Wednesday, October 26, 2011

PIARN webinar on sustainable intensification of agriculture

The Primary Industries Adaptation Research Network (PIARN) is offering the second of its free, online, interactive web seminar series next Thursday, November 10 at 2:30-3:30pm Melbourne time. Registration is currently open - check it out here.

Sustainable intensification of agriculture: Producing more with less

Presented by Professor Tim Reeves and Associate Professor Richard Eckard.

Sustainable intensification of means producing more food from less land, with less water and with less reliance on increasingly expensive inputs derived from fossil fuels – whilst simultaneously protecting and enhancing natural resources and ecosystems.

Experts suggest it might be the only way to feed a rapidly growing world population without the environmental degradation typically associated with increasing agricultural production.

Professor Tim Reeves and Associate Professor Richard Eckard will help frame the challenge of creating a sustainably intensive of Australian agriculture industry, discussing the implications for food security, the research and development investment required and the sorts of transformations needed to put sustainable intensification into action.

The presentations will be followed by an open Q&A session with both presenters.


Professor Tim Reeves is Chair of the Primary Industries Climate Challenges Centre, and Director and Principal of Timothy G Reeves and Associates.

Tim has worked for 40 years in agricultural research, development and extension, focused on sustainable agriculture in Australia and overseas. His professional career includes positions in the Department of Agriculture Victoria, Foundation Professor of Sustainable Agricultural Production at the University of Adelaide and Director General of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico.

Tim is a Senior Expert for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and was a member of the United Nations Millennium Project Task Force on Hunger.

Associate Professor Richard Eckard is the Acting Director of the Primary Industries Climate Challenges Centre.

Richard is a member of expert advisory panels on climate change research in agriculture for the Australian, New Zealand and United Kingdom governments. He is also a consultant on the effect of climate change on animal production and health for the joint FAO/IAEA Programme on Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture, and leads research programs in enteric methane, nitrous oxide and whole farm systems modelling.

Richard has published over 90 scientific publications, holds a number of national and international science leadership roles, and has been a keynote speaker at numerous industry and international science conferences over the past few years

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

How to make a wicking bed

I'm part of a community group in Melbourne called Permablitz that does urban gardening and agriculture. Of the many cool things about Permablitz is the workshops they hold. I learned how to make a wicking bed system through Permablitz and next weekend, I'm going to be facilitating a wicking bed workshop at the next Permablitz. But before that, I wanted to share the notes on it.

So what is a wicker watering bed? It's essentially a raised garden bed where water is stored on the bottom. For gardens in hot weather, it's a good way to help keep water storage to the maximum and keep plants alive. The water is poured into a pipe that runs through the bottom of the bed and seeps into the scoria (volcanic rock) or sand or whatever sediment that you use for the bottom storage layer. By preventing water leakage with plastic inside the bed, water can be held. Plants can then draw up moisture from the bottom via capillary action, which is the same principle as growing seedlings on a tray of water.

You can also combine the wicking bed system with a worm farm system. This way, nutrients from the worm poop can steep into the water and the plants can take it up. A worm farm is also a great way to add in nutrients into the closed wicking bed system - since you're taking out the crops (and nutrients) from the bed, you have to add back in the nutrients somehow and the worm farm is an easy way to do this. See the last step if you want to combine the worm farm with the wicking bed.

Steps for making a wicker watering bed
  1. Start with a raised garden bed or any container that you want to grow vegetables/plants in. You can have anything from a broccoli box to a full-on garden bed. The bottom scoria/sand layer needs to be about 5-10 cm and plants require 30-35 cm of soil (this may vary depending on what you're growing). If you have garden beds that come up to your waist, you can fill the bottom with wood pieces or carpet (note on carpet: just make sure the carpet isn't in direct contact with the soil/scoria as there is sometimes chemicals in the carpet). You can also use carpet/wood chips to make the bottom more even or cover up any parts that might tear holes into the plastic.

