A time of great changes

A long while back I said that we had a new adventure ahead of us, I promised details and now I have a few minutes to tell you about it.

As you know, we have a new son, William, who is now almost 10 weeks old. He’s growing well and developing wonderfully well, keeping us very busy and pretty tired and deliriously happy. 2 weeks ago tomorrow we bundled him up into his car seat and headed off on a long drive from Auckland to Wellington, stayed with friends over night and then hopped a ferry to the South Island, another 2.5 hour drive and we ended up in our new home. That’s right, we have moved islands, from the wet and grey winters of Auckland to the perpetually sunny crisp winters of Motueka.

Now you might think that it’s simply the joy of living in a sunny environment that would encourage this move, well that turns out to be just a bonus. We’ve actually moved here to be part of a new eco-village called Atamai. Atamai Village Council currently owns around 30 ha (74 acres) of land on the Motueka Valley Highway, and has the option to lease or purchase a further 69 ha (170 acres). The sight is divided up into mostly commons plus 11 lots around 1 to 2.5 acres and an intensive housing area similar to Earthsong eco-neighbourhood (where we are selling our gorgeous studio apartment).

We plan to purchase a 1-2 acre block where we will build our traditional timber framed home. There are still several lots available for sale in Atamai and they haven’t even started on the intensive housing sight. We’ve been here for less then 2 weeks and already we are organising pot-lucks and a heard of 20 goats. It’s an extremely exciting time, with everything at the very early stages. The land has been purchased, the council permissions received and development just starting. Transition Towns, Carbon Neutrality, Climate Change, Community Development and Community Currency are all high priorities for those fueling the project.

I’m going to end with a few photos of the sight from our January trip and a link to more.

Currently this is the only pond on the sight, but once the main earth moving has been completed every property will be in easy access (I believe bordering) a body of water like this.

This is the river across the road from us.

More photos of the property are here.

Look in your pantry

As you do on a Sunday morning, I decided to pull everything out of the pantry and onto the kitchen floor, there is a reason for my madness. 

  1. I wanted to see where our food came from around the world
  2. I wanted to see what we actually had in the pantry that was actually food and not just junk full of sugar, additives and preservatives
  3. I wanted to know what we had that never got used and get rid of anything out of date

The only things that went back into the pantry were those things that were

  1. Home made (jams, preserves etc)
  2. Locally made (market purchases of preserves etc)
  3. NZ produced and made (these had to be 100% NZ, no NZ & imported ingredients)

Everything else went into the cupboard in the laundry. Not to be thrown out, not to be left unused, but to remind us of the extra effort these foods require, the carbon miles they accrue just to get to us. We had food from Australia, Japan, Sri Lanka, America, Italy and China to name but a few. Much of it was organic, most of it was actually in the “real food” category, so it wasn’t too bad a pile. However, it disturbed me to see things I consider to be basic necessities that are all imported.

All our oils, pasta, rice, vinegars and sugar, possibly the flour too but I’m checking up on that one, all come from some other country. We live in a wine growing country, how hard is it to turn some of those grapes into vinegars? We have a huge sugar factory that makes sugar products, golden syrup etc, but all the sugar comes from overseas (probably Australia so not too far but still). We live in a world that takes food for granted, we don’t bother to think how far that item has had to travel, the working conditions of those growing or processing it for distribution, the chemicals going into the ground to produce it, the unsustainable conditions used. I remember earlier in the year feeling “uncomfortable” that our bananas came from Ecuador (not even Australia!) because we had decided to choose organic and I didn’t want anyone deprived of fruit (bananas were actually one thing I really wanted in those first months of my pregnancy, I was eating at least one a day when normally I might have one a year). Now I’m afraid if anyone wants bananas they will have to settle for our home grown “lady finger” variety and may even have to deal with frozen over fresh.

I dragged Craig out of bed to join me over the food pile and waited (im)patiently for Buffie to also wake up, I needed to draw them both into this discovery, discussion and new plan. We are going to try to be “Locavores” of some type. We are going to attempt to buy locally grown, locally made products, expand that to NZ wide and include a few special items such as herbs & spices (as they require very little to produce and transport), Fair Trade chocolate & coffee and also sugar. We are going to try to put nothing in the pantry that does not fit this category. (oh crap!). 

