More Signs of Spring

What an exciting time of year. Everyday there seems to be something to notice around the farm. For example, the poplar poles have sprung to life.

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These Maori potatoes are on their way.

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I put these hazelnuts in during winter and now they are leafing out.

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In fact, the plants are growing so fast that we have engaged the help of Goat Buster to keep on top of the weeds.

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Other signs of spring, Amelia the muscovy is sitting on a next.

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 I also picked up a muscovy family on my way home this week.

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The bees know it’s spring.

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I have installed this gate to allow the lambs to access fresh grass un-grazed by their mums. This is part of the weaning process.

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It works for three year-olds too.

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Unfortunately, spring also means increased possum activity. With 130 fruit trees in the ground, we need to be on the defensive. This one is about to be mixed into the compost heap.

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Peace, Estwing

No Depression in New Zealand…and no cold, damp homes either.

Editor’s note: Here is another weekly column in the Wanganui Chronicle.

John Maslin recently wrote an editorial for the Chronicle titled: ‘Get real’ on heritage protection. Given the number of heritage buildings in our city and the cost of strengthening them, a realistic approach is certainly in order for progress to be made.

After reading Maslin’s piece I was driving to work and heard that the song, “No Depression in New Zealand” was up for the missing Silver Scroll award from 1981. It seemed an appropriate ‘get real’ anthem:

There is no depression in New Zealand

There are no sheep on our farms

There is no depression in New Zealand

We can all keep perfectly calm

Blam Blam Blam did not win the Silver Scroll, but I am happy to honour the song for the rest of this column as it reminds us to be suspicious of spin doctors and their reluctance to recognize facts.

Not long after Maslin’s editorial we were treated to David Scoullar’s insightful piece on managing decline: Accepting decline best way for cities to plan for future. Scoullar points out examples of “cutting-edge” urban policy overseas and that they are “not on the radar of Wanganui District Council.”

WDC policy appeared on the front page of the Chronicle last month: “No Decline here, Duncan.”

And there is no depression in New Zealand.

Another ‘interesting’ narrative that has come under scrutiny lately has to do with the cost of building homes in New Zealand. A recent 3D investigation on TV3 asked the question, “Are we paying too much to build our homes?”

While the popular narrative points the finger at land prices and council fees, the ‘get real’ answer points to exorbitant prices paid for building materials. From the 3D investigation:

Tony Sewall , head of Ngai Tahu, the biggest developer in the South Island, has sent teams around the world to investigate building materials prices.

“We’d be paying around 30 percent more than in Australia, probably 60 percent more than the United States,” he says. “And the United States’ product is better.”

Quotable Value statistics indicate that identical medium-sized homes built in New Zealand and Australia cost Kiwis $20,000 to $32,000 more than Aussies. This is not because Australia has higher regulatory costs. Screen Shot 2015-09-25 at 9.16.56 am

Cheaper Option: On and off the shelves just like that. 

The programme revealed exclusive arrangements between building materials manufacturers and certain retailers and builders. One example used was wallboard, and how one dominant brand controls 94% of the domestic market. A rival product briefly made an appearance in shops at a much lower price, but then suddenly disappeared. Meanwhile, all parties deny a “special arrangement.”

And there is no depression in New Zealand.

One final issue on the ‘get real’ front for this week. The Whanganui Regional Health Network (WRHN) recently flooded all three local papers with the same article asking for money from philanthropic organisations to support an insulation programme that has been under-funded by the current government. At the same time, we have a local MP who never hesitates to point out how many homes in the District have been insulated under his watch.

To be clear, here is a government agency asking for private donations because The Government has not provided enough funding for a government programme. Meanwhile, a representative of The Government is taking credit for the grand success of the programme.

And there is no depression in New Zealand.

Additionally, it appears that the WRHN has misidentified insulating floors and ceilings as “Healthy Homes.” A famous case recently linked the death of a toddler to the home where she was living that was insulated. As Labour housing spokesperson Phil Twyford stated, “When you insulate a cold, damp home it is still a cold, damp home.”

But on the other hand, this could all just be hype. After all, there are no cold, damp homes in New Zealand.

Side bar: Want to ‘get real’ about healthy homes in our community? A group has formed to look into the possibility of forming a trust that will address the issue of housing performance while creating jobs for local youth. Please contact me if you are interested.

Mid-Spring Permaculture Update

As the days get longer, life springs forth. Almost daily there is another example of the season. The garlic is up and thriving.

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Our kitchen garden is pumping. Salad anyone?

