Thursday, October 21, 2010

Working together

Dear Friends and Family and other readers of this blog,
We recently had a rather marvellous day working on building a huge compost heap and preparing stuff to stimulate micro-organism growth in the soil.

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I discovered through last week's communal garden building for the Motueka Community Garden, and this week's Biodynamic Day at Atamai (more explanation
later) how much pleasure I can get out of a community working effort.
I have for decades enjoyed the pleasures of working with others towards important goals in peace, and latterly ecological issues. Sharing intellectual capacity, creative ideas, working hard together, sharing laughs has for a very long time been one of the good things in my life. But, amazingly, there's even more of a 'high' for me in joint physical work towards a shared goal. Two weeks ago it was the creation of a community garden for the township of Motueka, a large project that will require more work. I personally won't benefit from this, but people who want to grow things but have little or no land on which to do it will benefit. It was a great feeling to be on a wheelbarrow or wield a shovel alongside others, strangers getting to know each other while we worked alongside each other, and seeing the garden grow while we worked.

This last weekend, Atamai was the host for the regional biodynamic group. This group, followers of Rudolf Steiner's ideas about agriculture, meets once a month on someone's property to see what they're doing and work together according to biodynamic principles. I have an ambivalent intellectual relationship with these ideas, some of which seem quite mystical to me.
However, I'm challenged by data that suggest that biodynamic horticulture really is more productive, stores more carbon in the soil, and so on. And I'm entirely unambivalent about the people involved, who comprise many of my good friends. So the group, ranging between a dozen and 30 at various times of the day, consisted of about half Atamai people and half outsider biodynamicists who came to put in a day's work. Adrienne, a committed biodynamic gardener (and nurse) works most days at Atamai taking care of the orchards, and was the host for this day. (Her orchard work is sweat equity towards the acquisition of a lot at Atamai. She has done a lovely job on the orchards, which are looking beautiful.) Adrienne began working towards this day months ago. The cow manure, necessary for both compost building and biodynamic preparations (something like fertility stimulants) had to undergo special processes before it was ready for use. She had worked for months removing gorse from gullies in the orchards, and had made big cylindrical piles of rotting gorse for use on the compost pile. She had cut large bags of nettles grown (deliberately) on her own property. As she passed through Picton a month ago on her way back from a retreat for anthroposophical nurses (this is Steiner's philsophy on health), she had bought a load of seaweed, and it came in a large winebarrel.

The biodynamic way of making hot compost involves using hay or grass with the dew still on it. Adrienne started on the land by torchlight on Saturday morning, about 5.30am. When I got up at 6.30, I could hear her mowing over on the hillsides. The time for gathering for raking the grass was 7am. I got there at ten past, and there were already four people (outsiders) raking. We raked for a few hours and Adrienne, seemingly out of nowhere, began cooking buckwheat pancakes, which were eaten with damson jelly of her own making. I provided the tea in big thermoses. Coffee was made over a clever device in which a double metal cylinder holding water between its two walls is placed over a little fire. The inner cylinder acts as a chimney for the fire which draws well and heats the water. We sat around eating this feast for a while, then got back on the rakes, wheelbarrows, forks and shovels. By that time we were also forking gorse and shovelling manure in layers on to the compost pile. This pile began with a 9 1/2 x 3 metre base. There were a few layers of nettles, which to my astonishment, people handled with their bare hands, while I went to look for gloves. 'Doesn't it hurt?' I asked. 'Only a bit,'
was the answer. At various stages layers of seaweed (very smelly), ground dolomite, and rock dust were added. Every layer got a sprinkle with the hose. The manure, after its long treatment, wasn't at all smelly. Adrienne compared the process to baking a cake. After about 4 hours of work, the pile was two metres high. You couldn't see people working on the other side.

Adrienne climbed on top, used a crowbar to make eight deep holes through the layers, and dropped little clods of special biodynamic preparations down each hole.
Everyone cheered and rejoiced and then went home.

At 4pm people reconvened for the next phase, coming to a higher terrace on the orchard for the process of making and spreading biodynamic preparations. This was the more mystical side of biodynamics, but the quietly sceptical also joined in. You can see me stirring the mixture (first clockwise, making a vortex, then reversing) and Jack sprinkling the mixture on to the soil.

Finally we had a wonderful picnic on the still sunny terrace, with the many little kids rolling themselves down the grassy slopes and laughing.