So far I have a local source of goats milk for us, I’m working on the cows milk. We can get oil from the local market but it’s going to be very very expensive considering how much we use (especially during the preserving seasons). We are about to get a grain mill so will mill our own grain for flour. Oh, there is one more exception area and that is for Buffie, she’s allergic to the wheat family and can’t have lactose. Because this has already wrought huge changes to her life and diet we don’t wont to make life more difficult for her at home, so she gets to have a few extra special items (such as soy & rice milk, rice crackers etc). We will start to work towards making our own flours for making bread, pastry & pasta for her at some point.

I need to find a source of vinegar for all my preserving and how on earth am I going to substitute vegemite!

I used up the last of the flour tonight to make 4 loaves of courgette bread (to freeze) and potato, courgette & corn fritters for dinner. Interestingly, I made Buffie’s courgette fritters with Quinoa flour and they tasted better then the other ones, had more flavour to them and held together better, so I think that recipe will happily get the locally grown switcharoo.

I’m really looking forward to the market this weekend now, I need bread from our local baker and pasta from the pasta guys, as well as mounds of fruit and veg that we didn’t grow or grow enough of so that I can start getting winter soups and things into the freezer (potato & leek, and tomato are the top of the list). I’m also going to have to pop into the butchers for some chicken carcasses to make up some stock.

So to end, I want everyone reading this to have a quick look in your pantry, check out where your food is coming from, what’s in it, do you use it? I’d be interested to hear if others move further towards  the locavore mindset too.

What is Peak Oil, and how does it affect hand crafters and homesteaders?

When Tracey, Buffie and I talk about how to run our homestead, or practice our crafts, one thing which often shapes the conversation to a large degree is an understanding of peak oil. Recently Tracey mentioned that I’d been writing as if this was a universally understood concept, when perhaps it merits a little explanation.

(by tatianes on flickr)

(by tatianes on flickr)

You might have heard the phrase “peak oil” in the news recently, particularly as the price of oil was spiraling upwards in the first half of this year. If you’re not already familiar with it, stay with me for a moment while I explain what this term refers too. Since we first started to extract oil commercially (about 150 years ago), we’ve discovered more and more of the stuff under ground. Initially, it was used for lamps, and then we started making petrol cars and wanting more and more of this black oily stuff to power them. As people demanded more, we built more and more oil derricks, and pumped more and more of the stuff out of the ground. With a few exceptions, each year since we started extracting it we’ve extracted more oil each year than we did the year before.

Now oil is a finite resource. There’s only a certain amount of it under the ground. It’s made by a naturally occurring process, but that process requires certain geological conditions, like warm seas full of plankton blooms. It occurs on earth every two hundred million years or so. The point here is that the ground isn’t magically making more oil as we speak, and so within the timeframe of the human species, we can consider oil to be a once-off limited resource.

Since there’s a limited amount, clearly we can’t go on extracting more and more each year. This isn’t a “theory”, or in dispute in any way, it’s simply an unavoidable fact. At some point will come the year that we’ve pumped the most oil we can in any given year, and the next year we’ll pump a little less.

It’s hard to spot when that year is for the whole world, except in hindsight. In a particular country though, it’s much easier. In the 1950’s, a geologist named M. King Hubbert predicted that the peak of oil production in the USA (which was the world’s biggest oil producer at the time) would be 1970. At the time he was laughed at, but the peak turned out to be only a couple of months into 1971. Since then, no matter how many new oil rigs the USA builds, it still produces slightly less each year. From being the world’s biggest produces, the US now imports about two thirds of it’s oil needs.

So basically, “peak oil” is that point where we’ve used up about half of the oil in the ground, and now it’s no longer coming out faster and faster, but is in fact slower each year. The global oil peak is really hard to compute, but most oil geologists suggest that it was last year, this year, next year maybe, or in other words, around about now.

So are we running out of oil? Absolutely not. There’s still around a trillion barrels of oil in the ground around the world. What is happening though is that we get a little less of it each year, and unfortunately our whole society is based on the idea of growing each year.

There is a lot that can be said about what this means. Opinions on what can happen range from a slow shift to alternative energy technologies (hopefully renewable ones) to the total collapse of society as we know it. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

What does it mean for crafters, homesteaders and pioneers like ourselves?