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We just celebrated our third annual Whanganui Permaculture Weekend, alongside Adult Learner’s Week. Events included a hot composting workshop.

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Demonstrations of the rocket stove…

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… and solar cookers.

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We’ve had some beautiful home kill lamb.

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Tomato seedlings went in the ground yesterday.

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And finally, the poplar poles are showing their first signs of life.

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Peace, Estwing

Weighing Words

The best of Whanganui was on display last weekend. It was the root hairs of the grassroots; the calcium chloride of the salt of the earth; the best of times – the worst of times. Actually, it was just the best of times. But most importantly, it was real people doing real things.

Whanganui Permaculture Weekend is the premier sustainability event in our region. The third edition held last weekend provided fabulous learning experiences for over 300 people at no cost aside from a gold coin donation to cover venue hire for the shared meal and amazing film: Inhabit: A Permaculture Perspective. The film was standing room only and many other events attracted 40-plus participants, some of whom traveled from Wellington, Taranaki, Raetehi, the Manawatu and Rangitikei.

The minimum estimated value of the weekend programme is $30,000. It is an event of the community and for the community: a real event for real people. We gave it to everyone for free.

As a keen observer of this city by the awa for the past five years, I reckon our community has less of a need for conferences that charge $1,000 per person and claim to be about sustainability (as we saw late last year), and more of a need for events that provide practical, affordable experiences and solutions.

Expensive talkfests have their place (somewhere), but they don’t and won’t meet our particular community’s needs. Real people taking real action is what meets our real needs. A good Maori friend once told me, “It’s too much hui and not enough do-ee.”

I’ve been in the sustainability game for nearly three decades and have never found a more genuine approach than permaculture. It’s great to see permaculture gaining traction in and around the River City, in addition to other grass roots initiatives. For example, I know of three start-up garden projects that are in the works or just underway. Good luck, friends.

Almost everything I know about community gardens and permaculture can be summed up in one word: kaitiakitanga. It is the weightiest term I have run across in any language worldwide.

According to Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, “Kaitiakitanga means guardianship, protection, preservation or sheltering. It is a way of managing the environment, based on the traditional Māori world view” (

From my limited perspective, this concept can equally be applied to the TPPA protesters in Whanganui and notably Dr. Chris Cresswell and his recent zen-like car surfing exercise. Chur, bro!

I also think that the success or failure of any garden project relies on having one or more kaitiaki – guardian. In other words, it takes a garden guardian. Sadly, previous community garden projects have failed on this point.

Another weighty word I hold in great regard is ganas – Spanish for desire or inclination. This term played a key role in the 1988 film about a high school maths teacher in a low decile school in East Los Angeles. It is a must see for any teacher or spouse of a teacher.

Ganas and guardianship are the key to success for any gardener, and so it was with great pleasure that I recently visited Sarah O’Neil’s blog: “Sarah the Gardener: Real Gardening in my Real Garden.” Good stuff, Sarah!

Sarah will be sharing her passion for gardening and writing at an event tomorrow as part of the Whanganui Literary Festival. From the brochure:

“Sarah lives on a lifestyle block in the Waikato with her family… Her book, The Good Life: Four Seasons in MY Country Garden, is a funny and inspiring look at the ups and downs of a year in the garden. Join Sarah for High Tea (BYO Gumboots).”

Sounds great, but one question: Do I really have to put on my gumboots again? I’ve been living in the bloomin’ things for months!

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Sidebar: Missed the weekend but want to learn about permaculture? We’re offering books and calendars to Whanganui locals for well below retail prices. Contact us for details.

AN ODE TO BABE. By Kelly Peters


From where you came, to us you shall be

You were full of curiosity and a hunger

A wondrous, funny little being to me

Accompaniment for all our working

An energetic walk and funny little hop

The run and race of the day, so eager to play

The black sheep of my herd

But with white lightning beaming atop

Up and down the hills your call could be heard

A yearning to be alongside us

To help and to nap in a warm quiet slumber

Of the garlic beds freshly mulched hay

Memories of one taken too soon

Whose energy shall be passed on

To the trees and the moon

In the springtime you shall bloom

With a blossom so bright to outshine and illuminate

You’re now among the clouds and stars

The Tui shall chirp and the Kereru quietly feast

A sweet little lamb, never to be forgotten

To be in your company, you were no beast

The tree shall bear a delicious fruit

To be enjoyed by all in your memory

For we all shared a great time

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Two New Flavours: Pre-silience and Post-silience

Volatility and resilience have entered the lexicon of politicians and economists over the last seven years. It is not uncommon to hear these words uttered by John Key, Tim Groser, Andrew Little, Russell Norman, or Metiria Turei. I have not heard Winston Peters specifically use these words, but I assume he has because he’ll say anything.

