My Kingdom for a Teat Rag

A few years ago a friend and neighbour gave me a gift. In return for sending some curds and whey her way she hand knitted a stack of face washers, which proved useful for the routine task of cleaning udders every day before I milked the goats. I have dabbled in various handicrafts over the years, so I appreciated someone taking the time to make something by hand to give away.

Last week the final surviving teat rag disintegrated, so it was time to find a replacement. I considered going back to cheap disposable cloths, but they fall apart almost instantly: a horrible waste. So I looked around the house and found this:

This is a doily that I made a while ago, back in the days when I still bothered to pick flowers to bring inside (and even then I rarely used the doily). It only took me an evening to crochet it. However, the reason I kept it hanging about the house so long, and story behind the many hours it took to make it is worth sharing.

When I first bought the farm I was interested in getting some alpaca to spin and weave/knit their fleece. As a test I bought some alpaca yarn and made a scarf, and promptly discovered I overheated in it after the one week of subtropical winter was gone. So I scrapped that idea in favour of more useful goats, but the urge to spin and weave didn’t completely vanish.

I tried growing perennial cotton. There are four main species of fibre producing cotton and only one is an annual. The species I managed to locate (Gossypium arboreum) grows into a shrub around 2 meters tall that persists for about 5 years once established. They need decent conditions when young, but stand up to just about anything once they get some height. The peachy flowers are followed by pods that split to release tufts of white cotton wool, that the birds love gathering for their nests (birds of a feather think alike and all). There are strain of the species with naturally green or brown fibres, which I tried without any success, but that may have just been bad luck. In the end I decided the white variety was enough for now (with some scope for dying later, though cellulose is more of a pain to dye than wool).

Years ago, before the recent floods, I grew a row of cotton bushes and harvested a few shopping bags of fluff. Timing is sometimes an issue- during wet spells the quality of the fibre drops rapidly if not harvested quickly. Next I had to figure out what to do with it all.

After doing some research I bought a simple drop spindle, though with the short fibre length of cotton this is not the ideal approach. The upside was it allowed me to start getting a feel for the material without spending too much. To compensate I needed to produce very chunky fibre, a slow and tedious process compared to finer fiber once you get the technique right. In traditional fabric production the spinning phase consumes the vast majority of the labour, and used to be a major focus of pre-industrial households if you didn’t want the family freezing in rags. This sample of chunky, single ply thread was what I turned into my unfortunate doily: my very first attempt at producing fabric from scratch (and hence why I didn’t throw it out despite it being useless).

The problem with drop spindles is that the growing thread needs to support the weight, which means more delicate/short fibres like cotton are not really suitable. In India they get around this by resting the spindle in a smooth bowl, a technique that requires a lot of practice to master. I experimented with disassembled egg beaters and fishing rods to make a mechanism for horizontal spinning (similar to how a great wheel works) but couldn’t find anyone willing to turn the handle while I drew out the fibres.

The final solution came in the form of a kick spindle, a considerable investment imported from a craftsman in the USA. It took me a little while, but soon I was churning out decent quantities of thread about the same thickness as commercial knitting wool. I toyed with double plying it, but found it wasn’t necessary with thread this thick. It might be worthwhile if I get better at creating thinner thread one day.

This thread was then turned into beanies, using a simple circular knitting nancy. Once again spinning the thread for a single beanie took about 5-10 hours, while the final step of knitting took maybe an hour to complete. Going through this process really emphasised the incredible impact industrial spinning mills had on society. I now have to stop myself from going into the fetal position when I throw out a cheap tea towel or (heaven forbid) a tattered bed sheet. The amount of material, energy and skill/technology needed to produce them is staggering, yet we consume cheap cloth like it is no big deal.

When I first made the beanies, even I was sceptical about how useful they would be. They were pretty thin and full of holes, so I was surprised to discover how warm they were. Initially the thread was quite tightly spun, but over time the fibre frayed just enough to make them incredibly soft and comfortable to wear. And despite my fears of them disintegrating the first time I washed them, they are going strong after wearing them non stop, every winter, for several years. The durability of homespun thread was the biggest surprise. My worry about all those hours spinning being a waste evaporated. Instead my biggest problem was explaining to friends why I wasn’t in a hurry to put aside ten hours to make one for them (would you pay $200 for a beanie that should last a lifetime? That my friends is the essence of the trap of industrialisation).

The whole experience keeps making me reflect on a bit of history I picked up. When Romans conquered southern Britain it connected the island to the vast trade networks of the continent. Cheap, mass produced, high quality ceramics were imported from specialist regions in France and beyond. The local pottery industry on the island vanished as a result.

When the Romans finally abandoned their possession, the people left behind found themselves with a big problem. Nobody knew how to make ceramics. For quite a while examples of pots turned up in the archaeological record, so crude you would laugh at them if your child brought them home from arts and crafts lessons. It took the migration of skilled potter families into Britain to restore the skillset.

As the high tide of industrialisation and global trade continues to wind down, a similar dynamic will likely play out around the world in a wide range of products and materials people rely on day to day. Fabric is likely to be among them, given the extraordinarily stretched supply lines that pass through multiple countries. Even third world nations mostly rely on cheap clothing imported from far away.

Spinning fibres and making cloth is one of our most fundamental skills, something I felt twitching in my fingertips my whole life, unexplained until recent years. We shouldn’t all be expected to pursue such strange hobbies as growing our own underpants. But the amazing thing about humanity is how rapidly skills pass from one person to another, provided there is a person to start the chain.

If ancient Britain had retained just one local potter family they might have saved themselves a whole lot of bother. Likewise, if a few among us (a few oddballs on the margins are more than enough), if those few people invest the necessary hours in rediscovering these old techniques, then perhaps one day we will have something precious to share.

Beloved beanies after years of constant wear
Now there’s dust on my kick spindle, you shmuck. I’ll get back to spinning soon, but plan to keep experimenting with other approaches to producing thread and fabric.

Wait Long Enough by the River

There is an old saying- wait long enough by the river and the head of your enemy will float by. I think it is a perfect encapsulation of the “do nothing” impulse recommended by Fukuoka. Often problems will solve themselves given enough time better, and often far better than if you had intervened.

A great example of this principle happened with stable fly in my goat sheds. These insects suck blood from the animals then lay eggs in the manure. Under ideal conditions they can rapidly build up to damaging levels. For the first year or so they hadn’t discovered the herd, but then they arrived and we had a massive population explosion of biting flies. At the time the herd was on a concrete floor, so I tried cleaning up the manure regularly, though I soon noticed that the maggots did much better in a thin layer of fresh manure. Allowing a thicker manure layer to build up seemed to make life harder for them. I later found out there is a fairly common parasitic wasp that preys on the stable fly pupae, but it persists better under more undisturbed conditions compared to the maggots. I now make sure to leave a deep, well-aged manure pile in the corner to provide habitat for them (and having the animals on a dirt floor seems to also help). I cannot be completely sure my intuition is correct since the wasps are too tiny to observe, but since I changed my approach toward doing less I rarely see more than a couple of stable flies bothering my goats.

