Hoop House Permaculture Brainstorm: Input Welcome!

Many readers will know that I am a Big Fan of Hoop Houses (aka High Tunnels) as low cost, easily erected, functional structures.   Last Spring I was part of a group that submitted a grant proposal chasing some of the Stimulus Money.  Obviously we failed (should have said we were expanding an interstate), but the idea of a structure producing, food, fuel, and resources in a linked system has lived on.   While I spent much of the early Fall leaning strongly towards re-committing to perfecting the small scale agriculture / Suburban Permaculture model here at the Home Site, the last 2 months have given me cause to rethink that; I am more convinced daily that The Funnel is closing faster than I had let myself believe and it is time to Get Busy.

So here is my challenge to all of you: Help me design a permaculture system within a 30′ wide x 70’long  x 12′ high Hoop House and I will pitch it for funding.

Here is the design criteria:

  • Produces Food
  • Produces Fuel
  • Produces Resources
  • Is self sustaining in terms of funding – we want sale-able products valued at least $10k annually (money being a convenient current measure of “surplus” goods and productivity)
  • Use of only local inputs acquired on farm, or within community.
  • Productive in Year #1, though system should “progress” with time as systems mature.

30x70x12 Hoop House - Insert Permaculture Here...

Short List of Resources available:

  • 30x70x12 Hoop house
  • Space Heat (a bit over freezing in the winter) and Warm Water from a Biomass Gasifier
  • Electricity (grid for now, gasifier generated soon)
  • up to 20-30 hours of weekly labor year round, 10 preferred
  • Start-up Expenses up to $20,000 (Structure $5k)
  • Small Scale Ag equipment (seed starts, tillers, seeders)

Potential Inputs:

  • 20 acre farm with 5 acres tillable – straw, ethanol / BD feed stocks, unsaleable vegetables.
  • Manure from livestock
  • Community Waste streams such as yard leaves, food waste, etc

Examples for inspiration:

To these we would like to add energy systems such as small scale biodiesel, ethanol, and / or methane to further increase efficiencies, reduce waste and increase outputs.  Example, tilapia carcasses could be used as a methane feedstock while the digester itself adds to the thermal mass of the Hoop House reducing night time heating load and the methane burned in a generator to produce supplemental heat and electricity for pumps and grow lights or power other farm buildings.

The overriding focus is to design a system with elegant energy flows mimicking an ecosystem in true Permaculture form.  We wish to use natural biological systems whenever possible rather than mechanical solutions.  Technology will be very evident, but used appropriately only when natural systems are not feasible.  For example, beets don’t turn themselves into ethanol without help, but Tilapia will happily breed new young if provided a proper habitat and their water filtered readily by plants such as watercress rather than industrial nitrogen filters if stocking rates are reasonable.

I envision much of the structure to house known systems generating sale-able goods such as extending the growing season per Elliot Coleman or Growing Power style vermiculture.  And these “profit” systems will interweave with experimental ones such as a self propagating, natural filtered Tilapia aquaponic system using both male/female fish fed with on farm products.

But that is the rub – its a “vision” right now.  There are hundreds of GREAT minds that read this blog – please comment with your musings, link to your inspirations, and help spur this project to something unprecedented to push the envelop of our sustainable culture.

If the conversation gets going I would like to form a Google Group to facilitate the uploading of documents and links.  Here is a link to a shared Google Doc on a 30×70 grid to help with layouts should anyone really want to jump in.

Be the Change!!


