Sunday, 30 August 2015

Law of the farm number 9: “The fence works because the bull chooses to stay behind it

February 2015

I did not get a chance to watch the State of the Nation address last night. Things were a little busy. I made a presentation to a community meeting in Gqebera about a project, then Hlubi and I went to a function at the Radisson Hotel, introducing their new chef. But when we go back home we watched some of the footage from the debacle. The EFF were forcibly thrown out of Parliament, the DA walked out in protest. The discussion this morning on Facebook and Twitter is about how irresponsible it is for the EFF to walk out and to be disruptive. I am not that interested in politics. I get the sense that the energy I may commit there is so indirectly applied. My feeling is that I should be making more direct action right now. I am interested though in the principles, the fundamental laws that are illustrated by everyday events like the EFF being “goose-stepped” out of Parliament. Because we see this again and again around the world, when a dominant group abuses its power, those that resist them are left with no alternative but to break the rules. We saw this with Apartheid, where the inflexibility of the National Party, lead to the ANC eventually resorting to the armed struggle, “breaking the rules”. We saw this will the Palestinian Liberation Organisation “breaking the rules” in its response to Israel evicting Palestinians from their homeland. More recently we have we seen AL Qaeda and Osama bin Laden broke the rules very dramatically, flying passenger airlines into the World Trade Centre, breaking even the rules of international terrorism.  These acts of “breaking rules” are a pattern that repeats itself again and again no matter how far back in history you would choose to look. Oppression by the powerful will inevitably result in revolt, and very often the revolt is violent and ugly. Where the powerful have been successful in holding onto their power is where they have set up process, that make those that have less power feel included, to feel as if though there is remote chance that by participating in the processes that they will be able to impact the way things are. The other thing successful powerful groups have over the millennia, is to exercise grace and restraint. They have not wielded all the power they have been able to wield; instead they directed a fraction of this power to making sure their citizens were happily distracted. The Romans built the coliseum to house the gladiators, the Americans built Hollywood to house the movie industry.

