It’s Hitting the Fan… now what?

I have said repeatedly in this space that our generation will live through historic times, and it appears those times are here.  Those of us that are sustainability minded often decry the ecological and sociological destruction of over-consumption.  But as the summer has unfolded, it is undeniable that we should be more specifically focused on the third leg of the proverbial “Sustainability Stool” -economic aspects of our society.  Unlike virtually every economy before us, the American Economy post Regan was founded on consumption and greed rather than manufacturing and the creation of goods and services.  Even in today’s global economy we are rather unique -Europe still makes things to a large extent, basing their economy on exports of everything from fine cheese and wines, to automobiles and wind turbines. Certainly the Pacific Rim economies are export orientated in everything from high tech electronics to tech support knowledge, to cheap plastic crap. 

For years we have been reading that Cheap Oil, that universal whipping horse, was to blame. And it is -shipping raw materials from Africa to Europe or China to be turned into goods to be shipped to America to be sold is insanely wasteful and only possible when the true costs of the practice are not accounted for. But what the majority of people have missed is that this was still only possible if America had ludicrous amounts of purchasing power.  We all know about economic “bubbles” – tech stocks, real estate, etc.  But what we are now living through is the burst of the “American Finance” bubble.  And its a flippin doozy.  

The rampant consumerism that fueled the global economy aided and abbetted by cheap oil, was funded by incredibly cheap credit for everyone from consumers to major corporations and banks.  We, the consumer, funded this incredible growth through credit cards and home equity borrowing to the extent that our interest payments were hundreds of percent greater than our principle payments, and even our homes, the traditional safe haven of American Saving, were a liability as we owed more than they were worth.  To encourage us to dig ever deeper the Financiers, helped by a deregulation crazy Republican Congress allowed unheard of liberties like zero down mortgages, 120% home equity loans, and  credit card limits to the tune that the typical American consumer now had rotating credit in excess of $75,000.  Thanks to the lobbyists and the ready ear of the Republicans (and many Dems too) the American Economy now had over $15,000,000,000,000 in “money” to spend just on the consumer side.  And due to this we called ourselves the strongest economy in the world.  

Of course it was a house of cards – the truth of this was what made Bush encourage us all to “go shopping” after 9/11 to save the country, and that was why we all got $600 this past Spring to “help the economy”.  Now that house is falling.  

I had not imagined that the Economy would be the first leg to cause the stool to really start rockin’.  So much of the literature I read is spent on the ecologic destruction and the sheer number of resources coming to Peak (oil, water, soil, species diversity) that I have focused on that aspect and figured that the food riots of last year were the coming of the second leg, the social aspects, starting to rock too.  And I think that was true.  But neither of these has yet to have the impacts that the failure of the finance markets will have.  Those failures might be felt immediately by you and me, but it will certainly be felt by us in the recent future when the money need to prop up the other two legs is simply gone.  We need massive funding to get us off of oil and into the grail-like Green Economy,  and social programs like the New Deal will be needed to offset the price shocks in food production that are coming.  My fear is that we have blown our chance by dumping our wad into Wall Street.  Its hitting the fan.

So now what?  Luckily, those of us that have been working to offset the first two legs (resource/ecology and social) may lend us some aid as this leg wobbles wildly.  The Global Economy only matters to the degree that you are plugged into it.  If you are living on a 100 Mile Diet, growing more of your food, living within your means, and making some of your own fuel you are far less exposed than those that aren’t.  Long term thinking: building fertility (even if its on your balcony), cutting consumption, and building relationships with your community will be critical to staying afloat regardless of which leg tilts us off kilter.

