Friday, September 24, 2010

My community spirit takes another dive.

I mentioned last week that one of our neighbours dobbed us in to our council for (allegedly) spraying raw sewage into the creek. Our neighbours couldn't have been more wrong, and that little community encounter was disappointing, to say the least.

I've also mentioned before that I rent an old house to a large family who would probably be described in the tabloid media as tenants from hell.

Well, that rented house sits on three adjacent quarter-acre blocks. The tenants have the use of half an acre, while I use the remaining (fenced-off) quarter-acre as an aollotment on which I grow fruit and vegies.

Correction: I try to grow fruit and vegies.

I went over to weed and water the garlic a few days ago, and this was the sight that greeted me:

The garlic vandal's handiwork
 Of 60 thriving garlic plants, 32 had been pulled out of the soil and left to dry out in the sun.

It's really hard to know how to respond to this kind of mindless vandalism.

For starters, I didn't actually see who perpetrated this petty crime against self-sufficiency - just like I didn't see who took most of my pumpkins last season, or who broke all the branches on the lemon tree my mother gave me for my birthday a few years ago.

But, based on various pieces of evidence, it's a pretty safe bet that the tenants' children are the culprits.

The really sad part is that we have always actively encouraged the tenants' children when they showed any kind of interest in what we were doing with our food garden.

A few years ago, their eldest boy (now aged 11, and frequently suspended from school) used to love using our mattock to dig up thistles, even though the mattock was almost as big as he was, and he usually lost interest after about 30 seconds.

He would always be hanging around us, usually under foot and pestering us for attention - but we could hardly blame him for wanting a break from his home, which is in a state of almost constant shouting, swearing, and general mayhem.

This young boy helped us to turn local horse manure and green waste into compost.

He also helped us plant and tend the tomatoes, potatoes, and other green goodies.

When it was time for tomato harvest, we gave him an arm-load of tomatoes to take home to his Mum. We had a faint glimmer of hope that he and his siblings might get fresh tomatoes with their dinner that night, rather than something from the freezer section of the supermarket (in a town as small as ours, everyone knows what everyone else buys at the supermarket!).

The next time we saw him, we asked him if they'd enjoyed the tomatoes. His response stunned me:

"Mum says we don't eat food grown in shit."

And he never once came back to help us in the garden again.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Have locust plague; need birds.

There's been a lot of talk in the Australian news media over the past few months about the locust plague that is expected to sweep over the grain growing regions of NSW, Victoria, and South Australia later this spring.

Individual farmers stand to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of grain crops - but we are being soothed with the assurance that the NSW government has an "arsenal" on standby to tackle the locust attack.

What's in the government's arsenal? Mostly toxic chemicals, such as:

* fipronil - a broad spectrum insecticide which is highly toxic to all insects (including non-target species), as well as fish, aquatic invertebrates, and many species of bird.

* fenitrothion and malathion - both of which are organophosphate pesticides. These insecticides are considered to be "slightly toxic" to birds and aquatic organisms, but, if it happens to get into your body, malathion breaks down into the far more toxic chemical malaoxon.

Generally speaking, organophosphate pesticides irreversibly inactivate acetylcholinesterase, an enzyme which is essential to nerve function in insects, humans, and many other animals.

Organophosphate poisoning can cause a slew of symptoms ranging from sweating and headaches, through to weakness, tremors, loss of coordination, and loss of consciousness.

Spraying with fipronil; playing with fire.

Fipronil is one of the main chemical causes blamed for the spread of colony collapse disorder among bees. Fipronil is deadly to bees, but even at sub-lethal doses, fipronil has been shown to reduce bees' navigational abilities.

Being able to navigate to and from the hive is central to bees' survival. And bees (as pollinators) play a critical role in the production of many fruits, vegetables, and nuts for human consumption. If we lose bees, we also lose an awful lot of food.

But just how toxic is chemical locust control to other "non-target" species? Consider this anecdote from Peter Bennett, on p.52 of his book Organic Gardening (6th edition):
The destruction of magpies and many other insect-feeding birds over large areas where locust plagues have been ineffetively sprayed at great expense is all part of the same great tragedy. I well remember one farmer in Victoria a few years ago, who, when driving me to Melbourne from his farm in the Shepparton district, spotted a common magpie feeding near the roadside and pointed it out to me with almost wild excitement. I exclaimed "So what!", whereupon he explained to me that magpies, normally resident in tens of thousands in that locality, had not been seen for years; since the last Dieldrin attack on grasshoppers.
If I had the government's locust-control budget at my disposal, I'd fill my arsenal with locust-loving birds. Chickens would be my first choice.

