Tao of the farm – Principle Number 1: “One plus one equals three”

In the last few months I have been planting fruit trees and nut trees on the farm. In between them I have been planting berries. I have taken quite a bit of effort to prepare the land using a system of swales constructed on contour that will help to retain moisture and soil nutrient. As these swales weave their way through pasture and bush, I have cleared to unwanted invasive species and have used their timber in the base of the swale mound to form the basis for composting that will take place over time. It’s a very old system of planting and I have done what I can to read as much as I can about it. But regardless of the preparation I have done for my apples, mulberries, figs and lemons, it comes down to digging and hole and planting a tree. (One hole plus one tree). Every one of us knows since we were two years old that one hole plus one apple tree does not give a hole and a tree, rather it gives and abundance of apples, shade, blossoms, wood and pleasure for a hundred years. In the case of the apple tree one plus one does not equal two. It equals two million perhaps.
Mandisa helping set out contours 

I suppose one hole and one apple tree does only equal a hole and a tree in some laboratory somewhere, which will control the environment in such a way as to ensure that there is no sunlight causing photosynthesis, that there is no water in the soil to feed the roots, that there are no organisms to transform the organic material into beneficial nutrients. Then I am sure the tree will not grow, proving that one plus one does equal two. But thankfully we do not live in that laboratory. Where we live and where I plant my trees on the farm one plus one does definitely not add up to two. But where we work and where we play out our middle class lives, those that try to sell us stuff or buy our time present “one plus one is two” as a fundamental law of the universe. One month’s work equals one month’s wage, because “money does not grow on trees” One hamburger can be bought for the cash price required of one Hamburger, because “you get nothing for nothing”.

There is of course nothing wrong with arithmetic. On a chalkboard, in a grade one class, one plus one must remain two, but in so many other situations the law is not useful to us at all. It is especially not useful to us in the way in which corporations and institutions make every attempt to make us believe this law in order to remained trapped in the systems that they need to keep us trapped in, using schemes like:
·         One lifetime dedicated to one corporation equals one pension funded retirement.
Now, let me look at my own life. What can I do with my new understanding of the law “One plus one equals three?” Not everyone has a farm on which plant apple trees of course, but what can we do that will show massive dividends later? What can I do today that has a lasting impact that does not require me to labour over it day and night? What lasting things can I do today, that keep on paying dividends? What if I did one thing a week that would have lasting impact? So much of what we do is wasted. If I wash my car today, I have to wash it again tomorrow. If I watch TV tonight, I have nothing to show for it in the morning. But if I tile my bathroom, or arrange photos in my photo album, or paint a picture, or write a poem, these things are lasting and keep on giving much more than once. This is where our focus must be. Where we must do things or buy things that are temporary, let’s set a rule. Let’s not buy anything that will not last five years. Be it shoes, or a jacket or a cap or a skateboard. Let these items keep paying dividends for years.  Let’s make a rule to cut down on those things we spend time and money on that don’t deliver dividends. I am not saying you should not from time to time splash out and have a great steak at a restaurant, but to invest time and money in drinking a R200.00 bottle of wine every night is to become addicted to a passing pleasure that could rather have been a lasting gift.
The Fashion industry is capitalisms mechanism for making us all believe that we must keep on paying. Fashion tries to get us as close to the ideal of “use it once” as they can. I know women that will not be seen in public wearing and outfit that they have already been seen in. (I am sure that there are men who behave in this way, it’s just that I have not yet met them) The fashion mind-set began with clothing, but there are clever “marketing gurus” that have managed to shift the focus into music, automobiles and electronic devices. I am not suggesting that the new car is not better than the old one. I am saying that we are motivated to buy the new gadget only partly because it is better and  largely because it is more fashionable to do so. What I am saying is that the iphone 3 is a fantastic piece of technology. There are very few practical reasons why we could not allow the gift to keep on giving, but we don’t allow it to do so, we buy the iphone 4, then the I phone 5, then the iphone 6. We do this because we are not open to the idea of investing once and then allowing ourselves to receive multiples of one. We are not open to the idea that one plus one can be equal to more than two.
In relationships we are the same. We limit ourselves. We do not invest in a handshake, or a smile or a bit of meaningless banter with a stranger, because “it’s not worth the effort” We expect in return at best only a smile, or a handshake or a bit of meaningless banter. (at worst we fear that we won’t even have the smile returned, and we will be left in deficit) If though, in our minds we can begin to expect, even demand, that a smile will be returned as a smile and perhaps a warming chat, or an exchange of useful information, or a hug, or a kiss, or a lifelong relationship including seven children and big house in Plettenberg bay, then we will begin to receive those in return. We must though, begin with the expectation that it is absolutely normal and natural to receive a lot more than we give. That is the way of the living universe.
That is the Law of the Farm.

