#88: Native Hawaiian Plants, C4 grasses, BI4Farmers and Farm Hack

#88: Native Hawaiian Plants, C4 grasses, BI4Farmers and Farm Hack 150 150 Farmerama Radio

This month we begin by speaking to Michael Demotta, the Living Collections curator at the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG) on Kaua’i about speciality, native plants and the important role they play in Hawaiian culture. Next up, we learn about the potential of C4 grasses from Francisco Alves, a farmer based in Herdade de São Luís, Portugal. Francisco has been farming using the traditional Portuguese Montado system for many years, grazing animals amongst the cork trees and since 2018, he has been applying a regenerative approach to create a profitable system with very minimal inputs. 

We also speak to the team behind the new BI4Farmers campaign to learn about their new report ‘Sowing the seeds of stability: the case for a basic income for farmers, farmworkers and food producers in the UK’ – it’s well worth a read! BI4Farmers was created by a working group of farmers, growers, academics and union co-ordinators. It’s founded on the recognition that farmers in the UK are very often overworked, underpaid, with precarious uncomes and very little security. Finally, we hear an excerpt from a new podcast by PhD student Ali Taherzadeh looking at what it takes to run a Farm Hack. Tune into the full episode and access the guide here.

This episode of Farmerama was made by Jo Barratt, Katie Revell, Dora Taylor and Abby Rose. Big thanks to the rest of the Farmerama team Olivia Oldham, Annie Landless, Eliza Jenkins, Lucy Fisher and Fran Bailey. Our theme music is by Owen Barratt.

We’re very grateful to those of you that support us and allow us to bring you these stories every month. Even the smallest contribution makes a big difference to us. So if you’d like to become a supporter, you can visit patreon.com/farmerama.

Episode Transcript

Abby: Hello and welcome to Farmerama! It’s good to be back, and we hope you enjoyed the Less and Better? Series over the last few months.

This month we start in Hawaii hearing about the importance of native plants, then we head to Portugal to learn more about the value of C4 grasses in mediterranean silvopasture systems, we dive into the roots of the Basic Income for farmers campaign in the UK, and we end with some tips on what it takes to run a Farm Hack.

Michael Demotta is curator of living collections for the Hawai‘i National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG) on Kaua’i. Michael is passionate about speciality, native plants and the important role they play in Hawaiian culture.

Mike: My name is Michael DeMotta and I’m the curator for Living Collections. It’s been our garden’s history to work on native Hawaiian plants over the last several decades. And as plants get rarer in the wild as habitat disappears, species that are dioecious, for example, might be separated by, you know, long valleys or high mountain ridgetops. And it’s hard to get seeds on a lot of these plants. So we have resorted to using and implementing some of the horticultural techniques that are fairly common in commercial horticulture, like air layering you know, cuttings, bringing cuttings in and, and grafting. We’re working on for example, on this island species called crypto carrier mani, which is in the same family as avocado, and they do produce little fruits. That are very small, very hard dark green when they’re ripe but rats, which are not native to Hawaii, take the fruits off the trees before they’re really ready, and so it’s really hard to get seeds from that. So we about two years ago found a few very vigorous trees and put some air layers on them, and, and in about ten months, they set Plenty of roots, so we know that that’s one of a number of hardwoods that are we can reproduce via air layering bring them into cultivation and try and get different populations represented in our living collections, for example. There is an endemic genus of malva called Kokia.

Each island had its own species of Kokia at one time. The last, for example, on the island of Oahu, the last Kokia existed on the west, sorry, the east side of the island of Oahu. It died probably in the early 1900s on Moloka‘i. The last known speed tree of the Kokia Cookei that was known there was in someone’s yard, the house went on fire, folks took cuttings and were able to, to graft it onto root stock. And the only Kokia Cookei that are around today are those grafted rootstock specimens. And we happen to have one of them in our collection here.

Our collections are a mixture of different species, sometimes from different islands. And as long as we can be pretty confident that there’s no cross pollinating going on. For example, going back to Kokia again. We have just three, we have three species of Kokia in our living collections here.

And, coincidentally, they all flower at different times of the year. So collecting open pollinated seed from any one of the three, well, two of them set seeds, is fine. We’re really comfortable doing that. And kokia kauaiensis, which is the most common of them all, is still very rare in the wild with less than 50 individuals. So, when they do, when our trees do set seed we will go into the gardens and collect those seeds. And, of course, we take the same kind of provenance information down, the accession tag number and so at least we know the, the who the, the, the tree, you know, the source tree is at. And we send those to storage and we happen to know that coquilla is one seed that can store for a fairly long period of time in refrigeration. So, it really helps conservation efforts to reestablish the species in the wild down the line.

You know, the early Polynesians were such experienced explorers and they knew they couldn’t depend on what they might find on a new island to be useful as either food, fiber, or medicinal sources. So they learned to travel with their own plants. And so to all the islands, they introduced about two dozen different kinds of plants, which had all those different uses. When they arrived in Hawaii, they were lucky to bring a lot of their food plants because not all, not many of our native plants would have been, they could not have sustained them there themselves on the native plants of Hawaii. However many of our native plants provided other things that became useful to them. And one of those things are dye sources. So they found that they could extract dyes out of flowers. and fruits from different plants out of the barks of different trees. And if you study a traditional bark cloth or tapa cloth, which is made throughout the Pacific, a Hawaiian tapa cloth was actually the most colorful and high, and had the highest quality of all, of all of the Pacific islands. And they just developed a better way to make their cloth much softer. And it was more, But then because of the native plants, they had every color of dye to be used. Different shades of yellows and purples and red. And, and you don’t find any of those colors in any of the South Pacific Tapaqua.

So it’s called the paper mulberry plant. In Hawaiian, we call it wauke. It’s still commonly cultivated in all the rural islands in Polynesia. Though I’ve never been, I’m told that if you go to Tonga and go into the villages, you will hear them beating the bark cloth to make tapa cloth every day and in all of the villages. 

And basically it’s a tall, very thick cloth. This is a very thin trunked plant, and they train the plant to, by cutting off all the side shoots as the plants mature, as the stems mature, so that you have a solid piece of bark when you peel it, and you soak it, and you lay it down on a wooden anvil, and with a wooden mallet, you beat on it, keep, and adding water, and it stretches out, and that’s a very, very basic explanation of how it’s made, but you need a lot of pieces of that in order to make a useful piece of cloth.

Abby: Francisco Alves farms at Herdade de São Luís in Portugal, where they produce their Porcus Natura brand of meat. They have 650 hectares of cork forest, alongside 50 hectares of cereal and cover crop production, half of which is irrigated.

Francisco has been farming using the traditional Portuguese Montado system for many years, grazing animals amongst the cork trees but since 2018 he has been applying a regenerative approach to create a profitable system that requires no, or very little, inputs.

One of his most recent experiments has been introducing C4 grasses, or warm season grasses into the system, so that even in long periods without any rainfall he has plants growing. We spoke to Francisco to hear more about this.

Francisco: So in a farm you work with four different species, pigs, goats, sheep, and cows. And our goal is to get the perfect number of the different species. And not used a supplement or medium supplement and 100 percent grass feed in all the species. Only the pigs we help in the summer with cereals and they grazed cover crops too.

So the C4 plant in our system is really amazing because we have flat areas that we can irrigate and we don’t have a big capacity to reserve water in summer. So we try to put these specific areas with very good soil more productive to, to help, to give more rest time in the Montana where we have the trees. It’s an agro silvopasture systems so in our dry climate, we need to give a long rest time in the C4 grasses are amazing to get a lot of production in the springs, summer depending on the year in the fall, in the beginning of the fall too. And at the same time that we are giving rest time to the montado, we are putting the soil cover all the summer.

So we have it’s amazing in our climate, if you, if you can do a management that allows you to have a green plant in your soil for more than a year. It’s amazing because of all the microbiology all the year. So yeah, it’s a great tool to, to feed animals, to recover the soil and at the same time give you a lot of kill the sporector that helps a lot.

So we are beginning to use C4 grasses. And after different experiences, we increased with more different species of cover crops with millet sunflowers, three or four different, different species that, that allowed it’s, it’s better to the soil for all the connections, all the different systems of roots.

It’s better because you don’t have so many insect attacks. It’s different from a model monoculture. And of course, when you do the, the, the first get only grass, it has the possibility to regrow again, all the species, the corn the millet or the sunflower don’t have the capacity to regrow again.

But, yet it has been a great experience and within our system with the four different species, it’s amazing because we can feed them all in the more difficult, difficult season. But for you to understand the dynamic of our system in the last year, we can get a cover crop until October. So it’s the first time that I work and we passed all the summer with With photosynthesis in the soil, and in the beginning of the fall, in the beginning of the rains again we have a group of animals eating green, green grass, so it’s amazing, I have green, green grass and production for the animals that are in, and at the same time feeding the soil too. So yeah, it’s it’s amazing system. I think of evolution from what I read about C4 plants, it’s like an evolution of C3 plants. So it’s, it’s amazing. And now the challenge is try to balance the perfect time to seed them. We are, we try to, to different experiences in different areas of the farm. And I’m understanding that it’s, it’s better if you seed a little early. Okay. Because imagine a lot of areas where we put the C4 it’s dry. We don’t irrigate the plant.

So you have to think about the first growth of the plant. But you have to think about when you cut one time, you have to, to think about the, the, the disability of humidity in the soil to regrow again. So it’s, you spend money in the, in the different seeds. If you seed it a little more, more late.

You are putting at risk the secondary growth of the cover crops. So it’s really important that, you know, your farm, you know, or your contest, you know your soils, you, and you choose the perfect time to seed it depend off the soil in the area of the farm, we have flat areas near the water lines that allows us to seed it a little more late, but it’s we have different areas that we, we have to seed more early.

So it’s then this dynamic together with the dynamic of the grazing of the four different species that we have, so it depends on the conditions of the soil, depends on the weather. Imagine if it starts raining in April or May, and I have two hectares with a cover crop, with C4. I, in one day, if I know that it will rain, I change all the cows, all the 250 cows to two hectares.

Because I know that the plant will regrow again, because, catch the, catch the water. So it’s all about respecting the principles of the soil. It’s the most important and yeah, and experience in the management that you do in the, in your farm. But I always tell one thing, if you don’t forget the soil, if you don’t forget the plants, you never forget your animals.

And if you only look at your animals, you always forget the soil. So yeah, it’s the, the, the first. Yeah, I think it’s a recipe, not a principle. It’s like a recipe that we have to, to, to sink all, all the days. And it’s the, you don’t, you don’t get any risk if you sink all this first in the salt.

Matthew Kessler: Hello Farmerama listeners, Matthew Kessler here. I’m the host of Feed, another podcast about food and farming systems produced by Table, but a much less interesting and fun name to say than Farmerama. Thanks to Joe and Abby for allowing me to creep into your ears for a minute. I’ve spent the last 15 years working on farms, in kitchens and labs, and lately in recording studios trying to figure out what’s a good future for the food system.

And I’ve been talking to people who have completely different takes on this. As you well know, if you ask a farmer, or an environmental modeler, or a mushroom expert, or an economist, on what’s a good future for food, you’re going to get very different answers. The last few years we’ve run extended series on who should have power in the food system, how local or global food should be, how natural our food systems ought to be.

And one topic that never, ever sparks any debate at all. What should the future of meat and livestock look like? Do any of these topics perk up your ears more than others? We’d love to hear from you, Farmerama listeners, so we can give you a taste of the feed podcast. Alright, on to the Farmerama episode today

Abby: At the Oxford Real Farming Conference back in January, Katie took part in a workshop with Basic Income for Farmers. The BI4Farmers campaign was created by a working group of farmers, growers, academics and union co-ordinators, and it’s founded on the recognition that farmers in the UK are very often overworked and underpaid, with precarious incomes and very little security.

BI4Farmers recently launched a report called “Sowing the seeds of stability: the case for a basic income for farmers, farmworkers and food producers in the UK”. You can find a link to it in the show notes. After the workshop at ORFC, Katie spoke to two members of the campaign team about the BI4Farmers project.

Hamish: I’m Hamish Evans. I’m a land worker, organic farmer in Somerset, and co-founder of Middle Ground Growers, and representing the NFU as Young Farming Ambassador this year.

Dot: Hello, I’m Dot Tiwari. I represent a number of different hats. So I’ve helped set up SALT Solidarity Across Land Trades, the Farm Workers Union. I’m also involved in Good Food Oxfordshire and a local farmers network in Oxfordshire.

The basic income for farmers is for everyone. It’s not means tested. It’s and that means for all types of farmers and all farmers. We would advocate it to be for all land workers, and we had some interesting conversations about what the farmer is. But the idea is it’s a payment of sorts that would be regular, that would be expected, and that would not be means tested, which would be given to everyone who would be considered as a farm worker in whatever description that we identified that as. Some of the additional benefits for society that we talked about in the session and that have come up in the past are that.

Hamish: So I guess it’s a, it’s a birth of a micro movement on top of this kind of fungal network of this much broader thing, which is the kind of economic restructuring, flipping that paradigm from having farmers and food producers right at the bottom, to actually regaining that sovereign, sovereignty. And it also stands on the back of like a huge basic income movement, which one of our team, Guy Standing, is It’s been a huge pioneer and leader for decades, and now it’s sort of one of those ideas who’s been on the edge for a time, basic income, and now it’s one of those things that, you know, there’s this Overton window for change and it’s time has come, you know, there’s like this context of poly crisis and health crisis and post pandemic and pharma subsidies and climate crisis, and it’s all coming together, this perfect storm, which really makes it impossible for growers to actually produce and actually eat well themselves, which is a, which is the only radical thing in this conversation. So there’s this very pragmatic response to that is this kind of basic income for farmers. And we’re now bridging that much more to the policy world and trying to make that real case for it. Build on the back of so many pilots. Also economic backing for it and things like that.

Dot: So the campaign hasn’t been going very long. And I first heard about it. I think the Landworkers Alliance put out a call out at the bottom of an email. And I was helping facilitate a workshop on behalf of SALT at a Landworkers Alliance Southwest gathering. And we’d been talking about just how broken the food system is. My involvement in SALT really came from Seeing people leaving the sector, and I just can’t see how we can have an agroecological food sector and a food and farming sector that benefits nature, people and planet without supporting land workers to stay in the sector that they’re in and to feel comfortable and supported in a career when they’re doing such important work.

We’d actually already been talking about basic income as a radical idea for fixing this really unfixable problem, like the systemic issue that seems so unfathomable and you have yeah, growers who can’t afford to buy the food that they grow, if they were buying it on the open market, and at the same time, there are a lot of people in food poverty and an increasing number of people in food poverty. Who are so disconnected from their local food system because there’s no way that they could ever afford to buy the food. So agroecological, organic, food that gives back to the land is the food that we need to be producing not only for ourselves and our bodies and our health, but also for the planet, for biodiversity, growing food with nature is exactly what we should be doing. And at the moment, we’re not, we’re not giving that enough value and we’re not supporting our farmers and we’re losing people from the sector. It’s really been a really quick turnaround and really, and that’s a testament to Joe’s incredible energy in rallying and gathering and, yeah, fire starting and catalysing so much,

Hamish: Sense, and it’s this very practical area, so we’ve got to now, like, gather together, gather land workers, call for support to actually get this to happen, I guess. Yeah, in the, in the hope and the sort of prefiguring that future that we can actually, you know, thrive and actually build that society from that base, from the farmers, from the land workers. So yeah, we do encourage like people to get in touch with UBI for farmers, number four at gmail. com. And there’s one Instagram and all that UBI for farmers. And yeah, I’d love to hear from people because we’re still in the early, it’s the exciting phase. We’ve got a report launch and it’s exciting part of the campaign to kind of get involved in, and we just need more and more growers and farmers on board basically.

Dot: The report is really a culmination and analysis of all of the interviews that we did. And the idea is it’s really summarizing what the benefits what the advantage is. And in both on a kind of individual level, but also maybe for wider community and also the food system could come from having a basic income for farmers. It also addresses what a basic income is and what the intentionality of this campaign is. So, Who would it go to? What does it look like? What could it look like? It talks a little bit about past pilots that have happened and things that could be learned from them and the successors of them actually, because there’s a lot and it’s interesting that in the current paradigm, I don’t think before I’d been a part of this campaign that I’d heard about the successors that I’ve since read about. Through being part of this campaign. And I can’t, I can’t fail to think that that’s partly because you know amplifying that success is politically difficult for the current political climate, you know, no one really wants to tell everyone that actually giving everyone money and the same money. Is beneficial and increases people’s productivity in a sense that’s more positive for the environment and much more positive in a holistic sense. So not productivity in the more capitalist sense. And I have to use that word because that’s the word, the way that productivity is often thought. But actually in terms of overall giving back to society, overall being healthier. Participant in society, therefore being less reliant on healthcare being less reliant on other services, social services, for example. So, yeah, this is yeah, I think that’s like a big part of it.

We’ve been working on autonomy and Jake and Katie in particular have contributed to it as well as Jo, of course, autonomy, how I think tank that we’ve been working with. And the idea is that we want this campaign and this idea to really go out there. So we didn’t launch it during the real farming conference because the majority of people are hibernating right now. Politicians aren’t checking everything in the same way. And although it’d been really beneficial perhaps for farmers and they might have seen it, actually that’s not really the right way to make sure that we get real political sway. So it’s very much a political decision that we didn’t launch it during the conference. I’d say, but what we did manage to do was ensure that we got maximum input from a diverse group of farmers that were able to join our session. We reached out and shared our survey links to those who couldn’t join, and we’re hoping to bring in more and more voices. And without that kind of level of detail, we can’t start to convince politicians who might think otherwise.

Hamish: Ultimately the health of society is dependent upon the health of our lands, which is totally interwoven with the health of our farmers and looking after that baseline. So a baseline income and the kind of security and capacity that’s freed up from that just really has these huge ripples. Yeah, both with the land’s health, the soil’s health, our own health, our inner health and like, yeah, the wider community.

Ali Taherzadeh investigates organising and learning practices in the agroecology movement for their PhD. As part of this research Ali was interested in the growing Farm Hack movement and worked with a group of farm hack organisers and academics to create a guide on how to run your own Farm Hack. Accompanying this Ali also crafted a podcast, sharing experiences of Farm Hacks in the UK. Here is an excerpt from the podcast narrated by Ali with a mix of contributors from different events: 

The one in Leeds, they were, um, doing sort of, they were making copper tools, like making a sort of stirrup hoes with bits of copper. So someone was showing people how to sharpen bits of copper and shape it.  I made a, somebody was showing people how to make  with like a little draw  knife,  uh, like little flowers. So I made, you know, it was just like random things. Someone showing people how to scythe and, you know, somebody else doing like a grafting session and  there’s just lots of interesting things going on,  but, you know, even just having the sort of sit down and kind of brainstorming with people, it’s really good and you’re just sort of like, oh, what’s that problem you’re trying to solve? And sort of,  it’s a fun time to sort of get together and collaborate and sort of geek out on  technical fixes for things with other people who also care about that.  

So that was the Leeds Farm Hack. And next, Kate from Real Seeds in West Wales describes the Wales Farm Hack, where she ran sessions on seed saving and hand tools. 

So it was a joint CSA national gathering for the Welsh CSA guys and a farm hack,  which was quite nice. I mean, I imagine it made it less, slightly less farm hacky, if you know what I mean, in that it wasn’t so focused on the kind of project side. There was quite a lot of CSA stuff went on as well. But there was, Jono did a,  he had his like robotic weeder thing going on and there was a project about doing things with Arduinos and stuff as well as the CSA side. There were quite a few CSA specific sessions which I didn’t go to, like their CSA network things. There was a session, the famous robot weeder that I’ve mentioned, sort of open source low tech robot weeding thing. So we looked at that and talked about that quite a bit. And I went to that one. Um, there was a session, oh, I actually, in fact, I led that session, but it wasn’t really a led sort of thing. We had a session where we all brought our favorite hand tools. So cedars and push hoes and, you know, mattocks we all had those out in the yard and we all looked at each other’s tools and talked about them and, you know, the merits of them and that sort of thing. That was a really nice session, actually. I liked that largely because I wanted it to happen because I always like looking at people’s tools.  We had, I say, I led a seed saving session. So that I was at, obviously, and you’d have to ask other people how well that went.  Um,  what else did we have? Oh, I didn’t go to, unfortunately, really annoyingly. It happened when I was doing the seed saving one, but there was a sort of gardeners round table sharing, growers round table sharing problems, um, which I didn’t go to, but I reeled people on afterwards, which sounded really interesting. I was sad to miss that one.  Those are the ones I remember. Oh, we had a tour, of course, of the farm.

The favourite hand tool session that Kate mentioned is a really easy to organize and really valuable session. So we had one at the Women and Non Binary Farm Hack in 2022. As well as the Land Skills fair in 2021. And it’s great if people can bring their hand tools to show, but it can also work for people to draw or explain them. All you need to do is sit in a circle and go around and say your favorite hand tool and why it’s your favorite hand tool. And you normally get all kinds of interesting conversation and tips from that simple starting point.  So growers tend to be really passionate about their hand tools.  Before I go on to give an overview of the different types of sessions that you could include in a Farm Hack, we’re going to hear from Jono’s experience of the Wales Farm Hack and the different types of designs and activities that he got involved in. It’s really good to see, uh, lots of people’s, uh, different design solutions. Like, uh,  someone was making, um, Plowshares out of, out of the curvature of gas bottles and cylinders and, and there was a pedal powered thresher and, and there was, there was a good, um, Arduino programming workshop, uh, which I enjoyed.

Yeah. And I think, I think generally it was just, uh, really nice to get lots and lots of different people together with, uh, lots of different ideas. I was disappointed to have missed, um, a how to make your own wind turbine workshop.  

You can have all kinds of sessions at a Farm Hack.  Or for instance, like the Thames Valley Farm Hack, you could focus just on one type of session, like build project, for instance, so build projects are where you gather a group together to collaboratively design and build a specific technology like Becker’s Flame Weeder. Other types of sessions include demonstrations, so demonstrating a particular technology like a wormery system or a human powered cultivation tool.  You can have experience sharing sessions like the growers round table that Kate mentioned, farm or site tours, so they don’t just have to be led by the people who run the farm, but you could also use the site as a place for running a foraging or tree walk or something like that. You can have different making or crafting activities like  blacksmithing, weaving or wood carving. And it can be nice as well to put in a bit of  movement or wellness activity like yoga or even just providing a chance to stretch together at some point in the program. 

One activity I quite like for that is past the stretch where you stand in a circle and each person shows some kind of movement. stretch or movement and everyone else has to copy. Other sessions that you could include are opportunities for networking and connection, problem solving sessions, so coming together either around a specific problem that someone has on their farm or around a certain theme where people can  share and solve their problems together. It can also be really valuable to include different types of rituals in the event. So this could involve singing or some kind of held space for reflection or connecting with the land. Another type of session is a show and tell, so like the favorite hand tool session. And then you also have general skill shares, um, and also more traditional talks, which can be good for sharing about different projects, um, or concepts. So lightning talks can work quite well, like really short talks where you have a bit longer for general discussion  and you can repeat them several times over the weekend.  And then finally, just various types of workshops that you can include. 


To tune into the full podcast episode and to access the guide follow the links below:

Ali’s website: https://resistinglearninggrowing.com/podcast-and-resources/

Podcast link: https://open.spotify.com/episode/3LFDB0AyOj7YK49KNYiUdz?si=26725fdca25241bd


This episode of Farmerama was made by Jo Barrat, Katie Revell, Dora Taylor and me, Abby Rose. Big thanks to the rest of the Farmerama team Olivia Oldham, Annie Landless, Eliza Jenkins, Lucy Fisher and Fran Bailey. Our theme music is by Owen Barratt

We’re very grateful to those of you that support us and allow us to bring you these stories every month. Even the smallest contribution makes a big difference to us. So if you’d like to become a supporter, you can visit patreon.com/farmerama.