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April 2015
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June 2015

May 2015

Building a sustainable house of hemp

Mixing hemp hurd, lime, sand and water to make hemp masontry. Little eco footprints

I've fallen in love with the idea of building a home from hemp. I recently visited Shepherds Ground Farm and Village here in the Hunter Valley while some of the members were learning how to build a wall using hemp fibre. The sustainable attributes and beauty of hemp masonry has me eager to learn more about this construction technique.

Industrial hemp is a hardy and fast-growing crop that is easy to grow organically – requiring no herbicides or pesticides.

Klara Marosszeky, managing director of The Australian Hemp Masonry Company, tells me that growing hemp is an "incredibly effective way of sequestering carbon and restoring farmland". Hemp absorbs carbon from the atmosphere as it grows and building with hemp locks the carbon up.

Growing hemp has a net positive impact on the soil. "Hemp grows to four to five metres tall in just a few months and drops its leaves to the ground, adding nutrients and carbon to the soil," Klara said.

Hemp Hurd used to make memp masonry. Little eco footprints

The hemp that the Shepherds Ground homes will be built from is being grown at nearby Dungog by a recently established hemp growers’ group. An old timber mill in Dungog has been converted into a hemp processing facility.

Hemp masonry, also called hempcrete, is made using hemp "hurd" – the woody material found in the centre of the hemp stalk. "The mill in Dungog has been without power since the flood" Klara said. "But once their power is restored, the mill will extract our hurd from the already harvested hemp."

Adding hemp hurd to the mix to make hempcrete. Little eco footprints

The hemp hurd is mixed with a lime binder, sand and water and then packed into a framed wall that is temporarily clad in formwork.

Mixing the ingredients for hemp masonry Australian Hemp Masonry Company workshop. Little eco footprints

The process is surprisingly simple and quick.

Pouring the hempcrete mix into formwork. Little eco footprints

I watched as the workshop participants mixed the raw ingredients in a large mixer and pressed it into the formwork.

Their wall was half finished by the end of day one.

Shepherds Ground member Angela Rath with a hemp masonry wall that she helped to build. Little eco footprints

Shepherds Ground member Angela Rath with a hemp masonry wall that she helped to build. 

Klara tells me that the ease of building with hemp is one of its main appeals. The hemp mix is lightweight and easy to handle.

Member Karon Lindner is looking forward to living in her hemp home. "I love the beautiful natural texture of hemp walls," she said. Karon also likes that hemp is so easy to build with that she will be able to help the builders construct her home.

Natural texture of hemp walls. Little eco footprints

Unlike most building products that come with a carbon cost, hemp masonry has a very low embodied energy and can be used to build carbon negative homes.

Not only does the hemp absorb carbon while it is growing, the hemp masonry continues to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as it slowly cures.

Hemp homes are also highly energy efficient. Hemp masonry is highly insulative and, despite being lightweight, behaves similar to materials with high thermal mass. The breathable walls also manage humidity efficiently and provide excellent indoor air quality.

Hemp buildings are also fireproof and very durable. The lime-based binder coats the hemp making it highly fire resistant. The combined hemp and lime petrifies over time, making the masonry harder and stronger as it ages.

And if you should ever want to demolish a hemp home (which I imagine is highly unlikely given their beauty and performance), hemp masonry is entirely biodegradable. Simply break it up and plough it under the ground, rather than truck it to landfill.

I'm looking forward to watching the hemp village at Shepherds Ground grow.

You can check out this hemp wall at Shepherds Ground Village and Farm's first open day Saturday, June 6. Details here

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 25th May 2015.

Dirt glorious dirt - and why you should be playing in it more often

Scentists have discovered that playing in the dirt makes us feel good - thanks to a seratonin boosting bacteria called Mycobacterium vaccae. Little eco footprints

I've long recognised that digging in the garden makes me feel good. No matter how tired or stressed I am, a few minutes with my hands in the earth and my mood improves. I had assumed the boost was due to being outdoors and active and doing something I love. But it may actually be tiny micro-organisms causing my good mood.

Unintentionally picking up a microbe called Mycobacterium vaccae can make us feel good. Scientific trials suggest this soil dwelling bacteria can decrease anxiety, improve our ability to learn and may work as an antidepressant.

We pick up this serotonin boosting bug by playing in the dirt or eating it with our fresh fruit and vegetables.

Mycobacterium vaccae is one of 10,000 or so species of microbes that may call your body home. And many of them are just as valuable, or more so. Some produce inflammation-fighting chemicals and others help regulate your immune response. Microbes also help you digest particular foods and assimilate nutrients.

We evolved with microbes. And it’s starting to look like we don’t function properly without them.