This was the first large occasion of communal work at Atamai, although our tree planting last year involved 8-10 people at some stages. We plan in the future to build an implement shed, and a picnic shelter in this way. There are many other possible projects.

Warmest wishes,

Friday, October 8, 2010

Atamai Village Update

Dear Friends,
I'm eager to give you an update on us and on the village. We're well and quite busy - Jack with tree-planting on the land around and sloping down from our house. In the previous two autumns there have been large-scale plantings of mainly natives for wind-break and slope protection. In the last month and continuing there has been planting of fruit and nut trees on the sunny terraces - cherry, plum, pear, nashi (a Japanese pear), peach, almond, hazelnut. Apples yet to come when we can get the varieties we want.
I'm largely occupied with the people side of the village - helping where it's needed, organising the communal meals and the village council meetings. A big day coming up is next Saturday when the regional biodynamic growers' group will meet here for a compost -making day and also to make biodynamic preparations. (Adrienne, who cares for the orchards, is strongly oriented to biodynamic growing.)

As you can see, the house is progressing. It takes an inordinate amount of our time too. Millions of mini-decisions.

Jurgen has just written a whole village update, which I'll now include. It gives you a good overview of where we are in village development.
This image is part of the garden Jurgen is developing adjacent to his house site. The house doesn't yet exist, but will be Japanese in character.

