Thursday, 2 August 2012

Field study - coming to a conclusion

Last week, Her Outdoors, who pays more attention to these things than me, said it was time to harvest the field of triticale we sowed at the end of last year.

From memory, this field was prepared by pigs' noses, horse with spike harrow, tractor with Canadienne, humans with buckets (for rocks - lots of rocks), tractor with plough, and tractor with spike harrow. It was then sown by hand, harrowed a couple of times and left for nature to do her job.

(There was actually quite a lot more to it than that.)

I've taken photos randomly since the planting which are labelled "cultivation" on the right for the true crop spotters among you. Here is how the field looked before we took our scythes to it:

Here's a close up of the heads:

And this is what the field looked like after a bit of sweaty work:

Obviously, there was quite a lot more to it than that. We decided to buy a second scythe, for example, to make the job go a bit more quickly. Then we bought a peening jig to get the blades really sharp, which needed a seat making for it:

And just before we started, Her Outdoors knocked up a couple of cradles (which didn't last long, but was worth a try):

After three mornings of scything, we're beginning to get the hang of it. Her Outdoors is now making stooks while I finish the cutting. And we have threshing, winnowing and storing to look forward to.

While shuffling up and down the field, I've been feeling a strong connection with the many generations who have gone before us. I wondered briefly about the sustainability ratio of this way of farming - how much energy we are putting in compared to how much energy we will get out. But then Her Outdoors reminded me that farming allowed the human population to explode way back when. So the balance will fall heavily on the side of success.

I'm grateful for a year when we had good rainfall at a good time (unlike last year). And hopeful that the seed will be good, will not spoil, will not be eaten by mice, and all the other unknown factors we have yet to encounter.

I just want to share a perfect moment from this morning before I go. I'd been up and down the field, before sitting down to rest (and to drink quite a lot of water). I noticed that there was not a mechanical sound anywhere. Images of Van Goch's paintings filled my head. The wind picked up briefly and delivered a sublimely timed gust to my face, and I felt a oneness with humanity down the ages. To top the moment off, I heard the sound of two horses coming up the hill.

It really doesn't get any better than that.


Arch said...

Aluminim shaft on sythe ! oh ho !

Interesting dreams of times gone by maybe that type of graft is what gave some the idea why don't I build a wayside Inn brew some beer etc and open up !

the devolutionary said...

Arch aka Stephen aka Max & Fran etc. - imagine my disappointment when that was the only snath I could find a few years ago. Fortunately, our new scythe snath is made of wood - a cheap job but one I can use to base future models on. I've been using the aluminium one for a while, but switched to the wooden one yesterday morning. The handles are much better placed and it feels 'easier'.

This is not the only tool the French do differently. Their shovel lacks a cross piece which makes it quite hard to use, but is good for throwing at large piles of gravel.

As to the idea of running an Inn as an easier life... the hours are appalling.

Ben said...

Hey Alex, good work! However, what you two need to do is start planting perennials to feed yourselves and your animals. Then you wont have to go through all this energy intensive work every year, you can sit back and reap the rewards without having to reap the harvest...

William said...

Just testing !

Yes interesting that a lot of things that one would see hanging around in sheds have mostly gone, haven't come across a sythe for years now a wooden one that is

We have a very good farmers suppliers called Sam Turners up here that sell all manner of shafts etc maybe that's the place for for one ? Am going to have a look next time I am in !

I was sort of thinking of just drinking the beer !
If it gets any hotter over there maybe you will see a mirage of an English Pub !

Have a feeling what you may say to that but best not second guess you as your full of surprises !

the devolutionary said...

Hey Ben! Need references for this. We watched some permaculture stuff on the interwebs and it all seemed to be happening in more tropical climates. I know you're more tropical than us, but what can we do in this climate with a clay-heavy soil? (We are beginning to look at all south-facing areas as potential food-bearing sites, but I'm not sure we'll have fruit and veg coming out of our ears any time soon...)

Arch said...

Alex is spot on climate !

The only really sensible perennial for Alex is grass which he is already growing but he has to get his horse through the winter so it has to be cropped and stored !

