Spend enough time in big cities, and it is possible to forget that the night sky is filled with stars. Air and light pollution collude to hide the twinkling lights. On Lord Howe Island, the air is clear. There are barely any lights at night except for the moon and stars.
Gaze up at the cosmos for a while and you will eventually see other lights too. There are over 1,300 operational man-made satellites in orbit around the Earth.
One such satellite, orbiting approximately 35,000km above South-East Asia, recently started talking to Thornleigh. It bounces signals between a dish antenna on the main shed roof and a receiving station in Western Australia, which connects to the internet.
This connection is a Big Deal™ for Thornleigh. Lord Howe Island is an extremely isolated place. It is not just hard to transport material and people to and from the island, it has hard to transfer information too.
Information is critical to our ability to build Thornleigh into a sustainable farm. Weather, plant yields, equipment, crop rotations, planting techniques – Information about all this and more can be obtained quickly via the internet.
On the mainland, we take such access for granted. On Lord Howe Island, there is no fibre optic network backbone to the local phone exchange. Local copper wiring is of parlous quality and incapable of carrying data. There are no cell towers, no 3G, no 4G, nothing.
Obtaining a satellite connection was just the start of Thornleigh’s internet makeover. We next needed a way to use that connection around the farm. With palm forest to penetrate and acres of distance to cover, a simple wi-fi access point plugged in to the satellite modem was not going to cut it.
The shed, where the dish is mounted, is eighty metres away from the main house. Between the two is light forest. Digging a trench and laying cable was an ugly option: It would mean dodging sewage, water, and power lines, and running cables into the side of the house.
Instead, I opted for point-to-point radio link. Inside the house, a wi-fi access point connects to laptops, tablets, and other end-user devices. To give coverage around and inside the shed itself, I used a wide-area wifi access point.
All the local area networking equipment comes from Ubiquiti Networks. They’re an American company that makes affordable enterprise-grade networking gear, much of it designed to network remote environments.
So far, the connection has been rock-solid stable come rain, wind, and shining sun. We have wireless coverage over approximately 20% of the farm. The connection is invaluable for research, communication, and basic business functions like internet banking.
Netflix and other bandwidth intensive entertainment services will not fit into the tiny satellite data quota, which is just fine with me. After all, I can look up at night and see the little star Thornleigh is shooting for.
Thornleigh is being geared up to grow lots and lots of yummy things: Mangoes, pumpkins, tomatoes, avocados, rock-melons and so forth. All these yummy things will give Lord Howe Island visitors and residents the energy they need to perform strenuous island activities. For example, swimming with turtles at Old Settlement Beach. But where do all those vegetables, fruits, and other plants get all that energy from?
Photosynthesis, of course! Plants fuel their activities by converting light energy from the sun into chemical energy in the form of carbohydrates. Photosynthesis requires carbon dioxide, water, and photons. Cleverly, we have worked out that we can get photons by sticking Thornleigh’s crops out in the sun. Around about one sextillion (that’s 10^21!) photons per second hit every square metre of Thornleigh’s garden beds during the day. We’ve got photons, then!
How about carbon dioxide? A little back-of-the napkin maths reassures us that there are approximately 3.9 tonnes of carbon dioxide swirling around Thornleigh’s fields at any moment. If we do get worried that there isn’t enough carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere, we could always leave Matilda idling in the paddock. We’ve now managed to acquire two out of three components necessary for photosynthesis. And we didn’t even have to do anything! This farming thing isn’t all that hard, so far. But of course, the third component is the tricky one.
There are two wells on Thornleigh, both of which may be used to access Lord Howe Island’s groundwater reserves. They are very old, the first being established by Phillip John English Dignam in the 1890’s. In the early 20th century his son, a young Phillip William Dignam, hauled water from the wells to the fields in a wheelbarrow. Later, Phillip W. employed flood irrigation techniques: Filling the trenches between planted rows with water.
Somewhat surprisingly, Robert and Lindy have not been able to convince their sons to spend all day carting water to the fields in wheelbarrows. Flooding is also much less efficient than modern irrigation methods, such as drip irrigation. The combination of drip lines, pipes, and pumps could supply Thornleigh’s fields with water, completing the trifecta of components we need for photosynthesis. But is using groundwater for general irrigation a good idea?
