Posts Tagged ‘sustainable farming’

bunniesDecember is ‘retrospective month’.  Turn on the radio, the television or the internet; open a magazine or newspaper and you can find a nearly infinite number of ‘best of’ and ‘worst of’ stories for the year that was.  I think I’ll give that a miss.  2013 was a tough year, mostly because of the wet winter and my surgery.  Poor Brittan was left virtually alone to keep this ship afloat.  She did a great job.  She is one incredible woman.

Fortunately, the year is behind us, I’m 90% healed (and probably can’t expect more than that) and the new year awaits.  I am psyched and ready.  I hope you can keep up.

Here are some of the plans:

  1. In January, I plan to apply for a live plant license in order to sell seedlings to the public.  Oddly, you can sell basil leaves a farmers market, but the plant requires a license. It’s ok to sell tomatoes by the bushel, but you better have a plant license to sell that seedling for a buck and a half.  I know, it’s weird, but that’s life and we’ll comply.The idea was born from two seemingly coincidental events. First, we had so many starter greens and herbs last year that we had to feed hundreds of them to the compost heap.  Secondly, a nearby shop experienced a lack of interest from a well-known starter plant distributer.   The truck would drop off the plants, but the company didn’t come around to attend to them or keep them freshened.  As a result, many plants bolted or died.  I thought to myself, I bet that if seedlings were grown locally and naturally, they would have a stronger appeal and be able to be cared for in a better manner.  Since one of my favorite parts of gardening is starting and transplanting seeds, it seemed serendipitous.  I’m only hoping the State of Georgia agrees. seedlings
  1.  We will be expanding our garden considerably.  The addition of aquaponic and hydroponic systems is going to allow us to greatly increase the amount of produce we grow and make available.
  2. More Rabbits, Fewer Goats is the name of the game.  We’ve already reduced our goat herd considerably and may move a few more.  We didn’t have the market for goats and goat meat I had hoped for, so we are cutting back to a smaller herd that will still be large enough to provide plenty of meat and dairy, but will not overburden the pastures or pocket book.  The freezer will remain full and we may occasionally still have some goats for sale.  At the same time, we are increasing the number of rabbits.  The manure alone makes the decision worthwhile.  The rabbit waste is like gold when it comes to producing good compost.  There is nothing better.  We can raise 99% of all the food the rabbits need and the meat will feed us AND our dogs/cats.
  3. We will be cutting the number of hens, adding ducks and bringing back turkeys.  Basically, we decided that the broiler chicken business was too much work for no money.  We will keep a few hens for eggs and pasture maintenance, but just a few.  We have missed eating good turkey this year. Those rubbery, greasy things from the grocery store simply don’t cut it with us anymore, so we’ll raise a few birds this year for fall consumption.  I can’t wait.  The big thing, though, is Brittan want ducks.  She likes to watch them waddle and hear them quack.  She wants to try cooking with duck eggs. Who am I to argue?  Besides, I want to keep a few meat ducks (the OTHER red meat).
  4. tilapiaTilapia and Crawfish have been added already.  The Tilapia are doing nicely in their winter tank and we expect them to be ready for a nice autumn harvest.  In March or April, I will separate a breeding colony and begin breeding my own.  That ought to be an adventure.  My crawfish are surviving.  That’s better than the last time I tried raising them.  My fingers are crossed as I really want to be able to make a go of them.  They can be great food, good fish bait, and the carcasses are awesome for the compost heap.
  5. You Tube Channel is on the drawing board.  I’ve toyed with the idea of a channel for a couple years and even made some episodes that I never posted.  Brittan has convinced me that it would be a good idea, so I’m looking at “Gardening With The Village Idiot”, or something similar, to be released this spring.  The concept is, if I can do it, anyone can.

There are other projects and dreams in the oven, but I hope these will be enough to pique your interest enough to keep dropping back in on us here.  We love it when you come visit our site.  We’d like to see you come by more often.  And…we’d love to hear from you.  Don’t be shy.



