On fair food & ‘sustainable intensification’

When we promote ‘fair food’, ‘ethical farming’ or even the more watered-down ‘sustainable farming’, are we ergo suggesting some systems are not fair, ethical, or sustainable? Of course we are.

Food that is produced by a farmer who cannot earn a living even though she does it full time is not fair.

The number of farmers in Australia has been declining for many decades as small farmers sell up to large-scale farming operations, and fewer young people take over family farms. (Endnote 2) In fact, there were 19,700 fewer farmers in Australia in 2011 than in 2006, a fall of 11% over five years. ABS

Food that is produced by confining animals in cages and sheds for their entire lives is not fair.

 

 

Food that is produced by routinely pouring toxic pesticides and herbicides until soils and waterways are depleted and polluted for everyone is not fair.

 

 

Food that is produced by workers who are not paid a living wage is not fair.

 

 

Food that is produced but intentionally not available to hungry people is not fair.

 

 

Food-stuffs that cause health epidemics like diabetes & heart disease are not fair.

 

 

Fair is a simple word to capture what is generally meant by ethical, but there’s a spectrum of sorts. Intensive livestock farming advocates will disagree on at least one of my definitions of what constitutes fair food. It’s important to work out for yourself what you reckon is fair and then do what you can to help there be more of that in the world.

I’ve had some on twitter ask me if because we call ours an ethical farm, does that mean that others aren’t ethical? I’m answering you clearly now – by my ethical standards, some are not operating ethically.

I’m a free-range pig & cattle farmer, and well on the record here & elsewhere advocating to raise animals on pasture, not in sheds, because I think it’s unethical to confine animals in sheds or cages. If you’re not raising pigs or poultry in sheds, odds are my view of your farming system is less certain and more open to the complexities of what an ethical system might look like.

I don’t like to call anyone ‘unethical’ in total as I can’t really imagine anyone who is wholly unethical. But I am happy to refer to certain practices such as caging animals as unethical. (For the record I also abhor pet birds in cages – what could be more spiteful than taking away any living creature’s capacity to fly?) Trying to lead an ethical life doesn’t mean that you won’t sometimes make unethical choices, me included.

Here’s an example to illustrate what I mean. There are complexities in dairy farming that I admire dairy farmers for grappling with every day. My lovely dairy-farming neighbor has worked for years to find better solutions for his bobby calves by raising a number of them as beef cattle to a year old, or selling them to locals to grow out for their own consumption. He rarely sends any off to the saleyards younger than six weeks because it bothers him knowing that they don’t transport well and therefore suffer.

He also follows most of the conventional practices of tilling, fertilizing, sowing & spraying his paddocks. While I disagree with some of his system, I certainly don’t judge him without perspective and nor would I accuse him of being unethical. What I’d love to see him do is be able to command a fair price for his milk so he could reduce his stocking levels and consequently his paddock inputs. So long as the processor continues to pay him 30-something-cents per litre that probably isn’t going to happen.

At Jonai Farms we’re in the relatively luxurious position of having set up a system outside of the traditional supply chain which means we’ve been price makers right since we started selling direct to the public. And our position improved markedly when we took on the butchering ourselves – supply chain control brought over 25% of our profit margin back to us. It means bucketloads more work, but we get paid a fair wage to do it.

Those who are trying to make a living in long supply chains like my neighbour are not in such a position, especially in Australia where market power is so unfairly concentrated in two major supermarkets. And so farmers are always being forced to look for more ‘efficiencies’, which usually means ‘produce more for less’. It seems to me that this is probably the primary reason many farmers are attracted to ‘sustainable intensification’ – they truly want to grow things in a sustainable way but are being forced to intensify their systems in order to make a living.

The notion that ‘sustainable intensification’ is going to solve the issue of food security around the world has been rigorously challenged by plenty of people far more qualified than me – hunger is predominantly a problem of governance and distribution, not inadequate production. We don’t actually need to double production by 2050 to feed a growing global population, we need to ensure we don’t waste what we grow and that we distribute it fairly. Even the UN is on the record saying that small-scale agroecological farms are the best way to feed the world. Let’s therefore shelve food security as a flawed argument for ‘sustainable intensification’.

