Monday, 24 April 2017

It costs a lot to live this cheap

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Naïve. Yes, that is perhaps the correct description for what I was, when long ago, I lived in the inner northern suburbs of Melbourne. The reason that I considered myself naïve was because I whinged a lot about the unrelenting bills that were sent to me every month by the nice utility companies. Even when the editor and I lived in the inner northern suburbs of Melbourne, we used very little of the supplies provided by the nice utility companies. And I may add that I begrudged the nice utility companies every single cent that we had to pay, particularly the service fee component.

Nowadays, I have very few bills. For me, one of the appealing aspects of living in this remote corner of the planet on a property which has absolutely no services connected to it at all is that the nice utility companies can’t levy a charge on my property, because they provide me with no services whatsoever. Take that suckers!

Well, except we do have to pay the compulsory water bill. It is outrageous! The water utility would be very hard pressed to cut off our supply, but they have other means of extracting money for their coffers. The systems on the farm which we have paid for, have to provide all of our own drinking water as well as processes all of our own sewage (returning those nutrients to the soil, no less). And we also have to manage all of the drainage from the sometimes massively heavy rainfall! And despite all that we still get a water bill. Well done them. Unfortunately for us, one of the better connected and much better financed locals took the nice water utility company to court only to find that they still had to pay the water bill. And so we pay the water bill each year. 

The other bill that is compulsory is the council rates, which is a form of land tax paid to the local government.

Anyway, council rates and water bills aside, living here is a reasonably bill free existence. However, I did apply the word “naïve” to myself at the start of this essay. The reason? Because providing and maintaining your own infrastructure is a complex and expensive situation. When the editor and I began this adventure over a decade ago, we had absolutely no idea just how complex and expensive that adventure would be. In contrast to this experience, I can assure the readers that paying bills from the nice utility companies is dirt cheap. A bargain at twice the price in fact!

By now, I expect that some readers may believe that I am chucking an epic internet whinge. No so! This is simply not true at all. The reason that I am writing about this subject at all is that the other day I read an article in the newspaper: The rise of the ‘low-bills’ lifestyle

One thing that sort of annoyed me about the article was that the video footage displayed an off grid commune which looked really unappealing to me. What actually really annoyed me was that not one single person in the article mentioned that pursuing a “low bill lifestyle” would actually improve the quality of their lives. Now I do realise that the article was written for the finance section of the newspaper, so the financial aspect would be a major theme.

However, I have noticed that when people discuss matters such as a “low bill lifestyle” which is usually achieved by providing your own infrastructure, they will inevitably mention "pay back periods" or "feed in tariffs". I am yet to meet anyone who has suggested that they intended to install a solar power system so as to reduce their personal impact on global warming. For me, the matter of quality was far more important than considerations of cost (economics). My resources are limited therefore the supply from own infrastructure is likewise limited. I accept this compromise.

Astute readers of the blog will realise that the editor and I spend most of our time finessing the infrastructure here on the farm. The reason for that time spent is to ensure that the infrastructure simply works in the highly variable conditions experienced here. And also it is important that the infrastructure is productive. A mate of mine has remarked to me on several occasions that he likes this farm because it doesn’t look like his expectations. Those expectations are remarkably similar to the video footage of the off grid commune in the article above. I loved hearing that compliment.

I have been pondering the issue of quality over economics this week. The reason for that pondering is because our yoghurt making process has failed in recent months.

The editor and I have been making yoghurt from scratch for about a decade. For the past several months the yoghurt making process has been failing. The volume of whey (a very watery substance) in each batch has been slowly increasing and the yoghurt has been failing to set. We enjoy eating homemade yoghurt with fruit from the orchard on top of homemade toasted muesli. It has been very distressing to face the prospect of slowly losing yoghurt from our diet!

Of course the editor and I may have been occasionally naïve, but we are no fools. We approached the problem by learning about the yoghurt making process from start to finish through reading the most excellent book by an author: Sandor Katz and his book: The Art of Fermentation. Over the course of the past few months we have adjusted and/or replaced every variable in the fermentation process in a most scientific manner.  We now appear to have identified the problematic factor!