  2. Using a sheet of plastic, line the sides and bottom of your garden bed. It's important that this plastic not have any holes, as any water leakage would defeat the purpose of the wicker bed. Although you don't necessarily need to line the sides all the way up, it makes it easier not to have the plastic slip down over time or weeds grow between the spaces of your plastic/soil and the garden bed container.

  3. Measure out an appropriate length of agricultural pipe, which is basically tubing with holes on the side so water can drain out. In small garden beds, you can just lay the pipe out diagonally, but for larger beds, zigzag it. The pipe needs to go all the way up one side of the bed to where it'd be above or flush to the top of the soil. This is where you'll pour water into the pipe.

  4. Once measured out, cut the piping and cover both ends with a piece of shade cloth or some other permeable material that will allow water through but prevent sediment.

  5. Fill the bottom with a 10cm layer of scoria/sand, covering the piping. Use your feet to keep the piping in place as you pour in the sand. It's important to keep the sand layer even, otherwise the water will be biased towards one side, so use a balance to see if this layer is level. As you leveling, make sure not to tear holes in the plastic surrounding the bed. Once level, dig out ridges in the sand (see below) so that even if the water level drops, the soil can always be in contact with the water.

  6. IMPORTANT: Once you have your sand layer in, an outlet must be placed in. This is so that you can tell when you've added too much water to your wicker bed. If too much water gets into the bed, it gets swampy and acidic, which is not good for the soil. To prevent this, make an opening in your garden bed where the top of your sand layer is and place a small PVC pipe (~25mm radius) through to the outside. This way, if the water level goes above 10cm, then the overflow can leave the bed via the PVC pipe. Cover the end of the PVC pipe that's in the bed with shade cloth/equivalent to prevent sediment from clogging it.

  7. Once your piping and sand layer is done, place another layer of shade cloth over the whole bed. The soil layers will sit on top of the shade cloth. The benefit of this is that you can periodically lift up the entire shade cloth and do maintenance on the bottom sand layer if necessary. The shade cloth should go all the way up the sides of the garden bed and over the top a bit. IMPORTANT: Make sure the shade cloth is as flush as you can get to the sides of the bed because anything that falls between the sides will contaminate the water in the sand layer.

  8. Start layering on soil, manure, and dynamic lifter to the top of the garden bed. You can pretty much put whatever you have on hand, but for nutrient rich soil for plants to grow in, it's best to layer in sheep/horse manure (best for leafy vegetables) or chicken manure (high in phosphates, good for food producing plants). Other things to consider - straw, dynamic lifter plant food. Keep sandwiching different layers in until you hit about 5cm to the top of the bed.

  9. WORM FARM: An easy way to add nutrients to the wicking bed (a closed system) is to have several worm farms along the sides of the bed. Simply take a plastic bin (such as an old ice cream tub), cut out the bottom, and place against the side of the bed and on the bottom of the shade cloth. This way, the worm droppings will steep into the water and be diluted enough for plant uptake. You can have as many as you want, depending on how big your garden bed is. As you layer in the soil and the manure in the bed, fill around the bin to secure the placement. To activate the worm farm, fill it with straw/moistened cardboard, or newspaper at the bottom and worms. On top of that, place your kitchen scraps (vegetable peelings, uneaten leftovers, coffee grinds, tea leaves, etc). Eggshells can be used, but since they're harder to decompose, crush them first. Avoid citrus or onion peels because they're acidic and worms don't like them. Keep this worm farm covered to keep in the moisture.
wicker beds before
Before: Empty raised garden bed fixing the ag pipe head with shade cloth
Seila and Sophie tying the shade cloth onto the ag pipe ridging the scoria
The bottom layer of scoria with ridges. Seila here is adjusting the overflow pipe layering manure and soil
Layering on soil and manure finished wicker bed
After: The finished wicker bed

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Translations of sustainable living brochures

I just found something really cool - Environment Victoria in conjunction with their Sustainability for Diverse Communities Resource Hub has provided translations of various sustainable living brochures. They're all available here. The translations were done by different organizations so the topics vary from climate change to water to chemicals to gardening and food. I think it's a great idea to have this information for different communities in different languages, especially considering how multicultural and diverse communities can be. Hopefully once people get access to this information, they can act on it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Anti-Asian violence in Philadelphia

This news on the anti-Asian violence in Philadelphia makes me so frustrated at the glossing over of racist violence by explanations of the marginalized black minority who are resentful of other minorities. Seriously?! There are so many problems with that argument.

