Hypermiling Returns!

Had the Insight in the shop this weekend while we visited family and my alma mater in South Dakota.  It had developed a periodic hesitation at light throttle (the sweet spot for mileage) that was getting worse.  My hunch was the EGR valve, and I pleased to find I was right.  I was wrong, though in thinking it was under my certified warranty-and the part is $220.  Ouch.  While it was in I had the tranny fluid changed as well as the engine fluid (it is cold and I am getting lazy).  I had them swap the tranny fluid for full synthetic and plumbed the engine full of Mobil 1 (as usual-it is good for 5% in mpg).  I have been looking forward to getting the more slippery tranny juice in for 20k miles.  And yes, I should get out more.

The results are fantastic, if based on very circumstantial evidence.  The 30 mile trip out (we live in the boonies-30 miles from a Honda dealer) was 62 mpg, trip back with the hesitation fixed and slippery new oils everywhere was almost 74 mpg. The mileage was impressive enough, but the feel is what has me jazzed.  It is almost as if the car has no static friction anymore.  I drafted semi’s (as usual) to boost mileage, but this trip I was racking up 100+mpg on the inclines.  I held 110+ for over a mile on a very slight downhill.  I’m terribly excited about this!
On the less hyper mileage front I was able to beat the EPA again in our beloved Forester.  This Holiday’s trip to South Dakota netted 31.5 mpg sustained for the 1000 miles.  The EPA says it should only be good for 28.  I love Foresters: AWD, enough power(170hp, but gobs of torque where you need it) to tow 8 whiskey barrels, 5 star safety rating for the kids, they can haul 160lbs of greyhounds in the hatch, standard roof rack for lumber, and we got our 2006 very nicely equipped for under $19500 with 1.9%.  Compare that to the hybrid ‘utes which get similar mileage, but without the AWD for $6-10k more.  The Auto Industry needs to wake up and give us a 40mpg vehicle capable of moving 7 adults and/or towing 4000lbs.
The significant exception is the Toyota Highlander which gets slightly better mileage but can tow twice as much and can seat 7 in theory.  If I wasn’t drooling over a used Passat Wagon TDI (38mpg and 250 ft/lbs of torque, but dang are they holding value!) which I will convert to veggie I would be looking for one of those used for my preferred Mulch Towing Vehicle.  However as we get closer to Someday and our farm I will most likely hold out for either a diesel truck to convert or an old carburetter truck that I will convert (along with my BCS) to run on “E100” that I hope to distill in my backyard from Sunchokes.  And no I am not kidding.
Good to have my Honda Insight back to full health again.  Would like to see another 90+ mpg commute before Winter sets in!

Peak Proof Aquaponics in Zone 5?

So I have been completely obsessing over this Aquaponics idea and I want to put some of the ideas on paper and hopefully spur some additional inputs to my thinking.  Though still definitely in the experimental stage, the skills needed to grow fish in a recirculating tank system are getting dialed in to a level that fish loses are dropping to the near zero range in well managed operations.  Where I see the next stage of design sophistication will be in making the system Peak Proof by dialing out the fossil fuel inputs to make the energy inputs as sustainable as the food system.
And those fuel inputs are sizable.  What the Growing Power system is doing is essentially keeping 10,000 gallons of water at 78-82 degrees every hour, every day, year round.  In a Hoop House.  In Wisconsin.  Given the BTU needs of keeping that much water 80 degrees during a 4 month Winter, I don’t know of a feasible way around the NG heater at this point.  Preheating the water seem to be the only workable option, and that system would then handle 100% of the heating 8-9 months of the year.  
Probably system components:
  • Solar Water heating with thermosyphon pumping
  • Small Wind Turbine charging batteries (DC water pumps; small inverter for lights) and sized to dump excess into a heating element in a tank before the boiler.
  • Running water lines through Hot Compost Piles which are also located within the greenhouse for theoretical 100% thermal efficiency.  Currently looking for BTU figures for compost piles.
  • Modified Hoop House with insulated North Wall
  • Modified Hoop House with multiple layers of “inflated” plastic for better R values
  • Dream system based on the BioShelter of the New Alchemists with passive solar elements, built into a hill.  This system works best built onto an living structure.  This might be the only Peak Proof Aquaponics system using Tilapia.
  • Ditching the Tilapia and switching to Lake Perch.  The backup system for the NG heating could then, in theory, supply 100% of the heat, reducing winter water temps to the 50-65 range.  Perch can survive being frozen solid in Wisconsin ponds…
The last piece is probably the Sustainable Option.  But the lose in harvest would be severe.  Perch stocking rates are already a third of Tilapia, and they will not grow much in water under 65 degrees.  Furthermore, Tilapia are omnivores, allowing you to grow much of the food in duckweed and water lettuce, and also giving you a better place to put your now marketable greens than the compost pile.  Finally, Tilapia are easy to breed in tanks, but a Perch system puts you into dependance on the DNR.   Other options would be using a methane digester to make your own Bio-Gas, or a biomass based boiler.  Either of these gets expensive right quick.
Partnering Aquaponics next to heat intensive industries make allot of sense, but most small landowners do not have access to that.
Still, the system is still brilliant and I know there are ways to make it work off grid.  
Please shoot me links, ideas, comments, and resources!