I suspect that most people would laugh at the idea of using chickens to control locusts, but I have to ask: why not?

Some of the obvious questions / objections are:

Q. Surely you'd need millions of chickens to eat all those locusts?
A. Australians already slaughter well over one-and-a-quarter million chickens every day. (According to the Australian Chicken Meat Federation, a total of 470 million chickens were slaughtered for meat in Australia last year).

Q. How would all those birds be transported?
A. Hundreds of millions of chickens are already transported to slaughterhouses in Australia, so chicken transport on a very large commercial scale is nothing new. Furthermore, Joel Salatin of Polyface farm has proven the validity of mobile chicken houses.

Q. Would modern, over-bred chickens know what to do with a field of locusts?
A. Believe it or not, the Chinese have already addressed this very issue, by training birds to eat locusts before sending them out into the field to clean up. (The Chinese have found ducks to be even more effective at eating locusts than chickens - but we don't currently have a large duck industry in Australia).

... authorities in the worst-affected Xinjiang province in China have recruited locust-eating ducks to combat the menace, the official Xinhua news agency has reported.

The "duck soldiers," specially trained by farmer Yang Dayuan, are capable of eating more than a pound of locusts every day. What's more, they even eat locust eggs that are laid in the marshy alkaline wastelands.

An environmentally friendly locust-crunching method, the duck soldiers add a boost to the circle of life, Yang told the British daily The Times. "The ducks will grow healthy and fat and will get a higher price on the market after they retire from pest-control duty."
Duck patrol!

Q. Australia is a very big country - how would you know where to take the birds to?
A. The same way that you know where to spray your pesticides. According to the NSW Locust Control Program Strategy:
Land managers [e.g. farmers] are the frontline in the successful monitoring and control of locusts. It is vital (and a requirement under the Act) that they take action to notify their local LHPA of any presence of locusts on their land and control locusts.
Q. Wouldn't the locusts just fly away when the birds arrived?
A. Not if the timing is right. After they hatch and emerge from their underground "pods", locust nymphs have to moult several times before they finally develop fully-formed wings. The locusts literally "band" together (on foot) for weeks before taking flight. Hence, according to the NSW Locust Control Program Strategy:
Ground control is the most effective and efficient method of controlling plague locusts. The locust nymphs are most easily controlled when they congregate together into bands. This is also when locust numbers are at their densest.
So, regardless of whether your weapon of choice is toxic chemicals or hungry birds, the best option is to attack the locusts before they're able to fly away.

Q. Do you honestly think that controlling locusts with birds is possible?
A. Absolutely. After all, farmers already use birds to control locusts in Asia and Africa.

Certainly, it would be much cheaper and easier to use chickens to control locusts on, say, a 7 acre farm than on a 7,000 acre farm. But that being the case, maybe, as a nation, we Aussies need to completely re-think our concept of "modern" agriculture, which enables (and, indeed, encourages) the very existence of 7,000 acre farms.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Is anyone breeding tomorrow's heirloom fruit and vegetable varieties?

I've noticed that an increasing number of people seem to be going nuts for heirloom vegetable varieties these days.

An "heirloom" fruit or vegetable is an old (usually 50+ years old, depending on who you ask), pure-bred cultivar that breeds true to type from one generation to the next. Heirloom cultivars are great for home gardeners who want to grow exactly the same vegetable varieties each year, because the seeds can be saved and replanted year after year, and the result will be highly predictable.

Heirloom varieties are also great for people who want to escape the clutches of the world's multinational seed companies - most notably Monsanto, that giant ogre of a corporation which pushes its GMOs and pesticides on farmers and consumers alike, while snapping up gene patents like a greedy child in a lolly shop.   

