6′ Tall Weeds…

Funny thing happens when you build amazing soil, add a week or so of rain, and have taken a month off of farming. The good news is that I could readily see the reason why inter-row weeding with the wheel hoe is worth it at about 30 days from sowing the seed potatoes – the rows where I did this had very, very few weeds since the vigorous spuds had out-competed them.  The rows I missed, well lets just say I needed two hands to pull up the Amaranth, and the Lambsquarter I needed to put my back into play.  I had a 80′ row of 5-7′ tall weeds, with some isolated Amaranth specimens the size of mature dogwood bushes.  Sorry no pics (forgot the camera)- but trust me, the weeds were impressive.  

Though I still have some naggin pain which isn’t seeming to ever fade, I have 90+% back in my shoulder and most of the issues are as much from muscle atrophy as the injury.   I worked for 5 hours today, with almost no consideration given to the injury, so how it feels waking up tomorrow will be interesting.  All plots are now back in manageable condition – it is amazing how much work can be done in a day, and I definitely owe a debt to the crew of Michael Field’s students that pulled weeds 2 weeks ago in my late potato plot. And yes, I realize how amazing it is to have a crew of organic farming students helping out during my injury!

On the harvest side things are just beginning to trickle in: the first cucumber is in, I got 2 peppers from the Hoop House, and have been getting tomatoes for 2 weeks from the Hoop House as well -though they are splitting very early and have had no edible ones yet since they are rotting by the time they are red.  If I can figure that splitting out (they get steady water so it ain’t that), I must say that Silvery Fur is one of the most productive varieties I have ever seen – I have counted 4 dozen tomatoes (mature size about 4-5oz) on just one vine!  That is about 20#’s of tomatoes from 3 sq ft!!  In about 2 weeks I will have more produce than I know what to do with.  My restaurants can take up to 30#s a week, and we plan on canning / freezing a lot this year -August will be NUTS!

From a spud standpoint I am on the last rows of my Yukon Potatoes.  With 50#’s planted, I have about 175# harvested, with another 80-120#’s in the ground.  Figure just a bit over a 1:5 ratio, but given Yukons rep for low yields and that over half were harvest at baby size (33% mature weight but OHH so good!) I don’t feel to bad about that.  Carolas will likely be next and in about a month I will be swimming in spuds and ready to begin deliveries to my commercial clients.  Again, August will be nuts and thank the gods that the shoulder seems to be mending.   Dear god, I have 1750-2250#’s left to harvest…  

Hopefully the market holds at $1.50 to $2 per pound – I plan on building (finally!) my Bio-Diesel production unit ($600), doubling my home’s garden space ($400), buying a freezer ($300), building a root cellar ($500), and thanks to the new tax credit possibly a down payment on putting in a wood stove ($4000) with the proceeds.  Al-Queda has poppies, I have potatoes…

Happy Harvest Everyone!

Be the Change.

-Rob

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Journey’s

This weekend we traveled up to Minneapolis to visit friends and see Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza -which was amazing.  While there, we took an extra day to add in 3 more meals so we could sample more fine dining – it has been several years since I have eaten at Hell’s Kitchen and we also wanted to try some great vegetarian/organic/local food paces as well.  We had a pre show bite at Goldens’s Deli (organic and almost zero waste)  and then dinner at Galactic pizza featuring a “CSA” pizza with a revolving toppings list (2 die for!) ended up at Cafe Agri for lunch (veggie biscuits and gravy!) ,and capped the weekend off with stop at Common Roots for dinner on Saturday (they had a sign up asking patrons to come weed the onions at their featured farm!).  Awesome weekend with the family, and we got to eat other people’s garden raised food for a change!  On the way home I wanted to eschew the interstate as much as possible and cruise down the Mississippi for a bit as well as visit the Organic Farming Mecca of West Central Wisconsin -specifically Viroqua (the town that Beat Wal-Mart).

I absolutely idolize the area around Viroqua and La Farge, WI.  They beat Wal-Mart; its the home of Organic Valley Co-Op and hence, has what is arguably the highest density of Organic Farms in the country.  And thanks to the vagaries of the last Ice Age – alot of the topography is still intact meaning that the counties in this region are breathtaking -full of bluffs, rushing rivers and the land is mostly wooded.  Thanks again to that topography it is very hard to have large farms here – too much of the land is hilly.  This favors smaller garden operations, diversified farms, and small dairies which are typically organic to make it economically viable on less than 50 head.   We often dream of “unplugging” and moving to Mecca.  But this trip was a bit of an eye opener.  While we didn’t spend much time in Viroqua, we spent several hours talking about it on the final leg of our journey home.  