A second example of this principle is the blady grass/sword grass/cogon grass that has steadily spread in my goat pastures. It is a low palatability species, with high silica leaves with razor sharp edges. On the upside it produces a network of rhizomes that contain a modest amount of starch. This makes the plant easily controlled by pigs (though I would not tolerate the digging and erosion where it grows on my hills). It also means this plant is a potential famine food, so having a few large patches on hand is comforting when viewed the right way. That said, I was slightly concerned about it continuing to spread and dominate my goat paddocks, reducing feed quality.

Over the last two wet summers the blady grass population has exploded, growing taller and lusher than ever before. Then I noticed a particularly thick patch growing outside the goat paddocks looking strangely browned off and collapsed. I figured there was likely an unidentified pathogen taking out its root system. As an experiment I dug a bucket of soil from the worst affected spots, then transplanted it into the centre of the thriving blady grass clumps in the goat paddocks. I only did this to half the unaffected patches as a simple experiment to see if my method caused any effects. Fast forward a couple of months later and the deliberately “infected” blady grass patches are looking distinctly sick, while the untreated ones look pretty normal for this time of year. I won’t go out of my way to infect all of them- maintaining a stable population of the pathogen might depend on not killing all the patches at the same time. How far the effect will go to kill the blady grass I cannot tell, but if it slows them down enough to allow other species to grow then I will be happy. As it turns out, the inside of blady grass patches are the perfect place to establish wattle trees inside the goat paddocks since the girls normally graze around them. Spiny pioneer plants like brambles often serve a similar purpose. By the time the herd notices the trees they are past the vulnerable stage and ready to grow abundant, tasty goat fodder up and over the competition.

Close up of a Stable Fly (sourced from here)

The original patch of dying blady grass

Distant patches deliberately infected blady grass browning off, while the control group in the foreground seem normal.

Redesigning Zone One

As a general rule I avoid writing posts about my plans- reporting results is much more juicy. This post is an exception since I am at a turning point- redesigning my zone 1 home garden. You could call it a vegetable garden, but it has always been used for so much more.

The space in question is ten meters away from the house, 60 m long and 20 m wide (a total area of 0.3 acres). It is the largest relatively flat space close to home in our farm of rolling hills. Originally it was dense kikuyu pasture, which I divided into six cells with chicken wire to house my geese at night. They removed the grass and concentrated a little fertility from their daily foraging. Around the borders I planted hedges of Tithonia as a windbreak/goat fodder/goose barrier. Beds were prepared running east-west by hoeing the topsoil from the paths onto the growing space. After clearing weeds with a hoe the beds were prepared by topdressing biochar and goat manure in a central strip, then direct sowed along the edges.

Weeds were controlled by hoeing several times through the growing season, mostly on the path and bed edges, then piled up to die. I used no mulching since I had no biomass ready to use, and refused to bring in truckloads of machine processed mulch. Overall the method worked well and for several years I created six cells that periodically returned to geese, to be prepared and sown twice a year in spring and autumn. Old vegetable cells with residual fertility and lower weed pressure were used to trial staple crops most seasons.

During 2021 I burned out a bit, so let the space go (though it continued to produce crops for nearly a year). The summer of 2022 turned extremely wet, so it was fortunate I hadn’t planted anything the prior spring. Our soil is a peculiar heavy cracking clay that holds a lot of water, supporting crops with zero irrigation for about six months without rain, but it turns to a bog with prolonged rain even on the top of the hill. The topsoil on the hilltop is fairly thin. One day I might create a smaller vegetable garden in a low lying area to use during prolonged droughts.

Over the years of growing in the space I discovered the southern boundary crosses over an old road base, and fertility generally declines in the south and west. The Tithonia hedges eventually became woody and annoying to cut back, with significant root competition, so I cut them down one final time and burnt or sprayed them out. I also discontinued my goose flock, so removed all the bird wire. Experimenting with organic structures like bamboo trellises has convinced me to banish structural metal from the space going forward.

The vetiver grass boundary has now matured, but turns out to make a perfect rat nest habitat if left uncut. It is a useful living weed barrier around the space, but I am now committed to cutting it all regularly (something which is vastly easier to do if it cut before it turns woody). I didn’t use mulching when I established the space because I didn’t have the biomass on hand, but that situation has now changed. I also now realise how excellent Canna is as a mulching material (I would rank it as more useful than vetiver) and plan to plant the western half of the space with Canna as part of my breeding project. I may put a lemongrass border between the canna and growing beds, if I think I have enough time to cut it regularly and need of the extra mulch.

Laying mulch in one place forever is still a luxury I cannot afford. I suspect most people who are mulch enthusiasts would feel the same way if they didn’t have diesel or coal powered machinery doing most of the work for them. Even with half the space planted in Canna and a mature vetiver edge I would not have enough biomass to permanently mulch the remaining half of the space (I only need about half of it under crops at any one time). Instead I plan to leverage the limited mulch supply more effectively using a technique called stale seed bedding.

The biggest problem with weeds is during the early phase of establishing the crop. Under the worst scenarios a carpet of weed seedlings will germinate around your crops and smother them if you don’t go through the fiddly work of separating them by hand. Permanent deep mulching kind of solves this, but usually it only works if you transplant seedlings into holes in the mulch (which demands a whole lot extra work and resources and gives substandard results due to root disturbance).

Stale seed bedding seeks to reduce the weed seed bank in the soil before you plant your crops. Often this is achieved by clearing the space, waiting for weeds to germinate, then smothering them with a sheet of heavy plastic while they are small. I wanted to get away from relying on plastic, so wondered if focused use of mulch could achieve the same result. As such I have created a system of mulch banks, rolling across the weedy landscape like waves, with gaps of bare soil between them to tempt the weeds into germinating, only to die when the next wave smothers them. Moving the rows forward with the hoe is pretty quick and light work, and the mulch can be piled deep enough to smother even perennial weeds like dock. Most importantly it allows a limited amount of mulch to have a much larger impact than it would sitting in one place until it rots. I suspect regularly lifting the mulch will slow down its decomposition (and make it less attractive for vermin).

The proposed shape and proportions of the growing beds now works a lot better since materials don’t need to be transported as far. The Canna beds run parallel to the whole space, providing mulch. The goat pens are also positioned to provide manure and stripped branches without excess movement. When you move all your material by hand such things quickly become important.