These times are scary – especially to those who believe they can see down the pike that the other legs are teetering too.   The receipe for weathering the storm as still the same: 

  • Build Skills -agriculture, welding, energy production, carpentry, car repair, network building
  • Gather Knowledge -Permaculture, Community Building, Psychology, History
  • Cut Resource Use – “Do we really NEED this?”
  • Develop more Community/Self Reliance – “Lean on me, when your not strong…”
  • Recognize Beauty -Play music, write poetry/journal/blog, create art -we need to relearn to laugh and sing!
Am I concerned, scared even?  Hell yes.  We are waaaaay to exposed for my liking.  But compared to where we were three years ago we have cut our debt in half, but more importantly we can now grow much of our food, we have built incredible community (both locally and through the web) with others on this path, and soon will be producing much of our own fuel and energy through biodiesel and wood chip gasification.  As/if it gets ugly, our skills will be in demand – “with great knowledge comes great responsibility”  Permaculture’s goal is to create a surplus -the goal is not to just protect your family, but to protect your community too.  Without them you can’t stand.
Be The Change.

Be Kind to your Mother… Its the LAW.


We hold it in trust for our children

We hold it in trust for our children

In an insane week of politics -with a $700bln buyout seemingly a foregone conclusion, Bush using Patriot Act Tactics (Here is what I want, don’t ask questions, approve it or the world will end), and McCain seemingly growing more desperate and erratic by the day (no I won’t debate you…  I, I, I will go to Washington to help!) I stumbled across a really novel story that the NYT had picked up from the UK newspaper The Guardian.

Seems that Ecuador is voting on a constitutional referendum to treat the environment as a person in the eyes of the law.  Whereas we are giving supra-human rights to Corporations (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness without the fear of bankruptcy) blessed little Ecuador is working on something truly novel.  I am no where near getting my hands around the legal ramifications of their move, but with only 23% of Ecuadorians opposing it, I just might get alot of time to mull it over.  

Have a good week, and enjoy the debate -even if it is even more onesided than previously thought.


Appleseed Biodiesel Update

Processor and Settling Tank

Processor and Settling Tank

Super busy day running around gathering up parts for the processor, but significant progress was made.  With the exception of a 55 gallon steel drum (open top) for the drying tank and misc. iron pipe all the major components are on hand or en route!  The pic on right is the used 58 gallon electric water heater that I scored for $50 on Craigslist.  Not sure how much sediment is inside it, but the outside looks to be in decent shape.  That size will let me do 40 gallon batches which is sweet.  To its right is my major coup of the weekend.  It is an 80 gallon welded well tank.  The steel is significantly thicker than a steel drum so it will weld nicer and it is already plumbed with most of the threaded holes I need.  Best of all it has a drain in the coned bottom so it will drain 100% clean.  I will need to add a vent hole to the top and probably one to the side, but it is very close to done.  The well tank retailed for $280, but whoever special ordered it at Menard’s apparently backed out.  I have been eyeing it on the clearance rack for a month where it sat for $75.  Sunday I grabbed the plumbing manager and offered $50 to “take it off his hands”.  Sold!  It would make an incredible processor with its cone bottom (good for draining off glycerin), but until I figure out how to add heat cheaply it will be a settling tank for the WVO.  WVO left to sit for 3-4 weeks is significantly easier to process and dry as all the junk settles to the bottom.  The yellow can is me just being optimistic 😉



Yes, that is 3 drums in a Golf...

Yes, that is 3 drums in a Golf...

I have been scouring the region for plastic barrels and steel drums, and finally I was able to get my hands on 3 white (so you can see how full they are) plastic barrels for $20 each.  Best of all I was able to fit all 3 into the golf in one trip!!  The cubic feet available in that hatch is flipping unreal.  One drum will be a washing tank for the processed Biodiesel, one will be used to store finished BD, and the final one will be an additional storage tank for WVO as it ages.  This will give me the ability to have WVO on site that is “new” and another tank (likely the well tank) that is ready to go.  Nice.

