Sophie and Mike Finish a Big Project


This week we finally finished a big project: the water storage area/duck pond we mentioned in our first post. The pond area is a great example of permaculture practices as it benefits many different elements of the farm and each aspect of its design works to produce various desired effects.

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To start with, it would be unfair of us to explain the construction of the pond without first giving credit to Marina and Heloisa, the interns at the Eco School before us. The hole in the ground that forms the centre of the area was already roughly halfway dug before we even started, making the initial process of digging somewhat easier; a huge benefit to us as the digging was of course the bulk of the work. It took perseverance to complete, but gave us lots of clay and topsoil to use in other areas of the property (the topsoil was added to an area where avocados will be planted later in the year and the clay to stabilise a bank below the garden). We were pretty excited when it was finished and left a little ramp of clay in one corner just to make sure that even the least athletic ducks could make use of the facilities.

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The main aim of the pond is of course water storage and the necessity of this has become evident very recently. Winter in Wanganui is wet and the pond has filled up at an alarming rate over the last few weeks. There is a lot of surface water on the farm making the ground very boggy and as this area is prone to landslides storing the water in a safe area where it can be accessed, such as the pond is all the more important. The water has been converted from a potentially dangerous liability to an asset with multiple uses. It also looks rather nice and provided a temporary mud pit for the kids to play in during its construction.

Before we arrived at the farm Nelson propagated some willow trees with a view to planting them in several locations around the property to use as a windbreak. We decided to plant some of them around the pond so as to stabilise the bank, take up more excess groundwater and provide a sheltered area for the ducks to live in. However, due to the location of the project (in the middle of the goats’ paddock), we had to find some way of protecting the young willows from Goatbusters’ tenacious efforts to devour any branches that come his way.

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A square fence was the perfect solution, and under Nelson’s guidance we were able to knock together a reasonably stable fence out of a few bits of timber, some nails and several lengths of chicken wire. Despite looking like a bit of very rough carpentry, the fence is actually designed for its adaptability and longevity. Firstly, it is raised several inches from the earth on concrete blocks in order to prevent groundwater from wicking up into the frame, increasing its lifespan. Secondly, the wire encircling it has holes large enough for a duck to pass through but too small for a goat to push its head through. Overall, this creates a great duck habitat whilst giving the willow trees some much needed protection. We also installed a duck house just inside of the frame so as to make it even more tempting for them to move in…

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All in all, the pond is a great example of permaculture in practice as it incorporates many key principles – converting liabilities to assets, intelligent water storage and ensuring that any modifications that you make to your property are holistically designed in order to have multiple functions and be as effective as possible.

Sophie & Mike

Late Autumn Permaculture Update

I can’t really call this early winter because cold weather has only just set in. The Indian summer and long mild autumn has caused the muscovy ducks to think it’s spring. These were born last week.

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These males think that it is mating season.

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These bantams were born two weeks ago.

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But now the rains have come and we need to keep all of the animals dry and out of the wind. We built this shelter for the kune kune pigs last weekend.

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Hilda is testing out her new bedroom.

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Our previous interns, Heloisa and Marina, started these willow cuttings about 8 weeks ago.

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Our current interns, Mike and Sophie, planted the willows this week.

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Hilda supervises the planting.

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The willows will surround a pond that we have been digging by hand for the last six months. The pond will collect water in winter and store it high on the property.

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The pond is in the middle of a paddock where the goats live and the pigs spend the day.

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Next to the paddock we are planting a windbreak of willow and poplars.

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Speaking of windbreaks, these harekeke flax have taken hold well. They were transplanted 20 months ago.

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We have started our Black Boy peach stones.

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And we are preparing this bed to be planted as a market garden next spring.

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Peace, Estwing

What’s up DOC?

The New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) has helped us build fertility on our farm. They had a project recently in our area removing aquatic weeds, raupo and coy carp from a dammed pond, and offered to donate all of this biological goodness to us. Of course I said “Bring it on!”

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We have used the raupo to mulch harekeke windbreaks high on the property.

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We are composting the aquatic weeds and fish along with extra wood shavings to keep the smell down and add carbon.

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Of course the pig eventually got a whiff of the fish and that became a minor temporary problem.

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But we layered the pile up with more shavings and some sheep manure. All good, and thanks to DOC for not sending this organic material to landfill!


Chur, Estwing

Insulated Door: Easy as 1-2-3

Glass doors are common in New Zealand homes.

Glass doors are cold doors.

South-facing glass doors are especially cold.

Here is a cheap and easy way to retrofit a four panel rimu glass door into a warm and cosy door. First, find yourself a comfortable working area and lay out the door.

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Next, cut insulation to cover each glass panel on both sides.

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Finally, cover with thin ply, hardboard or other suitable material. I used the waterproof wallboards that we removed from the old laundry when we extended our kitchen. They were just sitting in the shed.

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Hang the insulated door and paint the lot.

(Note the second door handle is for our three year-old daughter.)

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Not 100% flash, but a very high performance door at a low price.


Peace, Estwing

Life, Death, Research and Trump

“Our already horrendous suicide rate hit a new record high last year.”

The news of New Zealand’s suicide rate did not surprise me when I heard it on the radio earlier this week. Anyone who pays attention to global trends could see this coming.

