Ruminations on potato production and small-scale vs broadacre agriculture

I’ve been thinking about the potato production in our strawbale garden trial: 2.5kg from 0.4 square metres, or 72.5 tonnes per hectare.

P1060123_smallI’d be crazy to think that the productivity I got in my small patch could be obtained consistently over one hectare, right?  Well …. no.  That rate of production represents what was, in 2012, the world record for organic potato production (72.9 tons/ha), harvested in Darveshpura village, in the Nalanda District of the Indian State of Bihar.  The current record is 108.8 tonnes per hectare, grown February this year in another village in Nalanda District.

The point is that this is yet more proof that “backyard”, organic, permaculture, call it what you will, agriculture can be highly productive on a per hectare basis, compared with broadscale agriculture.  The main difference is in the input of labour; I was there every day, alert to whether conditions were right, or pests were establishing a hold (none did).  As the old Japanese proverb says: the best fertilizer is the farmer’s feet.  However there’s a more modern observation that could also be relevant, and that is Clifford Geertz‘ “agricultural involution”, a term he gave to the increasing productivity of wet rice agriculture (and associated crops) in Java and Bali as more and more people were forced to depend on the same area of land under Dutch colonial rule.  More labour resulted in unexpectedly large productivity increases from small areas, though the sad outcome for the people at the time was that in the end the increase in production could not keep pace with the nutritional needs of the increasing number of people made dependent on the same area.

Modern high input agriculture has worked in the other direction, decreasing the labour input and replacing it with the power extracted from fossil fuels, whether in the form of mechanization or as industrially produced fertilizer.  Dependence on fossil fuel is more and more being seen for the fool’s gold that it is.  Not only is it a finite resource, but it produces greenhouse gases that lead to global warming, and the artificial fertilizers lead to unhealthy (some say dead) and eventually unproductive soils.  Sooner or later, there are going to be a lot of people who are using labour-intensive approaches to growing food for themselves and others, and that’s when we’ll see the productivity per hectare in the Western world really increase.

Strawbale gardening trial: April to September 2013

Earlier in the year I’d been reading a lot about what great success some people were having with strawbale gardening (e.g. here, and here, and here), and came across the detailed instructions prepared by the Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources at Oklahoma State University, available as a pdf file here.

So I thought I’d give it a go, even though I couldn’t immediately see a need for strawbale plantings on our patch.  We aren’t short of space.  Having made the decision to limit our footprint on our 35ha to the area uphill along the ridge-top from the house, we have the potential to occupy a couple of hectares.  And we don’t have a soil contamination problem.  However we do have soil issues – for the most part we don’t have what you’d call “soil”, but rather decomposing sandstone with some soil-like features.  So maybe from that point of view we resemble those with concreted over yards who see strawbale gardening as one of only a very few options.

1 April 2013 – Putting the bales in place

I decided to use a more or less flat area which was scheduled to become our fourth shadehouse in due course, but certainly not for many months.  So as not to get in the way of ongoing work constructing shadehouses numbers two and three, I limited myself to just six straw bales.  They were arranged in pairs with one of each pair on its wide side, and the other on its narrow side (i.e. with the straws running vertically).20130401_P1050510_blogBarley straw is what I had on hand, and is what I use by choice.  Lately it has been costing $10 per bale, no matter what the season, so the original cash outlay was $60, not counting the relatively minor cost of the blood and bone.  It isn’t actually blood and bone; the pure blood and bone meal that used to be available 60 years ago when I was growing up on a farm doesn’t seem to be available any more, so it was the “blood & bone based fertilizer” type of product.

7 April 2013

The bales were thoroughly soaked twice per day for three days, then had urea applied daily for a further three days.  Since urea is an industrially produced compound, and it has to be bought with real dollars, I decided to use urine, since the main ingredient in urine (after water) is nitrogen (15-18%) most of which is present as urea**.20130407_P1050540_blogThe bales were moved closer together, but still in their original pairs, to save space, but then I realised that I could make an arrangement that had a rectangular hole in the middle which would be a good place to plant some potatoes which had started sprouting.  I put a base of flood-deposited creek sand in this middle space, and just covered the potatoes with this.  The space was approximately 0.5m x 0.8m – that measurement becomes important later on.