Scientists are only now starting to discover just how important microbes are for our health. Rob Knight in his book Follow your gut: the enormous impact of tiny microbes suggests that "microbes are not only more numerous than we thought ... they’re also more important than we ever imagined, playing a role in nearly all aspects of our health, even in our personality".

Rob writes that: "You are made up of about ten trillion human cells – but there are about a hundred trillion microbial cells in and on your body. Which means: you are mostly not you ... We are not individuals; we are ecosystems."

But there’s a problem. We’re destroying our useful microbiota by being stressed, overusing antibiotics, using antibacterial cleaning products, and indulging in processed food, artificial sweeteners, and sugar.

We also have fewer opportunities to pick up beneficial microbes. We’re playing or working in the dirt less. We try to sterilise our homes. And industrial-scale farming and widespread use of pesticides has depleted soil microbe diversity – reducing the chances of us picking up a diversity of good microbes from the foods we eat.

There are suggestions from researchers that our modern-day disconnection from soil microbes could help to explain the rapidly increasing frequency of food intolerances, allergies, asthma and diseases involving inflammation, such as diabetes, arthritis, and even depression.

So what can you do to boost your good microbes?

1. Play in the dirt. Dig in the garden. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.

2. Grow your own food organically. Gobble a few carrots straight from the soil. You’ll likely pick up more beneficial bugs from a fresh barely cleaned homegrown carrot than from popping an expensive probiotic pill.

3. Buy fruit and vegetables that have been grown on small organic or family farms. You are more likely to pick up a greater diversity of beneficial microbes from fruits and vegetables grown without pesticides.

4. Enjoy fermented foods. Make your own yoghurt, sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha or kimchi.

5. Repeat. The beneficial bugs we gain from playing in the dirt or eating homegrown food wear off after a while. A couple of weeks after contact with Mycobacterium vaccae – and it (and its feel-good feeling) is gone. 

I like the idea of playing in the dirt being good for us.

Playing in the mud is a great way for kids to boost good microbes. Little eco footprints

It seems mud loving children know what's good for them.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 18th May 2015.

Skills for sustainable living - workshops in the Hunter Valley May 2015

One of the aspects of sustainable living that excites me the most is that there's so much to learn. There's seemingly endless knowledge to acquire and more than a life-time of skills to gain.

Thankfully, there are plenty of individuals and organisations out there providing resources and courses to make learning easy.

Here's a selection of upcoming courses and workshops for the Hunter region this month.

Click on the headings for more information and to register. 

Wild101, May 15-17 with Wildcraft Australia

Note: registrations for this workshop closed yesterday - but maybe they can squeeze you in if you ask nicely :-)

Wildcraft Australia Wildcraft 101. Little eco footprints

Niki from Wildcraft Australia starting a fire without matches. Little eco footprints

This weekend course is for anyone interested in wilderness survival skills, bush crafts, nature and developing bush confidence.

Learn how to start a fire without matches, build a shelter, weave a natural basket and forage for bush tucker.


Hemp Masonry, 16th - 17th May, with Shepherds Ground and The Australian Hemp Masonry Company.

This hands-on workshop provides a unique and exciting opportunity to learn how to build your own hemp masonry walls.

You will go away with a whole new skill set and a manual. 


Part-time mid-week Permaculture Design Certificate, 10 weeks starting Wednesday 20th May, with Purple Pear Farm

This one has me seriously tempted. A part-time mid week PDC! (updated: I've registered! Anyone want to join me?)

For more than ten years Kate and Mark have offered the PDC to people of the Hunter Valley and beyond and have seen many people go on to do great things around the world. From consultancy and aid work to teaching and simply providing for their families, graduates of the PDC at Purple Pear Farm have gained the confidence to live life in a sustainable and regenerative way.

The course follows the curriculum set out in the Permaculture Design Manual by Bill Mollison and continues with the teaching of David Holmgren. 


Brian Keats workshop, 23rd May, with Hunter Biodynamic Group. 

Brian Keats has been publishing an annual Antipodean Astrocalendar and moon planting guide for decades. His calendars are widely used by biodynamic practitioners to understand natural rhythms and guide gardening and farming practices.

A morning seminar will be followed in the afternoon by a Q & A session on using the Astrocalender.

In the evening, a star - watching session will be accompanied by stories from Greek and Australian Aboriginal Cultures.


Medicinal herbs in cooking, 23rd May with the Common Sustenance Project

Nissa Phillips, Common Sustenance project coordinator at The Commons Cafe. Little eco footprints

The Commons is delivering a series of ten classes on healthy, frugal and sustainable cooking. Other upcoming classes include healthy cooking on a budget, cheese making, and cooking for kids. 


Grass identification, 23rd May with Trees In Newcastle and the Australian Association of Bush Regnerators.

Themeda triandra,  Little eco footprints

Grass expert Van Klaphake is coming to the Lower Hunter to present a 2 day plant identification workshop on native and exotic grass species of the Greater Sydney region. 