Taking the first Steps to Off Grid Living

(This piece first appeared in The Herald on 24 March 2015)
Load shedding makes us all angry. We are frustrated with Eskom. We are disillusioned with the slow progress with the building of new power stations. We are suspicious of dodgy deals with the Russians to build nuclear reactors. Many of us are investing emotion and passion in this negativity, but my family and I are rather investing my energy in doing what we can to move away from the gird in whatever small steps we can. I am speaking about this because I see that much of the discussion about “off grid living” generally comes from one of two extreme positions. Firstly there’s the guy that is living in his 1974 Volkswagen camper, who powers his whole existence from a wind turbine he built by re-wiring an old desk fan he found by the roadside. He doesn’t need to cook; because he eats all his food raw and he avoids hot water because “everybody knows” that washing is part of a grand Illuminati conspiracy. The second extreme position is that of the billionaire in Houghton who builds a state of the art solar panel system bigger than my house. It tracks the movements of the sun by means of clever engineering and software developed by the SKA project. The power is stored in batteries just like the ones on the Mars rover. The whole system does cost about the same as a cabinet minister’s annual salary, but comfortably runs his air conditioning, 90 inch TV’s, heated pools and a mini ice rink.
DIY Solar Panel installation December 2014

Caught between these two extremes, most of us simply give up and rather focus on wording clever status updates that ridicule Eskom executives. But I am here to tell you that there is hope. There is real and immediate action that you and I can take toward moving off grid.

You see, I have just recently installed an off grid power and water system at our little farm just outside Port Elizabeth, and you know what? It didn’t cost me an arm and a leg. In fact it cost me round about the same as what it would have cost me to get water and electricity brought to the farm by the municipality. Hear what I am saying! The cost of installing a system that will generate free solar electricity and clean running water in perpetuity is the same as what the grid would have charged me just for the privilege of being connected to them and being billed by them with ever increasing rates regardless of the reliability of their supply. Of course there will be some on-going costs, but there won’t be load shedding, there won’t be the mindless standing in queues at the “customer care” centre, there won’t be the lying awake at night with the guilt of knowing that I am pumping huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere every time I switch on the lights.
You may not think that my situation on the farm is relevant to everyone reading this, but what I want to tell you, is that solar panels and rainwater tanks are only part of the story. There are two important aspects to consider.
Firstly, we must re-think what it is that we have become dependent on the grid for, remembering of course that the idea of a “gird” dealing with our electricity, water supply, sewerage disposal, telephone and internet is all reasonably recent. There is no reason we can’t step away gradually from the grid, in the same way as we slipped slowly into the habit of becoming dependent on it. Do we need to use so much? Do we need the air-conditioning? Do we need the heater? Do we need the ninety Inch TV? Do we need the welder in the garage or the toaster in the kitchen? Do we need to plant our garden full of plants that have beautiful flowers but that will die without the quantities of water they evolved to become accustomed to in the swamps of the Amazon? There are thousands of actions we can take today to consume less energy and water and to produce less waste.
Secondly, after we have taken the obvious step of consuming less, we must do what we can to diversify our consumption and waste. What I am saying is, it may cost the same to cook on gas, but it is unlikely that the gas supply will run out at the same time as the electricity supply grid. What about rain water? You may not have enough storage to make you independent of the municipal system, but you may have enough to be able to use the municipal system as a backup and not a primary supply. Even just to irrigate your garden would be a step in the right direction. Cooking and heating with firewood is not a bad idea, in fact it’s fun and romantic. What about processing some of your waste in a compost heap, grey water system or septic tank? What about heating your house with sunlight and cooling it with wind?
What I am talking about is migrating off grid in small steps. First by consuming less, then by transitioning into a hybrid situation, where each time the grid goes down it is less  and less of a disaster to you and your family.
There are things we can do. We are not helpless and doing these things makes us feel a lot better than when we are bitching about Eskom. Don’t you think?