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Just look at these cantaloupe plants.  They want to take over the world.  These little beauties are perfect illustrations of the power of aquaponics.  They are being grown in earthbox self-watering containers and are primarily being fed with water from my aquaponics systems.  How is that for awesome?

In the spirit of full disclosure, I do supplement with a dash of chelated iron and some Epsom salts, but that’s about it.  I am loving the results.

I forgot to take photos of the current state of our raft system but it is the perfect way to grow greens, herbs and okra.  Also, I had some tomato seedlings that were struggling in their starter trays, so I moved them to the raft aquaponics for a couple weeks and, BOOM, the growth was off the charts.  I transplanted them into their earthboxes and they are outperforming the plants I put directly into the boxes.  It’s incredible.

With that awareness, We are putting up a series of small systems throughout the garden to provide nutrients for all our containers and wicking beds.  We bought two 100 gallon stock tanks to be used as fish tanks and are using half barrels as filters/grow beds.

system being planted

system being planted

The systems, as you can see from the pics are simple, almost rudimentary.  The half barrels are just sitting on top of the tank and are used primarily as a bio filter.   A simple 40 watt submersible pump sends the water up into the grow beds where it is filtered by clay pebbles and lava rock and falls directly back into the fish tank.
As a side benefit, they will also grow plants.

One of my additions to these new units was to add a garden hose faucet to the water line.  This is cheaper than running a bunch of drip lines, but saves a lot of time and effort vs. filling watering cans.

Because it’s late in the season, I’m using comet goldfish in everything except the raft system which has catfish.  Next year each unit will have catfish and Tilapia.  We will also add some 500 gallon (2000 liter) tanks as well, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  I have a lot of electric lines I need to run before I can even think about a major expansion.  For now I’m just enjoying the power of poo; fish poo, that is.

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aquaponics greenhouse in progress

aquaponics greenhouse in progress

Our Edible Suburb has ALWAYS been about optimizing small spaces for gardening and farming.  We’ve also been focused on being good stewards of the earth and treating God’s creation with respect.  With each passing day, I become more convinced that Aquaponics and Aquaponics related methods are the key to the future of small space, back yard,  limited acreage and urban farming.  Aquaponic methods are water wise, energy efficient (though not yet fully sustainable, but we’re working on it) and kind to the earth.

The systems we’re designing and building now, utilize a combination of floating raft systems and self watering containers and their larger cousins, wicking beds.  Wicking beds of different sizes use only a fraction of the water of traditional earth gardens or raised beds.  Because the water stays in the system there is no leaching or runoff.  By utilizing captured rainwater we can minimize city, county or well water use as well.  And by composting our donkey and rabbit manure as well as using coconut coir rather than peat, we have extremely sustainable sources for our growing media.

Plants can be much closer together because they don’t have to compete for nutrients.  There are plenty to go around.  The earth is not destroyed.  There is no tilling to erode topsoil.  There are no chemical fertilizers to damage ground water and chemical pesticides are not necessary to control pests.  Imagine for a moment, a bed full of summer squash with no squash bugs to fight.  That is entirely possible with an aquaponics system.

B and I have realized that on our 6.5 acres with our dairy goats, rabbits, pigs and aquaponics systems we can produce around a ton of pork, half a ton of goat meat, a ton of tilapia and redclaw crawfish and many thousands of pounds of vegetables and fruit.  We will even be able to keep a dairy cow and an annual feeder calf.  I can”t calculate the milk products and by-products like soap yet, because we’re just too new in that field, but the potential is very high.  I haven’t even touched on rabbit meat, chickens, eggs, turkeys, worms or compost.  The potential is mind boggling.

It will be a slow process, because we don’t do debt and we don’t have any investors, but the future is very bright.  Our goal continues to be to ‘feed the world while we heal the earth’, but we also want to teach others how to do the same.  I am convinced that the average American family can cut their food bills in half by growing some of their own food.  I believe this is possible with a space as small as the average back deck.  And again, aquaponics systems are the key to that belief.  Stay tuned for details on an upcoming e-book on that subject.

