Jo Hunter-Adams

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since Aug 10, 2015
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forest garden solar tiny house
1-acre sortof-off-grid homestead in a peri-urban area of South Africa. Started our food forest in 2014. Experimenting with hugelkultur beds!
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Recent posts by Jo Hunter-Adams

We rely primarily on my day job as we're only in year 3 of running a 1 acre permaculture farm in a peri-urban area, with 3 kids at home with us. This means time is still hard to come by, but I can see that we'll be able to support ourselves with only on-farm income if we want to, in about 2 years. This is also because we're saving most of my income as although we don't make much money on the farm, we also don't have many expenses anymore.

A year ago, we added a 1 acre neighbouring plot, which we run as a nursery. At the nursery, we sell very hardy plants, and cover the salaries of the 2 people it employs (we don't make any money yet, and don't cover taxes on that property).

The nursery: It's not a success in the sense that it's not making us any money, but it's a success in the sense that we were able to preserve 2 jobs during a catastrophic drought in our area, and these 2 people have incredible plant knowledge of this particular climate (which I'm finding very particular- even 10km away the climate grows different stuff), which they're sharing with me. It's also been a success because the many years of junk on that property has been useful for building fencing on our 1 acre, allowing us to gradually set up pastures without buying new wire/posts. Suddenly we also had a ready source of companion plants, which accelerated the progress of our food forest by at least a couple of years. We also got access to a around 10 bags of horse manure every week, which saves me a lot of time. And I now know how to propagate a lot of different plants, and have a newfound appreciation for non-edibles.

Our farm: On our 1 acre, we occasionally sell ducks and chickens (enough to cover feed costs).
Because we have slightly better wellpoint water and I now know how to propagate, I sell softer plants out of my house-- I track demand closely and focus on just a few plants because I still have a day-job: right now those are moringa, grandailla/guavadillas and tamarillos. I use this money to pay for our nursery staff member to have 1 more day's work every week, on our property-- which helps with my exhaustion and takes off some of the pressure of manual labour but again, it is not extra money. Selling these plants has allowed me to get to know many people trying to grow edibles, and also connected me to the permaculture growers in the area. That said, these cash crops-- particularly moringa-- could be pretty successful if I had more time!

We're also planting some of the hardy stock from our nursery into several small non-irrigated rotational pastures of forage for small dairy goats, which we hope to get next year. It'll be a while before those goats break even, but we hope to sell some goat cheese, and once the goats are on the farm I think we can honestly say we're using our space fully/to the max (it would be too long before we would have the time to really farm the full acre with something more time-intensive like tunnels-- and selling vegetables in our area at a larger scale is not lucrative).

We run a small monthly coop where we buy directly from farmers and small businesses and supply food to order (with a small markup) to around 30 families. Again, we don't make a huge amount of money doing this this-- but we cover our own off-farm food (grains, nuts, oil, dairy), and have a grateful and friendly network through which to directly supply our own produce when we start to have enough-- right now we just sell fresh herbs/herb plants & sometimes duck eggs, but we're starting to grow an excess of certain fruits, and in a couple of years we'll have a lot (hopefully!).

The goal is to sell enough/make just enough money to demonstrate that we're using our land effectively and being good stewards, not necessarily for it to be a financially viable operation for anyone. i.e. it's financially viable for us because we've spent years on this journey and have gone really gradually, and have paid for the land (both acres) and built our home with off-farm income. It's viable in the sense that we don't have a large income and we've been pretty frugal- and so anyone in our peer group would be well-poised to do similar if they wanted to-- i.e. I desperately want to show it's a viable and appropriate/sustainable option for the middle class. It's not viable in the sense that NGOs and policy makers in South Africa sometimes want everyone who is poor to take up urban agriculture, which is a generally fraught idea because the only thing that is keeping us going is having financial margin to fail occasionally. Since we're in an urban space, the problem is not the market for our products, but that the cost of land and cost of living is high, yet minimum wage is very low and most food is produced on a cheaper land by paying people minimum wage (ignoring the costs to the land and fossil fuels). So there's a mismatch. We cannot set our prices that give us the type of wage that would provide a good living for the work we do, because this cost would be so much higher than the minimum wage. So we meet in the middle and consider the learning and good food as the primary reward.  
1 month ago
Also do several different things with my sourdough starter-- naan, pizza, crepes, bread, primarily.

