Biochar – offset global warming AND grow more food

March 21st, 2008

For the past few weeks, i’ve been getting more and more excited about biochar – that is, biomass charcoal as a way of producing carbon-negative energy and improving soil. I really can’t summarize the whole field here – just take a look at the Biochar Fund, International Biochar Initiative, Biochar: the new frontier at Cornell, Terra Preta, Carbon Diversion. The article Black is the New Green, from Nature (2006) gives a good overview with pictures. This is really the closest thing to a world-saving technology i’ve ever found – and i can’t wait to try it out on our farm. I’m looking around for a source of quality-controlled char, emailing UH and asking everyone i know, spreading the word.

Despite the rapidly-increasing awareness among researchers, environmentalists and technocrats, apparently still very few people – including farmers – have heard of biochar. Global warming has reached the mass consciousness, but not any realistic solution. That may change soon.

Ag books

March 10th, 2008

My back failed dramatically last week (sacroiliitis) and i was unable to sit or stand for four days. A great time to catch up on reading, i finished two ag books:

You Can Farm The Farm as Natural Habitat

You Can Farm, Joel Salatin.  A great book on how to realistically earn a profit raising food in a healthy, humane, sustainable way, on a family farm.  It’s fun to read, blunt, loaded with excellent advice, and definitely not for vegans. :)   Lots about chickens.  One very interesting point Joel makes in Chapter 13: to have realistic access to markets, you should be within ~40 miles of a town of at least 25,000 people.  Here in Ahualoa, we aren’t – all of Hamakua, plus all of Waimea, is less than 16,000 people.  For people like us in such a rural area, selling enough products, and trucking it to markets, would be a real stretch (in time and fuel).

The Farm as Natural Habitat.  It starts out kinda stuffy and academic, but there are some great chapters in here (all by different authors) on exactly how agriculture and biodiversity can and should coexist.  Most of the book is about the US midwest, but there is also a chapter on Tule Lake in California, and the meadows of England.  There are actually systems in place in the world where agriculture improves land for wild species, and vice versa – the farm doesn’t have to be a “sacrifice zone.”

Compost sifting

January 30th, 2008

Recently i’ve found myself spending an awful lot of time out by the compost piles, sifting the rocks out of the horse manure and twigs out of the rough compost, using a simple wire mesh. It’s slow, and takes a lot of energy. Hoping to find a better way, i searched the internet. There are a lot of different ideas out there.

Homemade Compost Sifter Screen Sieve shows the basic idea of making the screen slide, so you don’t have to hold it up. That’s the guy in the picture (that’s not me, although that’s exactly how i’m sifting now). Here are some detailed plans for how to make it with a slider, and some other people show how to build it with wheels. Some other people have built a rotating drum which looks nifty, and google even turns up some patents on that design.

Then, at the higher end, there are some big designs with serious motors, multiple screens, the sort of thing you’d want a front-loader to move your compost with. That’s out of my range.

So, i think we’re going to try building the slider approach, perhaps a bit bigger so it fits on the cart, which is bigger than the wheelbarrow. It’s a lot of work sifting an entire pickup truckload of manure!

Chipper/Shredder!

May 14th, 2007

For a long time, i’ve been trying to build large amount of compost, but a lot of the green matter available is just too tough, so i’ve spent a lot of hours chopping it by hand into little pieces, with a clipper, by hand. Family and neighbors have stopped and stared, astonished at the manual labor, poking fun at me.

When i heard there was such a thing as a chipper/shredder, a search began. It’s a class of machines, gas or electric, not as big as a wood chipper, made for shredding brush and small branches. I looked online (nobody would ship to Hawai’i), i called stores, i called rental companies. No luck. Finally, a week ago i was whining about it at a potluck, and a nice older couple said, “Hey, we’ve got one of those, haven’t used it in years, would you like it?”

Would i! Paid $200, got it home, figured out how to take it apart and sharpen the blades. Started it up and… it’s incredible. Branches, long stringy grass, wet green ginger stalks, you name it, it shreds into a slurry which is perfect for going right into the compost pile.

Yesterday, i saw our neighbors driving a truck of plant debris across their land to dump it. I hollered over the fence, and soon found myself in possession of a whole big truckload of hapu’u branches and ginger stalks. Into the chipper it went, and made a whole huge pile of beautiful green matter. Although there is a little bit of wood chip and dry matter in the mix, there is still plenty of green for effective composting (Nitrogen / Carbon ratio).

Yes, i look like a dweeb in safety glasses, but Deb made me promise to wear them.

Now, there is an issue to wrestle with. We’re aspiring to permacultural ideals; reducing petroleum usage for farm inputs is definitely important. On the other hand, rapidly producing a large amount of compost is critically important to farming organic, biodynamic, biointensive, whatever you want to call it. If i use some amount of gas to do it – versus spending countless hours on manual labor – it is a net plus or minus? How different is it from using a lawn mower then gathering the clippings for compost? Should i have insisted on an electric-powered shredder – as our electricity on this island is 20-30% renewable geothermal? Is the only “true” sustainable thing toiling all day in an agrarian society? Am i selling out, or is everyone selling out by using metal tools, which were produced most certainly with huge amounts of coal? How much fertility would have been produced by turning that petroleum into chemical fertilizer, versus the compost from using it to run my shredder instead? Complex.

Seven-pointed red mushroom

November 18th, 2006

Along our driveway terrace in the tea plantation area, where i had put some woodchips as mulch, i found this strange thing growing.

It was clearly a mushroom, but unlike any i have ever seen, with a 7-fold symmetry. I immediately came in and googled with terms like “seven-pointed red mushroom fungus 7-fold”, but didn’t find it. A few days later Deb found it. It is called Aseroe rubra, the starfish fungus or “sea anemone fungus”, an “unusual tropical member of the ornate stinkhorn family, widespread throughout the Hawaiian Islands and the south Pacific.” The forms can be quite diverse, with anywhere from 5-fold to 12-fold symmetry in the pictures i’ve found online. (See: at mushroomexpert.com, on google images) Supposedly it smells bad, but i didn’t smell anything from the ones on my terrace. In any case, since tea can pick up subtle flavors from its environment, i’m not going to let any of these mushrooms grow on our farm!

Brand new blog

October 2nd, 2006

Here it is, the very first test of our new farm blog. Lots of tea news today, but let’s see if it works first before getting too carried away.

For those of you here for the first time, some basic explanation.  We live in Ahualoa, Hawai’i, on a few acres of land.  We’ve got 45 chickens which produce a lot of eggs, and we’re trying to start a tea plantation.