I took a tour this week that blew my mind and I have been dying for a few spare moments to tell you about it.  A few friends of mine from the fledgling Sustainability NPO we recently founded, Sustain Jefferson , spent a few incredible hours touring Growing Power this past Monday.    Growing Power is an Urban Ag facility that claims to grow enough food for 2000 people on 2 acres.  With a claim like that I was drawn like a moth to flame.  Their website offered some clues to their system-vermiculture, aquaculture, and several greenhouses.  The site filled in the details and inspired me in a way that no other has since I was originally introduced to Permaculture and Bill Mollison.

What excited me most about Permaculture was the sheer common sense of it all.  Taking wastes and turning them into resources to allow you to reap the benefits of both in one integrated system continues to fascinate me  Aquaponics, especially in the uber simple system that Will Allen of Growing Power sets up, fits the bill perfectly.

Aquaponics takes the aqua from aquaculture and ponics from
 hydroponics and melds them with a healthy dose of applied Permaculture.  Aquaculture is the farming of fish in indoors in recirculating water tanks.  The single largest waste from this system is that housing thousands of fish in a closed system fouls the water right quick.  Hydroponics is a system of growing plants in a nutrient water medium, which of course begs the question of where the nutrients come from.
Aquaculture attempts to solve these problems, and routes the waste water from the aquaculture tanks through a hydroponic system to provide the nutrients for the plants, which help to clean the water and significantly reduces the filtration needed.  Even at this level I love the idea.  Growing Power puts this system into overdrive.
What Will Allen and some others are doing is experimenting with what is considered by most to already be an experimental way of raising fish and plants.  First off Will has completely done away with the filtration system.  He has also done away with any commercial feed, preferring instead to grow his own.  See the underlying foundation of Growing Power is worms.

Readers of this blog know that I am a firm believer in Vermiculture as a means to reduce, even recycle, waste and turn out some freaky good fertilizer.  Growing Power does this on an almost industrial scale-using hundreds of bins (pictured) like mine to process literally 1o’s of thousands of pounds of  waste into worm castings.  
The other great thing that worms do is, um, breed.  In fact in perfect conditions composting worms will double in population every 6 weeks.  Growing Power uses the immense amount of castings to provide the growing medium for their greenhouse operations and then uses the surplus worms as a significant portion of the feed for his thousands of Tilapia in the aquaculture tanks.
Back to the filtration method.  Growing Power uses plants, specifically water cress, to filter the water.   As with most of the systems at the site, it is simple and uses mostly reused items that are common in an urban environment.  In this case reclaimed sump pumps water from the bottom of the 5′ deep tanks to 30′ long flats of cress.  The flats are very slightly sloped, and as the water slowly makes it way through the pea gravel bed that serves to anchor the cress roots it is cleaned of virtually all of the excess waste.  Will Allen was not real long as specifics when asked about ratios of cress to Tilapia, he is an instinctive innovator… he just knows it works.   Several PhD types have also toured the facility and are adamant that the system should not work.  Yet, Will adds with one of his huge grins-he has been doing it for 3 years and has only lost one fish.  Time to rewrite the textbooks!
So what gives?  Will Allen (the giant in the blue sweatshirt) is convinced that the few handfuls of worm

castings he adds to the cress flats are the difference.  The castings are chock full of rich living bacteria and fungus cultures, and it is these that Will believes supercharges the cress flats with filtering capability.   After seeing the vibrance and life of his greenhouses, the obvious health of his fish, and the numerous innovation that seemingly turn up at every corner-I believe him.  Heck, that is how wetlands are supposed to work, right?

