Food + Fuel + Fertility = The New Paradigm

Food. Fuel. Fertility.   Of late, those 3 words hammer through my brain like a sledge whenever I get going on a new project.  The reason is simple – I am convinced that our agriculture has to do all three if we are to build a new culture to survive the new reality of Climate Change on top of Energy Descent and our burgeoning billions.  We talk and talk of sustainable culture – but I don’t want to sustain what we have now – the fear, the pollution, the waste – I want something far better.  We need a Regenerative Culture. The Age of Exploitation must come to an end – the Age of Healing has arrived.

The Methane Midden is a good example of this thinking.  While significantly on the energy/fertility side with its 4-6 months of hot water or methane on top of the 4000#’s of compost, it is also planted with squash and tomatoes to produce hundreds of pounds of food.  The system is still being tested (the plants aren’t loving it) but the potential is immense.  7 weeks in and the pile is still over 125 degrees – with no turning or maintenance at all.  Dang!  Tomorrow I am going to harvest several hundred mature lambsquarter that are 9′ tall to be shredded for the methane feedstock.  Much more to come on that project!

With that task of harvesting tall stalky plants in the back of my mind, this morning over breakfast I went on a fantastic internet fueled thought tangent on the feasibility of a fuel tweaked Three Sisters guild.  It is so simple, which is why I am so excited.  First – take the standard Three Sisters of corn + pole beans + winter squash and swap oilseed sunflowers for the corn.  Why?  Because my car and 2 wheel tractor run on diesel.  Journey to Forever says that you can get 102 gallons of oil from an acre of sunflowers – 43,000 plants on 1′ spacing.  But we are wanting a polyculture so we will need to let some light in by spreading the sunflower canopy a bit – say cut the spacing in half to 25,000 plants or so.  That still leaves enough plants for 50 gallons of oil if we use oilseed varieties.  Then take the understory and add back in the squash.  Monoculture will get you 10-20 tons of squash per acre.  So again, lets cut that down a bit and say 18,000#’s.  That is ALOT of food.  Food that keeps all winter long. Finally, we are vegetarians so we needs our protein.  Add in the soup beans.  25 bushels per acre is typical @ 60#’s a bushel.  Again, cut in half for polyculture and you get 12 bushels of beans, or 720 pounds.  So to recap our acre is now growing enough seed to produce 50 gallons of oil, 18000#’s of squash and 700#’s of dry beans –both of which keep for months and months.  That is rather good.   Lets make it better!

Remember the thought stream that got me to this point over my now cold steel cut oats.  Chopping down cellulose rich tall plants for methane fuel stock and compost.  25,000 8′ tall sunflowers…. lay them down end to end and its over 37 miles.  I haven’t weighed one, but figure they weigh 5#’s each.  That is 62 tons of green material that is going to be pretty close to perfect C:N ratio by harvest time.  125,000#’s of material – composted down with a 75% loss gets you to about 30,000#’s of compost, or 55 yards.  That seems high so I would love to prove the math.  That is enough to spread the entire acre with .4″ of compost- a very healthy amount and far more than I apply annually in my market gardens.  Fertility would increase to say the least.  62 tons of material would also be enough to build 8 Methane Middens so that we can heat our winter greenhouses or the chicken barn.  Dang sucka.

Back to the fuel part again.  50 gallons doesn’t sound like much.  And it isn’t.  Most of us only get 22 mpg and  drive 12000 miles per car per year – 540 gallons per year per car.  Ouch.  But we all know that we will drive ALOT less in the future and most cars are fuel hogs.  My VW TDI gets 42 MPG towing a 1000# of cargo in my trailer.  Have I mentioned I love my car?  So, even saving 5 gallons for the Grillo to till the acre, we still have enough oil to drive over 1750 miles towing all those squash and bushels of beans to market.    If we relocalize that is 175 round trips to town 5 miles away – 3 trips a week. Huh.

