May your Days be Brighter and Brighter

Greeting on this bitterly cold Solstice Morn in Wisconsin!  This is a deeply Holy time for me, one who is not very religious but undeniably given to fits of spirituality at times.  Usually when Nature unveils Her Beauty and Power and Mystery.

This Solstice I leave you with these words excerpted from a sermon given last December from a Unitarian Universalist minister,  Reverend Susan Veronica Rak:

The Winter Solstice or Yule is a time of celebration and rebirth. 

We reach the still-point, the shortest day, the longest night.  And in 

that brief moment, as the dark night stretches before us, we feel a 

certain deepness.  No amount of electrical power can breach that 

profound yearning.  Technology may have removed the mystery of 

cold and deepening darkness.  Yet still our hearts are stirred by these 

connections to ancient practices and lore; the celebration of the 

Solstice roots us in a tradition that goes deep into our bones. 

 Celebrating the Winter Solstice grounds us in our ancient roots. 

There is sacredness in nature – not just the gauzily pretty idea of 

“Mother Nature” all meek and mild, but nature in its constant cycle of 

creation and destruction that brings us to this still point, this moment 

to contemplate our place in the universe.  And that may be a small 

space, a blip on the great evolutionary timeline as we know it, just one 

life in millions and millions.  

Let us embrace the darkness and the possibility as we stand at 

this still point, this turning of the year, we realize that in one small life 

lies boundless potential, hidden life and growth and possibility.  

We honor this moment, this turning, in each of us. 

“Mark the time. 

Respond with thought or prayer 

or smile or grief, 

Let nothing living slip between 

the fingers of the mind,

For all of these are holy things 

We will not, cannot, find again.” 

The complete text can be found here.
Blessed Be.

Inspiration-CSE taking shape

This Saturday past our Community Supported Energy (CSE) club/group hosted a tour of Growing Power in Milwaukee, Wi. This was my second trip and it was just as inspirational as the first time.  This time we had almost 20 people in tow -many of them new to our group and had never come to a meeting.  When I decided not to have a meeting of the CSE group in Decemeber, I was hoping to use the Growing Power tour as a way to maintian, and even improve, momentum in the project.  And I think its worked.  

The biggest obstacle (other than funding!) that the group is experiencing right now is lack of direction.  This is not surprising given my penchant to flit from project to project, but the CSE has so many potential variations, we are really struggling with where to begin.  In our last meeting we did spent sometime on this very issue, and narrowed it down to 2 essential “core” elements.  The first is our Wood Chip Gasifier.   The ability to turn locally produced biomass into heat and electricity in a small scale co-gen unit is absolutely crucial and the  heart of our CSE.  The second element we agreed on was an Aquaponics Greenhouse.  This may seem odd for a CSE, but we’re permaculturists and function stacking the gasifier with Tilapia production as a use for the waste heat seems fantastic.  Next up will be ethanol production with the fishes getting fed on the left over mash.  

The beauty of that system is that the elctricity from the gasifier is not produced at a marketable rate, nor is the ethanol from a small still.  But by tagging them onto a Tilapia Aquaponic facility both electricity and ethanol can be considered waste products of the fish operation.  Nice.  This is why permaculture is so exciting, the possiblities are endless and when system design becomes elegant, your “wastes” turn into things like grid electricity and liquid bio-fuels!

One of the tour attendees was the farmer that allows me to use .5 acres of his property for my market garden.  This was his second tour as well, so we both spent most of the time sticking our heads into the nuts and bolts of the operation while the rest of the group was getting the scripted tour.  At almost every turn one of us would say to the other “we HAVE to do this”.    

One of the most inspiring aspects of Growing Power is how accesible they make their processes.  They are growing 10,000#’s of Tilapia annually in a plastic Hoop House that they built for $700.  They also found that by heating the greenhouse with the Tilapia water it is more efficient than heating the air so they can grow veggies year round.  We want to add a gasifier as the primary heat source rather than their NG pool heater.  Our current thinking is that we make a dedicated, more permanent greenhouse with a cob/strawbale foundation with a strawbale/cob north wall heat sink onto which we will house the gasifier operation.  Onto this we would look to add ethanol production, pellet mills, and perhaps a methane digester and biodiesel operation as time and money permit.    

We are planning to crunch numbers this month, but are fairly certain we can build the greenhouse, complete with in ground Tilapia pool and heater (NG for starters) for $5-10k in materials.  We would then hope to use 2009 to install a gasifier (version 2.01 and another $1-2k) and use the NG unit as a backup.  This size facility could be housed on as little as .25 acres, though biomass would have to be sourced.  Luckily one of the attendees of the tour happens to own 30 acres of woodland in the county and is looking for a solution to his Box Elder “weed tree” problem.  Enter the pellet mill ($6k)!

With are energies rekindled after seeing aquaponics in action, and an achievable project size in mind I am even more excited than before to see this local food/energy project get off the ground.  With funding in the sub $20k range (with pellet mills) a small business loan is possible or we can pull in money as a coop to cover it.  Prolly some of both.  We will do this.

Be the Change.


Bourgeois Happy Feeling

Heard that song by The Submarines in the latest iPhone commercial yet?  I absolutely love it, but a song that could very well have been the soundtrack to the Story of Stuff being used to promote something as consumption-rific as an iPhone is more than a little ironic.  But so is alot of our sustainability stuff these days.

Take my “local food” for example.  I grew 1500#’s of potatoes under the auspices of The Movement and Being the Change and 85% of them ended up being consumed in a members only country club restaurant.  Of course that is not a bad thing – my spuds offset 1200#’s of imported industrial spuds, but it still feels wrong that I sold to them because few in my home town were interested in or able to pay what I felt were fair prices -the going rate at the Madison Farmers market- for my crops.  But for me, sustainability takes into consideration not only the environmental and economic aspects of an idea, but also the social ones.  If my enviro foods are only economically viable for the rich, it sits rather bad with me that this forces the poor to buy the “potatoes” sold at the supermarkets for $.19  a pound while I sit aside with my Bourgeois Happy Feeling of Being the Change.

This all came crashing starkly into my reality today when we stopped in to adopt a few families for Chirstmas, which also shares space with a local Christmas Neighbors chapter and the local Food Pantry.  While she filled out some paper work, I swung into the Food Pantry.  I gave about 100#’s to the Pantry last year, and frankly they seemed a little flumuxoed by a local person bringing in non spoiled produce – the majority of their offerings are expired boxed grocery store goods.  It almost felt like I was a burden to them by giving them perishable products.  Nothing like a recession to change things though. 

Their needs, like all Food Pantries, are up to the point that they are now serving 1000 people.  This is in a town of 12,000.   I think in “potato” terms so I asked how many they go through – they limit it to about a pound per person per month.  That is 2 potatoes per month.  We come close to that a day in our house – and that is consuming high nutrition heirloom varieties, not Idaho Trash.  That hit home.  

I asked what they had trouble getting last year, and he answered immediately -carrots.  Carrots?!  I then resovled to support the food pantries in a much bigger way than I had ever intended -not as an after thought like last year, but as a planned coordinated effort by myself and my network of other local organic growers.  Much of the organic growers I see plant what I consider Bourgeois plants -Fennel, Broccoli Raab, Mesclum mixes, scallions, etc.  Why?  Because we have to make a buck in our labor intensive enterprises and the Rich Can Pay.  Next year I will still sell 1500#’s to the members only club, but I promise here and now that much more than 100#’s of spuds will go the growing ranks of the undernourished in Jefferson County Wisconsin – home to some of the most fertile farmland in the world.  WTH is wrong with our economic/ag system?  

It is very easy for me to get lost in the High Ideals of Sustainability – in saving the world for my kids- and lose sight of that 10% of my neighbors can’t put food on the table on a regular basis.  I made a killing on potatoes this year -essentially paying off the Grillo in one season.  I need to give more back next year.  For the near term, ecological businesses will likely cater primarily to the well off, as mine does.  Only those well above median incomes can afford to pay $2/lb for potatoes and $125 for a rain barrel, but I need to ensure that I am a better social citizen and turn more of the money back into the community. 

Plant a Row – or several- for the hungry next year.     


Willow Coppice Math Fun

We are actively looking in to designing a Community Supported Energy system here in JEfferson County Wisconsin based on a wood chip gasifier powering a small co-gen unit providing roughly 30,000 kWh of electricity and enough BTU’s to heat 10,000 gallons of water for tilapia aquaponics similar to what Growing Power of Milwaukee is doing.  To that end I spend alot of my free time researching the myriad aspects of that system.  Of  late I am focusing on a working the fuel source into the site plan, my thoughts are beginning to coalesce around using willows on a Short Rotation Coppice plan – the willows would then be chipped or pelletized for use in the gasifier.

I found a short Power Point from the Baltic university that has some great shots of willows being grown for coppice.  VERY industrial, but how cool is it to see perennial carbon crops being harvested by combine rather than GMO corn?  


I loved the shot of the willows towering over the people in the shot … after only 5 months!  Wow these buggers grow fast!

Now for the Math Fun:

A hectare is just shy of 2.5 acres, so translated to Ameri-speak that is roughly 60,000#’s per hectare on a three year rotation – 10 tons/acre/year.  1-2 acres so planted would likely run one of our gasifiers for 2000 hours (50 weeks @ 40 hours/wk using 10#’s/hr), but I would rather see it in a mixed planting as windbreaks around CSA food gardens in an integrated Energy/Food farm.   Using a 10′ wide windbreak dividing the gardens into .5 acre plots one could sustainably grow 15 tons of biomass annually on the windbreaks of 4-5 acres of cropland.  For ease of reference 7 acres could produce about 100,000#’s of potatoes equating to roughly 43 million calories at the yields I achieved this past year.  Of course I would never plant that much of one crop!  

The point is to show the possibilities of using about 3-7 acres of land when combining food and energy systems into a permaculture plan specifically designed to produce significant surpluses for the community.  The equipment to make the pellets for the gasifier could also be used to convert virtually any carbon source into pellets using a hammermill to break it up into little bits first.  If you make ethanol on site with the waste heat from the gasifier using various sugary cover crops in your rotations, some of the dried distillers grains not used for the Tilapia can act as the binding agents for the pellets.  

7 acres producing 5 tons of Tilapia, huge amounts of vegetables, ethanol, electricity, and wood pellets while employing several people in full time wages in a system that can be scaled up/down as needed?  This is the rural community planning I want to see as we transition to a brighter, more localized, future!

Be The Change
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