(by gazzat on flickr)

(by gazzat on flickr)

Well, on that front I like to look at the good news. For starters, the world is growing again. We used to talk about the world shrinking, about global markets and just-in-time delivery systems. In the last year, the cost of shipping goods internationally has approximately doubled. The cost of airline flights has increased, and about 20 airline companies have gone bankrupt this year, with predictions that it’ll include another 30 before the year is out.

It’s no longer economically profitable to earn a livelihood from local crafts because it’s hard to compete against products made in factories in China, and elsewhere around the world. As transport costs go up, this starts to change. Higher transport costs mean less ipods and world trip holidays, but they also mean more local jobs and more locally made products.

Oil is also incredibly energy dense. There is so much easily available energy in a barrel of oil that other technologies we have for generating power don’t look able to make up the gap in the near future. In a world with less energy available each year for running complex machines, you can easily imagine that the things that people find valuable economically will change. Expect hands-on people, particularly those growing food, to be much more valued in such a society.

I’m by no means a luddite. I’m a computer programmer, and like listening to my ipod while knitting my own socks. I’m not suggesting that a return to an agrarian society is going to happen, or is desirable, but I think that at the moment we’re a little out of control and could use a bit of time to slow down and value the things that are just outside our front door. It’s my hope that we’ll navigate all these changes well, and perhaps end up with a world where surfing the internet and weaving (or woodworking, blacksmithing, sewing, etc) are all highly valued.

I’ve mainly covered the good side of things here, and there are also plenty of dangerous waters to navigate in the years ahead, but I think that it’s easy to dwell on these a little too much. For more information about peak oil, how it relates to climate change, and what people and communities can do to adapt to the changes being forced upon us, I’d recommend taking a look at the Transition Towns network.

http://transitiontowns.org.nz (New Zealand)
http://transitiontowns.org (UK and global)

If you want a more balanced and properly researched and referenced explanation of peak oil, check out this page from the Oil Drum website.

Finding a homestead

We’re renting our homestead, and every now and then we have a think about where we might like to eventually buy one. We’re pretty sold on the idea of going north, rather than south, so we’ve been busy getting to know the northlands and yesterday we took off on another impromptu land scouting mission.

I say land scouting, but although we did look at property prices, it’s perhaps more correct to say that we were region scouting. We’re trying to figure out which areas we should look at more closely.

The area we are living in, on the edge of Swanson, is quite beautiful, but the downside of being so close to Auckland is that land prices are high due to the common desire of buying a small lifestyle block and commuting to work in the big city. Unless something very dramatic happened to shake up this pattern, we couldn’t afford to buy in the area we’re currently living in.

If you look at property prices, there’s a magic circle around auckland where land that is within commuting range of the city is subdivided for premium prices. Anyone wanting to buy within that land is probably best served by waiting until petrol gets more expensive, and then buying in areas that are currently seen as a reasonable commute by car, but don’t have access to the train, as I’d guess these will come down in price. Failing that, it seems best to look further away.

As one drives north of Auckland, the magic circle of expensive land seems to extend to about Warkworth. Warkworth has the feeling of a country town, but it’s strongly influenced by the influx of commuters and also the tourists passing through. This, and all my perceptions of Northland towns is fairly uninformed. I’ve on been living in NZ for a couple of years, and I’m trying to judge them based on rather short visits. However, it’s the only viewpoint I have, so lets press on further north.

Next major stop up the Route 1 is Wellsford. Wellsford feels to me like it’s less influenced by Auckland, and has all the ingredients of a real country service town. It’s the major destination for lots of farmers east of the Kaipara to get all their agricultural bits and bobs. It’s also got the major highway of course, and so is used by tourists visiting their batches as well. It has a McDonalds, and a tiny bit of “mini-suburbia”.

North of Wellsford is Kaiwaka, which is a bit of a favourite of mine. Kaiwaka is now fairly popular with lifestylers who want to move to the country, stop working regularly in town, and set up their beautiful little homestead. Retail stores in Kaiwaka include the gourmet cheese shop, the excellent italian bakery, and the very creative cafe Eutopia. These tend to indicate that there are a fair few affluent people in the area now, and also a fair few people who “a little bit hippy” (like me). To round off that last demongraphic, Kaiwaka is home to two lovely ecovillages and the Koanga Gardens store.

