FEMA Gasifier Section

For reasons I am do not entirely understand, I am blessed with an obscene amount of energy tonight (despite leading a tour for 22 at our home yesterday and installing a 140 sq ft rain garden today), so I am whipping up a 5000 word section on Wood Chip Gasifiers. We brought our gasifier to the MREA last weekend and it was a HUGE hit, so I wanted to get more of my info online in readable form -including the complete plans.

Please check out the Gasifier Parent Page, and all its little offspring in the left column should you want to know more about this incredible way to create energy -its even carbon negative!


MREA Recap -Wow, Wow, WOW!

I Don’t have alot of time for a proper recap, -this weekend is INSANE: I have the Sierra Club of MAdison coming for a tour of our yard, Sunday we are installing a rain garden for a client, and Monday I take shipment of 80 Wine Barrels (by semi) from Kentucky.  But there are a few things that I firmly believe are urgent enough that I will at least repost what I wrote for our Sustain Jefferson Group as a recap: 

Our Message is VITAL
For almost the entire weekend we had being queuing up to hear our message of grassroots, bottom up sustainability.  We had numerous visitors shake our hands and say “THANK YOU -you are the only people here with the answers to the questions that I came searching for solutions for.”  “You were more helpful than any other booth here”.  The fact that normal citizens: not corporations, not huge, branded non-profits, not the government were able to create something as simple and effective as the Earth Victory Garden (EVG) or as fascinating as the Gasifier was incredibly inspiring to the attendees of the MREA.   Our group is young, we may be struggling to juggle multiple tasks, but we simply MUST continue to do our work… and teach others to do the same.

The Gasifier Rocks
I joined in on the gasifier project to learn skills and hang out with interesting people.  Maybe telling people about how cool it 1000 times this weekend I ended up convincing myself, but I am absolutely certain this project was the most exciting thing at the Fair.  The cold hard fact is that we are one of only a very small handful of groups in the entire country with a working gasifier that can heat and power a home with materials found in every community in the country.  While not everyone will be willing or able to build there own, there are hundreds of people who want to, and thousands and thousands who are inspired by it. This project is paradigm shattering and I want to be a part of pushing it forward in a BIG way.

The EVG is on to something
I had expected the Victory Garden presentation to draw about 25-50 people.  Its an energy fair right?  The tent was over flowing with hundreds and the attendees were hanging on every word.  People lined up 30 deep after words to learn more -to do it themselves, to help their neighbors, and even other 501C3’s that wanted to take it back to their communities. Systems thinking is mind blowing to those who have never thought that way.  I will work hard in the next 2 weeks to get it all online -pamphlets, plans, systems thinking -all of it.  For now it will be on my blog, but we can get it to SJ or anywhere else from there.

TNS works
System thinking, diverse networking, and community building are concepts that people are ready for.  After Greg’s presentation the rest of the weekend was a steady stream of attendees thanking him for his poignant message that changed them.  I think many of them had searched the entire fair to find our booth just to hear more.

We are in a moment of incredible possibility and importance in history.
Our message is vital, it is poignant, and it is the future.
We are Being the Change.

Thank you all for making it happen, and in advance for all the work we have in front of us.

In the next few weeks I plan on creating Pages for the EVG and the Gasifier so that all of you have the chance to recreate them in your communities.  The MREA was INCREDIBLE: the energy of the people, the free beer for hybrid drivers, the interest in CHANGE.  VERY inspired since my return!


MREA Day # -1

Today I head up to the MREA fair with a truck loaded full of our booth, an Earth Victory Garden (EVG), and the entire Gasifier.  I have swapped the Insight for the day with another of our group who will be coming up later today -he is on the County Board and has meetings on the potential of building biomass utilization plants in the county.

We’ll have the booth set up today, then tomorrow we’ll start spreading information on our EVG system with the hope that others will start building them too.  The basic jist is that we want to spread the benifits of “systems thinking” -taking the goal of Local Food from a small garden, and creating a system to support that goal: a compost bin to create soil while cutting significantly from the home waste stream, and also a rain barrel to gather water for the garden while reducing runoff and non point source pollution.  We are even trucking up a 1/2 yard of compost to fill the bed which we will have it stocked with a full array of plants!

Next up in our Booth will be our Gasifier.  While the MREA is concerned about safety with us actually creating hydrogen gas in a field full of 20,000 people (Some people are so paranoid!) we will still have the video looping, and will certainly be spreading the news on how simple, and elegant, the technology is!  Being able to run internal combustion engines off of commonly found carbon sources, like wood chips, is incredibly exciting!

The rest of the booth will include information on our fledgling Community Group, Sustain Jefferson, which was founded on the Natural Step principles.  We want to show the massive power to change that even a small number of lay people have.

Lastly, we will also be giving three presentations: Friday on the Gasifier, Saturday we’ll be on a pannel for local community groups, and Sunday I’ll be holding forth on the Earth Victory Gardens, and, gardening in general, as a system of energy recycling and storage -we haven’t even come close to matching the solar efficiency of a tomato leaf with a PV cell.  I would like people to start thinking of apples as “batteries” of solar energy.

If you are going, check out the Sustain Jefferson Booth and say hi!


Compost Bin of Dreams

Living in a new HOA has some up sides -like my basement didn’t leak a drop in the 15″ of rain Wisconsin got in the past 2 weeks. But the same reason my basement is bone dry, also means growing things here is a labor of love. See our home was backfilled with a 4-8′ layer of clay and rock. The only topsoil on site is the 3″ vaneer I trucked in to cover our half acre. So I spend alot of energy trying to literally build soils on site for my little Garden of Eatin. Year 1 had us going form over function as I struggled to plant an entire half acre by hand, including a lawn and 2000 sq ft of perennial beds, and 1000 sq ft of prairie. But the next year I went up to a nice cedar two bin system that was intended to be a display model for our side business. That bin is/was gorgeous, but even with 2.5 cu yards of capacity, we still outgrew it in the winter when nothing was breaking down. We make about 5 yards annually, so I had Bigger Plans. Imagine that… So I sold the 2 bin system to the daycare that lives in our Church during the week, and Got Busy.

When we built our Earth Victory Gardens, we discovered a source for 3x12x16′ reclaimed fir boards. A company had salvaged them from a warehouse that was being torn down. And they were selling them for $20. Sure they’re full of nails, but that is an INSANE amount of lumber. The day after I visited the salvage yard the idea for this bin was born. It was to be 4 bins wide, and made almost entirely of these Titan Sized boards. It was to be a bin that just may become an heirloom in our family for generations. I bought 6 3×12’s for $120, and purchased another $100 in cedar and got to work this past Saturday. The pile of lumber at left weighs over 600 pounds and I had to borrow a circular saw that takes a 8.5″ blade to cut them. From Great Beginnings come Great Things! I will spare you the play by play -the design is amazingly simple and should be apparent from the pics. So here it is:

Each “Stall” is 36″ deep by 39″ tall for no other reason than that is the max I could eck out of a 16′ board with little to no waste. The cedar slats in the front are made from decking so they are 5/4″ thick and pretty dang stout. Here is another shot from the side to show the interior:

You can see the 3×12’s are spaced about 1.5″ to allow in some air, and the stall sides are assembled with 2×2 cedar to set the spacing, and the back 3×12’s, which are 153 inches long, are screwed into the stall sides using 5″ long lags. Once they were drawn tight this thing is Rock Solid. In fact it didn’t even tweak out of square when I levered it into place with a 6′ pry bar! The doors to the stalls are just decking run in slats formed by a 2×2 and a piece of decking screwed into the front edge of the stall divider. Spacing for the front slats? A galvanized roofing nail:

This set up will be able to hold 3 separate 1 cu yard piles in various stages of decomposition with an empty bin to allow me to turn the piles into to… which should be just right. I am VERY pleased with the results of a weekend’s labor -as Mia said, its a nice mix between Farm practicality and HOA looks. And it is so tough not even I should be able to break it! Why do I need so much compost space if I don’t have any trees?

The buckets are 3 weeks worth of “gorp” that the local Coffee Shop saves for me -to the tune of about 25 gallons weekly. The barrow load is weeds from half of one of my large perennial beds. True its been a while since I weeded, but that is a 10 cu ft wheel barrow… We are essentially a “pioneer” ecosystem that I have yet to fill all the niches in, and Nature is filling them for me with thistle, quack grass, and bladder campanula.

But that still begs the question of WHY I go through all this. The answer couldn’t be simpler:

The Smooth Penstemon is in bloom in the prairie…

Be the Change.


Big Az Worm Bin

Even though I live in an HOA, I am able to keep a livestock herd of about 250,000 strong right in my backyard, and you’d never know it. See I dig vermicomposting. 3 years ago we tried the Rubbermaid Bin in the basement like the Worm Woman taught us. But I am a lazy gardener (energetic builder, yes, but lazy in the gardening!) and we didn’t keep enough litter in it so it attracted flies. So I moved them outside, and made the bin MUCH bigger, as is my wont. The bin we built last year is 3×5′ and 2 feet deep. That works out to about a cu yard of vermicompost at peak capacity. It also means I have a crap load of worms in there. This weekend a remodel of our composting system meant that I needed to move our worm bin, so I thought I’d take the time to post a pictorial of our bin. As you can see in the first shot, the bin is made of half width cinder block. I bury the bin 2.5 block deep for insulation in all seasons, but I loose stack the blocks so that the bin can drain, and also to make it semi portable (I seem to redeisgn things every 1-2 years as I learn more, so I don’t like to make things too permanent. to hold the blocks together I pound 1.5″ stakes into them, but really with soil on the outside, and worm turds on the inside they aren’t really going anywhere. Our winters are fierce, so I bury the bin in about 2 feet of leaves from the city municipal yard, and then in the spring use it in my compost bins and to mulch the gardens.

I mostly feed my worms the gorp buckets I get from the Coffee Shop, which also means that my vermicompost is full of tomato seeds. The second shot shows gorp that is about 75% vermicompost. It is also very wet since I had to take all the worms and vermicompost out of their old bin, stage them in piles and wheelbarrows (yes I have more than one) and the barrows filled up with rain despite their covers. This shot also shows a better perspective on how freakishly large the bin is. That is 10 cu ft of worm sludge and the bin is not even half full!

If you think this is alot of effort for some worm poop you’d be right. But after the first time I top dressed with vermicompost I became an absolute believer in its power to add Deep Fertility to plants. Our roses have never bloomed like they did the year they got vermicompost, and it is still my favorite side dressing for heavy feeders like tomatoes. I don’t really understand it myself, but I have seen studies that have actually shown that worm “casts” or manure actually has higher fertility than the things they eat. Seems like alchemy to me, but I have seen enough results to be a believer.  The trick is similar to how yeast makes wheat more nutritious for us.  Take a pound of wheat berries, chew them up and even if you don’t break your teeth, you won’t get too much protein or carbs from them.  Why?  Those nutrients are tied up in a form we can’t digest.  Now, grind up the wheat into flour, add some water and fungus (yeast) and the fungus will convert the nutrients into forms our digestive tracks can process.  Worms do the same for organic matter – their casts are full of microbes and other microbes that continue to break down the remaining organic matter – in this way their are more nutrients, or more precisely nutrients in a more available form, for plants to use.  But its still magic to watch 20#’s of gorp turn into soil every week!

The final picture shows the completed bin. I made a simple 2-piece lid out of cedar decking. Raccoons and Opposums would love to eat your worms, so covering them with something substantial is important. Also, in the final shot you can see the two pieces of perforated PVC that I inserted next to the cinder blocks for drainage. The last bin was surrounded on all sides by soil for insulation, but our “soil” is virtually all clay so the bin itself would fill up with water almost to the top, NOT a good situation for worms!! 1 10′ chunk cut in half should do the trick.

This past summer I finally found a decent way to harvest my worm castings without taking out all the worms. In years past I have tried to divide the bin in half with welded wire, and put fresh food in one side to draw the worms over. That works, but it also means that you are wasting half your bin space. I have also just scooped out a barrow ful (abot 1/5th a bin), worms and all and spread it. There are more than enough worms left to repopulate (they double in population every 4-6 weeks in ideal environments), but I felt bad about sacrificing 50,000 of my buddies.

But Growing Power, which vermicomposts on an industrial scale, taught me a super simple way. Take a sheet of aluminum window screen and lay it over the finished vermicompost and then lay fresh food stuffs on top of that and cover it with a sheet of canvas or something. In a few weeks the worms will have squeezed through the mesh to eat the fresh food, and you can pull up the screen and transfer them to a new bin, or a cleaned out old one. Slick!

Vermicomposting is also great with kids. I HATE to see little uns that are afraid of worms, and trust me, if you start them young enough they simple LOVE to grub around in the worm bin searching for their “friends”!

Be the Change.


More Fuelish Thoughts

We are still considering selling my beloved Insight for a 4 seat vehicle. Looked at many options, including a TDI Passat Wagon, a few 04-07 Priuses, and several 2008 Civic Hybrids. The hybrids are nice with lots of added utility over the Insight, but any one of the takes us into a 50% cut in mileage from what I am used to. Also, the value of my Inisght is going up almost weekly, with comparable ones on E-Bay going for 10-20% more than the $12,600 I paid for it 30,000 miles ago. I had not intended “going green” to be an investment, but apparently Good Things do happen to Good People sometimes.
The long and short of it was that their is nothing on the market compelling enough for me to take on debt and sell my baby. I am REALLY fond of my little blue “pod” -something I had not fully realized until we were very close to trading it on a ’08 Civic. I am also vain and shallow enough that I place alot of emphasis on having “special” cars. I like to tinker with my cars, and the fact that the Insight is the most effeceint car in America holds alot of sway. I had begun looking into plug in conversion kits, but they are all located in California or WA and driving 4600 miles to save gas seemed ridiculous. I had decided to peg my hopes on the 2009 Prius -it was strongly rumored to get 20% more mileage for the same money. But those rumors are drying up and after calling about 8 dealers to find someone savy enough to talk intelligently to me about them, I am mostly convinced that Real Change in the Prius market will not happen until late 2010.

But then, Hybrid Cars spilled the goods that Hymotion, one of the more reputable Plug In kit designers, was releasing a 2nd Generation kit. The Hybrid Car blurb had me from the first sentence: Lithium Ion battery pack, full crash test compliance, MIDWESTERN installers (MN), 3 yr warranty, and turn key price (including installation) of $10k.

Could this be The One? 100+ mpg is certainly a step in the right direction, it solves the “soccer problem” with its 4 seats, and being one of the Early Adopters pushing a new world changing technology is right up my alley. There are currently less than 250 plug in vehicles on the road -most in Public Utility fleets. I would be VERY pleased to add my name to that List of Honor.

But wait a minute -used Prius are not cheap -figure $20k for a lightly used one- and I’m adding $10k to that! WTH am I thinking? We’d be switching the 25k miles we drive on the Forester (26-7 mpg) to the 4 Door Hybrid. Even with a Civic 47mpg we were saving $75/mo. Jumping to 100mpg and that savings gets close to $280 at $4/gallon. Wait a gal darn minute, we don’t spend that now! But the truth of the matter is that with a 1400 mile range in combined driving I’d only be filling up every other month unless we took a long trip. Payback on the plug in kit is about 3 years with those numbers, not counting interest.

Suffice it to say that I am calling Hymotion and their MN dealer today to ask some questions.


Update and Storm Recap

To save time I will revisit the update I sent to our googlegroup CSA:

Unfortunately the update this week will mimic much of the news we have
all heard all too often lately in Southern Wisconsin -too much rain!
The plan was that by this time in June we would be harvesting dozens
and dozens of full heads of lettuce, and be within weeks of carrots,
beets, and nasturium among others.  Unfortunately the hail from last
Saturday’s storm has severely damaged our Romaine and Lettuce crop –
essentially what we were unable to get out Saturday Morning is a total
loss. Also, all of our seeded plantings of carrots/beets/etc has
washed out twice.  We will replant (again!) as soon as we can enter the fields again
-“homegrown” carrots are simply too good to let a little (or a LOT!)
of rain stop us!  I knew there was a reason we bought 5000 carrot

The earlier crops that are up, are severely compromised with weeds as
we’ve been unable to cultivate our fields for the better part of 2
weeks –the soil is like quick sand.   Hoeing the fields by hand is
critical to organic systems as a physical means of reducing weed
competition with the crops, vs spraying a herbicide over “Round-Up –
Ready GMO Crops”.  The situation is salvageable, but we have much more
work in front of us this June than expected.

But enough with the depressing news!  On the Bright Side -the potatoes
are unbelievably robust -rebounding from the killing frost with such
vigor it is almost impossible to tell it ever happened!  I had high
hopes for our large potatoes plantings and thus far they are coming
true!  VERY excited to harvest in about 5-6 weeks!  Also, the Hoop
House Tomatoes and Peppers are right on track.  The Hoop House
plantings have allowed the tomatoes to form incredibly thick stemmed
“shrubs” despite the relatively cold late spring which is setting back
most tomatoes planted outside.  In fact the vines are so vigorous we
will be trellising them this weekend.  Hope to have photos up this

On the home front we are incredibly unaffected by the 15+ inches of rain in the past 2 weeks.  Our sump hasn’t even run once…  That said getting around is very difficult -the two major rivers in our county -the Rock and Crawfish rivers are 30% above record levels and the Craw is yet to crest.  80% of the bridge crossings are out -to go west to Madison (30 miles away) will take us an extra 50 miles in detours to find a workable bridge!  Luckily the public has been mostly smart about it and deaths and injuries are amazingly low considering that 12+ tornadoes have hit the state in the past 12 days.

This is either the best (due to all the learnings and getting my hubris smacked down) or worst (because semingly everything that can go wrong, is) year to start a market gardening operation.  I am remarkably Zen about it so far.  Mostly because all my tools are paid for and no bills are riding on a successful harvest.  Still we have managed to sell a bit over $100 thus far -mostly Romain- which is not bad considering the Global Warming induced climate insanity.

They are calling this past storm a “500 year storm”.  But seeing as we’ve had 4 50yr events in the past 5 years I have no confidence we will get a 499 year respite from flooding on this scale again…

Gearing up for my presentations of our Earth Victory Gardens and Gasifiers at the MREA (Sustain Jefferson) next weekend and my hosting of a Permaculture Group and the Sierra Club of Madison for a tour of my “sustainable yard” in 2 weeks.  Waaaaay too much to do!


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