First off, it is exactly what we are looking for in a “sustianable” community.  That means it is so dang far from everything (85 miles to Madison) that it is used to living just fine on its own, thank you very much.  They have lots of local culture, a strong community spirit, and all the other things that I look for in where to raise a family in Energy Descent. It also means that, if anything, there is too much local food (is that possible?!).  Prices for local organic veggies at the co-op were less than what we pay in Madison, and the quality was significantly better.  That tells me that the market is flooded with local produce and the Co-Op, rather than the farmers, can set prices. More than that, with the quality on hand, either their farmers are way better than me (very possible) or the Co-Op is only taking their top 20% in quality.  That adds up to making it very, very hard to make a living as a farmer.  In fact, median income for Virquoa is a staggeringly low $33kish -for an entire family!-  vs $50k for my working class hamlet.  Sure, farm prices are significantly lower, but there aren’t many homes with even 2-3 acres for less than $150k.

On our way into Virquoa, my wife and I had been kicking around our perrenial idea of what our cafe/store  would be like if we ever opened one.  This is as much to wile away the time in the car as anything, and we came up with alot of good ideas.  In Viroqua, every one of the niches we had planned to fill with a corner in our  “Cafe and Sustainable Sundries” shop has its own dedicated store.  Again, a bittersweet note to how prepared they are, and how difficult it would be to eck out a living with so many niches filled.   Most telling, after a quick run through Realtor.com, and especially a long look at the “for sale” board at the Co-Op and we left with a feeling that plenty of idealistic people have left the city to try to make a go at This Organic Life in Viroqua only to fail to either makes ends meet.  Lots of supply, and not much demand.  Great for thriving on the downside of the Peak, not so great when you are wallowing in more debt than you would prefer.  Virquoa is a paradise for those paying cash for capital assets. We are not those people yet.

Also, to be perfectly honest, the fine dining and culture in Minneapolis was excellent and we had a fabulous time.  There is still a strong portion of both my wife and myself that really enjoys the accutrements of a medium to large city like a Madison, WI or Minneapolis, MN.  We both agree we could never live *IN* a city that size, but we definitely enjoy visiting, and -at least for now- we need access to a market that size for our produce and services.  I could easily see myself selling produce to any of the restaurants we ate at, but not driving 90 miles to do so.  A few months ago in a fit of strategic planning, we came to the conclusion that we would like to live on 3-10 acres (no more!) of land about a 20-30 minute drive from Madison.  Preferably in the 90 degree ark west and north of the city.  Close enough to have a market and a cultural outlet, far enough away to be able to afford land, and have some peace and quiet.

Now, after having spent a great weekend in a large city, followed by a day spent touring the hinterland along the Mississippi and then on into Organic Holy Land, I can say that where we are now, is actually pretty close to where we should be (HOA notwithstanding).  Would I prefer to be on acreage and have a masonry stove heated strawbale home?   Of course!  But this is a “long emergency” and will be more of a Journey than a Sprint.  We have likely have the time to be planful, learn skills, and to  try things out on a small scale before making firm commitments.   It felt good to come home, and I’m enough of a poet to think that perhaps that there was something symbolic in the fact that we entered our driveway to see one of the boldest double rainbows I’ve ever seen flying over the town.  

 

Home is where the heart is...

Home is where the heart is...

 

-Rob

900,000 GW Hours

Editor’s note: This post is not an upbeat snippet about potatoes or optimistic take on community activism.  Rather, it about some of the numerical realities of Peak Oil… and its DARK.

There are lots of good reasons that I should not be reading The Oil Drum immediately before bed.  One of them happens to be that it typically reduces my actual sleep time by 20% as I say awake trying to wrap my head around staggering statistics and their import.  Today, unfortunately, is a great example.  I can’t sleep – its the same feeling you have when you hear something go bump in the night, only I am having a hard time saying “oh, …its nothing”.

