From Drill bits to Scythes

For many years I watched my father struggle as he drilled holes into concrete walls (you know, for hanging stuff around the house and what not). He would work very hard, put a lot of force into it, needed someone (sometimes me) to hold up the ladder so he could push into the wall. And when I grew up and began drilling my own holes in concrete walls I did the same. One day, as I was browsing the drill bits in a DIY store I came across some Bosch bits which were much more expensive than the cheaper bits. I purchased one and the next time I drilled into concrete I was blown away … the quality drill bit took on a lot of the work I was doing. Good tools are not cheap and good tools are … well … good … or at least much better than cheap junk tools. I’ve applied that lesson many times since.

Fast forward many years … we move out to Bhudeva. We find an old scythe (worn blade) in the barn and decide to buy a second one with a newer, hopefully better blade. In our shopping we found two kinds of blades: cheap and really cheap. We decided to splurge and went with the cheap. It looked nice but it really wasn’t impressive nor pleasant to work with.

Fortunately, during our first year I was gifted with an opportunity to watch a guy who really knew how to work with a scythe. He did it really well, elegantly, efficiently, with correct effort (he could go on and on). I picked up some stuff from watching him and from an occassional tip he was able to communicate to me. Though a scythe may seem like an obvious tool to use … most people use it bluntly (hacking away). He didn’t, he danced with it … I think it was a meditative experience for him.

But no matter how much I practiced I couldn’t seem to find my way into this dance. I got better … but something wasn’t working out. Then a few months ago I came across some information on scythe’s and eventually wrote this post about it. As I did so I found an Austrian company FUX that produces Scythes and has been doing so for hundreds of years (the same company!) – hand forged to this day. I emailed the company to ask if they had representation in Romania and they replied with two contacts. Liviu (who has been really helpful interfacing on my behalf with the Romanian speaking world around me) spoke to them and indeed they had FUX scythes. We ordered one and it has been here at Bhudeva for a couple of weeks.

During this time a couple of (local) people who saw the blade asked me if I was looking to create back problems for myself. They couldn’t understand why in this day and age of power tools (small and large) I would want to invest in a back-breaking scythe (all the way from Austria). So …

I purchased a snath (a long wooden handle onto which the blade is attached) and a binding ring in the village market. Today I finally got around to setting it up. The snath was properly sized to my height. The scythe blade was installed at a correct angle …  and I went swinging away … and I was immediately blown away. The blade flowed through the grass and weeds smoothly and with ease. It seemed like the grass was surrendering to the might of the blade and falling on its own, before the blade even reached it. What a pleasure to use.

When I finished playing around with it I wanted to wipe it clean and it slipped from my grip. I sent out a hand to catch the blade … mistake. In a fraction of a second it peeled a small patch of skin from one of my fingers. Later in the evening I also found that as I was playing around with the scythe it seamlessly cut through a power cord that runs through our yard (delivering power to the workshop). I found out because the same cable powers the electric fence that protects our chickens and ducks … and the fence wasn’t working.

It’s an amazing blade, so different from the cheap stuff that is so abundantly available. Thought I wouldn’t (for now?) want to cut down acres of grass with it, I do look forward to working and finding my groove with it. What a difference a good tool makes.

I was (again, as with the axes) disappointed that we couldn’t find a decent Romanian made scythe. I doubt there is a country on this planet where there is a higher scythe-per-capita ratio. Yet only junk is readily available here – no wonder people think it is back-breaking work! So now I have a Finnish axe and an Austrian scythe, both from companies who have been making them for hundreds of years. There should be Romanian companies who make axes & scythes (and many other such things). Everywhere I look I see so many opportunities to create meaningful things here in Romania 🙂

Solar Food Dehydrators

At the end of last summer I built our first two solar food dehydrators and our first experiments with them were really great. I have been asked a few times about our choices so I finally got around to writing this.

First things first. Why dehydrated food?

  • It is an additional option for preserving and storing food.
  • Dried foods are potentially more nutritious then pickled or cooked (tomato sauce, zakuska) preservation since they don’t go through any cooking … just drying … removal of water.
  • Dried foods require no energy to prepare (just the sun) or to store (such as freezing) … just a sealed jar.
  • Dried foods can generally last much longer.
  • Dried foods are easier to process. It is much easier to cut up tomatoes and put them in a solar drier then it is to process them into tomato sauce.