Our Calves at Wittlekleibos

The point that becomes clear is that a hungry, unhappy population that feels that is not being taken seriously, is a very serious threat to the entire system. (including the unhappy population that are a part of it) The dynamic between the powerful and the powerless is governed by fundamental dynamics. It is governed by a “law”. This is a law that applies to the way people live together, but it runs much deeper, it applies to the way organisms live together and interact. You see, the fundamental law that applies to these relationships is Law of the farm number 9: “The fence works because the bull chooses to stay behind it.”
There was a  time (before I owned my own livestock) when I believed that the fences I saw between the cattle on the side of the road and the highway that sped past on, was what was keeping the animals from wondering into the traffic. I was wrong. A cow is an incredibly big animal; it can weigh 500 kg and more. If it decides that it would rather be on the other side of the five strands of wire that divide it from where it would want to be, then it will jump over, or walk through. Believe me I have seen this happen in front of my eyes, many times. In fact when I first began to buy calves to build our cattle herd, I was amazed at how these seemingly docile creatures were able to be such accomplished escape artists. My strategy then was to buy three month old calves that had just been weaned from their mother. I had negotiated to make use of some land in Tsitsikama, where Hlubi’s family had some historical connections to community land that had been returned to the community by the government.  It’s a long story, but Hlubi’s mother’s family is part of the Mfengu grouping, who were granted land by the British in the 1800’s in exchange for loyal service as mercenaries during the hundred year Frontier wars that raged in the eastern cape between the British and the Xhosa. The Mfengu were forcibly removed from the land by the apartheid government in the 1970s, but returned (in part) in the 1990’s when the democratic government came into power.
In 2009 we put our first nine calves onto grazing in Tsitsikama. Hlubi and I negotiated with Rasi, the “Isibonda”, the headman. He agreed that we could make use of the “Bull Camp” until such time as our calves were completely self-sufficient and no longer taking the nutrient rich pellets they were being fed every evening. We were very pleased to have access to the “Bull Camp” because of all the hundred and seventy two hectares that make up the Wittekleibos farm, which was home to the Mfengu community, this one hectare camp was by far the most secure, with very sturdy fences. It was the camp that the prize breeding bull would be secured in and into which cows would be brought in order for the bull to do his business without too much running around all over the extensive grassland.
The calves seemed content enough as they were released into the camp. They had been raised by a redheaded farmer just ten kilometres up the road. His name is Gerhard. He is maybe ten years younger than me, but insists calling me “Oom” in the respectful tone reserved for when one speaks to elders. Gerhard’s business model is to buy these calves in from farmers in the district that have no need for them, usually because they are running dairies and find the calves to be an unnecessary inconvenience to their operations. Gerhard takes great care to then rear these calves by hand, initially bottle feeding them three times a day and then slowly introducing pellets and grass.
By sunset on the day that they arrived, the calves were beginning to become restless and noisy. “Mooing” loudly at the top of their voices and pacing up and down the fence line. One by one each of the them found some way through the fence and were headed up the gravel road toward where they must have believed Gerhard’s farm was. When they were chased back into the Bullcamp (not an easy job to chase nine belligerent, single minded calves in the opposite direction to which they have got their minds set on) they would settle for a few minutes only to be headed up the gravel road toward the national highway again. The problem was only resolved by enclosing the calves in a very small; completely escape proof kraal for two weeks. By that time they were settled and had come to accept that this was now their new home.
Now years later, when I drive past the Bull Camp at Tsitiskama and see the giant majestic glistening bull gently lounging behind the fence, I know that he is behind that fence (that can’t even hold in my puny weaner calves) only because he chooses to be behind it. If the bull were so much as lean on the fence he would flatten it.  He could leap over it without building up a sweat. Of course this is so completely true of us and our everyday lives whether we live in the city or the farm. We all, in some way or another live out our lives behind barriers that we choose not to challenge. We stay in our jobs, we stay in the suburbs and townships we were born into, we stay in our relationships and or in our circle of friends. Sometimes we even complain that we are contained and limited by the “fences” of class or family or race or gender or education, but seldom do we challenge the “fences”.
The bull does not challenge the fences because the farmer makes sure he has enough water and grazing (and a willing cow now and again). By giving a little to the bull, the farmer makes his own life easier, and spends very little of his time driving up and down looking for runaway bulls. Where the farmer becomes greedy though, perhaps rather using the bull camp to build a shopping centre and constraining the bull to a small enclosure, without grazing or water or cows, he will find the bull becomes unhappy and becomes determined to be elsewhere. Our society is a little like this. An angry population becomes determined to break the rules (perhaps like the EFF in parliament) To respond by sending in armed police or building higher fences around the secure complexes of the rich is to not understand the problem.
The truth is that the poor and hungry don’t need very much to remain placated and stay within the boundaries that the rich and powerful have historically set for them. The rich and powerful elites know that if the poor and hungry challenge the boundaries and run amok they become a great danger to the order of things. This law is fundamental. Every society that has tried for extended periods of time to make the lives of the miserable more miserable than what can be tolerated has paid the price in a big way. A wise farmer knows not to abuse the power he holds over his animals and in the same way wise powerful elites will only survive if they know this to be true of the economy and the politics that gives order to it. That’s just the way things are; it’s the law of the farm.
In fact it is quite easy for the elite to contain the masses and the individuals that make up the masses when these masses have no vision; when they have no idea of a place they would rather be. Even a heavy powerful bull will wither away in a field with just a little grazing and some muddy water. The calves in my story are however a different matter altogether. Presented with the same grazing and the same water that was good enough for the bull, they were not content. They “knew” they belonged somewhere else. The knowledge made them challenge the fences. And so it is with us. The few that do challenge the boundaries and limitations are those that know where they want to be and believe that they belong in that other place beyond what is currently appearing to constrain them.  I suppose my calves who believed so strongly that they belonged back at Gerhard’s farm, that they were prepared to challenge and to overcome the fences that contained even the biggest and strongest bulls of Wittekleibos. So too,  it is a clear vision we need to develop in our minds that must drive an unwavering passion and desire to be beyond those factors that we have come to believe are limiting us. This is the way we will become free, because this is an observed and recorded fundamental law of the human condition and a fundamental and observed law of the farm.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Law of the farm number eight: Two Tilapia tanks are better than one, Four tanks are even better

I have been growing Tilapia for some time. They are a fantastic fish species. I have only recently moved them to the farm, from where I kept them in the backyard in Walmer. I built a hot house for them, because they seem to do even better in warmer water. They survive in the wild in our region in the rivers and streams though; to I am not sure how much worse they would have done without the hothouse. At Pebblespring farm, I have now released the Grey Tilapia I had in to our far dam. Other I gave to my neighbour Richard who released them in his dam. Richards have been in the dam though the summer and winter and have done very well. I released them as fingerlings no larger than 5 centimetres and he has been fishing them out pan sized. My plan is to not fish any of ours out until next summer; giving them time to establish and grow our dam is a lot more alive with bulrushes, edge plants and duckweed, so I am expecting even better results that Richard has had.