Have you tried your had at aquaponic gardening yet?  Have you considered it?  Would you consider it?  Would you buy Tilapia, crawfish and ‘fresh water lobster’ from a local provider if it was available?  I’d love to hear your experiences and your thoughts.  Please do share.



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Given the title of Jake Meader’s article on the Christianity Today website, “Did we love ‘God Made a Farmer’ Too Much?” my expectations were pretty much below ground level when I read it.  Even with the bar set so low I still feel he fouled off the pitch at best.

I realize his target was the modern ‘factory farm’ movement, consumerism and a potential misunderstanding of scripture rather than those of us who are small, diversified farmers, and that’s why I give him credit for making contact even if he didn’t quite put the ball in play.  I would encourage him, though, to watch the ‘game film’ and reconsider his conclusions.

Most Americans have no idea where their food comes from.  For them, it’s all neatly packaged at Kroger, IGA or one of a thousand other chains.  So for one fleeting moment, America’s attention was drawn to the men and women who make Kroger possible.

Yes, too much of our farming is industrial and destructive of God’s creation.  Yes, monocultures of flora and fauna are a detriment rather than a blessing to the earth we’ve been commanded to steward.  The American Industrial Farming industry needs to be outed and corrected.

The commercial, though, highlights those of us who are trying to bring balance back to an industry and a world that desperately needs balance.  America, and many other parts of the world, has multiple thousands of farmers exactly like the ones in Paul Harvey’s poem.

My wife and I are among that army of farmers, who rise early and rest late.  I remember staying on the phone with my bride as she helped pull a lamb when the mother couldn’t do it alone.  The late winter wind howled and the actual temperature hovered around freezing. By the time I raced across town from my day job, she had pulled the lamb and stripped off her own jacket and sweatshirt to dry and warm it, giving no thought to her own comfort.

I have searched pastures in the darkest nights during driving rain to find goats born in the storm.  I have buried them deep inside my shirt and wrapped my coat around us all to warm them and give them a chance at the life they were born to live.

We have labored day and night to save a hen with a gangrene leg and I have wept man sized tears over creatures I’ve had to put down to end their misery.

While our friends and neighbors slept late on their Sunday mornings, we have been up at zero dark thirty, so the goats could be milked, the animals fed and watered as well as the garden tended to so we could be ready for me to teach an 8:30 a.m. Bible class.

We have fought droughts and battled floods.  We’ve seen bumper harvests and withered fields.  We have savored the birth of countless animals and have awakened to find flocks slaughtered by predators the previous night.

My wife can decorate a table as fine as the fanciest establishment in New York City and she can build a stall in a barn as well as any carpenter.  Her dairy goats follow her like she fell from Heaven and they may just be right.

We know no greater joy than when our friends and customers (those are synonyms by the way) tell us that our eggs, milk, yogurt, chickens, beef, pork, vegetables or fruit are the best they’ve ever had.

We go to bed at night knowing that our farming methods are helping feed the world while we heal the land.  We are stewards of God’s creation and we take our responsibility seriously.  We are not alone.  We know many more like us, most of whom are far more skilled than we.

Last week I had serious neck surgery.  The nurses stuck me in 5 different places before they found a vein into which they could place my IV port.  The head nurse said, “I’m so sorry to do this to you.  I don’t mean to hurt you.  Your skin is very thick. You use your hands.”  I beamed.

During the Super Bowl, in an attempt to sell trucks, Dodge drew the world’s attention to a subculture often overlooked and under-appreciated.  My email inbox was full the next day from people saying, “I thought of you.”

Our lives are not romantic, they are real. Did we like “God Made a Farmer” too much? Maybe Mr. Meader surmises we did, but I’m thinking, that thousands of others thought a Super Bowl ad finally hit the right note. Y’all decide.  I’ve got chores to do.  I’m a farmer. And I thank God every day for the privilege.


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sausagesOne of the words in every farmer’s vocabulary is, ‘flexible’.  We don’t always like the word, we sometimes wish we didn’t have to embrace it, but if we are anything, it is, flexible.

Even this blog post was originally going to be about my surgery and how Brittan has become even more of a superwoman than ever, but that post now has to wait.  I need to be flexible.