The flood which deposited the sand occurred when we had a major rainfall event just after a bushfire (forest fire) that burned out the whole of the catchment above our creek crossing (and 5,000 ha in total across the Hills – you can see details of it on the Smokespotter website).  As a result, there was no vegetation to slow the runoff of the rain to allow it to soak into the ground.  Pretty much every drop that fell ran off into the creeks, causing a flash flood that carried huge quantities of sand, charcoal and humus which was deposited wherever there was the slightest backwater, such as the approaches to our creek crossing.  I shoveled two large trailer-loads of this rich and free resource off our track and stockpiled it for making potting mix.

17 April 2013

Following the urea treatment the bales were subjected to three days on which watering was followed fertilizing with the blood and bone product. At the end of this period the bales were given a very light dusting with the creek sand – intended to prevent the seeds from falling too far into the spaces on the “edge-on” bales (or even washing right through them).

20130417_P1050588_blogAfter this they were seeded in strips across the top of each bale with lettuce, flat-leaf parsley, pak choi, corn salad, silverbeet (swiss chard), coriander (cilantro) and kangkung (water morning glory).  Both bales in each pair had the same plantings.

Unfortunately, just after the seeds were planted we had a heavy rain that washed some of the sand off the bales, and quite likely some of the seeds as well.  This may be why there was no germination of kangkung, and little of the silverbeet, as they were on opposite ends of the bales.

31 May 2013

By the end of May, some five weeks after seeding, there was only limited growth of some seedlings.  In general all species showed uneven sprouting, with some seeds coming up well in advance of others.

20130531_P1050876_blogYou can see two stalks of a Coprinus fungi in the foreground.  At about this stage these fungi became very numerous, and persisted for a couple of weeks.

20130531_P1050875_blogEverything is looking fairly healthy at this stage, and no insect damage.  More stalks of the Coprinus fungi are visible to the right, and in the foreground of the photo below you can see a black area which is typical of the residue this fungus leaves when its cap decomposes into a sticky black mass.  We were wary of eating any of the plants which were affected by this.

20130531_P1050878_blogThe corn salad was among the slowest to come up and germination was rather patchy, but it isn’t known for its high germination rate.  In the end the corn salad proved to be the second longest producer, after the parsley, but the volume was not great because they didn’t grow to their full potential.

At this stage I first noticed some tunneling into the bales by rats or bandicoots.  I tried trapping them, but without success.

29 June 2013

20130629_P1050991_blogIt’s all looking very healthy here, but that was only achieved with daily doses of nitrogen in the form of diluted urine (1:10) carefully applied under the foliage.  You can’t see it in the photos but snails were a major problem, particularly on the lettuce, and it was unusual to pick any lower leaves without at last two snails attached.  I’m sure that the damp and decomposing straw provided an ideal habitat for snails, and this seems to me to be one of the drawbacks of strawbale gardening.  The tall leafy growth to the left of centre in the shot above is the potatoes.

20130629_P1050992_blogSome insect damage was beginning to become apparent, but this seemed to be restricted to the pak choi and the potatoes, which can be seen here, on the right, beginning to overwhelm things planted on the bales.  I hadn’t realised how tall the potato plants would grow, and it is possible that they had more leafy matter than usual because of the high levels of nitrogen in the water applied to the bales.

29 August 2013

20130827_P1060075_blogFour months in, we’ve been harvesting for nearly three months and I’ve discontinued the daily nitrogen application (mostly because I was too busy, but also it became impossible to keep up a sufficient supply of nitrogen, particularly as the bales disintegrated and water tended to flow right through).  The pak choi is fairly dominant at this stage, and we are harvesting leaves, stems, buds and flowers for use in stir fries and salads.  Pak choi has two distinctly different leaf types. The first leaves are wide, slightly hairy, and have a slight “peppery” flavour that becomes stronger as the plant ages.  Once the flower stems grow they develop different leaves which are thicker, have no hairs, and are sweet-tasting.  At this stage, before the flowers open, the stems are tender and sweet, as are the bud clusters.