Also in the pic is the 1″ “clear water” pump from Harbor Frieght.  These little pumps are almost legendary for their utility and bulletproof history.  While typically $40 -already a steal, my good luck continued as this was their display model and they had it 50% off!  This pump will be used to move fluids all around the system- from the settling tank to the processor, for mixing the WVO into BD, for transferring the BD into the wash tank where it will also do the washing, and then finally it should be able to pump the clean diesel into the storage tank.  To have one pump do all that, you need ALOT of valves.  I picked up 5 3/4″ brass valves at Farm and Fleet today for $5.50 each.  Very close to completing the gathering phase, soon it will be time to assemble!

Total outlay so far is $275 with around $100 to go -all this for a kit that can make 2500 gallons of fuel per year.  Unbelievable.  With another $100 invested for more washing and settling tanks the kit can do 12,000+ gallons per annum -a batch a day.  Sourcing feedstock for that would be a chore though.

Hopefully the 15 gallon carboys I found on eBay will get here soon so I can start gathering WVO -if so I will be on track for my 10/31 deadline!  


My Super Mia

My wife Mia, like most wives, is a wonderwoman that entails more verbs than I ever give her credit for.  In addition to holding down the house (cleaning, planning, cooking, shopping, organizing, managing), rearing the children (educating, nurturing, cleaning, clothing, primping, explaining, loving), she also works 3 jobs.  All of these are for a non-profit which means she is vastly underpaid even if women got fair wages.   She directs her own non-profit,  coordinates the entire state’s network of these non-profits, and also sits on the National Board for the Non-Profit -meaning that quarterly she is out of town for strategic planning conferences, etc.  Despite her vital importance to many, many lives, she makes less than half hourly of what I get to organize the shipment of brown boxes for a Fortune 500 as a mid level manager.  She does the majority of this by telecommuting via wireless, but that awesome convenience really means that she never has a  moment to herself.  Any moment she isn’t being Super Mom she inevitably feels like she should be “working”.  

Myself, and most men, have nicely structured lives -we put in our 11 hour day, come home and expect our “space” to “unwind” and then on our good days cook dinner and help out in other ways.   But what I typically give no credit to Mia for is that critical psychological break from Work to Home.  I have a commute to gather my thoughts ad bleed off tension, whereas she has a laptop perpetually calling her away from a moments respite and the kids don’t take breaks.  I get these great things called “weekends”, where work cannot infringe, but more often than not she ends up clocking several hours as she feels behind because she was being a Mom/Wife/Human and it goes without saying (too often) that being a Mom is 24/7.

Of course I am writing this because she is currently on one of her quarterly conferences, and I was trusted to deal with her daily routine.  Of course I failed in every way but the minimums of keeping the children fed and clothed and not letting the house catch on fire.  I could take the high road and say that she couldn’t do my job without training/experience, but that is bullshit and she gets zero pay for hers, and got zero training to start with.  More importantly, far too often she, and most women, get zero credit either.  Seemingly every hour of my time being solo  Mr. Mom I thought “How the hell does she, let alone a single Mom, do it?”  Yet My Mia does it every day, and while we are a team, she gets very little bench time, and ends up on both offensive and defensive plays all too often while I only come in for the occasional place kick.  Hopefully I can do a bit better than my current role as “provider” and start being more of a partner.  

Thank the special women in your life today.  They keep the world moving.


Bio-Diesel Processor Update

With my new2me 2000 Golf TDI parked in the drive I am continuing to ramp up sourcing the parts needed for making an Appleseed Biodiesel Processor.  Last week I was able to pick up a 58 gallon water heater on Craigs list for $50, and this weekend I got 4 15 gallon plastic carboys off of eBay for $33 each.  That is 20% off of new and lets me check another piece of the system into the “used” category.  Here is the likely price breakdown:


1 Water Heater:                    $50

4 15 gallon carboy’s             $125


2 Steel Drums   ($0-50 each)

2 Plastic Drums ($0-20 each)

2 5gln Carboys ($6 each)

1 1/2 hp water pump ($35)

5 3/4″ valves     $8/each

Misc. plumbing   $30

Steel angle iron for stands    $0-20

Kerosene Burner (optional) $80

Total outlay:  $600ish

Even buying everything with the optional carboys and burners!  The kerosene burner will let me heat/dry the biodiesel using biodiesel (less than .25 gallons per batch of 40 gallons) and the 15 gallon carboys will make sourcing the Waste Veggie Oil (WVO) much easier as they are sized to be able to be picked up.  