To produce the exact same yoghurt that we previously enjoyed, we now find ourselves having to spend just under $4 per litre (3.8 litres to the gallon) for quality milk. It appears from this experience that in order for producers to maintain low prices for in demand products supplied to us all, I am strongly inclined to believe that there has been a recent shift downwards in terms of quality for some of those products.

As another example, I have estimated that we at Fernglade Farm have to spend an estimated $0.80/kWh to supply our off grid electricity powered by the solar photovoltaic panels and stored in batteries. By contrast the average household pays approximately $0.30/kWh for electricity supplied by the nice utility company. In the state that I live in, for whatever reason, one of the older and very large coal fired power stations was mothballed very recently. That power station produced, I believe, 25% of the states electricity supply. Mothballing the plant put about 900 workers out of a job. I don’t recall reading or hearing any announcements to the affect that because of the closure of that coal fired power station and the now reduced electricity supply, that we’d all have to somehow use less electricity from now on. I may have missed those announcements, it is possible! But I wonder what happens to the people who were using the electricity produced by that now mothballed coal fired power plant? 25% of the supply is no small amount. Surely the electricity produced by that power plant wasn’t all wasted?

So many things appear to me to be like those two examples: The costs are apparently kept down, but the quality is dropping noticeably. And so I say to you the reader: It costs a lot to live with that declining quality.

I now jump off my soap box and will resume the regular programming! 

It has been another wet week here at the farm. Wet weather usually produces a special guest appearance by the small mob of three kangaroos who call this farm home.
Two of the small mob of three kangaroos who live here enjoy a bit of peace and quiet during a recent heavy rain
The plumbers finalised some minor details of the installation of the new wood heater on a very wet day this week. They also stoically installed a garden tap in a garden bed during heavy rain. The garden tap had previously been located in the middle of a garden path which made it very awkward to use both the path and the tap.
The plumbers stoically installed a garden tap in a garden bed during heavy rain
The rock wall around that garden bed was also repaired and all of the smaller rocks were removed and replaced with much larger rocks. Replacement of smaller rocks continued further along the garden beds as those smaller rocks were failing to hold back the soil in the garden beds.
Rock walls constructed using smaller rocks were dismantled and larger rocks were then placed in their stead
All of those smaller rocks which were liberated from the failing rock walls, were used to completely fill the rock gabions behind the firewood shed. And with the second and higher rock gabion now full of rocks we sewed it shut with steel wire.
All of those smaller rocks which were liberated from the failing rock walls were used to completely fill the rock gabions
The deep hole behind the rock gabion was filled with rocks and covered over with local crushed rock that contains a goodly quantity of lime. The surface of crushed rock can be, and is intended to be, walked on as a path which will form part of a future project which will unfold over the next few months.
The deep hole behind the rock gabion was filled with rocks and covered over with local crushed rock that contains a goodly quantity of lime
I also used the local crushed rock with lime to repair the garden path where the plumbers had been working. A treated pine post was also cemented into the garden bed and a green bracket was placed high up on the post from which I intend to hang the 30m / 100ft garden hose (which currently lives on the path like a 30m / 100ft trip hazard).
The local crushed rock with lime to repair the garden path where the plumbers had been working and a post was installed to hang a garden hose from
Readers may be curious to see how the area that was subject to the landslide in January is recovering. The growth in that garden bed has been phenomenal and even Poopy is unsure where the landslide was!
The area subject to the landslide in January has now more or less recovered
Occasionally I mention working in the surrounding forest. Some people have rather unusual feelings when it comes to chainsaws, but they can be put to very good and unexpected uses. In the surrounding forest, I tend to regularly remove older dead growth from the many understory trees using the chainsaw and the results can be quite staggering:
A blanket leaf understory tree has recovered beautifully from a recent pruning combined with a feeding of manure

A small thicket of musk daisy bushes has also recovered beautifully from a recent pruning combined with a feeding of manure

