Saturday afternoon and drove them to the farm. It was the first time had loaded cattle or pulled them on a trailer. It was quite scary. Number one it’s a heavy load and you can’t go very fast and number two these guys kept jumping around causing the trailer to sway uncontrollably. It was not fun.
After this exhausting journey we got the trailer as close as we could to the new paddock (but this was still the other side of the stream). We let them off the trailer and they scattered in all directions. If  my son, Litha was not here I don’t know what I would have done. But we eventually got them herded together and moving slowly in the direction of the paddock into which we managed to secure them. I was exhausted by the time I got home and a bit shaken by the experience. The next morning, Sunday, Litha and I drove to the farm. All nine seemed quite restful. Some were mooing for their mothers (even though they were quite a bit over 12 months old they had not been weaned at Tsitsikama) All seemed fine, but when I came back on Sunday afternoon, I found the whole herd out. I was alone. I ran round like crazy at first trying to direct them back, but they were determined to get away from the paddock. I called my neighbour, Richard. Luckily he was in he and a friend came to help. We got them in and I spent the rest of the evening trying to make the fences more secure. But the more I tried the more I could see that two black cattle were absolutely determined to escape they pushed at the fences and then over they went. By this time it was about 8 pm. I called Litha and Hlubi. I stayed by the fence that had just been jumped to be sure the others would not also come out. They did not and eventually the you and the family arrived and herd to two black cattle back from the tar road where they had got to so that I could get them back in the paddock.

With family back home preparing for the first day of school the next day, I sat in the dark at the farm watching the fence, stepping up every few minutes to beat a cow back from the fence it was trying to trample. It was a losing battle. By about 10 pm as the rain was starting to come down, the two belligerent black cattle again jumped the fence. I had no choice but to let them go. I was hopeless to try no again to find them in the dark and what's more the remaining seven cattle seemed reasonably complacent and not intent on leaving the paddock any time soon. I went home, defeated and depleted, to sleep. In the 20 minute ride back home I could not shake the stress. I was upset. I was rattled and I was exhausted. I did not sleep well. My mind was racing, fearing the sort, fearing the whole herd was now dispersed all over the neighbouring farmlands. But I knew there was nothing that I could do till the morning.

I left home at 5:30 am. I found a job seeker next to the road near the farm before 6 am (I could not believe my luck that there would be someone there that early - his name was Marius) Marius and I found the two black cattle heading toward us on the side of the road. They were reasonably easy to herd back and seemed quite relaxed and content to be re-united with the group they had abandoned the night before. I was relieved that the others had not also jumped the fence. Marius worked the whole day with Boyce to get the fences as strong as we could get them. I had to go in to the office for some crucial meetings. By the time I got back to the farm in the afternoon the cattle were all still in, but the two black cattle were mooing loudly again and looking agitated. As sure as anything right in front of my eyes the two black cattle jumped the fence again.
Richard from next door gain came to my rescue, suggesting that we separate the two black cattle out. He arranged for them to be located on his neighbours land were 2.4m high electric fence contained them that night. I kept the remaining seven on my side that night and set up the portable electric fence for the first time. When I went the next morning to drop Marius, they were happily inside the paddock. As I write this now at home 20 km away from the farm, I am feeling less anxious about the cattle on the farm. I don’t feel anxious about them at all. A year has passed since I brought the cattle to Pebblespring, but I look back and see how bringing them there definitely jolted me into a place in which I was uncomfortable. This was not theoretical any more. I was not a spectator to the spectacle.
I had read a lot about cattle. I had quite liked Joel Salatin’s book “Salad Bar Beef”, I had tried to wade through Alan Savoury’s “Holistic Management”. I had even ventured beyond the printed page and run some cattle down in Tsitsikama by proxy, with other people doing the dirty work. But reality of this experience was large and in my face. It threatened my resolve, it got me thinking an doubting in a way that no book could do, because at the end of the day there is no way we can ignore Law of the farm number 3 “You can’t become a shepherd by reading about sheep”
But you know that I do not want to talk to you about sheep. You know that I am trying to point out how you and I can benefit significantly from getting out hands dirty with real experience, real risk and real discomfort. Of course we must read, of course we must research, this is what distinguishes us for the other species, the ability to learn from each other and from generations that have passed. But there has been no generation like this one, so completely obsessed with media, so completely obsessed with reading writing, watching and listening. So much time spent spectating and only perhaps commenting, when we feel energised and confident, on the spectacle. We have become consumers of other people experiences and other people’s lives.
What do I say to all of this? Just don’t fall into the trap. Rather do something, take action, physical action. Run a race. Play and match. Climb a mountain, chop down a tree, plant a tree. Sure, talk about it if you have done it. Write about it if you have done it. Post videos on Youtube if you have done it.
But first do something!