Comparing the Husqvarna 440e with the Stihl Ms 250

This is the one that got stolen

Husqvarna 440e


  • 40.9 cc
  • 1.8 kW
  • 4.4 kg
This the one I bought to replace the stolen one.

Stihl MS 250


  • 45.4 cc
  • 2.3 kw
  • 4.6 kg

    I made this short video explaining the basics of the Stihl MS250. Beginners may find it useful

  • I am already enjoying the MS 250 quite a bit more than the 440e. Make no mistake, I really enjoyed the Husqvarna. It gave me many hours of pleasure clearing bush, felling small trees, cutting fire wood and fence poles. The MS 250 is more powerful though and the additional weight is not really  noticeable. I suppose it is an unfair comparison, I should be comparing the  45 cc Husqvarna with the MS 250. The truth though, in my part of the world, is that the Husqvarna is a more expensive machine. Right now the new 440e sells for R600.00 more than the MS250. So the expectation is that the more expensive technology should at least be able to compare, even if it is a slightly lower spec.

    My experience with the two beautiful machines is as follows:

    The 440 e has more features. It has a fuel gauge of sorts. It has a button you press a few times to prime the carburettor with fuel. The choke and on off switch has a simple easy action. It also has a tool-less chain tensioning mechanism. It has very easy to use clips that allow access to the air filter and the spark plugs. My experience was though that I struggled to start the 440e when I first got it. I would slug away at in and exhaust myself before I began even to do any cutting. With time though I learned a very specific routine: Two pulls with the choke closed, then one with the choke open. Starts every time. the other problem I had in the beginning was with the chain coming off. I think I was fiddling with the tension setting too much and had it too slack. But for whatever reason I had to replace two chains before I got the hang of it.

    Its very early days, but I can see that the MS 250 is less tiring to use. Even though it is a bit heavier, progress is faster and it less of a battle to do the kind of bush clearing that I am doing. The start is quite easy, but maybe its just because I am now used to the idea of fiddling with the choke. I also find that the safety brake is not as sensitive as with the 440e, where I would very often have to unlock.I presume because it is a little more powerful, the blade does not get pinched quite as quickly. In the bush clearing that I am doing it is not always easy to see which side to cut from, so pinching happens and it can really slow me down. If the MS 250 does use more fuel, it is still almost next to nothing. I cut for about 3 hours today and still hardly made a dent in the 5 l of fuel that I bought.

    So I hope this comparison helps, but really you cant go wrong with either machine. But, if forced to choose between the Husqvarna 440e and the Stihl MS250, I would have to go with the Stihl.

PS: Please do me a favour;  subscribe to my newsletter its got some cool stuff!

Tao of the farm – Principle number 26: “If you want to eat lamb you must be prepared to see blood.”

(this episode in our lives was also the subject of a short TV documentary)

December last year was the first time that I have slaughtered a goat. I have killed chickens and fish. I have even shot antelope from the comfortable distance of a rifle’s range, but to get up close and personal with a warm blooded, living breathing mammal is a whole different thing. I don’t enjoy killing. I am sure there are very few mentally balanced people that do. I have however come to see that I am an omnivore, and that my family before me for hundreds of thousands of years (probably longer) have eaten meat as part of their varied diet. Every time I look at my dogs, they are to me a living, breathing reminder of how their species and mine have walked a long way together and have formed each other and shaped what we have become. Someone told me once that humans
The Ibhoma Under Construction

domesticated dogs 20000 years ago, while we were all hunter gatherers. (even before we invented agriculture). After the dog, we apparently took another 10 000 years before we thought of domesticating the next animal: the cow. The point being, that despite recent popular tendencies toward vegetarianism, eating meat and dealing with the animals that provide it, has been part of our ancestor’s routine for a very long time. It is within this perspective, that I came to say to myself, if I am going to eat meat; I must have the courage to kill. It is always easy to avoid doing the killing myself. The supermarket, the restaurant and the fast-food outlet, make it easy. Together they conspire to make eating meat a light thing.

