Side Projects

Creating Potash aka Lye aka Potassium Carbonate from Wood Ash

Preface: the same potassium we are after produces an strongly alkaline solution when leeched into water. As a result, the solution is extremely caustic and will react with any living tissues it contacts (remember that scene in Fight Club?). By acting on any information presented in this post, you agree that you have read and understood safe handling requirements (PDF).

Normally I would break this into an easier to digest series of multiple posts. Due to the disclaimer needed regarding safe handling of lye, I chose to keep this as one, long post.

Clarification: Lye refers to Potassium Hydroxide and Sodium Hydroxide as well as Potassium Carbonate. For my purposes, lye refers to any compound of high pH (alkaline aka basic) that are required for soap making or bucking animal hides.

With winter approaching, I explored ways to use the wood ash produced from my catalytic wood stove. At 90% heating efficiency that uses fuel produced only hundreds of yards away, I feel like there is no greener or more environmentally-friendly heating source. As trees decompose, most of the carbon they have banked gets released back into the atmosphere. Granted burning wood does release that carbon instantly back into the atmosphere but might as well use that carbon that will be released anyway through decomposition to produce heat! It also displaces the carbon produced by other heating fuels in refining, processing, pelletization, shipping anywhere much less across oceans and comes from a renewable source that has ceased to sequester carbon (aka died).

Wood from living trees contain many minerals important for plant growth. According to Wood ash in the garden from the Purdue University Department Horticulture and Landscape Architecture, wood ash contains the trace minerals of iron, manganese, boron, copper and zinc as well as some undesirable heavy metals. Nitrogen and sulphur are entirely lost in combustion. The source also mentions that the incredibly fine particle size of wood ash is immediately and completely bioavailable to life in soils.

Potassium is represented by the “K” in the incredibly simplified NPK system of plant macronutrients. Potash that typically makes up 10% of wood ashes can correct acidic soils (known as liming) or potassium deficiencies in gardens. Limestone parent materials mean that my soils are already alkaline, so I use this process to leach out the extremely water soluble potassium compounds. Once extracted with a known pH, a more targeted approach can be executed on individual locations or plants.

Various tree species contain varying degrees of alkaline compounds and plant nutrients. Combustion conditions introduce even more variables into the equation. Leaching the potash instead of direct application of wood ashes to soils allows more control over what is introduced into the soil. Additionally, if alkalinity is the desired attribute, the leeched compounds can be tested then diluted or strengthened as needed.

As with most chemistry applications, distilled water is desired to extract compounds. Luckily the rain cycle is a giant, natural solar distillation process. As such, I save the leeching process to follow a rain to ensure the water is as neutral as possible.

Making a leaching container

I use three cheap, readily available materials to form my leaching barrel: a bucket, a toothpick and an old pillowcase. To source the latter, either retire one from use in your home, pick up one from a thrift store, or buy a cheap new one if needed. Pretty much the same goes for buckets and if you want to recycle materials that would otherwise be wasted, check with restaurants, bakeries, grocery stores, etc. You can buy new ones for about $3 at big box or hardware stores.

Materials and tools needed:

  • 1- 5 gallon bucket
  • 1- Standard pillow case
  • 1- 1/16″ drill bit
  • 1- drill or something to put that 1/16″ hole through the thin plastic wall of the bucket

Procedure:

  • Procure the materials and drill a single hole near the bottom of the bucket on the side wall and use the toothpick as a plug.
  • Line the inside of the bucket with a pillow case. To secure it in place, I just fold the end of the pillow around the bucket like I’m lining a trash can (metaphorical bucket) with a trash bag (metaphorical pillow case). No additional measure are needed, but you could tie it tight with some cordage to ensure the pillowcase does not slide into the bucket when filling.
  • Optional: If you desire very clean, filtered lye for soapmaking, you can add a layer gravel at the bottom of the bucket followed by a layer of straw. Site the drilled hole in the layer of gravel.

Making Potash aka lye aka potassium carbonate

One could calculate how much water to ashes is needed, but with all the variables involved in the production of ash I choose to leech it then adjust the finished product.