So being a middle class greenie myself, you can see why I would like Kaiwaka, but I’m curious about it’s resilience in the face of future change. It’s success is at present very much determined by the lifeblood of traffic traveling up and down route 1. Without that, it’s retain stores would have to adapt, and the town itself currently doesn’t have much in the way of economic activity centered around country life, with the main exception of the Sawmill. Mainly I mean that I imagine a lot of local farmers currently visit Wellsford for many of their needs.

I’m pretty confident about Kaiwaka’s ability to rise to meet these challenges in a post oil world. In particular Kaiwaka has one of the most active Transition Town groups in the Northlands, and the skills and people at Otamatea and Kohatu Toa ecovillages shouldn’t be ignored.

In an optimistic powerdown future, then I could see Kaiwaka really leading the charge with creative responses to a future with less oil. In the case of a future involving a bit more of a sudden collapse, then I wonder if I should be looking for places with more resilient local infrastructure. Perhaps there’s an advantage in being surrounded by experienced and practical local farmers, rather than idealistic lifestylers (even if I’m in the latter category myself).

Yesterday’s drive through the country had two main purposes. Firstly, to try and find some places that might work well in the latter situation, and secondly to explore the potential of towns with water access to the Kaipara harbour. These two goals together lead us to Dargaville, which is on route 12, the tourist route for the west coast, and is on the Wairoa river, a great big fat (and brown) river feeding into the north end of the Kaipara.
 Dargaville is traditionally a port town, and although on the river it does appear that it was once regularly visited by ocean going ships. In it’s early days, it’s main industries were logging Kauri trees and digging up Kauri gum. It has a few historical attractions for the tourist, like it’s museum, but mostly it’s a true service town for quite a large surrounding area of farmland. There aren’t any Kauri trees to been seen anymore, but this area now prides itself on being the kumara capital of NZ. Apparently the soils to the west of Dargaville are fairly sandy, compared with the usual clay based soils, and good for growing kumara (and no doubt many other things).

As well as being a port, Dargaville has a train line. It goes up to Whangerie, or down to Auckland. Unfortunatelly, it doesn’t run passenger services, only cargo (there are no regular passenger trains in the northlands), but I’m still going to call that a significant asset.

In a post oil future, I’d predict that Dargaville’s role as a serious farming area, in particular one that grows a lot of carbohydrates (kumara) as well as the usual cows and sheep, will make it a vital food source for Auckland. I also like to imagine a revival in water travel. The end of the current passenger line from Auckland is Helensville, and from there one could board a boat and travel in basically a straight line across the Kaipara to Dargaville, rather than the long way around that the road takes. I’m keen to give this trip a try and see how long it takes.

What are the downsides of Dargaville? Well, for starters, I might not find many people I get along with. I am a bit of a hippy and a middle class city boy at heart. Also, the area around Dargaville is dead flat, and my dream property always has rolling hills and mountains in the background. Not just flat, Dargaville is also pretty close to the water. I’m pretty worried that only a few metres of sea level rise will put it under water.

Seeing both these positives and negatives in Dargaville, we continued to follow the Wairoa river north east, thinking that as it got a bit further into the hills, we might find our perfect landscape and still have access to water transport. There are no other major towns in that direction, so if you lived up that way you’d want to be able to reach Dargaville by boat in a reasonable amount of time.

However, the landscape is stunning. The river winds it’s way through meandering valleys, with mountains rising up in the background. The train line also follows the river. Transport by water, road and train. Beautiful scenery. Affordable land prices. The only downsides might be the isolation (it’s a fair way from Auckland), and possibly the lack of like minded people.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on the sort of area you live in or would like to live in, and how you think it might function if oil was scarce and expensive.

Earthsong 2020, A Day in the Life – Part 1

Part 1: Breakfast

The sky is just starting to glow in the pre-dawn light and there’s a winter’s chill in the air as I make my way down to the common house. I’m not a morning person, but it always starts to grow on me once I’m up and out of the house, despite the zombie like way that I shaved and washed my face after rolling out of bed. I’ve taken to showering in the evenings in order to get a better result out of the solar hot water, and also because I now get a lot sweatier and dirtier during the day than I used to when I sat in front of a computer.