This set up will let me make a batch a week, or 2500 gallons annually which is 400% more than I need.  Pricing of methanol drives my final price, but it looks like final product will be about $1.50/gallon vs. $4.05.  Payback will occur at about 200 gallons, or 4 batches.  Nice.  I only use about 30 gallons a month so figure 6 months of time or, what, about a 100% APR on my investment not factoring time.  I’ll take it.

After I have the process worked out so that I can make good fuel consistently, I would like to begin switching from methanol to ethanol as the catalyst.  Methanol is sourced from natural gas, and is much more toxic than ethanol.  In the end I would like to grow an oil crop like canola or sunflowers, press the oil out using a screw press and make BD out of the oil.   the left over seed cake can then be processed into ethanol, with the left overs there either feeding livestock or going into a methanol digester.  This system can work, though I am not aware of a setup that interconnects them in such an intergrated permaculture way.  So that is for 2009!


Oh What a Night!

This past week I was asked to participate in Town and Country R.C. & D ‘s Go Green Convention as a break out speaker in one of their after lunch sessions.  I gave a 30 minute talk on our Earth Victory Garden project that was essentially a shortened version of the one I gave to several hundred at the MREA.  As before, people are very interested in living more sustainably, and the “systems thinking” of linking various aspects of our homes to reduce wastes while improving soil and food quality.   Hopefully as things settle down I will be able to set up a Page on the system to be used as a reference.

After the breakout session, all 300 of us headed over to a The Lake Club, which is a members only Yacht club that just happens to house Chef Jack, who is the most important driving force in our local Slow Food Movement.  He typically spends over $60,000 annually supporting local farmers for his restaurant alone.  1/50th of that money has gone to my Yukon and Carola potatoes this year, and he had said a month or so ago that he had hoped my harvest would hold out as he wanted them on the menu for the banquet.  When we all sat down, each table had a marker reserving that spot for a “Celebrity Farmer”.  This conference had pulled in some Big Hitters like John Ikerd, so my mind started racing to the likes of Joel Salatin and others.  Mark Sheperd- a powerhouse of the the Midwest Permaculture group was already in attendance and I couldn’t wait to see who else was here to see what I could learn from them.  When Chef Jack came up I grabbed his ear to see if he could hook me up with some intros to these mystery farmers.

When I asked him who they were, Jack was flummoxed for a minute.  Then he said “They’re *you* Rob… your potatoes are on the menu!”  The “celebrities” were all the farmers who had contributed to the meal -and in a room full of celebrated authors, VP’s of Fortune 50 Corporations, and leaders in state and regional Sustainability non-profits we -the farmers- were the Guests of Honor!

After the keynote talk, Jack got up and gave a speech detailing how he had worked his slow food ideas into the Greater Sustainability dialogue.  He related on how he had sat in conferences where they would discuss at length the plight of the local farmers and how to help them save their farms, and then sit down to a catered meal where the food was all imported, out of season, and had no flavor.  Over the 18 years that Jack has worked at the Lake Club he has worked to change that mentality and has done more than most towards that end.  After his talk, he asked the half dozen or so of us who grew the food to stand up, introduce ourselves, and say a few words.  

The first farmer had over 1000 acres of pasture grazed beef and dairy cows, many of the other farmers were also livestock operations, but there were some smaller veggie growers like who specialized -one in tomatoes, the other in Chard as well as my little .1 acre potato patch.  My speech was from the heart -thanking Jack for putting the farmers in a rare spotlight, valuing quality over ease, and taking the time to spend on little .1 acre operations.  For without him I would not be able to make it profitable; I spend less than 6 hours a week in the field, and selling over 100#’s a week at a farm stand would mean I would spend as much time sitting in a market as I did in the field, cutting my profit margins so low that I likely wouldn’t even bother after a few years.  Jack pays close to retail, values quality (I ask him if he need peppers and he asks me how they taste…), and is willing to work through the weird logistics of buying chard from one farmer, tomatoes from another, and cheese from three more rather than unloading them all from a truck all at once.