  1. Just because you had been wronged by other people does not give you the right to hurt others. That goes for ANY situation. Do onto others as you would like them to do onto you. Basic KINDERGARTEN principles.
  2. The long history of injustice against the Africa American community is valid and it certainly can contribute towards the culture and perspective within the community, but it doesn’t mean that you can just wave that around like some magic excuse for everything. You have to treat this group of students as individual perpetrators of violence because that’s what it was.
  3. The attitude of the superintendent ("These problems are long-standing and go beyond the school and into the community") pretty much puts the blame and responsibility away from the school administration and onto the shoulders of the community, which isn’t right. Schools have just as much responsibility, if not more because of how many years are spent in school, to properly EDUCATE the kids on what’s right and what’s wrong, including racism.

The comments about the difference between the perspective of African American students and Asian immigrant students have some truth to them, but I think the "model minority" stereotype of the hard-working academic Asian student tends to be of the East Asian background. There are plenty of Southeastern Asians from refugee backgrounds who probably don’t fit all too well with that "optimistic outlook" of America as the land of limitless opportunity. That being said though, I do think that to succeed, marginalized people of every sort need to step out of the self destructive cycle of race and learn to "grab a helping hand [rather than] pull others down". It doesn’t do anyone any good to just sit and complain or lash out against others who have it "better". There are always going to be barriers and obstacles, but unless you take them on with determination, optimism, and willingness to work hard, you won’t get far.

I must laud the activists who got the Asian students to boycott and stand up for the injustice. There are times when you just power through it and times when you have to fight, and it was definitely a time to fight. I really am disappointed by the superintendent’s silence on all this racist violence. What happened to educators taking a role in shaping the kids’ future? What kind of example is this setting for the kids?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Greywater guidelines

In a continent where water scarcity is a common phenomenon, Australia's been taking a lot of steps towards more efficient water usage. During the last ten year drought, strict guidelines were set up for activities such as watering gardens and washing cars, limiting how often and what kind of water could be used. Water saving flushing toilets are standard, as are signs on showers in commercial accommodation suggesting a 4 min or less shower for guests.

This attitude towards water also includes using greywater, which is pretty much recycling water that's already been used, such as shower water, rainwater, and sink tap water. There's some microbial risk from reusing such water (which will be the focus of my upcoming PhD, incidentally), but in general, good water filtration and treatment methods can reduce the risk to acceptable levels. Some examples of filtration systems can be found here from Minnesota Public Radio, which includes septic tanks and concentrated wetlands.

A useful set of guidelines was recently issued from the Australian Clearwater organization on the best ways to harvest and store stormwater (ie run-off from drains or creeks) and roofwater (ie rainwater). These stormwater harvesting guidelines describe how to go about setting up the greywater collecting project, including what kind of roof characteristics to look out for to avoid contamination, types of rainwater tanks and piping to use, and monitoring/maintenance of the project. This might be useful for those interested in using greywater for non-drinking purposes. Other guideline publications from Clearwater can be found here.

What's important though is changing public perception. Many people still have much aversion towards using treated greywater, despite the fact that the microbial risk in the treated greywater can actually be LOWER than the risk in regular tap water. Using greywater is going to become more and more necessary around the world with climate change, but especially in Australia since the continent is already so water vulnerable. So the more the public can understand the process, the better off they'll be.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Biking innovations

Two great ideas in time for "Ride To Work/School" tomorrow in Victoria, Australia

1) Self service bicycle repair station: In the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area, a DIY bike repair station called Bike Fixation was recently launched to help stranded cyclists. Open 365 days a year from 6am to midnight, you can come buy tire repair kits, pump your tires for free, and make adjustments with tools available from the kiosk. It's a great way to make use of vacant lots in a way that would help the local bikers and also present new business opportunities.