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Law of the farm number 2: “If your hens don’t lay, you can’t eat omelettes.”

I have been struggling to get our chickens into proper accommodation. I moved them to the farm a couple of months ago already now as part of a massive back yard clean-up campaign in the build-up to the big party we had at home toward the end of last year. The chickens were hurriedly put into a two metre by two metre box. Well it’s not really a box, more like a frame, a box without a top or a bottom. It was built hurriedly in July last year as a temporary structure to hold the newly born puppies that were running amok and getting themselves drowned in the pool. I am generally reluctant to throw good stuff away and thought it was very creative of me to re purpose the puppy box into a chicken box. I moved it to the farm, put a bit of chicken wire over the top nailed a little egg box in one corner and we were in business, we had a portable structure that we could use to pasture our hens. Moving them to fresh grass everyday where they can scratch and dig and set there manure down in such a way that it is a huge benefit and not a toxic problem requiring hours of our precious time to clean, cart and sanitise. And after all, we had tried pasturing poultry this before with broilers in the suburbs so I was pretty pleased with myself for the quick thinking re[purposing project. Taking a pile of old wood that was surely headed for the tip and turning it into an egg producing, pasture fertilising machine. Absolutely brilliant!
Chicken Tractor
The mongoose, or whatever it was that found the pastured poultry pen on night number three, had other ideas. On the morning of day four we found a hen dead and with a hole ripped in its stomach and its intestines ripped out. On the morning of day five we found another hen, this time with its head gone and a similar problem of missing intestines. The best that I could figure is the chicken thief was squeezing under the frame in the small gaps between the timber and the grass. It was killing and eating inside there and then getting out the way it came in after it had had its fill. I was deflated. You and the family were kind. You only went on with “why didn’t you just...” and “wouldn’t it be better if?...” for about a week. I was let off lightly. But we did find a solution, after reading the farming a permaculture websites and forums, I came across and American farmer, Joel Salatin’s suggestion that foxes on his farm are discouraged by a metre wide “apron” of chicken wire around the pen. Apparently the fox is not bright enough to know not to start digging a metre before the pen to dig under the apron. I tried it out and yes it works (on what I still only suspect is a mongoose problem.) The chickens have survived every night since then, but still no eggs. I am not sure what the problem is, perhaps they are being harassed so much every night that they are too stressed to lay? Perhaps the ratio of roosters to hens is now wrong (since the mongoose took hens and not roosters? I don’t really know. But there are no eggs.

Now to make matters worse we have puppies in the house again. Our beautiful mommy dog, a gracious, gave birth to 11 lovely puppies, five weeks ago.   This week one little puppy accidently got out of the secure area and stumbled into the swimming pool and drowned. Everyone was in tears. We had a crisis. I have been having a busy time in the office so the best solution we could come up with is to hire a trailer, go fetch the puppy box, which has now become hen box and turn it back into a puppy home. This is what we did. The problem of course is that the chickens are now in very temporary accommodation and I am hoping will all survive the sly mongoose until tomorrow, Saturday, when I can spend the morning making more permanent accommodation for these incredible animals.
In a roundabout way, what I am saying is the seemingly simple task of getting eggs from the chickens actually takes a lot of care, effort and management. Those that do it well make it look very easy. I soon will become one of those that make it look easy. But right now, even though my hens are not laying, I am still eating omelettes. Through some fortune, I am able to sell some other goods and services in order to get money to buy eggs. There is nothing wrong with this system of trade. In fact it is a very clever mechanism; it can though cause us to begin to create in our minds a distorted view of reality; a view that dislocates the desire to eat omelettes from the desire to learn how to care for hens. Our system can create an illusion in our minds that in some way those that live around us, in the same city or the same country owe us omelettes, or owe us a living. That we are somehow entitled to be given stuff.

Giving is a very good thing to do. In fact I make the effort to give as often as I can, especially to people I can see really need help. But when I give, part of my duty to the person receiving is not to allow his mind to be poisoned with some irrational belief that he should expect me to keep giving to him. If I fail in my duty, he may come to forget that it is a fundamental law of how things work that you have to put in the effort, physically, mentally and spiritually. He may come to forget Law of the farm number 2: If your hens don’t lay, you can’t eat omelettes.  I may even have left him worse off that when I found him if I don’t take the effort to help him see this. So in my life I try to remind myself, as often as I can to stay real in that way. I try to stay observant. If things are coming too easy, yes I celebrate, but no I don’t take it for granted. I don’t expect it will stay good forever, because I know time will correct the situation because of the fundamental laws that are in place. If I have not made the effort then I should not expect any reward. If something has come my way out of luck I count it as a windfall, a lucky break and I make every effort not to allow my mind to expect it to happen again. This is the law of the farm!