I want to thank, again, my Mentor who has given me the space to farm and the knowledge to make it work, and Chef Jack who has the foresight to put the spotlight, even for one night of the year, on the farmers working to bring local food back to our lives.  

Thanks to both of them for Being the Change -in my life in particular.


Camping, Golf’s, Appleseeds, & Terra Preta

The past two weeks have been insane.  First we ran out to SW MN to nab our newest vehicle and less than a week later I delivered my beloved Honda Insight to its new owner (not so bad as he is the farmer that loans me all the land for my projects).  Then Labor Day weekend we took a whirlwind trip back to SW MN to visit my in-laws and take the first camping trip with our little’uns at Blue Mounds State Park.  The State Park was much cooler than I expected.  The “mound” is a large bluff with exposed Quartzite and houses the only public Bison herd in MN -though they are fenced in which was a buzzkill.  It was great to make smores with the kids and begin teaching my kids how to tend fires.  So many cool things-a pair of Katydids took up residence under our rainfly and serenaded us each night; the kids were able to watch bats on the hunt, and I was able to hike 5 contiguous miles through restored prairie in full late summer bloom. The Golf TDI got 52 mpg on the way out and 51 on the way back with the cruise at 70 mph.  Nice. 

Market Garden

With stress levels high from overextending all year, we have put all fall market garden plans on hold.  As crops come down we are putting them in covercrop, and taking time off until I plant the hoop house to spinach and mache in 3 weeks.  I am trying a annual only cover crop on one plot to see how it preforms.  Thrown in are Wasaba Oats, Japanese Buckwheat, Oilseed Radish, and Yellow Field Peas.  The oats are for straw biomass, the buckwheat is for quick cover, the radish is pure experiment as I have never grown it and want to see it in action -hope is for decent below ground biomass, and the peas are for nitrogen.  All will kill at zero degrees to leave a nice mat of mulch for the spring crops.


This is where my heart and mind are at right now.  Tons of time online researching this and a couple of books from Chelsea Green on the way as well.  After looking into most of the “turn key” systems out there -most of which run over $3000, I have decided on a processor that is based on the Appleseed Biodiesel Processor. The Appleseed is essentially an open source project of backyard handy men/women working together to find a workable and safe solution.  The design they have come up with is uber simple and can be made out of reused junk if need be (sounds like our gasifier!), but even sourcing everything new will cost under $5-700 for system that can easily do 2000+ gallons of biodiesel a year.    As my goal is to have one up and running by Halloween/Samhain, expect alot more posts on this in the coming months as my focus switches off of farming for the season.

Terra Preta

A year or so ago I was introduced to terra preta and it blew my mind.  As I got more interested in our gasifier project we realized we would have a ready source of biochar and could actually start to make terra preta nuevo here in Wisconsin.  When my brain is melted from reading about and designing biodiesel processors I am pouring over Cornell research papers on this subject. Again, look for more in depth posts on this.  Adding DEEP fertility while sequestering carbon from a system that can heat and power a building -count me in!

The End Goal is to build an “Energy Shed” that will house a gasifier whose waste heat and electricity are powering bio-diesel and ethanol processors, and the waste products from these operations will the heat and power a multi use greenhouse growing greens and veggies and housing tanks of Tilapia for protein that will be fed off the mash from the ethanol still.  Waste from the fish will then be turned back into the fields as fertilizer to complete the cycle.  Permaculture in action!  

This one may take years, but to quote Ghostbusters: “We have the tools… we have the talent”

Be the Change!


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