Food, water and energy

Principle 10: Use and value diversity
The article 'Food, water, oil' in the current G magazine that we borrowed from the library recently, made apparent that these issues are becoming humanities greatest challenges. I got to thinking about how we have addressed these topics. This became part of my introductory talk on our most recent 'sustainable house tour', organised by local enviroment group BEAM and the Sustainable Communities Program.

Richard addressing a group of 30 sustainable house tour guests

While we will never be completely self-sufficient in food production on our small block, we have managed to produce the majority of our non-staple vegetable needs within the first 10 months that we have been living here. This has been supplemented by our network of generous friends and neighbours who often share excess produce with us along with visits to the 'black market', farmers market, local market and stupermarket (in that order where possible).
We are getting into the habit of ensuring that people always leave with something that we have in abundance when they visit, more often than not, visitors bring something they have when they come. This informal exchange has no checks and balances, it just 'kinda works out'. I think that this works because the people that we associate with have a 'generousity of spirit' embedded within, and that spirit is infectious. I have come to realise that this is one of the greatest ways to ensure food security during times of crisis, building a sense of trust within our wider community.
We buy dry goods (wheat, sugar, grains, seeds, oil, nuts etc) in bulk every few months or when available which we sometimes trade with. This helps keeps overall costs down, and reduces our need to continually go shopping. We mill our own flour when we need it, which ensures that we get the maximum nutriment.
We collect and grow food from non-hybrid seed. Our garden has become a living seed bank that we can share. During the year we have harvested the following from our garden:
Potatoes, Silverbeet (chard), shallot onions, spring onion, garlic, beans, broadbeans, peas, leeks, tomatoes, turnips, radish, daicon radish, zucchini, pumpkin, jerusalem artichokes, lettuce, rocket, cucumber, rhubarb, chilli, strawberries, (pop)corn and herbs (mint, basil, vietnamese mint, chives, garlic chives, lemongrass, oregano, parsley, thyme, rosemary). We have also harvested some apples and a large quantity of pears and wild cherry plums from existing fruit trees.
Growing our own food results in an abundance of certain types of food at certain times, to deal with this we share excess and preserve what we can. I've found solar drying the easiest way to preserve food, but we also heat treat fruit in jars and ferment vegetables using a variety of methods.

Seed bank, containing a mix of seeds purchased, seeds given / swapped and seeds that we have collected ourselves. Each variety is bagged and labled with a card to include details about planting or collection. Bay leaves and silca packet to deter insects and excess moisture

With our 23,000lt and 8,000lt rainwater tanks we have so far managed to supply all of our water needs both domestically and out in the garden. We use our smaller tank as a back-up supply, in case our larger tank fails or becomes contaminated. If both of these tanks run out then we can use the mains water connection, which has not been used since we moved here (and hopefully never will be).
There are plans to install a gravity fed greywater system using Art Ludwigs design to irrigate fruit trees, making use of this valuable resource, but since we have had such a wet year this has not reached the priority list.
Harvesting rainwater within the soil has been part of the design plan, with infiltration basins around vegetable beds, which reduces the need to irrigate. These basins are filled with coarse mulch, and the vegetable beds are topped with grass clippings from neighbouring properties to help retain moisture. Storing rainwater in the soil is the cheapest and best way to keep your garden healthy.
Because we only use water we collect we have become acutely aware of when it rains and how much water we can use. We have been having baths often, because we have the water (and love baths). We wash nappies using our 30 year old top loading machine (using up to 150lt per wash) without concern, when the need arises we will reduce our usage accordingly.

