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!

4 sq ft Potato Tower

PLEASE READ the final post in the series on Potato Towers.  Results were NOT 100# – not even close – I got less than 4# from 3 towers. This technique is not a magic way to produce massive yields which is why none of the articles ever show pictures of the harvest.  I grow organic potatoes professionally, and in addition to my field crops I try trails plantings each year.  If you are looking for a sure fire way to produce record harvests try the Sheet Mulch Method I document here.  That method yielded 30#’s from 10 plants – which is an insane harvest!

A huge focus of this blog is finding creative, sustainable ways to eck more produce from small spaces.  I also love growing calorie crops, especially potatoes, and furthermore I really enjoy building things.  So when a friend recently recommended the use of potato towers, I was very interested.  So yesterday I was off to buy materials for several compost bin orders I have and wouldn’t ya know?  2×6 pine was on sale.

spud-empty-top3The theory is simple – solancea plants will root from any stalk that has ground contact – I’ve seen both peppers and tomatoes rooting from their stalks.  The important part with potatoes is that they will lay tubers any where between the original “seed” potato and the soil surface.  Every time the potato plant gets about 6″ above ground, add  more soil – this is why you mound potatoes in the field.  These towers just take the mounding to crazy logical conclusions- the tower is essentially a 3′ “mound”.  What I like most about this kind of tower is the ability to “sneak” potatoes as the season progresses by removing a lower strip of 2×6 and grubbing around.  As most suburbanites don’t have root cellars (yet!) this is a huge plus if you are growing 100#’s of spuds.  Also, as the sides are opaque, spud production will occur right up to the sides, maximizing space and using less water compared to wire mesh designs.  Also, the lumber avoids some concerns that may be present with using old tires.  Old garbage cans, etc would also work.

The only major change I did for mine was that I used 2×4’s for the uprights as I had 10′ of them laying around the garage and I also put a sheet of cardboard under it to thwart the quack.  Speaking of which, this could be considered a hyper productive way to sheet mulch – cardboard out next years beds, and build potato towers along them – one could get (in theory) 600#’s of spuds form one 20′ bed (6 towers with 18″ spacing) and when the towers come down you have a raised bed about 2′ deep with compost when you’re done.  Hmmmm…

Planting the tower is easy, spud-tower-topI took 4 medium seed potatoes (1lb exactly) and cut them in half.  In the spirit of science, I used one each of Kennebec, Purple Viking, Carola, and Yukon Gold to see which liked this method more.  The growing medium I used for the first layer is 2 year old leaf mould, to which I added some pelletized chicken manure for nitrogen as it looked a little “carbon-ey”.  Weather here is mild and rainy, so they should be sprouting in no time.  The only down side is that right after the photo shoot, our new adolescent dog decided that this was a fantastic play pen and tore into it with abandon – I think I found all eight seeds, but she may have eaten one or two.

spud-tower-front1The claim is that the towers will produce 100#’s of spuds with about 1# planted in 4 sq ft.  That is freakish considering a record yield for field sown spuds is about 14:1; I was very pleased with my 8.5:1 last year.  In typical culture, 100#’s would take at least 75 sq ft, but more likely 150.  I am stoked to see this work and will certainly keep you posted.  Other great advantages – you do not need any heavy equipment to grow these – and harvesting is super easy.  Just be sure to save the soil somewhere for next year – mixing it with fall leaves and grass clippings in a compost bin would be a fantastic way to rejuvenate the soil.

Couple of post scripts. This thing is crazy overbuilt – I would feel comfortable parking a car on it if it had a cross tie across the top!  I think the prime driver of the dimensions is cost.  In the irony of modern economics, 2x6x8′ lumber is cheaper than 1x6x8′ lumber.  Also, pine rots quickly, so using 2x lumber will buy you a few extra years -though by yr 4 I expect these to be falling apart.  If it works I will likely build the next one using cedar decking for the sides and 2×2 cedar for the uprights.  That should last a decade, but would cost about double.  Another advantage would be that it would weigh half as much – this thing is heavy when built!

To make it more fun, we will likely be painting the sides with the kids – I have the idea of making each side a different person, and then we can mix and match the parts each year to create silly combinations.  I would also like to enlist my wife (waaaaay more talented artist) to paint a picture of a potato plant with a “soil view” of roots on one side.

All in all the total cost was about $30 (8 2x6x8, screws, and 12′ of 2×2) and about an hour of time in the workshop -mostly becuase my kids were running the screw guns and they are 5 and 7.  If you can truly get 100#’s of spuds that is crazy cheap – down to literally a few cents per pound over the lifetime of the tower.  Combine that with the ability for literally every single homeowner to grow all their potatoes for a year in as little as 8 sq ft this could be huge!

Be the Change.

-Rob

PS – As this post has been picked up by Stumble Upon and ranks high in most Google searches,  I would like to re-direct new readers to the conclusions of this experiment, and to also click the category “Potato Tower” for further reading.  Results with this system are proving very difficult despite the claims and I have yet to see the hype fulfilled in real life.

Food as Revolution

I keep a sticker on my laptop that reads “Eat like you give a Damn.”  That sticker sums it all up succinctly for me: if you are willing to put it in your mouth, you better give it some thought.  We are, literally, what we eat after all.   Course yesterday at the table my 5 year old and I had this exchange: “Daddy?”  “Yes Dear?” “What does *damn* mean?”  As we don’t believe in Hell that was a fun conversation, but it ended well.

Today was the kickoff for the farming season for me.  I pulled the Grillo out of the storage center, was pleased it fired on the third pull, loaded it up in the trailer behind the Golf and headed North to the market garden with some hand tools and an ounce of Spinach seed from Fed-Co.   The weather was perfect – about 37 degrees, but bright and clear enough that I would be shedding my sweatshirt as soon as I got moving in the field.  I had the stereo on as I drove.  Music is important to me – I use it to mold, augment, or stifle my emotional state at most times; unless I am in for a Big Think I am typically listening to something.  One would think that heading into such a bucolic scene I would be listening to George Winston’s Spring or at least something introspective or calm like the Shins, Ben Harper or the Be Good Tanyas.  Nope.  I was deep into Rage Against the Machine and Rise Against with some FloBots thrown in for good measure.  I was Calm Like a Bomb and itching for a Fight.

Rather than melding my spirit with the rhythms of the Earth I had the very real feeling like I was preparing for a Revolution – the Carharts, boots and gloves I had donned were my uniform as a frontline insurgent in the Fight for the Future; my Grillo and DeWitt hoe the weapons of the New War.  This was not a communion – it was battle.  

Of course I was not at odds with Nature -She’s my greatest Ally and raison pour l’existence.  But each of the 2000 seeds I sowed this morning were a statement that I want tomorrow to be different than today.  With those seeds I palpably stated that I want to bring into existence 50#’s of sustainably grown food that would not have been there without my labors.  I planted those seeds because I Give a Damn, to sell and barter to people that Give a Damn.  

And it is a routine that I and thousands of others will repeat every weekend for keep-fightingthe next 24 weeks.  I will break it up with tours and workshops to help the Movement gain more momentum.  I will blog about it to help others learn and to keep the discussion going.  I will learn from others and refine my techniques so that we can reliably produce surpluses of food with little to no non local inputs and support local markets sustainably.  Together we will win.

As made famous in the Battle of Seattle:

Your fist is the size of your heart – keep loving, keep fighting.

 

Be the Change.

-Rob

De-Centralized Thinking

When I consider the litany of challenges facing us in the next 20+ years I see a few common threads.  Of course there is the growing realization that Fossil Fuel is at the root of many of our ills – from Global Warming to Globalization with all its economic and social issues.  But what is equally concerning to me is the paradigm shift that all that cheap energy has done to our thinking.  Since the rise of Coal and Oil, the mantra that “Bigger is Better” and sayings like “Economies of Scale” have become completely ingrained in our collective psyche.  Why produce your own energy, when it is so much more “efficient” to get it from a giant coal plant?  Why work in the town you live in when it is so much “cheaper” to commute 20 miles each way?  Why eat food in season if you don’t have to?  Hell, why would you even consider growing it yourself when it is so much less expensive to just go out and buy it?

As recently as 2 generations ago, these questions would have sounded as ludicrous as  I a truly believe they are …if we de-centralize our thinking.  Only the false accounting of this Global Era allow it to seem reasonable to buy salad greens trucked in from 2000 miles away or December strawberries from 7500.  While these actions are certainly awful from a Health of the Earth point of view, what I am most concerned with now is how our having lived with them for 50 years has damaged our thinking and thusly our ability to pull ourselves out of this mess.

My Grandfathers were farmers and entrepreneurs.  That is nothing special – the majority of men 80 years ago were still rural and living off the fruits of their minds and energies; they had to be innovative and efficient to survive.  Also, compared to us, they lived remarkably less cash dependent lives that were, by necessity, much more localized.  I want to be very clear that I am not some luddite revisionist pining for a complete reversion to some Glorious Past, there was also a litany of problems from discrimination and prejudice brought about by overly localizedand undereducated  lives,  to physical and health hardships that can now be avoided.  

Rather, I am focused on the loss of that feeling of self confidence that used to be such a trait of “being American”.  If my Grandfather (who fittingly also happens to be my namesake) encountered a problem on his farm, or in his business, he dealt with it: he made a new gate hinge, added a flat bed to his Ford truck, or grew enough oats to tide his horses through the winter.  When electricity arrived at the farm, he learned how to wire his house and barn and how to use electric pumps for the well.  Why?  He would have been dumb-founded that you even asked!  Why?  Because doing things yourself was how things got done.  For the majority of our history we failed or thrived due to our degree of Self Reliance.  

So much of our society – even some of those individuals that are coming to grips with the issues we are facing- has become accustomed to “them” providing for us.  Sure, we have big issues, but [insert one or more:] Technology, The Market, Industry, Innovation, or Obama will find a solution.  But look around your life right now.  Seriously – literally look around the room you are in and think for a bit.  How much food is in your home if the grocery store wasn’t there?  Right now I have about a week at most.  How much heat can your home produce on its own?  In January my Natural Gas heated home would be uninhabitable within 24 hours of the grid shutting off as the pipes would freeze and burst.  How would you make money without your commute intensive job?  I have taken large steps to augment that and can still only cover 20% of my gross annual expenses.   We are ALL in a pickle right now due to the Centralized Thinking that has permitted us to place so much of our lives into the hands of others.  

But that is what it is and continuing to dwell on it after you have come to grips with it isn’t really productive, and I write this blog to help myself and others become more productive.  So here is my point,  the solutions to the challenges we face will not be solved by Big, Centralized Solutions.  We cannot move blithely forward thinking that solar or hydrogen will allow the continuation of business as usual.  We will need to turn the “economies of scale” on their head – to begin to understand that there are definitely economies of scale – that smaller is better.  It is better for lots of people to make a little food; it is better for lots of homes to produce a little energy.  And it is certainly better for lots of people to take a stand to become a little more Self Reliant.  Nature thrives on redundancy -on having thousands of different organisms doing essentially the same thing.  We have erred greatly in not heading that lesson.

So maybe there are Big Solutions – and I believe in the depth of my soul that the true Big Solution is that enough people need to change their thinking to understand that smaller really is better.  Smaller brings accountability back into our lives, so that when we turn on our lights we have to live with the  repercussions of the energy it takes to light our lives and cannot live in blissful ignorance of the severed mountains of West Virginia because we had to grow and cut the willows to power our gasifier or pay one of our neighbors to do so.   Nor when we open the toy on Christmas morning can we avoid the living conditions of those who built it- because the toy factory is in the town down the river and Aunt Molly works there.  Smaller can also bring back other aspects of our lives.  Growing and preparing food with family is an amazing experience.  The confidence and pride earned  by child who spends their Sunday morning making the pancake batter herself, using strawberries that she picked in the yard the day before is so much greater than the child who sits and watches cartoons or goes to McDonald’s.  

When I was born, I was named after my grandfather.  When I grow up, I hope to become as capable as he was at providing an enduring legacy to his ancestors- his farm is still a bountiful “Land of Milk and Honey”.  I firmly believe that there are solutions to the challenges of our generation.  I also am convinced that if we do it right, we can fulfill the dream of all parent’s: that our children will live a better, more fulfilling life than we do.  One of the first steps to making that future a reality is in de-centralizing our thinking; believing that Small is Possible and that we –each of us!- has the power to Be the Change we wish to see in the world.  

Be the Change.

-Rob

Big Az Worm Bin

Even though I live in an HOA, I am able to keep a livestock herd of about 250,000 strong right in my backyard, and you’d never know it. See I dig vermicomposting. 3 years ago we tried the Rubbermaid Bin in the basement like the Worm Woman taught us. But I am a lazy gardener (energetic builder, yes, but lazy in the gardening!) and we didn’t keep enough litter in it so it attracted flies. So I moved them outside, and made the bin MUCH bigger, as is my wont. The bin we built last year is 3×5′ and 2 feet deep. That works out to about a cu yard of vermicompost at peak capacity. It also means I have a crap load of worms in there. This weekend a remodel of our composting system meant that I needed to move our worm bin, so I thought I’d take the time to post a pictorial of our bin. As you can see in the first shot, the bin is made of half width cinder block. I bury the bin 2.5 block deep for insulation in all seasons, but I loose stack the blocks so that the bin can drain, and also to make it semi portable (I seem to redeisgn things every 1-2 years as I learn more, so I don’t like to make things too permanent. to hold the blocks together I pound 1.5″ stakes into them, but really with soil on the outside, and worm turds on the inside they aren’t really going anywhere. Our winters are fierce, so I bury the bin in about 2 feet of leaves from the city municipal yard, and then in the spring use it in my compost bins and to mulch the gardens.

I mostly feed my worms the gorp buckets I get from the Coffee Shop, which also means that my vermicompost is full of tomato seeds. The second shot shows gorp that is about 75% vermicompost. It is also very wet since I had to take all the worms and vermicompost out of their old bin, stage them in piles and wheelbarrows (yes I have more than one) and the barrows filled up with rain despite their covers. This shot also shows a better perspective on how freakishly large the bin is. That is 10 cu ft of worm sludge and the bin is not even half full!

If you think this is alot of effort for some worm poop you’d be right. But after the first time I top dressed with vermicompost I became an absolute believer in its power to add Deep Fertility to plants. Our roses have never bloomed like they did the year they got vermicompost, and it is still my favorite side dressing for heavy feeders like tomatoes. I don’t really understand it myself, but I have seen studies that have actually shown that worm “casts” or manure actually has higher fertility than the things they eat. Seems like alchemy to me, but I have seen enough results to be a believer.  The trick is similar to how yeast makes wheat more nutritious for us.  Take a pound of wheat berries, chew them up and even if you don’t break your teeth, you won’t get too much protein or carbs from them.  Why?  Those nutrients are tied up in a form we can’t digest.  Now, grind up the wheat into flour, add some water and fungus (yeast) and the fungus will convert the nutrients into forms our digestive tracks can process.  Worms do the same for organic matter – their casts are full of microbes and other microbes that continue to break down the remaining organic matter – in this way their are more nutrients, or more precisely nutrients in a more available form, for plants to use.  But its still magic to watch 20#’s of gorp turn into soil every week!

The final picture shows the completed bin. I made a simple 2-piece lid out of cedar decking. Raccoons and Opposums would love to eat your worms, so covering them with something substantial is important. Also, in the final shot you can see the two pieces of perforated PVC that I inserted next to the cinder blocks for drainage. The last bin was surrounded on all sides by soil for insulation, but our “soil” is virtually all clay so the bin itself would fill up with water almost to the top, NOT a good situation for worms!! 1 10′ chunk cut in half should do the trick.

This past summer I finally found a decent way to harvest my worm castings without taking out all the worms. In years past I have tried to divide the bin in half with welded wire, and put fresh food in one side to draw the worms over. That works, but it also means that you are wasting half your bin space. I have also just scooped out a barrow ful (abot 1/5th a bin), worms and all and spread it. There are more than enough worms left to repopulate (they double in population every 4-6 weeks in ideal environments), but I felt bad about sacrificing 50,000 of my buddies.

But Growing Power, which vermicomposts on an industrial scale, taught me a super simple way. Take a sheet of aluminum window screen and lay it over the finished vermicompost and then lay fresh food stuffs on top of that and cover it with a sheet of canvas or something. In a few weeks the worms will have squeezed through the mesh to eat the fresh food, and you can pull up the screen and transfer them to a new bin, or a cleaned out old one. Slick!

Vermicomposting is also great with kids. I HATE to see little uns that are afraid of worms, and trust me, if you start them young enough they simple LOVE to grub around in the worm bin searching for their “friends”!

Be the Change.

-Rob

Community… Get Some

This has been a great week for community in my neck of the woods.  Saturday we had the annual meeting of our HOA.  I was unable to get anyone to take over as president, but I met several more of my neighbors and it was good to catch up after a long winter locked in doors.  From there I quick went home to tuck the kids in bed, and then I was off to another meeting.  This time it was a gathering of some of the 300 or so citizens who have attended one of our The Natural Step study circles in the past year or so.  Over 60 people showed up and over dinner and wine, we heard reports from all the dozens of various groups and their actions spurred on by the circles.  Almost half a dozen are running for local and county elections, there have been severl hybrid car purchases, and every town represented now has an active local environmental group lobbying their local village board, holding educational meetings at libraries and otherwise making themselves useful in the Good Fight.  It was incredibly inspiring to see so many people, people from their early twenties to their early eighties, Being the Change.

This power, the power of Community, the power of Shared Vision, the power of wanting to leave a better world for our children and those that come after us is breathtaking and literally awe-inspiring.   We listened for two hours as we regaled each other with our sucesses -from simply planting a rain garden to winning a seat on the county board to starting 501C3’s- and each passing story further emboldened us with the belief that we are not alone.  And together, we are stronger than we ever imagined.

My kids have been singing a song lately from an new album we bought them: “One can’t save the rainforest, but Toucan, Two Can!”  Amen.

Be the Change!

-Rob

My Artic Tale

Our kids don’t watch much TV. Ok, our TV has been unplugged on our basement floor for 7 months and is gathering a nice collection of junk on top. We do watch videos as a family occasionally, and the kids (Sprout just turned 6, and Bird is 4.66) can watch some videos on their own once in awhile as well. Today we watched Arctic Tale.

arctic-tale.jpg

The movie is good, though I was not nearly as rivited as I was with March of the Penguins. But the kids were glued (we had to pause the movie and have a family meeting when the bear cub died…) and as the movie was winding down I ended up wandering away for something. Then the next thing I know the kids are busting in super worked up with the uber urgency of youth:

  • Bird: “Daddy! We need to plant hundreds of trees!”
  • Sprout starts running around turning off lights
  • Bird: “Daddy! What we do in our home effects THEIR HOME!”
  • Sprout: “Daddy! We need to eat more fresh food!”
  • Bird: “We have to stop Global Warming!”

Suffice it to say that NG did a little better job tying in the Need to Act at the end of this one…

I won’t get into the morality of burdening a 4 year old with Eco Guilt, but this movie spurred the kids and I to have one of our better Talks about why we do what we do. Sprout is now committed to planting “dozens, and dozens, and dozens of maple trees so we can make our own maple syrup”, and is actually remaining committed after I explained that it takes longer to grow maple syrup than carrots.

Thanks National Geographic, for Being the Change.

-Rob

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