4 Season Farming: Winter Vermicomposting

Elliot Coleman has literally written the book on the extending the harvest up ‘ere in da Nort.  And I can attest to the simple joy of entering a Hoop House on a sunny January day, stripping down to a tee shirt, basking in the humid 70 degree air rich with the smell of living soils, and stopping to harvest mache, claytonia, and perhaps some spinach.   But Hoop Houses can do more than just grow greens – they can build your soils in the off season. A few posts ago I regaled you with my attempts to begin composting in our small Hoop House at our Market Garden.  The farm owner was so inspired he cleared out 20′ along the back edge of his large Hoop House / Workshop and we built a serious indoor vermiculture bin that is about 20′ long and hold about 12 yards.  The idea is that in between the center of a thermophyllic “hot” composting pile chugging along at 140 degrees and the air temp of 30-40 degrees there is a layer of the pile that is full of moist organic matter that is sitting at 75 degrees or so.  In other words prime habitat for composting worms!

Outside air temp was 1 degree with a negative wind chill. Go bacteria GO!

Last week he filled the new bin with a mix of horse manure, bedding, and 50 gallons of putrid food scraps he had been saving all year and had never gotten around to throwing on a pile until now.  The outside of the hoop house (west facing) was then insulated with a pile of leaves 7′ tall and 12 feet wide at the base, and on top of the manure/gorp mess we piled on another 18″ of leaves to further insulate it and to conserve moisture.  Within 2 days this heated up to 145 degrees, and has stayed there for over a week now adding some bTU’s to the workshop.  A bin this size could take millions of worms, but given that wigglers are going for $25/lb we decided to call in some favors.  At the Bioneers Conference in Madison last month, one of my fellow panelists was James Godsil, a board member for Growing Power and co-founder of Sweet Water Organics – an uber cool urban ag endeavor in Milwaukee, WI.  Godsil is a true Great Soul and we hit it off immediately.   I shot him an email and asked if my wife and I could come out for a tour and pick up a few pail of worms and gorp (full of cocoons) which led us to yesterday’s trip and our seeing Milwaukee’s Renaissance first hand.

Sweet Water is still growing - under the banner are 3 massive aquaponic tanks mid way through construction. Awesomeness.

The site was amazing – I have toured Growing Power several times, and it was very interesting to see Will Allen’s concepts scaled up in an attempt to make them more commercially viable.    It will be worth watching to see how far they will have to stray from Growing Power’s laissez faire approach to aquaponics and its reliance on natural filtration and in house feedstocks.  Banks and investors have a tendency to demand higher returns on investment than Nature readily provides.  But, alas, I stray off topic!

Over 12' tall, and steaming despite the 4 degree air temp. We dug 10 gallons and thousands of worms -from an outside pile. It shouldn't be possible, but there we are!

After the tour Godsil took us out back to his massive compost / vermiculture pile.  Despite the cold (wind chills were negative) we clambered up the pile and dug into the steam to find red wigglers happily crunching away on the grocery store waste Godsil uses as feedstock.  Amazing!   Godsil makes a weekly trip with his pickup to the local store and grabs about 300 gallons of unsaleable vegetables which he then mixes with wood chips dropped off from local tree trimming services – essentially turning 2 streams of “garbage” into highly sought after vermicompost and red wigglers that will have bred up to a population worth thousands by  next summer.  Brilliant!

"Farm Schooling" Vermiculture 201 - My son thought the word "verm" was hilarious

After loading a few buckets we drove back to the country and I picked up my son to help “leaven”  our vermiculture bin in Jefferson County.    We were very pleased to see that our own bin was still heating nicely and was already home to a small population of its own composting worms that came in with the horse manure.  It was a great chance to talk about waste stream cycling with my son – worms and other “livestock” are a great attention grabber for children and we try to do as many tours as possible with local schools to show them that farming is more than driving tractors through corn, but there I go digressing again…

We placed the worms and gorp into 3 separate areas and then topped each with several gallons of fresh feedstock from my coffee shop source.  This we finally topped off with a 6″ layer of leaves to keep them warm.  As the winter progresses the worms will be able to move throughout the pile to maintain the 75 degrees they prefer.  In the outdoor piles at Growing Power and Sweet Water that may e as close as 1″ from the surface, here inside our unheated hoop house it is a bit deeper in.  Here are some more shots of the process:

Some of our "City Worms" along with vermicompost full of cocoons. Our hope is to breed enough to start dozens of new worm bins county wide next year.

