This past year has been a time of great change for many people and through it we have seen a surge of people choosing to live a simpler life. Whether it be moving from a city to a smaller town or rural land, or getting back to growing and cooking your own food. Spending more time with family and even homeschooling, to leaving it all behind and choosing to live off grid in a remote location.
For us here at Fodder Farm it has been an eventful year. It was late February 2020 when we first viewed our new property, a hot sunny day, driving from the dry brown of Manawatu to the depths of a remote valley in the Ruapehu district, green and fresh in the heat of the day. There were a few must haves on our property wish list, water, more land and hopefully trees for both beauty and firewood. If we could buy a property with these three requirements, we would have great a basis for continuing our homesteading journey. Having just experienced drought in the Manawatu the past year, water and summer-safe were certainly top of our list. This property had all these and an off-grid house which was an added bonus. The remote location was a big factor to consider, the closest town and high school being one hour away. But with property prices getting excessive, this one would leave us with some funds for improvements so we decided to take the plunge. But plans were stalled for a while as our nation went into lockdown. Selling and buying during lockdown is not something I would recommend…
With only one viewing possible it wasn’t until the end of May that we saw our property again, on moving day. Straight into a very low power lifestyle, only one solar panel with a battery and a 2kw Honda generator. A wetback woodstove for water heating and cooking, plus a barbeque and double gas ring. The wetback was brilliant giving us lots of hot water, but one cold day, after days of the fire cranking, the hot water blew out the vent, exploding onto the roof in a great steaming gush. Damn it. After that the water only reached low heat out of the tap as the tempering valve had seized, causing more issues with the cylinder over heating as we couldn’t drop the hot water fast enough. We stopped lighting the fire for a couple days, which was a bit chilly, while we brought a new valve and installed it. Apparently just one incident shouldn’t have wrecked the valve, it must have already been on its last legs. It was a costly fix, but never mind, it was a relief to have the hot water for showers and dishes up and running again.
We had no fridge for about 5 months, but the generator ran for about four to five hours a day to keep the chest freezer running and to get the washing done. Connecting the larger solar kit took a while with rewiring needed throughout the house. But we certainly gained an appreciation and understanding of electricity during that time. While the solar was important the outside fencing was urgent, we had boundary fencing and some interior. But keeping the pigs out of the vege garden was an issue, especially when the young ones found if they ran fast enough, they would often make it under the electric fence without getting zapped. The occasional squeal let you know when one got the timing wrong. Containing the chooks was another urgent matter, with no chook coup they had taken to roosting in the low tree branches. It took a bit of convincing them that the new chook shed was a much better place to sleep and lay eggs, with a few chooks refusing to give up their wild life. No matter what, each night they found their way back to the trees to roost, even pruning up the lower branches failed to deter them.
We are fortunate to have gravity fed spring water to the house and a creek fed line for the stock and gardens. We asked the previous owners if the spring ever dried up, “never ending supply of water” was their answer. You can image our surprise when a couple of months later the house water stopped. We had not yet investigated the spring, but a quick glance at the tank on the hill and the indicator told us it was full every time we checked. It still indicated full on the day the water stopped…
David set off to investigate, first the tank, which was in fact empty. It seems maintenance had not been carried out for quite some time as both a Mahoe and a Himalayan honeysuckle had managed to grow on top of the tank, their roots running down inside the tank and preventing the indicator from lowering. He removed the mass of roots from inside and cleaned the tank thoroughly. But with only a slow flow it would take a long time for the tank to refill, so David put the house onto the stream line temporarily with two filters, but drinking water was collected from a small rainwater tank off the shed. We had not been shown where the actual spring was located, which meant the pipe had to be followed. This would have been an easy job if it wasn’t for the fact, it was on the neighbours steep pine block hill. Scrambling amongst the fallen pines and rampant blackberry turned finding the spring into a mission. He walked up and down through the clawing blackberry struggling to follow the pipe, finally finding a second small tank and further on the spring. It was only about 10 metres up from the fence line hidden amongst the Punga, about another 100 metres up the road from the tank.