So what’s really at stake is feeding Australian (and other) farmers and our families. That’s a worthy enough aim without clouding it with grand claims of achieving global food security. So how can farmers feed their families?

Don’t produce more for less, produce less for more.

By that I mean we must value the land, animals, and workers and ensure their health is paramount in every agricultural system and then ask eaters to pay a fair price for our efforts.

All of which is easier said from a farmer in a miniscule supply chain selling direct to eaters. The bigger challenge is for the majority who are under pressure from centralised market power and long supply chains…

What do you think? How can we address the serious structural imbalances between farmers, processors, distributors and supermarkets in Australia? How can we support all farmers to make a living growing food in the fairest ways possible?

***

Thanks to Lynne Strong of Clover Hill Dairies for inviting Fair Food Farmers United (FFFU) to respond to the discussion started on her blog about production systems and fair food. This will be cross-posted on the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance’s blog & FFFU page.

While I personally am not an advocate for sustainable intensification, I am a big fan of farmers and respect everyone who is working hard to produce food fairly, even if we sometimes differ in how we think that will be achieved.

If you’re interested in fair food (which is pretty likely if you read my blog!) you should check out the many fabulous events being held all around Australia for Fair Food Week October 10-19!

Butchering a steer (Our meat is real, part 3)

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‘What’s this bit then?’ asked Bron. ‘Err, brisket? No, blade!’ I hazard to guess after scrutinising the MLA cut poster for the 107th time. This was on Saturday. By Monday, I was naming unidentified cuts ‘pirate fillet’. So. Much. Beef.

As you’ll recall, this year we’re only eating our own meat here on the farm, and so a couple weeks ago we butchered our first steer with only a poster, an English butchery book and an Australian video as our guides. Oh, and youtube, when the internet was fast enough. NBN anyone?

My butcher told me I was crazy, and I told him to be more optimistic. Turns out we were both right, I’m crazy, but optimism pays off. So do knife skills, perseverance, and a strong back.

The steer was hung for a week at the abattoir before Stuart brought it home in quarters. Our cattle are Lowlines, a breed stemmed from Angus, but short in stature with a high feed conversion ratio, so we got a 209kg carcass back. This sounds a lot (and trust me, it’s a lot to cut up), but compared with many other breeds, it’s pretty small. I hadn’t considered how grateful I would be for that smallness when it came time to butcher it! It still took us three nine-hour days…

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So following on from my growing experience of butchering pigs, I had an armoury of sharp knives at the ready, and a few buckets and bins for all the trim that would become mince or soap (seriously, we planned to make soap with the tallow we would render from the fat… sadly, we failed to do this. It’s on the list for next time though…), and for the glorious bones (I may have shouted ‘phở!’ when I boned out the first leg…). I didn’t think through the irritation of using a book from the UK and an Australian video, so that when I followed one initially, the subsequent cuts wouldn’t match the first ones… ‘live and learn’ was a bit of a mantra…

It wasn’t just me – I had Stuart, my dear friend Bronwyn, and 13-year-old amazing son Oscar to help on Saturday. Sunday was just me and Oscar while Stuart did pork deliveries and dropped Bron back at home.

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Monday was just me in the morning, with Stuart re-joining after farm chores for the final stretch that afternoon. I just want you to know these details so if anyone else reads this thinking a very inexperienced smallholder can just ‘cut up a cow in a day’ you’ll know you really really need more people, not to mention more skills! It’s a Very Big Job to cut up a cow*. (*Never say ‘cut up a cow’ to a farmer, who will make you feel a right idgit for appearing not to know the difference between a cow and a steer.)

So we started with a forequarter. No matter which way I looked at it, it a) wasn’t a pig, and b) didn’t look like any of my butchery instruction pictures.

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Sure, I made the first cut okay, but then it was all just ‘soooooo, I’ll just follow *that* muscle…’ Seriously, though, when Stuart cut the first osso buco, I was totally sold.

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If some brisket was mislabelled as chuck, or blade as brisket, I can live with that – we know it’s all muscle meat and will cook it accordingly. As the first cuts slid into the cryovac bags, the satisfaction of the 2013 Our Meat Is Real project hit full force. Not just pigs anymore, we’re now self sufficient in beef and pork, and soon we’ll be adding lamb to our repertoire – amazing!