We’re still harvesting tomatoes, although the tomato vines are now looking very sad. The many jars of passata have also all been opened, inspected, re-cooked and preserved using a hot water bath! And because the editor and I needed a pick me up after all of the hard work with the correcting the passata disaster, we baked some yummy cinnamon scrolls.
Tomatoes are still being harvested. The passata disaster has now been corrected and all jars have been processed using a hot water bath. And we baked some yummy cinnamon scrolls
With the coming of winter, the many varieties of citrus fruit are slowly ripening on the trees.
Australian round limes and Eureka lemons are almost ripe
The pomelo tree which is a form of grapefruit has produced even more fruit this season
Chilean guava’s are also ripe and hugely delicious! We have saved the seeds from some of the fruit and hope to grow many more shrubs next year.
Chilean guava’s are also ripe and hugely delicious!
The potato vines have now all died and that is a sure sign that the tubers are almost ready to harvest. My understanding is that once the vines have yellowed and died, you have to leave the tubers in the ground for about three weeks in order that the skins harden and then the tubers can be lifted.
The potato vines have now all died and that is a sure sign that the tubers are ready to harvest
For some reason, this season I have had numerous avocado seedlings grow randomly next to the chicken enclosure where the stones must have escaped with the kitchen scraps fed to the chickens.
Numerous avocado seedlings have grown randomly next to the chickens enclosure this season
The leaf colours are continuing to put on a good show this week:
The leaf colours are continuing to put on a good show this week
And speaking of the changing leaf colours for deciduous trees, I noticed that on one weekend afternoon many of the land owners near to the hugely popular leaf change tourism area that I mentioned last week, appear to have perhaps collectively decided to take advantage of the easing of restrictions on burn offs.
The burn off restrictions in the mountain range have been lifted this week
The nasturtiums are producing a good show of colour and have huge numbers of flowers which the bees adore. The bees are only now making an appearance only when the sun shines strongly (which is now much rarer as we head ever closer to winter).
Nasturtiums are producing a good show of colour and huge numbers of flowers which the bees adore
Many of the herbs are still producing lots of colour in the garden like this rosemary:
Many of the herbs are still producing lots of colour in the garden like this rosemary
But when I look at the shady orchard, I can see that winter is indeed coming!
But when I look at the shady orchard, I can see that winter is indeed coming!
The temperature outside now at about 10.00pm is 14’C (57’F). So far this year there has been 277.4mm (10.9 inches) which is more than last week’s total of 222.4mm (8.8 inches).

Monday, 17 April 2017

Nectre of the Gods

This blog is now available as an mp3 podcast through the link:

People living in urban areas enjoy ready access to services such as: electricity; natural gas; made roads; water; and sewerage. I enjoy living on a property which has none of those services and I’m starting to wonder if that means that I'm slightly perverse? The word perverse is defined as: “the quality of being contrary to accepted standards or practice; unreasonableness”. I guess by that definition I must be a bit perverse. Is being perverse a bad thing? Maybe not!

Perverse or not, living in the unfashionable end of the mountain range, there is one service that I am particularly happy not to have access too: a made road (i.e. a Macadamised road). The editor and I have not always agreed about the benefits of living on an unmade dirt road (with downsides of a dirty car and dusty house), however in recent times the editor has come on board with my opinion.

About a decade ago when I lived in the inner city of Melbourne, I returned a high volume water pump which had been loaned to me by a friend who lived on a house on acreage with an orchard. I borrowed the water pump because Melbourne had been hit by a super cell. A super cell is a massive and very localised storm which can dump up to 100mm (4 inches) of rain in an hour. It was an impressive storm to experience. Of course, during that storm - which hit during the middle of the night – I had the unfortunate situation where most of my kitchen was stored in the backyard and it got very wet in the incredibly heavy rain. At that time I was constructing an extension to the house and so the backyard was also full of very deep stump holes which rapidly filled up with water when it flooded – and that water had to be pumped out into the nearest lane-way because it was doing nothing other than breeding mosquitoes for days after the intense rain. As an interesting side note, the extension was replacing the original rear rooms of the house which had been constructed many long years in the past from what looked to me like packing crates. I was impressed that the original buildings, walls and roof were still standing despite their humble origins.

Once I had finished pumping all of the excess water from the flooding rain, I returned the now very clean and fully fuelled pump to the lovely person that had loaned it to me (with a bottle of wine to say thanks, of course). My mate lived in the township of Monbulk which is to the south east of Melbourne in the beautiful Dandenong mountain ranges. It really is a beautiful part of the world, and I once heard a cheeky wag suggest that over there you could put a stick in the ground and it would grow!