This approach should allow me to transition from the previous batch approach to bed preparation (where I had to rush to prepare a whole cell in time for spring or autumn) to a continuous approach (where a new bed is prepared, and sowed every few weeks provided soil moisture is sufficient). The continuous approach works better now I have given up large scale variety trials to focus on the smaller range of vegetables that are proven performers under my conditions, and should allow me to produce a more steady supply for the kitchen. Currently beds are being prepared starting in the north east corner, moving to the south, but ideally I will reverse the direction from south to north so that newly germinating crops are not shaded by more established crops to the north (mostly an issue in winter when the sun dips). Soon I will burn my Tithonia branch piles on the southern end and start working northwards. The best looking Canna hybrids will be selected from the mass planting further from home, one clone per bed so I can evaluate starch content later on.

The final piece of the design is the northwest corner, where soil fertility is a bit lower but the proximity to the house puts the space at a premium for convenience. This is where I plan to move all my herbs and perennial vegetables, though I have decided to give up on the Mediterranean herbs (rosemary, oregano, thyme) that regularly collapse during our wet summers and struggle on our low calcium clay. I will do a follow up post on the herbs and perennials that make sense under my conditions, sometime in the future, as well as a report on how the new design worked in practice.

Alternating rows of vetiver mulch and bare soil for stale seed bedding

An aerial view of my zone one space. Green border shows vetiver edge.

Bunya Seedling Tubers

A major project on my experimental farm involves a heroic (and possibly fool hardy) attempt to domesticate Araucaria as a new staple tree crop. This involves collecting as much genetic diversity in the genus as possible (both from remnant local populations of bunya pine (Araucaria bidwillii) and adding a pinch of South American parana pine (Araucaria angustifolia)). I wrote about the start of this project previously here

When I sow my bunya nut seed I often end up with more than I can pot on. I usually transplant into tree tube pots at the dormant tuber stage, the strange swollen root that forms from the seed long before any shoots appear above ground. I could have run around planting the excess tubers in the paddocks, but previous experiments have shown that only a small number manage to establish from this early life stage under my conditions.

I had read that the local indigenous people used to bury excess bunya nut seeds in damp river banks to save them for later. Their rate of respiration would slow down, but if they germinated the tubers would also be eaten since the seedling tubers still contained a useful amount of nutrients. Apparently an edible fungus would sometimes infect the seeds, and I have seen them rot and emit a rather spectacular blue cheese aroma, but haven’t been game to try them myself given how unpredictable fungi can be in terms of toxicity.

This season I took the few dozen spare seedling tubers and decided to experiment with eating them. I roughly cleaned them and split the batch in half. One set was boiled for 20 minutes with skin on. A nibble on a raw root showed a texture like a somewhat woody carrot, and a flavour between parsnip and coconut. After boiling, the starch grains inside swelled, making the texture more like a potato but still fairly crisp. The skin contained most of the flavour and was soft enough to consume whole, though was a little too earthy for my liking.

The other half were peeled lightly then also boiled for 20 minutes. The final texture was more pleasant without rough skin in place. I would stick to a description of somewhere between cooked carrot crunch, and flavour somewhere between chestnut and parsnip, with a slight resinous aftertaste.

It is worth pointing out this post does not count as a recommendation to eat bunya seedling tubers yourself. Whenever you try eating a new food it pays to be cautious. Doing research is one part of the process, but more important is easing into consumption. That means tasting before swallowing, nibbling (and waiting a few hours) before eating more, and waiting a day or two before considering anything approaching a full meal. Even edible plant species can have toxic parts elsewhere in the organism- potato leaf salad wouldn’t be a good idea for example. And finally, foods that are edible for one person will usually cause unexpected reactions in a small percentage of the population.

Going forward- what practical use could be made of the results of this little experiment? Bunya nuts do have the downside of being relatively perishable. Large, starchy nuts tend to have an active metabolism that means they cannot be stored fresh for long. At the moment I mostly shell mine then freeze them, but that won’t be a practical option in a post industrial future. They can also be dried, but that needs a fair bit of energy (be it electricity or firewood) and air tight containers for storage.

The results of this experiment suggest a useful low tech approach could be to densely sow beds with bunya seeds, so the tubers can be gradually dug up over time for consumption. This could extend the season by about 3-6 months, since the sprouting of the tubers takes about that long, and would provide a functional equivalent to carrot/parsnip for cooking through winter and spring without needing to fuss with their short lived seeds.

Next time I have too many bunya nuts to process for the freezer I will give it a go and report back.

Freshly washed bunya seedling tubers

Peeled and boiled. A bit fiddly but the end result is tasty enough.

Boiled with the skin on. Edible but not ideal.

Biological Alchemy

The primary focus of this experimental farming blog is adaptation to the unfolding decline of industrialised civilisation. The concentrated resources that allowed industrial technology of the last few centuries are on track to reach their inevitable limits in coming generations.

That is the foundation of my interest in finding ways to sustain human life and culture that are independent of industrial inputs and infrastructure. The only truly renewable resources at our disposal are human culture and biotechnology. I have previously written about the power of hybridisation for developing locally adapted organisms ( but there are limitations to that approach.

Modern biotechnology relies on resource intensive laboratories and supercomputers to analyse vast quantities of DNA sequences that no human could comprehend. The reductionist mindset aims to discover individual genes that control specific traits, then move them into new organisms, one at a time, to achieve the desired result. The resulting single gene traits tend to be fragile in real ecosystems. For example pathogens rapidly overcome single gene resistance traits (see Raoul Robinson’s “Return to Resistance”).

My opinion is that this approach is doomed to fail even without the looming loss of high industrial technology. Biological systems are irreducibly complex, a chaotic mess of intersecting systems and a vast number of unknowns. We will never reach the stage where we can design a genetic modification fully knowing the consequences to the whole organism, let alone the ecosystem. In the end we are merely copying the random mutation and selection paradigm that nature uses, despite our fancy our tools and the complex stories about genes and proteins.

So my big idea for a post-industrial future is this: rather than relying on a small number of labs and workers trying to do transgenesis one gene at a time, what if instead we mastered low cost, low tech approaches that could be put into the hands of millions of individual growers?

Transgenesis (also known as horizontal gene transfer) is the process by which functional DNA moves between different organisms. Microorganisms are supremely adept at the process. Bacteria have multiple mechanisms for exchanging DNA, so much so that classifying them into species is a somewhat futile effort. The process happens less frequently for multicellular organisms, but there are numerous examples of functional DNA moving between just about every type of living thing, often with spectacular consequences. For example the evolution of mammals became possible due to the insertion of a viral protein which became integral in the placenta. The human genome project revealed up to a hundred genes that potentially came from bacteria in relatively recent evolutionary history (though the precise number is disputed).