But the story of how I came to slaughter this goat requires a little explaining. You see, my son Litha, at the age of 18, decided to follow in the tradition of his mother’s ancestors and to become circumcised in the 1000 year old Xhosa tradition. The tradition, I am sure has evolved and grown over the years, but in its current form in our region, it involves a 3 week retreat, which begins on the day of the circumcision. Litha’s retreat was on our farm, where he lived in an Ibhoma,  a rough made shelter his brother, cousins and uncles put together for him the week before. The location was secret and not visible from any road, house or public thoroughfare. In that time in the bush Litha had no clothing (he had to make do with a rough woollen blanket); he had no electricity, running water, TV, cell phone or contact with the outside world. A great privilege in fact and the kind of retreat I would encourage every young man to go through.
We have co-evolved with dogs 

In the Xhosa tradition, male circumcision is a rite of passage. You go into the bush a “boy” and you come out a “man”. The boy literally leaves his childhood behind, with all his boyhood possessions burnt in the bush on the day that he leaves. The new man leaves the bush stony faced, not permitted to look back at his boyhood in flames behind him. Of course on the day that Litha returned home, there was a massive feast called an Umgidi. There was a lot of meat (and booze) at this celebration, but none of it involved me having to draw blood myself. We had professional butchers deal with all of that.

The goat, that is the subject of this story met his end two weeks before the great homecoming as part of a small celebration in the bush called Omojiso, or literally “roasting of meat”. This function signifies a milestone in the stay in the bush where the Umncibi (traditional surgeon) is happy enough with the healing process to permit the boy to come off the very strictly limited diet of the first week after the procedure. Kind of like “nil per mouth” the hospitals enforce with certain critical cases in their care.
Its surprising how little we actually  need to survive

Going into this complex and meandering process, I had made a very conscious decision.  I am not a Xhosa man I do not pretend to be a Xhosa man. I quite respectfully have no interest in becoming a Xhosa man.  I am interested though, in do what I need to do to facilitate my two sons’ becoming Xhosa men, if that is their choice. So it transpired that I found myself in the curious situation in the bush, at Pebblespring Farm, officiating over a Xhosa function called Omojiso.

Tradition requires that a goat be slaughtered to mark this occasion. While I could very easily have passed the task of killing the animal onto anyone of the junior Xhosa men assembled there on that day. I opted rather to show my full participation in Litha’s chosen path by taking the animal’s life myself. We had bought the goat two days before from a farmer about and hours’ drive from us. It was a beautiful young brown male goat. I chose the goat myself out of the herd that was corralled for the purpose of being chosen by people like me, for events like the one we required a goat for. I had no hesitation in pointing out this young brown male when the farmer asked me to choose. We secured the goat by its horns at the end of a long rope in the middle of a bush pasture and there the goat spent its last days and hours peacefully foraging, sleeping and generally dong what goats do. In the morning of the Omojiso,  the speeches and introductions went quite quickly and soon came the time I had been anxiously dreading. The goat was held down by two other men, I drew then knife I had sharpened carefully the night before. I cut first through the windpipe with the sound of the air escaping surprised me, then further into the neck striking the arteries releasing the blood to flow. There was still life in the body, as an older man showed me to cut deep in between the neck vertebrae severing the spinal cord till the body lay limp losing the last of its blood. I felt relieved that it was over. I felt the heaviness of taking this life. I felt good that I had able to play my role as a father and physically and demonstrably support my son in a path that he had chosen to walk.
All in the family

The goat was cooked there and then in pots that had been placed on the fire for this purpose. Litha was able to eat the meat he had been looking forward to after a week of bland dry rations. The two weeks after the Omojiso went quickly. Litha healed well and return triumphant two weeks later to jubilant groups of friends and family. Litha I am sure learned many lessons in the bush, but I too came away a wiser man. I learned about the heaviness that comes with supporting my children and those I love in pursuits that cause me to fear for their safety. I learned that my son is a surprisingly strong a resilient man. I learned what it means to kill a goat.