But I want to re-stress my loathing of the food v. fuel argument.  It is a farce if you think it through and know the science of biofuels-even ADM fed their ethanol mash to tilapia.  So we take the 25,000 sunflowers, grind up the seeds (will need some energy there – unless we build a bicycle machine to do it), and press them.  That seed mash left over from the pressing doesn’t just disappear.  In fact, about 50% of the total oil is essentially impossible to remove from the pressed seeds without solvents, and the protein and carbohydrates are still there too –i.e. the food value of the seeds is still there.  That means you still have 1500#’s of protein rich (40%) meal to feed to your livestock.

Can we rebuild the next 20 years to allow us to transition to a less energy dense future?

1 acre nets 18,000#’s of squash, 750#’s of dry beans (4500 cups cooked!), 1500#s of animal feed, 30,000#’s of compost after you have heated your buildings with 8 Methane Middens worth of energy, and you also managed to make enough oil to power the tractor and drive to town 3 times a week for the next year.

On one acre.

Be the Change!


22 Responses

  1. Go with industrial hemp and I think you can get even more oil than that.

    Excellent line of thinking though. I`m going to check out your methane midden. Sounds like something I am thinking of in terms of a year round greenhouse for operation up here in Canada.


  2. The Land Institute is not too far from developing a perennial sunflower. If you can shelter some perennial Seminole squash in the greenhouse (and hill the vines intermittently as they re-take the field), you could use scarlet runner beans for an entirely perennial 3 sisters, which would save you 5 gallons of fuel each year.

    • Joel – do you have a link? I was puttering around their site when a fellow blogger commented similarly about their sunflowers.

      • Sure! Here is to a .pdf file outlining recent avenues of research. It focuses on wheat, but gives some detail about sunflowers and a couple other crops, as well.

        It looks like they want genes from two other species in the same genus as sunflowers: Helianthus maximiliani and Helianthus rigidus. Because sunchokes will hybridize with any of the other three species, they are producing sunchoke hybrids, and then crossing those hybrids every way they can think of.

        I also found a more introductory treatment of the topic here:

        David Van Tassel interview

  3. Somebody’s been reading John Seymour books ….

    Great post. Where do you see animal power fitting into the equation? I would think one would want to save fuel for very specific/specialized tasks and perhaps go back to using draft animals for tasks like transportation, plowing, etc.

    • I actually haven’t – but it isn’t surprising that similar conclusions are reached.

      Take a limited number of variables that must be arranged into a system to solve a set amount of problems and it is certainly reasonable to end up a the same place. Jeavons was always all about corn and sunflowers as compost crops, which has certainly influenced me, and if you are gardening “when it counts” then beans, squash, potatoes and corn are no brainers since they pack a caloric and nutritional punch, aren’t super needy, and keep all winter long in a root cellar.

      Draft animals will be important – my friends and I thought seriously that a significant portion of the stimulus grant monies should have gone to breeding programs. The fact is that there aren’t even remotely enough animals to do the work we need to do. Breeding them up will take decades. There were 3.5 million horses in cities in 1900 and about 76 million people – so even with the same stocking rates we would need conceivably 12 million – and not the arabians and canter horses on the horse farms which would snap if hooked on anything that looked like a hay wagon. We need good pulling stock that bulk out at 1500+ lbs. That’s gonna take awhile. Oxen and mules will be even better, but are far, far fewer in number. A good draft mule will out pull a Shire by a significant margin and take less pasture.

      The farmer that owns the land for our Market Garden has 3 Percherons that we use for manure spreading and discing – on an acre size scale such as this they would work fantastically, though much smaller than .5 acre and it gets awkward. They add an incredibly important roughage cycling element as well and working with a team is soul fulfilling in a way that even my Grillo could never be. However, they eat ALOT so acreage requirements would go up. The sunflower meal would help, but you would need to have 3-5 acres in pasture rotation for a team – more to put hay up.

      I am working on immediate transitional steps that we can take today: how do we power the cars in our driveways and feed the people in our suburbs with the space that they have. Horses and draft animals are *absolutely* something we need to be thinking about now for our children, the same as planting trees. We need to do it all.

