Yesterday we visited the Third Place Cafe in Wollert (north of Epping) for a hands-on demonstration and introduction of garden bed building, soil and plant selection, and, planting! Thankfully the weather has toned down a little, and whilst it rained and blew, a handful of locals turned up for what became a fun and collaborative few hours together. Put on by Third Place & Stockland, coordinated by Sophie of The Launch Box (who turned out to be pretty handy on the power tools), and part of cafe owner Samir's broader vision for edible kitchen gardens and ultimately a larger community garden, it was a pleasure to be involved.
By Dan Palmer, Very Edible Gardens
Earlier this year we hung out with David Holmgren for a day. Toward the end of the day David made a passing comment that stayed with me. To paraphrase, he said something like “we can get a bit carried away with growing fruit and vegetables when the bulk of our calories continue to come from grains, meat & dairy.” The implication was that if we don’t tune in to this reality and ways we can obtain these calories sustainably (or better than sustainably), then we are missing something very, very important. Fruit and vegetables add important vitamins and minerals to our diet, but very few if any of us live on fruit and vegetables alone.
Most of us, whether carnivores, omnivores, vegetarians or vegans, obtain the bulk of the energy and protein than sustains us from a particular type of plant: The annual crop.
Annual plants have a life cycle of a year or less, meaning they stick around for a single growing season then have to start from scratch (i.e., from seed) the following year year.
Corn, wheat, rye, oats, barley, rice & sorghum are all annual crops (which happen to all be grasses) that between them likely provide the bulk of calories for the bulk of people on the planet. Most and probably all industrial meat and dairy come from animals fed annual plants (mostly grass) or the products of annual plants (mostly grain). Add soybeans, millet and a few other annual crops and you have the bulk of the global human food supply sewn up.
So what’s the big deal? In his recent book Restoration Agriculture, Mark Shepard tells us what the big deal is (in no uncertain terms):
"Every human society that has relied on annual crops as staple foods in their diet has collapsed. Every single one. Every human society from the temperate zone to the tropics that has relied on annuals to feed itself, is now gone. And the rich, abundant ecosystems where their temporary societies once flourished have been rendered into dust" (p. xix)
What the?!?! You started reading an article about the quirky concept of eating acorns for breakfast and now you’re being told that unless we obtain our bulk calories from something other than annual crops we are going to be rendered into dust? Yes, well, sorry about that. But you can hardly stop now right? Let us continue. We’ll get to the acorn eating soon, I promise.
The reason annual-crop dependent cultures collapse is that annual crops require bare soil to grow in each year. For Nature, bare soil is a wound to heal. Healing means covering the wound, so she throws the plants we call weeds at it and will do so as long as she lives. This means that preparing the ground to replant an annual crop requires ploughing or spraying herbicide to kill weeds (or whatever plants are there before we start cropping it – Amazonian rainforest for example). Ploughing and spraying herbicide harms the soil directly, but more importantly creates bare soil. Bare soil is exposed to the elements of sun, wind & rain, which dry, blow and wash it away. Eventually no more soil. Eventually no more us.
Let us recap:
1. We humans are currently dependent for our sustenance on the products of annual plants and the products of animals sustained on the products on annual plants.
2. The cropping of annuals on a large scale requires practices that destroy soil.
3. Any practice that both depends on and destroys soil is a temporary practice.
4. The agriculture that currently sustains humanity is such a practice i.e., we are currently feeding ourselves in a way that will at some point collapse.
Right. Good. Let us move on to consider a magnificent alternative to our addiction to annual plants, and to collapsing, and to being rendered into dust. I’ve got your attention now, haven't I!
Enter the perennial plant, which, get this, keeps on living. Many perennial plants produce calories that can sustain humans year after year after year, in some cases for thousands of years, with, that’s right, no bare earth required.
This is good news! If we can sustain ourselves without having to bare the earth, then we can sustain ourselves without having to destroy the earth. Not that we will go into it here, but we can sustain ourselves whilst actually improving ecosystem health.