I know it is an obvious fact and that everybody knows that to eat meat, an animal must die. But sometime you need to wield the knife yourself and feel the warm blood on your skin for it to sink in. What other blood do we have on our hands? What is the price that must be paid to run electricity through all of our homes, heating our bathwater and lighting up out plasma screens? At what price to the carbon levels in the atmosphere? At what price to we commute to work every day, causing oilfields to be drilled or deserts to be fracked and wars do be waged? At what price do we employ domestic workers at near slave wages? What of their children, what of their families, their hopes and their dreams? The bread that you eat  from barren wheat field of toxic monocultures that spread over the horizon on every direction in the Western Cape and Freestate; where before active soils, and communities of plans and animals supported stable ecosystems that remained in balance for thousands of years? There is a lot of blood out there and there are very few of us that have hands that are not stained by it.
The goat sees its end

So I encourage you, wherever you can, whenever you can, to get as close to the brutal truth of your lifestyle as you can. Do this as a test to see if it is not too heavy for you to carry. Because no matter how you try, no matter how modern urban living tries to shield you, you cannot escape the Law of the Farm number 26: “ If you want to eat lamb, you must be prepared to see blood”.

Tao of the Farm – Principle number 4: “You are not the first person to plant a lemon tree”

Hlubi and I this weekend visited “Babylonstoren, a beautiful wine farm somewhere between Paarl and Stellenbosch. It has beautiful vineyards and fine examples of historic Cape Dutch architecture, but more than anything else, it is the gardens that leave a lasting impression. The three hectare garden is expansive and is set out as a long rectilinear grid and irrigated with a water channel that runs along is length down the gently slope.
Annuals and Perennials, Fruit, vegetables and Herbs

The gravel pathways form blocks which frame different zones of fruits, vegetables, poultry, herbs and flowers. It is a beautiful place, but at the same time is a fully functional, productive garden producing the highest quality produce for the three restaurants and shop on the site. The gardener is highly knowledgeable, as have been the gardeners that took care of gardens just like Babylonstonern in the cape since the time on the Company Gardens in Cape Town in the 1600s. The point of course is that gardening is not something new. People have been perfecting this art for thousands of years. Each generation of gardeners has worked to make slight improvements and modifications to the work of the previous generation. No successful gardener has ever plunged themselves into an open field armed with only muscles and a spade. Of course effort is the key ingredient. But in as much as Law of the Farm Number 3 is true when it says that reading about sheep does not make you a shepherd, it is also true that there is a huge volume of information available to be passed on about any conceivable subject, including becoming a shepherd and including planting a garden.

The central gravel access path

At Pebblespring Farm, I have planted one or two lemon trees, but I simply don’t have 10 years to wait to see if this particular variety grows well in the particular spot I have chosen for it, with its particular soil and moisture characteristics. To short cut this process, I talk to other gardeners, I read books, I Google, I travel to Cape Town and visit places like Babylonstoren. Why? Because its all been done before and if I am thorough in my research, I will be sure to able to take advantage of the learning hundreds, perhaps thousands of years of lemon tree planters across the world. By playing my cards right I can obtain the power and clarity that would otherwise only be available to me if I had lived for many generations.

An abundance of texture and colour

This is of course true whether I am interested in planting lemon trees, learning the art of Kung Fu or the craft of knitting a jersey. Invariably what we are trying to do has already been done, and if we look hard enough we are able to find the stories of those that have done it. I have seen though in my own life, that finding the information is not difficult. What is often difficult for me is that, faced with the huge quantity of available information, the process of trying to consume it becomes all consuming. The balance between research and action becomes distorted and I end up binging on information: books, movies, travel, blogs tweets and Facebook pages. In the same way perhaps as the obese load up with so much energy giving food that they eventually become so heavy that they are not able to move to use up the energy, causing them to become immobile and to the point where the only action they are capable of is to take in more food.

My view then is that we must rather be led by action than be led by research. Let us push forward with our mission to the point where we can see that we can no longer advance because of our lack of knowledge. We will know when we have reached this point because a question will begin to formulate in our mind. We will start digging the hole for the lemon tree, and a question will begin to formulate. “How deep should this hole be?” Once we know the question, it’s quite easy for us to know where to look and to find the answer. The research then directs our next action. We dig the hole to the required depth only to be faced with the question of soil preparation. Should we fill the hole with compost, or should it be manure? Do we need to increase the acidity; do we need to make it more alkaline? As we proceed in our action, we are prompted in research. The research then  prompts us into further action. It sounds obvious I know, but actually what I am suggesting is completely in contradiction to our contemporary education system which at very least creates the impression in people’s minds that education and training is what happens in that part of your life before you start working. So, we” frontend” twelve or seventeen years of schooling into a young life at an age where working is frowned upon and even illegal. Once this stage is over, we enter our working lives where research is most often seen as a diversion or a destructive waste of time to the point where Google may be disabled on your company PC.
But don’t worry about all of that. Rather you just be sure that:
·         Number one, you know your mission.
·         Number two, you take the first step.
·         Number three, you recognise when you are stuck,
·         Number four, you find answers to the questions required to get you unstuck.
·         Then proceed, re-check to be sure that you are still on mission and repeat steps one to four.
You can’t go wrong!

