Kunstler on Suburbia- Dang Sucka.

As part of my commitment to doubling down and getting real about rebuilding Suburbia into something that is livable I stumbled across this talk by James Kunstler of Long Emergency fame, which I am finally getting around to reading.  Well worth 20 minutes of your time. Though he spends the majority of the talk beating the shit out of Suburban and current Urban planning, he is a gifted speaker and refuses to pull punches.  The shit is real.  Get busy.

Be the Change.

-Rob

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Ecological Yardening Workshop

Coming up in just two short weeks will be Onestraw’s first ever Ecological Yardening workshop.  Learn how in just 4 years we have worked to transform our denuded new suburban yard into the beginnings of a more sustainable system by building soils, capturing runoff, planting useful plants, and tying it all together with linked systems to magnify the results that mimic the productivity and beauty of nature.  Learn more at SomedayGardens.com/events.

Ecological Yardening Flyer.

We will also be doing a “Bountiful Backyards” tour of our gardens Friday 8/21 from 5-7pm.  Cost is $10

one.straw.rob@gmail.com for more details

-Rob

Fund the Methane Midden!

I have taken the plunge and set up a Project on Kickstarter.com to help fund the next phase of the Methane Midden.  Kickstarter is a funding site designed to use blogs and social media to help fund small, creative ideas.  The project owner sets a funding goal ($500 for me) and a time limit (July 31st, midnight!) and lets the world know about it (this post).

Then the world pledges small amounts $1+ and spreads the project via their networks.  Before you know it the project funding goals have been met!  Sounds great right?

A few caveats – no one is charged (they use Amazon) until the TOTAL pledge goal is reached – we need to get at least $500. AND no one is charged until the project period is over (Aug 1st 12:01am).

And the most important point – there is no upper limit to the pledges.  Anyone who has read this blog at all knows I can find creative ways to spend money to save the world…  I have also added a widget to the right sidebar.

So I am asking you to help this idea out; help me raise the money needed to get it to the next level and make this awesome idea happen!

The Methane Midden: Epic Shit & Jean Pain Composting

Jean Pain was a visionary in the Provence region of  France during the 1970’s.  He was charged with protecting over a thousand of acres of woodland from fire, but his quick and able mind, love of life long learning, and a deep concern for the future of our Earth led him to accomplish something much more indeed.  Jean Pain spent a decade working through the techniques of a fantastic system to use the ever renewable waste brush from his woods into life giving humus. But then Jean took it to a entirely new level – he began to heat water in his compost piles, enough that he heated greenhouses and his own home.  Never content to sit on his laurels, he then began studying up on methane production- and he put a batch methane digester into his piles to use the “waste” heat from the bio-reactions to provide the ideal environment for methane production.  Before he died, his techniques had reached a level that he was able to produce methane and hot water for up to 18 months – enough for two winters – while also powering his truck, cooking, and producing electricity with the methane gas. My favorite part? No special machines, just a deep understanding of Permaculture before the word was even coined.  Partner with Nature to meet your needs.

Jean Pain was a visionary, but his techniques, if anything, are too simple.  Let me explain. They are not sexy at all.  Try writing for a grant to heat water with rotting garbage while going up against a Solar Hot Water array or a wind turbine, let alone algal biodiesel or whatever comes next.  Compost heat doesn’t create jobs; doesn’t need research studies and cannot be outsourced so it has no place in the Global Economy.  Know what?  Neither do I .  Jean Pain is a hero of mine for doing something that no one cared about because he knew it was just so very right and would be necessary to help save us from ourselves.  I read an awesome quote this week that pushed me over.

The time has come to do Epic Shit.”

-Larry Santoyo, Permaculturist

Right f/king on Santoyo!  Let’s do this!