Rather than focus on just oil, I thought that I would look at all our energy use.
Electricity: We use electricity to provide water pressure, wash nappies, mill flour, preserve food and we spend most of our time at home (I work from home) - so we should really be using more than the 16-20kWh used per day in a typical Australian household (2.5 people). From the bills that we have received so far (first 6 months) we have been using an average of 2.8kWh per day for our family of 4 people (about 15% of 'normal').
We have achieved this because we heat our house and hot water using the sun and wood. We use the sun to dry and sanitise our clothes / nappies and we have a small (25 year old) bar fridge that we use in conjunction with our (as yet unfinished) cool cupboard and cellar.
Gas: Rather than connect to the mains, which runs to the property, we have elected to use bottled gas because we are only using gas to run our two burner (40+ year old) stove. It works out much cheaper than paying for the connection fees for a mains gas connection. We are yet to empty a 45kg bottle.
Petrol: Living in Seymour, a small rural service town of around 6000 people, we find that we can walk just about everywhere we need to. Most of our needs are met from within our local community, but if we need to travel to the city we can catch the train, which runs every hour and takes about 1hr 20 min. I have driven about 1500km since Christmas, mainly to visit friends in hard to reach places.
Wood: Using our recently constructed wood cabinet I should be able to accurately measure how much wood we consume this year. All wood that we have used so far has been sourced on site, and we should have enough to last 2-3 more years.
Solar PV: I have been investigating the installation of a PV system. Current grants heavily subsidise systems up to 1.5kW. A system of this size would easily provide for our electricity needs, in fact would would be able to export most of that power back to the grid and generate and income of close to $1000 per year. There are a huge range of systems available in the market at the moment, and many not so ethical sales people. I'm interested in buying a mid-quality system from a trusted company. I'm also interested in buying components from a company that is not solely reliant on solar as their main business. It's hard to imagine that of the hundreds of solar panel manufacturers around at the moment that they will be around to cover their 25 year warranty.
Money: According to the Melbourne Institute, a family of four (in Australia) that earns below $765 per week is below the poverty line - we generated a family income of about $385 per week last financial year, making us officially two times below the poverty line (And yes, we do have a mortgage - that we hope to have paid off in 2 years). Funny thing is that we have never been richer!
Time: While we don't have much money we do have time (you usually have one or the other eh?). I have time to raise my kids, I have time to potter in the garden, I have time to make and fix stuff, and occasionally finish off bits of the house but I don't have time to watch TV or even videos! It's a very rewarding existence, that's busy and challenging.
Waste: By buying food in bulk, preserving food ourselves, using cloth nappies, growing our own food, and adopting a frugal lifestyle we are on track to fill JUST ONE rubbish bin and recycle bin for the entire year. We call it binimum - minimising waste, and it's a very effective way off reducing the amount of energy we consume.


TC said…
Just found your blog - and read it end to end in one go!! Fantastic effort on your part, you are doing exactly what I hope to begin doing myself within the next 6 months. (The main difference being I hope to be reusing old shipping containers as the basis of my home.) I really appreciate the level of detail you put in your blog, and despite researching sustainable living intensely over the last year - I've still learned a lot of new things from your blog. Will continue to follow your journey with avid interest! Terry.
Richard said…
Thanks Terry, always nice to receive good feedback - makes the work seem more worthwhile.
I too have been giving some thought to shipping containers, but keep coming back to not using them, unless you pretty much leave them as is. The reason for this being that if you are going to do a lot of work on them - like make foundations, insulating, lining, cutting out windows and restrengthening the walls then you may as well build from scratch - and get your thermal mass on the inside, not outside.
Of course it depends on the area and use, and how much you pay for them. Great for termite areas! Excellent for storage. I've got a friend who has built a solar passive home, using an insulated shipping container as a base to do it. He still uses the shipping container as his bedroom, now that he has finished the house build.
TC said…
Thanks for the answer. I've given a lot of thought about the container idea and there seems to be a couple of major plusses: the main one was the thought that I will be a solo builder - I won't be able to call on mates at the drop of a hat as I plan to be 'up-country'!! I looked at kit homes etc but even these you tend to need assistance raising wall frames/roof trusses etc that have been put together flat on the ground. Secondly, you don't need a slab. Just piers. I was shocked to find out what a house slab costs! And the moment the container is dropped on the piers it's already watertight AND at lock-up stage! From then on in there is the same amount of labour and materials as a regular build. Plus insulation will go outside to reduce loss of internal space, and I'll be about 3-4 hours north of Sydney, so thermal mass for internal heating isn't a major issue. I'm very keen on the idea of a ground source heat pump to regulate inside air temps (I'll have the landspace for it)I've priced 40 footers at under $3000 each including GST and delivery. 3 containers will give me a very decent sized living space!(About 90 sq m) Basically I see it as having a steel kit home, where the container becomes a premade steel building 'unit'.
ps I hope you don't mind, i told all the folks over at Build Your Own House ( about your blog as a lot of them would be very interested in your build.

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