Materials Needed:

  • Safe lye handling protective equipment
  • Leaching barrel from above
  • Another bucket to collect the leached solution. Can be considerably smaller
  • Stirring device. I literally use a stick from the woods but anything really will work.
  • Toothpick to plug the hole
  • Spent wood ashes, the whiter the better but we are getting into the realm of micro-optimization
  • A few gallons of rainwater (distilled water can be used in a pinch)
  • pH testing device. I use this litmus paper (affiliate link) which I will discuss in the later.

Procedure:

  1. Wear your lye protective equipment
  2. Use the toothpick as a stopper in the 1/16″ hole. Make sure you don’t knock it out by accident once the bucket is full!
  3. Fill the pillow case-lined bucket with spent wood ashes
  4. Fill the leaching barrel with rain/distilled water. Boiling or hot water helps produce a more complete extraction. The solution might pop, hiss or send up tiny geysers. This is normal so just protect yourself from splashes and wait for it to calm down.
  5. Stir the ash/water mixture. Ashes are incredibly fine thus the water may not penetrate fully without some aggitation.
  6. Let the mixture sit for however long. If you are in a rush, a few hours works. Overnight is better. Days or weeks is best.
  7. Place the catch container under the leaching barrel and remove the toothpick. Again, make sure your hands are protected!
  8. When the leaching barrel is completely empty, test the pH of the solution in the container used to collect it.
  9. Transfer to lye safe containers for storage.

That’s all! If the solution is too alkaline for your purposes, dilute it with more rain/distilled water. If the solution is too weakly alkaline, run it through the next batch of ashes to strengthen it. Remember, pH is logarithmic thus a difference of 1 unit on the pH scale is equal to a factor of 10.

I find it easier to just keep retesting the pH of the solution rather than calculating how much water is needed for dilution. Which brings me to my next point.

Most electronic pH meters I’ve used are pretty awful. They are simply useless when approaching the strongly alkaline side of the pH scale. These cheap litmus papers (affiliate link) on amazon shipped straight from China are the best I have ever used. For less than $3 including shipping for 160 papers, I’ve found no better alternative.

Pictures of leaching process:

Fill the bucket with ashes then fill with (preferably boiling) distilled water.

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Above: I make a very half-hearted attempt to skim out the charcoal.

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Above: Making sure the leaching barrel flows well before plugging it up and waiting.

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Above: pulling the plug!

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Allowing the leached solution to drain

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Above: Dumping the spent ashes into the compost pile

 

Now all I need to do is test the pH:

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If I am reading it right, my pH lies between 12-13. Between 11 and 12.9 pH is recommended for my next project, bucking (removing fur) from animal skins, so I will store this solution as is, then dilute it little by little until the desired pH is reached for removing the hair from any deer hides I harvest.

For soap making, I’m going to reluctantly stick to industrial produced lye (affiliate link) just because that process require much more exactness and the appearance of the finished soap may be compromised by my wood ash lye. Plus the low but nonzero potential presence of heavy metals, even if they occur in insignificant amounts, are not something I want to chance in a product I sell to others. Lastly, the Sodium Hydroxide lye I linked produces soap that works with all water types and I have read that soap produced from potassium-based lyes can be ineffective is some water hardnesses.

Storage

When mixing granular lye with water always mix the lye into water, do not pour water into lye. The solution will quickly reach about 200 degrees so glass and plastic containers are not ideal. If capturing an already mixed solution of lye and water, plastic or glass can be used. Lye will also react violently with some metals, particularly aluminum and copper. So if you use any cookware that comes in contact with lye, make sure it is either stainless steel, ceramic or coated with uncompromised enamel.

With that said, it may be in your best interest to store the lye as powder as it takes up less space and is more stable. To get the lye produced above into powder form, the water needs to evaporate out which is usually done by boiling that water off. I have not performed this process, so I cannot provide guidance other than dedicate the pot used for lye purposes only.

I store the lye water in plastic buckets tucked away in a safe place on the ground (so no splashes or spills occur when handled) and label it well. Storing lye or lye water requires common sense applied to safe handling techniques linked in the PDF at the beginning of this post.

Using Your potash or lye

In the Garden:

Like all soil amendment applications of concentrated substances, an accurate soil test should be performed to determine how much the soil should be amended. If liming is needed to raise soil pH, you can accurately calculate the amount of lye water needed if you know both the pH of the lye water as well as the pH of the soil. I dilute the lye water with more water then irrigate the needed sections of the garden like normal.