A LOT Of my research starts (and often concludes) at BuildItSolar.com. Since this was my first solar project I invested quite a bit of effort in developing a basic understanding of thermal dynamics. It wasn’t easy at first but it was well worth the investment. If you plan to collaborate much with the sun (as I do) I suggest you do the same. Make an effort to understand how the designs work.

There are many designs and systems of solar dehydrators. In preparation for this post I found these two documents about solar drying stored on my computer. I browsed through them and they seem to offer a good overview – so you are welcome to have a look at them:

After much research I was able to dismiss some designs by identifying a few criteria that were important for us:

  1. All passive – no electric ventilation – solar heating creates air flow, air flow dries food.
  2. Simple to build – I have woodworking tools and basic skills, I use mostly roughly sawn pine and I am unable (for now) to produce high precision, constant sized wood.
  3. Simple to use – a system with no “options” – no thermostat and no adjustments possible – fresh food goes in and dried food comes out.
  4. No backup heat – no option to hook it up to another heat source (such as a stove) for complementary heat on when the sun isn’t sufficient.

I was left with three possible designs. It seems that the most popular design is a cabinet-like design where a solar collector feeds hot air into a cabinet in which trays are placed with food for drying. The following design roughly describes them though their actual shapes and dimensions may vary:

The solar collector heats air and since warm air rises, in this case it rises into the cabinet (which is placed above the solar dehydrator). This flow of warm air passes across the trays of food, absorbs moisture and escapes out the top.

A major improvement over this design (though theoretical for me since I built neither design) is the downdraft dryer. Once upon a time I found a drawing of such a drier but I have had no luck finding it again. The main difference is that hot air enters at the top of the cabinet, falls down in it  (and across the shelves) … all the way down, and then is sucked out (flows up) through a chimney (often a separate chamber built into the cabinet itself). You can see both cabinet designs in this video:

What is the improvement in the downdraft design? In the first (popular) design as the air rises it collects moisture and cools … and cool air tends to sink … which means that two opposing forces are now at work.  Warm air is trying to rise from the collector and cool air is trying to drop down inside the cabinet. From what I’ve read this conflict can result in diminished air flow, which means that food may not dry well or fast enough, which may lead to mold … a conflicted design. The downdraft design works with the natural tendency of cool air to drop (which can be further improved by re-heating the air in the evacuation chimney so that air is both pushed in and sucked out) so it should result in better, more consistent airflow … and better drying.

Both designs rely on one core feature – air flow. For efficient air-flow the entire system needs to be built as air-tight as possible … so that air cannot get sucked in or escape anywhere but where you want it. That small, often understated requirement can prove to be either difficult and/or expensive to achieve (and maintain … remember, this thing is exposed to the elements). I was about to embark on constructing a downdraft cabinet dryer when I realized that I achieving air-tightness was not going to be trivial (within the constraints of tools and resources I have available to me). I do not believe these designs to meet the 2nd criteria – simple to build (even though they are presented as such).

Both designs are excellent space savers (many trays in a small space). Yet even when such designs do work well there is a functional inconsistency built into them. In both designs the top and bottom trays will never experience the same temperature, humidity and air-flow. In both designs humidity and odors build up as air passes through the shelves. Though this may work it does require more planning and thinking during usage (what goes on top, what goes on the bottom, what things do not go together, etc.). This does not meet the 3rd criteria – simple to use.

So I changed my mind and went looking for something else. Eventually I arrived at Bob & Larisa at Geopathfinder. They have a lot to offer on sustainable living, drawing from 30 years of experience – including solar food drying. Their design is simple to build (with a very high tolerance for error), simple to use and, from our limited experience so far, provides reliable results. One drawback is that their design takes up more space. This is not an issue for us (living in the countryside) though I am not sure it is an issue for anyone if you take into consideration ease-of-use and reliability. I see no need to repeat information that is presented simply and clearly on their website HERE. They offer a free PDF with images from a construction workshop showing in detail how they are built.