Excrement filtered out of the water with an Aquaponics system

There are a whole lot a great things about Tilapia, once I start talking about them I tend to go on a bit. What I like most about them is that they are omnivores. In fact they can survive almost entirely of a vegetarian diet. They love to eat duckweed. Duckweed (Lemna) in itself is an amazing species. It is a flowering plant that floats in the surface of the water. Apparently it is the smallest of all the flowering plants. On a dam or pond it would look like a green carpet, but on closer inspection you will find that the carpet is not a mass at all, but rather a collection of little plants including leaves, roots and flowers. One little plant will comfortably fit on a fingertip. These fantastic plants can grow very quickly if the conditions in the water are right. It is not uncommon for them to double their population within a twenty four hour period. The best part of all is that they are a very good Tilapia feed, or chicken or pig or cattle feed. I have heard it said that duckweed has a higher protein content that Soya Beans and that it is eaten as salad of sorts in Vietnam or thereabouts. I have eaten a mouthful or two. It’s quite crunchy and fresh, but a little tasteless to my tongue.
Tilapia were harvested from local water systems

The next best thing about Tilapia is they taste great. I am a very fussy fish eater. We have caught too many great tasting fish in the ocean to be able to tolerate poor tasting fish. Tilapia is excellent, not at all muddy or mushy, but very good tasting. Other than that, they are on my favourite list because the species I grow (Orochromis Mossambicus) are indigenous to my province and because they tolerate a wide range of water quality and temperatures. Which brings me to my story here. Tilapia do well in tanks and they are easy for an amateur like myself to attempt to grow. But even Tilapia need the basics in place. They need Oxygen, then need filtration and they need food. In fact in that order of priority. I keep my Tilapia in 1kl tanks salvaged from Industry rubbish heaps in town. I have noticed that while they can go without food for some time, especially when the water temperature is low, they definitely cannot live very log without the water being oxygenated. They can survive a longer time with a filtration system broken down, but if the electricity goes down and the bubblers stop working you could have only a few hours before the fish start gulping on the surface then die. I have lost fish like this a number of times. It’s a risk that comes with keeping fish in high density tank environments. One of the ways to guard against disaster is not to have all the fish in the same tank, rather have two tanks, with two filtrations systems and two aeration systems. It then becomes less likely that disaster will befall both tanks. Even better have four tanks, or forty or four hundred. Even better have each tank with a different species or strains. Equip each tank with a separate power supply for the aeration and filtration system; because safety does not just come in numbers, it comes in variety. One hundred fish in a two kilolitre tank is not as good a two on kilolitre tanks with 50 fish each. By the extension of this logic, it is in fact much better to have the fish in a series of dams and ponds where there is a variety of temperatures, plant species, crustaceans, water depth and oxygen levels. Variety is what brings stability.

Variety is what we strive for in Pebblespring farm. We are interested in different animal species, different plant species and different varieties of species. In this way when disaster strikes not everything is destroyed. The thing about disaster of course is it always strikes. Variety is the defence against disaster. Variety allows disaster to be a sculptor instead of an executioner. Variety allows the stronger, more appropriate varieties live, thrive and reproduce. This is why we have no interest in planting the whole farm, to mielies or sweet potatoes or geraniums. While monocropping may at first seem sensible, it is in fact high risk. It seems sensible, because you only need to run one set of machinery, one set of training to grow and harvest, one supplier of seed stock, one buyer of your output, one category of staff to labour on your fields. Or course we can see though that it also just need one category of insect to get out of control, one Seed Company to hike their prices or one buyer of your goods to undermine your prices. Suddenly monocultures seem very risky, and I am not just talking about farming, what I am talking about is the way we prepare ourselves to face the world. I am talking about how we educate ourselves, becoming highly specialised, becoming a “one trick pony”. All of the advice I ever here coming out of our schooling system advises that we become more and more specialised, more and more focused. More focus less variety. When we reach the top of the education pile we so highly regard that we referred to by a different name. We are now “Dr” Smith, no longer “Bob”, no longer “Mr Smith”.  There is no similar incentive or encouragement to develop our lives in such a way as to nurture a range of skills, experience and passions. To be clear, I am not trying to introduce a new concept, I am perhaps rather trying to point out how far our modern urban system has wondered from the ideals of even classical Greece or Renaissance Europe. Leonardo da Vinci’s idea of the Renaissance Man was the idea of a life of variety spanning athleticism, scientific mindedness and artistic inclination. In our working lives, in our businesses, we are easily tempted to occupy a very small niche and to do only that thing. Bad idea! Not only is it boring to wake up every morning for the rest of your life to look forward to doing exactly the same thing, but it is counter-productive. The economy changes, it breathes in an out, sometime the economy wants beach towels, sometimes the economy wants raincoats. You and I must be flexible enough to move with this. Just because we are expert raincoat makers does not mean we “deserve” that it should rain. The universe does not understand the word “deserve” the farm does not understand the word “deserve”. The universe and the farm understand about variety though. This is the way it has always been. This is the way things are.

