Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Q&A: What? You need to clean solar panels?

Yes. Yes, you do. Just recently I got my first power bill since I've been here at Farmette solo, and I knew The Time had come.

I looked online for advice on cleaning solar panels, but everyone kept talking about getting professionals in (getting on your roof is clearly deemed a suicide mission) and using soapy water.

But what if your guttering drains into water tanks? What if you don't want to contaminate your drinking water with soap? Here's what you do.
  1. Turn off your solar panels at the switchboard.
  2. Unscrew the end cap from the gutter drain outlet so that the water you'll use to wash the panels doesn't go into your tanks.
  3. Get on the roof with:
    • a spray bottle filled with bicarbonate of soda and vinegar mixed with water
    • a plastic (non-scratch) scourer
    • a window cleaner with a blade
    • the hose.
  4. Spray a panel with the hose.
  5. Spray it with cleaning mix.
  6. Scrub it with scrubber.
  7. Hose it down again.
  8. Wipe it down with the window cleaner blade.
  9. Hose it over once more.
  10. Repeat. (In my case, twenty-three times. Why do I have so many panels? I kept asking. God, why?)
  11. Get off the roof and turn your panels back on.
  12. Wait for a rainy day to rinse your gutters out.
  13. Screw end cap back onto gutter outlet.
As with all my exploits on the roof, this got boring pretty fast. On the other hand, the panels were putrid with black mould, lichen and moss, so as I climbed gingerly back down the ladder it was at least with some sense of accomplishment.

Unfortunately I need to get back up there post-haste, to clean the gutters themselves, but hopefully my next power bill will see me well and truly back in the black!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Hatching hope

Hatching duck eggs is different from hatching hens' eggs. For one thing, the incubation period's 28 days, not 21. But that's not all.

At Farmette, duck eggs need more cleaning than hens' eggs before they hit the incubator.

The eggs need to be spotless, and no more than 5 days old, according to the incubator instructions. No blemishes or uneven patches on the shell, and no oversized or odd ones.

The incubator takes six hens' eggs, and five ducks' eggs, but I've started six here—three from each of my ducks—because I'll candle them at nine days to see how many are developing, and remove the ones that aren't live.

"Candling" is shining a light through the egg to see if it has veins and the oscillating speck of red that marks the forming heart.

Like hens' eggs, the duck eggs need to be turned a full 360 degrees every 24 hours. I mark them with Xs and Os 180 degrees apart, so I know when I've turned them last.

After 9 days in the incubator, the duck eggs need to be allowed to cool each day for 20 minutes, then sprayed with a mist of water to replicate the Official Real World, where a mother duck goes for a quick daily paddle before returning to the nest. This is one of the places where I came unstuck last year: I kept leaving the incubator open for too long. This year, I'll use a timer and alarm.

All this goes on until the last three days before hatching, when the incubator, like the duck, goes into pre-hatch lockdown. It's the proverbial pregnant pause. There's much waiting and pacing and looking and longing.

Having tended to the eggs twice a day, every day, and kept them moist and warm but not too warm, now the hatching's in the lap of the gods. All you can do is hope.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

On scarcity and sufficiency

The way the current Australian government is about energy security, you might think the entire country's uninterested in renewables. Our cities, where sustainable design is the rare exception rather than the norm, really perpetuate the idea.

But solar panels, at least, aren't so rare in the suburbs these days (thanks to now-finished government rebate schemes). And on my latest trip to the fabled Great Australia Outback, all the remote places I stayed at generated their own power.

I spent five nights on sheep and cattle stations, none of which was connected to grid power. They relied mainly on solar and wind power, though one still used generators for certain things, and another heated showers with bottled gas. The remote towns, too, are grid-independent. Coral Bay has its own collection of four wind turbines. Denham runs on a combination of wind, solar, and generator power. It's a necessity: the grid doesn't stretch that far. And the accommodation was built to reflect that.

On Warroora station, there are no powerpoints in the shearer's quarters; I charged my phone in the separate kitchen building. There and at Hamelin station, signs ask visitors not to plug in appliances like electric kettles and hairdryers, which pull power at a rate that can black out a grid-independent system. On Wooramel station, the "eco tents" have single-LED solar-charged bedside lights (which are excellent). Other than that? Forget your high-class halogen downlights, your fancy filament bulbs: it's fluorescents everywhere.

Scarcity breeds frugality. I think that connection is what stops us from conserving more.

In the cities, frugality seems needless, extreme, radical — a kind of senseless self-denial. What's wrong with boiling a kettle for heaven's sakes? Halogens create a nicer ambiance! But in the desert, there is only good in conservation.

It's easy to look at the picture below and be overwhelmed. In situ, you can feel as if the humans are barely clinging to the landscape, scratching out an existence among the dunes — even in spite of millennia of pre-European-settlement habitation. You can look at that turbine and the panels and wonder at how hard things must be.

But in all places, all situations, humans work to feel like we have enough. The idea of enough gives some comfort even when we have significantly less than others. As long as we have what we need, a sufficiency, we tell ourselves we're fine.

Conservation — the attitude and practice — is one way to make sure you have enough, if not always, then at least for the foreseeable future.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

In which I don't become a vegetarian. Sort of...

