Winter Reading Project, Post Script

Some other additions for the small scale ag side of things.  Notice that these are ALL from Chelsea Green.  They are a publisher (along with New Society Publishers) that I hit frequently and they are also offering 35% off EVERYTHING and free shipping over $100 until 12/31/10. Resilient Gardening has been on my short list for a year and with its glowing recommendations from several reader/bloggers, passing it up would be foolhardy at this point.  Laughton’s book is on a larger scale, but I refuse to let my dream of a small holding die and I also do consulting work on larger properties so that will be welcome reading as additional viewpoints are always welcome.  Cooper’s book seems to be right up my alley and I would like some more perspective from “over the pond”.

The Alternative Kitchen Garden
An A–Z

by Emma Cooper

“The Alternative Kitchen Garden is an evolving idea of what a kitchen garden could be in the twenty-first century: organic, environmentally sustainable, resilient, and about localizing at least some of our food production. It’s also a place not only for learning and practicing growing skills but also for enjoying ourselves and having fun. The Alternative Kitchen Garden is the ideal companion for anyone getting dirt under their fingernails for the first time and full of fascinating ideas and experiments for the adventurous gardener.”

Surviving and Thriving on the Land
How to Use Your Time and Energy to Run a Successful Smallholding

by Rebecca Laughton

“Surviving and Thriving on the Land looks at ways in which projects can be designed that care for the people involved in them as well as the earth that they are trying to protect. If land-based ecological projects are to offer a realistic solution to the problems we face in the twenty-first century, it is imperative that they be sustainable in terms of human energy. This book offers a framework, backed up by real-life examples, of issues to consider when setting up a new project or for overcoming human-energy-based problems in existing projects.”

The Resilient Gardener
Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times 

by Carol Deppe

“Scientist/gardener Carol Deppe combines her passion for gardening with newly emerging scientific information from many fields — resilience science, climatology, climate change, ecology, anthropology, paleontology, sustainable agriculture, nutrition, health, and medicine. In the last half of The Resilient Gardener, Deppe extends and illustrates these principles with detailed information about growing and using five key crops: potatoes, corn, beans, squash, and eggs.”

Enjoy your reading!


Winter Reading Project

Last winter I read a bit over 1200 pages on Soil Science, and the learnings from that project were profound enough that they inspired me to revamp the way I plant my gardens,  created and taught several workshops on Introductory Soil Science and posted enough about composting that you all were justifiably concerned about my interests bordering on obsession.  Passion often comes delivered without an “off” switch…  I never did write up my learnings on Soils in a specific series of posts and that is on my list of winter writing projects.

But this year, with December half gone, I was struggling a bit as I was lacking a research project for the winter.  Plans for next year will be coppice experiments and a Full Bore shot at small scale, intensive “ecological yardening” (really need to just take a Permaculture Design Course so I can use the dang copyrighted term in my business).   With the readings of the past several month and the 3 days at the Midwest Biomass Conference I am only about 2 books short of the books on coppice that I want to read – and one of them isn’t even written yet.

So for this winter I am focusing on 2 subjects:  Systems Thinking for the theory side, and Small Scale Agriculture systems on the practical side.  The goal will be 3 books on each, which will leave some room for the week or two in January where I lock myself into a room with seed catalogs, coffee, and spreadsheets to plan my gardens, and still leave time for some strolls into literary whimsy should one present itself.  To that end here are the first few contenders (please add your own if you have recommendations) – I typically only buy 1-2 books at a time, as they almost always lead me to new pathways.

Systems Thinking

Resiliency Thinking, by Brian Walker and David Salt.  I just finished this and HIGHLY recommend it.  If you want to better understand the theory on how complex, ecological systems respond to change and why some bounce back and some cross tipping points, this book is a fascinating starting point.  150 pages means you can polish it off in a day of reading and a few pots of tea, but though it is very accessible, it is so dense with epiphanies that I gave it 2 weeks so that the insights could percolate through my thinking more thoroughly.  Great books change how you think and interact with the world.  This is one of those.