If using lye water to address potassium deficiencies in soils, I honestly would elect to use compost made of grass clippings in stead. Lye water will raise the soil pH! As long as that is taken into account, wood ashes or lye water can be used with careful monitoring of soil pH.

Making Soap:

Check out my previous post on how to make soap

Bucking Animals Skins (removing hair):

I have not performed this yet. When I do, the process will get its own post and I’ll link to it here!

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Side Projects

A toy from my childhood has become an integral tool on the farm! (and my new compost pile)

Having not seen this wagon with pneumatic tires that we picked up at a yard sale well over a decade ago, it has resurfaced as an all purpose tool on the farm. I found it coated in dust in january with flat tires. Flat tires magically appeared filled and even more magically, holding air when I came back in February. What is responsible for this was either a miracle or more likely my dad noticed at the end of hunting season that I was using it and filled the tires for me. Thanks!

It has served as a sawhorse for the entirety of brooder construction while also doubling as a tool carrier. Well, more importantly it was a clean space where I put any tool that was not in use. I commonly lose a tool I could have sworn I was still holding being unaware that I had subconsciously put it down.

It has also served as a box carrier for my turf-killing cardboard liners while building garden beds.

It has carried the ancient hay/straw left in the barn’s feeder to be used as mulch on the garden beds.

I even hopped in it and rode down a slight grade.

My dad has installed a towing hook with pin and clip allowing it to be pulled with the 4 wheeler, albeit at an excruciatingly conservative pace.

It has carried hundred of pounds of limbs that were used to build a base for a compost pile

It has carried hundreds of pounds of leaves I cleaned out from places in and around the barn to get the compost pile started.

Granted, a working wheelbarrow would take over most of these tasks. I do not have one and see no reason to buy one!

 

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Mentioning the pictured project previously, I followed up with neither a post nor pictures. Over time, I had been slowly gathering downed limbs from the pasture to clear the path for the chicken pens. Using the accumulated wood, I built the base for the compost pile. Limb-lined bottom allow a bit of oxygen to get under the organic matter aiding in the composting process.

…I hope, I was really just winging it to find a use for the tree-litter and that sounded intuitive. Mushroom farming was another consideration, but it seems pretty important to have host logs that aren’t inoculated with wild fungi already that would outcompete desirable mushrooms.

So there you have it. Others being worm colonies and animal waste/bedding compost, here is the last member of the trifecta that creates soil fertility on my farm.

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Side Projects

An update to my Red Wiggler worm colony with tips for success

Here is an update to my two-month-retroactive post on establishing the colony of red wigglers.

I have separated my colony into two now and have a few tips to offer:

If your Red Wiggler worms are trying to escape: 

  • It could be nothing. There will typically be a few (5-10% of colony) adventurous worms that wander up the sides, underneath the lid and into any nook and crevice they can find. If they do not return to the bedding to feed and breath, their adventurous gene will be removed from your colony’s gene pool.
  • If your colony is new, it is almost certainly nothing. The worms have had a traumatic shipping experience compounded with a drastically new environment. Give them a week to settle in before trying to diagnose and correct issues.
  • If excessive amounts are trying to escape, it indicates something is not right in the bedding environment. In my case it was too much moisture. Rubbermaid containers don’t allow for any drainage so the moisture in food scraps accumulate water levels. I keep extra bedding on hand (or in the bin of the paper shredder). A few handfuls of new dry bedding on top the the existing bedding corrected the problem every time.
  • Another factor that could be causing the worms to flee the bedding is too much or too densely distributed food which creates heat as it decays. If there are any rotting smells coming from your colony, stop feeding until it is gone. Also try to break up big clumps of food scraps if they are rotting.