Last year I built a pair of solar dryers based on their design and in the coming weeks I will be building another pair. Spring has just started and the dryers are already working drying spring flowers for our year round tea consumption:

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 There is a lot to learn about food dehydration. Different foods require different times. There are varieties (such as with tomatoes) that are more suitable for drying than others. Some things dry really fast (herbs), other take longer and need to be timed properly especially for food (again such as tomatoes) with a high water content – in which case you need to start on a sunny day to get through the initial drying (to prevent molding over night). Most things are dried without direct exposure to sunlight, others benefit from sun exposure (mushrooms are supposed to become saturated with vitamin D).

The Solar Dryers, though a do it yourself project, were not inexpensive. The most expensive material (for us) was the mesh upon which the food was placed – this need to be something that comes in contact with food that you will east (so no rusting, off-gassing, etc.). Following Bob & Larisa’s advice we searched (and just barely found in Romania) stainless steel mesh upon which the food is placed. I estimate the total cost of materials to be ~250 lei per square meter (every dryer is one square meter divided into 4 trays).

 

Sheep Shipping

There is a herd of sheep grazing in our valley (including on some of our land). During this time of year the herds expand since many lambs are born. At this time herd owners that want to make an income from milk (used to produce dairy products) need to separate the lambs from the rest of the herd (because they consume much of the milk). Herd owners that do not want to expand the flock (substantially) need to get rid of the lambs. In Romania some are butchered and their meat especially for the Easter holiday. But most are sold.

A couple of days ago a truck pulled up in front of our house. It was a lamb-merchant who came to buy lambs from the herd staying with us. The road is covered with stones up to our property, beyond that it is an earth road … which the heavy truck could not negotiate. So it stopped right in front of our house. It was a great opportunity to watch and take some pictures.

By the time I got out (boots, raincoat …) negotiations had begun. My Romanian is still limited so I only partially understand what is going on … a lot of interpretation and guessing on my part 🙂 A lamb was being weighed.

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This is important because the price is based on weight. There seemed to be a debate about the precision of the scales and what followed is what I like to call a Romanian callibration process. Representatives of both sides (buyer and seller) stood on the weight to assess? it’s precision.

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When they didn’t seem to reach an agreement a second (manual) scale was brought out for comparison. Again, both parties stood on it … and a lamb.

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When that was set there was more debate maybe on the price per kg. The buyer took the seller to the truck (which was already loaded with some lambs) and fingered one of the animals as if to say “you see this is a meaty animals, yours are all bones”. But that too was settled (somewhat grudingly) … and it was time to start gathering lambs. A demanding and pretty aggressive venture. I wouldn’t want to be a lamb!

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Once caught, each lamb is weighed and then placed in the truck.

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This truck will also be loaded with some pigs and is then headed to Holland.

In this picture you can see our dogs “helping out”. The large dog (Indy) seems to have some herding in her genetics and is very good at it and very happy to do it. The smaller dog (Ricky) is more of a follower and imitates Indy, though clearly does not really know what she is doing.

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Its hillarious when one of the sheep turns to face Ricky … and:

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Indy is also a passionate car chaser-barker (unless its a car she is used to). She chases rear tires and if the car is moving slowly enough (as is sometimes the case with horse carriages) she will try to actually bite a rear tire … as if she is trying to herd the vehicle (to join the car herd?) … an unpleasant site for us (I’d hate to see what happens if she manages to latch a tooth onto a moving tire). The crazy thing is that Ricky learned this behaviour from her … but she applies it completely wrong. When Indy chases a moving tire Ricky chases and barks after Indy and bites Indy’s hind legs. Its obvious she picked up this behavior but has absolutely no idea what it is for. The craziest thing is that Indy, as her teacher, accepts this behavior as normal and to our suprise never turns to bite off Ricky’s head. Hillarious to watch 🙂

Biosan Hit by Hail

We just heard from Mihaela and Kinga of Biosan that a hail storm destroyed most of their crops. It tore through their greenhouse covers and slammed into the plants below. We had a bit of hail in our area but nothing so destructive. It is amazing that this kind of devastation can occur in minutes:

They worked efficiently to get an early start this year and had already made a few deliveries of wonderful (we know because we got a taste) fresh greens to their members … and now this. The deliveries will stop. They will get started on new plants but recuperation will take some time.

There isn’t much (that I know of) to protect a garden from a hail storm. I believe that answers can only be found from a more macro view of things … diversity comes to me as a keyword. Diversity in a garden, diversity in the wider eco-system in which the garden lives … diversity increases the odds in your favor when nature strikes (somethings may be lost, but not all).