Groundwater is not an infinite resource: It varies in quantity and quality. The amount of groundwater available depends on the volume of rainfall in local catchment areas. Lord Howe Island receives plenty of rain: The yearly average at the centre of the island is 1499mm, compared to 1212mm in Sydney’s CBD and 662mm in Melbourne’s botanical gardens. Slightly less rain falls in the northern settled areas than the south, where mounts Lidgebird and Gower induce orographic precipitaion. Look closely at the graphs below and you’ll notice another important characteristic: Rainfall drops significantly in the summer months.
The drier summer months coincide with the peak season of Lord Howe Island’s most important industry: Tourism. During the tourist season, the population of the island doubles. Suddenly, there are 400 more people flushing toilets, taking showers, and washing clothes. Almost every residence and business on the island uses rainwater tanks, but in summer groundwater is an essential component of the water supply, especially for the big guest houses.
Back in 1996, groundwater studies revealed that during the summer months, groundwater extraction and septic waste disposal were causing elevated salinity and nutrient levels in Lord Howe Island groundwater. This poses potential risks to human health and, via runoff, the health of the islan’ds marine environment. Thornleigh is right in the middle of one of the zones identified as showing signs of strain. Evidently, a restored heritage farm pumping thousands of litres of water out of the ground in summer is not what Lord Howe Island’s water supply needs! But we need to photosynthesise in summer, so what to do?
At first, the answer seems simple. Water tanks! By storing bucket-loads of rain water in the winter, Thornleigh’s drip irrigation systems could hum away through the summer without putting any additional strain on the island’s groundwater supplies. Polyurethane tanks of all shapes and sizes can be had for reasonable prices. To store rainwater, we could order a whole bunch of these tanks, attach them to shed roofs across the property, and complete the photosynthesis equation.
There is a hitch though: Putting a water tank on Lord Howe Island is not like putting a water tank on the mainland. It’s not possible to order a tank and have it delivered on the back of a truck. Everything bigger than a human that comes to the island needs to come via ship, and that is an expensive exercise.
Polyutherane tanks are monolithic, and take up just as much space in a cargo hold as they do when installed. We will need well over one hundred thousands litres of water to reliably get through summer. Shipping that much plastic is just not feasible! Fortunately, there’s another option: The Stockman tank from Tankworks.
Stockman tanks are low profile, high volume, sturdy water tanks that come flat-packed in kit form. Instead of filling a ship’s cargo hold with plastic tanks full of air, the Stockman can be transported efficiently in a crate.
The tanks selected for Thornleigh are 1.9 metres tall, 7.2m in diameter, and have a capacity of 77,000 litres. They are made of corrugated galvanised steel, and feature a polypropylene based woven fabric bladder.
Both tanks are now completed, in time for the 2015 winter rains. Their combined 154,000 litre capacity will ensure that Thornleigh’s drip irrigation systems can continue to feed water to the gardens through the summer months.
We have started growing in a small way in the first garden which was cleared of weeds and green manured over winter with oats and woolly vetch. Ten beds have been laid out and planted with organic seeds – including radish, turnips, carrots, silver beet, baby pumpkins. Pete the head chef at Capella loves our produce and is our first customer. He picks the produce himself and serves it fresh that night to his guests. Farm to plate as good as it gets.
The orchard on the property goes back about 100 years. Over winter we cleared many of the old fruit trees of undergrowth and pruned many of them back hard. The peaches you see here are on an old tree in the second garden that has been liberated from undergrowth and vines which were crowding it out. Doesn’t it look happy!
Organic fruit fly traps have been set around the orchard. By next season we should have controls in place for a good crop of peaches and plums.
Things were going so well that Brenden and I decided to open up the second garden which was covered in kikuyu and thick with sugar cane. With help from Nobbs, his son, and his fleet of tractors, the second garden was tilled and ready for planting in two days. Brenden and I planted corn and summer green manures – cow pea and French millet. We will keep conditioning the second garden with green manures until we are ready to expand production beyond the first garden.
Another welcome addition to Thornleigh is our new bee hive brought to us by Jack Shick. Jack says it is already one of his best performing hives and we have about 8000 happy bees who roam around Thornleigh and Stevens Reserve and now call Thornleigh home.