As we moved along the first half of the beast, things got more exciting, if only because who can’t identify a rib eye when they see one?! And just as it is with the pigs, it’s very useful to learn just how little of this prime cut you get from one steer, and why it’s therefore so prized. I’ll be cooking these with reverent joy in the months to come – and I reckon each one can feed about four people!

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The flank was also easy to identify, but if you think this section of the carcass went more quickly, you might be wrong as sawing through beef bones (phở!’) is really hard work.

The first hindquarter was also rather daunting – it’s a lot bigger than a ham!

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And then there’s the matter of ‘top side’ or ‘top round’ and ‘bottom round’, as distinct from the rump, and which bit is silverside again? So, yeah, we have some lovely roasts that may not know their top from their bottom, but will surely all taste delicious. We brined three pieces – two for corned beef (we ate the first one last night, actually, and it was sensational cooked up in a pot with kohlrabi & celeriac, onion, garlic, peppercorns and cloves), and one that I’ll be smoking this week for pastrami, along with a streaky bacon… the joys of home butchery and curing! And then there was the second osso buco! Yessssssss…

We finished up around 6pm, washed our hands and faces, and dashed off to our mate Cait’s 40th with a bunch of freshly butchered ribs and the first tenderloin, which we barbecued very simply with salt, pepper and olive oil. It was fun to regale everyone with our amateur efforts, and the beef was as well received as the few pork chops we also brought along in a marinade of plum sauce, soy, and star anise.

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Day 2 dawned. Half a beast remained. Stuart and Bronwyn left Oscar and me with encouraging words…

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One thing I won’t do again, I think, is start at the middle on the second half. My brain is perhaps too linear, but I should have repeated the pattern I did the first time and started at the forequarter. As I was still trying to work all the cuts out, jumping around led to extra unnecessary confusion in an already confusing job!

Straight to the ribs we went, though, cutting out a scotch fillet roast this time instead of individual rib eye steaks. I left it intentionally big in anticipation of a lovely winter feast with a large group of friends… who don’t seem in short supply when they hear there’s Jonai meat on the menu!

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While it was much slower going with only two of us to cut, Oscar was a marvel of knife skills, and served diligently as Chief Trimmer all day. He can trim the silverskin off a cut with less waste than any of the rest of us, I’m proud to report.

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On this side, rather than pulling out the tenderloin (or eye fillet as we usually call it here in Oz), I cut out porterhouse and t-bone steaks – and without a bandsaw, I left them reaaaaallly thick – dinosaur steaks! Each one should easily feed our family, though I suspect there may be some competition for the tender eye…

The porterhouse end...
The porterhouse end…
The t-bone end...
The t-bone end…
Dinosaur steaks!
Dinosaur steaks!

This is also where I realised a mistake I was making all along – I trimmed off too much fat. 🙁 There are different sorts of fat on cattle, and without an experienced butcher to guide me, I sort of just fell into a habit of trimming most of it off, much to my later dismay when I sat back and thought about it. We love fat – fat is flavour! Nick Huggins was quick to point out the error of my ways on Facebook, and I’ll certainly do that differently next time.

When Stuart got back from doing deliveries all day in Melbourne, he found Oscar and I a mere halfway through the second side of beef, and pretty knackered at that… a very quick dinner of garlic and cashew stir fried Jonai beef served with sweet & sour vegies was our reward before an early night to bed…

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Day 3. For those still with me here, yes, I said ‘Day 3’. I woke to tight shoulders, a sore neck, and growing forearms, feeling pretty pleased with myself. Stuart of course thought this was an opportune time to juice 150kg of windfall apples with our lovely WWOOFer for the week, Arata, and the kids. Oh, how he loves to test me…

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For those wondering where we kept the carcass these three days, it was hanging in the shed. Temperatures were cool, but by the third day we were very conscious that this meat needed to get colder again! The pressure was on…

The two littlest Jonai made it home from a few days with their grandparents and cousins down the coast the night before, so were now ready to help with the home stretch. Atticus quickly discovered just how hard it is to saw through a leg bone…

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As we were cutting the final forequarter around 5pm on Monday night, I carved out a brisket roast, browned it off in my cast iron, chucked in an onion, some lovely Angelica organic garlic and rosemary plucked from the garden, and poured a bottle of Stuart’s homebrew dark IPA over it, then popped it in a low oven for three hours.

