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!


Methane Midden: 2 Week Update

When we left the Methane Midden 2 weeks ago it was 75% finished and consisted of 2 55 gallon steel drums destined to be batch methane digesters wrapped in 290′ of garden hose for temperature management.  Around these digesters we then placed 4000#’s of freshly chipped green brush that had been soaked for 2 days in some giant totes and into this soaking wet brush we layered another 240′ of hose which is intended to absorb heat from the pile and complete it as a mini version of Jean Pain’s epic methane and hot water producing brush compost piles.  Much has happened in the past 2 weeks, so lets catch up!

First off, we needed to finish the pile with another 18″ of material.  Alas, we were out of brush, so we needed to be a bit creative to find another 2000#’s of material in a jiffy. So Kevin and I hooked up the trailer to the Golf and headed back to the municipal yard to see what we could find.  While not ideal, we were able to scrounge up about 1200#s of grass clippings (likely sprayed with Chemlawn) and then went back for a load of about 800#’s of wood chips.  The thought was to shred the wood chips in my Bio-80 shredder to reduce particle size and then to mix this with the grass clippings.  The result was a very good looking mix that had decent moisture content, plenty of nitrogen and available carbon.  My primary concern is that the grass clippings will mat depsite our attempts to mix them well with the shredded chips; time will tell.  Here is the pile of about 6000#’s of material (and another 2 tons of soaked up water):

5 tons of material: 3 tons green brush, 1 ton grass/chips. 1 ton water.

The added material gave us about 6″ of mulch on top of the drums and raised total pile height to a bit over 40″ which is my preferred pile height.  Next up was a top layer of straw to prevent excessive moisture evaporation and to insulate the pile somewhat to keep temps up.  We want the BTU’s in the water not the air after all.  Took about 2 bales:

All tucked in! about 3-4" covering the entire pile. In winter I would add another 6-8". Makes it look nice for the neighbors to boot.


Steel Drum Heating/Cooling

This was all finished within a week of the last post.  Pile temps at this point were stuck at 123, but within days of adding the top we shot up to 132-136 in many spots so we began to start testing.  First, I filled one drum with water to test how long it took to get it to 100 degrees (city water is 52 degrees).  Within 4 days the drum was up to 100 degrees, gaining about 8 degrees every 24 hours.  Of course, this slowed as the temperature variation decreased between the pile and the water, but was still 118 within 8 days total, about the time the pile was a steady 135.  Max measured temp in the drum was 124 after 12 days, though there were cooling runs in there.   System proof #1 was locked in: we could heat water to over 100 degrees, though this was never in much doubt.  Next up we needed to see if we could cool the water in the drum.  Using 52 degree municipal water with the tap set at about 8 gallons per minute (gpm) (fill a 5 gallon bucket and time it with a stop watch and then do the math) I was able to drop the drum from 118 to 112 in an hour.  This was very encouraging and I am confident that I can get the drums to under 100 in less than a day.

Water Heating

While this was going on, I was also taking temps of the water as it exits the pile.  This was far less encouraging.  Initially, the first 10 gallons of water were wicked hot – essentially pile ambient of 124 or so.  However, very soon after temps dropped quickly and by the time 20-30 gallons had gone through the pile water temps at pile exit were down to 64.  Oi!  However with only a few minutes of thinking this through several glaring design flaws were identified — a direct result of my planning this on the fly.  First off – 530′ of hose sounds like ALOT of hose.  And it is, but given the small internal dimensions, even at 530′ total water in the hose is under 30 gallons, and probably closer to 24.  That means at the 8gpm, fresh water only had 3 minutes in the pile.  That is not nearly enough time to pull in much heat as was proven by the small temp gain.  Also, using rubber coated garden hose was an expedient, but not well thought out, tubing choice.  The rubber is almost certainly acting as an insulator, reducing the piles ability to conduct heat into the water.  Finally, starting with 52 degree water means I have a long way to go to get to my goal of 120.

Initial Conclusions

  • Midden will heat 110 gallons of water to well over the 100 degrees needed for methane production
  • Water cooling is sufficent to regulate drum temps to within 95-100 degrees despite being in a 130 degree pile
  • Current configuration will not heat water sufficiently for domestic water use.

Due to some upcoming events – a tour of our home gardens by the Madison Permaculture Guild and my workshop at the MREA I am postponing charging the methane digesters with material until 6/22 at the earliest.  That said, there is still enough time for some tinkering, so I decided to play with the hot water side as those results were really disappointing.

Modification #1: Closed Loop Water Heating

So, while the results of the outlet temps are discouraging, there are some nuggets in there to be excited about upon reflection.  First off – I am getting 10 degree rise in a matter of minutes at a relatively high flow rate.  There is an immense amount of heat energy in the pile – sitting near it on a still day you can feel it radiate off– I juts need to find a better way to capture it.  An obvious choice is to close the water system by pumping it right back into the pile.  To accomplish this I need to get one of the pumps I bought for the Appleseed Biodiesel processor from Patrick’s house.  A quick call explaining what I am up to was more than enough to have Patrick excited enough to come over.

Meet Patrick, he builds underwater robots. Yeah, thats right.

Patrick forgets more about electronics over breakfast than most of us ever knew.  His day job is building and piloting underwater remote operated vehicles – like the ones that found the Titanic and are trying desperately to staunch the leak in the gulf.  Patrick has also been to Antarctica a few times to help them fix their equipment.  On top of all that, he is wicked smart and wants to save the world.  He also has a pole barn that he lets me store alot of my stuff in.  Good guy to have around.  I called Patrick to see if I could get one of my pumps, and he came over the next day, not only with my pump, but with it mounted to a base and with a slick motor controller so we would play with flow rates.  Did I mention I like Patrick?

The pump is our “do anything” pump that we use from everything from ethanol to biodiesel to syngas cooling to this.  $40 from Harbor Freight, close to indestructible, and will pump up to 650 gph with its .5 hp motor.  We have 5 or 6 laying around or in use at any time.  However, 650 gph (10.8 gpm) is too fast hence the motor controller – which is essentially a dimmer switch for electric motors.

Motor controller set at about 66% or 7gpm. Plug the controller into the outlet, and the motor into the controller. Slick.

With the controller on and the system on closed loop pumping into the pile, then into a half filled 55 gallon drum, and then back into the pile we were able to run it continuously to see how high we could ge the temps.  66% gets us about 7 gpm and we ran it on closed loop overnight and got a steady 94 degrees come morning.   That is a huge improvement over 62 degrees, and enough for space heating, but I still want 120.  So then we let the pile warm up for a day, and ran another test at 30% or about 4 GPM.  This is really too slow for the pump and will burn it out over time, so we only did it for about a much shorter time.  Intake water was 80 degrees at the start.  After 45 minutes here was the result:

Actually we had 104 for 30 minutes and then the sensor shifted and we lost 3 degrees for some reason.

Now were talking!  That is very encouraging given that even at 4 gpm we only have about 7 minutes in the pile.

Next Steps

As I said, in 2 weeks we will run the methane experiment.  Once we prove / disprove the ability to make burnable gas in the system I will disassemble the methane portion to reduce the chance of serious accident.  At that point we will really focus in on getting that temp up to 120.  How?

With 2 55 gallon drums in the pile I already know that there is enough energy to bring them up to over 120 degrees – what is unknown is the recharge rate without draining the pile’s heat.  I also strongly suspect that with only 25 gallons of water in the pile in the current system there is not enough time to bring the water up past 104 degrees.  Answer?  Plumb the drums into the water heating system – water flows into drum #1 from the pump, then works it way into drum #2 and then through the 530′ of hose.  In one swoop we increase the waters time in pile from 7 minutes (at 4 gpm) to about 35 minutes by jumping from a system volume of 25 gallons to 135.  That should make a HUGE difference.

Second we need a better pump.  The clearwater 650gph is a GREAT pump, but simply too strong for this.  Luckily there are incredibly awesome pumps available for radiant floor applications made by Grundfos.  How awesome?  How about going from .5hp to .04hp and still maintaining 2-17gpm?  What about having 3 spd settings from the factory?  What about only having a AMP rating of .75 – yes this pump will only use 90 watts!  Thats like a quarter a day to run nonstop.  Plus, if anything, it is even better made.  $100 at Menard’s.

Third, we may very well need to swap out the garden hose.  If options 1 and 2 don’t get us to 120 we will need to get serious and buy PEX tubing.  Again, looking to the radiant floor applications here.  PEX is designed to be heat conductive, is flexible, takes heat ranges from 35-230 degrees, and is as inert as any plastic (insert cynicism here).   It is more expensive, but has alot of upside and comes in 500′ rolls.  Also, swapping tubing would mean a complete tear down of the pile, something I am loathe to do.  Again, hopefully a new pump and plumbing in the drums solves the issues.

All in all the first 2 weeks with The Methane Midden have been awesome.  This is the most exciting project I have been on since we first started on the gasifier.  Space heat+hot water+compost with almost no moving parts other than an nearly indestrucible pump.  Most importantly, the only skills needed are how to run a pitchfork and screw in a garden hose. Total price, even with pump, will be under $300 including stakes, drums, hose and straw.   If I can get the water to 120, or even close, consistently then I plan on building a new pile in the garage this winter, doubling the insulation, and plumbing in a heat exchanger (old car radiator) to be put in the hallway of our first floor.  Yep – space heating a house in an HOA with compost on under a quarter a day in electricity while sequestering carbon from garbage.

Want to help fund the Methane Midden?  Pledge to my Kickstarter project!

Be the Change.


Down to Business: Salute your Solution

The Sustainability Stool has three Legs.

  1. Ecology
  2. Social Justice
  3. Economics

Meaning that for any venture to be truly sustainable, it must support Ecological health (everyone breathes) while not sacrificing Social Equity by stealing from Peter to pay for Paul (the US with 85% of the wealth in 20% of the hands fails this) or forcing someone else to move like factory “growth” in India’s commercial districts displacing thousands of the poor.  The final leg is one that many environmentalists get queazy on with the whole aversion to capitalism and all:  It needs to make money or it will fail. (grants don’t count, but they can help w/startup).  We can beat around the bush and talk about barter economies and time banks (both absolutely vital for the decades AFTER this one), but the rub is that for the next decade or so money is the primary means of exchange.  My answer to the Queazy Leg (and hopefully the other two) is what this post is about.  While this may one day provide an income for us, in the mean time I need to make money to self-fund my ideas.

The farming year is shaping up to be a Big One.  I am a STRONG advocate of farmers planning for profit.  That means setting some real revenue goals and determining what they need to grow to get there – in systems thinking we call this backcasting: where do you want to be in 20 years and what do you need to do to make that future happen; everything I do on this blog is my answer to that question… but I digress.  For 2010 gross revenue goals,  I put mine at $13,500 for produce with another $1500 in compost sales, and $1500+ in tours and workshops.  Chump change or waaaay too much depending on where you are on the home gardener > professional farmer spectrum.  With a goal in mind, you then pull up records of last years sales (or reasonable assumptions [CONSERVATIVE] if you are new) and get to work.  The Organic Farmers Business Handbook is a huge help in this process. I will spare you the details, but I know that potatoes are my “cash” crop, but that my sandwich shop needs more diversity, but has the most room for growth since I am their only grower thus far.  Both my restaurant clients have fairly set menus and traffic, meaning that to make more money with them, I need to grow longer not more.  I.e. I can sell 150#’s of potatoes a week to one client.  If I can sell for a month, that is 600#’s and $900.  If I can sell to them for 8 months… well then I am rather far on my way to my revenue goal aren’t I?  Growing on this scale also helps the other side of my business plan: this is a part time business with about 10 hours of field time a week (on average – don’t check my time card in April or August!).  Harvesting 200#’s of potatoes a week is easy enough and can be done with hand tools, some sweat equity, and a VW Golf for a delivery vehicle.  Harvesting 5000#’s of potatoes in a week for wholesale means buying a “real” tractor and mechanizing my harvest ($20,000): not an option.  That arithmetic –less over longer– is what has been driving my research over the past several months and is really the only way for me to increase revenue given my time constraints.  Add it all up and I have committed “orders” from my two restaurant clients for over $11,000 if I can stretch the season to the extent I hope.  This will take alot of work,  some new tools, and more than a little money – hence the rest of the post and my business planning.

Quick Tunnel pic from Johnny's

Longer means that I need to get in the soil earlier, stay in the soil longer, succession crop, get funky with my cultivar selection, and look real hard about harvest extension / storage.  Some of this can be planned around (cultivars and succesion cropping), but season exstention means purchases.   To that end I purchased a low tunnel bender and 2 rolls of Tufflight from Johnny’s seeds.  The Hoopty is still in the works and is absolutely vital to the project going forward to its fruition, but siting is taking some time.  To get into the ground for 2010 Spring Spinach I opted to go small.  Two tunnels will get me 1000 sq ft of covered bed (4, 2.5’x90′ beds) for about $150/bed and the plastic ($75) should last for 2-3 years and 4-6 seasons, with the bender and hoops lasting essentially forever.   Use will look like this in 2010: Tunnel #1 Red Gold Potatoes for babies in May>field crop covering with Agribon>fall Spinach, Tunnel #2 Spinach>Sweet Potato Slips> overwintered onions.   1 tunnel 100′ long will get me 4 rows of spuds -400#’s mature or 100#’s baby.  Baby potatoes go for $3/lb.  Net profit on one crop (paid off the tunnel!), not factoring labor – and there is 9 more crops to come out of these hoops in the lifetime of the plastic.

Hoop House and Quick Tunnel growing mean that I am going to be pushing the soils harder than can be replenished naturally and in the Hoop House cover crops will not be practical.  That means compost – ALOT of compost.  For perspective that means that we are moving from measuring and thinking of compost in yards to TONS.   Much time has been spent on winter composting this year, and I have proven to myself that not only can I cook compost year round, but that I it function stacks nicely in hoop houses.  That helps with the “longer” part of the business plan.  Essentially I would like to be harvesting at least ton of compost every 3rd month, with peak in late summer and an annual production of about 10 tons (about 40 yards) total with 2.5 tons processed through worm bins.  Again, compost on this scale is significantly beyond my current few bins and a pitch fork.  Plans here include a PTO driven manure spreader, a 30hp tractor and a 40hp skid steer.  The skid loader puts bucket loads of browns alternating with greens into the spreader which is parked and flinging material out the back like an angry monkey.  When the monkey flung pile get about 4′ tall you pull the spreader forwards 5′ and let the monkey loose again aerating and mixing the materials.  Making windrows 100′ long this way is not overly hard – let it cook until temps start to drop, then repeat about 20′ away (the turning radius of a skid loader), but it goes faster as you are just scooping  up the compost from the old windrow rather than driving to a pile of manure and then a pile of leaves.  That is ALOT of money for equipment and would be impossible, but luckily I live a charmed life and all are available on site, though not in good working order.  I will need to do maintenance and tune-ups to get everything working, but cost should be within line with the 1.25 tons of worm compost I plan on selling ($1500).  So that means I will have fixed all the farmers equipment, learned a ton about 1940’s era tractor repair, and generated a surplus of 8 tons of compost to be reapplied to the fields.

Ok, some of you may be thinking: back up.  Where in the hell are you going to get 30 tons –60,000 pounds!– of raw compost material?  That is a GREAT question and one I have had to work to answer all winter.  First – I’m going to grow alot.  Sudangrass or summer alfalfa will generate 8 tons of biomass per acre, fodder Sorghum with its 13′ tall stalks will get me closer to 14 tons an acre.  Sunflowers and Dry Corn will be grown for chicken fodder specifically to get the stalks for carbon in the piles add all three up to about an acre of growth on site.  Another large component however will be restaraunt waste.  500# a week, every week.  Add to that the 50 truck loads of municipal leaves and the 150# of horse manure a day and I’ve got more than enough  We will also be planting a coppice nursery of willow and biomass shrubs for additional, long term, perennial biomass that will eventually take over for the restaurant waste should that or the leaf source fail.

Earth Tools: my implement dealer

To get all this material on site I will be purchasing a beat to hell dump truck with a fellow farmer.  $4000 or less won’t get us a pretty one, but it will get us a working one.  For chopping up all this material a shredder for the Grillo will be purchased very soon for $1200.  It will handle everything from orchard prunings for compost to chipping coppice wood (2″ and smaller) for the gasifier.  As the perennials biomass comes on line (and we are using it to power the whole system) we’ll need a bigger chipper.   Do not think that scaling up to this level is easy ethically – that is alot of dead dinosaurs I’m burning to make all this happen, but I gots that covered too.  More on that in a bit. 🙂

This is alot of stuff – tons of produce, tons of compost, and a decent amount of revenue.  But there is an overriding goal to all of this:  the growing, the composting, the planning– is to get us a revenue positive farm so that we can build the foundation and funding to finally move forward in 2011 with the energy side of the SAFE (Sustainable Agriculture Food and Energy) Centers which we have been trying to do since we did not get Stimulus funding in 2009.   With a market farm generating $10k+ a year in net profit, we will pay off our Hoop House in 2 years and generate enough additional revenue from tours to fund the real cutting edge work of building a novel synergistic energy/food systems that we feel will push the envelope of sustainability.  Our Mission from God (Blues Brothers fanatic)?  To build a true Energy Farm where the natural systems of nature: photosynthesis, decomposition, and carbon sequestration are channeled through permaculture to produce surpluses of not only food crops, but also fertility and grid electricity and transportable fuels like methane, ethanol, and biodiesel to power the equipment and the a part of community.  This project is the culmination of my three year journey as detailed on this blog – the tens of thousands of pages read, the hundreds of people met and networked with, the thousands of dollars and hours spent in experiments and reskilling.  Making food, energy, jobs, fertility, community in one system on under 5 acres with resource loops reaching out into the village.  And every component -from winter composting to gasification, to biodiesel, to small scale ag, either myself or one of my Co-op partners has already done and proven.  The only thing left is commit the time and money to put it all together.  All major expenses are covered -I have sourced over $20,000 in Slow Money financing in the community-  but expect a funding push soon to help with incidentals like a Worm Wigwam, the Grillo Shredder, etc.   If you would like to contribute – send me an email at one.straw.rob (at)

2010 is the year of the Tiger –36 years ago I was born a Tiger: courage and hard work will be rewarded.

This is the year.

Let’s get down to businss and be the change!!


New Year Revolutions

Sure I got my resolutions: exercise more, spend more quality time with my family, do more with less.  Those will  have an immense impact on my life and those I love the most. But in this post, I am really interested in starting some New Year Revolutions – things that work on a more macro level. If you are reading this blog, you get that we have some Big Problems and fate has placed our generation as the one to deal with them.  2010 is a critical year – shit for the next decade they will ALL be critical.  Action without purpose is wasted motion, so here are some Revolutions I want to be a part of.


The things that I need to maintain quality of life are made and controlled by people whom I do not know and do not know me.  My banker is a corporation.  My grocer is a chain.  My energy is provided by god knows who.  That disconnect equates to a loss of control.  I give thousands of dollars a year in interest to a corporate bank that cares nothing for me other than my credit score and my income statement -meaning they will turn on me in an instant.  Worse yet, they take that money and use it to fund things that are directly opposed to my value structure.  My local grocer sells products based exclusively on profit margins with little regard for impacts to community or ecology.  I believe in a future that is better than that. Here are my revolutions:

  • Move my Money As much as possible I will seek to shift the power of my money to those that share my value structure.  To fund my commercial enterprises I will seek out Slow Money investors so that the profits of my labor profit those that share my values.  For better or worse, money is power and I want more control about whom I am empowering and who are empowering me.
  • Vote with my dollars. We already do this alot, but convenience still rules the roost too often.  Whether its vending machines at work or Culver’s on road trips far too much of my money supports a future I don’t believe in.  Polyface Farms recently threw out the challenge that if every American abstained from Fast Food for a week it would shut down every CAFO in the country – we fund the current system and to that degree share in its evils.  I want more of my money to promote companies that share my vision for the future and whenever possible are from people I know.
  • Food There is simply too little food grown locally, and almost none stored commercially for local consumption.  Low Input storage of food crops and promoting the local growth of calorie crops is the next Battle to be won in Slow Food.  Romaines and micro greens are great and necessary, but rutabagas and onions in February are where the war will be won.
  • Energy. Dear god do we have a long ways to go here.  The technologies are known and some progress is being made on electricity with wind and PV becoming more accessible.  But liquid fuels are what our built environment is designed for and there is literally nowhere in my entire county where I can buy biodiesel or locally produced ethanol.  That is scary as hell.  Energy production will be a part of every commercial venture I am a part of going forward.


In many cases the skills to accomplish the goals above simply do not exist locally – either because no one has tried it or we have forgotten how.  One Straw is very much about myself and thousands of others working to fill this gap ourselves and even more importantly network and communicate with others to help it go viral.  We can’t do it all.  I will never be a community banker and I am only a passable welder.  But I can grow a potato on a rock.  Here are my Reskilling Revolutions:

  • Teach Others Doing something new, vital, and innovative is great and necessary, but to teach others to do the same is divine.  “Teach a man to fish…” From Gardening 101, to building Hoop Houses, to vermicomposting, to making gasifiers and converting cars to electric it is vital to get more people skilled in the Good Work.  Workshops, webinars, tours, and presentations.  Get ‘r done.
  • Learn Something You can get only so much from books.  At some point you need a mentor.  Teaching others is critically important, but just as important is finding those that know more than you and learning from them so the oral traditions don’t die.  The critical skills like how to hold a hoe, when a jam is thick enough, or how to lay a welding bead simply cannot be taught in books.  When you learn something from someone a little bit of magic is created; some people call it respect.

Rebuilding Community

There is far too much work to be done – one person can’t do it all… not even the incredibly Stalwart Do-ers that read this blog.  I often lose track of this one in my nose down action oreintated pragmatism. Epic Fail. It takes a village, people! There is a growing trend of “ruggedly individual” survivalists, or “preppers”.  A rather terrifying mix of ammunition, gardening, hoarding, and fundamentalist psuedo-religion and half baked patriotism.  And I cannot state too emphatically that it is not a solution to the coming calamity.  News flash psychos – there will ALWAYS be someone with a bigger gun to come and take your tomatoes.  If you are really afraid of the Mad Max scenario being the future, then take a cue from the movie and work to be the community building the refinery and smuggling out the gasoline on the buses.  They had children; they had hope. That said, far too many of us don’t know the names of our neighbors, no one carols anymore, and there are not nearly enough potlucks.  Rebuilding community Revolutions:

  • Join Something.  PTA, Theatre Group, Knitting circle.  Run for local office.  Start a reading group.  If it gives you the ability to say “Hello!” to more people at the post office then it qualifies.  This is so very important.
  • Share Something There are always too many zucchini!  Give some Christmas cookies to your neighbors -guess what, next year they will bake some for you.  Car Pool – who wouldn’t rather chat with a person rather than a dashboard about the story on Morning Edition?  Design shared space into your future – I intend to have cooperative space in the hoop house for energy projects from people I haven’t even met yet.  1+1=3
  • Eat Something Churches and our grandparents understood that since time began the simple act of breaking bread together solidifies community.  If you get together with others put food into the schedule and bring a dish to pass.  Eating creates a space of idleness – a time when it is expected to talk about family, local issues, hopes, and dreams.  A time to get to know people.  The real business always gets done in the hallways after the meeting and is based on trust relationships.   Saving the world is no different.

It all comes down to Resiliency.   When the chips are down, we really have very little idea exactly what the next decade will bring.  But, to put it mildly, I strongly suspect the weather will continue to get weirder, fuel more expensive, and “the economy” more uncertain.   The best way to handle such an uncertain, and likely difficult scenario, is to take the power back from those we have sold it to over the past 5 decades.  At this point I want to have my food, goods, and energy come from those I know and trust and live a life more connected to those around me.  It will be less convenient, it will “cost more”, and it will involve more labor on my part.  But we have sold our future for convenience for far to long and I demand more for my children.

