Resilience Thinking

“When it comes to resilience, what’s important is that the different organisms that form part of the same functional group each have different responses to disturbances… …If there are a large number of different response types, the service provided by a functional group is likely to be sustained over a wider range of conditions, and the system has a greater capacity to absorb disturbances.” – Brian Walker and David Salt, Resilience Thinking

Redundancy is a goal, not a label; we need to get busy getting creative. The authors also describe those disturbances and “creative destruction”, which breaks down stability and predictability (say a Hurricane to the Gulf or Peak Oil for you and me) but at the same time releases tremendous amounts of resources for innovation and reorganization. Change is Here. What we need now is organic millions of organic, diverse, and innovative solutions to build a new regime and redefine normal at a more resilient level.

This is our challenge; This is our calling.

Be the Change!

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

Grow Your Own Soil: Compost Crops

Readers will note that I am HUGE on living soils.  We moved into a dead, denuded landscape and have spent the past 5 years dutifully rebuilding them.  The single most important thing in healing soils is to add organic matter – essentially getting carbon back into the soil.  Why?  Carbon is the primary building block of all life and it is the fuel of the soil food web -from the zillions of bacteria and miles of fungal hyphae to the worms that feed on them.  We’ve been trucking in organic matter for years now – mostly wood chips, but also straw and manures; by the ton.  In fact, over the past five years I would estimate that we’ve surpassed 20 tons of raw material that we’ve either added directly to our soils (manures), or mulched (wood chips and straw).  That may sound like alot, but at least half of the carbon is lost to the air as part of the decomposition process (no fears for global warming as the carbon in wood chips and manure was atmospheric carbon just a year or so ago before it was sequestered by the plants), plus to add an inch to a 1/4 acre (11,000 sq ft) which is my yard (minus house and driveway)  you need to have about 9 tons of compost.  That’s 34 yards of finished compost, or over 100 cu yards of raw material.  Helping others get to this point is why I own a dump truck.

The result is that our soil is teeming with life and the gardens are really starting to “pop” this year with trees adding multiple feet of growth, 5+ cuttings of the Russian Comfrey, and sunflowers over 8′ tall.  We will continue to “uppen” our soils with compost and mulches for decades to come.  But I am trying to do this on as low of inputs as possible.  In the last 5 years we have built our garden soils up and the lawn is getting healthier every year.  It is time to try to see how sustainable I can make this system.  It is time to start growing my own soil.

To grow your own soil you need plants that pull carbon out of the atmosphere, which of course all plants do, but some do it really damn well.  I must tip my hat strongly to John Jeavons and his work on sustainable gardening here, but for annuals the choices are not too hard – what gets really damn big, with a thick stalk?  Think sunflowers, sorghum, corn, quinoa, amaranth, etc.  Add in all the small grains if left to dry out into straw and you get the idea.  Perennial crops are also money as well.  There are a wealth of BIG plants in the tall grass prairie – my favorites are cupplant, giant Joe Pye weed, sunchokes, and the myriad perennial sunflowers like maximillian and ox eye.  The true Big Guns in this area are rapid growth trees, often referred to as weeds, harvested as coppice such as willows, box elder, black locust, and even chestnut and ash.  Other “weeds” like lambsquarter, ragweed, and buttonweed get 6’+ tall , and even invasives like buckthorn coppice well.

Today I spent an hour touring the back yard with my Big Az 10 cu ft mulch wheel barrow, my sickle, and my new brush axe pulling weeds, hacking down old raspberry canes from last year, cutting back insurgent sunchokes, and taking the 4th cutting off the 60 or so russian comfrey I have around the gardens.  That produced an immense amount of green material – piling it into my utility trailer I easily had 80 cu ft.  That is far too much nitrogen for a pile so then I got out my loppers and a pruning saw and took some prunings from the buckthorn out back and two of our willow shrubs.  It wasn’t enough, but in a few years the 2 dozen box elders and  willows I have planted will be on line.  Here are the results.

about 100#'s of material, but dang is it bulky. Brush Axe is leaning on the trailer.

That is from one lap of the backyard – I can do this about 3-4 times a year at present.  In years past I just threw all the weeds into the compost bins, but it doesn’t work too well as the stalky stuff takes too long and the full size leaves mat up.  Now with the Bio-80 shredder it makes marvelous weed puree.

Entropy ala weeds. At least half that pile is/was comfrey so the compost will be awesome. The recycling bin is the chipped tree prunings - not enough to offset the greens, but its a start..

Now the Bio-80 is powered by gasoline, and I am likely to catch flak in the comments for burning dead dinosaurs to save the world.  I agree- its not ideal.  But I am building a transitional system and am not afraid to break some eggs to make an omelet.  The chipper is only 5hp and ran for about 20 minutes using less than a cup of fuel.  In future years I hope to find a way to power the chipper on methane from the ‘Midden or ethanol from a local co-op.  But for now I’m in bed with BP on this one.  One very cool option would be to use a chicken “shredder” to break down the green material – 4 layers in a confined pen would make short work of this over a week or so of adding an inch or two a day for the girls to scratch in.  Of course that is illegal here.  Working on that too…

This bin is 40" cubed and is about 66% full. This will settle almost 30% in the coming days. Making soil takes ALOT of plant material. Plant more trees!

Finally, it takes ALOT of plants to make a yard of compost.  A yard of finished compost weighs about 550#’s.  So the 100-150#’s of material that I put in, most of which was water that will evaporate out, is just a start. But every journey begins with a step.

I am very proud that this bin. When I add another weed lap in September, plus all the corn, cupplant, sunchokes, and sorghum stalks form the yard this fall, this cu yard of finished compost will be 100% homegrown.  As the gardens mature, I will begin getting leaf litter from the trees and willow and box elder coppice to add to it.  My gardens, minus paths, are about 3000 sq ft – that means that 4-5 cu yards could cover it all with .5″ of compost annually, which is alot if you are only maintaining fertility.  I can do that in about 5 years if I add more coppice trees; I am convinced that I can sustain the fertility of my gardens without additional inputs.

We can do this.

Be the change!

-Rob

Food + Fuel + Fertility = The New Paradigm

Food. Fuel. Fertility.   Of late, those 3 words hammer through my brain like a sledge whenever I get going on a new project.  The reason is simple – I am convinced that our agriculture has to do all three if we are to build a new culture to survive the new reality of Climate Change on top of Energy Descent and our burgeoning billions.  We talk and talk of sustainable culture – but I don’t want to sustain what we have now – the fear, the pollution, the waste – I want something far better.  We need a Regenerative Culture. The Age of Exploitation must come to an end – the Age of Healing has arrived.

The Methane Midden is a good example of this thinking.  While significantly on the energy/fertility side with its 4-6 months of hot water or methane on top of the 4000#’s of compost, it is also planted with squash and tomatoes to produce hundreds of pounds of food.  The system is still being tested (the plants aren’t loving it) but the potential is immense.  7 weeks in and the pile is still over 125 degrees – with no turning or maintenance at all.  Dang!  Tomorrow I am going to harvest several hundred mature lambsquarter that are 9′ tall to be shredded for the methane feedstock.  Much more to come on that project!

With that task of harvesting tall stalky plants in the back of my mind, this morning over breakfast I went on a fantastic internet fueled thought tangent on the feasibility of a fuel tweaked Three Sisters guild.  It is so simple, which is why I am so excited.  First – take the standard Three Sisters of corn + pole beans + winter squash and swap oilseed sunflowers for the corn.  Why?  Because my car and 2 wheel tractor run on diesel.  Journey to Forever says that you can get 102 gallons of oil from an acre of sunflowers – 43,000 plants on 1′ spacing.  But we are wanting a polyculture so we will need to let some light in by spreading the sunflower canopy a bit – say cut the spacing in half to 25,000 plants or so.  That still leaves enough plants for 50 gallons of oil if we use oilseed varieties.  Then take the understory and add back in the squash.  Monoculture will get you 10-20 tons of squash per acre.  So again, lets cut that down a bit and say 18,000#’s.  That is ALOT of food.  Food that keeps all winter long. Finally, we are vegetarians so we needs our protein.  Add in the soup beans.  25 bushels per acre is typical @ 60#’s a bushel.  Again, cut in half for polyculture and you get 12 bushels of beans, or 720 pounds.  So to recap our acre is now growing enough seed to produce 50 gallons of oil, 18000#’s of squash and 700#’s of dry beans –both of which keep for months and months.  That is rather good.   Lets make it better!

Remember the thought stream that got me to this point over my now cold steel cut oats.  Chopping down cellulose rich tall plants for methane fuel stock and compost.  25,000 8′ tall sunflowers…. lay them down end to end and its over 37 miles.  I haven’t weighed one, but figure they weigh 5#’s each.  That is 62 tons of green material that is going to be pretty close to perfect C:N ratio by harvest time.  125,000#’s of material – composted down with a 75% loss gets you to about 30,000#’s of compost, or 55 yards.  That seems high so I would love to prove the math.  That is enough to spread the entire acre with .4″ of compost- a very healthy amount and far more than I apply annually in my market gardens.  Fertility would increase to say the least.  62 tons of material would also be enough to build 8 Methane Middens so that we can heat our winter greenhouses or the chicken barn.  Dang sucka.

Back to the fuel part again.  50 gallons doesn’t sound like much.  And it isn’t.  Most of us only get 22 mpg and  drive 12000 miles per car per year – 540 gallons per year per car.  Ouch.  But we all know that we will drive ALOT less in the future and most cars are fuel hogs.  My VW TDI gets 42 MPG towing a 1000# of cargo in my trailer.  Have I mentioned I love my car?  So, even saving 5 gallons for the Grillo to till the acre, we still have enough oil to drive over 1750 miles towing all those squash and bushels of beans to market.    If we relocalize that is 175 round trips to town 5 miles away – 3 trips a week. Huh.

But I want to re-stress my loathing of the food v. fuel argument.  It is a farce if you think it through and know the science of biofuels-even ADM fed their ethanol mash to tilapia.  So we take the 25,000 sunflowers, grind up the seeds (will need some energy there – unless we build a bicycle machine to do it), and press them.  That seed mash left over from the pressing doesn’t just disappear.  In fact, about 50% of the total oil is essentially impossible to remove from the pressed seeds without solvents, and the protein and carbohydrates are still there too –i.e. the food value of the seeds is still there.  That means you still have 1500#’s of protein rich (40%) meal to feed to your livestock.

Can we rebuild the next 20 years to allow us to transition to a less energy dense future?

1 acre nets 18,000#’s of squash, 750#’s of dry beans (4500 cups cooked!), 1500#s of animal feed, 30,000#’s of compost after you have heated your buildings with 8 Methane Middens worth of energy, and you also managed to make enough oil to power the tractor and drive to town 3 times a week for the next year.

On one acre.

Be the Change!

-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!

Mid Winter Local: Otik’s Spiced Potatoes

Otik's Spiced Potatoes!

Breakfast this morning, as it’s been several times a week since August, started by walking down the steps to our unfinished basement and grabbing 2 Red Baron onions, 3-4 Desiree potatoes (resistant to Late Blight!) and a head of garlic.  I start the skillet heating (low) and then add a triple glug of Olive oil.  While that heats I peal,crush, and mince 4-5 cloves of garlic.  This goes into the heated oil to get the flavor into the oil – the fragrance wafting up from the stove is immediate.  I turn back and dice the two medium onions and add them to the skillet along with some salt and a healthy mix of rosemary, paprika, and whatever else is laying around- I am particularly partial to Pennsey’s Fox Point seasoning.  While these flavors are mixing with the oil I cut up 4 medium potatoes into 1/2″ cubes.  As they’re heirlooms, the skin and all its nutrition stays on.  More salt and herbs and pepper go in.  If I am feeling like the kids need a bit more protein (vegetarian since birth) for the day, I will cut up a Field Roast “soy-sage” and throw it in. [Field Roast is HANDS DOWN the best “soy-sage” on the market.  I miss brats more than any meat, and their Italians are DAMN close.  Of course local eggs or meat would make it 100% local breakfast, but we’re talking veggie skillet here.]. Every 5 minutes or so I roll it around with a wooden spatula, but scorching is not so much an issue on the low heat, but reduce the heat after 20 minutes or so.   It takes about 45 minutes to make, but its worth every second –each of the simple flavors has room to expand on your palette and the breakfast is relished by everyone from my gourmand wife to my 6 yr old daughter.

Same bags I sell my spuds in - I keep them on the bottom shelf of our storage in the basment.

Here is the kicker.  The garlic was picked in August, the onions in late September, and the potatoes in late November (though they were ready in August – I like to let the soil store my food).  All this food is from my own gardens… and I do NOT have a Root Cellar. The most important prep for the storage of these items was to pick them properly – letting the onions and garlic cure well in the garage and allowing the potatoes to “skin” over in the ground and not picking them in wet soil.  All of this ensures that the produce keeps as much of its water inside as possible.  Then I bag them up in the 5# bags from Fed-Co –basically thick paper bags, putting them in tripled up lunch bag would work too.  Finally I take them to the basement and put them on a low shelf near the concrete floor.  Final step?  Close the one air vent down there.  Temps are in the 50’s, and I make no a adjustments for humidity.  I should also mention that these varieties were chosen a year ago for storage when I ordered seed.  Walla Walla onions store for crap, you need a strong, pungent onion and a firm spud – Yukons, Desiree, German Butterball and a dozen others are great, fingerlings and carola not so much.

I’ve read the books on Root Cellaring, studied the respiration rates of vegetables, and taken measurements of the conditions in my basement.  All of that told me that I couldn’t store my produce, so for the past 2 years we ate or sold it all by December, forcing us to the grocery store (GASP!) for potatoes.  This year I said screw it, and put 100#;s of spuds, 20#’s of onions, and 10#;s of garlic in bags and stored them as I stated above.  My onions are firm, the potatoes wholesome, and much of the garlic is in good shape.  Am I getting waste?  Not yet in the potatoes, some of the onions are softening, and a growing (ha!) portion of the garlic is sprouting.    But its mid frickin January –I have every reason to believe that the spuds and onions will still be strong in a month, at which time I will have early greens sprouting in the Hoopty.  Rutabaga and especially sweet potatoes which prefer mid humidity and 55 degrees, will last even longer.

My house is only 5 years old, and built to new standards – no sand floor, no cold air exchange to the outside, and forced air heat sucking out all the moisture.  But I have firm spuds in the basement.  And its mid January.  We can do this people! Choose your cultivars for storage, prep them right in the field, and eat healthy, local, and better in the dead of Wisconsin’s Winter.

I’ve said it before, the war for re-localizing our food will be won in the dark cold trenches of February week 3.  But what a war to fight!  This breakfast is literally the best meal you can’t buy. No grocer (yet) sells Desiree spuds, Red Baron onions, or Music garlic.  Saving the world never tasted so good!

Be the Change!

-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

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