Anyone who knows me can see where this is going.  Will’s newest aquaculture houses are built in simple plastic hoop houses in an attempt to cut costs.  He does a lot of mentoring in the 3rd (and 4th) worlds and is trying to get the system down to its bones.  The last house he took us through was built for $5000 plus labor, and it houses 7000 tilapia and 2500 Lake Perch in addition to 300 sq ft of water cress and several hundred pots of greens and vegetables that were basking in the warm humid air.   The next biggest problem to overcome is how to make it Peak Proof by removing the dependence on the second hand natural gas pool heater he is using.  It will certainly add significantly to the start-up costs, but a combined solar water heating and wind turbine dumping into a heating element after charging a few batteries for lighting seems like a great primary heating system with a propane backup.  This could also be modified to run on methane from a digester.   The owner of the farm I am using to grow my market garden has plans for one already drawn up…  
Looks like I have a winter research project!
It was truly inspiring to see people in the heart of an the poorer parts of Milwaukee making a difference, growing sustainable and nutritious food, and spreading the word about simple commonsense systems that work.  

Finding the Muse

I embarked upon a major shift of world view this week. Actually, it would be better said that I materially manifested a change that’s been in the works for quite some time. I bought a MacBook you see. I’ve been a PC guy for, well, as long as I have known about PC’s. PC geeks were the kind of geeks that I wanted to be. I have never been what I have considered a “creative” person: skills in graphics, videos, oils, clay, virtually any artistic medium were apparently absent or severely underdeveloped. I enjoyed doing and modifying, but creating is something much different.

Then I discovered gardening, and in ways that I have never dreamed possible I am learning to create. I spent enough of my youth gardening with my mother, so I had at least the basic skills in gardening, and just as I had done in auto mechanics, home construction, and many other things I applied my belief that an intelligent person with books and perseverance can do virtually anything. But I was continuing to apply a macho top down approach to gardening
-“dominating” the land, “beating” the pests, “earning” the harvest. After several years in the field, hours talking to masters of the Art, and thousands of pages and sites read that perspective has changed. Thanks to a partnership with Mom Nature, I am finding my Muse.

Back to the Mac. Mia grew up on Mac’s and I fought her when it came time to buy our first joint computer, and largely because of the Macho ethic I fought to win. Now these years later I am more ready for a partnership than a computer I can bend to my will. Just as I need some aphids in my gardens to allow the lady beetles something to eat so they won’t leave I am ready to use an intuitive interface and let my Start Menu go so that when I am ready to design a web page I will have that intuition to help me rather than my needing to learn HTML.

While my American Male mentality is still present far to often, I have begun to take the Road Less Traveled by. Hopefully it will too: “make all the difference”


I, Teamster?

This past Saturday I went out to my market garden for the weekly watering/weeding and, frankly, to do something to get my mind off putting Cody down. As I was unloading, I noticed the older brother of the landowner was out working the horses around the trail they have cut around the perimeter, so I quick dropped my scuffle hoe and ran down the lane to intersect them.

Dick was having the team drag their training sled for a few laps to keep them in shape now that the chores of the summer were done and encouraged me to climb on. His excuse was that the extra weight would work the horses more, which was more than enough to convince me to take a horse drawn sled ride!

The team consists of two beautiful Percheron mares, Winter and Minnie. Minnie is easily the largest horse I have ever seen, weighing in well past 2000lbs and that was before she became pregnant this year. In fact both mare’s are due to foal this coming April which will be reason enough to be around, especially with two children! Looking at these two incredibly powerful animals, it is easy to wax nostalgic to knights in armor or even to simpler times before 350hp 4wd tractors and 2000 acre corn fields. Yet, despite their mountains of muscle, they are docile enough to lightly pluck an apple from Bird’s little 4yr old palm -which I am coming to learn is one of the many charms of the Percheron.

It was fantastic to watch Dick work the horses, even in something as simple as pulling a sleigh in laps around the acreage. Dick has them trained to react to the slightest pull of the reins, and the horses are ever listening for his simple “Gee!” or “Haw!”-as he is in his seventies and weighs all of 130lbs, his horses must be trained to respect something other than force. Being horses, they are also a quirky bunch-Minnie likes to rush the slight hills on the property as if to show off her incredible strength, and Winter is ever ready to stop and munch some grass. By the second lap I found myself calling instructions as Dick and I talked about horses and I received an impromptu lesson in tree lore as we rounded the property.

As we finished, Dick was pointing to the neighboring land to where they sometimes pasture the team, and he mentioned that he planned to use the team to pull some oak limbs up to the owner’s home for him to use for firewood. In the roundabout way that he has about asking, I got the impression that he might like a hand with the project, so I mentioned that I was free every Monday if he ever wanted an extra hand on a chore. We talked more, and I expressed again my respect for the fact that they choose to work much of the land with horse power. It was then that Dick mentioned, again in his off hand way, that perhaps he could “show me a thing or two” about working a team.

Later that day as I conversed with the land owner about his idea of converting his ancient Oliver tractor to wood chip gasification (more on that in a future post-and yes we are birds of a feather!), he mentioned how good it would be if I would learn to work the team with Dick. I get the feeling he is a little concerned about his older brother working the team by himself. By the time I left he was talking like I would be plowing on my own by June…

As I walked back to the Insight, I tried to get all this through my stunned brain: Not only was I getting the free use of as much organic land as I wanted to run a market garden, I was now being offered an apprenticeship in becoming a teamster?!

Someone pinch me!


Goodbye, Friend.

Saturday, November 11th brought the passing of my long time friend and partner, my Australian Cattle Dog, Cody, when we chose to end her long fight with failing kidneys and a fading mind.

Mia and I adopted Cody even before we were married-waaaay back in 1997. And even then she was already almost 5. Cody was a warrior princess from a very tough breed-hiking to the top of Harney Peak in South Dakota and, despite being bred for desert heat, tackling multi night winter camping trips in the U.P. of Michigan-always carrying her own pack and refusing help.
A staunch protector of our children and with her indomitable urge to play, a powerful ally against depression: Cody was an incredible dog.
I will miss you, but never forget.
Goodbye, Cody. You have earned your rest.

Catharsis and Germination

After that last post something had to lighten my mood. The first positive salvo that Life shot across my bow was the germination of the Hoop House. In one week I had at least some stalwart sprouts from all the varieties poking up through the crust. Unsurprisingly, the radishes (black and french breakfast) were leading the charge to lift my spirits, but the bok choy was a close second with dozens of plants up and running. Spinach was seen to be lifting through the compost, and even little mache was rearing their heads in an attempt to shake their seed hulls while subtle claytonia’s tiny spurts of life were in evidence to the determined viewer. The uber moist environment has also germinated a significant amount of grass seed, evidently the compost is old enough to have alot of windblown seed mixed in. As soon as the rows are germinated enough to identify I will sally forth, scuffle hoe in hand, to lay them low.

The second was a Step It Up! rally hosted by the Green Sanctuary program at my Unitarian Church. The event was held at the historic Lapham Peak State Park about 20 miles east of our home. Over 200 people attended the outside event held in a natural amphitheater on the edge of restored prairie and mixed hardwood/pine forest. On hand were booths from several local sustainability groups including WEAL (a county wide environmental group), the Sierra Club, and ReNew a statewide non profit focused on promoting Green Energy. ReNew is a huge force in the state staffed with wind and solar site specialists and offers fabulous support in navigating the morass of grants, regulations, and permits necessary to have successful point source energy production.
The day was clear and crisp, with temps in the very low 50’s and a steady Fall wind the crowd kept to the sunny spots to remain warm. I got a huge kick out of watching 200 individuals act as a living sun dial as we all shuffled to stay in the sun during the 2 hour event.

The speakers were fantastic. The event was invoked and made sacred with a blessing from an Elder from the Pueblo tribe who has lived in WI for 35 years. He had us each face the points of the compass as he washed us pure with smoke from sage leaves, and as he’d finished, the strongest gust of the afternoon whipped our hair as he completed it. I have no doubts the Great Mother sent that wind in her approval. Other speakers included a representative from Al Gore, an Ecology Professor from a local college, prominent Geologists, and even the founder of Fighting Bob Fest, Ed Garvey. By the time the scientist had laid out the evidence-in a level of detail that even the most jaded of us learned something new, and Ed was finished whipping us into a frenzy, I think we were all ready to march on Madison to demand action. Great stuff!

Sprout was with me the entire time [he uses global warming as a verb: “we try not to global warm much do we Dad?”] , and as we left and drove to a local coop to stock up on flour (30 lbs including 10lbs of bulk Spelt flour: yes!), soup lentils and beans, steel cut oats, and local bulk eggs I was pleased to note that there was virtually nothing in the cart that was ready to eat. That switch in the paradigm of our culinary habits has reverberated through our lives. Running low on bread no longer means a trip to the store. Now it has become either along night letting it rise, or a weekend day spent at home doing chores and forming loaves instead of driving around and shopping for more Cheap Crap. The Spelt Flour is divine-a true whole grain that is significant lighter than wheat with a definite nutty edge that lends itself well to both bread and pancakes. And we can now get it bulk and organic for $1.29/lb. Nice.

I am through the Dark Canyon of last week. The impetus for change still rests strong in my soul, but action is the best medicine for despair and my greens need weeding and bread needs kneading. And Congress had better wake the hell up.


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