Jeffvail has a new post in tonight that is a first installment in his attempt to put some hard numbers behind the “we’ll just switch to renewables” plan that is common on the Left and in DC these days. I won’t get into retyping his post, reading it yourself is much preferred.  Instead I will leave you with the one morsel that will be keeping me up tonight.  Jeff is using nice round numbers, and siding optimistically more often than not, but his goal is to see what it will take to simply offset the energy lost from the declining availability of oil as we slide down the far side of Hubbert’s Peak by converting to renewables.  Jeff puts that figure at about 5% attrition as a round number which has historical precedent, and then converts the current Oil  use in the world into BTU’s for lack of a better unit, and then finally converts that into electricity as that is what renewables are good at.  The result of offsetting 5% of our current annual oil use with elecricity?  900,000 GW hours.  

Lets put that into a measurement that we are used to seeing on our monthly bills: KWH.  900,000,000,000 KWH.  Frankly that is a number too big to even comprehend – the incredilbe energy density of oil, on top of the almost incomprehensible amount of it we use every day is one of the reasons it is hard to get your noodle around.  So I tried to convert it into how many gasifiers we would need to build to make that much electricity since we can make 40,000 KWH each.  Yep LOTS better – we only need to build 2.25 billion gasifiers and cut down 3.5 milllion square miles of willow coppice annually to power them.  And that is only to replace what we are losing each year, i.e. we have to build that many EACH YEAR just to maintain our energy status quo.  That also means we will need to build 1000% more PV and Wind generators than we did in 2008 (the current record holder) and then do it EVERY year, for the next 40-50 years.  Considering the best PV is only getting 15 watts per sq ft that is an amazing amount of area to cover.

Conservation and efficiency gains you ask?  We can only pray that it offset the dual demographic pressures of rising population and the desire of the Third World to drive an F-150 to eat a Big Mac for lunch every day, and I didn’t even get into EROEI, front loading the carbon emissions to retool our society, or the fact that there simply may not be enough copper left to wire the generators that we will need.  Something to think about next time you see that cheery bumper sticker about “The Answer is blowing in the wind…” or “The Answer Comes up Every Morning”.   PV and especially wind generation will certainly have a huge role to play in our future, likely the same critical role as they did to electrify the farms of great grandparents; I am rapidly becoming convinced that Energy DESCENT is the reality – and that the Status Quo is already living History.

Its times like this that I feel like Saul on the Road to Damascus, but when the scales fall from my eyes I find myself looking in vain for a Saviour to make it All Better, and instead end up staring into the Cold Hard Face of Reality.

This shit is BIG… and I obviously need to go to bed.

-Rob

Potato Tower Month 3 + Straw Mulch Spuds

This summer has seen much of our backyard go to weed as first my overcommitment, and then my separated shoulder have reduced my time to the point where the Weeds are Winning.   I have chosen to see this as a further lens through which to view my gardening techniques.  If a garden bed or method fails miserably under these conditions, I need to assess the amount of input it is requiring.  The permaculture beds, while not thriving, are not completely gone either.  If I pull a thistle every time I pass by on my way to the raspberry patch they are manageable.  But the real treats are the two small scale potato experiments I am trying this year.

First, lets revisit our old friend: Potato Tower #1:

80 days in and 30" of root zone

80 days in and 30" of root zone

One of the plants survived the drowning of Late June.  The sides of the tower were placed too tightly together, and swelled shut as they absorbed soil moisture.  This turned the tower into a sopping mess as the excess water could not drain sufficiently due to our heavy clay soils.  3 Plants died, so I am down to this stalwart soul.  I have begun to space the rungs on two sides about 1.5″ to allow the soil to breathe.  There is 30″ of root zone on this tower, so yields have the potential to be fantastic.   Something very interesting occured over the past month – every time I added a rung and hilled the plants aggressively, the flowers would drop off, and then 1-2 weeks later new ones would form.  The sole remaining plant has now flowered 4 times.   As potato plants flower when they are setting tubers, I am optimistic on this as well.

Potato Tower #3 was planted June 20th – about 60 days after Tower #1.  This tower was planted to 100% Kennebec

 

30 days of growth and 10" of root zone

30 days of growth and 10" of root zone

This tower is about to have rung #3 added giving it about 15″ of root zone and is doing slightly better than #2 which is all Purple Viking.  This next rung will be spaced to allow some drainage, and I am also alternating layers of soil with straw to help prevent water logging.  So far so good.

When I was done planting Towers 2 & 3  I had 4 Purple Viking potatoes left, so I decided to try to plant a small bed using straw as the “hilling” medium.  

 

26" of plant below straw after 30 days!

26" of plant below straw after 30 days!

