Stacking Functions Part 1 – Pawpaw Perfection
“Stacking Functions” – we hear the phrase all of the time in the Permaculture world, but what does it really mean? Is it simply another variation of “two birds with one stone”? It can be used that way, but at it’s best, stacking functions really is a system-wide philosophy. We look at overall needs on our site and match inputs and outputs in mutually beneficial ways. Over the next few months, I’m going to take you all on a tour of some different designs with awesome and creative function stacking, starting with a design I’m really proud of on my own site. It began with observations about 3 different elements in our system. But first, a little background on PawPaws.
The Pawpaw is the largest native North American fruit, with loads of benefits to enjoy. In late summer it produces clusters of a delicious, creamy fruit, it’s shade tolerant, browse resistant, a butterfly host plant and can handle wet feet. It’s a great tree to plug into those dark corners of the property that you’re looking at and thinking.. what can I put there?? It is flowering now (mid-April), and the flowers are small and dark red, hanging upside down from nearly naked branches as the leaves begin to emerge. A small, resilient tree that produces heavy yields, it's perfect for the homestead. Now that we know the basics, on to our observations.
1). We have a challenge on our site, and it’s of our own making. We process thousands of poultry animals here every year – chickens, turkeys, and ducks. The water coming out of our outdoor poultry processing facility is full of Nitrogen and nutrients and flows downhill toward a pond on our property that overflows into a crick that feeds into Raccoon Creek, then the Rivanna, then the James, and on out into the Chesapeake Bay. We don’t want to send all of this extra nutrient into that system so we need a creative solution.
2). One of our small business enterprises is oyster mushroom production. We’ve frequently got a lot of “spent” mushroom substrate (most often a sawdust and/or grain base/mixture) that is no longer useful in commercial mushroom production, but still has a lot of life left in it to grow and spread. During our last PDC course, Eli Talbert of Talbert mushrooms was giving a guest lecture and said something that caught my interest. “Mushrooms are just Nitrogen gobblers. Especially oysters, they’ll eat almost anything”. I knew this in principle, but a new lightbulb came on in my head.
3). We have a love of Pawpaws, and are starting to work towards propagating them. We purchased 20 bare root trees this winter to start a pawpaw patch that we can later graft desirable varieties onto. This way we’ll grow the top notch varieties and produce our own scion wood (mini function stacking) so that we can propagate specific cultivars.
With these observations we were able to creatively meet a need, reduce our waste, and increase our abundance. Here’s how: We dug a series of swales going down our hillside next to the processing plant and are in the process of filling them with wood chips to act as a sponge and filter. There are 4 of them so far, and we intend to add more this summer and extend the system further downhill. The top swale catches the runoff from processing at its Easternmost end, and it’s dug at a very gentle grade so the water moves downhill to the spillover point at the Westernmost end. The spillover carries the water to the next swale where it enters on the West end and flows gently downhill to the East, where there’s another spillover, and so on. In this way, the water zig zags slowly downhill through these swales and has a lot of time and space to be absorbed and filtered before entering our watershed.
But here’s where it gets cool. Pawpaw flowers have this really cool strategy for reproduction. They have the dark red, veined appearance of raw meat. And they stink! They smell of decay, some even say they smell like rotting flesh. These two characteristics attract carrion flies, which are the pawpaw trees’ pollinators. And guess what enterprise on our farm attracts carrion flies? Poultry processing! Our composting poultry “leftovers” (any guts we can’t use, feathers, skin from peeling the feet, blood etc.) always attract flies, and we’ve located those piles at the top of the swaled. Aaaand, Pawpaws can handle wet feet. They won’t mind being planted in a place that gets periodic heavy wettings (processing days use a lot of water). Pawpaws also have a deep taproot which will help stabilize the berms on which they’re planted.
And here’s where it gets cooler. Whenever we have leftover mushroom substrate, we just throw it on top of the wood chips in the swales and let the mycelium “run”. Those oysters can gobble up all of that rich Nitrogen from our processing days and keep it out of the waterways. We won’t eat those mushrooms, we’ll leave them to keep reproducing. They’ll also help facilitate a fungal network in the soil, which was recently turned over from grass pasture. This will help the survival of the trees which have evolved in forested ecosystems with a healthy fungal community.
So our main inputs here are labor and design. It took a lot of work to dig swales (thanks interns and Spring 2019 U of R PDC Students!) and plant the trees, but the harder bit was establishing the design concept. Once established, the outputs are huge! Clean water, nutrient absorption, delicious fruit, fungal communities, making use of the flies on site, swale stabilization, shade, aesthetics, scion production, seed production, pollinator hosting (Pawpaws are a butterfly host tree, in fact zebra tail swallowtail butterfly larvae will only feed on Pawpaws and nothing else) and more.
This is just one example of what stacking functions can do when applied on a whole system level in your Permaculture designs. Stay tuned this summer, we’ll take a look at a lot more interesting and inspiring design examples. Enjoy, and go plant a Pawpaw!