Next on order is Thinking in Systems, by Donella Meadows. Ms. Meadows authored Limits to Growth in 1972 and has been one of the most influential thinks of the Energy Descent movement.   When an author is recommended highly by the likes of Lester Brown, Hunter and Amory Lovins and is referred to by Bill McKibben as “one of the smartest people I ever knew” I take notice.

We’ll see where my muse takes me after that, but contenders are some of the books by Fritjof Capra, though not sure if he’s a quack yet, and likely a re-re-re-read of Permaculture Principles by my hero David Holmgren.

Small Scale Intensive Ag / Applied Suburban Permaculture

Solviva, by Anna Edey has been on my “should read” list for several years now and I need to tear the bandaid off.  So its on order too.  There are several other practical books out there such as Gardening When it Counts, the Urban Homestead, The Self Sufficient Gardener and the Backyard Homestead.  But likely I will stick to more theory (shocking) and read some of the newer permaculture books out there that I’ve missed so far such as the Earth User’s Guide by Rosemary Marrow or The Permaculture Way, by Graham Bell.  The upcoming book by Sepp Holzer should be a knock out – I loved what I saw of him on You Tube.

And that brings up another element – we are reaching a point now where the interweb is an ever more important source for researching these aspects as the practical applications of Permaculture are far outstripping the pace with which conventional media outlets can keep up.  Again, it is the diverse organic solutions that we as individuals are creating that will be the solutions.   And to that end expect these books and research to continue to influence my thinking and writing this season, and of course expect the dirt to fly as soon as the frost is out.   Should be a great winter!


The Future must be MADE

I love Monday’s.  They, like all my days, start before sunrise.  But on the weekends (I work Tues-Fri) I prepare the day for my family: coffee, tea, hot breakfast, etc.  I try to give myself a 30 minute cushion before the bussle of the day hits with the young’ins and their boundless energy.  It is a good time.  Then they are off to school and Mia and I often get several hours to ourselves – at least a few hours to recharge our relationship with time just for us – at a coffee shop, at home, or shopping in Madison.  Today was the latter, which also involved us seeing a banker about funding the New Revolution before all the money’s gone (more on that later –I hope!).  The afternoons are more focused, with a standing invitation to our Community Supported Energy group for workdays at the farm.  And that is the subject of today’s post as we ramp up on our second Gen 2 gasifier, so I headed North.

The weather is warming, which allows for outdoor work and more workstations to happen at once.  I pull as far into the drive as my low slung VW Golf will let me after the 8″ snow this weekend and am amazed at the scale of work laid out before me.  Opening the door, I am met with a cacophony of productive noise: my buddy that runs the sewer utility is hard at a sheet of steel with a saber saw cutting out burn plates.  After a hearty back slap, I go into the greenhouse/workshop to see “Brother Dick” working hard at a section of salvaged pipe with an angle grinder kicking up an impressive amount of dust as he clears it of corrosion.  Ourimg_7265 electronics expert is giving a piece of 6″ steel pipe the old “what for” with our 14″ cut off saw and spraying the area in a slightly concerning display of sparks in the process.  Further in, the farm owner is hard at a propane tank we cut in half last week as he welds on various braces and legs… I love the smell of welding rods in the afternoon!   There is enough active testosterone in the room to power a Hummvee – you can almost hear Tim  the Tool Man laughing wryly somewhere in the distance.  I pull the farmer off the tank long enough for him to point me at some steel that was cut earlier and he chucks me a big az Milwaukee Drill meaningfully.  My job awaits…

