2015: Accept Feedback

I have to blame the baby. Part of the time I spend with Stanley used to be spent on the blog. Hanging out with Stanley is a very fun way to spend my time. But I also liked doing my 2013 year in review at the end of 2013 and as Craig is currently looking after Stanley, I have decided to indulge in some reflections on the Farm, 1 month and 1 week into 2015.

Baby Stan sitting atop the haul.

Baby Stan sitting atop the haul.

I start with the 2014 potato harvest. I don’t have much to say about the potatoes other than we harvested them in early December and harvesting potatoes is possibly the greatest job on the farm. Digging them out is so much fun, especially when the crop is good. They are little surprises all covered in soil. We’ve been eating them ever since in all different ways.

This year the harvest was made more fun by the baby. First, I couldn’t help but plonk him atop the potatoes in the wheelbarrow and gratuitously take pictures. Second, I kept thinking about Stanley helping us harvest potatoes in future. If adults find it a fun and magical kind of experience, I can only imagine it must be amazingly wonderous for little kids!

Then came the festive season. Without a doubt the biggest event that occurred at that time were the deaths of two of our chickens: Baba Ganouj and Bruiser. Baba died just after Christmas and Bruiser just after New Year. If there is a time where you are forced to reflect on life, the universe and your desire to have a lively and productive backyard farm, it is over Christmas and New Year. Aside from grieving the loss of the two chooks, the deaths made that reflection period quite intense.

Our course at Milkwood taught us that one of the principles of permaculture is “accept feedback”.  So I suppose if we classify the deaths of two of our beloved birds “feedback”, how have we actively “accepted” it? In short, I think the first response from all of us was recognition we needed to take their slowed laying more seriously and react more quickly. They were only about16 months old and we had just written off their decrease in egg production as seasonal variation. In retrospect that was wishful thinking because there were other signs that indicated all was not well. First and foremost the sense that they just didn’t look as healthy as they did at the start of 2014 towards the end of the year.

One of our responses to this feedback is to be more careful and thorough in future when egg production slows, consider not only environmental factors but what might be happening with individual birds. We don’t know what killed Baba Ganouj; she’s buried under the peach tree. But Bruiser, buried under the bananas, died at the vet. The autopsy showed peritonitis caused by a broken egg. The strange thing was, when they were laying, we hadn’t noticed thin shells and their food had calcium added into it. It seems unlikely that Baba died of the same thing, because she was laying right up until her last days (we know this because her eggs were always more brown/speckled that the other two). But that is what took out Bruiser in the end and so it is likely she had not been laying for a while.

So, in short, the plan is we will keep a cleaner coop and respond to changes in the chickens with more speed in the future. Daria, the last hen standing, is an incredibly healthy looking bird. She used to be quite aloof, but now she’s on her own, she’s become a real people’s chook. It is sad and hard to believe they are gone, Brusier was a weird little chook with a broken beak and Baba was the most charismatic bird i’d ever met. But we have tried to learn from this experience. There deaths will not be in vain!

Soil from 5 sites around the farm bagged to send to Macquarie Uni

Soil from 5 sites around the farm bagged to send to Macquarie Uni

Spurred on by the deaths of the chooks, one of the first main events on the 2015 agenda is soil testing. We have been putting this off since we moved here for no other reason other than the money. But before Bruiser died the Vet hypothesised that it may have been lead in the soil that caused the birds’ illnesses. Chickens are much more susceptible than humans to sicknesses caused by even trace amounts of lead in the soil. We were somewhat reassured that she did not die of a lead-related illness after the autopsy, but since we’ve buried the birds near our food trees, we want to be sure they aren’t composting some harsh chemicals. So we are finally getting the soil tested. Craig got the kit from the Department of Primary Industries. But our friend Edwina alerted us to the Vegesafe research project at Macquarie University that is offering free soil testing for domestic gardens. In turn they are creating a map of Sydney’s soil health (especially appropriate in 2015, the International Year of Soils!). I look forward to sharing the results of this test.

Finally, we realised that living in the share situation as we do, with everyone working full time jobs and IMG_3448with no contractual obligation to collaborate, it is hard to get together to really plan the garden. Over the course of 2014 we noticed that the work was becoming more fragmented and individualised. Personally, I began to feel overwhelmed by the amount of space we had under cultivation. Not only with food plants, but with the Garden of Bad Flowers (more on the development of that garden in a future post). So many different things requiring different kinds of care! I found it difficult to know what to do when there seemed to be so many things to do, and a crying baby, and writing, and washing, and sleeping. Two things helped. First we found a neat formula in the Diggers Catalogue. Their gardeners at the Heronswood estate work over the equivalent of 1/6 acre in 4.79 hours per week. We live on a 1/4 acre, but only about 1/2 is actual gardens. So if all 5 of us do just 7 minutes work per day, theoretically we should be able to grow the garden. No doubt some weeks we will do more, some less, but the formula made it seem less overwhelming. Second, we purchased a chalkboard to map out the garden and placed it in a prominent space in the house. Not only does it give an instant snapshot of what is happening, it is also a talking point to help us think more collectively about what is going on in the yard.

So, 2014 ended sadly and 2015 began sadly with the chooks, but I think we’ve done OK by accepting their deaths as feedback both literally in relation to the care of the chooks and symbolically in relation to the farm as a whole, and hopefully we are heading in a good direction as a result.