We made all these plans about butchering beef and pork in November.  Keep them on grass and hay all summer, then butcher in the autumn. Everything about the plan was solid.  We had a processor.  We had customers, including deposits. We had the animals. What could possibly go wrong?  Let’s go with….everything.

First, my neck went out.  Five bulging discs and pinched nerves put a real hamper in my ability to wrangle animals.  Heck, it messed with my ability to do pretty much anything except hurt.

As the weeks passed and my insurance company delayed approval for surgery, the processing time slipped to December, then January then February.  Besides frustrated customers and empty freezers, the delay meant extra feed bills.  Oh, well, we’re flexible.

I eventually gave up on surgery ever happening and booked a date in February to get the cows and pigs to the processor.  Then, out of the blue, my insurance company relented and my much needed surgery was scheduled.  You guessed it, 5 days before the animals were to go in.

Fortunately for us, the processor was able to move the date one more month into March.  It’s inconvenient because we had to feed animals all winter which is expensive. Life happens.

Wait, we’re not through yet. Speaking of life happening; three days ago, as I’m resting under the influence of my post op medications, with visions of sugar plums dancing in my head,  my text message alert goes off, waking me reluctantly from my slumber.  The text is from Brittan saying, “We have baby pigs.”

As fate would have it, our runaway potbelly boar, managed to impregnate at least one of our Large Black Hogs before his demise.  For all we know, we may have more in a few days.  At any rate, we have 4 little half breed girl piggies and one little boy.  The bad news is, mamma won’t be going to become ham anytime soon.  It also means a pig pen needs to be built at our new farm.  And since I’m laid up for several more weeks, guess who all the work falls on?

The good news is, we know where our 2013 feeder pigs are coming from.  That will save us a few bucks.  If the other sow is drops young uns in the next month, we will have other issues to consider.  But….we’re flexible.

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Basic Unit Courtesy Affnan Aquaponics

Aquaponic Gardening is the hottest thing since Justin Bieber.  And for my money at least, is a whole lot cooler.  Aquaponics is a symbiotic gardening method that uses a recirculating system to grow both fish and plants.  The short version goes like this, as the fish breathe and poo, they create solid waste and put ammonia into the water both from their excrement and from gill activity.  Ammonia is  bad for the fish.  The water is pumped out either directly into a grow bed, or through a bio filter of some kind where bacteria converts the ammonia first to Nitrites then to Nitrates.  The plants use the nitrates (and other micro nutrients) as food.  The water is thus purified and pumped or drained back into the fish tank as fresh water for the fish.

This is simple and mimics nature.  It does, though, have a few minor problems that require inputs and therefore impact sustainability.

The pH in the water needs to be monitored and occasionally adjusted.  This is easily done by adding some calcium in the form of crushed sea shells or even egg shells.  The plants require iron which must be added.  A tablespoon of chelated iron every few months does the trick.  I have also heard that suspending some old angle iron, rebar or even nails in the water and rubbing them periodically as they rust, will add iron.  I have not tried that one.

The recirculating allegedly requires only a fraction of the water normally associated with gardening, which is great for the environment and the budget.  It is also this recirculation that creates the sustainability restrictions, and in an emergency situation, could be a fatal flaw.  It requires electricity.

First, electricity is required to run the pump or pumps in the system.  Secondly, depending on the variety of fish, electricity is needed to keep the water temperature at a suitable level.  For example, the most popular fish in American Aquaponics Systems is Tilapia.  Tilapia will quickly die if the water temperature drops below 55 degrees F.  Also, many plants won’t grow in cold water. And lets not forget that if you’re growing inside, electricity is needed to power the grow lights.

I’m aware that both passive and active solar can provide ways to heat water in the cooler months.  I also know it’s possible to use heat generated from wood stoves, if properly vented, but the water must still be transported through the system and that is a problem.  Every system I’ve seen, whether floating raft or flood and drain has at least one pump.  This is troublesome for those of us who want to be as sustainable as possible.