Thoughts On An Unexpected Death On The Farm
“When you take responsibility for an animals life, you must also take responsibility for its death” –Emilie Tweardy
I didn’t realize how emotionally connected I had become to my pigs until I had to kill one unexpectedly. A few days ago one of the two pigs we’ve been raising for meat was mortally injured and left paralyzed in half of its body, and after consulting with the vet, we decided to euthanize him. It was solemn and shockingly violent, but thankfully it went very quick. First the vet sedated him, and once he was unconscious, I shot him twice between the eyes with my rifle. Later, alone on the farm, I buried him in the ground with a few heartfelt prayers.
I know we made the right decision, but it doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking. The worst part was seeing the crippled, feverish pig suffer – that’s when I realized how visceral the bond was that I had developed with him over the past few months. It is a strange, new feeling – not like the grief of losing a pet, there were no tears – but more of a heavy sadness that hangs like a weight from my chest.
This is my families first go at pigs, and one of the things my wife and I are reflecting on now is that our pigs have become a familiar comfort to us – a vibrant part of the interconnected living system of our farm. I knew I would have to butcher them soon, and I had always imagined harvesting them with reverence knowing that they would be recycled to nourish my family and friends. Now I’ve lost that meaning for this pig and I am struggling to make sense of it. He will feed the soil food web now and next season we will plant a mulberry tree over his grave that someday will feed another generation of pigs. Still, something feels wrong and I have to sit with that for now.
I think I’ve already recognized some lessons from all of this. One is to always have an on-farm plan to butcher in emergencies so the meat can be salvaged. Another is to raise a more resilient breed (it seems like this particular injury is common in Mangalistas). There is an idea I’ve heard that industrial-scale agriculture fosters a society that becomes inured to violence, and that might be true to an extent. But then it must also be true that the experience of raising animals, working alongside of them, and taking responsibility for both their lives and their deaths, makes us take violence more seriously. I know that it has for me.
Beyond Meat – Tapping Into Additional Yields From Animals On The Farm
I farm because I desire that raw tangible connection to nature, in essence to ourselves. I also farm because I enjoy producing food that we eat, it makes me feel safe and eating food from the land we work with every day deepens the connection that satisfies my soul. We produce a variety of things on our farm, but the biggest contribution to our own diet is meat. We easily provide ourselves with all the meat we need. Our meat consists of goat, chicken, beef, and the occasional wild caught deer and even groundhog. Not only are animals a part of our farm because they provide us with food and income, but also because we enjoy being around and interacting with them and I feel that our life is richer for it. They teach us a lot about communication and intelligence and patience. By raising the animals we eat we can also be sure that they are treated humanely, live a good life, and that their dispatch is performed with respect and is quick and as low stress as possible. In addition to the meat for our table, animals provide a plethora of additional yields. Over the past few years I’ve been dabbling with these additional yields, learning how to process different parts and how to enjoy and utilize what they produce. These are some of the ways we tap into the additional yields that our animals provide. Needless to say, nothing on our farm dies in vain.
Once the meat is cut from the carcass, the bones are boiled down for a nutrient rich broth which is frozen or canned for future use. I add vinegar to help pull the minerals from the bones into the broth and let it cook for 12-24 hours before straining the bones out. Beyond just using broth as a soup base, it’s a wonderful rich substitute for water when cooking rice, greens, or beans.
Animal skins are an amazing resource. Early on, I filled our freezer with beautiful skins that I couldn’t bear to toss out until I taught myself to tan them (with the help of books, articles, youtube, and trial and error). Tanned animal skins can be made into clothes, bags, blankets, or even just used as home decor with a deep story. I took a 3 day workshop to learn how to make buckskin (the soft supple suede like leather with no hair) – using the brains of the animal, lots of elbow grease, and smoke. And although I haven’t made anything with my buckskins yet, a skirt is in my very near future. After learning to tan hides for myself I began to offer my services to local hunters who wished to preserve the pelts of their kills. Tanning for others is now a way I bring in a bit of extra income during the winter in the ‘off’ season for the farm.
Animal skins can also be made into rawhide. Rawhide is skin that has simply had the hair taken off and then dried. I’ve salvaged deer hides that would’ve otherwise been tossed from local hunters and made them into beautiful sounding drums by stretching and tying them over hollow forms. Rawhide can also be cut into a thin strip and used as strong lashing.
Fat is rendered down into lard for cooking. Rendering is as easy as cutting pieces of rich white fat from the carcass and melting them down in a pan or crockpot. The fat is then strained into jars while it is still hot and in liquid form and then cooled and used for cooking throughout the year. Lard from our goats has become a staple in our kitchen for cooking and it also keeps our cast iron cookware, which we use on a daily basis, well-seasoned. Lard can also be collected from the top of a pan of fatty broth where it rises and solidifies once it is cooled in the refrigerator. Lard can also be used for making soap (with the other main ingredient being lye). I’ve made soap from hog lard in the past.
I’ve even collected the fat that is scraped from bear hides in preparation for tanning them for hunters. Now while I wouldn’t use this for cooking since the skin it is scraped from is fairly dirty, I render it the same way and we use the resulting grease as a boot oil and conditioner for metal tools. I even used it once to get pine sap out of my hair!!
Hooves from goat and deer are removed and make a lovely sounding rattle to play along with the rawhide drum. The feet from chicken can be eaten or used with the bones to make broth, but we mostly dehydrate them and utilize them as nutritious dog treats.
Anything that isn’t utilized is composted and returned to the earth from which it came.
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