For bread, our primary bread has been greatly improved by starting with a very wet dough-- around 3.5 cups whole wheat, 1 cup rye, 3 cups water, left overnight. The wetness softens the bran of the wheat, which helps to improve the rise (no sharp bran bits popping yeast bubbles and deflating the dough). I then add a bit of white flour the next morning (1 or 2 cups).
2 months ago
I was starting with pure sand  three years ago (winter rainfall area, very little summer rain, no frost). I finally caved this year and bought in woodchips, after several years of adding free sources of biomass (chopping and dropping acacia saligna, collecting bags of leaves off the side of the road). The bags of leaves and chop and drop and free horse manure had already improved the soil a lot, but they disappear fast and I struggled to get enough at one time to improve the soil without encouraging various grasses. I also did try encouraging beneficial weeds/plants by spreading seeds of various kinds, but I didn't have access to the amount of water that would be needed to start most seeds, and nothing really took hold (occasionally got some lupins and some nettles) I was struggling to get the grass under control given the improved soil, and the grass seemed to be negatively affecting the fruit trees, and making it very hard to establish any smaller companion plants. So I picked up cardboard (free) and layered on woodchips. The advantage is that now I'm having a much easier time establishing companion plants and the combination of woodchips and cardboard seems to be helping the trees a lot too. I'm hoping that by the time the woodchips are gone I'll established many companion plants and the food forest will be shady enough that free sources of carbon will suffice again. Rock dust also seems to have been helpful - as our sand is quite demineralized.  
2 months ago
Your plans sound good-- again only if you're living on site while implementing them (which I think from your last message that you are?). I.e. bananas are a great idea but very water hungry and not keen on wind-- ours do best on our greywater system where they get continuous water.  Moringa also grows very fast in my experience if there's good wind protection and lots of water-- plus you have year-round growth in hawaii! I might not transplant young moringa trees into rocks-- it may be better to grow in place with seeds/lots of seeds (surrounded by windbreak), as their root is easily damaged during transplant.

Keep us posted!
2 months ago
Are you living on site? If not, I would suggest starting by just piling up all free sources of biomass.

Before adding trees as windbreaks, I would trial a few (keeping them in bags) for a week or two in the place you want to plant, to acclimate them and see how they do. Piles of biomass can also act as a windbreak for the windbreak, if you're not living on site? I.e. pile biomass high, planting in behind it. You can always move the biomass once the windbreak is established. If there's anything that you can free seeds/cuttings for (e.g. pineapple heads from restaurants), I would consider trying those in bags to start, then transplanting out.

If there's nothing really growing, I wouldn't worry too much about whether something is edible to start with-- If you find you're getting plants (cheap, hardy plants!) growing it'll be easy to chop and drop (and make more piles of biomass). For year one biomass and any types of cheap/free plants at all would seem a good experiment.
2 months ago
I'm a little further from the ocean (2km) but we also get extremely strong winds (sometimes salty), have very sandy soil and also have a Mediterranean climate. What is your water situation like? If you have plentiful water (and time to water), growing from seed in situ may be ok, but growing in pots/bags may be better. I do grow from seeds and cuttings, but I grow in bags and then gradually harden things out.

I use relatively large, wind resistant trees/shrubs grown in bags very densely as a barrier/hedge/windbreak, then sell them or move them to a new area of cultivation when the tree is hardy enough to survive. Good windbreaks with relatively low water needs (and non-invasive) here include Cape Silver Oak (brachylaena discolor), some types of hibiscus (which I sell when it is no longer helpful/useful), our native fynbos (proteas etc-- which are hard to get started and don't like their roots being disturbed but form great windbreaks), and kei apples. Some acacias (and senegalensia) do well too. If you have a house on the site, I would suggest starting by planting where the house provides some wind protection, then work outwards (if necessary growing in bags close to house, then gradually moving the bags further away from wind protection). I have also used shade cloth/wire around trees, temporarily in places. In my experience it has been better to give as much attention as possible to trees in their first year, then taper off attention as they get more established/stronger.

I also use various types of pelagonia/geraniums around small trees as a small windbreak, as the tree grows it doesn't need the windbreak anymore, and has also outgrown the pelagonia, which stays small and doesn't mind wind. It's so easy to propagate many pelagonia from cuttings that I focus on quantity. Sometimes I'll also put trees/shrubs in bags around a tree as a windbreak, which also acts as a type of mulch to the tree I'm trying to protect. If I water the bags, extra water goes down to the tree.

I have not had much luck growing from seed and then leaving things alone, not even during winter rains. I have had success planting relatively large, hardy plants as a windbreak during winter or where I can water regularly for a week or two after planting-- and then leaving these alone to focus on edibles. Nowadays I'm able to grow many types of passiflora, grapes, pomegranate, almond, citrus, tamarillos bananas etc-- but they are all behind some level of windbreaks and all currently supported by watering. As my windbreak grows and my soil improves, I hope that the need for watering will decrease, but I am happy to water to help get the food forest established-- and happy to continue to water via drip irrigation if it means I get food.
2 months ago

Rather than observe for a year, we tapped into the knowledge of our neighbors and other long time residents. They gave us valuable information about seasonal temperatures, rain patterns, wind cycles and history, climate cycles, ground water, local vegetation, etc. Most of these people had been living here for 20 years or more, so had observed a lot over that time. They taught us about the importance of elevation, plus the fact that soil type, rain amount, and wind effects  can change every mile.

I always love your common-sense approach, Su Ba.