Gareth Morgan, Shamubeel Eaqub, and journalist Rod Oram appear to recognize market volatility and the importance of building resilient industries and communities. Parts of the recent regional growth study recognise these as well.

As a risk averse, conservative thinker myself, I spend a lot of time pondering volatility and resilience, and have come to divide what we commonly hear about the latter into two categories: pre-silience and post-silience.

Pre-silience is about being proactive and trying to avoid something bad from happening. When it is successful, no one notices. It’s like when Child Youth and Family does a fantastic job 99% of the time we never hear about it. It does not make the news. In other words, pre-silience is critically important but low profile.

During the renovation of our Castlecliff home, pre-silience was about adding lots and lots of insulation, installing curtains properly, and shifting windows around. This is not sexy stuff.

On our farm, pre-silience takes the form of building soil fertility, improving drainage and water storage, planning and planting windbreaks, and protecting vulnerable slopes. This is not sexy stuff.

Post-silience, if not sexy, is definitely “news worthy.” Post-silience, or lack thereof, pops up suddenly after volatility rears its head be it geological, climatic or economic. For example, the Christchurch earthquakes exposed weaknesses in some families’ and communities’ abilities to respond to the disaster. Poo is a great example. What do you do with it when the sewer lines are broken? Two of our friends in the permaculture movement made it their mission to build and promote composting toilets as a viable solution to post quake sanitary human waste management.

Post-silience was front and centre in our own community during the aftermath of the June floods as thousands of volunteers joined in the effort to support affected families and clean up silt from roads and sidewalks. People are great at rallying in a pinch, and post-silience is much more photogenic than pre-silience.

Economic volatility – especially in global dairy markets – has slammed farmers who are also suffering from climatic volatility. I was gob smacked recently when I heard talk of severe drought on the horizon for some of our farming regions. Too much water and too little water: this is the future of farming in Aotearoa: the land of the long white cloud. Indeed, scientist tell us we will be seeing more heavy grey clouds, cumulonimbus, and weeks on end without a cloud in the sky. How do you say that in te reo?

Well over half the work I do on our farm is in preparation of increased extreme weather events. The bad news is that all of this investment provides no financial return in the short run. The good news is that all of it protects financial returns (and minimises losses) in the long run. A thriving, pre-silient farm is my life insurance policy for my children.

But it is not all digging ditches, aerating soils, making compost, and planting trees. We also embrace low-energy technology that contributes to both pre- and post-silience. Two great examples are solar cooking and rocket stoves.

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Both are highly energy efficient and do not rely on mains power, gas, batteries or LPG.

We have been solar cooking for nearly a decade and rocket-stoving for half that. A power loss due to earthquake or windstorm would have little effect on our culinary abilities. We often do our Sunday roast on the solar cooker and recently our interns Patrick and Kelly brewed a Kiwi IPA on the rocket stove.

They will be demonstrating their skills from 11 to 1 today along the riverside near the Silver Ball sculpture as part of the 3rd Annual Whanganui Permaculture Weekend. If you are curious about permaculture design, there will be an introductory workshop at 1 today. Meet at the REBS Market stall. Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 11.18.37 am

The full programme can be viewed at the Permaculture Whanganui Facebook page or at the REBS stall. It was also published in full in last week’s River City Press.

Around the World in Eight Designs: Part 12

At the end of the last column I promised to include some more examples of thermal mass this week along with a photograph. As a reminder, thermal mass is part of the trilogy for passive solar design, which also includes solar gain and insulation.

Thermal mass absorbs heat from sunshine slowly during the day and then releases it at night. In this way it is a bit like the opposite of a night store heater, which stores cheap electric heat at night and releases it throughout the morning.

In modern houses, thermal mass can take the form of an insulated concrete foundation slab, but retrofitting a 100 year-old villa is a different story. Because an old villa has a raised floor (ie, built on piles) adding thermal mass inside of the thermal envelope is more of a challenge. During the renovation of our villa we added mass in three ways.

The first and easiest way we added thermal mass was to add a layer of plasterboard (aka “Gib”) to a number of north-facing internal walls that receive direct sunlight during the winter months. If you have ever lifted a sheet of plasterboard you would know it contains lots of mass. In other words, it’s heavy.

The next way we added mass was to install an iron claw foot bathtub in our northwest-facing bathroom. Like the extra layer of plasterboard, the iron slowly absorbs the sun’s warmth during the day and releases it at night.