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Law of the farm Number 1: “One plus one equals three"

In the last few months I have been planting fruit trees and nut trees on the farm. In between them I have been planting berries. I have taken quite a bit of effort to prepare the land using a system of swales constructed on contour that will help to retain moisture and soil nutrient. As these swales weave their way through pasture and bush, I have cleared to unwanted invasive species and have used their timber in the base of the swale mound to form the basis for composting that will take place over time. It’s a very old system of planting and I have done what I can to read as much as I can about it. But regardless of the preparation I have done for my apples, mulberries, figs and lemons, it comes down to digging and hole and planting a tree. (One hole plus one tree). Every one of us knows since we were two years old that one hole plus one apple tree does not give a hole and a tree, rather it gives and abundance of apples, shade, blossoms, wood and pleasure for a hundred years. In the case of the apple tree one plus one does not equal two. It equals two million perhaps.

Mandisa helping set out contours 
I suppose one hole and one apple tree does only equal a hole and a tree in some laboratory somewhere, which will control the environment in such a way as to ensure that there is no sunlight causing photosynthesis, that there is no water in the soil to feed the roots, that there are no organisms to transform the organic material into beneficial nutrients. Then I am sure the tree will not grow, proving that one plus one does equal two. But thankfully we do not live in that laboratory. Where we live and where I plant my trees on the farm one plus one does definitely not add up to two. But where we work and where we play out our middle class lives, those that try to sell us stuff or buy our time present “one plus one is two” as a fundamental law of the universe. One month’s work equals one month’s wage, because “money does not grow on trees” One hamburger can be bought for the cash price required of one Hamburger, because “you get nothing for nothing”.
There is of course nothing wrong with arithmetic. On a chalkboard, in a grade one class, one plus one must remain two, but in so many other situations the law is not useful to us at all. It is especially not useful to us in the way in which corporations and institutions make every attempt to make us believe this law in order to remained trapped in the systems that they need to keep us trapped in, using schemes like:
·         One lifetime dedicated to one corporation equals one pension funded retirement.
Now, let me look at my own life. What can I do with my new understanding of the law “One plus one equals three?” Not everyone has a farm on which plant apple trees of course, but what can we do that will show massive dividends later? What can I do today that has a lasting impact that does not require me to labour over it day and night? What lasting things can I do today, that keep on paying dividends? What if I did one thing a week that would have lasting impact? So much of what we do is wasted. If I wash my car today, I have to wash it again tomorrow. If I watch TV tonight, I have nothing to show for it in the morning. But if I tile my bathroom, or arrange photos in my photo album, or paint a picture, or write a poem, these things are lasting and keep on giving much more than once. This is where our focus must be. Where we must do things or buy things that are temporary, let’s set a rule. Let’s not buy anything that will not last five years. Be it shoes, or a jacket or a cap or a skateboard. Let these items keep paying dividends for years.  Let’s make a rule to cut down on those things we spend time and money on that don’t deliver dividends. I am not saying you should not from time to time splash out and have a great steak at a restaurant, but to invest time and money in drinking a R200.00 bottle of wine every night is to become addicted to a passing pleasure that could rather have been a lasting gift.
The Fashion industry is capitalisms mechanism for making us all believe that we must keep on paying. Fashion tries to get us as close to the ideal of “use it once” as they can. I know women that will not be seen in public wearing and outfit that they have already been seen in. (I am sure that there are men who behave in this way, it’s just that I have not yet met them) The fashion mind-set began with clothing, but there are clever “marketing gurus” that have managed to shift the focus into music, automobiles and electronic devices. I am not suggesting that the new car is not better than the old one. I am saying that we are motivated to buy the new gadget only partly because it is better and  largely because it is more fashionable to do so. What I am saying is that the iphone 3 is a fantastic piece of technology. There are very few practical reasons why we could not allow the gift to keep on giving, but we don’t allow it to do so, we buy the iphone 4, then the I phone 5, then the iphone 6. We do this because we are not open to the idea of investing once and then allowing ourselves to receive multiples of one. We are not open to the idea that one plus one can be equal to more than two.

In relationships we are the same. We limit ourselves. We do not invest in a handshake, or a smile or a bit of meaningless banter with a stranger, because “it’s not worth the effort” We expect in return at best only a smile, or a handshake or a bit of meaningless banter. (at worst we fear that we won’t even have the smile returned, and we will be left in deficit) If though, in our minds we can begin to expect, even demand, that a smile will be returned as a smile and perhaps a warming chat, or an exchange of useful information, or a hug, or a kiss, or a lifelong relationship including seven children and big house in Plettenberg bay, then we will begin to receive those in return. We must though, begin with the expectation that it is absolutely normal and natural to receive a lot more than we give. That is the way of the living universe. 

That is the Law of the Farm.