Perennial plants include trees and woody shrubs as well as many grasses and other small herbaceous or non-woody plants. In established, diverse and healthy ecosystems perennial plants are dominant. Sure, annuals are usually in the mix, ready to help patch up any bare earth that crops up, but to take a punt we’re talking 10, maybe 20 percent tops. They are fringe dwellers, opportunists, temporary placeholders toward to a better and more perennial place.
So let’s get into specifics here, what are some of these perennial plants that might just save our skins, what bits do we eat, and most importantly, what do they taste like?
I know, I know, how could I do this to you when it was just getting interesting, but you'll just have to read part two for all this and more.
Dan Palmer (see Part One here)
Oak trees are a brilliant example of a perennial staple crop. They produce acorns, and acorns are a serious contender for supplying bulk calories to humans in a sustainable way (whether directly or via animals). Indeed, for thousands of years in our past that is exactly what they did. Balanoculture is a special word referring to any culture that eats acorns as a staple food.
In his fabulous Oak: The Frame of Civilisation, William Bryant Logan not only reports in detail on how ubiquitous acorn-eating cutures were, but notes that “evidently, balanocultures were among the most stable and affluent cultures the human world has ever known” (p. 55).
He further reports on David Bainbridge’s (the person who coined the term balanoculture) conclusion that “local oak uplands could routinely support villages of one thousand people, and these people could harvest enough acorns in three weeks to last two or three years” (p. 55). Not to mention another researcher who concluded in one case that “it took ten times less labour to harvest acorns than it did to harvest wheat and barley” (p. 55).
Wow! Now that sounds like a bit of all right! Naturally in reading this stuff, and thinking thoughts about it all, I got fired up to eat some acorns.
Luckily for me I live in Castlemaine, a small town about 1.5 hours by car or train from Melbourne with a wonderful botanical gardens. The Castlemaine Botanical Gardens aree dripping in oak trees, and once every year or two the oak trees are dripping in acorns.
So about eight months ago my family and I collected some, about a barrow load in total. We started by crushing them and feeding them to the chooks. But more recently we have started feeding them to ourselves. Here’s how we went about it.
Step One: Shell ‘em
We dropped them into a large mortar and knocked them around with the pestle a bit to loosen up the shells. We then pulled the shells off by hand, enlisting visiting friends to help. In the next few years we will be looking at a mechanical shelling solution as this stage takes ages.
Manda, Nikka, Will & Ciela shelling 'em
Step Two: Grind ‘em into grits
We then popped the clean acorn meats into a blender with some water and blended them up into little bits and pieces. About the size of the wheat grains as they would later replace as input for our grain mill.
Step Three: Leach ‘em
We then put them in some jars under water and changed the water every few days or whenever we got around to it. Slowly the water turned from a very dark brown to a light tan see-through colour. It took about three weeks but would probably be a week or less if you changed it daily.
Step Four: Dry ‘em
We then spread them out on an oven tray and dried them out on a low heat overnight. Forgot to take a picture afterwards sorry but they turned to a dark brown colour during this stage.
Step Five: Mill ‘em
We then chucked them into our grain mill to create acorn flour.
Step Six: Cook 'em
We then mixed them 50/50 with freshly milled wheat grain (we are gradually overcoming our addiction to annuals, not all at once) and used this blend to make a normal sourdough bread loaf.
Step Seven: Eat 'em
Out of the oven we shared our first loaf of acorn/wheat bread with our first ever permaculture design course participants. It was by all accounts a rich, earthy and most delicious flavour. The experience was heightened, of course, by the fact we were, tasting part of the future of the human food supply. How could it not be delicious?
Dan explaining the significance of what he was about to feed a VEG PDC group in May 2013
It sure looked good!
And very well received!
Finally, here's a youtube of Dan enjoying a slice:
VEG's Carey sharing the wonderful new nesting box he just knocked up - what chook wouldn't say no to this spot to lay an egg!