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Stuart sawed the fourth and final osso buco (have you noticed I quite like osso buco?), we washed everything down, and sank wearily but happily into our seats to feast on the most delicious roast I think I’ve ever eaten. Cutting up a whole beast has that effect on flavour, I reckon. 😉

I do look forward to the next steer, though it will be nearly a year before we need another one for our own consumption, we think. I also look forward to doing it with a coolroom at my disposal, and a fully fitted out boning room, including a bandsaw!

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If you’d like to support our efforts to become skilful, local butchers of our own meat, in a facility we’ll also make available to other smallholders like ourselves, check out our Pozible project to crowdfund a boning room here on the farm!

42: The Meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything

According to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 42 is the answer to the meaning of life, the universe and everything. And because that book is based on science, I know it’s true. So because today I am 42, I now know the answers, and I’m going to share them, even if it’s cheating to share with those of you yet to reach this meaningful age.

Be Fearless

The first answer is that *of course* I don’t *really* have the answers, but I’m ready to take a stab at it. This is a shamelessly self-indulgent post, because it’s my blog, and my birthday, and because one of the answers is ‘be fearless’ or at least act like you’re fearless.

Deathbed Test and Regrets Rule

We’ve all seen wise words tendered by the elderly as they near death, my favourite of which is ‘never regret the things you did, only those you didn’t’. I try to live by that one. I don’t always succeed, either in doing rather than not, nor in resisting the lure of regret. But I try. And I’ve been trying since I was young, just ask my parents. I’m not interested in figuring life out right as I leave it. I conduct the Deathbed Test on most of my decisions.

I apply the Regrets Rule to food. Last week I ate some cheese and bacon cheezels at work. They were profoundly unsatisfying, leaving my mouth with a cloying sheen of artifice the likes of which I’d not known since my teens. I don’t regret that I ate them. In a way, I’m glad I did – now I know what I’m ‘missing’. I’ll stick with almonds, thanks. Had I not eaten that little fundraising bag of frankenfood, I would have wondered whether some secret, salty pleasure lurked inside the foil. Five minutes of a poor choice, six orange, sticky digits, and seven cheezel-lurid teeth later, I knew. So what, I ate some bad food. It’s not like I live on it.

My mum was diagnosed with cancer this year. It took me three days to book a flight on which I hurtled my fear and love stateside five days later. I spent a month with Mama and Dad, feeding them, nourishing our collective thicker-than-water blood, reconnecting after two decades of a Life Away. I am grateful I had the means to make the trip, and that they raised us to know, feel, and act on our commitment to each other. I will never regret the money nor the time spent to be there, and know the regret would have been long and harsh had I stayed away in the interest of pragmatism. I’ll be back there next week, then again with all my Jonai for Thanksgiving, for what we all hope (and have reason to believe) will be a celebration. I will continue to make more time for my mum and dad, for ultimately, what is life but those we love? Continue reading 42: The Meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything

Feed your blood

Blood. It drains from our face when we’re shocked, flushes our cheeks when we’re embarrassed, heats our veins, and is chilled by bad news. Blood is reputed to offer immortality to those who would drink it, and its symbolism is potent enough to ostracise women through history during their monthly flow.

Blood is life’s most basic building block, and yet most of us never think to feed it.

The only time I remember consciously ‘feeding my blood’ was when a bad case of influenza left me with the white blood cell count of a leukemia victim. As well as my usual whole foods diet, I included vegetable juices every day with a slice of aloe vera in them as I read that aloe boosts liver function (that great engine room for healthy blood cells). Once healed, I returned to feeding my soul, nurturing my family, and winning hearts with vast feasts. I forgot all about blood once again.

And then came the day that my beloved Mama got blood cancer, or Hodgkins lymphoma. Continue reading Feed your blood

Kids in the Kitchen

Every year it’s the same. ‘Mama, what do you want for your birthday?’ is answered with ‘for all of you to be lovely to me and each other for the entire day, and you could make me brekky…’ with hopeful eyes. This year surpassed my wildest expectations as my dear elder children (aged 11 and 10) made me (and Stuart and his parents) brekky, lunch AND dinner. And folks, it wasn’t tea and toast.