A glob of feedstock for the worms - bananas are a preferred food. Wigglers in prime condition will eat their own weight daily. Witness the steam - the pile was cooking!

In the last picture you can just see a bit of blue peaking through.  That is a buried 55 gallon drum that is filled with water.  The hope is that it will store immense amounts of heat to stabilize the piles temperature for the worms and later in the winter when the pile is cooling, we can then use the water as cooling tanks for our gasifiers – simultaneously heating our worms to make them eat / poop faster and cooling our biomass energy generator to help us power the farm.  Awesome!

Winter is a time for reflection, planning, and maintenance (mental and physical!), but using the Hoop House for composting will ensure our early spring greens are able to get a huge jolt of nutrition with a thousand pounds of worm castings as early as March – with no machinery or energy inputs.  Too cool.

Thanks Godsil!


Season Extension: Compost and Thermal Mass


Rye cover and our beloved 25x11 portable Hoop House

I love the Hoop House at our Market Garden.  I love that I can harvest spinach in March.  I love that I can plant my tomatoes in late April and still be picking into October.  I love that it was 85 degrees in there today and 70’s in January are a reality in my little microcosm.  But as I mature, it is the more ephemeral things that matter… how it provides an ‘anchoring’ structure in our little .2 acre plot; something more substantial to draw the eye and provide contrast to row after row after of vegetables; the smell and feel of warm soil in January.   The picture above shows how the rye/feild pea cover crop is coming in.  Got a late start (as usual – “real” jobs get in the way ya know?), but it is doing alright.  The tilled strip in the middle was the last 200#’s of potatoes to come out of this plot, and has a .5″ high stubble of winter wheat coming in.

In years past I have planted spinach and mache in the hoop house, but always put it in so late that I never get a harvest until March and this year is no exception.  I typically get good growth and about 3 weeks prior to harvest (it takes forever with the short days in the winter) we get nailed with the Deep Freezes in early January when it gets down to -10 or so.  This kills everything flat.  The roots regrow in Febuary for a good harvest, but I would like to see what I can do to take the edge off that one or two weeks.


Left: 1st week of compost Right: 250 Gallon "Pond"

I also have another winter problem.   I have arrangements with some local restaurants to compost their organic waste.  This nets us 100#’s or so a week… every week.  From November through April that means I have several cubic yards of slobsicles in my compost bins.  Building up my capacity to handle 4 months of gorp was the primary driver of our new Bin Of Dreams.  That bin is located on the north side of our garage and without direct sun, it takes a LONG time for 1500#’s of gorp to thaw out.  Will Allen at Growing Power composts year round in his hoop houses… perhaps I could as well.  So this year I am trying to kill both these birds with one stone.    The windrow is designed to be 4′ wide and has a 24″ tall fence to contain it somewhat and give me a 3-4′ height without a 8′ base width.  Eventually this will be 20′ long.  I have dreams of following the thermophyllic composting bacteria down the windrow (no turning) with composting worms.   Can I extend both my composting and greens season with the simple movement of 1500#s of gorp into the hoop house?  Time will tell.


Its not a ghetto Koi Pond.... Its thermal mass!

In the past 2 winters I have had buckets and trash cans full of water in an attempt to add some thermal mass to the hoop house.  As I have said, it gets to be 80+ in there with 50-60 degree temp differences to outside air on good days.  But with only a single layer of plastic it sheds btu’s like a sieve.  The thermal mass in previous years has not been enough, it simply freezes solid eventually and effectually adds a cooling effect to the hoop house.  Rat Farts.  This year I have added a large fiberglass crate that hold several hundred gallons of water.  As you can see in the picture, to help this out, I have surrounded it with a foot thick layer of leaves for insulation on 3 sides, and will plant the spinach directly to the south.  In a further attempt to extend the season I amy dig out some row cover I found laying around and cover the spinach/compost/crate to keep the warm air around the plants.  Finally the entire Hoop House will get a 4′ wide “foundation” mulch to keep the frost from creeping in as long as possible while the north wall will get as many leaves piled against it as I can find.  Will this be enough to combat the utter lack of R value in the Hoop House?  Time will tell.  What is likely is that a double walled Hoop House with a bubble insulation system will be the way to go, combined with these techniques, if I want to go 4 season.