Feeding amounts:

  • I have actually found it impossible to overfeed the worms with reasonable additions. I started with weighing the scraps to stay close to the recommend ratio of 2:1 in worms:food per week. Then I started bumping up the feeding amounts anticipating that it will be too much. To my surprise there was not a single worm on the sides of the bin and they were all happily feeding under the bedding.
  • I have also found the dangers cited by acidic foods to be non factors. Granted I don’t eat much tropical fruits like citruses, etc. but the few lemon and lime scraps I’ve included have not posted an issue. Coffee grounds with filters make up about half of my kitchen scraps. While there is some debate to whether grounds are acidic or if it is just the liquid coffee, I have seen no negative effects from feeding lots of coffee grounds. However the coffee grounds make it hard to identify castings!
  • Basically, keep it diverse and reasonable. Avoid huge additions of scraps and avoid additions that are primarily acidic fruits.

Smells:

  • Healthy colonies will smell like damp earth. Specifically to me, it smells like forest leaf litter or well aged compost.
  • If you smell anything that resembles decaying food scraps (like a garbage smell), it indicates that the worms cannot feed fast enough to keep up with your feedings. Back off on food additions until the smell is gone
  • Excessive heat is another indicator of too much food too fast that can send the worms out of their bedding. Same as the previous point while also ensuring the scraps are evently distributed instead of clumped.

Evidence of other life in your bin:

  • Molds or fungus spores/sprouts may be spring up from time to time. Have no fear, these microbes aid the decomposition process and in turn aid the worms.
  • Other bugs may take up residence in your bin. Most are like the molds or funguses that help the decomposition process. While the critters may not be attractive to non-etymological oriented minds, springtails, millipedes, fruit flies with larvae and flies with maggots are all helpers. Although the last two may indicate too much moisture. Centipedes are predatory however and a problem for the worms.

Multiplying the colony

  • I’ve only done this once so what I can offer is limited. Unlike bees who start brooding new queens to indicate they are preparing to swarm, the worms will just die if competition gets too great when they reach their carrying capacity. When I started to notice most of the bedding moving due to the buried worms, I figured the population had reached its limit in my 18 gallon rubbermaid tub. I split the worm colony into another tub.
  • 90 days is the often cited figure for when the worm colony will double under good conditions.

One last tip I have is the more “mature”, which is a euphemism for rotten, the food scraps, the better feed quality for the worms. I’ve noticed they prefer aged scraps from a cummulative bucket in the garage to the fresh scraps right from the cutting board. If your space and smell tolerance allows a place to age scraps before adding them to the bin, try it out. Otherwise you can get along just fine with fresh scraps.

Here is what a mature colony looks like when the casting are ready for casting harvest:

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Compared to a fresh unpopulated habitat:

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And before I harvested casting, I demonstrated what my typical bedding additions look like when the moisture levels get too high. Complete with a fresh feeding of slimy spinach:

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That is all I have for now! If you have any issues or questions that I did not cover, please comment and either I or one of my more experienced readers would be happy to help. If nothing else, I can consult the various resources I have amassed to find an answer.

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Garden, Side Projects

A Look at My Small Red Wiggler Colony

This post is a little late as I started my colony in January and neglected to post about it. However my colony has exploded in population and I am splitting it into two colonies. I figured better late than never!

I ordered my 1 pound, 1,000 worm colony for $20 shipped right before a lengthy cold snap. Coupled with the timing of my order corresponding with multiple holidays observed by the postal service, I was pleasantly surprised when my package arrived 2 weeks later with hundreds of worms that were still very active.

Having had recently moved, I had emptied out 2 18-20 gallon rubbermaid containers. Red wigglers are fascinating creatures in how they eat organic matter. Or so I thought. It seems recently the school of thought has shifted and red wigglers eating the microbes or the microbial soup resulting from that break down organic matter is now the accepted theory. Regardless, these creatures speed up the composting process, create castings that contain five times more nitrogen, seven times more phosphorus, and 11 times more potassium than ordinary compost and most importantly for indoor colonies, their decaying organic matter environment does not smell! Well it will smell like rich earth, but not what you would expect from decaying food.

Tips for starting a colony:

Use whatever container you have on hand that has a lid that blocks light.

Weigh your bedding before adding it to the container (A good kitchen scale is vital to most aspects of my craft and kitchen enterprises).

  • Bedding can be shredded paper, cardboard etc. I avoid overly dyed, printed or bleached products.

Weigh 3 times as much water as the bedding then add it to the container

  • If you are using a rubbermaid container that does not allow drainage, add 2 times as much water

Add any organic matter that will decay and provide the worms with food. It can be leaves, grass, food scraps, coffee grounds with filters, tea bags, etc.