With Cutia Taranului diveristy gains additional context. Cutia Taranului transforms a hail storm into an experience of community in a very practical way:

  • Members of the Biosan box who just started to enjoy the fresh foods will have to find another source until Mihaela & Kinga can get back on track.
  • Mihaela & Kinga have invested care, time, work and money in their gardens and are experiencing losses.
  • Andreea and I were sad to hear about the damage and the frustrations Mihaela & Kinga are experiencing. We were very happy to watch them grow from a small experiment last year (when they shipped just a few boxes) to a small producer this year.

I should say that this isn’t the first time that Cutia Taranului has experienced casualties of nature. Last year, Farkas family also joined Cutia Taranului, they had a list of members who had joined and … they lost their entire crop to last year’s drought (which, unlike hail, can be mitigated, but that is another story). We saw the small plants when they were growing … they were all transplanted into the fields … and almost all the plants died (there wasn’t enough variety or quantity for box deliveries). The Farkas family may offer a box this year … their fields are planted, but this year they are more cautious and waiting to see how events unfold before extending an invigation for members to join.

I do believe that there are things that can be done to protect a community … and again the answer comes in the form of diversity. There are currently 5 peasant-families who will be delivering (some have not yet started, and more may yet join)  over 150 boxes of vegetables this season. The boxes are all sold out. However if (and we hope that in the future this will be the case) there were more producers and members then as a community we should be able to better cope with such events.

For example, Biosan members could temporarily (for a couple of months, or if necessary, the rest of the season) join other producers and continue to enjoy fresh produce. Peasant families could each (with what I believe would be little effort) commit to growing (at the start of the season when plants are still very vulnerable and there is time for re-establishing gardens)  additional seedlings as a kind of mutual insurance policy to help each other quickly restart when something like this happens.

As I am writing these words we are having a very rainy day … quickly alternating between radiant sun and downpours of water. We are conducting a few experiments with water so when there is a substantial downfall I go outside to have a look around. When I went outside a few minutes ago I realized that if such prolific rains would continue much longer (we’ve had a week of plentiful rain) they may cause flat and open fields to flood … drowning the still fragile plants (we are not worried about this because our gardens are built as raised beds which are naturally more flood tolerant).

Sidenote: I’ve written it before and I’ll write it again. It isn’t overall global warming that is a threat to food production, it is the increasing frequency of singular extreme events (a few minutes of hail, a few hours of heavy rainfail, a few weeks of drought) which do the greatest damage. This instability is most likely going to be a constant for many years to come. It is one example of the price we are paying for the ecological neglect we’ve been tolerating.

There is work to do in our food gardens to prepare for such events but there is also work to do as a community. I am sorry for the difficulty this event has brought to Mihaela & Kinga. At the same time I am grateful for this opportunity to reflect on the potential for Cutia Taranului to become a more resilient community.

Soils & Forestry

A great talk conversation (it is a very interactive session where audience questions both inform and direct the talk) with Mark Vander Meer about soils and soil restoration. Though he specializes in forestry his talk does provide general insights and touches on pasture and garden soils.   Most memorable phrase from the talk “soil is a living organism”.

The resources mentioned in the talk are available for download here – both the video and the resources compliments of Permies.com

Sunset on a Stormy Day

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Sacred Economics

I wrote about a precious book called Sacred Economics on my personal blog. I invite you to check it out.

Maramures in the 1960’s

A unique view into traditional Romanian village life with honorable mentions of:

  • hemp: grown and processed by hand for clothing.
  • financial wisdom: a commons approach to land
  • wooden wheels … wow!
  • wood-planks: the fluidity with which a log is transferred (by two men and a very long saw) into planks
  • gypsies: with a disctinct role in Romanian society suitable for their nomadic lifestyle

… and two more things:

  • 50 years later, things in Romania haven’t changed too much. Though I haven’t visited Mara Mures (which is still supposed to be a distinct area in today’s Romania) the general aura of the film rings true with what I see around me.
  • The cold, supposedly scientific/objective/documentary viewpoint from which the film was produced offers a glimpse into another (very different) society far away from Romania.

Two clips totalling ~20 minutes:

On a personal note: a few months ago I learned that if my name (Ronen) was translated (from Hebrew) into Romanian … it would be … Radu!