A range of low tech approaches exist that everyday people could potentially experiment with today. For bacteria the process is as simple as using microbial cultures to perform particular functions, giving them access to random sources for novel genetics that may be useful under stressful conditions. An amateur baker mixing sourdough cultures and picking the best outcome would be an example. The use of bacteriophage viruses to control persistent bacterial infections is another promising technique for a future where synthetic antibiotics become unavailable.

Multicellular organisms are generally more resistant to transgenesis since novel DNA easily disrupts their complexity. Plants however are the easier option to work with. It has long been known that grafting can induce heritable changes in the offspring. It has been proven that chloroplasts, mitochondria and other heritable genetic elements can occasionally be transferred whenever plants are brought into intimate contact. Plant tissues also contain a wide variety of microbial endosymbionts that may also be exchanged during grafting.

The chances of trangenesis can be increased using a technique called mentor grafting. The ideal conditions seem to occur when a newly germinated seedling is grafted onto a mature rootstock. The developing leaves are removed from the seedling as it grows, forcing a larger amount of sap to be transported from the rootstock into the graft, presumably increasing the chance that some mobile elements flow into it and are incorporated. Young seedlings seem to go through a stage of genetic malleability, likely a time when epigenetic states are optimised for the conditions the seedling encounters. Mentor grafting has been shown to transfer heritable traits between plant species in completely unrelated plant families (such as mung beans grafted onto sweet potatoes), provided a functional graft union can be formed.

The limiting step in this technique is the formation of a functional graft that allows transmission of heritable elements, which then relies on access to high quality blades to produce the necessary cuts, and is limited to combination of compatible species which can form stable graft unions. One possible way around these limits would be to harness the power of parasitic plants to form the connection. Parasitic plants grow structures which tap directly into the sap vessels of plants and often engage in transgenesis with their hosts. Dodder (Cuscuta species) is a parasitic twining vine which has an extremely wide range of potential hosts. Perhaps in the future parasitic plants could themselves be selectively bred to connect the phloem vessels of two otherwise incompatible plant species, which are then manipulated as in the mentor grafting method to encourage the transfer of heritable elements.

Animal transgenesis is more challenging but still potentially accessible in a post-industrial future. Luckily there is one obvious possibility- the humble sperm cell. Sperm will take up and incorporate free DNA into their genome (primitive plants like ferns could also be useful targets for transgenesis since they also use naked sperm during sexual reproduction). If protective proteins in the surrounding seminal fluid are removed with a simple buffer wash, then transgensis happens even more readily. DNA can be extracted from a wide variety of sources with a series of simple buffers and centrifugation, then mechanically fragmented into the ideal size range for incorporation into sperm cells. 

Any single experiment using these techniques is unlikely to achieve a transgenesis event, and when it does happen it isn’t likely to create a dramatic useful improvement in functional traits. But that won’t matter if the technique is being practiced routinely by every post-industrial farmer as a side project to production. Pre-industrial farms did not separate the breeding from the production of goods and they arguably achieved much more meaningful improvements in crops and livestock than later rationalist/reductionist approaches during the industrial era. And history has shown that human being love to dream and gamble on hitting the jackpot.

When important advances are made in biological systems, nurtured inside curious and reverent cultures, they will be investigated, explored and shared, meaning that lucky accidents would be turned into world changing events. The foundation of civilisation came from chance hybridisation and transgenesis events, events that could be deliberately reproduced on an unprecedented scale.

Concerns about the unpredictable consequences of such a breeding program are understandable, but nature has been doing random transgenesis for billions of years and will continue to do so, with or without us. The post-industrial future will have plenty of plagues and crop failures either way. We just have to ask ourselves if humans want to join the card table, pick up a hand and try our luck.

During the last year I took a partial hiatus from farm work. In that time I have been writing hard science fiction that explores a distant future where post-industrial biological technology forms the basis of a new civilisation. The project has taken the form of four novellas (under the umbrella title “Our Vitreous Womb”) that are on track to be published sometime in 2023. If you are interested in being a beta reader get in touch ( If you haven’t done beta-reading before it is pretty simple- all I need is your honest responses to the story, namely where you were bored, confused, unconvinced or especially happy (so I don’t accidentally rewrite something that already works). Female readers are especially useful since most of my main characters are of that persuasion and some go through a lot of issues surrounding pregnancy and motherhood.

Early Microscope Images of Sperm Cells (1750) from Illustrations de Histoire naturelle du Roy.

Rotate Your Goat

A quick note- I am experimenting with putting my blog on substack. You can access it there and sign up for reminder emails when new posts come out. If my audience grows there I might move the blog over there, though will give readers on wordpress plenty of time to adjust.

When we first bought our 40 acre farm in subtropical Australia it came with a herd of ten beef steers. Even though we were away in the city for work during the week I managed to set up extensive mobile electric fences to move them to new ground every week, rather than sticking to the old system of only moving them between the four permanent paddocks every few months. Within a year the promised effects arrived. Animal impact was concentrated and the plants had a long, uninterrupted period for regrowth. Pasture diversity increased. Springs appeared at the bottom of hills. My paddocks stayed green and productive long after a drought turned everyone else’s land to dust.

Once we moved to the farm full-time I shifted from beef steers to dairy goats (reasons here Goats are often demonised as environmental vandals, though interestingly the deforestation of the middle east didn’t happen until thousands of years after goat domestication. The key change was the local extinction of predators like lions: herbivore grazing dynamics fundamentally changed in their absence. Humans have the responsibility to reproduce healthy grazing patterns in our livestock today.

When I changed from cattle to goats six years ago I initially decided to give up intensive rotational grazing. The amount of animal biomass was much lower, and the more diverse grazing habits and uncertainty over how effective electric fence meant slow rotation in large paddocks might be suitable for establishing weedy tree species like Acacia alongside the goats. My land is wet enough to support thick forest, and goats adapt well to such systems, so the ultimate aim is selective reforestation.

I shifted back to a system with two large permanent paddocks with slow rotation, setting aside 7.4 acres of NE facing hills for the goats, leaving the bulk of the farm for establishing productive forests. An awkward 1 acre paddock was kept aside for grazing during droughts. Hedges and fodder trees planted around the margins for cutting branches for supplementary feed. After five years the goat paddocks were slowly losing the improvements I observed under the weekly cattle rotations, and the rate of establishment of more desirable species inside the paddocks was negligible. The system accumulated standing dead plant material through wet periods. The most infrequently grazed one acre paddock was by far the worst.

The recent floods were hard on the goats, and even harder on the existing electric fence infrastructure. I left the fence off for months due to vegetation touching the lines. The goats were surprisingly respectful of the boundaries for many months but eventually learnt to venture out into the wider world, though the barbed wire boundary fences kept them on my property. Interestingly they kept to the margins of the thickest forest regrowth, perhaps an old instinct to avoid places where predators could ambush them. They were pretty selective in what they ate, mostly targeting weedy species and leaving my young fruit and nut trees alone.