I totally understand the attraction of growing heirloom cultivars, because I grow a bunch of them myself. I have a particular soft spot for heirloom pumpkins, and this year I'll be planting 5 different heirloom pumpkin/squash varieties, namely:

* Marina di Chioggia (as memorably featured in Barbara Kingsolver's fabulous book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle)
* Rouge vif d'Etampes (the so-called Cinderella pumpkin)
* Lakota (reportedly a favourite of the Lakota indians)
* Lady Godiva (with nude seeds!), and
* Musquee de Provence (just because).

But, there's a potential problem with heirloom varieties. What's good about them is also what's bad about them. Specifically, heirloom cultivars are thoroughly inbred ... which is why they breed true to type in the first place.

Inbreeding is generally a bad thing, for two main reasons:

1) inbreeding can, and usually does, cause the expression of harmful ("deleterious") recessive genes. This situation is known as inbreeding depression, and it produces offspring with a relatively low level of fitness for survival, and

2) repeated inbreeding inevitably causes a reduction in the resultant offspring's genetic diversity. This reduced genetic diversity may never cause a problem - as long as the environment throws up no unexpected challenges to the offspring's survival. But, inbred plants typically respond poorly to new and unexpected changes in their environment, such as:

* unusually high (or low) temperatures,
* unusually low (or high) rainfall,
* unusually low (or high) nutrient levels,
* a different or unusually severe pest infestation, or
* a new viral, bacterial, or fungal disease.

The fact that we're now experiencing world-wide climate change (a.k.a "global weirding") means that, for example, an heirloom variety of pumpkin which was (in)bred in France two hundred years ago may simply not be able to cope with the environment where I live (i.e. rural Australia) in the year 2020.

That's why, this year, I'll be growing at least one disease-resistant hybrid tomato variety. This summer I'll be testing the taste and productivity of the hybrid/s. But the really interesting test will come next year, when I plant out the seeds of these hybrid tomatoes. I'll be very interested to see what I get.

Friday, September 10, 2010

A loving, caring community? You must be kidding.

Community: a group of interacting organisms sharing an environment.
I'm getting tired of being criticised, both explicitly and implicitly, for lacking community spirit.

The people I know who are suddenly very scared about the state of the world seem compelled to tell me what I should be doing, and what I need to be doing, in order to create a cohesive and loving local community. Because, according to them, I need my community. (Most of these people are infatuated with Rob Hopkins' Transition Towns concept).

But, in reality, my local community provides nothing that I need.

And, moreover, I'd much rather curl up in bed with Leo Tolstoy (after a day spent working with plants, animals, and words) than spend even the briefest amount of time in the company of most of the people who live in my community. (There are some awesome exceptions to this generalisation, but even they come under the category of "like", not "need").

You see, where I live, I am surrounded by uneducated morons with whom I don't see eye to eye on anything. These are people who, for example, think that global warming is some kind of communist conspiracy, and who can't see anything wrong with spraying pesticides in the creek at the bottom of our shared hill.

I don't have the time, the energy, or the patience to educate these people, which is probably just as well, because they clearly don't have the inclination, or, dare I say it, the intellectual capacity, to be educated. (For the most part, their collective conversational repertoire consists of one highly versatile syllable: "Uh").

Case in point: we're most of the way through building a tiny straw bale house, complete with a greywater system which drains into a reed bed, as well as a government-approved waterless composting toilet (it's a Rota-Loo, for anyone who's curious). Every aspect of this development has been approved by our council.

We've had a lot of rain recently, which partially filled the still-empty reed bed trench. In order to line the said trench with the council-required geo-textile fabric and plastic, we had to pump the fresh rainwater out of the trench. For that job, we hired our local builder's fire-fighting pump.

Here's a picture of our dog, Louis, playing in the resultant spray of water:

No sooner had we come inside from playing in the water than the phone rang. It was our local health inspector, calling to inform us that one of our neighbours had just been on the phone to her, complaining that we were spraying raw sewage into the creek, and that it stank.

To use the local lingo: Uh?

To be fair, the fact that our fresh rainwater "stank" at least goes to show that our neighbours are not completely devoid of imagination. Nor is their vocabulary quite as small as I thought.  

However, the simple fact is that we don't produce liquid sewage here (thanks to our waterless, composting toilet), but if we did, we certainly wouldn't be spraying it into the creek ... let alone frolicking in a high-powered stream of the stuff with our dogs.

It's moments like these that I feel even more annoyed by my community than usual.