“Psychotherapists say we need a wide-ranging review into the mental health system before there are more preventable deaths” reported Newstalk ZB.

At lighter moments I joke that the best thing about living in New Zealand is that you can see worldwide trends that are heading this way, but the worst part is that noone believes you.

This is not a lighter moment. Suicide is a serious issue and one that is growing dramatically among my peer group: white middle-aged men.

The first people to notice the emerging pattern in the United States were Princeton economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case. The New York Times reported on 2nd November, 2015 that the researchers had uncovered a surprising shift in life expenctancy among middle-aged white Americans – what traditionally would have been considered the most priviledged demographic group on the planet.

The researchers analyzed mountains of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as other sources. As reported by the Times, “they concluded that rising annual death rates among this group are being driven not by the big killers like heart disease and diabetes but by an epidemic of suicides and afflictions stemming from substance abuse: alcoholic liver disease and overdoses of heroin and prescription opiods.

The mortality rate for whites 45 to 54 years old with no more than a high school education increased by 134 deaths per 100,000 people from 1999 to 2014.”

The most amazing thing about this discovery is that the Princeton researchers stumbled across these findings while looking into other issues of health and disability. But as we hear so often, everything is connected.

A month before releasing this finding Dr. Deaton was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics based on a long career researching wealth and income inequality, health and well-being, and consumtion patterns. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences credited Dr. Deaton for contributing significantly to policy planning that has the potential to reduce rather than aggravate wealth inequality. In other words, to make good decisions policy writers need good research based on good data. Too often this is not the case.

“To design economic policy that promotes welfare and reduces poverty, we must first understand individual consumption choices. More than anyone else, Angus Deaton has enhanced this understanding.”

Days before hearing the news about New Zealand’s rising suicide rate I learned of another major finding from demographic researchers in the United States. For the first time in history the life expectancy of white American women had decreased, due primarily to drug overdose, suicide and alcoholism.

This point is worth repeating as it marks a watershed moment for white American women. After seeing life expectancies continually extend throughout the history of the nation, the trend has not only slowed but reversed. Data show the slip is only one month, but the fact that it’s a decrease instead of another increase should be taken as significant milestone.

Please note that the following sentence is not meant in the least to make light of the situation, but is simply stating a fact.

The demographic groups that are experiencing the highest rates of drug overdose, suicide and alcholism are also the most likely to be supporters of Donald Trump in his campaign for the U.S. Presidency.

It does not take a Nobel Lauriet to observe a high level of distress among white middle-class Americans. Trump simply taps into that angst.

As reported by CBS News, “The fabulously rich candidate becomes the hero of working-class people by identifying with their economic distress. That formula worked for Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s. Today, Donald Trump’s campaign benefits from a similar populist appeal to beleaguered, white, blue-collar voters — his key constituency.”

I don’t blame most Americans for being angry. That the very architects of the global financial crisis have only become richer and more powerful since they crashed the world economy in 2008 is unforgiveable. The gap between rich and poor contineus to widen and the chasm has now engulfed white middle-aged workers. As the Pope consistently tells us, wealth and income inequality is the greatest threat to humanity alongside climate change.

Instead of going down the Trump track for the rest of this piece, I’d rather wrap it up by bringing the issue back to Aotearoa New Zealand and our outsized suicide rate, especially among farmers.

To provide some background for international readers, the NZ economy relies signifcantly on dairy exports and many dairy farmers hold large debts. Dairy prices are known for their volatilty, and recently the payouts have dropped below break-even points for many farmers.

Earlier this month Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy announced that the government would invest $175,000 to study innovative, low cost, high performing farming systems already in place in New Zealand. reported, “The government is set to pick the brains of New Zealand’s top dairy farmers in an effort to help those struggling with the low dairy payout.”

That is great news, but the government’s investment in researching the best of the best farmers is a pittance when compared with what is spent addressing issues of depression and suicide prevention among Kiwi farmers. Isn’t this a case of putting the cart ahead of the horse, or treating symptoms instead of causes?

Research shows that financial stress contributes significantly to the increasing suicide rates here and abroad. We know that innovative farmers who use low-input/high-performance systems are more profitable that their conventional farming bretheren. Would it then be a stretch to conclude that depression and suicide is much lower among these innovative and profitable farmers?

At the same time, research shows that wealth and income inequality in our urban centres contribute to anti-social behaviours such as crime, domestic abuse and illegal drug usage. Yet policy planners continually fail to treat the causes.

Angus Deaton, the Nobel-winning economist, would argue that in order for policy planners to address these issues effectively they must understand the underlying causes and resultant costs. Sadly it is more the exception than the rule.

Thankfully, we do see glimmers of that from central government instead of the usual neoliberal claptrap. Credit must be given to Finance Minister Bill English for his actuarial approach to some social issues rather than the inaccurate dogmatic positions often adopted by the right. Which brings us back to Trump.

I wrote this four months ago:

Trump’s political success relies on the fact that many people only accept information that fits their existing worldview. Facts don’t matter. Research doesn’t matter. Trained experts don’t matter. As Ray Davies sang in 1981, “Give the people what they want.”

In a world where everyone has an opinion, we run the risk of giving equal weight to an expert’s opinion based on peer reviewed research and Joe Blog’s opinion based on his preexisting worldview. Which would you go with?


Peace, Estwing