So far this bed has proven to be FANTASTIC!  Before we get all excited here, I must state that this bed was sheet mulched with 12″ of raw horse manure last fall, and left fallow until June Wk3 when I pulled aside the straw top mulch, dug two furrows and placed the Purple Vikings in the now mostly composted horse manure that was thick with soil critters.  I then covered the seed potatoes with a spade full of compost each, and covered them with 3″ of straw.   Since then I have added straw as needed, about every other day it seems.  The straw is *very* fluffy, so every week or so I am adding a spade full of compost to weight it down a bit and provide some nutrients.  So far the plot is 100% weed free and the potatoes are growing like crazy on top of the composted horse manure.

Learnings so far:

  • Straw Mulching is SUPER easy, but the jury is out on how they will set tubers in the straw
  • Towers can use more nutrients than I am giving them – the horse manure base on the sheet mulched bed is literally out growing the same variety in the tower 2:1 right now.
  • Towers of one variety each are *much* easier to hill

I had planned to be close to harvesting Tower #1 in the next several weeks @ 100 days, but the plant is still going strong.  With plenty of other spuds coming in from the Market Garden I will try to nurse the one remaining plant for as long as possible to maximize yields.  It seems that the repeated aggressive hilling is perhaps resetting “the clock” on the plant as the vines are still young and vigorous looking, with fresh flowers (typical at 45-60 days) despite the plants 80 days of growth.  Also, I want to expand upon the horse manure potato bed idea and find a way to limit the variables between mulch hilling and Towering to get a better side by side comparison of yields.  

But most importantly, the amount of toil going into these 4 potato “beds” is ridiculously low.  I am literally tending them with only one working arm and while the Towers may need to be edged, the growing areas still look great – I have not weeded any of them once as soil / straw is added faster than the weeds grow.   Even if I only get 15#’s per bed, this is 60#’s, or about 25,000 calories grown on less than 60 sq ft with no weeding and minimal watering -this would double the yield of my field spuds with 1/5th the work.  Exciting stuff!

-Rob

Transitions Post Script

A few posts ago I wrote through an anecdote of my family and I picking our way through our raspberry patch.  It was a bucolic scene in the midst of the Suburban Desert and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  But there is a deeper story there too that I would like to draw out a bit more.  

A important lesson in the berry patch that I did not expound upon is that even though we picked as much as we wanted, and made 3 pints of jam, plus enough for a dozen muffins, and several rounds of smoothies… THERE WAS STILL 3 GALLONS LEFT on the canes. We use more than 3 pints of jam a year, but we also have strawberries, pears, gooseberries, apples, paw paw and peaches coming in to pack into the larder. Our little berry patch (60 sq ft) could supply 3 families with some of their jam. In fact, next year we may host a Jam Party. Have 2 other families come over and we all make jam together since we have the pressure cooker.

Without a community none of us are sustainable, despite what the Compound Types say. One of the families we would likely invite makes beer and grows their own hops, another makes maple syrup from trees in the neighborhood. I do neither of these things, but it is likely the other families would then share their harvests with us, and perhaps even host gatherings of their own to share the workload.  Even if none of the families had anything to give, the added help and fellowship would be worth it, and Eco Evangelism is a Good Thing in itself.  Emily over at Eat Close to Home is working hard on all kinds of community building projects like this. Sound hokey? This is how communities have been sustained for millennia, and it is a lesson we must relearn. 

Be The Change

-Rob

Yuba Mundo Cargo Utility Bicycle HQ

I have my eye on a 5 acre parcel about 1 mile out of town. (In 2 years) Something like this would then become my “farm truck”. Other than the kayak sequence, my favorites are the “minivan” sequence at 1:08 and the “drift” at 1:30.

Transitions: Small Scale Ag

Several items have dominated my thinking throughout the course of the past several months:

  • I am doing too much:  Real Job, small scale energy production, entrepreneurship, family, home-scale permaculture, community building, and farming… I get to pick 3.
  • The Next 20 years will be nothing like the Last 20.  Preparing for a successful “transition” will take thought, planning, investment, and action.
  • I love Pushing the Envelope.  Challenging the Status Quo, Answering Big Questions by putting Theory into Practice and then telling people about it is incredibly important to me.

To paraphrase, having come to the conclusion over the past year that the future that I was raised for (Eternally Progressing, Consumer Credit Based Capitalism) was not going to be the reality for myself, and certainly my children (Declining Energy Availability with all its Uncertainties), I reacted by attempting to shore up all facets of my life that were unsustainable -at once- and to help others by holding workshops, blogging, going to meetings, and giving tours all of which I loved doing.