Thank you Craig from Bucharest Life for bringing this to my attention.

Water First

I really need to get this short post out of my system because its stuck in my throat …

When I first learned about Permaculture I got lost in a bad way. So many bits and pieces of information are associated with Permaculture that I could not make sense of it all. Particularly I couldn’t find any point of origin … something that provides a view I could relate to. A first crystallization came when I finally understood something about soil fertility … that the main crop on any farm should be fertile soil. Food that you can eat or sell or feed to animals is an extra layer … what is left after soil fertility has been improved (as opposed to the cycle of depletion typical of standard agriculture).

It is said that labyrinth puzzles are easier to solve from the end to the beginning. Soil fertility is now an obvious part of my consciousness (simply put: hugelkultur beds and forest gardening). In that spirit over the last few months I feel as if I’ve taken another step back towards the beginning of this puzzle. The new step is water. It is impossible to do anything without water.

We have a well that supplies our house needs but is not enough to water plants and gardens. Some people in our area dig large water holes that tap into the aquifer and they rely on it heavily (last year we saw quite a depletion during the drought) … we prefer not to do that (for numerous reasons).

The thing to understand about water here isn’t that there isn’t enough … but that it comes in unpredictable bursts. The trick is how to store water when it is available in such a way that it can be used when it isn’t.

They say that when you buy a certain brand of car that you suddenly see many more similar cars on the road. I don’t know if that is the case, but since my consciousness has opened up to water I seem to be flooded (no pun intended) with information about water … as if everyone has awoken with/for me.

So until I find the next first step … water is it!

When to Get Food?

When it’s available! That seems like an obvious answer but if you have gotten used to super-market mentality then that answer is not so obvious. If you shop in super-markets you can probably get pretty much whatever you want whenever you want it (though prices may fluctuate) … and you are used to it being that way.

Members of Cutia Taranului experience a different reality. Food is delivered when it beomes available. When it comes to vegetables, the boxes in spring are light and fluffy as they contain a lot of salad leaves, the boxes get heavier in summer when tomatoes and peppers appear and even heavier in fall as potatoes and other root vegetables become available. For the most part this cycle is governed by nature and it provides, when it comes to vegetables, a continuous supply of fresh food for 6-8 months (in Romania). We know it isn’t obvious because many (happy!) members were surprised when, last fall, the vegetable-box deliveries ended.

However there are other kinds of cycles in nature that are less continuous and more concentrated. We’ve recently launched a box with lamb-meat. This is a unique box since it is only available once a year.

In Romania (maybe also in other places, I am not a religious scholar so I don’t know) it coincides with the Easter holiday. However, and more importantly, it coincides with a natural flow. This is the time of year when lambs are born. Most local-Romanian sheep-herd owners, who have established herds, do not want to expand (potentially doubling) their herd (they have limited resources available for their herd and need to maintain it accordingly). This is also a time when sheep-milk-based dairy products are revived (sheep milk is available after lambs are born) and if the lambs consume all (or most) of the milk, then very little is left for producing cheeses. So the lambs need to be butchered (or sold!) now.

If you like lamb-meat then this is the time to get it. If you want it available for a longer period of time then you can purchase more, cut it up into servings, freeze it and thaw it as needed. Healthy, grass fed, organic lamb-meat (in the above mentioned box the lambs are slaughtered in the pre-dawn hours and delivered in the morning hours – it doesn’t get any fresher then that) is only available at this time of year. It won’t be available again until next year.

A similar cycle exists with pig-meat. In villages pigs are butchered for the Christmas holiday season. However there are practical reasons for that too. By that time pigs have matured and grown to provide plenty of meat and the cold weather conditions make it easier and safer to deal with fresh meat (which would spoil much faster in hot weather).

Even in our own small homestead where we grow Muscovite-ducks and chickens and we could theoretically butcher fresh meet whenever we want it (and sometimes we do), our freezer is filled in cycles. After the mating season we will cull some mature males (keeping only ones we wish to breed again next year). In early winter we cull the flock so that we don’t have to feed too many animals throughout winter (we keep good mothers and healthy males).

So keep your eyes open for these special boxes. Food is available when nature provides not when you want it. Consume it when it is available and preserve it for when it isn’t.