‘Transition Town’ Ahualoa?

March 15th, 2010

I read the Transition Handbook last year. It’s a growing movement, and it’s full of great ideas for making sustainable local communities. There are lots of issues to figure out, about how to interact with local government, and finding the people who have the time and talent for organizing. I’ve spent some months thinking about how my community could use the Transition model, and there’s one other major issue: Geography. Transition works with face-to-face meeting; that’s a fundamental pillar. Not just monthly face-to-face either, but frequent. That means a community that lives close to each other, within a small area.

The area i live in, Ahualoa, is around 3×2 miles, 6 square miles. That might be OK size-wise, but there are drawbacks:
1. A 1000-foot rise from one end to the other makes getting around more energy-intensive.
2. Few roads (no grid or spokes) and no paths, so to avoid trespassing you have to walk/drive a long way, to go a short way as an ‘io flies.
3. Many sparsely-inhabited 20-acre lots means low population density.
4. No central point or public space. 60 years ago, we had several small schools and, i believe, a store. These are long gone. There’s nowhere to meet or barter.

You can see the pattern of big lots with few roads:

Unless we can improve these issues, Ahualoa remains in danger of being a 100% car-dependent ‘bedroom community’ to other places – which is a very bad place to be when only the rich will drive cars.

Farm visit

February 5th, 2010

On the morning of January 29, we got a visit from a batch of kids from Honokaa Elementary.  I got to spend a few hours with them, showing them many parts of the farm, teaching them about the trees and plants, the fruits and the tea, the chickens and the compost.  They asked great questions and seemed to eagerly soak up knowledge and have a great time.  “Best field trip ever.

They felt the warm compost pile and learned about the billions of little microbes working hard to turn it into nutritious soil..

They got to really interact with the environment, picking fruit and carrots, smelling the cinnamon leaves, touching bugs, petting a chicken..

Funniest moment: I asked if anyone knows why there are so many wild chickens on Kauai. One girl, Pakalana, raised her hand and said, “Because there’s only one KFC?” (The common answer is “because there’s no mongoose.”)

Interesting things

January 5th, 2010

Some recent items of interest:

Biochar news, terroir, local ag, collapse, stoves

March 7th, 2009

A collection of things i’ve recently found fascinating:

  • International Biochar Initiative (IBI) projects, with cleaner char-producing stoves and gasifiers for all parts of the world.  Dozens of universities and thousands of farmers and researchers are busy with biochar, even though the “larger world” still hasn’t heard.  I’m dying to make or buy some char to test on our farm.
  • Peter Schmidt on Terroir, Biodiversity, and Biochar Even though this expert is talking about wine grapes, it’s very easy to see how it pertains to tea as well.  As he says, Soil is an endless science.
  • I’ve discovered mailing lists for Big Island Self-Sufficiency (chatty) and Hawaii Chickens (less so).
  • Dmitri Orlov’s Social Collapse Best Practices talk given in San Francisco.  As he says, when any society collapses (as he observed in the Soviet Union), what matters is food, shelter, transportation, and security.  The time to think about how to secure those post-peak is now.
  • I ordered a small rocket stove and a larger wood gas stove to experiment with.  Stoves are way more interesting than i ever knew.  It seems millions of us who live outside cities could be cooking this way – clean, no smoke, and carbon neutral.  Some stoves will even gasify, there are hundreds out there as research, but i still haven’t found a unit that cleanly produces char that you can just buyWorldStove looks promising – see video of their LuciaStove in Pyrolytic Gasification Mode.

Farm update, and the state of the world

March 2nd, 2009

We’ve had nine days of very wet and cold weather.  Can’t do much gardening, using the wood stove a lot to drive out the cold and damp.  The tea plants are the only one who appear to be very happy with our wet winter so far.  It seems they love all the rain, with fast and strong growth.  I made another 200 cuttings from the growth (oasis cubes, dip-n-grow); with the success rate i’ve been having, that might become 20 new plants.

Meanwhile, the new house has been moving forward (photos).

Last week we had a mainland visitor, my old friend Aix, who now lives in Arcata, CA.  Incredibly, we hadn’t seen each other since i visited him in Kyoto in 1997.  It was great to catch up, and he briefly got to experience working in the tea field, running to shredder to make compost, and digging on the new house pad.

I’ve been spending quite a bit of time recently studying the big changes going on in the wider world – peak oil, peak everything, climate change, collapse of the banking system, instability in global agriculture.  Will the future look more like Mad Max or the Amish?  While it’s all super complex, one clear conclusion is that in the future, those of us that survive will be growing more of our own food.  I give tours of our farm often, and when i tell people that we grow around 1/3 of our food, they are very impressed and say we are better prepared for the coming troubles.  But i’m not so sure.  Where will the other 2/3 of our food come from?  What about all our hungry neighbors?

There is more to survival than food.  The staple carbohydrates that we can grow here are tubers – potato, sweet potatoes, taro.  We buy/import our other staples, so our food is based on tubers, bread, pasta, and rice.  I realized recently that if ‘the boats stop’, then our food will be based on tubers, tubers, tubers, and tubers.