Tao of the farm – Principle number 24: “Some low life will steal you chainsaw.”

After this month’s livestock auction on Saturday morning, we stopped off at the farm on the way home. I noticed that the front door of the cottage, which is off its hinges for painting, was lying flat on the floor of the cottage. Normally it’s propped up in the door frame. It had been quite windy on Friday so, I dismissed it, but could not help to feel a little suspicious. I unlocked the store room, immediately looking for the chainsaw. I looked high and low scratching through boxes and unlikely places in some kind of denial and disbelief.  It is nowhere to be found. Mandoza says he last used it on Thursday. He suspects the casual labourer that we employed the week before. A guy called “Sticks”

The door to the storeroom was not forced open, it had been opened with a key and the key had been returned to its normal hiding place. Mandoza thinks that Sticks may have seen the hiding place for the keys. Anyway, I am really upset. I am angry that we have thieves moving around on the farm, I am angry with myself for not being more vigilant with security and I am worried that I now have to find money to replace this piece of equipment that I really liked. In this soup of emotions that are now still floating through my brain as I write this on Monday morning in the coffee shop just up the road from my office. As I sit here in the smoky interior with the familiar seventies music soothing softly in the background, I struggle to remind myself of Law of the farm number 24: “Some low life will steal your chainsaw” Or as some American hippy once said “shit happens”. The mongoose will eat your hens, the bubbler in your Tilapia tank will fail, ticks will infest your cattle. These setbacks are constants. They will happen. The extent to which they happen and the degree of damage they cause may be variable, but they will happen. I try to console myself with the truth of this law. It helps a little, but maybe tomorrow I will be OK. Maybe tomorrow I will come to see that we have become softened by the illusion of comfort offered to us by our lives. Perhaps I will come to see that we are lead to believe that nothing can go wrong. Everything happens at the flick of a switch. Even here in South Africa, and especially if you are urban and middle-class, you may go through very long periods of time where nothing ever goes wrong. The bottle store never runs out of beer, the soccer is on the television every Saturday, the mall keeps it opening times as advertised and the lotto draw happens as scheduled every weekend. When things go wrong, they are small, they are temporary and we are shielded from the crisis, by layers of government and corporate structures. When the farmer’s potato crop is destroyed by a swarm of locusts, we somehow magically still get our Lays lightly salted from the all night convenience store. The massive corporate chain makes sure they import potatoes from some other part of the province or some other part of the world, we do not so much as notice a difference in crispness of our favourite snack. 

Everything we consume is in this way filtered to be free of risk, to the extent that when our restaurant scrambled eggs aren’t exactly the correct degree of softness, we feel completely obliged and entitled to feel miserable and to throw a tantrum. What I am saying is that governments and corporations have very effectively come to create the illusion that rule of the farm number 24 does not exist. It does. Some low life will steal your chainsaw, and the sooner you (and I) wake up an begin to live and plan our lives according to this law, this non-negotiable constant, the sooner we can be more closely aligned with the way things work. Delusion may be comfortable, but making peace with the brutal truth brings us into closer union with the universe and its laws. And in this way we make ourselves free, not by selling ourselves into slavery to pay for the cost of the triple insurance premiums of comfort, safety and security.

Snakes Alive!

Of course we have lots to fear in this life. There are so many ways in which we can get hurt, killed, robbed  or betrayed. Everyday we are exposed to danger. Motorcars are viscous killers. Any home contains all kinds of ordinary looking things that can kill us if we are not careful. And I am not even talking about rat poison or pool acid, just ordinary stuff, which when taken in the wrong quantities can kill us, like vodka, or paracetamol or lying  in a bath. But it is of course not logical or acceptable to live in fear of bathwater, electricity or a motor car just because it can, in certain circumstances, be deadly. It seems though that we discriminate differently between Urban dangers and rural dangers. Or so it seems this week with the excitement caused by the appearance of two (very small) snakes in our rainwater tank. I have builders working on site and they were terrified. It effected their work. Some in my family too, (I dont want to mention any names) are hinting at not ever returning to the farm that is loved by all of so much. Of course I as a husband and a father must make every effort to understand that not all of us are the same and that some and may have different loves and fears. I understand this. It is not good enough for me to explain that as we warm up into summer, the snakes will be on the move and we should be on the look out.