Last week I scored a dump truck load of VERY green chipped mulch.  The rest is now history.  This project is going from drawing board to reality far quicker than I typically work, in fact the next step is typically being formulated as I am driving the wheelbarrow on the step I am currently on.  I knew I was going to do it at my home – that meant keeping it tight on space, visually acceptable, and must fit into the current plan.  Finally, it was to be a temporary structure – 6 months at most.  So I ended up with a 12×10 foot print using straw bales to contain the mulch.  Why Straw?  It has structural rigidity, is a great insulator, but also breathes.  The 16″ thick bales would contain the pile into tight angular dimensions and keep the dogs and kids from knocking the pile down.  The insulation would help me get away with only a 2′ thick compost layer around rather than the 3′ I would have preferred if I had more space and material. The following with be a pictorial journey through the afternoon today – with the help of my friend Kevin, we completed this in about 4 hours.

First I prepped the ground by removing a perennial bed that had succumbed to quack grass.  I chopped the ground up with a mattock as much because the quack needed punishing, but also because a mattock is possibly my favorite tool to use of all time.   Then leveled it with some old wood chips to make it look pretty.

 

;

10x12 - in the background you can see the chips soaking in their bins.

 

Next up was to lay down some temporary weed barrier for the quack, and start building the sides.  Gods do I love to build with straw – so fast!

 

Bales are on end to save space and stitched together with 2' pieces of rebar for some rigidity.

 

Next up was to throw some mulch down to hold the cardboard pallet slips down, and then put the two steel 55 gallon drums in place.  The drums will act as the batch digesters.

 

Now the Methane Midden is really taking shape - Woot!

 

With the digesters in place, it was time to put in the heat exchanger.  Compost will heat up ALOT.  The material for this project was at 140 degrees 3 days ago before we broke down the pile to soak it.  Methane production occurs between 85 and about 103 degree.  Over about 105 the bacteria start to die off, 101 is about peak production.  Jean Pain figured out that you needed to cool the digerster tanks, so he pumped water through a hose wrapped around the tanks.  So I bought 240′ to augment the one hose I could spare.  After cooling the tanks, the hose is then laid out throughout the pile to absorb some of the heat from the composting, so the exit water is up to pile temp, typically 130-150 degrees!

 

290' of hose wrapping the two barrels, then we threw in 8" of soaked mulch and laid on our first row of heat exchanger.

 

The hose is essential to pull the heat from the pile, and it takes a 60′ hose laid out like this to make one lap of the composting layout.  I did absolutely no math on this point, the hoses come in 60′ chunks and we laid them out to make one fit per layer.  I figured 6-8″ between layers should be enough to both heat the water in the hoses, but not too little that the water pulls so much heat that the bio-reaction is slowed.  Time will tell is my intuition was off.

Here we are about 75% done, laying the fourth and final “rung” of heat exchanger:

 

Isn't it GORGEOUS?! This project just feels so right!

 

That is about as far as we got today.  I ran out of mulch about half way through the next layer.  I will finish the pile alternating leaves and grass clippings.  Would like it to be mounded over the top of the digesters about 8″ and will then cap the entire pile with either straw or mulch for insulation and to prevent evaporation.

Some items that maynot be evident in the photos.  The heat echanger is set up counterflow.  That means that the coldest water enters at the top of the barrels- which is where the slurry should be warmest, and then runs through the 290′ of hose around the digesters.  At that point it is at the bottom of the pile, at which point it climbs 4 “rungs” of 60′ hose laid out about every 8″ through the pile.  Total hose length is 530′  for no reason other than that was what it took to do the above and “make it look right” – no fancy math here, just intution.

Still have some very serious issues to overcome on how to store the methane, and some minor ones on plumbing the tubing.  I am good friends with the head of our village’s waste treatment plant and he is keen to see this project work.  Had him over for a beer as I put the last of the mulch on, we have some ideas that appear workable.  We do have some time – it will take about a week for the pile to hit peak temp and a few more days to heat the water in the drums.  Then we add the slurry, plumb in some tubing to take away the methane, start taking temp readings, and put up the “No Smoking!” signs.

“The time has come to do Epic Shit!”

Help fund the Methane Midden: Pledge to my Kickstarter project!

Be the Change!

-Rob

Damn Good Boots

My version of Being the Change necessitates damn good boots.

For me, saving the world (or surviving it?) means I need Damn Good Boots.  These boots were a gift from a very good friend.  That friend has served two tours in Iraq, and may serve one more in Afganistan before he’s done.  These boots have seen the desert and the Hell of War.  I am very sure I do not want to know all they have seen.  Now, they stop rotary plow blades when I misstep in exhaustion, and have saved my ankles more times than I can count when jumping over goose fencing or dropping plate steel when welding on the gasifier.  I wear these boots with pride.  And I wear them with purpose.  We too are serving our country, though no one ordered us to.

At heart I am a “direct actionist”.  I see problems, and I take action.  That action *might* be doing research, but in cases like reading the JOE report, the RSCH portion lasts for a day, then my version of fight or flight kicks in and I Get Busy.  Much of this blog has been the results of that tendency.  For me the best antidote for despair is action.  I need to DO something.  When life gives me lemons, I build a gasifier to power a refrigerator to cool the lemonade.

We are facing some monumental problems.   Oil is going to get wicked expensive soon, I believe we have already crossed tipping points in climate change that will make 3-4 degrees impossible to avoid, and our population as a planet will hit 8 billion before we have any chance to turn it around.  More mouths, no more cheap energy, and unpredictable weather.  That is a crazy tough backdrop for designing a transitional civilization model.

My answers are not easy.  They involve building efficiency loops into biologically linked systems to turn waste into vegetables, animal protein, fertilizers, space heating, electricity and transportable fuels such as methane and ethanol.   Let me say this again – these answers are not easy. Look at the picture at the top of the page – those are $20 leather gloves with the palms worn out; they are less than 6 months old.  I work 8 hours a day, 4 days a week on Being the Change, then come home to read and write and learn about how to do it better the next day.  There are thousands like me.  And we need hundreds of thousands more.

My parent’s generation were activists – the marched and rallied and boycotted.  Our generation needs to be actionists.  No one is going to legislate these problems away – Congress is a quagmire.  And while government will have an absolutely vital role to play, they need to know WHAT to do.  I applied for Stimulus funding in 2009.  We never officially got turned down – in fact we made it through 4 hurdles before getting parked.   What my boots and I are doing is building my version of one of the solutions.  I want to build a Proof of Concept; to take all these ideas off the goddamn drawing board and show what can truly be done on 5 acres.  And then make it scaleable up and down so that it can be repeated all over this country so that we can heal the land while supporting our families.  And that is going to take a shit ton of work.

None of my heroes wore suits and none of my heroes were executives. But they all got busy Being the Change.  Its not only ok to be geeky and to get your hands dirty – its the only way.  Look at Thoreau.  Look at Holmgren.  Shepard, Salatin, Fukuoka.  Hard work isn’t enough; nor is theory.  The solutions are in applied theory.  Being the Change means doing it.  There is SO MUCH that needs to be done: slow money, cooperative business structures, joint capital ownership,  regional / local distribution networks, district biomass heating, changing school curriculums to reflect reality, getting healthy again, and so many more.  It makes ones head whirl.  I am just one man and I have chosen my path.  There are so many others.

We need you.  My kids need you.

Strap on your boots.

Be the Change!

Pollan, I owe you one.

Almost 3″ total this week – water table in the market garden is about 8″ down.  Meaning I dig a hole and water wells up to within 8″ of the surface.  Luckily, other than one event, the rains were slow and steady and WOW has Spring Sprung!  Everything is blooming and budding out.  Its still early so fruit tree yeilds could get nailed by a frost, but I a stoked for a very early and long asparagus season.  Last year was the Year of the Apply on the farm with yeilds up 200%.  We’ll see what we get this year.

With all that rain, not much was done.  Tues and Wed saw highs only in the 40’s – and Wed had snow so field work was not happening.  Cut and delivered another 15#’s of greens on Tuesday and planted more peppers and started the first 100 “hills” of winter squash.  Excited for the squash plan this year.  Going with 4 kinds – Musquee de Provence (20#’s of deliciousness –each– and GORGEOUS), Austrian Butter (MASSIVE amounts of flesh and reportedly divine), Pennsylvania Crookneck (think Waltham with 3x the flesh), and Guatemalan Blue Banana.  The latter I have high hopes for – it is oblong and smallish – say 4#’s.  The key is that the flavor is outstanding (according to Fedco) and as its shaped like an over ripe zucchini you can cut a “round” or two off it, microwave it and have single serve winter squash.  Are you serious?!  Sign me up!  I bought 400 seeds…  The squash will go in a loose 3 sisters type polyculture again this year.  But we are getting strategic with our siting.  There are 3 Percheron mares on farm in rotated pastures.  Over the past decade they  have developed “pooping stations” where the drop their business and never graze.  We intend to till under several of these (some are over 1000 sq ft), fence them off and plant heavy feeders in there like corn, squash, etc.  VERY curious to see the results.  Will it be TOO rich and attract pests?  Or will the corn hit 10′ by August?  Time will tell.

Greens are selling waaaaaaaay better than I thought.  I jacked my price up since they are such a pain – transplanting, starting, watering, harvesting, washing, etc — but EVERY STINKIN WEEK with harvests twice a week as they are so frail.  Compared to my preferred potatoes which are plant once, hill twice, ignore for 45-150 days and harvest over the next 6 months as needed.   But if I am going to see the Energy Farm concept work I need year round income of about $200 a week, every week to pay off the loans for the Uber Hoopty and the Aquaponics.  That means greens, tomatoes, onions, etc.;  I am diversifying.   But even with a 50% price jump and starting 120 plants a week- I didn’t plant near enough – the greens are flying out and I am essentially out of spinach and a week away from being out of lettuce.  WTH?  I think Pollan, Kingsolver, and the guys at Food, Inc should be asking me for a cut.

So here is a shout out to all the eco-celebrities and unsung heroes Fighting the Good Fight and convincing Americans to stop poisoning themselves with processed food.

Its working.

-Rob

Enter The Big Red Dump Truck

She may not look like much, but she's got it where it counts kid...

I did it.  I bought a frickin dump truck.  Its BIG.  Its red.  And it will tow over 10,000#’s… with another 3000#’s in the dump bed.  Its a beast.

I’ve been talking all winter about the fact that I am Scaling Up this year.  Harvests and Compost will no longer be measured in pounds and yards, but TONS. The business and fertility plans call for 20 tons of compost this year.  That is 40,000#’s and beyond the limits of my utility trailer and pitchfork.  To increase the amount of good that I wish to do, I need to mechanize.  2 years ago that meant a Grillo.  The Year of the Tiger calls for something a bit more drastic – this is the first salvo.

First off, let me make something clear.  I bought this truck cooperatively.  That means a buddy of mine and I bought it halvesies.  We are not sure about all the ins and outs of that yet, but it will be titled in both our names and jointly insured.  It is a leap of trust.  It is an investment in community.  It is the kind of thing that people don’t do anymore, but a manner of living that I deeply believe we need to relearn.  Dump trucks are like many wicked useful tools.  When you need one … you REALLY need one.  And then it will sit for awhile until you need it again which is a waste.  My partner has a 30 acre farm and is converting it to a Permaculture Sanctuary full of Do Goodery.  Doubling the top soil on 30 acres means you need ALOT of organic matter.  Much will be grown on site, but with multiple horse and natural dairy farms nearby this truck will help his family jump start their healing of the land.  But, like many of us, he still has a day job, meaning that the truck will sit idle much of the week.  I have BIG plans for a truck like this.  AND I also happen to be off during the week when the truck is idle.  Neither of us really wanted to spend the full $4000 a well used dump like this costs.  Hence the dual titling.  Will it be easy?  No – there will be conflicts over use, repairs, etc.  …but EASY got us into this societal mess.  There is more to Being the Change than planting potatoes in sheet mulch.  I want my kids to grow up in a world where property lines are blurred somewhat – where sharing is a community value and joint ventures are more common than sole proprietorships.   Where what is mine is yours if you need it, because I know that what’s yours is mine in a pinch.  We’ve got each other’s back.  Its scary, but its also wicked cool.  I am very grateful of his trust.