Finally, and most dramatically, we installed an old Shacklock 501 cooker in the kitchen. The placement of the Shacklock ensures that it receives direct sunlight three times a day through three different windows during winter. The cooker weighs 300 kg, and is surrounded by another 300 kg of bricks. The insulated hearth accounts for another 100 kg. Screen Shot 2015-09-07 at 12.07.04 pm

All in, the 700 kg heater/cooker works great as thermal mass during sunny winter days. It moderates the kitchen from overheating during the afternoon and helps ensure the morning temperature is a little higher than it would otherwise be.

Oh, and on cloudy days we stoke the Shacklock with wood and cosy up with a big pot of soup on top and a loaf of bread in the oven.

Regenerative Agriculture: The Popular Face of Permaculture

“Hippy farms always fail.” These were the words of Chuck Barry, a small-scale organic farmer I met in Montrose, Colorado about ten years ago. Chuck made a comfortable living growing high quality vegetables on two acres in a dry and seasonally cold environment that may be compared with Central Otago high country.

His comment was based on observations of some people going into farming with good intentions but little understanding of the amount of work involved and inadequate business sense. There is popular, quaint, romantic notion among many people about growing food organically. But at the end of the day, when faced with actually doing it, most hippies opt out because it turns out to be just too hard.

On the other end of the spectrum – as we have been hearing recently in the news – many conventional farms also fail. Conventional farming wisdom over the last decade goes something like this: 1) borrow lots of money from the bank; 2) convert to dairy; 3) borrow more money; 4) rely on ever-increasing dairy pay outs; 5) borrow more money; 6) rely on ever-increasing land prices; 7) get rich; 8) what could possibly go wrong?

Well, now we know. Dairy pay outs have fallen through the floor and many farmers are pushed to the wall.

On one hand I feel sorry for those famers who have to sell because of their now un-payable debts. But on the other hand, I question why they bought into the paradigm described above in the first place, which appears to me to be very risky.

Alongside financial debt, many conventional farms also run a large soil debt. We see it every day flowing past our city and out into the Tasman Sea.

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Like financial debt, soil debt is difficult to repay but not impossible. Rebuilding soil fertility while growing food is sometimes called regenerative agriculture. Regenerative agriculture can include organic farming practices, some biodynamic techniques, and holistic range management. All three of these fall within the scope of the eco-design system known as permaculture. I see permaculture as the middle ground between failed hippy farms and failed conventional farms. Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 10.05.45 am

For those who are far right of centre, permaculture may seem like a hippy philosophy, but I would argue that its endurance (40 years and counting) proves it is not. Permaculture farming and land use is practiced around the world in a wide range of climatic conditions from desert to rainforest and in between. It is likely that someone in every country on earth is practicing permaculture in one form or another.

Locally, permaculture is practiced by a small but growing number of people in our community – mostly in the forms of organic and regenerative agriculture. But the scope of permaculture extends far beyond growing food. As a system for eco-design, it is a natural lens through which to view energy-efficient housing, and even the waste management programme for community events that I brought to Whanganui five years ago can be considered an application of permaculture thinking because it takes a holisitic perspective of inputs, outputs, and the human element of waste management. Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 10.05.36 am

While permaculture is only one of many eco-design philosophies, what sets it apart from the others in that it is based in a set of core ethics: care for the earth; care for people; share surplus resources. It is these ethics that are the driving force behind the third annual Whanganui Permaculture Weekend, as dedicated permaculturists in our community share their knowledge, experience and enthusiasm on a wide range of topics.

Thanks to those who have stepped up with offerings next weekend and thanks to Adult and Community Education Aotearoa for working with us to organise Adult Learners Week, which starts Sunday.

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Adult Learners Week – He Tangata Matauranga 2015

6th – 13th September


All events are free thanks in part to support from Adult and Community Education Aotearoa.

Sunday 6th 2-3 PM. Best Heating Options for Your Home, Central Library

Tuesday 8th 5-6 PM. Hot Composting, 223 No.2 Line

Wednesday 9th 4-5 PM. Reducing Heat Loss Through Windows, Gonville Café Library

Friday 11th 4-5 PM. Managing Moisture and Condensation, Gonville Café Library

In conjunction with the Whanganui Permaculture Weekend

Saturday 12th 4:30-5:30 PM. Best Gardening Tools for You. Josephite Retreat Centre, 14 Hillside Tce.

Sunday 13th 4-5 PM. Tomatoes Before Christmas. Wanganui Garden Centre, 95a Gonville Ave.

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