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!