This truck will hold 8 cubic yards of mulch or over 2 tons of manure or restaurant waste. It will tow a chipper large enough to eat 4″ willow trunks all the live long day.   It is inexpensive when considering the ROI and is all but fully depreciated given its current price of $3500.  Its engine is a Chevy 350 V-8, one of the more common in existence and its not fancy – you want air you crank the window, buddy.   As we power down this vehicle could be in use for decades to come in a salvage economy.  As a gasoline engine- it can run on syngas, propane, NG, methane, ethanol, or gasoline with little modification.  If the EFI goes, we may consider retrofitting a carb just to ease fuel conversions.  Dang useful.

This blog was founded almost 4 years ago as I worked to heal the land of my .5 acre HOA lot.  I have learned so very much in the past 4 years of reading, writing, and discussing the issues with you all.  I have acquired skills.  I have surrounded myself with an insane network of incredibly skilled, knowledgeable and connected people.  And I have now found myself at a point where I can push a paradigm a bit into a direction in I feel is vital.  Over the past 4 decades we have relearned how to garden organically.  More importantly we have learned how to heal land damaged by 6 decades of industrial abuse.  We also know that the problems are so much bigger than our forefathers in the Back to Land movement could have ever imagined.  No longer is it enough to grow local organic food – now we must literally think about carbon sequestration and energy production in conjunction with food farming.  This century calls for Energy Farms.

Farmers, not tractor drivers, but real hands in the soil farmers know natural systems better than any scientist. They are generalists with keen senses of observation, economy, and a work ethic to get it all done.  And it is these farmers that will play a pivotal role in connecting the dots to a more sustainable future.  That knowledge of natural systems will prove essential as we transition from rigid, linear solutions to fluid, organic solutions to life’s eternal struggles for Food, Shelter, and Energy.  Permaculture gives us many of the tools to help design this methodology, but my grandfather didn’t need a fancy word for what he called common sense.   And Energy Farms make ALOT of common sense.  Essentially I am asking farmers to function stack their parcels – to turn the ethanol debate on its head and produce Food AND Fuel in addition to resources like soil amendments, services like carbon sequestration, and to create skilled jobs.  On farm.

I have talked through my version of positive feedback loops starting with a biomass gasifier providing the heat and power for methane, aquaponics, 4 season harvesting, ethanol production, and carbon sequestration in biochar.  This system partners beautifully with large scale organic waste recycling using hot composting, vermiculture and mushroom beds allowing the produce and coppice fields to be even more productive.   As the tons of produce leave the farm, even more organic matter is back hauled on site to be converted to fuel, food, and resources effeciently with some of the surplus leaving  the farm to continue the healing elsewhere.  Waste begins to refer less to things  like plastic bags and more to a loss of potential or poor design.  Cradle to Grave produce planning is possible.  We are now running an Energy Farm.

There are several Energy Farms being started in some scale or another thanks in large part to work by the Post Carbon Institute over the past several years and now being continued by Michael Bomford, PCI Fellow.  I will be working within my network to do my best to have one going here in Southern WI with in the next year.  This Dump Truck is the first BIG step (its got a 12′ bed for cripes sake!)  in that direction.  3000 sq ft greenhouses, manure spreaders, skid steers, ethanol stills (the dump gets 8mpg) and 20kw generators powered by methane are in my future.

Be the Change!

-Rob

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