20130829_P1060093_blogThe lettuce are in the middle of the right edge.  It is clear that some are yellowing as a result of nitrogen deficiency.  What isn’t obvious is that all of the lettuce are “stunted”; I had transplanted about ten lettuce seedlings from the bales to a normal garden bed, and within two weeks they were more than twice the size of those left in the bales.  I tried to remedy what was clearly an overall nutrient deficiency by making up compost teas with worm castings, and adding both the tea and the rich “sludge” to the bales, but though individual plants made significant gains, this didn’t result in any overall improvement.

The curly parsley in the middle was planted into the bales with its potting mix, as were some spring onions.  Both did really well, no doubt partly because of the nutrients in their accompanying soil, but in my experience both parsley and spring onions are incredibly hardy.

The potatoes had pretty much died off by this stage, leaving the bare soil in the middle.  I didn’t attempt to harvest any potatoes because of not wanting to disturb the collapsing straw bales.

17 September

Time to take stock, and to harvest the potatoes.  The above ground stems had been dead for a while, but I didn’t want to disturb the pak choi which had fallen across the potato area until its seed cases were ready to harvest.  However today curiosity got the better of me.  So I pushed the pak choi aside, noting as I did that where they had collapsed onto their own bales there was still harvestable corn salad underneath.

It didn’t take long to find the first potatoes, though they were rather small.  Not encouraging.  But as I dug deeper they became bigger.  In the end I got 2.5kg of very nice Dutch Cream potatoes out of this “pocket” between the bales.  Not bad for something that was planted as an afterthought.

P1060125_smallRemember the dimensions of this area?  0.8 x 0.5m – or 0.4 square metres.  Now if I could get the same production out of a hectare of potatoes, I’d have ….. 72.5 metric tonnes of potatoes from a one hectare field!!!  Not that I think I could easily replicate this over one hectare, but

The amazing thing is that I put nearly zero effort into this potato area, though I did water it daily as part of the straw bale watering, and it no doubt benefited from the thermal insulation provided by the straw bales and from the blood and bone and urine applied to the surrounding bales (though this run-off represents very little fertilizer in broadscale agricultural terms).

But … getting back to the strawbale gardening.

What were we still harvesting from the strawbales after five and a half months?  Here’s the list: corn salad, flat-leaf parsley, curly parsley and spring onions (both transplanted into the bales back in June), silverbeet (small leaves from three or four plants), and leaves and flowers from the pak choi stems.  And the potatoes.  And in the end there will be a huge crop of pak choi seeds, plus the rotted down straw bales to use as a soil supplement.

Was it sustainable?

On a quick assessment I’d say it was pretty sustainable. The straw bales were from the Toowoomba region where there is a significant production of barley for malting.  That’s only 40km from here.  The minimal input of blood and bone based fertilizer came from much further afield (I’m not sure where), and the urea was produced very locally, being derived from our urine.  The creek sand for the potatoes came from our creek, only 1km from the garden, and wasn’t taken out of the bed of the creek but was flood debris (sand, humic matter, charcoal) deposited on the creek bank.  The water was collected on our roofs and stored in stainless steel tanks (recyclable at the end of their life, which galvanized tanks seldom are).  A minimal amount of pumping using a petrol driven pump was used to get the water up to a header tank, from where it was gravity fed to the garden tank. From there it was pumped to the strawbales using a solar electricity-powered pump.  The seeds for the crops were either from our collection or from Green Harvest in Maleny, around 100km away, and delivered by post.  The seed potatoes were organic potatoes that had started sprouting in our kitchen.

Is it worth doing again?

On a cost basis I’d be inclined to say that the production hasn’t been worth the $60 for the bales.  But then when I think about the ongoing organic production we have had in a number of crops and the fact that the remains of the bales can be used as a soil additive in a new garden, the equation starts to look better.

On the time/effort side of things, I had been thinking for quite some time that the harvest wasn’t worth the effort that I’d put into the preparation of the bales and the continual (for the first two and a half months) watering with diluted urine.  However, in preparing this blog post I realised that, while there was a considerable initial investment in effort to “condition” the straw bales and to prepare the diluted urine application in the early stages, the ongoing watering and fertilizing pretty much fitted in with the same treatments of other areas in the garden.