My reluctant rising means that I’m far from the first person in the common house this morning. There is a fire going, and lights are on in the kitchen and dining room. There might well be power from the grid right now, although the rolling blackouts are no where near as neatly scheduled as the radio might suggest. Morning and evening are peak times here, so it’s most likely that the lights are running straight off batteries. We put solar cells on the roof of the common house when things first started getting bad, and although many argue that they aren’t a solution, they certainly made the transition a lot easier. There are a few households with electricity generation, but the rest of us rely pretty heavily on the common house facilities, especially the four big chest freezers, when our own houses lose power at inconvenient times.

As I walk in it’s warm, almost unpleasantly so as I quite like the shock of a cold morning for short while at least. I don’t have to have breakfast in the common house, but it has become a habit for most of us after it proved basically impossible to retrofit our own houses to take wood-stoves. Also, we simply don’t have enough wood on site to burn in thirty-two cooking fires, and although bringing back loads of it from the hills isn’t impossible, it’s pretty hard to manage it sustainably with all the city folks who are already grabbing loads of it without understanding what the forest needs.

These are academic arguments though, the sort of things we might say to people on tours (yes, we still run those), but everyone who lives here knows that the real reason for the centralised cooking as soon as they walk in the door and see the beautiful cast iron range taking up pride of place in the kitchen where the gas stove used to be, back when there was affordable gas to be had, bedecked with an array of bubbling pots, boiling kettles, and slices of toasting bread. I like the smell, and I’m going to very much appreciate a coffee soon (there’s nothing quite like a stovetop espresso), but I’m still a cold muesli person so I’m here mainly for the companionship and the aromas than I am for a hot breakfast.

I’ve got a pretty big stash of muesli left in the pantry. Anyone who hadn’t been to Earthsong in the last dozen years wouldn’t recognise the pantry these days. It grew as a rather hodgepodge effort, starting with inclosing the paved area between the kitchen door and the existing pantry, which we’d always thought to be quite large. Then, the broom cupboard was re-modeled, and two separate extensions were made to the south in various bursts of enthusiasm. The muesli is stored with the dry goods, along with the ingredients that we make it from every couple of weeks. It was only about a fortnight ago that I returned from a trip up north to buy grains, so we’re well stocked with bit big plastic tubs of oats, which we’ll run in batches through the hand flaker as needed for making muesli, porridge, crumbles and so forth. The sultanas are grown here, both on north side of the common house and also some from private gardens, and we’ve managed to include a good supply of nut and seed crops from both on site, and from the Ranui nut tree project.

The milk is cold and fresh. We still trade for it with the same farmer up the road who has been supplying us for nearly a decade. We’ve got the processes down pat now, with bike trailer kitted out to take us much as a hundred litres of fresh milk in tubs. We get it unpasturised, so that we can make better cheese, although we do pasturise batches of it ourselves after we have skimmed off the cream. It’s been a few days since the last load of milk, so it’s time for a big butter making day to help store the excess. That’s why Tracey is working for the dairy group today, and the kids are joining her, while I head off early (too early if you ask me) to the two CSA farms that we’re involved with.

The common house is filling up now, and I exchange quick greetings, kisses for the kids now starting in on scrambled eggs, and a another for my wife at the griddle, and then I’m back out in the cold as four of us fiddle with bike panniers and check tyres over in the bike shed before setting off. Like the pantry, the bike shed has sprawled in stages as it became clear that bikes were going to become a bigger part of our lives than cars. It’s moved from north of the shed into one of the rows of carports, as it was much easier to put a few weather proof barriers around the side of a carport than it was to build a new structure, and we just don’t have enough cars on site anymore to need them. We held on to our cars for a long time, as everyone around auckland did. Even though it costs around $150 to drive to central auckland and back, it was hard to admit that “assets” which had cost many of us so much money were now basically worthless as no one wanted to buy them.

There are still cars on the street, but for our purposes at least they are far too expensive to run. We never managed to get our hands on a plugin hybrid, the new ones are proving totally unaffordable due to increased manufacturing costs, and the general weakness of the NZ dollar, and getting our hands on an old Prius to convert is something that we’ve talked about, but never quite had the energy for. Instead, we keep about six of the more fuel efficient cars on site, which is still far more than we need, most of which have the batteries disconnected most of the time and just stand ready for emergencies. We don’t leave fuel in the tanks until we need to use them. Crime has actually dropped since the initial trouble around the time of the crash, but we still don’t leave fuel in the car tanks any more than we’d leave gold bullion lying about on the lawn, it’s just common sense.