In preparation for my snorkelling holiday, I had to kill a cockerel today. It was quick; it was painless; it was a bird I didn't really like anyway. But during the cleaning, which was faster than ever before, I realised my attitude toward meat has changed.

Recently, my mum, like mums everywhere, questioned whether my diet has enough protein. Pretty much all the meat I ever eat is chicken and duck. The odd slice of bacon or a sausage. It's been months since I even had kangaroo.

The reason for this was, I thought, simple: I don't buy meat. Thanks to my veggie garden and Kerry's farm, I don't buy many vegetables either. I eat what's here.

But today, I realised, it's more than that. Meat is actually murder. I can't count the number of people who've told me, shuddering, they'd never be able to kill a chicken. A chicken! And I have some vegetarian friends who find the concept of breeding animals to eat decidedly weird.

I can handle killing a chicken, a duck or a rabbit or a fish, although yes, you have to kill them. And I'm happy to breed birds for the purpose. But the thought of killing a sheep? Or a pig? These are big animals, at least as big as me. They are also smart. I've spent enough time with chickens and goats to know there's a difference in intellect. The thought of giving an intelligent creature life just so you can take it away has begun to seem very strange to me, especially on a commercial scale.

For some reason, killing large wild animals that proliferate, like kangaroo, seems still to make sense, even though I know we'd quickly starve if we all depended on wild food (which would, of course, quickly become extinct). Maybe it's something about the notion of competition and chance that exists between the hunter and the hunted, but the idea of eating kangaroo seems more sensible to me than eating, for example, a steer.

Maybe all this is just faulty human "logic" in evidence. I mean, really: should the value of life be measured in intelligence, anyway? That's a question for another time.

Smart guy

Sunday, November 2, 2014


Spring brings different birds than I see at others times, including the big flock of straw-necked ibis that have been hanging around in the valley behind my place for a month or so now.

This afternoon, somewhere between 30 and 40 of them came up to my paddock. When I walked into the living room they spotted me through the glass and rose up, a single mass of glossy black wings and spiky extremities, into the sky.

Gradually, though, they returned. Bird by bird. How do they communicate, I wonder? When they're startled the birds honk to each other as they fly, but all the honking sounds the same to me.

However they did it, over the next hour the majority of them came back to dig worms and other delectables out of the grass.

A lovely visit from some unusual guests.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The other side of Spring

In Spring, it's easy to focus on the nice weather and the flowers, the baby animals and everything being green, everywhere you look.

So as a reality check and a contrast, I wanted to outline some of the less-often discussed parts of Spring in the rolling green countryside.

Spring is lambs and calves. It is also the animals that die during birth. I noticed a dead ewe in a nearby paddock two weeks ago, and saw it consumed over a period of days, first by Wedge-tailed Eagles, then crows and other scavengers. The dead calf I spotted on the way to work the other morning was literally surrounded by an attentive herd, some of whose members had their muzzles to its still, black fur.

The lambs that don't survive often becomes rags of lamb, strewn about the paddocks by foxes, or rotting on the roadside if they're silly enough to get run over. So accustomed am I now to seeing wool draped around paddocks that recently, I thought for a long, long moment that frost on mown clumps of grass in a neighbour's yard was a dead sheep in pieces.

The lambs that don't survive the birth lie blood-pink in the paddocks, distracting me as I drive past. More cheery are the just-born, still-yellow calves I see occasionally lying beside their own placentas while their mums lick them clean.

Spring is always, always, the first snake of the season spotted on the road when I go for a lunchtime run. Last week I nearly stood on this season's first, and, after a few breathy curses, reminded myself that from now on I'd better look further ahead than my feet on the forest trails. My neighbours say they're brown snakes, no matter how black they look. It wasn't large—maybe 40cm? A little more?—but it was a shock, as always.

Spring is foxes screaming for mates in the forest, and massacring the fowl whenever the chance arises. It is a proliferation of weeds, wallabies eating the new tender shoots on the fruit trees, the first huntsmen in the house, the first mosquitos and all who follow them.

The point here isn't to bring you down. Spring in the country is glorious. The point is that Spring is as much about challenges and risks as it is about nice weather and new growth.

The point is that growth entails struggle.
A spring sunset

Tuesday, October 21, 2014


It's time to introduce Six, my latest (and sixth) rooster.

Six has extremely penetrating red eyes

He's a Leghorn-Andalusian cross, coming up to a year old, and is the most antsy rooster Farmette has ever seen.

Standing at around 60cm today, Six was hatched by a neighbour's clucky hen, and was surplus to everyone's needs until the sad passing of Blue Rooster. Seizing his chance, Six arrived at Farmette highly strung, big-spurred, and ready for the hard work of managing a flock of around ten across 1.5 acres entirely single-winged.

He's proven an excellent if pernickety rooster, good for leading and feeding the females, warning against incursions, and getting his wattles dirty as he stalks about the hillside overseeing things. His crow is robust, pitched somewhere in the middle range, and he doesn't hesitate to expend his abundant energy on fulfilling his duties. All of them. In triplicate.

While Six is something of a stress-head, and he and I aren't exactly friends, we're slowly building a working relationship based on mutual respect.

Six is here to keep me on my toes.