2) In 2007, Minneapolis built the Martin Olav Sabo Bridge to help route cyclists away from the Hiawatha Avenue lane crossing. Quotes from the article:

The first cable-stayed bridge of any kind in the state, it’s breathtaking, even to the people who have been riding it for years. It provides a safe, continuous crossing and offers up a glorious view of the downtown skyline (especially at sunset!). The sleek Hiawatha light rail line runs beneath it, and there are benches to sit on and take everything in.

Used by an average of 2,500 riders a day, peak use can hit 5,000 to 6,000 per day on some gorgeous summer weekends, according to Shaun Murphy of the Minneapolis Department of Public Works.

Here's a video to check out about the bridge.

Have a great bike ride tomorrow!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Boris Pelcer's Environmental Awareness Illustrations

I just came across Boris Pelcer's ENVIRONMENTAL AWARENESS © illustrations.

Environmental Awareness

They're a series of illustrations based on the artist's childhood experience as a war refugee from Bosnia & Herzegovina living in Peć, Kosovo | Serbia from 1992 to 1998. Here's the artist's description:

Can you imagine our planet & our way of life in fifty of hundred years from now? Consider this. We live in a profit-driven economy. Great number of decisions are made with this question in mind: "What will bring us the most money?" Those decisions do not consider what is the best for the planet, but what is best for the economy financially. This series of work is to make you realize the quality of life we would create for our children & grandchildren if no action is taken. The problem seems too big to feel as though our efforts will make a difference, so most of us don't even try. However, as long as we put in any kind of effort with patience & persistence, we are doing exactly what we need to be doing to make a difference.

I found the illustrations very powerful - they really capture the despair and wretchedness that comes from living in a place environmentally torn, especially with children as the focal point of the illustrations. It brings the viewer from their comfort zone and forces them to realize what they take for granted, like fresh unpolluted air and enough food to eat. Art can provide ways to imagine the unimaginable and provoke discussion about issues that matter, so just wanted to share these illustrations with you.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Biking and living one's value system

I just finished changing a flat tire on my bike. It's my 4th flat tire in 2.5 months and I'm certainly not getting any faster at changing out the punctured inner tube. It still takes me around 1 hour if I'm lucky to get it all done. Add in the stress of figuring out how to get home on a flat and obtaining new inner tubes and you get a whole lot of frustration. It's days like these I ask myself, why do I put up with this?

Every time it happens, I recall a story an environmental studies professor at Wellesley once told us. She was asked to speak at a conference in Portland, Oregon and the conference hosts had arranged for a taxi to pick her up from the airport. But instead of taking the taxi service, my professor voluntarily looked up the public transport from the airport to her hotel and the conference site. The reason was because taking public transport in lieu of the more carbon footprint heavy taxi was more in-line with her value system as an environmentalist. If one really wants to be true to one's values, one's actions must reflect that.

Ever since I heard that story, I've been inspired to really put my actions where my words are. My decision to become vegetarian, bike to work and school, and buy more environmentally friendly products came from that. It hasn't been easy. My friends have to accommodate my dietary needs every time we have get togethers; it takes me an hour to commute to school each way and it rains a lot in Melbourne; and organic goods tend to be more expensive. But I feel despite all that, I am being true to what I believe.

There are a lot of pluses, of course. Biking every day has greatly improved my overall health (multitasking exercise and commuting, what an idea!) and it's sometimes easier than trying to figure out the fastest route by public transport. Being vegetarian also has contributed to a healthier living style and I've discovered many new delicious dishes I wouldn't necessarily have come across before. And all of this has raised awareness of environmental issues amongst people I interact with because they can see clearly the kinds of choices and impacts it makes.

So how do I feel now, hands covered in dirt and new inner tube back on my bike? I wouldn't change my mind for the world.