Once the rain stopped I moved the herd into my old weed-choked vegetable garden beside the house (surrounded by a very hot new electric fence to retrain them) while I pulled down the old damaged fences around their pastures. I also took down the old barbed wire fence that ran through the middle of this space since it was only a hazard for goats that squeezed through it.

Around the goat paddocks I put up star pickets, ran thick wire along the top fence and more durable braided plastic electric cable along the lower edge where kangaroos often bounce through. Soon I will plant Malvaviscus hedges outside the open edges to hinder their movement. Along the top of the hill I will build an alleyway so the goats can travel to specific slices running down the hillside, but I can extend this as I rotate the herd. The land is a bit flatter here so will be more tolerant of continuous animal access.

Starting from the southern end close to their shed I gave them approximately 0.3 acre strips, rotating every third day (though this had to be judged by eye- you ideally want to move them when about half the vegetation has been eaten or impacted). Time will tell if the narrow strips running vertically on the slope will cause an erosion problem, but I suspect the shape will allow me to focus the animal impact more effectively on unpalatable species. Goats are harder to force into concentrated spaces since they are such selective eaters (and skilful fence jumpers). Three days is a useful timing since the fastest maturing parasite (barberpole worm) take about that long to be ready to reinfect the goat. The space should end up dividing into about 25 strips, meaning at three days each there should be four rotations every year, or a total of twelve days being grazed or 3% of the total year.

Learning about managed intensive grazing has been really thought provoking. Traditionally the question is framed as selecting the right number of animals per acre, with problems explained as being due to “overstocking” or more rarely “understocking”. Human language has this awful habit of falling into false dichotomies. Surely if those two are opposites then you have to be doing one or the other if you aren’t somehow perfectly balanced in the middle.

The plain fact is that there is no perfect uniform level of anything in any living system. Life needs to ebb and flow, to peak and trough, and not on a set schedule dictated by words and numbers but guided by interacting with the world and responding to it. You learn to sense the right timing to move on the herd by looking at the behavior of the plants, soil and animals and responding to the weather.

Looking at my current system, which depends on cheap and reliable grid based electricity, energisers, tape and insulators made from fossil fuels in faraway factories, you would be right to point out how utterly fragile it is (though at least the goats are being steadily selected to need no imported feed or medications). At some point even barbed wire fencing will probably be unavailable and alternative methods for managing livestock will need to be rediscovered.

Long ago in rural Queensland some towns had a house goat for each family that left its shelter in the morning to join all the other goats to graze on the margins of the town. They returned to their own family every evening (though this was only possible when there are no crop fields around the town, and few predators lurking further out).

In pre-industrial society where each village was surrounded by fields of valuable crops, fencing was too valuable to use on any meaningful scale with grazing goats (except small house yards to keep them safe and contained). Instead the herds would walk around the semi-wild margins of the village under the guidance of a goatherd, often a young male who wasn’t yet strong enough for more demanding jobs.

Goats are exceptionally intelligent animals (on par with dogs in my experience) and that same talent for getting through fences when unattended can be harnessed to help the animals get their needs without making a nuisance of themselves. Once the embryonic forests on the rest of my land get past their initial fragile stage I will experiment with taking my own small herd to graze between the saplings. Maybe in the future our roads won’t be infested with speeding cars so I can take them to graze the roadsides as well.

Managed intensive grazing ultimately has nothing to do with paddock size. The key ingredient is management, which means observing and responding to the system as it evolves. Anything can be a poison or a medicine depending on the intention with which it is applied.

Aerial view of new rotation system. The goat shed is the black rectangle. The blue lines are the solid wire boundary and the orange the braided plastic. Yellow shows the planned alleyway fence, and individual slices are shown in green, made of white electric tape on movable pigtail stakes.
My beautiful young buck, Dougal, enjoying banana leaves after a busy day grazing a fresh strip of pasture.

Brisk Fiction- A Burr in the Woods

The “Point of Living”. That’s what the billboard had promised.

Pemmican Point Seniors Community had long lost hope of achieving that glossy vision. The economy had softened like an overripe peach. Worse, to “save the environment” the district had banned mowers and blowers, whippers and whackers, making gardening a struggle for the Pemmican Point residents who bought up early to capture the growth potential. The place was growing, alright: out of control. The unfinished golf course sprouted razor sharp cogon grass. The unsold lots from the second phase, slashed to the dirt every year, were disappearing under privet and honeysuckle. During the hottest week in July, a bear with a bucket on its head jogged past the hair salon.

Jessica Cusper tensed her neck and the tendons jumped like sheets on a clothesline. She refused to dwell on any of these unsavoury facts. The nozzle of her Weed-Wilter spray-pack hovered in her candy pink gloves. At any hint of green along her sparkling quartz gravel driveway she squeezed the trigger. The polypropylene mechanism grunted mechanically as the venom squirted.

Chaos was not welcome here. Not in her dream house.

Her husband Jimmy panted through gritted teeth as he pushed the electric mower to the limit of the extension cord. For years she had pressured him to lose weight. Now that it was happening due to the ravages of early retirement, well, she wasn’t so sure it suited him.

Further toward the street a fresh crop of the mysterious new weed had sprouted. Jessica snapped a close-up on her rose-gold phone: no ID. Salt might stop them on the drive, but that wouldn’t work if it spread into the lawn. An eyesore like that would knock ten percent off their sale price, easily: one less trip to Tuscany. Jessica had first seen the weed months earlier at Monica’s house. Time to investigate the source of the infestation, before it got out of hand.

Before Jimmy finished, Jessica slipped inside and stashed the gloves and spray-pack in her handbag, making sure the bear-spray was also packed. She flicked the switch on the extension cord (paused to enjoy Jimmy cursing the flimsy contraption)and locked the door.

“Walkies!” she called to Jimmy. “Doctor’s orders for your blood pressure.”

He limped over. “Didn’t the new doc say to rest my knee?”

“Then hop and do both. It’s just to the end of the street.” She tilted her head at him. “How would you feel if a bear ate me?”

Jimmy pressed his lips shut and shuffled behind.

They passed a towering mansion with genuine marble columns holding up the Styrofoam portico. The proud owner, Myra Winslow, swayed through tai-chi moves as a team of Mennonite labourers tended her lush lawns and vulgar roses with gleaming hand tools. With the southern border shut tight only folks the next step up the ladder could afford hired help anymore. Myra wouldn’t divulge the price tag or share their contact details, not even when asked twice.

Jessica nearly tripped. Hammered beside the sidewalk was a tasteful for-sale sign, the computer enhanced cobalt sky in the photo a bald-faced lie to anyone who cared to look up. Acid burped in her throat. Better call the real-estate first thing, she resolved.