The sun is most definitely up now, and it feebly attempts to warm our backs as four bikes set off down west down Swanson Rd, which is a very different place to when I first arrived here.

A changing world

Peak oil has been on our minds a lot recently. We’ve been watching movies, reading articles, entering into discussions, researching and absorbing a world of information, some good, some bad, some positive and pessimistic, making plans and writing stories. We are getting very interested in the Transition Town project and have started working on how to get it moving along here in Ranui.

The world is changing, we’ve always known that our society has not been living in a sustainable way, we always knew that at some point we would run out of oil and that we would again have to slow down, take a step back and change the way we live. In our lifetime we will no longer be able to simply jump into the car and drive to a warehouse sized supermarket to get packaged and processed foods. We will not be able to rely on having things transported from the opposite side of the world just so we can have tomatoes in Winter. All my life I’ve wanted to travel to Europe, I’m beginning to realise that not only is that going to be an unachievable dream very soon, it’s also one that I’m beginning to happily let go of for the pleasures of a life at home and the changes this life will bring.

I currently play at weaving and spinning, knitting, cooking and gardening, I believe that within the next few years these crafts will be essential to my life. We will see an end of ornamental gardens and front yards of grass. Councils will abolish laws forbidding chickens and other farm animals in suburban areas and begin encouraging it. Supermarkets will flounder and farmers markets will no longer be quaint weekend diversions but once more will become essential for trade. People will loose jobs and it will be hard, but we will find that in a post-oil world there will once again be more jobs then people to do them as we once more have to rely on our own bodies instead of machines. Our efforts will return to the satisfying task of feeding and clothing us and not sitting in stuffy offices moving pieces of paper from one pile to the next.

It takes very little effort to find information to support the believe in a post-oil world, a quick google search on “rising oil prices” returns 810,000 pages of information including this from the BP statistical review of world energy: “It’s no secret anymore that for every nine barrels of oil we consume, we are only discovering one.” How can we even consider that we can continue as things are with that fact before us? I don’t understand is how people can get angry about the rise in prices of oil and demand the government make it cheaper. Rare resources are always expensive, we all know that, if I was to offer you the skeleton of a dodo bird you wouldn’t expect to pay the same as for the skeleton of a sparrow would you? People’s ignorance and desire to burry their heads in the sand amazes me, the mainstream media’s minimal coverage astounds me. I’ve heard people saying things like it’s a “hippie conspiracie” that those who believe are pot smoking tree huggers. Well news flash, it’s the scientists and the economists, people inside the oil industry itself who are yelling at us to wake up and smell the fumes.

It’s a hard reality to face. I feel torn between two worlds, in one I’m planning a Tupperware party and working at being a photographer, and in the other I’m working out how much land we need to feed 30+ households and trying to decide if I should buy a horse now or wait another year.

When I see a huge task before me I became daunted and feel over whelmed by it and so I try to break it down into smaller, managable sections. When we were planning on purchasing a 5 acre block I got freaked by the size of such a property and what on earth I would do with all that land, then I broke it into pieces starting with just the house, then the kitchen garden and then worked with permaculture principles of zones and headed out to orchards and forests. Suddenly I could see the 5 acres come together as a manageable whole and when it threatened to overwhelm me again, I pulled my focus back to one area. I’m trying to do this again with the peak oil crisis, focusing on the small things, asking myself questions and not getting caught up too much in the larger picture. I ask myself things like what is essential to my life and happiness? My husband, my family, my friends, my community and good food are the ones that jump out at me. Well guess what, I can have all of those things in a post-oil world and more. Craig has started writing a story about our life in 2020 (many famous cyberpunk novels have been written about the distopian world run by corporations in the year 2020), it’s open for others to add their own pages to and I’ll post it in a separate post for everyone to read. It’s a positive vision, one of hope I think.

Here are a few links people might find interesting about Transition Towns.

This is a youtube video on Transition Town Totnis, the pioneer of the movement