If he kept sheep that would be a better step at converting what he can't eat himself into something he could eat, and maybe a goat or to, as these animals together will exploit all the plant life that's going to waste at the moment

But he needs hay and grain to get through the winter and flesh to eat himself

It's a tried and tested way that man has perfected for thousands of years and if done by hand as Alex is doing where be the harm

Could you import more horse muck from somewhere nearby to improve the veg plots ?

the devolutionary said...

I'll be writing a blog post on keeping big animals soon(ish). Specifically on the pig front...

Firehorse Digital said...

Couldn't let the Van Goch (sic) comment go without referencing "How you getting on with those sunflowers Vincent?".

However, perfect moment does indeed sound perfect and I look forward to seeing suitably impressionistic shots of the stooks in the field in due course.


the devolutionary said...

Ah. My spealing's not what it used to be.

Ben said...

Hey Alex, and Arch,
Permaculture is not just about tropical places. It is a way in which you can design what you grow so that you can minimise the amount of energy you have to put in but maximise the amount of food etc you get out. For example, Alex feeds his chickens with scraps from the kitchen and a bit of grain etc. He could replace the grain part with a perennial plant such as siberian peas. These grow in small bushes and are apparently excellent as chicken food, they are also leguminous so they fix nitrogen in your soil, and they are a small bush so you could grow them under you fruit trees for example. This way you could feed your chickens and your fruit trees with the same plant whilst not having to buy in or grow a food grain for your chickens, from which you get eggs, and fruit... You see how easy it can be? We bought some seeds for these plants from a company in the UK and we started growing them a few months ago...
This is just one example of what permaculture is about. It can be a really important way in which you can produce a sustainable system to feed yourself and your animals whilst also taking care of your number one asset which is your land. The book than Anna and I left you, The Earth Care Manual has a ton of info on permaculture and is written for a temperate climate. There are also websites such as they are a bit american but they do have some useful stuff. There are also lots of other recourses out there. I shall get a bunch of stuff together and email you then you can read it and spread it about if you wish.
I hope you both take a look into it a bit further. It is an amazingly powerful tool once you get the concept. But it is contrary to how modern agriculture has made us think. I think it is more like looking at they used to do it but applying some of the knowledge and tools that we have learnt in the recent past to improve it.
I hope this helps....

Luke said...

I think Ben may have already written something along these lines, so apologies if it gets repetitive...

Firstly, Permaculture can be applied to any climate and indeed any aspect of your life. It is really common sense. Take a look at how things happen in nature and copy or influence it to obtain a minimum input, maximum output result, which is what I think you are looking for Alex.

I have never had the pleasure of meeting your soil, but Ben has told me plenty about it! Everything I have learnt about sustainable gardening/agriculture in the last few years has taught me to nuture your soil. That means don't plough it and dig it as little as possilbe (which suits me!). If you plough your soil, it never has a chance to build up a structure. Plenty of organic matter, sheet mulching etc... A long process but you'll get there in the end. Watch "greening the desert" by Geoff Laughton on Youtube. That man can grow food on anything. To many people who use the "tried an tested way" this sounds like crazy talk, but when you realise you can feed yourself and all your animals without all that hard work, it starts to sound pretty good. Nature has been producing food for millions of years, with far greater yields and far less energy input than could ever be achieved with traditional techniques. And that is what permaculture is all about.

I don't know a lot about growing fodder crops but there are sure to be plenty of perrenial plants that can feed your animals. We treat a lot of our annuals like perrenials too by letting them self seed. Lettuce, tomatoes, peas beans... They all do this happily if you let them. A good book to check out is Plants for the Future. It recommends many perrenials with many uses that will grow in all kinds of conditions. I've also learnt a lot about what our animals like to eat by watching them. Our rabbits love broom. Which is perfect becaues its growing everywhere. It takes no effort to grow or feed it to them and its free. I would have never realised this if I was out in the fields with my tractor....

Also, you should watch a documentary called "A farm for the future". I think its on youtube. I think it is the most influential documentary I've ever watched.

