Bio-Char Composting

So I’ve written about Bio-Char before – its the essentially pure carbon that is left over from burning wood in the absence of oxygen.  We make some while running our gasifiers and its a prime component in Terra Preta – the incredibly fertile soils found in bits of the Amazon.  It has also been in the eco-news a ton lately as a means of carbon sequestration.  There have even been some low tech trials (low tech are my favorite!) using it as a soil amendment.  What those trials have found is what I had suspected: that while long term fertility potential is increased due to the addition of carbon to the soil, all those free ionic bonds “fix” nitrogen out from the soil and initial fertility is lessened for a year or more.  The trail found that by saturating the bio-char first (in this case with human urine) the results on harvest were substantial.  I have dreamed of using bio-char from our gasifiers as a final filter in a aquaponics system – not only to clean the water, but as importantly to “pre-charge” the bio-char with nutrients for its use as a fertilizer.  Since I don’t have my aquaponic greenhouse yet, and my suburbanite neighbors wouldn’t take to kindly to me pissing in a bucket each morning in the backyard, I decided to use my compost bins as the nutrient source.

Compost bins leach out a significant amount of nutrients -either through runoff, or through ammonia gas.  My thought is that by mixing biochar into a pile, I would precharge the char, and the end result would be an even better soil amendment.  So, putting action to thought as is my wont – here is what I did this afternoon:

35#'s of hardwood charcoal from Whole Foods. $28 and likely a better use than grilling steaks.

We don’t have access to our own charcoal yet (next year I may make my own charcoal maker), so Whole Foods helped me out with an end of season sale.

Next I needed some material.  As I wrote about yesterday – that is no problem anymore.  400# of willow coming right up!

2 days old and free. The things people throw away these days!

Finally, I ran the willow and the charcoal through the chipper.  The thought was to make the char into itty bitty bits to increase surface area.  I figured dust would be an issue, but DAMN is dust an issue!  Carbon dust is quite dangerous – rather explosive and wicked rough on your lungs.  I had a dust mask on, and mixing the charcoal in with the leafy fronds helped, but soaking the char first might be better.  Its an issue, and you’ve been warned.  Here is the results:

Always amazing how much it reduces in volume once its chipped. Plan on soaking this a lot - that char is DRY.

The plan for this bin is to fill a raised bed for a side by side run next year.  My hypothesis is that the compost char will increase the fertility potential of the soil by preventing leaching and raising the overall carbon content of the soil significantly.  Bacteria LOVE to live on the incredibly rich surface structures of char particles, so soil life should explode.  This will hopefully be a major component of my pushing for 10# ‘ sq ft in some raised beds next year.

It will be interesting to see if the added char will affect the composting process at all.  It may inhibit it due to the char sucking up nutrients.  I have a good idea of the process with 4 brush piles in the works, so it should be readily apparent if more nitrogen is needed in a charified pile.

Much more to come!

-Rob

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Intro: Living Soils for a Livable Planet

There are a myriad of Fad Diets out there; we’ve all seen them: the South Beach, Atkins, Probiotic, etc.  Then there are lifestyle diets like veganism and raw food.   Years ago, I switched to a vegetarian diet for ecological reasons to lower my footprint.  As I read and listened more about food, this grew into a strict organic food based diet, then to organic local, and now I’ve backed off a bit and  am “virtually” vegetarian as I learned more of the importance of animals to the function of a farm ecosystem .   Food issues are of paramount importance to me – as a parent and a global citizen– driving much of the work for this blog, in my gardens, and my outreach.  Whether you are trying to lose weight, make a statement or live your ethics,  what we put into our mouths to sustain us has a huge impact not the least of which is on our health, but our food choices also greatly impacts our economy, our scenery,  the climate, and our planet.  Food matters… alot.

Over the course of the next few months I will expand on the topic of food grown in Living Soils as part of a Fall/Winter series of articles / essays concerning this topic.  It is far bigger than even a 2000 word post, and I am looking forward to the 1000+ pages of books I have inbound to help me expand my knowledge on the topic.  Plus its been awhile since I have written a larger article and I am rather looking forward to it.  In the mean time here are some High Points, mostly opinions, though later posts will be better referenced.

The data on the ills of our current, conventional farming system are legion, and well documented.  Conventional farming practices promote erosion, are poisoning our groundwater, most of our food is trucked in from at least 1500 miles away, the farmers can’t earn living wages, and small town America is all but extinct outside of bedroom communities.  The case for a different kind of Green Revolution is strong.   Conventional Farming is crude, reductionist and is founded on failed assumptions.  It is time to recommit to growing our food in Living Soils.

masanobu_fukuoka

Masanobu Fukuoka

As part of the back to Earth movement in the 60’s a growing number of farmers began to grow “organically” – the way that our grandparents had done prior to WWII.  The inspiration for this blog, Masanoubu Fukuoka, was part of this movement to create a more sane, sustainable and productive agriculture that worked in partnership with Nature.  One of the firm tenants that has developed in Organic Farming is the need to foster a living soil.  Feed the soil, so that it may feed your plants and they, in turn, will feed you.  In a single gram of living soil there may be as many as 100 million to 3 billion bacteria, but in denuded soils destroyed  by chemical dependant industrial farming there can be as few as 100.   The incredible interconnected biodiversity of our soil’s food webs is only beginning to be “discovered” by science.  But we do know some things.

First off, organic food is better for you.  I know we’ve all gotten used to the see saw reports on this topic, but the majority of  reports done in unbiased, or at least less biased, manner are showing what our “Common Sense” test has know all along.  Food grown in living soils are more nutritious for you.  From the USDA’s own reports, the nutritional content of our [conventionally grown] food is 25% less than it was 50 years ago because the soil is dead and it takes far more than Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium to grow Real Food.  At the least it takes 18 micro nutrients including zinc and copper to create a balanced soil for plants – and those nutrients need to be in proper proportions to each other to prevent imbalances.   Balancing 3 points can be challenging, balancing 18, plus tilth, moisture, density, and air porosity is a herculean task far beyond the scope of our technology.  It takes the help of those millions of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, earthworms and other soil organisms with the wisdom of millions of years of evolution behind them, to get it right for us.  When the soil web is healthy and stable -living- it is an amazingly self regulating system that balances itself over time to best foster healthy plant growth.  Nature is beautiful.

Not only are the plants more nutritious,  but the heirloom varieties that can be only be grown in a holistic, organic, and local system are far superior to the supermarket varieties.  Anyone who has tasted one of my heirloom Carola potatoes after eating Idaho Russets from the Kwik Trip understands exactly what I mean.  Several years ago, I invited my Mother over to sample our first strawberry harvest at our home.  Upon putting the small, Sparkle berry into her mouth she almost swooned, exclaiming “I haven’t tasted this since I was a girl!”.  Strawberries are supposed to all but melt in your mouth – they are not intended to have a rigid core – that was bred in to allow them to be transported by truck, rather than by basket from the garden to the kitchen table.  Our forefathers and mothers saved the seeds of the varieties with the best taste, and I fervently believe that our sense of taste is evolutionarily designed to sense nutrition – our bodies know that organic food is better for us.

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Conventional Soil (left) v. Organic Soil Black = Organic Matter

But living soils matter far more than just helping to offset the massive Health Care crisis of our time (we are the first society to be  overfed to the point of chronic obesity, while simultaneously being malnourished).  Our conventional farming practices are a significant cause of Climate Change.   In a lecture some friends of mine heard in Sweden comparing the carbon cutting benifits to be had from transportation, housing, and food sectors – the Food Sector won by a margin of over 400%.  Granted Europe’s Transportation and Housing sectors have come a long way compared to ours, but a recent article claims that switching to local foods and cutting back on red meat (to sane levels v. American levels) could reduce your carbon emissions more than swapping out 20 primary light bulbs (who has 20 primary bulbs?!) and cutting back your driving by 10%.  But back to the soil.  To feed the soil ecosystem you must supply one primary thing – organic matter. And the primary component of organic matter is carbon.  The reality is that switching to a Soil Based agriculture system will have HUGE ramifications on our ability to sequester carbon as a planet.  Much of the Ag land in America today is depeleted – down to 2-3% organic matter – less in many cases.  Healthy, living soils have at least 5 – 8%.  And here is the amazing stat: for each 1% you add back into the soil, you sequester as much carbon as exists in the entire atmosphere above that acre. And we need to sequester 3-5% back into every acre to rebuild the soil webs to rebuild our soils so we can rebuild our selves and our planet.  That is an amazing amount of carbon – 21 tons per acre, per percent, in fact.  In other words, a 200 acre farm that rebuilt its living soils and raised its organic matter 4% would sequester 16,800 tons of carbon.  Damn!

Living Soils are giving soils, providing far more bounty for less inputs because Nature is doing much of the work of the fertilizer supplier.  When my grandparents farmed they raised a family of 10 on 175 acres – and that was a large prosperous dairy farm for its day.  Now it would be a hobby farm in this era of industrial, corporate agriculture.  With the need for literally over $1,000,000 in rolling equipment, not to mention the silos, dairy barns, etc to support the 2000 acre “farms” of today the bank interest alone is staggering – forcing most farmers to work additional jobs.  Conventional farming has also killed our rural communities – 2000 acres 70 years ago would have supported 10-15 large families well, where now one farmer struggles with bankruptcy every other year because most of the income from the land goes to Cargill  for supplies and to the bank in loan interest.

Saner scale farms based on living soils, working in partnership with Nature, can rebuild our countryside, help to save our climate, and will provide a huge step towards stemming the tide of “lifestyle” disease and cancers as we put the nutrition back into our bodies.

We need Living Soils for a Livable Planet.

-Rob

Resource Management: Conserve First

The Pimp My Garden push is starting exceedingly slowly – my Real Job got Real Busy and the Great Potato Harvest is taking most of the free time as we harvest and sell 300#’s a week.  Some cool things have happened though, like I was asked to speak on a 30 minute radio show about permaculture a few weeks ago.  In preparation for that I re-read Holmgren’s: Permaculture Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability – god is that a great book!  And, as usual, its got me thinking.

Early in the book he is talking through some of the comments that his Design students have made about the choices at his homestead.  In particular, there is no renewable energy component at the property – at least for electricity production.  Anyone that has priced Solar or Wind Power installations knows that to match your current grid power you are looking at $25-50,000 up front, at minimum, for a typical home.  That is a lot of coins.   We are all struggling to allocate our increasingly limited resources as prudently as possible and I loved Holmgren’s approach of choosing NOT to install the electrical generation.  His thinking is this – that $50k would be *much* better spent in other ways.  For much less money he installed a gravity driven rain water catchment system to completely satisfy his household, irrigation, and fire control needs (50,000 gallons), installed wood stoves to supply all his heat and cooking needs (as well as tree groves to supply the wood in coppice management), root cellars to reduce his freezing needs, and also installed day lighting to cut his bulb needs. All told, the changes saved a huge amount of money, and cut their total farm use of electricity to 3 kwh a month.

At that level, should the Oil Run Out he could either build a small steam generator or gasifier to meet his small energy needs, or just as likely he wouldn’t miss the 3 kwh or energy if it was gone as it is only powering luxury items like a refrigerator and computer.  A recent article in the BBC is claiming that the UK may have rolling blackouts in 6 years and that they need to build more energy plants a the cost of hundreds of millions of pounds.  No where in the article do they talk about the critical “nega-watts” of Natural Capitalism fame – the power “created” every time you reduce your consumption as a household, business, or country.  Conservation is carbon neutral, critical to our future and is cheaper to boot.

To take my home off grid with Solar would cost over $50k -and we already use less than 70% of the average household in our area.  For a third that amount I could install a root cellar, hyper effecient appliances, and a masonry wood stove that would drop my energy use another 50-75%.  Switching my desktop to a laptop, ditching the AC and using a whole house fan, and other changes like replacing the carpet with wood floors to ditch the vacuum would be easy and not overly expensive if done as items wear out.  Quilts are cheaper than cordwood anyday.

I guess my point is that we are hard wired as a society to BUILD solutions – add power plants, erect wind turbines, etc.  When more often than not the solution to our problems is in rethinking the root cause of our problem in the first place.  In this case, we don’t need more, we need less.  Likely that is the case more often than not.  In permaculture speak – the problems that we currently face are due to the poor solutions that we currently have in place.  To pepper in the ubiquitous Einstein quote – we need to change our thinking from the mindset that created the problems in the first place if we are to find a workable solution.

Be the change.

-Rob

Focus

I’ve got a pretty eclectic music taste, but it is highly dependent on my mood.  Much of January I was listening to alot of George Winston and William Ackerman.  The first waves of the New Economy were coming to bear on the shores of My World.  Cutting the hours of my team and being unable to give them Real Answers to the poignant questions of “How long?” and “How Deep?” threw me into a Big Think.  When I think, I need instrumentals – Winston’s “Summer” got me through most of my level 400 Philosophy classes.  But the Big Think is passing for a bit.

Now as the world begins to awake from Winter’s Rest I can feel my psyche ache for action.  I spent a few weeks turned very deeply inside, and now that the strength has gathered it is time for action.  First off, I can hardly stand to have a book in my hands – a sure sign that my brain is full and its time to Get Busy.  Next Ackerman is no longer a go to – in the last week Non Point, Clutch, Breaking Benjamin, Rage, and Soundgarden have been almost constant companions.  Hell yes, its time to get busy!

Seeds are ordered -double the spuds of LY-, but  the energy within needs more than farming for release and that leads to energy projects in abandon.  This weekend will see me  beginning to learn to weld as I build what will likely be a butt ugly, but functional stand for holding drums of grease for drying over a syngas flame.  Plans are being drawn up for the Tilapia/BioDiesel/Gasifier Greenhouse-a-workshop.  I have every intention of making Biodiesel by April or sooner, and hopefully have built my own gasifier by then to literally fuel my future projects.

The future is getting to be as Real as we have always thought it would be.  In my world- that is about 27 months too early.   So much of my life is moving from the armchair to reality -and I am struggling to keep up.  I spent much of the past month freaking out at how quickly Change was Coming – and how unprepared I was (granted I have REALLY high expectations for preparedness).  Now its time to start filling in those gaps.  

I see myself spending less time on getting other people “on board” and more time finding dirt in the nails solutions to the Big Questions: low energy/capital solutions to Food/Energy/Employment.  If the past 6 months is any predictor of the future – assuming We have Real Answers, getting people on board will not be a problem.  I’ve got focus, now the challenge is metering out the execution to prevent fatigue and collapse -making it through The Funnel will be a marathon, not  a sprint.

Be the Change

-Rob

Diesels and Mob Ignorance

So today was my first day at work with my new Golf TDI. Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. First off -now that I’ve seen it in real life: its is fantastic. Super clean inside and out, everything works but the cupholder, and there are no weird noises in the chassis other than a strut mount starting to show its age. We got over 50mpg on the way home, and its got plenty of power to tote around a family of 4 w/gear. Incredibly pleased with the purchase.

But back to my work. Seems that many, many people simply cannot understand why I would buy a diesel -even at 50mpg. The price stigma on diesel seems to be incredibly strong -all they can remember is when it was $4.79 a few months ago. I often get frustrated by normally decently intelligent citizens refusing to think things through for themselves. So here is the thinking to my argument with them -I will try to be less condescending here than in real life… The long and the short of it is that as long as you are getting 12% better fuel economy -a diesel can cost you less. But it is alot more to it than that.

Pump Price

Diesel is often, but not always, more expensive than unleaded. In the past year that I have been watching it it seems to anecdotally hover around 10-12% over unleaded. The issues with The Mob is that a 12% premium over unleaded at $4.29 is about $4.79, which carries alot of sticker shock. It is best to de-emotionalize the major purchases of our lives so lets stick to that 12% worst case scenario to be objective.

Effeciency

Diesel fuel has about 30% more “boom” per gallon than unleaded – but good engineers can actually eck out more efficiency than that using turbocharging and direct injection. Golfs come in both unleaded and diesel versions of the same car so it is a decent comparison of apples/apples. The 2.0 liter VW unleaded engine can was rated at 24/31 with 105 hp. The TDI in the same year was rated 35/44 with 90 hp, but more torque (they “feel” stronger). That is a a roughly 45% improvement! Now the 2.0 VW engine uses ancient technology, so lets compare it to a high tech Honda of the same year -though this loses some of the apples to apples as the Honda is more aerodynamic and weighs less being only a 4 Star car. It got 28/35. Still the TDI is a 25% improvement over the highly esteemed Honda 4 cylinder – and that is in a heavier car.

Fuel Cost

Really they only way to compare fuel costs is in dollars per 1000 miles o some other distance. Lets say unleaded is $4 a gallon. Lets compare a 2001 Honda Civic(28/35), a 2001 Golf TDI (35/44), and a 2004 Prius (48/45). I used the ’04 Prius since it the oldest year of the most fuel efficient 4 door car available. I will also include a 2004 Subaru Forester (19/25) as that is what we had until recently considered a frugal tow vehicle. These figures are from http://www.fueleconomy.gov and use the revised 2008 EPA numbers which are a joke -if you can’t beat these you are a menace to the planet. I will simply average the numbers for “mixed driving”.

  • 2001 Civic costs $126.98
  • 2001 Golf costs $113.45
  • 2004 Prius costs $86.20
  • 2004 Forester costs $181.81

The Prius is a hands down winner here. On strictly fuel alone, the Prius would save you about $800/yr if you traded in your Civic and drove 20k a year and a significant $2000/yr over our Forester.

Vehicle Cost

This is the Prius killer for us and many others. Lets compare average prices on Autotrader within 500 miles of me (Upper Midwest) which include Detroit, Chicago and Minneapolis.

  • 2001 Civic were $7960
  • 2001 Golf/Jetta TDI’s were about $9500
  • 2004 Prius were $20,500
  • 2004 Forester was $13950

On Total Cost the Civic is our winner. But the TDI is close enough that many people would be able to make good rationale decision on more subjective things like safety ratings, towing capacity, resale, availability etc. The Prius loses out on any cost analysis, but that isn’t really what hybrids are about and this isn’t news to anyone.

Basically a diesel can save you some money in the real world. I drove a 2001 Civic for many years and got 37pg every single tank. I expect the TDI will get me about 48mpg on mixed driving, but that remains to be seen. That would save us a decent $300/yr. Better yet, it has alot more utility for our family -it can tow barrels and Grillo’s, is more comfortable on long trips to visit family in SD or Ohio, and most importantly I can make my own fuel for it which weighed very heavily on our final decision.
One final note, I didn’t even touch the emmisions debate -and that was intentional. Alot of the diesel emmision info on the web is from the old uber dirty diesel (500+ ppm sulfur) and the data on the 15ppm sulfur is not readily availible for these older cars. Also I plan to run 20-100% biodiesel mixes and tailpipe readings for that are even harder to come by. In this category the Prius gains significant ground as a PZEV it is by far the friendliest to the planet.

Again,the moral to this very long story is that as long as you are getting 12% better fuel economy -a diesel can cost you less, but there are sooooo many other variables you should really spend the time thinking this through that any purchase of this caliber deserves. I have made impulse vehicle purchases and have always regretted them.

Our world is very much in need or more mindful consumerism. Be the Change.

-Rob

PS: The 2008 EPA estimates are frustrating. They seem to factor in driver behaviors even less than before and really show a bias to low tech producers like GM and Ford. Low tech and/or big engine like the Big 3 and the 2.0 liter VW engines seem to be more accurately reflected -my parents are slow drivers and can only eck our about 32 highway in their 2.0 Jetta -a 5% gain. Compare that to our Forestes (27mpg mixed ) a 20% gain, and that I was able to achieve 52mpg in my first ever trip in the Golf also for a 20% gain, and many Prius drivers can do the same. High Tech engines are better able to run efficiently if the driver is smart and light on the throttle -where the low tech ones cannot since they are always dumping in fuel. The EPA, under the Republicans and Big business, has catered to mediocrity. Again.  Your goal should be to beat the new 2008 EPA estimates for highway driving by 10% in
your mixed driving.  If you aren’t, adjust your behaviors and save money and the planet.

Oh Crap.

Inconvienent Truth and other studies from the past decade drew the publics attention to the ever rising amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere, and most recent numbers put The Limit of catastrophic CO2 concentrations at the 400ppm level.  But this recent (ok its 3 weeks old) column in the Washington Post drops that number significantly.

Research shows 350 parts per million is as much as the atmosphere can tolerate without dire consequence. We’re at 383.

Fighting our way out of this mess just got allot harder.  Time to get busy living or get busy dying.

Be the Change!

-Rob

Building Soils to Save the Planet

Last year when I was reading through the Scientific Amercian Articles about Climate Change Solutions, and again in Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, I was stunned by the carbon emissions from agriculture. I understood the simple logic of the implications with cutting/burning trees for ag land, but they were referring to regular existing Ag Land. After mulling it over while reading/watching, I got distracted and never really gave it much more thought.

Now I am reading more books about soil fertility, and other tid bits of info are coming back to me. Like I read somewhere that most depleted soils worldwide are carbon, not nitrogen limited as most commonly thought. And then there is the carbon sequestration aspects that are mentioned in the arguments for Switchgrass Ethanol. In Building Soils for Better Crops, the authors mix in alot of sustainability into their soil talk- no aspect of our lives can afford to be treated in a vacuum. Part of that is getting more in detail about the placement of soils in the Global Carbon Cycle.

According to the authors, there is more carbon stored in soil (soil will mean the top 6″ in this post), than in all plants, animals, and the atmosphere. They make a great example that makes is very accessible: there is as much carbon in a soil with 1% organic matter than there is in the entire atmosphere above that acre. There is about 2,000,000 pounds of soil in the top 6″ of an acre, so 1% of that is about 10 tons. Here is the kicker, most soil on undisturbed Prairie had organic matter in the 10-12% range. After a century of tilling it is down to about 2%. The authors don’t do this math, but to me, it is a safe assumption that for every acre of prairie “busted” in the last century we put 90 tons of carbon into the air. We have 349,000,000 acres of crop land, using the math ( I realize we are compounding any errors in the earlier examples but focus on scale not specifics) we have emitted 31,410,000,000 tons of carbon just from Ag Land. This is where the despair comes in.

I hate despair. I don’t have time to be depressed, so I immediately start looking for solutions. That incredibly daunting math in the above paragraph can work in reverse. While Big Coal panders about trying to find way to sequester carbon from their electric plants with some other Huge Industrial Idea, Nature has already created a perfect system: in her own plants.

This is where it gets exciting for me. Our cropland is currently near death and on chemical life support, primarily due to the lack of organic materials in the soils. For every 1% of organic material we add back into an acre of soil we save 10 tons of Carbon, while also significantly increasing the productivity of the land for food production. And the best ways to get organic material back into the land? Sustainable Ag practices: crop rotations with sod forming cover crops, reduced tilling, composting, and applications of animal manures instead of nitrogen derived from natural gas. Basically turn the clock back 60 years and call a “Do Over”.

I’ve read that if we converted every farm east of the Missouri River to the farming practices of Joel Salatin we would remove as much carbon as we emit every year. That seems a little far fetched, but it is safe to say we have at our finger tips the ability to significantly increase the quality and quantity of our food production while simultaneously reducing our Carbon emissions to a huge degree.

Maybe all the answers to life can be found in a Garden!

-Rob

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