Variety and balance in a life, in a family and in a community is what we should hold out as a fundamental objective. It is a theme that should be non-negotiable because it is derived from an observed fundamental law of the farm which states that: “Two Tilapia tanks are better than one, four tanks are even better”

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Law of the Farm number 7: “The Sun will set at sunset – regardless of what is on TV”

(I wrote this piece earlier this year in the summer time, only getting around to posting it now though)

When I got home from the office last night, Hlubi suggested that we take a drive to the farm. She had a stressful day. Being summer, the sun goes down nice and late and the evening was pleasant after the light rain of the day. We lingered at home though.  We did not leave straight away. No big deal, but Hlubi fiddled in the kitchen, got dressed, took a few calls and spent some time waiting for an item to come up on the TV News. 
Olive Woodpecker - Photo Mandisa Hewitt-Coleman - July 2015

By the time we got to the farm it was almost dark. We missed that magic time just before sunset, when the birds go crazy, when the wind has died down and the sky is filled with a special light. That time where everything feels slightly electric, poised, pregnant. We ate our supper at the farm. We boiled the kettle on the gas burner, made a cup of tea and then we were off back home again. It was nice and it helped me remember that this too is a law of the farm. The sun goes down at sunset. There are no extensions of time. There is no appeal processes. It does not matter how big a crowd you are able to muster in political protest, it does not matter how much money you have. The sun will set at it designated time. This is a law of nature and it is the law of the farm. Why is it important to reflect on such an obvious fact? Why? Because we have moved into an era where many of us are lead to believe that there is nothing constant, anything can be negotiated, changed or postponed. We can “re-wind” television for heaven’s sake. We can get a re-mark on our test. We can return the crème bule to Woolworths if it was a little too lumpy. We can vote out our governments. We can sell our shares. We can divorce our husbands. We can enlarge our breasts and whiten our teeth. Those of us that are distracted and have little time to ponder may develop the world view that nothing is constant, that we as individuals are the centre of our universe and all can be modified to meet our desires and our feebleness. But the farm tells us that life is not like that. The sun sets at sunset. The apple ripens not when you want it to, but when it has spent the adequate amount of days on the tree sucking in the nutrients built in the leaves from the rays of the sun. The rain will fall when the clouds become too heavy for them to hold onto their moisture any more. The rain will not wait for you to have brought the goats in from the field; the rain will not wait for you to have completed the repairs on the dam. The rain will come, ready or not.
Because there is a softness that comes over those of us that think that everything is flexible and anything can be negotiated. A certain lack of urgency descends over us. Without an order or a rhythm we descend in to a timeless binge of Xbox, beer and pornography. Nothing matters, everything is the same and “what does it matter anyhow?”  We see this when casinos and malls are trying to trap us to give them our time, our money and our energy. They do all they can, they don’t want us to know when the sun rises, when the sun sets, when the rain falls or when the wind blows. The clever minds that run these awful places know that even a little contact with the absolute rhythms of the earth, like day and night, winter and summer, may jolt us back to a reality and out of the clutches of the trap that they have invested so heavily in constructing for you and me.
The farm, gives a rhythm and an everyday reminder that something’s are just not flexible. Not everyone can live on a farm, but all of us can begin to live a life that puts in place some non-negotiable. How about an half an hour of quiet reading in the morning before everybody else wakes up? How about a 30 minute run or a few pushups in the bathroom before your shower? How about 15 minutes quiet time writing in your journal with your 10 o’clock coffee? Do this every day. Make it non-negotiable, because you say so, because you insist, because you know that you come out of a line of ancestors that moved to a rhythm you have now been robbed of. Because you know that if you don’t give yourself this time, it will somehow be stolen, be wasted away to the TV, Facebook, beer, soccer and shopping. They win. You lose. They gain your life and your energy, you lose your freedom!