On a side note, I am trying to function stack the thermal mass.  I have added about 5 gallons of leaves and some finished compost to it to make the well water a bit more nutrient rich.  Then I walked down to the river and scooped up 5 gallons of river water and made sure to get a bunch of sludge from the bottom.  This water is full of critters and microorganisms.  I dumped this into the crate to “inoculate” the water and in a week or two I will add a handful of feeder goldfish.  Now it is very likely in my first stab at aquaculture I am dooming these goldfish to a cold death as fish cubes, but if they somehow don’t freeze solid the 250 gallons of microbe rich ecosystem should keep them alive.  And if the temps allow them to stay alive I will have also proven that I can sustain temps high enough to overwinter lake perch. Fish Fry anyone?


Community Supported Energy


Some of you may know that I helped to build a wood chip gasifier last winter.  Basically it is a contraption that takes a carbon source (we use chipped wood) and breaks it down into carbon monoxide and hydrogen gas through pyrolosis (fancy burning).  That gas is then used to power an Internal Combustion Engine.  Our system is sized to run a 30hp engine, and we are working on two systems geared more to heat capture to increase efficiency.  30hp equates to about a 15kw generator -or enough power for a small home.  Plus it makes a stink load of heat so water/space heating are options too.  It cost under $500 and can run full throttle for an hour on 10#’s of chips.
So we now have this virtually free source of heat and electricity.  And I now have a diesel vehicle.  Making Biodiesel takes 3 things (other than the processor): waste grease (I live in Wisconsin), electricity to run pumps, and heat to dry the grease and facilitate the reaction.  The processor I am building can handle up to 12,000 gallons a year.  I need about 600.  That means I have built a machine that can create a significant surplus if I can find enough waste oil.  Huh.
Waste Veggie Oil may not be around forever, and I like to grow things, so I also looked into growing oil seed crops.  For simplicity sake, lets use an annual crop like canola rather than a permaculture perennial fuel crop system (you could use hickory and take the prunings to power the gasifier for starters and still have a complete understory to play with for other plants).  If I can find a farmer to grow 80 acres of Canola I can press 12000 gallons of oil out of it.  I also just happen to know of someone that bought a commercial cold press from Austria a few years ago.  The thing about pressing oilseed is you are left with all this mash.  That mash is still rich in starches/sugars plus protiens and fibers.  Talking with my farmer mentor who is really into ethanol, it turns out that this mash would make quite a bit of ethanol too.  Like another several thousand gallons.  Huh. 
But then we still have mash left after that.  That mash is still full of cellulose and protein.  It can either be fed into a animal digester (hogs, cows, chickens or tilapia come to mind) or a methane digester to further gain efficiencies. Now we are either making even more electricity or a lot more food.  The gasifier would actually partner REALLY well with a greenhouse Tilapia operation solving most of the sustainability concerns, and using cattails as the water filter to grow even more ethanol feedstock. Huh.
All of this permaculture energy and food growing could be bundled up into a Community Supported Energy (CSE) organization. Community members would buy “shares” of energy (ethanol or biodiesel) which would be delivered monthly/weekly/as needed -the literally tons of tilapia would be a bonus!  The subscribers get the energy they want, the budding energy technician can produce clean renewable fuels for a living wage.  If it sounds like a CSA that is the point.  
We haven’t even begun to think this through yet (like canola is a low grade fuel crop planted in a monoculture), but there are ALOT of people who have -David Blume of Alcohol Can Be a Gas fame is one.  As resources decline, people will need local energy as much as they need local food, probably more as making energy is much more specialized than growing food.  Plus its really damn interesting.
Winter Projects?  
I got one…and its a Doozy.
Anyone good at writing grants?
Be the Change



Growing Power Article

With the cooling of the weather I have christened advent of the Writing Season (comes after the Harvest Season and before Catalogue Season) with my first successful submission to Groovy Green of the winter. Hope you enjoy it!