Of course, I am a sticky nose and so I also enjoyed a tour of the orchard and my mate was happy to show off the property. However, my mate lived on a made road and during the tour of his property there was a surprising procession of cars, motorbikes and pushbikes swishing past the front gate at unusually high speeds. My mate appeared to me to be resigned to the constant procession of people and vehicles, but I felt that it was a jarring experience.

And at this time of year, I often think about my mate living over there in the Dandenong Ranges.

In the more fashionable western end of this particular mountain range, they are (un)fortunate enough to have made roads. Along some of those made roads, trees were planted in neat orderly rows in remembrance of soldiers from the surrounding areas who had died in WWI and WWII. The avenues of honour are a lovely tradition and the trees are usually oaks or elms and are all now very old. The tree canopies completely cover the road and every autumn, the colours of the leaves turn to beautiful yellows, oranges and reds. It is quite the sight to see the leaf turn in this part of the world especially as the surrounding evergreen eucalyptus forests provide such a strong contrast.

As recently as three years ago, very few people visited the area to see the change in the leaf colour. The trees in those avenues of honour weren’t offended at all if only a few people came to witness their leaf display as the trees simply and gracefully went about the business of being a deciduous tree. I’d seen the occasional bride posing for photos on an empty road under the colourful canopy of the deciduous trees and it always looked great.

This mountain range is a very un-populated and very quiet part of the world. However, a few years ago, something changed and hordes of people began turning up every weekend to witness for themselves the leaves changing colours. This event seemed to be gaining momentum each year and the chaos and mayhem of last year finally spurred some of the more heavyweight locals into taking action. A committee was formed and controls were put into place in the fashionable end of the mountain range!

I was curious to see how all of the traffic control measures which were implemented this year were working. For research purposes for this blog, the editor and I travelled over to the more fashionable end of the mountain range on Sunday (and also availed ourselves of a very excellent award winning vanilla slice on the other side!) and I can report that indeed there were still hordes of people in what is usually a very sleepy location, but that by and large the influx of people seemed better managed than the chaos and mayhem in past years. I must add though that I am used to seeing the area as a sleepy and very quiet part of the world, so for me it was quite the jarring experience.

Over here in the middle of the unfashionable end of the mountain range, both the editor and I are quietly grateful for the unmade roads through the scary forest that separate us from the unrelenting hordes.
The traffic bringing people into the mountain range to witness the leaf change seemed much better managed this year
Honour Avenue had very strict controls placed on the tourists which seemed to work well
This week has been a week for correcting past errors. This week we finally replaced the failing wood heater.

Regular readers will recall that the previous wood heater no longer worked because the damage to the mechanism was such that the wood heater burnt a lot of firewood but produced very little heat. In addition to that lack of heat, the function of the cooking oven was not working either.

Long term readers will recall that two years ago, I had already replaced sections of plate steel inside the combustion chamber of the wood heater, but the damage this time was so extensive that it was beyond my abilities to repair. From hindsight, I can see that much of the damage to the previous wood heater was caused through inappropriate usage of that wood heater by the editor and I. We simply asked more output from that wood heater than it was designed to provide. Incidentally, it is also worth noting that these days, wood heaters are considered to be a disposable item with a lifespan equivalent to that of an average new vehicle (10 years on average)! When first I used a wood heater, I assumed that the sturdy steel construction of the unit would mean that the heater would have a very long lifespan (30-40 years). This is not so! And after much consideration and soul searching, this week we purchased a new wood heater to replace the old and no longer functioning wood heater.
The bright yellow trailer is used to deliver a new wood heater to the farm this week
A considerable amount of thought and energy went into the decision, as to which wood heater would be purchased to replace the no longer functioning wood heater. Over the past few weeks the editor and I have spent many boring hours talking to salespeople and inspecting replacement units. We also had to have the discussion between ourselves as to why the original wood heater became so damaged in the first place. And finally, we have sought many different opinions about wood heaters. To those people who addressed this most important matter in the comment section, you have our thanks and appreciation. The local plumber who installed the original wood heater and hot water system here many years ago provided a recommendation based on his experience and we went with that recommendation.