This hands-on workshop is suitable for bush regenerators, landcarers, botanists, plant enthusiasts, council vegetation officers or for general interest.


Introduction to Biodynamics, 30th May with Krinklewood Vineyard.

Peter Windrim and a few of Krinklewood Biodynamic Vinyards many compost piles. Little eco footprints

This hands-on workshop will be relevant to anyone wanting to produce healthy organic produce - whether you have a small backyard veggie garden or a large commercial farm.

Biodynamic practitioners John Priestly and Hamish Mackay will introduce workshop participants to the application and benefits of biodynamics.

Peter Windrim of Krinklewood vinyard (pictured above with a couple of Krinklewood's many compost piles) tells me "Participants will learn how to make compost, use a planting calendar, and make biodynamic preparations that can be used to enhance the fertility and life-energy of their soil".


Learn How to Make Goats Milk Soap, 1st June with Honeycomb Valley Farm 

This hands on workshop will teach you basic goats milk soap-making techniques including how to mix lye, how it saponifies and how to cure soap for a delightfully mild bar. 


Other regular sustainable living workshop providers within the region:


Purple Pear Farm

Kate and Mark deliver a range of courses on permaculture and skills for simple living. Courses over the coming months include cheese and yoghurt making, introduction to biodynamics, compost making, worm farming, plant propagation, and urban food production.


Herbalist Pat Collins

Pat delivers regular courses across the Hunter region on foraging, using herbs, and making your own skin and hair care products.


Master sourdough baker Warick Quinton

Warick runs regular workshops on how to make artisan sourdough bread.


Happy learning. 

A slightly shorter version of this post was originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 11th May 2015.

How to make simple sauerkraut

How to make sauerkraut. Little eco footprints

Fermented foods are gaining popularity - and rightly so. Laden with probiotics, beneficial enzymes and vitamins - they are great for our digestion and health. They are also easy to make and extremely frugal.

Most organic food stores stock a range of fermented vegetables. They are convenient and delicious - but at $15 a jar I quickly learnt to make my own. An equivalent amount of home made sauerkraut can cost less than $1.

You don't need fancy ingredients to make sauerkraut.

How to make sauerkraut 1. Little eco footprints

At its most basic you combine only cabbage and salt.

Nor do you need special equipment.

I've made many batches using a large wide-mouth glass jar and a bottle that fits neatly inside.

I've only recently invested in an air lock. For less than $10, an air lock and stopper from a brewery supply store converts a large jar and lid into a safe fermenting vessel. 

You can also get beautiful ceramic fermenting crocks - but it's easy to make do without. 

How to make Sauerkraut.

1. Thoroughly clean your hands and equipment.

Rinse well, especially if your detergent is antibacterial as it will kill the good bugs you want to encourage (primarily lactobacilli).

2. Shred cabbage and weigh.

Save a nice big outer leaf. You'll use this later.

How to make sauerkraut 2. Little eco footprints

How to make sauerkraut 3. Little eco footprints

How to make sauerkraut 4. Little eco footprints

How to make sauerkraut 5. Little eco footprints

3. Sprinkle salt over shredded cabbage.

Use a good quality unrefined salt such as sea salt or rock salt.

The salt inhibits the growth of bad bacteria until the lactobacilli increase and produce sufficient lactic acid to preserve the cabbage.

The recommended amount of salt varies considerably. I add 1 - 2 tablespoons of salt for every kg of cabbage.

You can also add additional flavors (e.g caraway seeds, oregano, garlic, ginger or chilli) or vegetables (e.g grated carrots or sliced radish). Although I suggest it's probably best to keep it simple for your first few batches.

Whey can be added to speed up fermentation. The whey inoculates the cabbage with additional lactobacilli. You can safely decrease the amount of salt used if you add whey.

Whey can be strained from yoghurt and speeds up lactofermentation. Little eco footprints

Whey can be obtained by straining good quality yoghurt through muslin (or a fine old curtain as I'm doing above). The leftover strained yoghurt makes a delicious cheese (labneh) spread. I add around 1 tablespoon of whey per kg of cabbage.

4. Massage the salted cabbage with your hands for up to ten minutes to release juices.

How to make sauerkraut 7. Little eco footprints

I can only manage to massage around 1 kg at a time so I do it batches. I massage the first kg for a few minutes and then let it sit for a while and go on to shredding the second kg. Letting it sit for a few minutes helps to release the juices. 

How to make sauerkraut 6. Little eco footprints

How to make sauerkraut 8. Little eco footprints

5. Pack the cabbage and juices into your jar or fermenting crock.

Press down firmly with your hands until the juices entirely submerge the cabbage.

The outer leaf you set aside can be pressed on top and used to hold the shredded cabbage below the surface.