Peak Proof Aquaponics in Zone 5?

So I have been completely obsessing over this Aquaponics idea and I want to put some of the ideas on paper and hopefully spur some additional inputs to my thinking.  Though still definitely in the experimental stage, the skills needed to grow fish in a recirculating tank system are getting dialed in to a level that fish loses are dropping to the near zero range in well managed operations.  Where I see the next stage of design sophistication will be in making the system Peak Proof by dialing out the fossil fuel inputs to make the energy inputs as sustainable as the food system.
And those fuel inputs are sizable.  What the Growing Power system is doing is essentially keeping 10,000 gallons of water at 78-82 degrees every hour, every day, year round.  In a Hoop House.  In Wisconsin.  Given the BTU needs of keeping that much water 80 degrees during a 4 month Winter, I don’t know of a feasible way around the NG heater at this point.  Preheating the water seem to be the only workable option, and that system would then handle 100% of the heating 8-9 months of the year.  
Probably system components:
  • Solar Water heating with thermosyphon pumping
  • Small Wind Turbine charging batteries (DC water pumps; small inverter for lights) and sized to dump excess into a heating element in a tank before the boiler.
  • Running water lines through Hot Compost Piles which are also located within the greenhouse for theoretical 100% thermal efficiency.  Currently looking for BTU figures for compost piles.
  • Modified Hoop House with insulated North Wall
  • Modified Hoop House with multiple layers of “inflated” plastic for better R values
  • Dream system based on the BioShelter of the New Alchemists with passive solar elements, built into a hill.  This system works best built onto an living structure.  This might be the only Peak Proof Aquaponics system using Tilapia.
  • Ditching the Tilapia and switching to Lake Perch.  The backup system for the NG heating could then, in theory, supply 100% of the heat, reducing winter water temps to the 50-65 range.  Perch can survive being frozen solid in Wisconsin ponds…
The last piece is probably the Sustainable Option.  But the lose in harvest would be severe.  Perch stocking rates are already a third of Tilapia, and they will not grow much in water under 65 degrees.  Furthermore, Tilapia are omnivores, allowing you to grow much of the food in duckweed and water lettuce, and also giving you a better place to put your now marketable greens than the compost pile.  Finally, Tilapia are easy to breed in tanks, but a Perch system puts you into dependance on the DNR.   Other options would be using a methane digester to make your own Bio-Gas, or a biomass based boiler.  Either of these gets expensive right quick.
Partnering Aquaponics next to heat intensive industries make allot of sense, but most small landowners do not have access to that.
Still, the system is still brilliant and I know there are ways to make it work off grid.  
Please shoot me links, ideas, comments, and resources!


I took a tour this week that blew my mind and I have been dying for a few spare moments to tell you about it.  A few friends of mine from the fledgling Sustainability NPO we recently founded, Sustain Jefferson , spent a few incredible hours touring Growing Power this past Monday.    Growing Power is an Urban Ag facility that claims to grow enough food for 2000 people on 2 acres.  With a claim like that I was drawn like a moth to flame.  Their website offered some clues to their system-vermiculture, aquaculture, and several greenhouses.  The site filled in the details and inspired me in a way that no other has since I was originally introduced to Permaculture and Bill Mollison.

What excited me most about Permaculture was the sheer common sense of it all.  Taking wastes and turning them into resources to allow you to reap the benefits of both in one integrated system continues to fascinate me  Aquaponics, especially in the uber simple system that Will Allen of Growing Power sets up, fits the bill perfectly.