As we stare down the future that we are desperately trying to envision for our children there is so much to do. This blog has changed mightily in its 3 years.  It started as a journal of our struggles to live lighter here in HOA Middle America.  In that regard I guess it is still the same, but my answers to those struggles certainly have altered.  3 years ago I was focused on using our .4 acres to showcase “Green” living.  Cutting waste streams, native landscaping, and reducing energy by buying new appliances, changing lightbulbs, etc while growing some organic veggies for our kids to eat.  Pretty sure there is even a post in there about where to buy organic clothes.  But the whole time I was reading: Permaculture, Natural Capitalism, Sustainable Ag, Smart Growth, and success stories like Small is Possible and dozens more. The more I read, the more inspiring options I saw.  And  then I started hitting books like David Holmgren’s Permaculture Principles, books on Peak Oil and others like James Martin’s The Meaning of the 21st Century.  Books that inspired me; books that scared the hell out of me.  I watched the Crash Course and read all 600 pages of David Blume’s Alcohol can be a Gas.  My answers to the Big Problems morphed as I became more fully aware of how awesomely BIG those problems truly are.  I still reduce energy, but now I am more focused on making it.  I am less concerned about promoting “green” energy, than I am about finding ways to link energy/food/economic systems into processes that are carbon negative, yet produce surpluses of both fuel and food while actually building fertility.   I went from native landscaping to edible landscaping to permaculture designs that need no inputs and create surpluses at every turn.  But back to my “hairy man” fest.

Here we are, 5 men that may or may not have much in common.  Our ages span almost 5 decades from youngest to eldest.  Our interests and specialties range from treating sewage sludge to designing remotely operated underwater vehicles to draft horses to organic agriculture.  But we are all linked by our heartfelt belief that the current path we are on is all effed up and that we need a better future.  But more than that, we are committed that this future must be MADE. There is no waiting around for Obama or Hydrogen or Kyoto II.  If those things work that will be awesome, but for me –for us– the best way to predict the future is to help create it.  Literally in this case.  We are turning hundreds of pounds of salvage steel into gasifiers as we work to perfect our systems.   I am looking at buying 8 acres of agricultural wasteland on the edge of town to make this crap happen.   We are a group of “do-ers” and we are getting busy.  And so are thousands of others across this nation.  If you are busy doing the Good Work – I thank you on behalf of my children.  If not, there is much to do and we need more people doing it.

We’ve had bumper stickers on our cars for years.  It is time to put the slogans into practice.   Hand me that drill, I’ve got work to do.

Be the Change.


Anima Mundi

As posted recently in a comment by commonweeder, January is indeed a time of needed reflection.  In many ways it is also a great gathering of the energies, mental and physical, for the upcoming year’s endevours.  Tonight I sit, making an attempt at stillness.  I am no Yogi – I am far to restless for that!  But at times even I am able to just sit and read.  That is not so different, but now I am reading philosophy rather than a “how to” focused non-fiction on gardening or permaculture or  renewable energy… i.e. a book that isn’t imminently practical.  

 This night is brought to me by the Gifts of the Season: noise canceling headphones by Bose from my sister in law’s (to help me write the book with a 5 and 6 year old in the house) and Stephan Harding’s engrossing tale of our  animate Earth purchased by my sister, some recent music selections from Windham Hill from myself, and a wife who is upstairs preparing the children for bed.

Sitting in a dimly lit room on a blustery cold Wisconsin evening,  the Yule Lights on the crab apple trees out front shining in, a book turning science into poetry in my hands, my  ear phones wrapping me in a soul stirring silence punctuated by the lyrical music of George Winston’s December and my body warmed by a fine red wine, I am achieving a deep stillness that is hopefully recalibrating my inner peace… so desperately needed with all the fret and fray swirling about in the Real World.  This is a truly fine moment -more so because of the full day spent with the family at home (no errands!).

Thanks for letting me share.  And now I will tell the restlessness that moved me to type this to sit still whilst I return to the inner stillness for a bit more.


Small is Possible

Last week I had Tuesday off from work to take care of the kids while Mia was away for work which means that I had 7 extra hours of free time whilst they were at school.  That typically means a busy day at the farm or gardens, but as I am fighting off my perreniall deep chest infection (bronchitis) I instead chose to dig into a book and drink tea all day.  Poor me…

My brain needed a break from technical books on ethanol and biodiesel production and  the mail woman had just dropped of Lyle Estill’s Small is Possible which is only a few hundred pages of anecdotes so into the recliner I went.  The book tells the dual story of one man’s (Estill) journey from Big to Small combined with a similar  journey for the small community of Chatham County, North Carolina.    I found both very interesting and was amazed (having never been to Ithaca, NY) that there was such a place.  In the past decade Chatham has forged close ties with their community college and started a sustainability program, founded a local Food Co-op, a vibrant advocacy group, and even started a successful 1,000,000 gallon biodiesel social business that also acts as an incubator for local eco-businesses including greenhouse greens and organic farming on what was once a brown field.  This is my dream for our Wisconsin Sustain Jefferson program.

As inspiring as the community in the book is, (and trust me its got me fired up!) I found the story of Lyle the most intriguing.  He is obviously incredibly gifted and was able to start from a level of financial success that I do not possess so on one hand he could be written off as a savant that others can’t compare to.  But while he is certainly gifted and blessed, the most important attribute that he has is a lack of risk aversion.  Seemingly a dozen times in the book he completely shifts careers and starts a new one -often from scratch as an entrepreneur.  This is something I find almost incomprehensible.

My father retired from a job he held for 30 years despite the opportunity to potentially make more going freelance because he choose stability for himself and his family.  I have always respected that descision, and my 10 years with one company has alot to do with that.  While I jump from project to project in my free time with reckless abandon, my work life is rock solid.  It also provides very little meaning to my life (other than providing me with the base to do other things), but the paycheck is good and virtually gauranteed.  But working for a Fortune 100 company whose mission is Feeding the Beast is not making the world a better place.  It is NOT Being the Change.  

The counterpoint is that I only work 4 days a week which lets me farm part-time, and the good income allows me to buy $5000 hand tractors and build gasifiers and biodiesel processors on a whim.  The amble vacation gives me flexibility to do presentations seemingly monthly around the state.  It is safe, stable, and allows me to do Good in the world.  But the more the World needs good, the more my 4-6 hours of weekly work Being the Change starts to feel like I am coming up short.  Managing retail distribution feels (and is) pointless and shallow when you are staring down Peak Events in Food, Energy, and Population.

At the end of Small is Possible Lyle Estill leaves the reader with this conversation he had with a close friend:

I often ask Gary when he is going to abandon his commute, and his livelihood, and jump into Life’s Big Adventure — doing something that is infused with daily meaning.  He plays with the idea.  We need all the players we can get.

This afternoon I have called a meeting to discuss my CSE proposal for our community.  I need to learn more about what zoning, permits, etc will be needed, as well as get more input into the fundamentals of the idea: space, equipment and energy needs, time commitments and try to drum up addition support for people to actually make it a reality.  My hope is to have a running prototype up by next fall in a dedicated structure… somewhere.  If we can get a small scale one running, I feel we may be ready to pitch it Big – and shoot for a business that would dually support many of the needs of the community while providing employment for several people.  Maybe then I will finally more fully commit to Life’s Big Adventure.  Thanks for coming along for the ride!



It’s happening again, the distinct ying/yang effect of the amount of blogging waning as my amount of doing waxes.  Here are some quick updates to where some of the projects are at.

Market Garden 

BIG NEWS: I have permission to utilize as much of .5 acres as needed!  This is at the site about 4 miles from my home.  As reality sets in on the amount of work that this will take, I am thinking of sticking to just one 50×100 foot section that will be tilled under this spring, and then start a chicken tractor rotationally grazing what will be the other 50×100 garden.  This will allow for essentially ALL the beds to be taken out of production annually for soil building and grazed by 10-20 layers in 1-2 tractors.  As we get closer to planting time (OMG I have to start seedlings in less than 2 weeks!!) my research, planning, budgeting and shopping have gone into High Gear.  Uber exciting!

Eco Victory Garden

The presentation went over very well and we will be meeting again this weekend for a more in depth discussion.  The name appears to be morphing from a “victory garden” into a “Household Ecology Center” to stress the system thinking inherent in it.  Big Thanks to Emily at Eat Close to Home for her suggestion of using a second plastic barrel for the composter -that may very well make it to the final system: it saves $30, cuts an hour off the instalation and is better sized to the garden.  Lots of momentum on this

Winter Reading 

In addition to catalogues from Fed-Co, Johnny’s and Seed Savers, I am currently devouring Andy Lee’s Chicken Tractor  as I will be putting them to use in about 8 weeks.  Love his idea of simple straw bale structure for winter housing.   Also getting time in the queue is Lester Brown’s Plan B 3.0 which is one of the most important books I’ve read.  Lays out the immediacy, magnitude, and potential solutions to the problems of our generation.   We need to Get Real.  Now.  On the less immediate and lighter side I am also dabbling with Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage.  I plan to build one of these with the farm owners who are letting me use their land.  I’ll need it to -on another property I intend to grow 1500+ lbs of potatoes…

Garden Planning

Another tip from Emily was I signed up for their 30 day trial and so far the system is fairly slick and certainly faster than my cobbled together spreadsheets.  Really like the fact that you draw the plans and it calculates planting rates with numbers of plants and then builds a plant list including planting times, etc.  Interface is not as inuititve as I would like (very few hot keys), but its not bad.  Big downer is that it is a subscription based system, not a downloadable software pack.  At $35/year it will add up and I have to have internet to view the plans.  Grrr.

The reality of the coming year is sinking in.  I will be growing food on a scale completely outside any reference I have ever had.  It appears I will have livestock, and I will also be very involved in a local sustainability group that is dreaming big enough that we have booths at both our county fair and the MREA I am also still maintaining my 50hr/wk salaried job and then there are little things like my essential roles as husband and father…  I also would like to blog 70k words this year as I hope that others can continue to learn from my trials.  At least the days are longer in the summer…

Keeping perspective will be difficult this year, but I have had enough people offer help with the market garden that I am continuing to dillude myself that I can still juggle all these eggs without any breaking.


Colds, Fog, & Paul Hawken

We are experiencing our typical early January melt, and both kids are knocked down with the now ubiquitous January wk 1 colds. Apparently the incubation period of germs from visiting out of state family over the holiday is about 6-7 days-this happens every year. The melt is causing significant humidity and visibility is down to 1/4 mile, which is nice since it keeps the noise of the freeway down. I just realized I said “typical” in reffering to the weather. 4 years ago I would have never have been in touch enough with our cycles to realize that. Growing your own food opens so many new perspectives!

With the quiet calm day outside, and the kids silently catatonic in one of their few chances to watch movies I am availing myself of some reflection time. On goes with the genre set to “Chamber, Baroque” and into my lap falls Blessed Unrest by Paul Hawken.


This was a Christmas present from my parents, along with the soon to be released Plan B 3.0 by Lester Brown… I try valiantly to not get new “Stuff” for the holiday’s-all I want are tools (no one will pay what I pay for them), workshops (ditto) and books (aha!).

Thus far Blessed Unrest is chocked full of that rarest of qualities on the Peak Left: optimism. The premise of the book is that if you combine the organizations working for social justice with those working for environmental issues (not such a stretch as no sustainable future can deny human rights) you get a list of literally almost a million organizations, with billions of members. In no other time in history has their been such a movment, but since it has no Personality at is head it is under the radar and is being completely missed by the media unless some faction of it demonstrates at the WTO conference.

Paul Hawken sums it up best when he states, no one who is familiar with the science of our current situation can not be filled with deep pessimism about our future. But simultaneously, no one who is truly familiar with the depth and breadth of the work being done to improve our situation cannot be overwhelmed with hope.

And that about sums up where I am at in my personal life and on this blog. Filled with Sartre’s nauseum, but refusing to give up hope that millions of people acting individually to Be The Change they wish to see in the world won’t find a way out of this mess.

“In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists” -Eric Hoffer

Be The Change


Look Up…

I added a new page to begin to list the myriad books that have gotten me to where I am today.  The stack of books was almost 4′ tall so it will take a while to get it into type.  Enjoy!


Winter Reading (Phase 2)

As the nights continue to lengthen and the air turns bitter cold (the water in my Hoop House is frozen solid) and before the seed catalog’s arrive there is little else to do than make bread, and while it rises, to read.

After my recent stint of Dark Sustainable Reading, I needed a change to lighten up a bit, so I recently picked up several books from Fed-Co Seeds. In addition to having a great supply of things for the aspiring Organic Farmer (even if he lives in a subdivision) they also have a great library for sale. In this time of quiet planning and reflection before the active planning and implementation of late winter comes, I am seeking to learn more about designing ecosystems around my sub acre farms to reduce my work in weeding and pest prevention by intelligently designing the layout, plantings, and rotations of my farm for better plant health. First up was Vegetable Crop Health a handbook by NOFA.