Its time for a Revolution.

Be the Change.


Energy Descent Musings

One of the results of my forced furlough from hands on participation in Saving the World is that for the first time in, (gulp!) 6 months I am reading non-fiction again.   At my normal state of non-winter activity I am asleep within 5 minutes of hitting bed, and I find it difficult to sit and read for 30 minutes at any other time when there are so many “Useful Things” to be doing.  But Fate has had Her say, so I a reading again.  For some reason, attending the MREA Energy Fair this year inspired me to purchase 3 books on Energy Descent (I think Peak Oil is too limiting a phrase).   As my reading time is (usually) limited this time of year I went to some authors that have earned my respect to get the most bang for my buck: David Holmgren (co-Founder of Permaculture), John Michael Greer (Current ArchDruid of North America [seriously] and author of the thought provoking ArchDruid Report), and Richard Heinberg (a leading voice in Peak Oil)

First up was Holmgren’s Future Scenarios.  Its a quick read at 120 small pages, but as Holmgren compares the likelihood of 4 possible futures (Brown Tech, Green Tech, Earth Stewards, and Lifeboats) one can’t help but notice how much darker his thinking has gotten in the 7 years since Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability.  It is very sobering to see one of your heroes lose some of their optimism.      I just finished Greer’s The Long Descent, which is the first book I have read from the Peak Oil canon.   I also have Heinberg’s Power Down, in the queue.  But honestly, I think I need a breather from Doom and Gloom; I gave my son an impromptu bedtime lecture this weekend in the need for Self Reliance in his lifetime as we will have to do more for ourselves that we do now just to survive.  He’s 7… good parenting, Rob.

Regardless, Truth has a way of resonating and I’m all aquiver.  Here is where my thinking is post reading.   Taking Greer and Homlgren together in such a short timeframe I find myself with some thought inducing take-aways with most of the Doom and Gloom edited out:

  • The Dual Crisis of Climate Change / Peak Oil have switched from “Problems” to be solved to Predicaments to be reacted to.  We had our chance in the 1970’s, Reagan shat on that and stole the future from our children.   This is not a call to “bunker up” in the woods, but rather a call to adjust out thinking and ensure our planning scenarios are set against the correct  reality without deluding ourselves that it will “all work out”. 
  •  Holmgren makes a convincing argument that some governments will squander our finite resources in a futile attempt to maintain the Status Quo.  How many times did we hear Cheney/Bush proclaim that the “American Way of Life will Survive”?  Cheney gets Peak Oil, he is just prefers dooming us all like Reagan did to buy us another few decades of decadence.  Other governments will “get it” and divert resources to more sustainable means of energy production.  The EU has made some faltering attempts towards this.  More likely regional and local governments could be persuaded to do more.  Get Involved.
  • Community is Key.  Look around your town through the lens of Energy Descent.  Best case scenario you need 2000 sq ft to feed a person a very meager vegetarian diet for a year in North America using John Jeavons  Bio-Intensive methods.  Towns over 500,000 will struggle due to the logitical realities of transporting food sans oil – we can grow enough food to feed America, we just can’t transport it without fossil fuels given our current demographic reality.  Suburbs are not much better off – services are too far apart for human scale transportation.  My town of 1200 is a mess too.  As a bedroom community, everyone here is used to getting everything they need from OUTSIDE the community – we have no cultural aspects (this is HUGE), no grocery store, no hardware store, etc.  Towns that have changed little in the past 100 years will do better, as will towns used to being fairly self reliant.
  • Prepare now.  No, that doesn’t mean start your own religion and build a bunker.  It means the sooner we each start to embrace the realities of Energy Descent, the less impactful it will be to our lives.  Honestly assess your life: how will you feed your family, heat your home, and earn a living with drastically less energy to rely on?  Learn a craft that will be useful as we Descend,  manage your life to cut your energy use in half or more (this will likely mean moving or switching jobs), talk to your neighbors, go to the farmers market, grow some of your own food, figure out how to heat your home without natural gas, learn to repair things, buy durable hand tools,  plant fruit trees, join a church or community group, and learn basic health care and first aid.

Reality is a bitch, but if we can avoid the darker parts of the descent, we just may find that our lives are more meaningful as we (re)learn to act with purpose and rely on our selves once again.

Be the Change.


Why one should have Engineers for Friends…

Random email I got today:

Here is an observation I made during the power down:

if 1 million people each cut 100 Watts from the grid, that is 100
million watts of load reduced.
Since all power that is generated must be consumed voltage should rise
as the load decreases.
The power companies (Power generators) will need to cut back on
production to keep the voltage from rising to high and burning things
out that are still drawing power from the grid (A bad thing).

So I decided to monitor the voltage with a very accurate meter at my
house during the 8 pm to 10 pm time frame. I stabilized the load at my
house before taking the measurements (I turned off most all loads,
Water pump, Water heater, Most lights, and anything else that could
cause a line voltage drop if it kicked on during the monitoring
At 8 pm the voltage was 120.1
At 8:15 pm 119.8
At 8:30 pm 120.4
At 8:45 pm 121.4
At 9:00 pm 122.4
At 9:15 pm 122.6
At 9:30 pm 122.2
At 9:45 pm 119.9
At 10:00 pm 120.1

All the voltages I measured were well within the acceptable range for
house hold use even during the event.
It was interesting (but expected) that the voltage went up during the
lights out time and returned back to near the 120 Volt range after the
This suggests to me that we (the people who decided to participate)
were able to make a difference by turning out the lights!

Today (Sunday) I have been monitoring the voltage throughout the day,
It has been in the 120 to 121 range all day.
If we did manage to reduce the load by 100 million watts (100
Megawatt), we actually saved even more power than that! Numbers vary
but between 20 to 40% of power generated is lost in transmission
between the power plant and the end user. That is why Obama is pushing
the “Smart Grid”. If the loss numbers are anywhere near close then the
total power reduction of 100 megawatts was actually more like 120 to
140 megawatt reduction when viewed from the generation end!

There is so much to love here – that my friend took 2 hours of his life to take semi scientific voltages measurements on a Saturday night, that he spent hours preparing for it, that he took more time to email it out, but mostly that he is just so damn excited about it all.

Give the Geek in your life a hug – they will likely save us all.

Be the Change.


Stimulated CSE?

Just to keep you all “in the loop”, I may very well be in the running for a chunk of the Stimulus Package in regards to rural development/renewable energy/sustainable agriculture grants.  I have begun the application process in conjunction with several local organizations that requested proposals based on our ideas.  The front runner is for a grant to fund the start-up for a CSE business focused on producing small scale energy centers (gasifier+greenhouse) as well as a commercial version of our gasifiers.  The business would be located in a 5-10 acre facility whose grounds would be holistically planned (duh!) and use willow coppice for the windbreaks of 8, .5 acre garden plots that would be farming incubators for graduates of local sustainable farming education programs (pay it forward!).  Those plots would also form the test beds to determine the amount of biochar ag land can take and its effects.  

The structure itself would be comprised of a gasifier powered workshop which would include ethanol and biodiesel production, manufacturing capabilities for several dozen gasifiers annually, a half dozen or more energy centers, as well as equipment to produce 20 tons of pellets annually.  Additionally, the south side of the workshop would be a gasifier heated aquaponics greenhouse that would also house the solar drying still for the biomass crops.  The facility would  have a strong outreach component focused on seminars and workshops on liquid and solid biofuel production, aquaponics, permaculture, sustainable ag and gasification as well as anything else someone wants me to talk about.

This is all happening VERY fast, but these ideas have been “shovel ready” for about a year now so the ramp up is do-able.  Switching from welding burn plates to crafting business plans is throwing my brain into fits, but it beats watching sitcoms for sure.

I have no idea where this will go, but it sure is fun!

Thanks in advance for all the good energy… if I make it to the State review level I will be asking for you to call you Congressman!


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