To get to Monica’s house they then passed two vacant investment properties, the curtains closed so long a square had faded in the middle. Jessica hadn’t spoken to her old friend since Boomer vanished, not since Monica had refused to share the “Missing Dog” post on LinkedIn. Unprofessional, Monica claimed. It left a bad taste. A week later Monica asked to borrow their electric mower. Jessica claimed it needed repairs; looked her right in the eye while Jimmy pushed it about behind her.

To avoid crossing paths, Jessica hadn’t wandered this way in months. The turquoise paint on Monica’s modest reproduction bungalow flaked like psoriasis. More disturbingly, the drainage ditch beside the drive overflowed with the same felt-leafed weed, grown taller than a man and topped with vicious purple thistles. Around the bungalow, newly laid turf, scarred like a fresh cut tray of brownies, barely concealing the woolly shoots of the unstoppable weed. The threat was real.

A discreet photo of the mature leaves once more failed to produce an ID.

“Some kind of daisy, isn’t it?” asked Jimmy. “The bees are loving it.”

Jessica frowned and put on her rubber gloves (to protect her fresh manicure) and started spraying the infestation, leaving Jimmy to nervously swivel for witnesses. Before Jessica could do much damage, Monica hurried out, dressed in her nightgown and in desperate need of a fresh tint at the salon.

“I’m glad I got to see you,” Monica blurted. “Another week and I’ll be in Florida.”

“You sold as well?” A hint of lunchtime chardonnay returned to the back of Jessica’s throat.

“As well? You’re also cutting your losses?”

Jessica nearly asked to hear the final price, torn between wishing it was low out of spite and high out of self-interest. Jimmy distracted her, muttering as he pulled spiny seed heads from the pastel sweater around his shoulders.

“What’s this dreadful weed? Can you have it sprayed before you go? It’s spreading everywhere.”

“I phoned Weedbusters but their van is in for repairs,” replied Monica with a shimmy of satisfaction. “But it isn’t coming from here. Just outside Pemmican Point the stuff is everywhere. You know the old Asian lady? Lives on the abandoned farm? Buys nothing but bags of soup bones from the supermarket? I caught her wandering on my property in the moonlight, right here where the stuff first sprouted.”

Past the spiny thicket a narrow dirt track burrowed into the tangle of mimosa and Chinese elm. The afternoon sun was still high above the leafy horizon. Jessica set off, hand on her hidden bear-spray, without stopping to consult Jimmy.

“You can’t just march in there,” he pleaded. “Write a letter. Try a new weed spray. I’ll pull the damn things by hand.”

Jessica planted her feet on the spongy path. “It could take months to sell. I won’t throw away tens of thousands of dollars because of some weed.”

“Oh. You decided…” he mumbled, but she had already taken off.

Further down the path, where the saplings had been hacked back and the sun once more fell on their faces, the fuzzy weed grew in dense thickets. Here and there something had been digging, leaving roots as thick as her arm exposed.

“Do bears dig like that?” Jimmy asked. “Maybe hogs?”

Jessica had already turned down a side path, towards the source of a thin streak of smoke in the vacant summer sky. Limping, Jimmy caught up to her standing in front of an old wooden farmhouse, windows clogged with a conjunctivitis of cobwebs. The porch slumped sideways like a stroke stricken mouth. Overgrown raised beds lined the path, clogged with variations of the felt-leaf weed, with flowers in every imaginable shade of purple.

“The bumblebees are having a party,” said Jimmy.

Scowling, Jessica tried the digital identifier once more. It got a match, or rather several. Woolly burdock. Wood burdock. Greater burdock. Lesser burdock. Every damn species in the database came up positive. This nonsense had to stop.

“Hello?” called Jessica, to no reply save the twitter of starlings in the eaves.

Before Jimmy could beg her to come home, she pushed through the front door. Inside, the hall was stacked with fruit boxes filled with empty jars, bundles of multi-coloured string, stacks of yellowed newspapers from a decade ago. Everything smelled clean and savoury, suspiciously welcoming despite the clutter and chaos. A portrait on the wall showed a smiling Asian woman beside a bearded bear of a man. The unintelligible caption had a backwards letter R: one of those communist languages.

“Maybe she’s unwell,” offered Jessica. “We could call the authorities to take her away, clean up all this junk.”

She pushed on to the kitchen, where a rusted woodstove radiated warmth. A great, iron pot bubbled gently, filling the room with mouth-watering steam. A pile of bones sat cooling on the table beside a pile of thick roots, freshly peeled to reveal their white insides.

“She can’t have gone far,” started Jessica, before the sight of a bright red collar caught her eye.

“Boomer?” her voice shook, as she lifted it with one finger, dropping it when she revealed the embossed nametag. “She ate Boomer?”

“Don’t be racist,” suggested Jimmy. “I threw out his things when you said no to another dog. Look- there’s that old coat you tossed last fall.”

“She’s been picking through our trash can?” Jessica rushed to inspect the pile of salvaged clothing. “Look, those awful seedpods are all over it. We have to report her before she spreads them everywhere. The old thing must be out of her mind, living out here alone, eating weeds and dog-meat.”

“Good food!” barked a voice from inside the rag pile.

Jessica jumped back, gripping the bear spray inside her bag. A stunted Asian woman, hair still black despite her age, emerged from between the mish-mashed drapery.

“Good food,” she insisted. “You eat.”

She pushed forward and ladled two bowls. Only Jimmy accepted his, so the old woman set down the other with a disappointed bow.

Jessica scrunched her face in disapproval at Jimmy, then pointed to the tangled coat. “You Are Spreading WEEDS In My Yard!” Jessica spaced her words awkwardly.

Jimmy interrupted with a sigh of satisfaction, followed by noisy slurping as he abandoned the spoon and drank directly from the bowl. He exhaled a puff of steam and said “Incredible. I had something like it in a fancy sushi joint.”

“Like Ueong? Gobo? Lopukh? Bur-dock?” the woman beamed. “Good food. Grow all type. Mix and go big.”

“You’re breeding them? Like Luther Burbank?” said Jimmy.

“Look at your coat! MY coat.” Jessica snatched the hem. “You’re ruining everyone’s gardens.”

The old woman picked up a bucket filled with chaff and crushed a dried thistle head into it. “Gobo go all place.”

“She’s spreading it on purpose?” Jessica clutched her husband’s sleeve, forcing him to lower his now empty bowl. He reached for the second serving but she slapped his hand away. “We have to report this, this act of… vandalism.”

“Good food. Everyone eat. Money go. Then everyone hungry. I show.” The old woman picked up a massive cleaver and deftly peeled a root.

Jessica pulled the bear spray free. “Put the knife down,” she ordered. The old woman smiled blithely.

“Honey, you have it backwards-“ Jimmy suggested, pointing weakly towards her hands.

“DON’T you contradict ME! This woman is a menace to the community. How DARE you suggest I’m a danger to her-“

At that moment a massive, dirty beast bounded through the door. Jessica screamed and unleashed the bear spray, but the nozzle was facing the wrong way, so she took a full dose to the face.

“Boomer!” shouted Jimmy, as he knelt to embrace his missing companion, ignoring the dirt spreading from paws to polo shirt. He barely noticed his wife sputtering and struggling to breathe.

The old woman poured a dash of vegetable oil on a rag and held it firmly against Jessica’s eyes as she started screaming. After a few changes the burning became bearable.

“Dog-dog dig Gobo,” the old woman said. “Chase bear.”

“So you did run off for an adventure.” Jimmy couldn’t hide his smile.

Jessica blinked her watery eyes in silence as the old woman led them to the paved edge of the estate, beneath the shady canopy that blocked the last orange rays of the day. Jimmy had accepted a gift: a bundle of dirty roots, held against his clothes that the dog had already ruined. He didn’t suggest that Boomer accompany them home. He was happier in the woods.

Jessica bit her tongue. None of it would matter after their house sold. If they had to drop the price they could cut back on cruises. Jimmy could do without that new sports car.

“You know what?” Jimmy surprised her with a thought of his own. “It’s nice here. I don’t want to sell up after all.”

Extraordinary Rendering

This marks the first of three posts, each one focusing on a different macronutrient class (fat, protein and carbohydrates).

Fat was probably the key nutrient in human evolution. Protein intake in humans is limited by our kidneys ability to handle waste nitrogen. Carbohydrates are not readily digestible without extensive processing (grinding and cooking). During the beginning of the emergence of hominids, our ancient ancestors likely got ahead in the world by learning to hunt or scavenge fat from large herbivorous animals. Animal fat was the original oil well that humans tapped into, triggering an explosion of cultural and genetic changes. Even today hunter-gatherers will abandon kills that are not plump enough. Protein alone is not worth the effort of carrying back to camp.

Animal fat becomes even more important when you consider the capacity to store it for long periods of time once it is properly processed. The saturated fat from animals can be quite easily separated from water and protein, leaving a product that is resistant to microbial degradation. The process of rendering fat was a common habit in pre-industrial kitchens, and it still takes place at animal processing plants today.

Animals were the primary source of fat in the human diet in many places up until the world war period of the early 20th century, after which time production could not keep up with demand from an exploding population. After that point improvements in processing technology, and the invention of chemical preservatives, made it possible to deliver polyunsaturated seed oils like canola, cottonseed, soybean, sunflower and rice bran oils. Olive oil is intermediate in stability since it is mostly monounsaturated, hence why it could be traded on a massive scale since the days of ancient Greece. Palm and coconut oil are mostly saturated, so also have a deeper history.

Before the industrial era polyunsaturated seed oils could be created, but were consumed immediately before they reacted with oxygen and turned rancid. Linseed oil is probably the best example of this chemical reaction- when exposed to the air it turns to varnish, and can spontaneously catch fire if left on a porous rag. Canola and cottonseed oil have additional toxins (erucic acid and gossypol, respectively, with their own health effects). The chemical preservatives used to stabilise polyunsaturated seed oils (like TBHQ) have their own potential health impacts.

Before the world wars incidence of heart disease and cancer were much lower than today. The cause of this is hotly debated, but some researchers point to the shift to polyunsaturated seed oils as a cause. Personally, I decided to phase out the use of seed oils in my kitchen. The first step of the transition was using blocks of beef tallow, now available in our local shops for the same price as butter. Pork lard is also pretty common, but given the concentrate dependent diet of commercial pig production I prefer the predominantly pasture fed option of beef tallow. It takes a little more effort to cut off a slice into the frying pan compared to pouring a liquid oil, but it is not a big deal when you get used to it. Vegetables roasted in tallow turn out a million times better than those in vegetable oil ever did.

I have goats, and process a few spares for the freezer every year. That means I have an opportunity to produce my own tallow during the process. A standard disclaimer- rendering fat involves handling hot oil in an oven, so take all necessary precautions to avoid burns and grease fires. The quality of fat varies a lot between parts of a carcass. The warmest parts of the animals have the fat which is mostly saturated, and therefore more stable when purified. The best deposits are around the kidneys, but smaller amounts occur around the heart and intestines. By contrast fat from under the skin tends to be soft and more unstable in storage (and this better used for soap making if you are inclined).

The rendering process is pretty simple. I merely slice the cooled, solidified fat deposits into slices a bit under 1 cm wide, and put them in a baking tray (with enough high sides- don’t overload them or moving them when they are full of hot oil is a major hazard). Carefully trim every trace of meat from the fat as you go since it will taint the final rendered fat. Particularly watch out for the lymph nodes hiding inside the kidney fat bodies. I then heat the trays to 160 C, and monitor. Once a few millimetres of liquid fat has separated, I carefully tip the trays to pour the hot oil through a paper filter. Wipe any drips under the tray to reduce the chance of oil fires in your oven. Even after filtering the hot oil will often develop a slimy scum layer. Skim this off carefully with a spoon. I usually pour about three to five times for each tray, until you are left with a crisp golden husk of the original tissue. The first pouring of oil will normally be cleaner, with the later pours developing a slightly meaty aroma (which doesn’t matter if you are mostly using the final product for savoury dishes).

The cooled product should have a firm, non-sticky surface. If any soft fat or gooey residue remains it is more likely to attract moisture and develop mould. I slice the rendered fat into blocks and freeze them, but intend to start experimenting with how to store it at room temperature during our short winter months. We mostly rely on our flow of dairy products to supply saturated fat during the warmer months, relying on periodic goat culls and rendered fat during the winter when the goats are dried off. A brief gap usually happens in mid-autumn, conveniently filled by macadamia nut season (though my seed grown orchards will need a bit longer to start producing).

Rendering your own fat is just another long lost skill, simple when you know how to do it, but liable to a hundred little mistakes when you are first learning. Living on a meagre diet of tubers in the difficult future ahead becomes a lot more pleasant to imagine when we can turn them into the ultimate comfort food, crispy skinned roast vegetables, thanks to a dollop of luscious lipids.

Internal fat deposits from a yearling goat

Rendered fat from the same material (around 1 kg, which should supply the kitchen for months)

The Orchards of Lebanon

A wise person once said that collapse is already here, it just isn’t evenly distributed.

Looking around the world, a growing list of locations serve as sputtering canaries in our collective coalmine. Sri Lanka is the latest to take a nosedive, but in this post I wanted to focus on the situation in Lebanon. The similarities between them are considerable, but I might revisit the situation in Sri Lanka at a later date.