It was a beautiful Sunday and all I wanted to do that day was work on pig-proofing the fences in the first pig paddock.

A happy birthday girl, out fencing.

And so when the kids started menu planning the night before I was delighted, but anticipated the need for a fair bit of adult assistance during the day. They chose their recipes from the wonderful Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Cooking with Kids, which does an excellent job of being thorough in its descriptions without being patronising or pitching too low. Every recipe we’ve used from this cookbook has been delicious!

Shortly after sunrise they were at work on brekky – baked eggs with spinach, herbs and tomato, served on the sourdough I’d made the night before. They had a little bit of assistance from Stuart with managing the 10-inch cast-iron frypan, but that was about all. And wait for it… Oscar roasted and ground the cumin seeds in the mortar and pestle. Most of my adult friends don’t do that!

The meal was delicious – truly great flavours and textures as one would expect from experienced cooks. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the skills, patience and love from my children and in heaven at the result!

Out to fencing we went, and the kids commenced almost immediately on lunch. They worked away cheerfully, only pausing to enjoy the luscious almond chocolate cake for morning tea made by Nana Ros with Atticus’ help.

If we thought brekky was impressive, lunch knocked me out. Oscar made falafels, once again toasting and grinding cumin and coriander seeds, and fried them beautifully as Antigone made fresh pitas – pointing out to us that she made the dough by hand as the stand mixer was full of dough for that night’s calzone.

They chose to make a selection of dips as accompaniments: hummus, guacamole and pico de gallo, all served beautifully on a platter with fresh capsicum and wedges of lemon. In fact, their presentation was as flawless as their flavours. Once again, I was blown away, as were Stuart and his parents.

Surely they couldn’t top all that with dinner? Well, in fairness, I wouldn’t say they topped it, but dinner was equally delicious – a herb and cheese calzone served with tabbouleh. The only help on this one was that I put a sourdough on for them in the morning with a little commercial yeast to speed the rise. As the adults were still working outside through until dinnertime, they had no help at all with dividing, rolling, filling and cooking the calzone, nor with cooking the bulgur.

As we sat there sated and raving about their efforts for the day, my awesome pair hopped up and quickly whipped up some lemon crepes for dessert. Yes, I’m serious.

To what would I attribute this display of skills and showering of love from my much-beloved children? I can give the obvious answer that they’ve cooked with both Stuart and me since they could stand on a chair at the butcher’s block, and that in our house cooking is definitely a way to show love.

But a really important ingredient in their success had nothing to do with me – and that’s Stephanie Alexander’s Kitchen Kitchen Garden program (and no, I don’t work for them!).

We tried to get the program into our old school but a resistant Principal (thankfully now retired) thwarted the Council’s best efforts. But at the kids’ new school there is a thriving kitchen garden program with wonderful teachers. Oscar and Antigone had each had one class before my birthday. One class was all it took for their confidence to click – and I think the fact that Oscar’s class had made falafels and tabbouleh that week gave the level of familiarity he needed when they searched the recipes. But they’d never made baked eggs, I can assure you, and we’ve always made calzones together, as we have pita (and other) breads. They’re dip makers from way back, but new users of the food processor, though I saw no signs of uncertainty!

So was this the best birthday ever? It just may have been (though last year’s Gala de Tammois was pretty amazing too…). I was well worked, well fed, and well loved, with the added feel-good bonus of thinking I must have done something right to get such great kids. What a perfect balance, making for a very very happy day.

I am one lucky Mama. Thank you, Jonai kids!

Welcome to Jonai Farms!

As regular readers are well aware, now we are farmers. And so Jonai Farms must have its own website, of course, where I’ve decided to blog our adventures in farming.

It will be interesting learning which blog is for which post, and occasionally I will simply cross post. So for those interested in all things farming and the rural life, check out The Hedonist Life over at Jonai Farms. 🙂

Rural rhythms…

Rhythms are so much better than schedules. One day might be at a super fast tempo, the next a slow, dreamy waltz. As someone who has never enjoyed regular schedules, I revel in developing rhythms.