Of course, nothing is ever simple and that recommended replacement wood heater works very differently to the original wood heater. The new wood heater has a very large 15kW stainless steel hot water jacket inside the combustion chamber. That hot water jacket can be used to either direct heat into the existing hydronic radiator system (which never worked properly with the previous wood heater to the extent that we were thinking of removing part of the radiator system) or into the hot water system (or it can send heat to both systems). In addition to that, the combustion chamber in the new wood heater is almost 50% larger again than the old wood heater. This means that I can insert more firewood than previously – or take a more sensible approach and simply not run the wood heater as hard as we had been doing previously. And the difference between the two wood heaters has been extraordinary - for the same volume of firewood, the new wood heater produces a much greater heat output than I can recall in the past. In addition to this, I was concerned with longevity of the new wood heater and the replaceable steel components in the new heater are almost twice as thick as the previous unit. The lesson learned for us here is that not all wood heaters are the same, and as such they do not (and cannot be expected to) perform the same functions. Firewood is not an energy source for the careless.
The new wood heater takes pride of place in the main room of the house
The new wood heater utilised the existing steel triple skinned 150mm / 6 inch flue (which is the fancy name for the steel chimney) and so that was a savings of sorts. However the existing flue didn’t meet up with the outlet for the new wood heater and the plumbers had to move the flue 80mm / 3.25 inches further into the room. This job involved a lot of cutting of the plaster in the ceiling and also cutting into the 30 minute bushfire rated steel roof.

The editor and I have been cleaning up the hole in the ceiling plaster inside the main room over the past few days. Repairs to plaster always take a few days as the plaster has to dry between various coats. Firstly, I cut a section of marine grade plywood and inserted it behind the plaster (which was done from inside the roof cavity).
The author begins the repair process for the plaster inside the main room due to the flue being relocated
Then I cut a section of plasterboard to fit the hole which left a little gap between the plaster and the steel flue. That section of plasterboard was then screwed onto the plywood.
A section of plasterboard was then screwed onto the plywood leaving a gap between the plaster and the steel flue
Then we began the slow process of joining the two plasterboard sheets using filler.
The two sheets of plasterboard were then joined using filler
The plumbers also moved one of the existing hydronic (i.e. hot water) radiators to a nearby wall. I’ve since begun repairing the timber skirting board and filling the holes in the floorboards.
A radiator was moved and the author has begun repairing the holes in the floor and the skirting board
Observant readers will note that the skirting boards are made from two timber sections, rather than one very large (almost 200mm / 8 inches) section of timber. The reason for doing so is because it is simply cheaper to use two pieces of timber. I learned that trick because I noted that that is how they constructed large skirting boards in 19th century houses which I had owned in the past. In the photo above on the finished wall, no join between the two bits of timber is visible.

We brought in a cubic metre / 1.3 cubic yards of composted woody mulch to feed the many rhododendrons which produce great flower displays in spring. We also brought in another cubic metre of mushroom compost as we began repairing the rock wall around one of the oldest fruit trees on the farm (a 15 year old olive tree).
Toothy inspects the failing rock wall around a mature olive tree
That rock wall was falling over as the original rocks were too small. We had been collecting much bigger rocks over the past few weeks and decided to pull the existing rock wall apart and rebuild it with the much larger rocks.
The rock wall around a mature olive tree was corrected this week by using much larger rocks
It has been a massive week for produce:
The tomatoes are still producing massive quantities of fruit
As an addendum to the passata which we had been making over the past few weeks: One jar of passata which we opened appeared to be contaminated with a mould. We were unsure whether the seal on the lid of the jar had failed or that the recipe was at fault (it has a pH of 3.5). To this end, we started the process of opening all of the remaining jars of passata and re-cooking the contents and then ran the jars through a hot water bath, just to be safe.
The first potatoes were dug, capsicums and eggplants were harvested
Zucchini, heritage round cucumbers and more potatoes were harvested
The first ever ripe cantaloupe was harvested here – and it was very tasty
And, there are plenty of flowers around the farm, but there is also the leaf colour change (tourist free)!
Leaf change for the many deciduous trees are putting on a good show
This Manchurian Pear produces a great display of autumn colour
Nothing quite rivals the rich red of a Crepe Myrtle
The temperature outside now at about 6.30pm is 11’C (52’F). So far this year there has been 222.4mm (8.8 inches) which is more than last week’s total of 214.0mm (8.4 inches).