  • The moisture in food scraps will bring the moisture level of your colony up to the desired levels.

Often it is cited to provide half the weight in food as the weight in worms per week. So for my 1 pound starting point, I would give them roughly half a pound per week.

  • I just give them all the kitchen scraps I generate and plan to stop if any decomposition smells are produced indicating that the feeding schedule is beyond the worms feeding capacity
  • The only danger in over feeding is if the heat generated from decomposition kills the worms. I have not found this to be an issue though
  • A healthy colony will double in population every 90 days so increase the feed accordingly

Including a handful of regular soil provides helpful microbes as well as gizzard grit for the worms. Like chickens, the worms lack teeth and rely on gizzards to help “chew” food.

Below is a new colony habitat ready for population. Some kitchen scraps and coffee are included under the bedding for food.

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It has been a very easy and rewarding process. If you have any gardening or in my case, tree propagating aspirations, worm castings are one of the best root treatments for transplanting. They can also be made into a very nutritious tea with which plants can be fertilized. I’ve seen a lot of anecdotal evidence that spraying the tea on foliage and stems has positive results in both pest control and plant health.

Lastly in addition to their composting/gardening application, mature worms make excellent fishing bait. I’m always on the lookout for simple way to add income to the farm so these worms fit perfectly with my model.

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Side Projects

Soap Update: Cut and ready to cure!

3 Days ago I made a batch of soap. Yesterday I removed it from its mold and cut it into bars to cure for a few weeks on racks.

What I learned

Parmentment paper may not be the best liner. Or more likely more time must be spent cutting the lining material to exactly fit the mold rather than just stuff it in there. It was hard to remove and some persisted in the hardened folds.

Basically, I need to work on aesthetics before I ever hope to sell it!

Also, I tried heating the knife in a pot of hot water (second to last picture below) and also tried cutting the soap while it was cool. I noticed no difference!

Here are the pictures. I believe they are pretty self explanatory.

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Side Projects

How to Make Soap

Steps to make soap:

Mix lye into water

Mix lye solution into liquid fat

Stir a lot until it begins to set

Pour into a container and let solidify

Cut into Bars

Thats it!

Like rendering fat, it really is that easy. Along those lines, I made a batch of soap today using the animal fat I rendered in a previous post. The one aspect of soapmaking I do suggest you overanalyze is how to handle lye safely. As long as you have protective gloves, 2 suitable containers for the lye to heat in, dedicated soap making utensils and take care not to come in direct contact with the lye, the dangers of lye will be minimalized!

Process in more detail:

Soap is made by a chemical reaction between lye and oils. Low pH of lye cleaves bonds in the oil forming fatty acid salts and glycerol. Resulting products from this reaction allow particles insoluble with water to become soluble, hence the cleaning action of soaps.

Fun Fact: Soap making was first recording in ancient Babylon in 2800 BC where basic (pH) salts were dissolved in water then mixed with an oil from a cinnamon tree. (Laughably expensive source).

What You Need:

For any utensils or tools, dedicate them to soap making. I don’t know if it is necessary, but I don’t prepare food with items exposed to lye!

Lye and protective gloves (I ordered this to get the gloves as well but I will explain how to make your own from wood ash soon!) Make sure it is pure lye and not chemical-laden drain openers. Hopefully meth-heads don’t ruin our consumer access to lye.

2 Thermometers that include 95 degrees F to 120 degrees (Nice instant digital example, analog example)

Fat, animal or vegetable (I harvested the tallow from a deer I hunted but you can use any oil or lard, suet, tallow or any other animal fat from a butcher as long as you render it)

2 Stainless Steel pots (I used one and transferred the lye solution to a pyrex container after it had cooled) (Something like this but I got mine at a thrift store. Just make sure it is not copper or aluminum coated on the inside)

Lye-safe stirring mechanism (thrifted wooden spoon for me, after you learn what “tracing” is, then try a cheap  hand mixer to speed it up)

Scale (this is the best one I have ever used. Also great for brewing beer and general kitchen use)

Ziplock bag to measure lye

Soap mold (can use any container: shoebox, old bread pan, cupcake tin, special shaped silicon soap molds, wooden molds, etc)

Parchment paper to line soap mold (wax paper or freezer paper work as well)

Rack for curing (rig something simple up that resembles this or any other kitchen cooling rack). Also you don’t have to worry much about lye contamination at the point these are used.