Anyway, appologies if I'm ranting a bit. I hope those references are informative.

the devolutionary said...

Ben AND Luke - I'm doubly honoured!

Don't get me wrong - we have looked into permaculture and are applying the ideas all the time. The point is, for us, that it's a VERY slow process. We planted 13 fruit trees, for example, nearly five years ago and have yet to eat a single fruit (at a cost of well over €100 for the trees). The hedges we plant are edible. We're developing (ie, planting a couple of fruit trees in) south-facing bits of land in various places. And we spend large parts of our lives moving organic matter to where it's needed.

But my first reaction to Laughton on the youtube vids (I can't speak for Her Outdoors - she does lots more research than me) was: Bulldozers! How much does that cost? How much did the lorry loads of mulch cost and where did it come from? How much for those enormous bags of seeds? And how many trees!?! In "Greening the desert", he mentioned the word "funding" and my suspicions were confirmed. Again, don't get me wrong - thank deity he's finding funding - permaculture is definitely the future and I'd love to see a surplus of produce in all corners of the world - if this doesn't deserve funding, nothing does. My point is, probably, that we're only at the start of a very long journey. Now the campsite infrastructure is in place, we can start to focus more on this from now on.

Another film you put me onto has made a huge difference to us, some aspects of which will be revealed in another post soon - "Forks over knives". I include it here because it may interest people who have read this far. It's easy to become evangelical about this film, as you'll know if you've already seen it. Like I said, more on this soon.

And finally, we've recently seen some stuff about what permaculturist Sepp Holzer has been doing with his life, growing food in impossible places up mountains.

Arch said...

Hi guys ! As Alex says time and money are tight and for that matter man and women power !

Horses, pigs, etc etc eat a hell of a lot Alex would need a lot more land and set up cost would be high, seed etc ?

Where I live we can have snow on the ground for weeks !

Seems to me Alex is heading in the right direction adding what he can as he goes and appears to be very open to change if it is possible for him

Rome wasn't built !!!

the devolutionary said...

Arch, you speak the truth. All we've ever been able to do is our best, and with very limited (often, non-existent) resources, and two small children and everything else that's been part of this story. Five years in, we're still learning, still planning and still getting a huge kick out of it most of the time.

Arch said...

Just been reading ?

By the way don't plant Siberian peas under anything they grow very tall very fast and you have to train the hens to wait for the time of year that the pods open !

There's odd bits of permaculture that could be used I enjoy our apples and plums once a year I suppose we could make jam and the hens, ducks etc do get apples, our dogs eat a lot of apples and plums strangely ?

Must be the sugar !

If you totally free range hens and ducks they should be fine ? When I have tried this they lose weight and start to die, they seem to need quite a bit of extra grain to keep them right ?

Luke said...

You are right Alex, it is a slow process. Thats one of the things I struggle with because I'm a big fan of instant results. As for the expense - One of the core principles of permaculture is using whatever resources are available, and adapting what you grow to suit the environment around you. The result of that is that you end up not spending much money. The greening the desert was just an example of what conditions you can grow in, but you certainly don't need bulldozers etc to apply permaculture. In fact, it is discouraged!

Anyway, there is no wrong or right way to do anything. Whatever works!

Luke said...


Arch I have no idea where you live or what kind of place you have. Do you have a blog or anything?? I'm quite surprised to hear that your chickens lose weight and die if you let them go free range. Another great aspect of permaculture is that it creates a more natural environment which suits animals, both wild and farmed. Traditional agriculture tends to rather spoil it in many cases. Maybe thats why our chickens are so happy and fat! And its great to see them use the tools they evolved.

Arch said...

Hi guys !

Thanks for the encouragement, I think putting to and fro text comments starts to appear as if we a at loggerheads !

I feel yourselves, Alex, and I are all singing off the same sheet .

I live in North Yorkshire and the chicks, ducks etc have five acres with thick hedges and a stream plus large muck heap
There's not that much around in winter to find if they didn't get extra they would and have died also its not possible to leave them out to long as the foxes take them even with a very active hunt in the area,

I do cut hawthorn berrys sloe etc for them.