But looking back over the past 2 years in the relative calm of the past month I have reached some conclusions.  I need to find a more focused approach to the next year that still leads me to a more sustainable life, but also adds to the dialogue of Sustainability in a meaningful way. I have chosen to refocus most of my efforts on Small Scale Agriculture, especially here at our personal home.  And to all you that have commented “I don’t know where you find the energy!” this is your answer – we’re all human and possessed of finite resources.  The sooner we learn this for ourselves the better off we’ll be.

2 years ago when we began market farming, there was literally no one in our surrounding villages that was producing local organic produce.  Now, thanks in at least a small part, to our efforts there are 2 young men doing some amazing things.  Neither of them have the external commitments that I do (family and Real Job) so they are doing a much better job than we were and making a bigger impact.  Our community has caught up to where we were going.  Leaving the Farm will be very difficult for me as I am happiest with my hands in the soil; it is possible that I may keep a toe hold there, but I need to move on until I have our own property.

The Appropriate Scale Renewable Energy front is even tougher.  When we built our first gasifier 18 months ago, we had a group of only 4 people doing it.  In the time since, as many as 2 dozen have shown up for our “Work Days” and with the publicity of the MREA we now have folks literally driving down hundreds of miles to learn from us.  It is hard to say that this area is ready to move out on its own, but I am facing the reality of hard choices – and the engineers in our group are better suited to this stage of our project than I am.  I will continue to think on applications for this “triage” technology, and to trial biomass crops, but spending 20 hours a month on this project will be a thing of the past for now.

That leaves Home Scale Permaculture in my initial list (Family is a no brainer, and we are not ready to quit the Real Job yet).  When I go back and re-read my title page for my Sub Acre Ag, I remember how excited I was before I diluted my energies with actual farming and energy projects.  When I surf the web, and especially when I look around South Central Wisconsin, I see very few people pushing the envelope on creating sustainable Suburban Lots.  2 years ago we grew 500#’s of produce from our yard, last year was not even half that and this year will be barely better, despite the improved soils and maturing ecosystems.   More concerning, the weeds, especially the Quack, have gained such a foot hold that we will not be giving any tours this year.  

So I have reached the determination that what our community most needs, now, is tangible examples of productive Suburban Yards.  In my Sub Acre Page, I took my vision to some “logical” conclusions.  If even my own small village of 1200 souls was able to follow our example, we would be a net exporter in seasonal fruits and vegetables with our production of over 1,000,000#’s of produce annually.  What a dream!  Pushing the envelope on this facet of Sustainability -blooming where you are planted- is where I would like to see us spending more of our time.  It gets me more time with my family, while better preparing both us and our community for the coming uncertainties.

I am drawing up plans to drastically reduce the amount of space we have dedicated to paths in the “annual veggie” quadrant of our yard while also better defending it against Quack.  Looks like a 50% increase in growing space is very doable on almost the same foot print.  Connecting my permaculture “islands” will allow for a more continuous soil ecosystem and niches for many more fruiting shrubs.  We have yet to grow edible fungus here, most systems are underperforming their potential, and the “zen” of the backyard is a Hot Tranny Mess that is neither soothing to the soul, nor pleasing to the eye.  There are plenty of “problems” here to keep my mind occupied, and the work is intrinsically good.   Maybe next year will be the year I finally lobby for an urban chicken ordinance… 

I will still be active in many other fields, but of course, a house divided cannot stand.   Ironically, the MREA fair this year helped to catalyze my thinking here.  Literally as I left my workshop on Victory Gardens I had an epiphany that next year I wanted to host a workshop on Suburban Food Production combining Biointensive Gardening with Edible Landscaping and Guilded Plantings within the ethics and goals of Permaculture.  

I have learned so much in the past years, but not everything has been skills in composting or welding. Yesterday we picked over 2 gallons of raspberries and currants from the yard to make muffins and 3 pints of jam… and we left 2/3’s of the berries on the canes.  And because it was my backyard, the “we” meant my wife, my 7 year old son, and our 6 year old daughter rather than whoever was at the Farm that day, which felt fantastic.  Our harvest was so bountiful, I literally felt like I was at a “U-Pick” berry farm.  We have achieved the Permaculture goal of creating a Surplus, and we are just getting started.

Be the Change

-Rob

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