Recipe

Electing to keep is simple as a first control batch, all that is required is lye and fat. Softened or distilled water is added to the lye to more evenly distribute it among the fat and make it easier to work with. Fragrances and extras can be used but were omitted for sake of simplicity and to have a product future ingredient additions can be built upon.

I took the lye to fat to water ratios in various publications, averaged them, then put them in an excel doc for easy scaling. Please disregard any recipe that uses volume measurements instead of mass. While I think people overthink these things, mass measurements will keep your product precise and replicable.

Makes about 4 pounds:

43 oz Fat

6 oz Lye

16.5 oz. Water

Procedure for cold-processed soap (DON LYE-PROTECTIVE GLOVES AND EYEWEAR AND VENTILATE SOAP PREPARATION AREA)

1. Completely dissolve the measured lye into the measured water (emphasis on order!) in a stainless steel pot stirring with glove-protected hands. It will heat up to 200 degrees Fahrenheit on its own! Also avoid directly breathing the lye fumes.

2. Place measured liquid fat into stainless steel pot. Apply heat to completely liquefy solid fats if needed.

3. When both fat and lye are at 95-115 fahrenheit, stir lye into completely liquid fat (emphasis on order!)

4. Stir mixture continuously until it traces. Tracing is when drops of the solution take a moment to disseminate back into the main body of the solution when dripped on top. This can take a while…with my all tallow recipe it took 20 minutes but some literature notes it can take up to an hour.

5. Pour soap solution into lined mold

6. Wrap mold in blankets/towels for insulation and let sit for 1-3 days

7. Remove loaf of soap from mold and cut into desired size bars. Let cure on a rack that gives airflow for another few weeks

Steps with Pictures

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2. Not pictured

3. Included in step 4 image

4. Very mild tracing is becoming evident. My solution went from color and consistency of broth to gravy to well-blended mashed potatoes to frosting in just over 20 minutes of stirring

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5. I put the extra into cupcake papers. Note how the consistency continued to change (bottom to top) in the 2 minutes it took to pour the soap into them. The chemical reaction will continue to heat the mixture in the mold for 24 hours, hence the insulating blankets or towels, then continue at a very small scale for the 3-8 weeks it cures on racks.

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7. Coming in 8 weeks!

That’s it! Despite my tendency to over-adequately plan things, I feel like people seem to love to unnecessarily complicate things like this, and animal husbandry, and beekeeping and many others. Be precise in your measurements and smart in the lye handling. Otherwise use whatever fats you have available to you and experiment! I guarantee you that whatever soap you make will be vastly better than anything from the store and have a much lower environmental impact.

Don’t forget that this can be made into dish soap, laundry soap, etc. I will post about those when I have to restock my stores!

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Cattle, Forestry, Side Projects

Silvopasture / Agroforestry

After taking a few classes for fun in the forestry department of my university, I ended up pursuing a minor in forestry with no plans to ever use it prifessionally. From forest ecology to the evolutionary growth hormone responses that control plants in ways I only thought possible by conscious decisionmaking, trees are fascinating. As a result, trees would have to be an integral part of my farmstead. Investing a few years into growing a tree to maturity to produce hundreds of pounds of human food or animal fodder seemed like the embodiment of my sustainable goal.

With a spattering of seemingly relevant keywords, the practice of silvopasture in the field of Agroforestry was finally uncovered.

Easily deduced from the contraction that forms Agroforestry, it is an application of forestry in agricultural systems. Silvopasture is growing trees over pasture so the fruit supplements turf fodder.

Simply, silvopasture aims to add more calories in fodder than the shading from the trees remove from pasture grasses. There are many other benefits as well like holding soil on rocky areas and preventing erosion. As my farm is classified as rocky outcrop, this management strategy aligns perfectly with my land, my management goals, and sustainability for after I am gone.

I’m reading a book on the subject that deserves its own series of posts regarding the benefits of silvio pasture, viable species, etc. Stay tuned!

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