Vegetable Crop Health

The handbook is only about 80 pages , just right for 2 loaves of pan rustica on a cold Sunday afternoon. The mantra that NOFA is stressing here is rotation, rotation, rotation. It is the single easiest way to avoid pest build ups on your farm. How much of this will apply to sub acre is debatable (potato rotations should be .5 miles distant to confound the infamous Colorado Potato Beetle. Um, riiight…), but they do offer some great examples of plant groupings for a simulated 4 year rotation of beds to reduce pest pressure.

They also confirmed my desire to separate vegetable beds with permanent perennial beds to attract beneficial insects. Hyssop, lavender, garlic chives, Joe Pye Weed, etc will provide a beautiful barrier to force the pest to run a gauntlet of predators as they search for where-ever the hell I moved the Solanaceae this year. Cut flowers and sheer beauty will be fantastic fringe benifits of this plan.

Next Up: Soil Building Better Soils for Better Crops, by Fred Magdoff and Harold van Es.  Healthy soil = Healthy Plants!


Doom and Gloom: Triage

As I had previously posted, one of the several books I am working my way through is James Martin’s The Meaning of the 21st Century and I am finding it a fantastic thought provoker. Most of his book is spent talking about solutions to the problems we face in the current Generation and offering clear vision to how to implement them, but several of his portraits of the mid near future (say 25-50 years out) are dark. He calls it The Canyon. Those of us familiar with the The Natural Step would term it the Resource Funnel. The funnel is currently closing as the demand for resources rises and the availability of resources (including such vital things as clean water and topsoil, not just oil and n. gas…). It is most often depicted as it is at right: with the lines not touching. Basically that The World wakes up before it gets ugly.

The reality is that when we are approached with a slowing growing, easily rationalized or otherwise nebulous threat we typically do nothing until the crisis occurs and removes all doubt. Two easy, recent examples would be the Cod Fishery off Newfoundland, and Hurricane Katrina. In both cases scientists, engineers and enlightened citizens decried the impending doom or either a collapsing fishery or blown levies, but in each case enough smoke was blown to forestall action until the Crisis Hit. Then in the case of the fishery at least massive legislation was instituted. Each of these cases were avoidable, the science to correct them known, and an early fix would have been immensely cheaper then correcting from the Crisis. These cases were also regional and for the most part only involving one country. Take the case of Global Warming, Peak Oil, or Global Population, and I am in my darker moments I am forced to the conclusion that we will not, perhaps cannot, react until it is far too late-until after the Crisis.

Martin’s Triage scenario fits my vision when I am that dark. Triage is a way to assess those who are in need of medical attention after an extreme event-when the victims are far in excess of the medical providers resources to handle them. Triage is a way to roughly and callously (realistically?) group the victims by the ability to be treated to attempt to save the most victims possible without wasting precious effort on the Doomed. When we enter Martin’s Canyon, or when we let the sides of the funnel cross, we will be undergoing a Crisis that could very well force the planet’s nations into Triage. The 1st world will be shaken and bloody, but will almost certainly survive-America did not see mass starvation even in the Depression. The rate of survival without disability will fall quickly as you enter the 2nd world, and by the time you reach the 4th world-where people are already starving-there will simply not be resources left to feed them all. The 1st world has the money to buy the food, regardless of cost. Hell, we even use food to power our cars. This scenario can be avoided with current technology, the scientific community-even the oil engineers-are telling us it is coming. And yet we will most likely do nothing until the cod runs out.

I usually don’t go this Doom and Gloom-neither here in the Blog nor in my actual life. But this morning I was at my son’s school. In the hallway after the assembly there was one of Sprout’s classmates that is in a mechanized wheelchair and is very severely handicapped. Again, I am in a Dark place now, but when I got home I wept. When Triage hits the 1st world civilization will survive, but there are many shades within even our uber affluent society.

I have made it a mission to learn what is necessary to be able to feed my family, even my neighbors, once it Gets Bad. But how will this boy, or the thousands like him, manage?

We must do better.

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