Location sorted David set about improving the flow collection as half of it was missing the drum. Thus improved, pipes cleared of air and the water was flowing faster than before, on measuring the flow we calculated it would provide us with approximately 2500 litres per day. Now when we look at the tank indicator, we know its full. It’s a great thing knowing that you are responsible for these amazing resources, that with care and maintenance they will provide you with your needs and knowing how to fix them gives you self-reliance, an important point when you live a far distance from town. We were pleased to have another resource in abundance, firewood. Not only was the property covered in trees, including old Man Pine, Gums and Blackwood but the four-bay farm shed had three whole bays stacked with pine. We were told (in a note) that the driest wood was stacked in the back of the middle bay, this involved climbing over two metre high stack of wood in front to get the ‘dry’ wood…
Not really something we wanted to do, but what was more of an issue is that it appeared the wood had been wet stacked, so it was moldy. This area is rainforest land, high rainfall. Which means we want our wood to be fully sun/air dried and then stacked dry in the shed. Damp moldy wood burns poorly and soots up the flue, we were cleaning it fortnightly just to keep the fire burning. Luckly, we had a two-week break of fine weather which meant we could open up the middle bay exposing as much wood as possible to the sunlight and air, this quickly dried out the pine and it could be burnt more cleanly.
Grazing was another issue. Our livestock soon brought the pasture back to fully grazed status. Soon we were making use of the quiet gravel road by grazing the Long Acre, letting to stock wander up the road for a couple of hours each day. Moving in winter we needed to buy in hay, but following the drought in other regions hay was in short supply and getting it proved difficult and expensive. On a couple of occasions, we travelled to buy hay only to find that the quality was poor, to the point where the cow wouldn’t even eat it. But chooks needed nesting hay and the pigs needed bedding for winter and farrowing so nothing was wasted. We finally found a local hay contractor who had some bales left and dragged home large squares two at a time on our trailer, using brute force to shove them off the trailer and into the hay shed. Then a lucerne grower advertised some wrapped silage bales, these are heavy wet bales and our Ute would only handle one at a time on our rugged road. But it was good nutritious fed for ewes which were raising lambs, so each fortnight we dragged one into the valley.
We had arranged to have our pines harvested in October. There was some grazing in those pine paddocks, but lack of sunlight and proximity to the pines meant it was sparse and not so palatable to the stock. Though the cow did well on the juvenile mahoe which grew amongst the pines. October arrived and no harvesters came, then into November and they did the required council paperwork. Before Christmas they said, but still no harvesters came. We had noticed as spring progressed that our pastures were not bouncing back with the spring growth, we were used to in other areas we have lived. Arranging a Reems soil test, we were shocked at the results, the supposedly fertile volcanic loam was severely lacking in many bio-available nutrients. Possibly due to our high rainfall but also perhaps to past farming practices. This started us on an investigation into what would be needed to bring its nutrient level up for healthy growth.
Having previously travelled many hours to Paeroa to get a more bio available lime and paramagnetic rock dust, we balked at the cost of getting enough product to bring up the PH from 5.04 to the recommended 6 plus for optimum plant growth. We looked into straight Ag lime as it was readily available but at a recommended 1-2 ton per hectare to lift the soil pH by 0.1 points, that would mean 10 to 20 tons just for the house paddocks. As we had nowhere to store it and no means to unload ton bags and hand spreading being our only real option of application, it just didn’t make sense to apply lime. This led us to researching other ideas on soil fertility, which led David to Korean Natural Farming (KNF). A way to produce our own amendments, often from ingredients already on the land or readily available. The recommended dilution rates were astounding 1/1000, so calcium would be 1l calcium solution to 1000l of water spread across our house paddock.
At the same time, I was reading ‘For the love of Soil’ by Nicole Masters. She spoke of ‘tweaking the soil’, small amounts of nutrients rather than the tons conventional farming spread across the land. This would minimize the damage to the existing soil life and support plant growth. Having a preference for natural living, this ‘first do no harm’ approach sounded more like us. David started making and using the KNF preparations. He investigated collecting and growing on Indigenous Micro Organisms (IMOs) and our eyes opened to the fungal world around us. We searched old native forest for fungal rich soil and leaf litter and added them to our composts and made IMO brews. We started to see results, the garden started to look better, the plants had thicker healthier leaves and stronger growth. The pasture growth increased and took on a more vibrant colour, its bounce-back after grazing increased significantly.