Lebanon is a small country off the eastern Mediterranean Sea, with the 18th highest population density in the world (only 0.05 arable acres per person, or a 14 m square plot). Around 90% of the population live in cities. The only higher density agricultural country is Bangladesh, which occupies a fertile river delta in the tropics. All the others are tiny trade centres (e.g. Singapore) or small petrostates (e.g. Bahrain). The Lebanese population grew from 1.3 million in 1950 to 6.7 million today (including 1.5 million refugees).

A prolonged civil war damaged the local transportation infrastructure and reputation of the banking system from 1975-1990, and when it ended the new government borrowed heavily to fund reconstruction. That debt defaulted in 2018, resulting in a currency collapse and banking crisis. Poverty recently increased from 28% to 55% of the population when food prices more than tripled.

Agriculture in Lebanon produces around 20% of local demand, with the remainder imported, mostly in the form of industrial wheat from Russia and the Ukraine. A massive explosion in their main port in 2020 destroyed the main route for importing grain, plus the grain silos that store three months’ worth of supply. The conflict in Ukraine has since further constrained wheat imports. The national electric grid frequently shuts down due to lack of imported oil, and the water system is facing crisis due to lack of diesel for pumping and chlorine.

Before the most recent crises Lebanese agriculture focused on growing fruit and vegetables, grown by low cost migrant labour from Syria (now in question due to changes in their civil war) for export to Saudi Arabia (now sanctioned due to drugs being smuggled in amongst the produce). This profit driven type of agriculture is the same fruit and vegetable focused trap that most permaculture falls into. Since the crisis farmers, have struggled, often relying on imported seed and chemicals sold in US dollars, only to sell produce in worthless local currency. Distribution of fresh produce into cities is also proving challenging due to fuel shortages. Urban farming initiatives are spreading but are unable to replace missing calories.

A local bakery has taken to growing their own wheat, tapping into seed banks that had saved preindustrial varieties that require less chemical input. They have run into issues with milling, since the local mills operate on much larger quantities of imported grain, so they settled for lower quality processing.

What is unfolding in Lebanon is a mirror image of another crisis that happened generations ago. When industrial wheat production skyrocketed during the green revolution and long distance transportation costs plummeted, driving the local wheat farmers in Lebanon of business, the few survivors forced to shift to higher margin crops like fruit and vegetables, increasingly dependent on long distance transport to high paying markets themselves.

Now energy and currency shocks are breaking apart that global system, leaving Lebanon with nobody else to rely on (and often carrying the burden of other country’s problems at the same time). The same meteoric rise in population during the 20th century will likely be reflected in equally stunning declines as the inevitable effects of resource shortages continue. Centuries old friction between diverse ethnic and religious groups will probably reignite when people experience such pressure. A very even three way split between Sunni, Shia and Christianity has the potential to fuel some very protracted conflicts.

Lebanon as we current circumscribe it is in many ways a fiction. The country was only created in 1942 when France was bogged down in its own war. Before that it was an ever shifting patchwork of city states that fell in and out of the control of a long list of empires. I don’t believe in Lebanon, yet, despite their many challenges I do believe in the people that live there. Their ancestors found a way to survive all manner of cataclysms for the last seven millennia and are likely to prevail once more. We should watch how they do it since the rest of us will be following in their footsteps in coming years.

A Lebanese Apple Orchard (from

Weeding the Wasteland

There is an old joke from the Addams family stuck in my brain, where Morticia says she needs to finish the dusting. She then proceeds to apply a thick layer of dust to the room. The English language is riddled with contronyms, words which are their own opposite (depending on context). There is a long list of them here: Even a word as simple as “off” can mean to activate or deactivate (the alarm went off/turn the alarm off). “Left” can me remaining (left behind) or departing. Nouns which become verbs are a good example. Seeding can mean either removing or adding seeds. Personally, I would like to add the contronymic sense of the verb “weed” to the English language.

A year of relative neglect has been a really useful experience on the farm (though that break is currently coming to an end). Wandering around the spaces overgrown after a long summer of nonstop rain has acted as an acid test for identifying crops that have the ability to grow and produce with next to no attention. Among the Canna patches the old Queensland arrowroot clone has been more or less lost to weed competition. By contrast the hybrids have dominated the adjacent space, growing well over head-height with robust upright stems and crowding out any competition. Maintaining this population will only depend on preventing tree seedlings from establishing and harvesting the roots to prevent overcrowding. I suspect land race grain crops were long ago managed on large scale plantings using similar levels of management intensity. Modern grain crops have been bred to only grow to knee height, while old forms often grew 2 meters tall (producing less grain but large amounts of valuable hay).

In the vegetable garden cucamelon has spread everywhere, providing welcome snacks while I wander about. A large area of lab-lab bean has also grown up and over the competition, despite being sown into the middle of it and never weeded once. Surprisingly both chia and huauzontle managed to self-sow in between hybrid canna patches, making me suspect the trio might make a functional staple crop guild in the future with careful canna spacing and a little management. Those small grains produce high protein, nutrient dense storage crops that balance the high calorie canna, and their growth phases are nicely complementary. Winged yams have continued to expand all around the overgrown farm, persimmons are dripping in fruit and the bananas continue to put out bunches.

The oldest forms of agriculture are nothing like the modern approaches where resources and attention are poured out to force a crop to produce where we want it to grow. Instead people would move widely across the landscape and locate spaces which already had suitable soil, topography, and vegetation competition for a particular crop. Then they would transport plant material from one place to another (helping the plant through the most difficult part of its lifecycle). Then the people would return periodically to harvest and sometimes manage the crop (though for the best crops these activities were one and the same). Rather than weeding, often these spaces were periodically burnt at the right time to prevent canopy closure, or lightly grazed by shifting livestock. Tuber crops would survive underground and seed crops could be sown again.

On my own property the majority of the hilly space could support canna hybrids, interplanted with more diverse crops (though digging roots on the hills could cause erosion issues over time). Even among goat paddocks Canna could be established given more careful rotational grazing. Finding suitable genetics of the right species for your space completely transforms your approach to growing, where your primary duties are distribution and harvesting. The modern, dominant mentality is that we humans have to toil non-stop to support the crops, but this is madness. We are the next step up the trophic cascade from our crops and therefore have only a tiny fraction of the energy available to us that flows through the plants that feed us. They support us, not the other way around, and they have to be strong enough and adapted to local conditions in order to manage this burden. Leveraging fossil fuels has obscured that reality and allowed us to burn a barrel of oil to grow a wheelbarrow of weak rooted vegetables. In the coming deindustrialised future that fantasy will evaporate and only the wild and weedy wastelands will remain. We do, however, have the power to influence which weeds will be growing around us in that future, and the ability to reshape our skills, culture and expectations to thrive in that emerging landscape.

Hybrid Canna dominating a neglected space
Cucamelon overcoming all opposition

Persimmons producing regardless of the surrounding weeds.