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Hi everyone
Looking for the last update sent to everyone I realise that 10 months have gone by without a word from us to the friends of Atamai far and wide. Not surprisingly it is not due to all being quiet in the village but rather an unintended by-product of intense activity. Including everything that has happened and is going on would see you read for hours, so here is just a selection of some of the more important developments:
The land
Over the last months a good number of property changes, boundary adjustments, title issues and acquisitions have happened. A block of adjacent land of about 10 ha has been added to the village as well as another one of the existing houses on the ridge top. The house, a 400 sm high quality residence including a large independent flat, is being retrofitted with solar panels, an additional room and some landscaping changes and will be available for sale as part of the village at the end of the summer.
Food security, which was mentioned already in our mailout last summer as an upcoming crisis point is now emerging rapidly as an issue of serious concern around the world. Food prices are expected to rise by up to 30% in short order and food shortages in many countries are expected to continue to make headlines again. Last week a UN conference on the issue was called.
In the tradition of transition towns Atamai continues to work on practical preparations for local food security. The Mediterranean garden is in very good shape this spring, a private and established leasehold garden plot has been added to the village production pallet for a number of years and row crops are being put in for the first time for bulk staple foods.
The community orchard has been extended significantly over the winter planting season and is being lovingly cared for by Adrienne, who is now on the crew full time.
The nursery had an additional well water source added which we don’t expect to ever run dry.
Over summer we will put up the new green house to have more scope for shoulder season production (see nursery remarks below).
More maintenance and food production equipment has been purchased for the village including a small tractor with mower and front loader.
Village Development Process
We were fortunate to have two very talented landscape designers from London, Paul and Anise work for us over winter developing a Permaculture landscape design methodology which can now be used for the planning of all the new private sections. It makes the creation of effective permaculture systems a much easier, structured and satisfying process. It also saves a lot of effort and provides a means of integrating landscapes on private titles into the bigger Atamai permaculture picture.
The Sustainable Villages development team achieved a significant milestone and filed the application for the second residential stage of Atamai Village last month. This second stage comprises the balance of the larger sections scattered around the denser village core. The denser village core is the third stage which completes the village. The third stage is now planned for consent filing mid next year.
Stage two consists of 24 new residential sections, 7 of which are ‘sold’ or spoken for at this stage. The plan for the sections has been posted on the web site.
Building projects & Sections
Jack and Joanna’s house will have the ‘roof shout’ party for the first Atamai Eco House on the 29th of October. The roof is on, structural timber walls are up, windows are going in and it is making progress in leaps and bounds due to the diligent work of Greg Law and his ‘ORCA Development’ crew. Greg is looking forward to build as many of the homes and buildings at Atamai as possible.
One of the next buildings to be put up will be a stone clad implement shed on the commons.
Village community
Quite a few changes have happened and there is now a number of households living on the Atamai land. Craig and Tracey and their little son William have moved onto the site (renting), as have Wulf and his son Christian into their house and Greg and Isabel and their 4 children Noah, Sophia, Fin & Nathan (renting as well). Craig and Tracey will be starting to build as soon as possible on Lot 4. Greg and Isabel are waiting for their section (Lot 9, stage II) to become available. So all in all there are currently 6 households already on site with Adrienne and Lynda keen to join as soon as possible. Plans for Adrienne’s house on Lot 5, stage I, are also close to complete.
Sadly Geoff and Leonora have decided to stay in Nelson at this stage and have put Lot 0, which they purchased last year back into the pool of available properties. Their lot 0, stage I is one of the two only elevated properties currently available with brilliant views.
Rob and Lisa have decided to be part of Atamai and intend to purchase Lot 8 Stage I, as has Lynda.
With more people on site the social aspects of the community are coming along nicely and a number of events, pot lucks and working bees are planned for those interested to join in.
One of the more hazardous aspects of the emerging village live is that one has to watch now for increasing numbers of little knights with wooden swords on wooden cycles ambushing residents and practicing their chivalry skills on unaware passersby.
A good number of visitors have announced themselves for summer this year to check out the site or stay for a little while to see if they like the village project. We really look forward to welcome you all.
Business Opportunities
The brick/block making operation has now been fully set up and three varieties of bricks are in production. The first batches of about 8000 bricks have been made and most of them will be used in Jack & Joanna’s house and for landscaping. Atamai recently acquired a large production green house and a nursery utility building at an auction and they have been moved onto the village grounds and should be completely installed over summer. Lynda and Joni Bridge will be operating the nursery initially until either an enthusiastic owner operator comes on board or a cooperative forms itself.
A business plan for a third enterprise, the production and sale of the Terra Preta soil conditioner has been completed and is also awaiting an owner operator.
So if you are interested in taking up either of these three ready to go businesses as a livelihood, let us know.
Rob Malloch has converted the Hangar at TeMara into a well equipped engineering workshop as a base for his village business and has spent a number of months now bringing all of the machinery and vehicle fleet up to scratch. His next project will be to complete development of the Lister engine powered generators.
Organisational Changes
After more than two years of planning, preparation and legal work the villages governing body which will also hold all the commons asset has now been formed and is duly incorporated as a society. It is officially called ‘Atamai Village Council Inc’. The trust, which is the ‘developer’ of Atamai, has been renamed ‘Atamai Trust’ so we could keep the more appropriate ‘Council’ name for the actual village body.
The next step in the formation process is to split the trust into the charitable part which will undertake the educational work in the future and a private trust which will complete the village implementation and then dissolve.
The earthworks for Jack & Joanna’s section were completed last summer. The sections 9 & 10 started in late autumn but have been stop and go all winter and spring due to persistently unfavourable rainfall patterns and amounts. Some progress has been made in spite of it and the drainage systems and silt retention measures have coped well with the abundant rain. The ground is now drying out now a we look forward to have the sections completed before the end of the year.
Web Site
As part of a major advertising initiative to sell the remaining sections of stage I and II the web site will get another major overhaul in the next weeks. Information on the sections, layout, pricing, updates on developments, progress with the permaculture land use planning and implementation will all be posted as a resource.
Expect another email update when it’s ready!
kind regards
Jurgen Heissner, Executive Board Member

Back to my comments now: this is a complex and difficult project, and I feel good about how far we have come. The people side of the village is coming together. The nicest aspect of this is the delightful kids involved. Conflicts, of course, have already arisen,as expected. Is someone experienced enough to keep a cow on their land? Does adding biochar conflict with organic gardening principles? I'm confident that we are dealing with these in a constructive way, although we will have to attend closely to the process of living in this way, partly communally, as distinct from the way we have all been socialised.

You can learn more details about Atamai on our website

Warmest wishes to all,

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Can soil carbon sequestration contribute to mitigating climate change?

Posted by PicasaThe images here are intended to illustrate two aspects of soil carbon (or organic matter) - firstly the production of good food (on my kitchen bench), secondly the need to reforest and to implement careful management of soil to enhance its organic matter (a slope at our new place). Increasing soil and biomass carbon will decrease atmospheric carbon, thus having a significant impact on global heating.

Dear Friends,
I continue to fret about Climate Change. In January, after the shocking failure of the Copenhagen talks, several of us got together to share our distress and work out what to do next. One person suggested we push for the personal carbon quota. In this system, everyone has an equal share of the total allowable annual carbon emissions. You have a strong incentive to live with less than your budgetted amount, and then you can trade the extra with someone who wants to exceed their budget. The total allowable amount diminishes with time.