So, all things considered, it was surprisingly productive, if not totally cost effective.  For someone with no good soil and plenty of time it would be a good way to grow leafy vegetables.

I’ll certainly do it at least once more, but with a different setup: four bales forming two parallel lines and one bale across each end, so as to have a long narrow potato production area in the middle and production of other crops on the tops of the bales.

In part this will be to see if the potato production can be duplicated, and in part it will be to test the strawbale approach in the hottest part of the year, given that the original trial was over the winter.  I doubt that this will become part of our production process, but it may yield more lessons that can be incorporated into our approach.

** Jenkins, The Humanure Handbook Table 3.2; Steinfeld, Liquid Gold.

The elephant in the room has a name: debt levels

Living sustainably in the Lockyer Vally Region isn’t JUST about what we do on our quarter acre, bush lifestyle block, or farm.  All of that happens in regional, national and global contexts which impinge on what we do and, in the case of permaculture and self-sufficiency, the urgency with which we do it.  For that reason we need to understand some rather large issues – including debt levels.  For all the talk about “turning the corner” on the global financial crisis, signs of take off in the economy, improved business or consumer sentiment, etc. there is a very large elephant in the room, and its name is “debt levels”.

I’ve posted on debt before, and there has been a lot written about economies (both global and national) and the level of public and private debt.  Some of it is so convolutedly technical as to be unreadable, some of it is easier to fathom. But until now no one has put it into poetry.  Now, from a most unexpected source we have an article that connects high debt levels, the global financial crisis, ongoing ( so far unsuccessful) attempts to kick start national and regional economies, Homer Simpon, and Edgar Allan Poe.  AND in a story that, though long and complex, presents the debt issue in a fairly understandable form.

The person who has achieved this is John Mauldin – not a “prepper“, not a professional doomsayer, but a financial expert with a wide following, a New York Times best-selling author, a pioneering online commentator who publishes a regular blog with the title Things That Make You Go Hmmm…..

No, this is not a paid advertisement – they guy is just incredibly well informed, highly productive, and publishes material that generally makes enormous sense.  If I have one major issue with him it is that he doesn’t seem to get it when it comes to the futility of continuing economic growth based on finite resources on a finite planet. But in terms of explaining the debt issue he is spot on.

Today’s issue of Things That Make You Go Hmmm….. is a comprehensive round-up of the problems generated by massive public and private debt levels throughout much of the world.  It’s long, but well worth reading, and can be seen as a linked series of very important ideas and facts, so even if you don’t read it all at once, it’s worth taking a look, or at least skimming it until something grabs your attention.

I can’t possibly summarise it, or even present most of the key points here.  But here are two excerpts that sort of point to his conclusion, but you really do need to read it for yourself.

If you want to live high on the hog, you have to accept that when the bills come due, they must be paid. In 2008 those bills came due, but the payment of them would have caused so much creative destruction that the politicians (and central bankers) felt compelled to step in. They found the trouble, diagnosed it incorrectly, and then applied the wrong remedies.

2008 was two things:

1) The result of far too much debt

2) The nearest thing to a truly global financial calamity the world has ever seen.

However, since 2008 the debt level has been increased massively and shifted to the public balance sheet in order to fix the problem. Now, with “recoveries” being hailed left and right, households are once again taking on new debt, which is seen as a sign of confidence.

Has the old debt been expunged? No. Have governments taken on debts which they intend to pay down as soon as the ship is righted? Of course not.


Folks, rates WILL have to go up again. They cannot stay at zero forever. We all know that. When they DO, because of all the additional debt that has been ladled atop the existing pile, the whole thing will come tumbling down.

All of it.

There is simply no way out, I am afraid. But that is clearly a problem for another day. Right now, everything is fine, so we can all go on pretending it will continue that way.


The whole article is here.

Oh, and the poetry is right at the end. Enjoy.

There’s nothing new under the sun

If you are at all concerned about sustainable energy supplies and the need to get off the fossil fuel powered electricity path you can’t have missed what some solar PV groups are calling a proposal to “tax the sun”.