Aquaponics takes the aqua from aquaculture and ponics from
 hydroponics and melds them with a healthy dose of applied Permaculture.  Aquaculture is the farming of fish in indoors in recirculating water tanks.  The single largest waste from this system is that housing thousands of fish in a closed system fouls the water right quick.  Hydroponics is a system of growing plants in a nutrient water medium, which of course begs the question of where the nutrients come from.
Aquaculture attempts to solve these problems, and routes the waste water from the aquaculture tanks through a hydroponic system to provide the nutrients for the plants, which help to clean the water and significantly reduces the filtration needed.  Even at this level I love the idea.  Growing Power puts this system into overdrive.
What Will Allen and some others are doing is experimenting with what is considered by most to already be an experimental way of raising fish and plants.  First off Will has completely done away with the filtration system.  He has also done away with any commercial feed, preferring instead to grow his own.  See the underlying foundation of Growing Power is worms.

Readers of this blog know that I am a firm believer in Vermiculture as a means to reduce, even recycle, waste and turn out some freaky good fertilizer.  Growing Power does this on an almost industrial scale-using hundreds of bins (pictured) like mine to process literally 1o’s of thousands of pounds of  waste into worm castings.  
The other great thing that worms do is, um, breed.  In fact in perfect conditions composting worms will double in population every 6 weeks.  Growing Power uses the immense amount of castings to provide the growing medium for their greenhouse operations and then uses the surplus worms as a significant portion of the feed for his thousands of Tilapia in the aquaculture tanks.
Back to the filtration method.  Growing Power uses plants, specifically water cress, to filter the water.   As with most of the systems at the site, it is simple and uses mostly reused items that are common in an urban environment.  In this case reclaimed sump pumps water from the bottom of the 5′ deep tanks to 30′ long flats of cress.  The flats are very slightly sloped, and as the water slowly makes it way through the pea gravel bed that serves to anchor the cress roots it is cleaned of virtually all of the excess waste.  Will Allen was not real long as specifics when asked about ratios of cress to Tilapia, he is an instinctive innovator… he just knows it works.   Several PhD types have also toured the facility and are adamant that the system should not work.  Yet, Will adds with one of his huge grins-he has been doing it for 3 years and has only lost one fish.  Time to rewrite the textbooks!
So what gives?  Will Allen (the giant in the blue sweatshirt) is convinced that the few handfuls of worm

castings he adds to the cress flats are the difference.  The castings are chock full of rich living bacteria and fungus cultures, and it is these that Will believes supercharges the cress flats with filtering capability.   After seeing the vibrance and life of his greenhouses, the obvious health of his fish, and the numerous innovation that seemingly turn up at every corner-I believe him.  Heck, that is how wetlands are supposed to work, right?

Anyone who knows me can see where this is going.  Will’s newest aquaculture houses are built in simple plastic hoop houses in an attempt to cut costs.  He does a lot of mentoring in the 3rd (and 4th) worlds and is trying to get the system down to its bones.  The last house he took us through was built for $5000 plus labor, and it houses 7000 tilapia and 2500 Lake Perch in addition to 300 sq ft of water cress and several hundred pots of greens and vegetables that were basking in the warm humid air.   The next biggest problem to overcome is how to make it Peak Proof by removing the dependence on the second hand natural gas pool heater he is using.  It will certainly add significantly to the start-up costs, but a combined solar water heating and wind turbine dumping into a heating element after charging a few batteries for lighting seems like a great primary heating system with a propane backup.  This could also be modified to run on methane from a digester.   The owner of the farm I am using to grow my market garden has plans for one already drawn up…  
Looks like I have a winter research project!
It was truly inspiring to see people in the heart of an the poorer parts of Milwaukee making a difference, growing sustainable and nutritious food, and spreading the word about simple commonsense systems that work.  
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