  4. I think your crop rotation ideas are good.
    I have doubts about using a modern high efficiency diesel vehicle in a post modern scenario.
    The bacteria problem of acid and sludge in petroleum oils has to be dealt with using highly toxic biocides. Will bio oils (fats, esters,..) not be attractive to decomposers?
    The modern Common Rail diesel injection system is vulnerable to any fault in the fuel.
    The split flywheel which makes modern engines so smooth is liable to excess wear when used for towing.
    The Particulate Filter (FAP )will block if the vehicle is used for short runs.
    Have a look at Honest John`s UK website for candid advice on the cars we love to buy.
    Should we be falling out of love with the Diesel ?
    The Gasifier option using wood chips should be considered in conjunction with a converted petrol engine. GEK produce a micoprocessor assisted automatic unit, or go the US Govt. civil defence route and make your own from a dustbin.
    A New Zealand site called Fluidyne Frameset has loads of wisdom about gasifiers and low-tech engines, in farm and island settings.

    Keep up the good work.

    • I don’t think wood gasifiers are necessarily a solution to the problem of engine fouling. I’d be more inclined to retrofit a corona discharge electrostatic filter in place of the stock particulate filter, because the carbon it collects can be recovered for other uses (if nothing else, it’s a great pigment). As a last resort, the pith inside sunflower stalks isn’t too bad a filter medium.

      I bet transesterification will be enough to preserve fuel from the time Rob presses the seeds to the time the fuel burns, but if not, there are some less noxious options, like thyme extract.

    • John,

      I certainly agree that the super modern diesels (2007+) will likely be problematic. My 2000 VW has run fine on tanks of home brew and commercial B-99. What is uncertain now is the long term durability under home brew biodiesel. Just as with the hydrophilic tendencies of ethanol, fuel quality degrades. It is best to make small batches and use them within days or weeks, rather than over months or seasons. Methanol sourcing for biodiesel could be problematic – you can make it, but it adds another layer of complexity and isn’t the nicest stuff. Would likely convert to straight veg, but finding a sustainable filter mechanism would be fun. Not sure if we should fall out of love with diesel – its energy content per gallon is fantastic – but clear thinking is needed for certain. Europe went Biofuel crazy and destroyed half of Indonesia for crying out loud. It is of limited use with a lower EROEI than other biofuels and has a much smaller feedstock pool. Finally, we may very well need the plant oils for engine and transmission lubes rather than fuels.

      Actually, we have played around rather a bit with gasification. And, as Joel has said, engine fouling is a serious concern. That dustbin one from FEMA, which we have built, will clog an engine in under and hour or so. Our current generation will get you about 20x that. GEK seems to have cracked the code which would be great. Still, I see them powering stationary engine more – I don’t like having to build a fuel refinery for every engine on the farm, though a tractor that is serving as a mobile power station through its PTO would work well.

      Ethanol is my favorite liquid fuel overall – it is time tested (virtually every farm had a still in 1900), simple, and the feedstock choices are fantastic. It takes a lot of heat and water and we are playing with using our gasifiers and some really cool steel rocket stoves we’ve redesigned for energy source. Rocket stoves may be more efficient, but I love the bio-char from gasifiers. I ran this scenario with oilseed crops as that is my primary fuel need right now. A 3 step rotation with sugar beets, this rotation, and a restorative cover crop would look very good. Again, all the beet mash would make fantastic animal feed once you pulled off the ethanol.

      Methane has tons to speak for it as well – unlike the syngas of gasifiers you can store it, it is easier to make and scrub, it has the varied feedstock bonus of ethanol and the byproduct is a true fertilizer as it keeps its nitrogen content. Methane powered generators will likely produce the electricity of my farm.

      There are no silver bullets, but there are answers if we power down and conserve to shrink the energy needs of our society to what we can glean from nature and still heal the damage we’ve done.


      • If you’re already planning to make ethanol, you can use it as a diesel feedstock. Ethyl esters of fatty acids are almost the same as methyl esters, for fuel purposes.

        More importantly, since you’re going to distill the ethanol, there will be “heads” and “tails” from the distillation. The more finnicky gasoline engine can get the ethanol and maybe the fusil oils, and the mix of methanol, ethanol, and misc. byproducts would be a reasonable feedstock for transesterification.

      • One more small thing:

        If you’re using ethanol for the transesterification, you can also use it as a solvent to extract a little more of the sunflower seed oil, since it won’t make the resulting seedmeal toxic to animals.

  5. Rob, this is why I love reading your blog. You have the best ideas! I quite like this… I would imagine that sunflower stalks would be sturdier than many (sweet) corn varieties out there that are easy to get.

  6. I had thought for certain you had been reading John Seymour based on your “age of exploitation, age of healing” comments – he used those same phrases.

    You make an excellent point about the number of draft animals out there, and the experience necessary to make good use of them. For small acreage, I was thinking draft mules or ponies would be the way to go. I can only imagine how pleasant it must be to work the soil behind a team of draft animals.

    • The pleasantness of working behind them depends rather greatly on what they’ve eaten recently🙂

      That is really odd about the phraseology – either convergent thinking or I had read it on a dust jacket and it popped out of my subconscious. Good words either way.

  7. Holy. Shit. Those are some amazing possibilities, Rob–have you got a spare acre to put these into practice any time soon? Seeing is believing, and I know so many of us are impressed along with you with the methane midden. The scenario you’re describing also looks like it could produce a reasonable income, which also makes it appealing. And although I appreciate where you’re going with the fuel, in the short term those sunflower seeds are also a great food crop, bird seed, cooking oil, etc. Love to watch you give it a try–if it works as you think, i’ll be shopping for my acre around here!

    • Thanks!

      I have some possibilities, but I really want one very close to our suburban home. Thinking more and more about mimiking England’s current “small holding” system with a flat in the city and a small plot of land a short bike ride away. Keep the Grillo, chipper and trucks there. 3-5 US acres would be ideal. Perhaps Next year.

  8. Rob – you might enjoy reading the following excerpt – it was why I was certain you had been reading Seymour:

    I like England’s small holding system, but can’t help thinking that in suburban America we already have so much land not being put to use. My neighborhood, with homes built in the 1970’s, consists of lots 1.5 acres or larger in size! If we could actually cooperate, engage in rotational grazing and planting, develop a long-term plan we could do so much on what is already there – but alas, the vast majority of my neighbors cut grass … lots of grass …

    • Seymour seems like my kind of guy – will bump him up the list in the reading queue.

      Those are big lots! Most in our neck of the woods are .5 (like mine) and smaller. About half my lot is still grass, which I manage as a biomass crop to boost the organic matter of my plantings. The sewer management dept of Milwaukee makes a fertilizer from their effluent called which I apply to our lawn once a year, and will do so for about 2-3 more. I then let the sod process the fertilizer into biomass which I harvest for mulch and compost. There are some concerns about heavy metal build up, but I live within 200 yards of a major interstate highway – my soils are full of gunk as it is. By raising the biological activity levels o Milorganite f the soil much of that is bio-remediated.

      Cooperative management would be ideal – we’ve got a ways to go here as we are more at the level of catching criticism for growing fruit in the front yards, rather than cooperatively managing chicken tractors and coppice plantings.

      So. Much. To do!

      • In the case of cationic heavy metals, a program of soil acidification and sunflowers a proven method of bioremediation. The plot would not be suitable for food growing while the pH is low, and the sunflowers would only be suitable for energy use rather than food use (so maybe soy bi-culture?), but it might eventually be a reasonable sacrifice to make.

        I could even see using the fertility from large areas of nearly-remediated land to grow energy crops on a sacrificial, already-very-contaminated plot, and throwing away the metal-tainted products of this second-generation plot. That way, only the most concentrated heavy metal waste is thrown away…it might even get up to a concentration that ash from the project can be refined into a useful ore.

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  10. […] Food + Fuel + Fertility = The New Paradigm « One Straw: Be The Change […]

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