Down at Evening Rain Farm in Puna is another family, who are growing perhaps >80% of their food, more than anyone else i know of (starting with their Food Experiment).  I haven’t met them personally, but their blog is fascinating.  It is a jungle where they live, so they have fewer tubers, but a ton of breadfruit.  Breadfruit and pig, every meal, every day, “breadfruit alfredo, breadfruit parmesan, breadfruit pesto”…

One major challenge on our land, for food sustainability, is garden space.  We have so many giant eucalypts around, on a L-shaped skinny lot, that shade is a big issue.  We’ve been cutting them back (endless firewood!) but it’s a lot of work, and they are also serve as beneficial windbreak – a complex trade-off.

Farm Update

January 9th, 2009

What’s going on with the farm recently:

  • Egg production is up slightly.  It dipped really, really low at the end of November (some days with zero eggs, out of 38 hens!) but finally it is back up to 6-7 eggs/day.  I always knew that eggs decreased with day length, but it actually dips most before the winter solstice, as explained by Plamondon in Why We Don’t Eat Eggs at Thanksgiving
  • The established tea in the field is growing well.  The new irrigation system plus some nice winter rains have boosted growth.  I’m going to have to/get to prune again soon.
  • Of the 424 tea cuttings, only 10% are still going… details to follow.
  • We got our building permit to build our house!!  The approval came on December 31, after 2 years of struggling with design, 8 months in the permit process with the County, thousands of dollars in various costs, and much grief.  Now, one consideration is that the new house site is immediately adjacent to the chicken run – pretty much inside it.  Good thing we like the sound of chickens!

Learning Small Scale Farming in Mid-life

December 20th, 2008

I read a great article today, From Cubicle Nerd to Cucumber Vendor: Learning Small Scale Farming in Mid-life.  As usual for the Oil Drum, much of the information is in the ensuing discussion (all 30,000 words of it).  An engineer moves to the country (in this case, Virginia), starts to farm, and produces fascinating measures of the activity (950 gallons of fossil fuel, 1,078,700 food calories produced..)  People from around the country add their own experiences, including a guy on Maui.  It seems there are a lot of people in my situation: Moving partly or fully from white-collar work to producing food, attempting sustainability, an incredibly complex set of challenges, a lot that is different in each place, but also a lot of things we can learn from each other.

Hamakua ag classes

August 25th, 2008

It hasn’t been widely publicized, so i want to help: If you are in Hamakua, check this out. HHCDC’s Agriculture & Sustainability classes:

Supporting local agriculture through classroom instruction, field operations and farm tours from specialists and local farmers who support sustainable agriculture in Hamakua

There are classes on soil, planting, monitoring, harvesting, value add, irrigation, aquaponics, biodynamics, alternative energy, food security – and a class on Poultry taught by me (Ben) on Nov. 13, followed by a farm tour here on Nov. 15.  You can sign up for the whole thing, or just drop in on the events that interest you.

Soil tests

April 28th, 2008

I mentioned before i was suspicious of some trouble with my roughly finished compost. I did the classic agronomic test: made a number of pots and planted corn. Started 4/7, three weeks ago. Eventually i will pull them up and do quantitative measurement of the biomass grown, but for now i can already do a little qualitative guesswork:

A,B,G: plain topsoil, as a control.
C,D: 50% topsoil, 50% compost.
E,F: 100% compost.
H: Rich, dark results of feeding manure to earthworms.

Some tentative conclusions:

  • It all grows quite well. My topsoil is pretty good.
  • The corn in the 100% compost looks more yellow, less green. It must be that something is lacking, either the compost isn’t sufficiently broken down or it lacks some nutrient(s).
  • The 50-50 blend is doing slightly better than straight topsoil, so the addition of compost is overall a benefit.
  • H looks great. Plants just love pure worm output. :)

Spring Farm Update

April 16th, 2008

Aside from the usual spring planting, here are some things that have been going on at the farm.

  • I dug several new beds above and outside the upper garden. In addition to the usual taro and veggies, i have planted some “hull-less” popcorn and a large bed with two different kind of peanuts. I bought the heirloom peanut seed from organic farms i found on LocalHarvest.
  • When all the stores were out of Azomite (which we use to add all the minerals our soil lacks) i got a bag of Kelp Meal instead. Expensive, so i use it sparingly, but seems like great stuff.
  • I ‘activated’ a gallon of EM and have started a number of experiments with it, seeing if it affects anaerobic composting and whether it helps to “balance” the rough compost. In addition to the anaerobic tests, there are number of pots with 5 corn plants each, with varying amounts of finished compost and EM.
  • On a tip from Tom Baldwin, i am now looking for some Azolla (aquatic fern) as a way to grow nutritious feed for my chickens.
  • I gave a talk on biochar at a local gathering of farmers, a seed exchange/potluck event held in Honokaa every other month. Lots of other biochar news, but that’s another blog post..
  • I gave a talk on How To Eat Local, at the Waimea library. Only a few people showed, but the talk went well. I hope to give the talk to a big audience at some point.

Here are the new upper beds as of a couple weeks ago. That brand-new bed is now full of peanuts: