Saturday 30 January 2016

in the company of prey

 All my life I have spent time with animals: dogs, cats, goats, donkeys, rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, lovebirds, budgies, chickens, ducks, lizards, frogs, fish. But I have never really been in the position to spend time as I do now, and it has been so rewarding. With pets we take on the responsibility of feeding, cleaning, caring. We do chores around them, we pet them, we interact with them. We are predators making predatory gestures and actions in their environment. While we are not being aggressive, we are in authority and controling the lives of our animals. And the animals I have spent most time with have been dogs and cats: other predators. 

Predators have a gloriously relaxed relaxation: we lounge, we are lazy (with full bellies), we snooze. If something catches our attention we spring into predator style behaviours: we confront, we appear aggressive or at least appear strong and confident. When the moment passes we relax back into our unconcious selves.

Not so prey. I've taken to sitting on the steps by the chicken run while the chooks free range - they don't go far staying within about 40 feet of the run in all directions. So I can see them and them me. We like each other and chooks will come by for some lap time or just to sit beside me on a step. The run sits in an orchard with several varieties of fruit trees around and normally something is in season, so there is fruit on the ground. We have a good population of agoutis and so an agouti or two will arrive to eat the fallen fruit. Agoutis sit on their haunches to eat, holding the fruit with their front paws like squirrels. They come close to within about 15 feet of me. There are wild birds that come close too. (Sometimes I feel like Snow White in the Disney version sitting with all the forest animals - if only I could sing . . .   )

It was sitting like this one day when I realized how very different it felt. Everyone was relaxed, eating or haven eaten, but the relaxation was full of presence. Not fear, not anxiety, but presence. If a branch fell or a bird higher in the trees dropped some fruit or a vulture passed overhead - everyone noted and reacted, but no one squawked or bolted. There was an instant of awareness and a split second of decision then they went back to resting or relaxing. It was never lazy, or confident or indulgent. It was acute awareness within calmness. And it was really wonderful. It was like those moments in meditation that meditators get really excited about. (Of course not really because then it wouldn't be meditation :) ) Except it wasn't just a moment. 

We have a couple of hawks with regular perches close by: the chickens are all too big I think, but the smallest silkie is just a little smaller than the hawk and bright white. The hawks are really vocal and call back and forth to each other, so there's no secret to their whereabouts. One day someone gave a warning cry and the smallest white silkie - Madame Twankey - took off straight into the long grass and crouched down. She was the only one to do so. It was a false alarm and everyone returned to their business, though Madame Twankey had to be called back out of her hiding spot. Was the alarm call addressed to her, or does she actually really know she's the only one in possible danger (her attitude in the coop seems to indicate she thinks she's just as big as the rest)? 

More sitting on the steps, I mean study, needed.

Tuesday 26 January 2016


I like to talk with trees. It's not necessarily a verbal communication, though quite often conversations do begin with an uttered word or sound, it's more of a moment of shared consciousness. Some trees catch my attention, others are regular conversationalists, right now the nispero, the largest tree on the farm, is dropping fruit. It's a beautiful thing to see a tree in fruit; primal; abundant: there will be . . . 

And the forest celebrates: great lolloping morpho butterflies arc and stagger through the air; green and brown butterflies lazily open and close their wings as though doing so helped pump the juice into their bodies; bees and wasps collide and collude on heaps of the salmon brown fruit; clouds of fruit flies rise as I walk through: ants order, dissect, remove; black beetles dive below sticky peels. The insects are the most obvious, but wait a moment, stand still (if you can bear those clouds of fruit flies); there's a dozen lizards, frogs, spiders here to feed on the feasters. Birds perch on branches looking sharp and full on the banquet below. Squirrels and agoutis dash in and out, gorging between.  Look more closely and another layer will appear: grubs, larvae, maggots move through the pulp, stirring it up, breaking it down, spreading it out. Tonight raccoons, skunks, armadillos, rats and martillos will snuffle through enjoying sweet and meat together. Bats and moths will step in to butterflies' footsteps. Tomorrow a new world will arrive - molds, yeasts, fungi, bacteria feeding off the sugars and the debris. These new folk will bring a different wave of insects and worms. Gently the leftovers - sugars, acids, exoskeletons, poop and pee will enter the earth and the nispero and all her neighbors will inch rootlets and mycelium forward into the nutrient stew. 

And there she is in the center of the feast, the hostess. How could one not appreciate her generosity? A simple thanks is not enough. Awe and wonder and sheer delight in the magical coherence of nature, the exuberance of communal forest life. I feel nurtured. I honor and appreciate. And she answers, as almost always the trees do, 

"that's ok, it's all ok".

Sometimes I worry if a tree limb cracks in a storm, that thought stopping noise which raises the shoulders and the pulse. The tear looks always ragged and sore, the heartwood exposed so pale in contrast. I have felt pain and sorrow, offered my condolences. 

"That's ok, it's all ok" 

and always comes new growth, opportunity, change. The opened space becomes a hive of activity with sun and air bringing different species of plant and insect, creating a new and dynamic micro-environment. Seeds sprout, tendrils reach, leaves unfurl. A spider casts her web across the open space and lizards bask in the dappled glow beneath. Meanwhile the fallen limb becomes home then food for others, before finally turning back into rich dark soil. The forest gains. 

Wise teachers, trees.

Sunday 6 September 2015

oh the life of a chocolatier

We live in an interesting community: a heady and often strange mix of folks from all over the world with all sorts of appetites. There's a undulating collection of raw foodists among them who have an enormous appetite for fresh organic fruits, and cacao. They are among our best clients: both at the farmers' market, and for our fruit trees and "permaculture preferred plants".

So we often get asked for raw chocolate bars. And up to recently we've said no.

But now we can say yes, sort of.

Raw chocolate is an interesting concept. I think to really define it one would have to define chocolate.   From a quick glance at the top hits of online dictionaries, chocolate is the result of roasted and ground cacao beans. So, not raw then.

From a deeper look at what constitutes raw it seems that food is 'live', minimally prepared and remains below 120 degrees max in any preparation.

Fermented food is a somewhat grey area. But typically rejected as temps can rise and enzymes can be destroyed.

So. A purely raw cacao bar would be one made with unfermented beans, milled, conched and tempered at temperatures below 114F. With a sweetener that was likewise prepared.

Unfortunately for people who like chocolate, this bar would be unrecognizable. The fermentation and roasting really create the flavors we associate with 'chocolate'. Truly raw bars tend to be acidic, astringent, and not really appetizing. Or rather, not really like chocolate. Taste after all is subjective.

Life is most often a compromise, and few purists really exist.

We have developed a bar that we think is a good compromise and judging by it selling out at the market yesterday, it seems others think so too.

The bars are 75% cacao, 60% of which is raw, 40% is roasted. This maintains the overall flavour of our chocolate while introducing the particular raw flavour and mouthfeel. The chocolate is milled, conched and tempered, at the most at 109F. This took some doing and experimentation and very careful scrutiny and temperature taking. But we've got it now!

I'm working on inclusion bars which will taste wonderful, and also appeal to folks who want to eat the healthiest and most nutritionally supportive ingredients. We have a 'Tryp' bar which has raw dried organic durian and macuna, and a 'Monkey' bar with raw dried banana, raw cacao nibs and trametes versicolor mushroom. More to come, I'm consulting with a raw nutritionist to make sure we are producing the very best chocolate we can.

Tastes pretty darn good too. Love chocolate.

Tuesday 1 September 2015

Happy Birthday!

Today is my gran's birthday. She would be 94 if she was still with us. I miss her. The 'wee wummin wi white curly hair in a tartan bunnet' was probably how most people thought of her. She used to keep her money in that fuzzy tartan bunnet, before that she'd keep it tucked into the side of her bra, as did her sisters. Always on the go, always doing something, "keep them going" was her mantra and it applied to everything from cups of hot stewed tea to the folk at the door looking for money, to the biddy beside her on the bus.
She'd say she would leave me her wedding ring which was sometimes a large amber stone set in silver, or a large, usually blue, mood ring set in whatever cheap metal those things come in. And her pancake recipe. I have none of those treasures, but what I do have is her creativity, her imagination, her love of story and sometimes her hysteria. My gran would barter fruit bun or pancakes for just about anything - a chicken, a ticket for the bus, sometimes a pair of curtains. Her fruit cake and her big fat pancakes were delicious and usually came about a ¼ inch deep in butter, but it wasn't necessarily the thing itself which made her bartering work. It was the sheer belief that it could be done. Those chickens weren't birds running around farm yards, they were supermarket birds, on the shelf, in the supermarket - and they were bartered for, no cash exchanged, no check out line to wait in. A straight exchange with the butcher. Done. Simple. And out the door. Keep them going.
She used to take me to the fish market in the Saltmarket in Glasgow. I was terrified and exhilarated and in awe all at once - those women with the breasts that came to rest below their bellies, thick hairs sticking out of chins, bright yellow plastic aprons and wellington boots; cackling and swearing and laughing like a bunch of fishwives. And they all knew her, because really she was one of them. She was a 'wegie fishwife, with her stories of a childhood of abuse and neglect - stories she never told us, but which broiled below the stories of her childhood we were told: sharing one can of condensed milk between 20 kids, running from the ticket man on the ferry across the Clyde, fighting with her sisters over the one pair of stockings the 5 of them shared.
My gran's garden was always full of flowers, even in winter with snow covered lawn there would be flowers. She'd buy those plastic flowering plants, uproot them from their plastic soil and plant them in her own garden. From a distance they looked real. The fences and garden walls were draped with plastic honeysuckle or bougainvillea or even Hawaiian leis. My granda was a great gardener and he worked with real plants and real flowers, but you'd always see the out of season daffodils or tulips first. And there'd be gnomes. There was magic around. Chaos and mess, and magic.

The most influential person in my life - for her strengths and her foibles, her cunning use of plastic thread, her pale blue eyes, her wit and her neuroses and those pancakes, I am so grateful. Happy Birthday Peggy Mitchell, I miss you.

Monday 24 August 2015

what to feed a hen

Here in Costa Rica there are 3 types of chicken feed available in the stores: starter, layer and meat raiser. They all basically have the same ingredients, only the protein percentage varies, and the layer has more calcium. They range from 14% protein (layer) to 22.5% (starter).

There is no organic feed nor is there feed certified GMO free. People 'get around' the non organic issue by free ranging and feeding corn or cassava - but the corn you can buy in the stores is GMO.

Which is a problem if you don't want to eat GMO.

So I'm in the process of making my own feed. My flock doesn't free range (yet), making me 100% responsible for their food. And it's quite a lot of work.

I can buy organic local corn at the farmers market - sometimes. Corn has been called chicken crack and they do love it. It's low in protein (9%), high in carbs (82%), I think 3% fat. Sounds great, but I can't always get it. It turns out that jackfruit seeds are almost the same nutritionally, so I use those when we have them. The seeds have to be boiled, dried, ground and fermented to deal with the anti nutritive aspects, but that's okay as I ferment the food anyway and the boiling is the only extra step in the preservation process. I'm looking for more carb sources. The cassava sounds interesting, and we could grow it: it's just such an empty calorie that I'm resistant.

Protein I get from black soldier fly larvae, azolla and duckweed, sprouted lentils and gandul /pigeon peas. I'm working on growing guppies in the azolla / duckweed tank for an extra protein source.

Fats from black soldier fly larvae plus little bits here and there. BSFL are 35% fat.

Minerals and vitamins come from greens: spinach - Brazilian and Okinawa, katuk, tradescantia, gandul, nacedero.

Calcium from egg shells, snail shells, seashells and BSF.  I can't find oyster shell here: as the layer feed has 'sufficient' calcium, the feed stores don't sell it.

They also get whey and / or curds 2-3 times a week.

Dry feed is fermented. Very easily done - put dry feed in a bucket with a good lid, add water to cover, mix well, close lid. Next day open, stir, repeat 3 times or more. Next day repeat. Third day it should be sufficiently fermented to feed. After this initial ferment you can let the bucket get low enough to contain only one more serving and then add in dry ingredients and water, stir and let sit overnight. By morning the ferment should be good to go due to the 'starter' you already have in the bucket. Love this system. So simple, and so much better in terms of nutrition, waste and overall less mess (less smell, drier poop).

Sunday 23 August 2015

Chicken news

Last Saturday I added 4 new chickens to the flock: 2 brahmas and 2 silkies. I had initially thought of having only brahmas as they are a dual purpose breed and beautiful birds, actually really it's because they are large, quiet, docile creatures who aren't flighty. But well, silkies are just fun. And they're bantams so really it's 2 birds for the space of 1. Poor reasoning I know, but there you have it. I don't have good pictures of them yet: they are always in motion. They are in a small pen inside the run by way of an introduction. Really they are still too small to be loose, but big enough to be outside. 

I'm happy with the coop and run. It's sits on a fairly steep slope - dropping about 25 centimeters each meter, so I've stepped it somewhat inside and roughly it's on 3 levels. I would prefer to use the deep litter method, but because of the slope I can't. However I'm building up the lowest level using deep litter materials / principles and it's gradually evening out with the middle level. 

The roof is covered, and as it follows the same inclination as the slope, rain run off is good: I have to reconsider what plants to have along this lower side as the rain is pretty impressive this time of year. It's been a very wet year and the vetiver I planted is having a hard time establishing. I like the idea of the vetiver as the root system will help deter predators digging in, plus the vegetation is attractive and it should provide - once established - an attractive micro-climate for bugs etc.,. Vetiver can stand to have damp feet, but it's really taking a while to get going. 

The coop has a tin roof with a gutter which feeds into my water tank / azolla tank. That is going really well! The tank is full of azolla / duckweed which the girls love. It is also home to many tadpoles and water snails and a couple of guppies. The guppies are pregnant which means more guppies in the next couple of weeks. Guppies are for mosquito larvea control, and also to provide extra protein for the chooks. 

It's been so horribly muddy that the area between the path and the coop/run was becoming a mud field, yesterday Evinor worked tirelessly to clear the area and make steps. So much better! And now I can landscape it. I've been wanting to add some herbs and flowering plants to the area and now have the space and the light to do so. We have several fruit trees growing in the immediate area: araza, sapote columbiano, cashew, jaboticaba, tangerine and cacao, which pretty much means shade, but there are a couple of open spots. Looking forward to adding the new plants!

Wednesday 29 July 2015

Black Soldier Fly Bin

So I re-did the bins. The plastic bins were good enough, and I'm still using a scaled down version of the most simple, but I felt I was ready to go 'large'. We built this bin with plans from Northwest Worms, and while I don't think the plywood will last a long time, it's a good prototype to work from. What we use in the bins is just too wet I think and will eventually rot the plywood out. But I like the design, and so far it's working well. We put about 3 inches of coconut fiber as substrate, but now I'm changing it out gradually with more textured / chunkier pieces of coconut husk chips. Again our mix is wet and the coir is packing down more than I'd like. 

This is what came out of the plastic bins, looks tempting doesn't it?? I put about ½ back in and let it sit for a couple of days until they'd eaten out the fresh stuff.
I'm learning all the time from these bins (I hope). My main issue right now (and always) has been how to remove the compost from the bin without taking so many bsfl with it. I'm tending now to add food like I would to a regular worm bin, hoping the grubs migrate and I can gradually remove the 'compost'. What I've read online about 90% of the feed being converted into larvae and only 10% waste / compost, isn't my experience. I think perhaps it could be to do with the feed. I'm feeding fruit and vegetable peelings, fallen fruit and culled fruit - so a wet sloppy mess mostly that's probably got a fair amount of fiber. Keeping the bins dry has been an issue, but I'm putting in cacao chaff which helps. 

What I read on the forums is that most people - at least who post - are in the north and only clean out their bins at the end of the season: my bin fills up too quickly for this. So for now I am taking out the compost which most of the grubs have left and putting it in with the chickens to pick through before adding it to my compost pile. It's working, though of course I'd rather harvest the pupae. 

My other bin is a 5 gallon bucket and hangs from its handle in the rafters of the chicken run. Each morning and evening I scoop chicken poop / some shavings into the bin which is populated with bsfl. Once a week I empty this bin into my compost area and begin again. It's far too strong to put directly on the garden and it's full of bsfl. I'm not going to feed these back to my hens (clearly), but use these to keep up the local population. So far I like the system: the coop and run are clean, odor free (almost) and my compost is sped up considerably. 

Friday 12 June 2015

home farm update

After 3 weeks away I've returned to find everything fine. Which is nice. A little slow perhaps, but nothing disappeared or died.

The soldiers are eating and seem to be doing well, though I'm really puzzled by the small number of pupas I'm able to harvest. It seems that I have loads of 'gusanos' in all stages of development, I have adult flies showing interest and I have a good food source and, I believe, set up. Yet I'm harvesting hardly any mature grubs. There's a wonderful Black Soldier Fly forum and I posted my issue on there, the suggestions to wet the bin and to protect against possible nocturnal predators are good ones, and I'll try them. However I see no sign of predation, and the distance between food and exit is all of about 4 inches, so I don't think it's that they can't exit. Still, we shall see. At this time I really expected to see more harvestable 'food' for the birds.

The spinach and fodder plants are coming on. We've had a lot of rain and little sun the last 3 weeks, so it's slow. Slower than I had expected, for sure. I need to up the mulching and feeding. It always surprises me that here in the tropics, even with a year round, day round growing 'season', that things take time to establish. It may be that I've been away from active gardening too long and I've lost touch with the slower rhythms.

The azolla and duckweed are doing well and threaten to overtake the deck. I'm waiting for the coop to be done to start planning a tank in that area. There is a risk of other beings enjoying the plants before the birds can: I could lessen the risk by raising the tank, but that means more infrastructure and complexity. Simple must be better. Perhaps the answer is a larger tank to allow for some loss. Or several tanks. I've seen gorgeous looking tanks from the Philippines for feeding pigs . . .

This is from, a great little blog on natural farming. 

I realise that I'm going to have to start with some commercial feed for the birds: my project is not yet sustainable. I'm researching fermenting the feed or making a bokashi feed. This sounds really interesting, though it involves a lot of preparation to begin. Perhaps I can transition into it as I transition out of it :) Or maybe I can use whole grains in place of commercial feed. I'd still have to buy it and ideally I would be using what we grow here. Grains are an issue. I wonder if I could use green banana or yuca or taro instead. More research need. Always more research!

Tuesday 5 May 2015

Propagating cacao

The Talamanca region of Costa Rica has been growing cacao for millennium: the indigenous BriBri used it as both sacred medicinal and food; the Spanish grew it commercially beginning in the 1600s; the Afro-Caribbeans farmed it since settling this area a hundred years ago, and now it's seeing a local revival thanks to the growing interest in artisan chocolate.

We grow several heirloom varieties; some collected from indigenous upper Talamanca, some original Matina cacao grown here for centuries and some personal selections from almost 30 years of working the farm. We are collecting and sharing cacao seedlings from local cacao farmers to save and improve on local varieties. It's all quite exciting - especially seeing the enlivened local interest in growing great cacao.

We have the perfect climate with ideal growing conditions- high humidity and temperatures which don't drop below 73 degrees F, even on the coolest night.

Currently we are grafting much of our 'new' cacao, selecting the best from our heirloom trees and replicating. But we always need rootstock, so we sow many seeds. For those of you with an interest, this is what we do.

Cacao, like most tropical seeds, doesn't like to dry out, and will lose viability the drier the seed becomes. Plant as fresh as possible!

Lay cacao seeds on their narrow side, embedded about ⅓ to ½ of their depth into moist soil. Soil should be rich, potting soil, loose and moist. If not growing in the tropics, or if it's cooler than usual, 'tent' the potting tray in a plastic bag. This means place a roomy, transparent plastic bag over the tray, raised with the aid of a stick, with plenty of air inside. This creates a mini greenhouse with a nice moist, warm environment. Ambient temperature should not fall below 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Keep soil moist, not wet and not dry!

Seeds should germinate in 3 to 6 days, depending on conditions.

 You can see here that we are quite hard on our seeds! But they do just fine.

Here are the seedlings potted up, developing quite nicely: you can see the remnants of the opened seed about 3 inches up from the soil. We will give these another month or so under the shade cloth before we plant them out or graft them.

I also offer cacao seeds for growing on my Etsy store, here's what most Mondays look like: harvest the cacao pod, clean and pack in damp sawdust (from the farm, so organic!), then double bag and label appropriately. There's 10-12 fat, fresh seeds in each bag.

Wednesday 29 April 2015


The soldiers have been here for 3 weeks today. And it's quite something how far we've come. Three weeks ago I caught two of the females who come every time we grind roasted cacao, and put them in a bucket along with some mango and banana peels and coffee grounds. Today I found two cascaras - the empty pupae skins. This I don't quite understand: according to my research it takes about 4 days for the eggs to hatch, two weeks for the larvae to grow - under ideal conditions, and then a further 3 weeks to a month for the fly to emerge from the pupae. I've been surprised even at how few of the pre-pupae I've seen 'crawl off' thinking that the environment wasn't ideal, too dry maybe. Obviously some decided to stay in the somewhat dry compost. This is the only thing I can think of as the whole situation was completely new and fresh 3 weeks ago.

I started with one bucket, which given how much mango and banana we've processed the last couple of weeks, quickly became 3. On Monday I went to the recycling center and came home with a nice cracked trash can which quickly became the home to the contents of all 3 buckets. There were so many grubs. So many. The bottoms of the buckets had became anaerobic - completely 'preserved' mango seeds and peels under a layer of black goo. Everything got shaken and stirred up going into the bin, so I think they'll be able to get to it. I'm so impressed by how quickly and how efficiently these soldiers polish everything off. The castings look great, almost ready for the garden.

The bin is full, and right now I'm not sure how much more I can feed. I've read that 100 pounds of scraps become 20 pounds of grubs and 5 pounds of compost/castings. I've certainly got a lot more than 5 lbs, and I'm quite sure I haven't put a full 100 pounds in there yet. So, what do I do? Wait for them to go through it again? It's true that I certainly overfed in the beginning - we just had so much fruit - so I'm thinking that the stuff in there can still be worked over.

I'm also wondering if I should make the bin wetter to ensure I don't have anyone pupating inside. Right now I'm not harvesting, but rather working on increasing the fly population (sounds odd doesn't it?), but it's something that will be happening fairly soon and I want everything operating smoothly.

So much fun. And I used to abhor maggots. Actually I still do somewhat, but now it's a morbid fascination. You can hear them eat, and watch the surface move with them. I sat fascinated on Saturday watching them devour a tomato. They had eaten everything but the very outermost skin - it was almost transparent and you could see their bodies through it. Yet it still looked like a tomato. Real horror show - one might say.

This is the Gardener Soldier Fly, much shorter - about ½ the length and less wide. Grubs are still as voracious though, and seem to mature earlier too.

And this is the Black Soldier Fly, this one is resting in the kitchen just by the chocolate making.

Monday 27 April 2015

Duckweed update

It's been a couple of weeks of experimentation and observation. Actually it's been a lot of fun and has made me quite content to do nothing other than watch plants grow and things decompose.

The idea is to have a sustainable egg production. Sounds simple, but actually requires a bit of work. The farmer is agreeing to contained poultry - and that's what's making it more work. If they were free range then it would be all rather natural and easy. Instead they will be relying solely on humans for food and water. That's a shame really, but I think over time I'll be able to let them out. The plant man just needs reassurance that the feathered ones won't destroy the orchard. Patience.

So even though it's another month and a half until they arrive, and even though the site hasn't been fully cleared or the coop / run built, food production is under way.

We've planted spinach, pumpkin, pidgeon pea, moringa and a local green (chickens love it, no-one has a name for it) for fodder. Early days, but everything is coming up and looking good. Weather has been co-operating with sun and rains.

I have 3 tubs on the deck with duckweed and azolla. One tub has lots of leaf litter and tadpoles and gets about 4 hours of sun a day, one tub has just leaf litter and is in the shade, another tub contains Orinoco (my betta splendens) and is in more shade with indian almond leaf which makes the water soft and slightly acidic.

So far the tadpole tank is doing the best in terms of duckweed production. This is also the only tank with azolla, which is also doing well. We're not talking dense mats, but it is growing. I'd say doubling every 4 days. The azolla is slower, but also growing. Thus far I'm not at all confident that it will be the major green stuff in the birds' food. I need better production.

In all the research I've been doing there seems to be several "limiting factors", or variables: sunlight, nutrients in the water, temperature, hours of daylight. I'd also add munchers - something ate half my azolla when it was at ground level. Duckweed - it is said, prefers some shade, though in this case, it prefers a few hours of direct sun. The tadpole tub has probably the best nutrient rich water - both from the large number of tadpoles and the decaying leaf matter.

Initially I tried tubs with no leaf litter, no wildlife (that I could see), and added fermented pee to the water. Too much it seems. Not good. Since researching more it needs only 20mg of urine a liter, so my initial enthusiasm all but killed the plants. Unless I build a large tank I don't think the pee is an efficient idea, much as I like it.

I've also been reading that the effluent from black soldier fly larvae is also great for duckweed. It so happens that I have such an effluent, so another tub will in all likelihood get set up today to try that out.

I'd like to make a small duckweed pond by the coop, we'll have to wait til all the construction work is done for that.

I'm almost delighted that the most natural tank - with lots of leaf mulch and tadpoles, is the most successful. "Almost" delighted in that it's the one that requires the least participation, but of course quite delighted to see that Nature is always ultimately the most efficient, sustainable and long term winner.


Thursday 16 April 2015

hill farm or home farm or upper farm? Importance of naming

I'm developing a new farm, a small, integrated, efficient and exciting facet of the larger farm. One that will no doubt take up a lot of time and create a lot of interest - at least for me. At last, I'm getting poultry. They can't be free-ranged - agreement with the farmer, and with the dogs - so it has to be a more complicated, creative system. They'll be near the house, on a slope which we don't use but which has several fruit trees (columbian sapote, araza, lime, pitanga), which will be incorporated into their larger run, and which should provide seasonal food, shade and shelter.

Construction won't start until beginning of May and the birds won't come until mid June, which gives plenty of time to establish the basics.

Firstly the coop and primary run must be absolutely secure - dogs, raccoons, pizotes, possums, olingas, snakes and hawks being my main concerns. The primary run will be completely wrapped in hardware cloth, ¼ inch - including a subterranean floor about a foot down. I'd love to use recycled plastic bottles or bamboo as the main building material, but I think I'll end up going for zinc panels for the extra security and longevity. The slope is about an 8 inch drop over 15 feet, and about 35 feet from the top of the ridge, so it shouldn't get too muddy. I'll cover it partially with a tarp, and the coop will have a zinc roof: it's been a really wet year.

Secondly food is a major concern: even though Talamanca has declared itself GMO free, pet and livestock food is basically GMO soybean and corn. I'd like a closed loop system as much as possible, with as little resorting to commercial feed as I can.

This means that I'll also be farming black soldier flies, duckweed and several forage species. I've started my bsf colony, or barracks, and a week into the project all is going well. The black soldier fly is native here, and for years the flies have been visiting me working in our workshop kitchen, maybe just one every other day or so. The farmer and Ana have always shoo-ed them out, saying that they bite. But they never bothered me, they look placid and I have always figured myself a bit of an Ancel Doolittle capable of living in harmony with them. Well it turns out that they don't have a functioning mouth or a digestive system, so they don't really bite. They do look a bit like chias, a sometimes aggressive wasp, and I think that's what troubled the farmer and Ana. I'm not so much a Doolittle as a I thought.

The pupae is an excellent source of protein (42%) and their nutritional breakdown looks an awful lot like the nutritional label on better quality chicken feed. There's a lot of information online about raising black soldier flies, (the photo comes from the excellent black soldier fly blog:  ) and I'm sure I'll be throwing in my experiences too. So far I have questions about humidity levels and I have an egg cluster that just hasn't hatched and I don't know why. But my bin is up and running and I'm about a week away, maybe, from harvesting the first batch. Very excited, like can't sleep excited. These first batches I'll be just growing out the flies to ensure I have a good supply and a few generations which know where the bin is. I'll have two bins: one down by the workshop, where we process all the fruit, and one up by the poultry house for composting the manure. The manure bin won't be harvested - at least not for the poultry.

The manure bin is an important aspect of my micro farm: I don't want the smell to attract any more predators or rodents, and it's quite near the house. The bsf deter houseflies and an active barracks should be able to deal with all the manure produced each day, plus it will get eaten so quickly that there will be little time for smells to develop. The waste produced by the bsf is, I understand, excellent food for worm bins, so hopefully I'll be able to incorporate those in the future.

For green feed we already have katuk and chaya up here. I've planted out some spinach and I'll be adding gandul, pumpkin and moringa. According to what I can find online, madera negra can be used for up to 4% of the diet. Yucca / cassava leaves have mixed reviews, as do taro leaves, Canna edulis is another option. Needs further research.

Duckweed we already deal with in the nursery and pond, so I'll be bringing some up here to 'farm'. Dry weight, it's between 25 and 45% protein depending on the nitrogen source and sunlight. Not sure yet whether it'll be fresh and free choice
or whether I'll have a separate system.

So, the name. The act of naming bestows a sense of reality and lends a permanence to things. My little micro farm needs a name. Hill, home and upper are all such common names but for that I like them as they seem rooted in tradition, and again, have a sense of permanency. Upper is too broad, as that's what we call everything that's not the lower farm. I like home farm - sounds cosy and may endear others to the project. I have other plans on closing various other loops, but all in good time :)

Friday 2 May 2014

catching up

The farmer and I have been trying to get away since January, and finally this week we did: into the mountains for two nights, then to the city for a night. Came back refreshed, and with supplies.  I spent today catching up with all the things I needed supplies for - and realized that we actually do a lot of things! So, here's my (partial) inventory of things we produce on the farm, and will be taking to the market tomorrow:

  • fresh fruit for tomorrow: champedak, duku and calamondin
  • greens for tomorrow: katuk and chaya
  • ornamental plants
  • chocolate bars: vanilla, rosita de cacao, allspice, milk
  • raw cacao
  • chocolate nibs
  • vanilla extract
  • vanilla paste
  • vanilla beans
  • calamondin marmalade
  • araza jam
  • dried fruit mix
  • candied ginger
  • cookies!
  • black pepper: ground and whole grain
  • medicinal honey: healthy spoonful, loving spoonful and sleepy spoonful
  • soaps: tomorrow we'll have activated charcoal, volcanic clay, papaya citrus, goats' milk, sandalwood orange, vanilla mint, eucalyptus mint, chocolate, oberon, coconut, tropical smoothie, playa negra and tooth!
  • activated charcoal and volcanic clay mask
  • jungle juice bug repellent
  • ginger hair serum
  • essential oil perfume blends: sweet and clear, and yoga
  • soothing salve
  • tincture blends: cleanse, immune, memory, gastric, kidney, liver, menopause, strength

  • Now I know why it took us so long to get away :)

    Tuesday 3 December 2013


    I've been enjoying honey these days. Didn't used to like it, found the smell cloying and too heavy, reminiscent of fields of rape and mustard seed around childhood homes. But I like bees and have always fancied keeping a hive or three. And I love the scent of beeswax. We can't have honeybees on the farm, as the farmer is allergic and there are too many Africanized bee incidents to make it work. But  I'm hoping that soon, very soon, I'll be able to take a workshop on melipona bees. These are the small stingless bees native to the tropics. There are many varieties none of which produce honey in the same quantities as the honeybee, but their honey is medicinal, rich and delicious.

    Meanwhile we've been buying honey from a local beekeeper. We've made vanilla infused honey for a few years, but I've started infusing other herbs. I'm working with 4 different blended infusions right now. The honey is a perfect base for these medicinal blends, not only sweetening the medicine, but bringing another layer of anti-bacterial and anti-viral  properties. My favourite is 'Lovin' Spoonful' with cuculmeca, cacao, vanilla and ginger. It is dark and thick and has a great smack of energy which it delivers about 3 seconds after it enters your mouth. These are potent remedies and not be be eaten by the spoonful!!

    I'm also putting honey in lip balms, soaps and lip scrubs, mostly for the humectant and soothing properties, but also for the golden colour and richness it gives. The lip scrub and balm already have beeswax so the honey brings a little more depth to the honey / beeswax scent.

    I've also just been spreading it on bread.

    Sunday 1 December 2013

    There's something both liberating and limiting about being a purist. Maybe the liberation comes with the limitation. When one knows and understands one's boundaries, it becomes freeing. Perhaps just knows - understanding is much more work. It's not that I'm a purist in everything, just in some ways. The drive to do things myself, my way - which almost always is the old way. The 'getting back to the land' dream. Simplifying is part of it. But the simplification isn't really the end goal, it's something to be done on the way. This internal, ongoing dialogue about doing away with things, processes, people even. It's almost competitive.

    I haven't had anything to say for a long time. I've been caught up, entrenched, drowning in other things. Things outside and beyond myself. Drama. Life. But now I'm in retreat, hiding away on the farm, staying low, keeping quiet. I still don't feel like I've anything to say. I'm a bit lost.

     But what I am beginning to remember is the importance of purity.

    Not in some huge, overarching significant way, but in the small things. Eating a breakfast of jam and toast. Jam and bread that I've made myself. Using a spoon I've carved to dollop the jam. Fruit I've had a hand in growing, certainly in harvesting. Flour I've dried and ground myself. Sourdough that's appeared here, out of the air. Purist. It's something real, tangible, I can touch. Grounding. Helpful.

    Sunday 10 November 2013

    sunday morning rain brings delicacy

    These appeared at the foot of our stairs this afternoon. A delicacy when still contained in their egg  shaped casing, they don't seem so appetising at this stage. Not a great smell. But amazing to look at.