6. Exclude oxygen.

Making Sauerkraut. Little eco footorints

Lacto-fermentation is an anaerobic process and the presence of oxygen during fermentation will spoil the sauerkraut. Using an air-lock or fermentation crock will provide the right environment. You can also use a bottle filled with water (or any other clean weight) to weigh down the cabbage and keep it submerged.

Making sauerkraut  using a ordinary jar and air lock or weight. Little eco footprints

If using an open jar, cover with a fine cloth to keep out insects. 

7. Wait.

Keep your jar at room temperature. Start tasting after 4 days. You can leave you sauerkraut at room temperature for anywhere from 4 days to 4 weeks.

8. Once you are happy with the degree of fermentation, move your sauerkraut into the fridge where it will keep for many months.

Having a jar of sauerkraut in the fridge means a simple healthy meal can be made in minutes. A generous scoop of sauerkraut, a couple of boiled eggs and a handful of carrot sticks. Done. Simple, frugal healthy food.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 4th May 2015.

Riches without dollars: embracing the gift economy

Somewhere along the line, money took over our lives. The dollar became almighty. And now we’re paying for it. With our happiness, our health, and the environment.

But it doesn't have to be this way.

We can embrace alternative economies. These informal economies can provide many of our needs – without the exchange of money. And as a bonus, the fuel for these alternative economies – sharing, trading, generosity and gratitude – build stronger and more resilient communities.

Generosity breeds generosity. A basket of homegrown mushrooms recentlly gifted to a friend to say thank you for a gift they gave us. Little eco footprints

Generosity and gratitude builds strong communities. A basket of home-grown mushrooms I gifted to a friend to say thank you for a gift they gave us. 

Charles Eisenstein, in his book Sacred Economics: Money, Gift And Society In The Age Of Transition, argues that the money system has contributed to alienation, competition, destroyed community, and necessitated endless growth. In contrast: "In a gift society, if you have more than you need, you give it to someone who needs it."

Eisenstein suggests generosity is how you earn security: "Because if you have built up all that gratitude, people are going to take care of you." He says that "if there are no gifts, then there is no community. And we can see, as societies have become more monetised, that community has disappeared. People long for it, but you can’t just have community as an add-on to a monetised life. You have to actually need each other."

The gift economy builds community. A basket of gifted sourdough cinnamon scrolls. Little eco footprints

A bakset of homemade sourdough cinnamon scrolls I gifted to some strangers that had had a rough few days. I'll never see these people again....but perhaps they will (intentionally or unintentionally - it doesn't matter) pay it forward. 

Mechanisms to facilitate alternative economies can be formal and structured – like the many new collaborative consumption tools. These effectively enable sharing, lending, trading, renting, and gifting. These traditional actions are far from new, but new online technologies have made them easier. For example, there’s Freecycle, TimebankingLETS, Car Next Door, Airbnb and Home Camp, just to name a few.

There’s also more local options available. For example, a gifting circle that Eisenstein describes in Sacred Economics sounds delightful. In this weekly gathering, participants state one or more things they would like to give and one or more things they would like to receive. Often, a magical synchronicity of wants and needs unfolds. "You need a potato masher? We have three." Or, "You need a ride to the airport on Friday? My husband is flying out then, too."

My favourite way to embrace alternative economies is even simpler – take money out of the equation as often as you can. For example, our laundry is out of action. Rather than pay to use a local laundromat, I’m using a friend’s washing machine. As a bonus, I’m catching up with our friends each time I drop off or pick up laundry – and it makes them more comfortable next time they ask us a favour.

These days, money has taken over situations where generosity is more appropriate.

A friend had been minding my daughter a lot lately. I haven’t offered money for the favour, nor has she asked for it. But what we each get out of the interaction is far more valuable than money.

I recently said to her "I owe you big time". With a cheeky grin she said "yes you do". I like that one day I’ll be able to return the favour. 

What you give comes back, but not necessarily from the person you gave to.

A treasured original painting by Brian Nunan. - a gift from a friend. Little eco footprints

I was recently given a beautiful original artwork. The painting was gifted, not because I was generous to the giver, but because she has observed me being generous to a mutual friend. Generosity breeds generosity.

Money only has value because society gives it value. But there’s nothing to stop us putting greater value on non-monetary things. Wellbeing, kindness, fresh air, biodiversity, family and friendships. We can decide these things are of greater value than money and live our lives accordingly.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 27th April 2015.

Interested in exploring the idea of the gift economy more? 

Here's an inspiring story by Sash from Inked in Colour about the creation of a local timebanking project

The Flower Exchange by Grown and Gathered provides a beautiful example of the gift economy in action. 

Sacred Economics: Money, Gift And Society In The Age Of Transition by Charles Eisenstein can be read for free here