Jack wanted to explore the role of global elites - the ultra-wealthy, the media controllers and so on, in blocking action on climate change. Since then he has been conversing with folk in the International forum on Globalization about a possible project on that topic.

I wanted to explore the idea of carbon sequestration through agriculture and forestry - by biological means. It seemed to me that the focus had been on fossil fuel carbon emissions and alternative energy. Several points began to become evident to me, alongside one that is well-known - carbon losses through deforestation.
*Greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture are a significant proportion of the total - 13.5% globally, about 50% of emissions in New Zealand. The global figure rises to 51% if land use and land use change are included in the calculation. That's emissions from deforestation. The emissions comprise nitrous oxide, largely from the enormous and rising use of nitrate fertilisers; methane from the guts of ruminant animals; carbon dioxide from deforestation to clear more land, soil management practices, fertiliser manufacture and fossil fuel use in agricultural machinery. Many readers of this blog will know that nitrous oxide and methane are many times more potent in reflecting solar heat back to earth than carbon dioxide is.
* There are quite well-known ways to cut agricultural greenhouse emissions, and many of them, eg no-till agriculture. . Furthermore, there are multiple ways to build soil carbon. That is, not only cutting emissions, but pulling down CO2 from the atmosphere into the soil. Some of those ways are designed to keep stable carbon in the soil for centuries. Composting would be the best known of this cluster of strategies. Biochar burial in soil is another.

* Better still, all of the practices referred to above shift agriculture from being an unsustainable practice, exhausting the soil over time, to a perhaps perpetually sustainable activity.

* Better yet, some of these practices bear the promise of greater food productivity. Not all of them.

So we should surely talk more about this issue.

I registered for a conference on New Zealand Soil Carbon. With the help of my friend and mentor, soil scientist Don Graves, I put myself through a little crash course on learning about soil. I cycled to Don's one day to pick up a primer in the nature of soil. I had to come back with the car to collect the ten volumes of essential reading Don had for me. What a revelation! It's another world down there! And to think I've been walking around on top of it all, largely oblivious to the teaming life in ultra-complex systems beneath my feet.

The conference was an interesting experience. The participants were mainly farmers, fertiliser makers and soil scientists. Highlights in my quest to answer the question that heads this blog were:

* the presentation by Australian climate activist (and much else) Tim Flannery. Here are his major points:
o Half of avoided emissions to deal with climate change need to come from the biological systems of agriculture and forestry.
o Emissions need to start coming down by 2015; this requires rapid action. (Agriculture doesn’t even enter the NZ ETS until 2015.)
o Carbon can be sequestered in soil in three ways – holistic stock management; enhanced humus production and retention (by a variety of methods comprising biological farming); and charcoal sequestration in soil.
o NZ’s effort in research in this area, $5million per annum, is ‘pathetic’. Much more is needed.
o It’s good that NZ at least has an ETS (compared with Australia) but it needs major revisions to incentivise individual farmers to sequester soil carbon. (I noted that many farmers present were anxious and negative towards the ETS, concerned that they wouldn’t be rewarded for their carbon achievements.)

The other highlight was a ‘break-out session’ hosted by me on the potential of Soil Carbon sequestration to contribute to Climate Change mitigation. These were the major points:
1. There’s loads of potential for increasing soil C in NZ; in fact, it will be dangerous if we don’t do so and fail to retain C in some soils.
2. Biological farming is the way to do it. Get C deep and stable by means of plant choices.
3. We need to be able to measure it.
4. You can make changes that have to do with increasing soil carbon very quickly eg in a year. This contrasts dramatically with the lead time needed for other CC mitigation strategies, eg alternative energy solutions.
5. We need to incentivise the costly transition to biological (different from subsidising production). But note – Carbon and Energy footprint reducing measures are often intrinsically money-saving.
However, on a panel of six speakers later asked about the potential of biochar, several were sceptical because of cost-benefit issues and the carbon costs of transport of feedstock and making the biochar compared with carbon savings in sequestration. One was enthusiastic.

Where do I go from here on this? As soon as I complete another major task I'd like to address this one. It feels very urgent. I'm not sure what the next step is. Probably to get a few minds together. If any reader of this blog wants to go further on this issue, please let me know.

Also, I can send my full notes on this conference to anyone who wishes to see them.

Warmest wishes,