Anyway, the snakes turned out to be two Spotted Bush Snakes Philothamnus semivariegatus. (thanks to the people at snakesofsouthafrica for help with the identification) which are not poisonous at all. There are dangerous snakes on the farm, like the Puffaders that like to lie on a sunny path waiting to be stepped on. What I am trying to say though, is that we are confronted everyday with a strong bombardment of ideas of what is “normal” and what is not. We are told that “Normal” is to work in a cubicle, commute to work in a Toyota Corrola, and watch rugby on Saturdays. So it is with normal dangers that confront us every day in the city. Because they are “normal” we tolerate them. Even when they kill us, we continue to tolerate them. But snakes, scorpions and frogs are “abnormal” dangers and they are to be eradicated, chopped into little pieces, burned, poisoned and obliterated. Such is the logic of our time.

So, while I can see that all this, to keep the peace I have had to make a visible effort to do something about the snakes. So I have cleared all the longer grass around the house and reduced the number of places snakes can hide. And also very cleverly I have installed a very innovative anti snake device onto my watertank.

You can watch the video if you like.

So, How have the cows been?

I have not spoken much about the cattle since I lost the calves and the bull. But is actually going quite well now with the two heifers. A brown one and a black one. We move them to new pasture everyday with the portable electric fence.

watch this video

We keep the “camp” small enough to ensure that they graze everything down (not just the tasty stuff). Cattle are picky eaters, they will first go for the greenest grass and then try the other stuff if they have to. So by keeping the camp just the right size I can ensure that they get enough, but that they don’t just pick and choose the best grazing. The important part of this strategy is that all the unpalatable stuff gets eaten as well, making space for other species to come through. The exercise is really all about building the soil. The cattle improve the soil in three important ways:

  1. They leave there manure behind – adding the nitrogen that’s crucial to get life going in the soil
  2. When grass is grazed, it automatically cuts off the proportionate amount of roots underground (thus adding much needed carbon to the soil)
  3. The animals hooves disturb the soil surface helping seeds get a chance to germinate.
Overgrazing is of course an incredibly destructive force, but in the a managed environment, grazing animals can build the soil and save the planet. (life is not possible without topsoil – just think about it)
So how it practically works though the week, it that Mandoza (my trusted assistant) moves the cattle to new grazing every day. I prefer to move them in the afternoon when the sugar content of the grass is higher. I have a simple diagram which I leave in the cottage so Mandoza and I can refer to camps by alphabetical letter. We talk mainly by texting through the day. I charge the battery  for the electric fence here at home and once or twice a week I would make sure a newly charged better is taken to the farm. If we use this configuration we have 20 camps. so that would mean that would mean that each camp would get 20 days rest if each camp were grazed for one day. Of course depending on rain and time of the year, 20 days may or may not be enough time for the grazing to recover, so the idea would be to vary the size of the camp accordingly. I can see now that we have had some rain and the days are warmer, the grass is looking good and I can keep the size of the camp quite small, giving me perhaps 30 or 40 camps in total. The grazing is looking quite healthy, If I compare it to my neighbour’s place where he has sheep, cattle and goats continuously grazing the grass down to about 50 mm high, then we are looking very good.
I am also slowly, but surely expanding the pasture. Over the weekends I spend time with the chainsaw cutting out the alien invasive species: Black Wattle, Port Jackson, Inkberry, Blugum, Poplar and Cape Wattle. I start buy cutting paths just wide enough to run the electric fence in. I create a camp in a forested portion. The cattle eat some and stomp down other parts including brambles and vines making it easier for me to come in with the chainsaw. I find it does not take long for the grass to begin to establish in areas where I have opened up the ground to new light that was previously blocked by tree cover. Anyhow, I enjoy working with the cattle. I see them as my landscaping assisants. We work together to bring this farm to be the most that is can be,