What it comes down to is that the Australian Energy Market Commission has issued a report highlighting what they see as the need for new tariffs for every solar home connected to the grid because, they seem to be saying, grid connected solar homes are “free-riding” on those electricity consumers who don’t input solar-generated electricity into the grid.

In a longish article on the issue published in REneweconomy, Giles Parkinson said:

AEMC chairman John Pierce on Wednesday [October 9] unveiled a “strageic priorities” document that highlights solar PV as one of the most pressing issues for the electricity industry – both for providers and consumers – and suggests that network tariffs in particular do not reflect the reduced use of the grid caused by solar households.

“Distributed generation is blurring the traditional delineation between consumers and producers of electricity,” Pierce said in a speech to the East Coast Energy Outlook conference in Sydney

“One source of stakeholder concern is that network costs of consumers with rooftop solar PV are subsidised by other consumers because the full costs and benefits of distributed generation (such as solar PV) are not reflected in the prices consumers pay for electricity.”

The solar industry is outraged by the singling out of solar, because they say it is clear that the greatest cross subsidy in the electricity industry goes to users of air-conditioners: The government white paper conceded that each $1,500 air con system imposes five times that amount in network costs on other users.

Now is starts to seem like AMEC has got their strategy out of the playbook of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which Wikipedia describes as a US  forum for politically conservative state legislators and private sector members [read organisations] to collaborate on model bills, i.e. draft legislation, often serving the interests of the private sector members, that members can customize and introduce for debate in their own state legislatures.  The website ALEC Exposed is dedicated to uncovering the doings of ALEC, its corporate connections, and its funding sources.

In what a recent article in The Guardian calls “a sweeping new offensive against renewable energy”, ALEC proposes that governments penalize homeowners who install their own solar panels—casting them as “freeriders” who are not paying for the infrastructure they are using. In effect, they say, all the other non-direct generation customers are being penalised, and instead homes with grid-connected solar PV  should be paying to distribute their surplus electricity on the grid.

The article reports that this is a part of a larger anti-renewable energy strategy which will promote a suite of model bills and resolutions aimed at blocking Barack Obama from cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and blocking state governments from promoting the expansion of wind and solar power.

If the AEMC is copying the ALEC strategy, stand by for more or the same here in Australia.

The Australian Energy Market Commission (AEMC) was set up by the Council of Australian Governments through the Ministerial Council on Energy in 2005.  It is is the rule maker and developer for Australian energy markets, and also provides advice to Ministers on how best to develop energy markets over time.

I can’t help wondering whether the AEMC is as independent as it should be as a statutory commission set up by government, given the similarity of its stance on grid-connected PV generation to that of the ALEC.  Or, if it really is acting independently in this regard and the similarity to the ALEC stance is coincidental, whether its terms of reference might not be too much focused on maintaining a stable market for the large energy generators and distributors, and not enough on the best outcomes for the country in the long term.  There is also the question of whether the AEMC regards the totality of the multitude of grid-connected electricity generators as a valid player in the market – or are they seen as “collateral damage” in moves to maintain profitability for the traditional players?


Sorry for the long gap between posts.  Sometimes life gets a bit too busy, and sometimes I’d just rather do physical things that make a difference to our level of sustainability than sit down and write a blog post.

This will be a short one, just to point you to an article that I find inspiring.  It’s by someone with the unlikely name of Shepherd Bliss and for some reason reading it really lifted my spirits.  It’s about learning from the community of the land

Here’s an example of what he says:

I farm with nature in mind, rather than against it. Permaculture is a helpful design system for this kind of agriculture. It teaches placing cardboard, burlap bags and newspapers around the berries, on top of which I put composted manure. This fertilizes, reduces weeds, and keeps moisture in the ground, as well as builds soil. The Earth does not want to be bare, so when factory farms strip it with chemical herbicides, it throws up a new covering, called “weeds.”

The boysenberries with which I share this land are the under-story within a forest. That diversity provides beauty and protects my main crop from pests, as well as providing fallen leaves for mulch. The redwoods, oaks and other tall trees draw moisture from the atmosphere onto the farm. I put large, flexible used flour bags as bedding for chickens, which catch their manure. I then put those manure-enriched bags around the berries and add other compost.

You can see more at: