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We’ve heard of people growing gardens on top of straw bales, and inspired by this are using hay bales to form a raised border. Growing on top of hay bales direct is probably not a good idea as the grass seed will all sprout between your, er, sprouts. So we’re loading chipped stuff fromt he olive grove, cat litter, chicken coop sweepings etc. in there, then loading purchased topsoil on to cap it off. This and other goings on are documented in our latest video “Earth, Wind and Fire.”

Oh, we’re surviving the earthquakes with little real impact other than the occasional power cut. As you can see, we’ve retained the capacity to brew a cuppa!

 

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Now the initial batch of hydroponic runs are up and, er, running we’ve gathered enough confidence to do a video on how we add runs to the system. We’ve run out of the 100mm x 150mm runs (at least ones of any reasonable length – there was a run on them) so we’ve run out a 100mm x 75mm run with smaller holes for smaller tubs. These are just fine for our intended crop: strawberries. If you want to run through the video, run over to https://m.youtube.com/c/geekofarm and check it out.

Hydroponic Strawberries

We’ve done our first ever olive harvest, and boy was that an education! Many thanks to Bill Hay from The Olive Press in Greytown for their invaluable advice. The long and the short of it is that over 3 days a bunch of us rattled, sorted and shifted 840kg of olives which got pressed into 100 litres of premium olive oil. Now we know what to expect, we’ll be doing it a bit differently next year but the principles are now understood.

Here’s the video, click to play:

Screenshot from 2_olive_oil.wmv

There was a bit of a chaotic moment at the mill when the council temporarily shut it down. The council had given permission for the press to run, but when push came to shove found their sewerage systems were not as capable as they’d thought and told the press to hold off. Bill and his capable crew arranged holding tanks and did an amazing job of keeping our stored produce in good shape, and despite the council’s best efforts gave us an awesome load of the good oil.

There’s a lot more to this olive oil thing than we squeezed in, and we’ll get into more details in coming episodes.

[Update: Here is a video introducing the hydroponics system inside it.]

After an awful lot of work, we have a greenhouse. It’s an extended Titan from http://hunkin.co.nz, aluminium framed, with polycarbonate panels to resist the wind-blown debris prevalent in these parts. At the moment it’s full of construction debris,  but it will house our upcoming new hydroponics system.

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There are a few little bits left to do, like the guttering and repairing where a couple of bulldogs an a labrador pup went through the side. The PVC capping strips are a real pain to install and very hard on the thumbs. Fortunately they include old-school W-clips to hold panels in where the frame is compressed too much for the capping strips to work – the frame compresses as you add panels and extras like vents. Also the door will not close properly as the frame fouls on capping strip. This can be fixed by using the clips instead. It is topologically impossible to connect the rear wall to the frame as documented. I had to offset the centre base peg there, and use a frame tie – fortunately they supply plenty of spare parts in the kit.

The electric fence is to stop the dogs chewing on it.

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Olive leaf extracts have been used for some time to treat high blood pressure and diabetes, with some degree of demonstrable success. There is also some antiviral and antibiotic abilities in the extract as well. All the scientific stuff aside, it makes a great bitters to go in the gin & tonic. Seeing as we are blessed with an over-abundance of olive leaf, we thought we might make some. The recipe is rather simple: Take 500g fresh olive leaves, add 1.5 litres of 40% abv alcohol (we make plenty of that), seal in a bucket and shake every other day for 6 weeks. Yields about 1.25 litres of extract. Picture shows the latest batch with the donor olive trees in the background.

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We are also in possession of a number of unwanted wild bunnies, which unchecked will kill our olive trees. With the aid of a silenced, very high-power air rifle these are humanely converted into bunny meat, and thence into rabbit meatballs, or “hareballs” as we call them. Again a simple recipe: In a foody processor blend 6 cloves garlic, 2 thick slices of home-made bread and your favourite home-grown herbs (sage, thyme etc.). Add 500g raw bunny meat, thoroughly de-boned, and 4-5 rashers of dry, fatty bacon, salt & spices. Blend well. Add one free-range egg and blend until it holds together. Makes 20 hareballs, or a dozen hareballs and 4 tasty sausage meat patties for breakfast the next day.

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Herded by the head of technology (aka Chief Earless Chicken Wrangler) Angela Tennant-Jones, we have here a fine bunch of young hellions from Masterton Intermediate School. Instructed by Geeko Farm experts Tamara (far left) and Vik (leaning on Tamara) over a couple of days they each made at least one water-powered rocket. These things were going up 60 metres plus, courtesy of a couple of compressors hidden in the shed in the background. The kids experimented to produce the best fin designs, and made a variety of nose cones, some of which probably contravened the Geneva Convention and had to be slightly truncated. There were two-stage rockets, and even a few parachutes – some of which actually deployed on the way down. Deployment on the way up led to some interesting aerobatics. We may have inadvertently educated some of the kids too.

It even made the news, for all the right reasons for a change. They also invited us back…

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OK, we’re rural. We have sheep and a solar-powered electric fence (an S10 Solar Energizer for those into such things, and a 4-wire SmartFence that winds back up again after deployment). They’re not actually our sheep, but we get one occasionally for the freezer as we let them roam around under the olive grove to keep the grass down – and we don’t have to shear, dip and drench them! There are 10 brave enough to come onto the main lawn, which we do mow, but it’s a bit of a time-consuming bugger to cut and we’d rather leave it to the sheep.

Our mate John is donating a chicken coop to the cause for our upcoming free-range flock, and we’ve been promised some Orpingtons to go in it. If that goes well we might try some geese as an alternative to relying entirely on sheep for grass control. This is important as we have to keep sheep – or more precisely sheep shit – out of the olive groves at harvest time.

The next big step though is the arrival of the large greenhouse to house our hydroponics system. the weather here is lovely but windy, and anything outside tends to get hammered flat. A test hydroponics system suffered 25% casualties, so the greenhouse is more to keep the weather off than the crops warm. Oh, and keep the sheep out.

It is with great pleasure – and no small amount of trepidation – that we can announce that Geeko Farm is headed for the countryside. We are relocating to Masterton, and will be helping to rename it to “Makerton” by encouraging all things makery and crafty. The new residence looks a lot like this, and is surrounded by 250 olive trees and a flock of wooly lawnmowers. It has 4 bedrooms, 2 living rooms, a pool, two large workshops and a distillery. We think it’ll be a great place to farm geeks.

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So we’ve reinvented the EC meter, or CF meter as we call it around here. When gardening hydroponically, you usually use an “EC Truncheon” to measure the concentration of nutrient salts in the hydroponic fluid. If you just pass a current through the liquid and see how much passes, you start to change the chemistry and your reading goes inaccurate very quickly. So these devices measure the conductivity in short pluses, swapping direction each time they make a measurement. The electronics, we thought, was an unnecessarily complex collection of op amps, comparators and other fancy bits. So we designed a way of making an Arduino do the hard work so you can build one into your own automated systems.

Start by extracting the carbon rod from the centre of an AA zinc/carbon battery. Clean it, clean everything else, then boil the rod in water for a few minutes to get the last of the battery compounds out of it. Break into two pieces, notch the ends with a file, wrap and tightly twist a wire into each notch, then embed the whole thing in your favourite waterproof plastic leaving a couple of millimetres of each rod sticking out about 10mm apart. That’s your sensor.IMAG0021

The wiring is easy: One electrode is wired to A0 on the Arduino, the other to A1. A 2K2 resistor (red, red, red bands) is used to connect D2 to A0, and another connects D3 and A1. That’s it. Load the code below into your Arduino and you’re off.

Calibration is a bit tricky, and unless you have EC buffer solutions handy, you’ll want to borrow a real EC meter. We use CF units rather than EC units because they’re largish integers which both the Arduino and humans find easier to relate to. Run the code below and call up the Arduino serial monitor (under “Tools” in the IDE) to see the sensor values your setup is measuring. Dunk sensor in pure water to get the ‘baseValue’, and edit it in. The ‘cfTable’ consists of a series of [sensor reading,CF reading] pairs. Mix up slightly salty water, measure it’s CF value with the real EC meter, and then test it with your homemade probe. Use a range of CF values as we have, and if you expand or reduce the table do remember to alter the TABLE_ENTRIES count.

Feel free to hack the code to return more convenient data for your automation system, or use A0-A3 for the pins to simplify the wiring. The important thing is to remember to call the neutral() routine as soon as the measurements are done to turn off the sensor and prevent chemistry happening. It’s all GPL’d. Enjoy.

/*
  CF Meter (or EC meter) for aqueous nutrient measurement.
 
 Reads an alternate analogue pins, reversing polarity on each
 read so that electrolytic effects even out.
 
 The circuit:
 * A0 connected to electrode Alpha
 * D2 Connected to electrode Alpha via a 10K resistor
 * A1 connected to electrode Beta
 * D3 connected to electrode Beta via a 10K resistor
 
 created 17th Feb 2015
 (C) Vik Olliver
 
 This code is licenced under the GPLv3
 
 */

// These constants won't change.  They're used to give names
// to the pins used:
const int alphaAnalogue = A0;
const int betaAnalogue = A1;
const int alphaOut = 2;
const int betaOut = 3;

// These bits you change to configure the sensor
const int baseValue=340;  // Value of pure water
const int cfTable[]={
340,0,
595,5,
749,10,
840,15,
860,20,
923,34};
#define TABLE_ENTRIES  6

int alphaSensor;
int betaSensor;

// Stop the outputs from doing anything electrolytic.
void neutral() {
  pinMode(alphaAnalogue,INPUT);
  pinMode(betaAnalogue,INPUT);
  pinMode(alphaOut,OUTPUT);
  pinMode(betaOut,OUTPUT);
  digitalWrite(alphaOut,LOW);
  digitalWrite(betaOut,LOW);
}

void setup() {
  // initialize serial communications at 9600 bps:
  Serial.begin(9600);
  neutral();
}

// Use the table to average out the sensor data and calculate the corresponding CF.
// This may not be the best way, but it is the most legible!

int calcCf(int sens) {
  int i;
  int sensDiff;
  int sensDelta;
  int cfDiff;
  // Spot very low values
  if (sens <= cfTable[0]) return cfTable[1];
  // Spot very high values
  if (sens >= cfTable[(TABLE_ENTRIES*2)-2]) return cfTable[(TABLE_ENTRIES*2)-1];
  // OK, we're in range. Trot through the table until we overtake our sensor reading
  i=1;
  while (cfTable[(i*2)]<sens) i++;
  // Find the difference between the last 2 table entries;
  sensDiff=cfTable[(i*2)]-cfTable[(i*2)-2];
  // Find the difference between the last 2 CF readings;
  cfDiff=cfTable[(i*2)+1]-cfTable[(i*2)-1];
  // Now the amount our sensor passed the previous table entry by
  sensDelta=sens-cfTable[(i*2)-2];
  // Now we can work out a ratio,and calculate the corresponding CF
  return cfTable[(i*2)-1]+((cfDiff*sensDelta+1)/sensDiff);
}

void loop() {
  int cf;
  
  // Reset for the analogue alpha pin
  pinMode(alphaAnalogue,INPUT);
  pinMode(betaAnalogue,OUTPUT);
  digitalWrite(alphaOut,LOW);
  digitalWrite(betaAnalogue,HIGH);
  digitalWrite(betaOut,HIGH);
  delay(2);  // Wait for the ADC to settle.
  alphaSensor = analogRead(alphaAnalogue);
  
  // Reset for the analogue beta pin
  pinMode(betaAnalogue,INPUT);
  pinMode(alphaAnalogue,OUTPUT);
  digitalWrite(betaOut,LOW);
  digitalWrite(alphaAnalogue,HIGH);
  digitalWrite(alphaOut,HIGH);
  delay(2);  // Wait for the ADC to settle.
  betaSensor = analogRead(betaAnalogue);

  // Now stop buggering around.
  neutral();

  // Calculate the CF from the average sensor value
  cf=calcCf((alphaSensor+betaSensor)/2);

  // print the results to the serial monitor:
  Serial.print("Sensor = " );                       
  Serial.print((alphaSensor+betaSensor)/2);
  if (alphaSensor>baseValue) {
    Serial.print("\tCF = ");
    Serial.print(cf);
  }
  Serial.println("");  

}

Rum. ‘Tis traditional, me hearties! Yoho yoho and all of that. Dead easy to make, particularly here in NZ where we have personal freedom to distil spirits. So, to make rum:

Pop down to RD1 or whatever your local agricultural depot is called. Obtain big bucket of “Blackstrap Molasses.” You can use regular standardised molasses, but you need a bit more. If you’re storing it, check it regularly because it ferments naturally and the lids have been known to blow off. You will need 3-4 litres of molasses to make 4 litres of rum at 50% ABV – approximately 100 proof. This will be flammable, and excellent for both de-greasing machinery and killing brain cells.

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Put the molasses in a sterilized 25 litre container that will take a brewer’s airlock. We use the same ones that we make beer kits in. Add 4 litres of boiling water and stir. This will kill wild yeasts. Top up to 23 litres with cold tap water and drop in a packet of brewer’s yeast. You can instead add a litre of sludge from the last crack at making rum. Most commercial yeasts are grown on molasses, so it’ll ferment like crazy. Fit the lid and wait a couple of weeks.

Distil in a pot or wok still (Google for it), remembering to throw away the first 50ml to avoid methanol poisoning, and to always blend your batch together. You’ll need to either add an anti-foaming agent, or only half-fill the still because rum froths rather a lot. This will give about 4 litres of 40-50% ABV distillate. This is rotgut stuff. Distil it again, keeping the first cut of pure alcohol aside. This concentrates the flavour in the remaining rum and gives you something to make liqueurs with. Cut result with water to suit to your taste. Colour with caramel to emulate commercial “dark” rum, or add oak chips to make it taste like real aged rum.

Easy, isn’t it?