I think in our case I overestimated the importance of getting trees in the ground, and underestimated the importance of observation-- for fruit trees at least. I'm not sure if I could have done things differently, as perhaps I had to make my own mistakes. Example: I lost a goji berry bush early on to a mole rat (these things are huge)-- as in the bush entirely disappeared. I asked neighbours about this phenomenon and they said planting into large wire baskets was one solution, but otherwise the mole rats were a big reason noone grew fruit trees. I pressed on, thinking burying metal would be expensive and not very ecologically friendly... for about a year, when I realised we soon wouldn't have any food forest at all unless I started lining the holes. On the other hand, our property was covered with an invasive acacia saligna, which neighbours pressed me to quickly eliminate. I decided not to, as the summer wind here is so strong that it quickly kills young trees. Taking a gradual approach with cutting away existing plants and trees has been generally good- though I think ploughing (or at least clearing) our annual vegetable garden properly before starting to cultivate would have led to much less work/better results in the long term. Permaculture principles have at times meant a lot of work when I didn't have enough knowledge of regular gardening/planting to balance permaculture principle with local common-sense. For example, I didn't recognize the importance of watering A LOT for the first few weeks/months after planting a tree-- I thought I would toughen up a tree by watering thoroughly once a week, but I didn't have a good grasp of what thoroughly was in our sandy soil. Now I realise that the more you can do to support a young tree (at least in our climate) the better. So I've made a lot of mistakes. I think maybe that's just part of the process. I'm hoping we started young enough that we'll have many years to improve.
2 months ago
Like many of the other posters, we did things pretty gradually. About nine years ago, my husband switched to freelancing, and then six years ago (once we had paid off our small house in the city) to focusing on creative stuff. Over the past 9 years we've also had 3 kids, and his flexibility helped us to keep them home with us. I was in charge of earning and also worked to make my career as flexible as possible, so that we could split childcare evenly but would be equipped to be in the workforce as much or little as necessary. About 3.5 years ago we bought an acre of vacant land within commuting distance of my work. my husband was in charge of building our house, and later building a house for my parents to join us (both paid for with cash). I've been doing most of the planting and soil-building. It's been pretty tiring, but we're mortgage free and my need to work is much reduced. Looking back I think I could have been a bit slower to plant, and could have focused more on soil-building that first year on the farm. Otherwise, I think paying off the farm and building a house that we could pay for with cash were both really good ideas. I really hope we can stay here a very long time.
2 months ago
I get waste straw+hay from a nearby alpaca keeper (so in bits and pieces, not bales, and free, so am hugely grateful for free regular source of biomass while starting out-- I also get their alpaca manure which is another reason not to turn down the hay). I am convinced by the research on potential carcinogenic effects enough to never want to use glyphosate on our crops, but it's hard for me to weigh the benefits of biomass against the risk of harm/cancer. My middle ground is to lay all the straw along paths and areas regular scratched up by our chickens/pooped on by our ducks. it rapidly improves the soil and in the chicken coop itself we get very good compost. I also do encourage mushrooms by spreading spawn. I also use the straw in our composting toilet (all sawdust I've come across is treated with much worse chemicals than glyphosate), my logic is that after a year of composting the amount persisting should be low.

I use the gently composted straw as mulch for vegetables, and the well rotted compost around trees-- although perhaps I should be doing the reverse. I imagine there may still be some residue, and that over time, as the soil improves, I might get more picky. I don't have access to woodchips (or they're super duper expensive here in South Africa) so that also drives my acceptance of an imperfect carbon source.
6 months ago
I vermicompost. I began doing so when living in an apartment about 10 years ago. I think vermicomposting is the best way to compost kitchen scraps if you don't have chickens. Some key learning points based on my mistakes over the years: 1) be patient- don't feed all your scraps unless you have a big worm population to start with. 2) start with at least 1kg (2.2lb) of worms for a normal size household. 3) if it isn't going well (smell, flies), be patient! it's often a matter of figuring out moisture levels and balancing amount of scraps to the worm population. 4) don't harvest worm castings too early on- let the population settle so they have plenty of substrate to retreat to if it gets hot or wet. Use a lot of wet newspaper to balance moisture! 5) after a few months, if you're finding one bin does not take care of your scraps, consider adding bins-- worms will not exceed the carrying capacity of their space, so it's better to split a population and add a bin (you can even stack them).

Because all our vegetable scraps go to our chickens and ducks, we mainly feed alpaca manure and newspaper to our worms, or some scraps if we have a windfall from the nearby vegetable stall. Still, we're able to maintain 3 totes, one large 350L roley bin (previously a municipal bin), and two old bathtubs-- probably about 5.5kg of worms in total. For our acre, I think we could still easily use more so I am still adding bins. The large vertical municipal bin is ideal for summer, as it limits evaporation. The bathtubs are awesome during the cooler months (no frost where we are)-- and I'm hoping they'll be full enough that they can manage next summer. The totes are a good starter size, but for a family of 4 the amount of scraps produced by one bin tends to be just too much.

I think of vermicomposting as a great supplemental composting technique for annual crops, and very good if you have vegetable scraps. Good luck!!!
7 months ago