Currently, most affordable solar pumps will only work during daylight hours, so the water stops circulating during the dark periods.  This is fine for the plants, but fish will quickly die if there is not enough oxygen in the water.

I’m not sure what the answer is.  For now, we’re just using electricity and compromising my principles, but in the long run I have to find a solution.

Perhaps investing in a bank of batteries and solar panels will help, but that will require an ac/dc inverter.  Even then, I don’t know if a system will run all night.  It might demand that we run the circulation during the day and use the battery bank to run air stones through the night.

Perhaps there is a way to use a a siphon that runs continuously.  My instincts tell me that would work for a barrel ponics or other small system that has a single grow bed, but might not work as well with larger, multiple bed units.

I am not an engineer, so these challenges vex me terribly.   I want to know that in the event of an extended electricity outage that we can continue to use fish and plants together to assist in Our Edible Suburb.

A workaround might be to drain 20 or 30 percent of a tank on a daily basis, use the water to water traditional raised beds and replace the tank water with dechlorinated tap water, well water or captured rain water.  If the tank is large enough and the stocking density low enough, this might work during warmer weather as long as enough water is turned over daily to prevent ammonia build up in the fish tank or to cause oxygen to be lost.  A simple siphon  running from the tank up into a bucket filled with filter media that drains directly into the  fish tank, might just eliminate both of those problems.

As you can see, I have more questions than answers.  Aquaponic Gardening may very well be the chosen garden method of the future.  It has incredible potential. It has, though, a few steps to go, before it is truly sustainable.  Until then, we make compromises and try to become creative in our inventions.  Or, at the very least, to steal ideas form other people.  So, if you have any ideas I can steal, please feel free to share them…

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about all the people I know who have joined the organic, pastured, local, sustainable food revolution.  But I’ve also been thinking about those who haven’t, especially those who CAN’T.

For all of us who are a part of the revolution, it’s important to be upbeat and evangelistic.  It’s also important not to come across as arrogant, smarmy or elitist.  Yet, that’s how we’re often viewed, elitist, holier than thou.  Alternatively, we come across as suburban hippies who are 3rd degree eccentrics, with way too much money to throw around.

It’s important to be passionate about taking care of God’s creation, eating well, knowing where our food comes from, etc.  But we don’t ever want to appear self righteous.  Much of the world does not understand the value of a local, sustainable, slow food model.  Many more simply can’t afford the lifestyle.

Let’s face it, grass fed, pastured, organic, sustainably produced fare is expensive.  Not everyone can afford $4 or more for a dozen eggs, $6 a gallon for raw milk or $7.99 a pound for grass fed hamburger.  Often, organic vegetables are twice the price of their commercially produced counterparts.  And as much as we all love farmers’ markets, they are not cheap places to shop.

As producers, Brittan and I know how much it costs to get a pastured chicken or egg  from hatchery to table.  That’s all well and good, but if I’m trying to feed a family, I have limited means to get as  many calories as possible into my family for as little pain to the pocket book as possible.

It shouldn’t be easier to stock up on ramen noodles and lunch meat than strawberries and grass fed meat,  but it is.  Those of us who can afford to buy the healthier items, should.  But we must NEVER feel or act superior.  We are not.

For producers, we absolutely must find ways to make our products as affordable as possible.  It’s not easy.  I don’t want, and wouldn’t accept if offered, Govt. subsidies on my farming.  That doesn’t make food cheaper, it merely hides the cost in taxes and forces someone else to help pay for my farming model.

As usual, I’m rambling.  In a way, it’s ok this time because this post is really just processing some thoughts rather than trying to be coherent.  I’m thinking out loud.  I want the whole world to gravitate to a more sustainable, humane, and I believe, God honoring, model.  It’s just not that simple.  It will take time.  I don’t want to judge anyone who isn’t where I am, or who can’t afford to eat what I grow and I don’t want to be seen as judgmental.  I want to be seen as a facilitator of a better way, as a liberator, as a freedom fighter, as a patriot. No high horse here.  Besides, we raise donkeys.  I love owning jackasses.  I just don’t want to be one.

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