We had created new garden beds during winter and early spring, feeding them with compost and some bio available nutrients before mulching and planting, but we had noticed that often the plants would ‘sulk’ for a while after planting. It seemed that as they got their roots down into deeper soil they would really come away, we figured that the deeper the roots got the more nutrients there were available for them, yet soil testing only took in the top 10cm of soil. We found the KNF brews helped with the establishment of the young plants but it made us observe the older established plants on the property. Most of these were in good health, showing no signs of nutrient deficiencies, it was the shallow rooted plants which seemed to struggle. Which also highlighted the fact that we had a lot of pooling happening especially in the paddock, which would indicate compaction, the large amount of dock and buttercup would support this observation. So, these observations told us that the nutrients were there we just needed to make them accessible, or bioavailable, and open up the soil. David had started studying Dr Elaine Ingham’s work and the ‘Soil Food Web’, we had a microscope so he began investigating the soil and composts for microscopic life. The difference between the ‘normal’ garden soil and soil from the base of old forest trees was tremendous. The old forest soil was teeming with life, a whole underground ecosystem. Forests exist in a balance of life and death, there is no added fertilisers, they self-perpetuate. If left to its own devises a landscape will re-establish into its natural state through succession, from the cover weeds to grasses and herbs, to woody perennials, to shrubby small tree to larger trees etc. As the progression happens, be it grass lands, forests or alpine slopes each level of succession adapts the soil, changing the ratios of bacteria to fungi, with old forest being the highest number of fungi.
Pasture should be about a ratio of 50/50 bacteria to fungi, but unfortunately many pastures are lacking in both of these and therefore the underground livestock of Nematodes, Protists, Micro-Arthropods etc. Which are necessary for a healthy soil. The soil scientists themselves will say that they are still learning, still trying to understand the functions of each tiny piece of the puzzle. They study these microscopic ecosystems and the effects changes have on their biome through the lens of a microscope. Where Natural Farmers will use observation, physical results and tradition to show them the way. Combining the two methods gives you the best understanding and functional results to continue to provide your plants with the accessible nutrients they need to be able to support you and your livestock’s health.
Health, that is another big topic, we live a relatively ‘clean’ lifestyle for reasons of supporting our own health. Low sugar/low carb, avoid additives, preservatives, eat mostly homemade everything and as much as possible, homegrown. We avoid damaging chemicals, opting for natural products or, again, homemade. This has evolved slowly, replacing food or household items bit by bit. Sometimes I lapse back into old habits (especially while moving house!) but having lost about 15 kg in the past 4 or 5 months I think this time we will hold the line. It is an interesting thing I find, that when you are on the right path things seem to flow better. You feel better mentally, doors open and opportunities arise, sometimes in completely unexpected ways. We have learnt on our life’s journey to go with the flow, we still work towards goals, but are open to what life might throw at us. Sometimes those curve balls turn out to be a blessing.
I have found that moving to such a rugged and quiet location has reconnected us with the land. I would say we have always observed and lived in our landscape but now that immersion has deepened and the connection has strengthened. It is a landscape of steep hills and large trees, we often hear the changing of our surrounds, trees falling, earth moving and have had to clear the roads to pass. We have experienced wild weather bombs and clear star-studded nights with no lights to dampen the amazing glow. I have seen shooting stars and a meteor explode above us. We hear the Morepork call in the night and wake to the rooster’s crows. We have stood in awe of great Starling murmuration’s in the evening sky and chatted with cheeky Fantails and shy Robins as the Welcome Swallow’s swoop overhead. We have watched herds of wild Fallow deer graze the slopes across the river and listened to the bleat of goat kids calling for the mums. We have walked through old forests, breathed the cool cleanness of the air, awed by the majestic height and girth of these wonderous historic trees. We have been entranced by the filtered streams of sunlight, turning the gloom into a place of magic, teeming with life, the beauty of the fauna, flora and the fungi. And we have stood in the mysterious depths of our ravine, marvelling at the sheer rock faces towering above and the stillness of the massive eels in the dark depths below.
We realise that we are but a small part of this tremendous ecosystem of our earth. And know that for us this past year has been one of great growth and of change for the better.