In cooking, as in life, rhythms should respond to the seasons. When warmth comes from the sun, it’s the season for light, sharp chopping and cold, crunchy vegetables. When the woodstove warms the hearth, it’s time for slow-simmering stews, endless loaves of bread and a bottomless pot of chai.

Frosty mornings

Jonai Farms is teaching us its rhythms. Frosty mornings call for a hot oven to bake the sourdough that rose overnight as we watch another perfect sunrise.

Bread rising with the sun...
Love that big new oven

Days that can’t break 10C beg for a chai station on the woodstove, which also doubles as a temperature regulator for the nighttime yoghurt making brought on by the endless supply of fresh milk from a local dairy.

Chai station

Perfect spot for setting yoghurt
Real milk

A farmer’s life of physical toil from sun-up to sundown justifies fresh eggs daily on the morning’s sourdough with thick lashings of butter, and sometimes Greenvale Farm‘s most excellent bacon.

A farmer's breakfast

Warm days invite us out for lunches al fresco, but the mercury drop that trails just behind sunset demands enamelled cast iron be filled with luscious lamb shanks, a huge pot of dahl, or cinnamon-spiked chili.

Dinner our first night at Jonai Farms - big pot o' chili

When a big storm knocks out the power for the night, break out the hurricane lamps and shift that osso bucco out of the electric oven and onto the gas stovetop.

Cooking like they used to

A couple days of meaty wintery dishes lead us naturally back to gado gado or palak paneer kofta.

gado gado
Palak paneer kofta, masala dahl & fresh yoghurt

And no matter where we are or what the season, ‘peace and happiness begin, geographically speaking, where garlic is used in cooking’ (Marcel Boulestin).

These are the rhythms making the Jonai happy beyond our wildest expectations of farm life. What a privilege to be both grateful beneficiaries and mindful custodians of the land.

Oregon – the End of the Road Trip

A captured moment of cousins capturing an image...

I forgot to share my final Crikey post on Road Trip USA: Breathless in Oregon Rivers in the wonderful madness of returning to Oz and moving directly onto Jonai Farms! Watch soon for a new website and farm blog…

As for Road Trip USA, it was an incredibly enriching, grounding experience for all five Jonai, bringing us closer and teaching us things together in a sustained way that just doesn’t happen in the banal confines of home, with all its attendant work, school and social distractions.

Would we recommend driving across a country in a small RV with three kids? Absolutely – we adjusted rather quickly to living in a small space, cooking with limited gear, and coping without air-conditioning in a heat wave. Okay, we never *really* adjusted to that, but we did learn to put up with it.

Having sold the RockVan at the end of the trip on eBay for slightly less than we paid for it, the trip didn’t turn out to be *too* expensive – cheaper than if we’d hired an RV and cheaper than staying in hotels as well as hiring or buying a car. Being in between paying rent and a mortgage also made the trip achievable (not to mention Stuart working two jobs for the previous 2 years…).

Thank you to the wonderful people we met along the way who made the trip more interesting, warm and full of great learning, and big hugs to my extensive mob of family in Oregon and California.

So that’s a wrap, armchair travellers. The Jonai have settled in on the farm, and your next reality show is about to begin. 🙂

Jonai Farms view from the house
Jonai joy at the bottom of our volcano

Breathless in Oregon rivers

Dictionaries should define ‘breathtaking’ as ‘Oregon rivers’, an obvious double entendre for the initiated.

And if it’s not the rivers that make you gasp, there are the mountains — either steep or rolling bristling with acres upon acres of deep-green conifers.

Unlike Colorado or Utah’s eye-popping grandeur though, Oregon’s beauty is exquisitely banal — it’s perfectly inescapable, joyfully simple, and utterly lovely.

Continue reading Breathless in Oregon rivers

Be-Utah-ful

Here’s my Crikey piece on Utah, one of the most beautiful and pristine parts of America.

And the usual bonus pics:

Twin Rocks
Love that palette

Chicken parmigiana on balsamic raddichio with cous cous 🙂
Cosy spot
Balancing rock in Arches National Park
Strong boy, eh?
Arches
heh
Strong girl!
Great picnic spot in Canyonlands
Antigone's on top of the world
That's a 1500-foot drop off behind Oscar...
Steak & arancini
Fun on the salt flats
Salty feet