Enter The Big Red Dump Truck

She may not look like much, but she's got it where it counts kid...

I did it.  I bought a frickin dump truck.  Its BIG.  Its red.  And it will tow over 10,000#’s… with another 3000#’s in the dump bed.  Its a beast.

I’ve been talking all winter about the fact that I am Scaling Up this year.  Harvests and Compost will no longer be measured in pounds and yards, but TONS. The business and fertility plans call for 20 tons of compost this year.  That is 40,000#’s and beyond the limits of my utility trailer and pitchfork.  To increase the amount of good that I wish to do, I need to mechanize.  2 years ago that meant a Grillo.  The Year of the Tiger calls for something a bit more drastic – this is the first salvo.

First off, let me make something clear.  I bought this truck cooperatively.  That means a buddy of mine and I bought it halvesies.  We are not sure about all the ins and outs of that yet, but it will be titled in both our names and jointly insured.  It is a leap of trust.  It is an investment in community.  It is the kind of thing that people don’t do anymore, but a manner of living that I deeply believe we need to relearn.  Dump trucks are like many wicked useful tools.  When you need one … you REALLY need one.  And then it will sit for awhile until you need it again which is a waste.  My partner has a 30 acre farm and is converting it to a Permaculture Sanctuary full of Do Goodery.  Doubling the top soil on 30 acres means you need ALOT of organic matter.  Much will be grown on site, but with multiple horse and natural dairy farms nearby this truck will help his family jump start their healing of the land.  But, like many of us, he still has a day job, meaning that the truck will sit idle much of the week.  I have BIG plans for a truck like this.  AND I also happen to be off during the week when the truck is idle.  Neither of us really wanted to spend the full $4000 a well used dump like this costs.  Hence the dual titling.  Will it be easy?  No – there will be conflicts over use, repairs, etc.  …but EASY got us into this societal mess.  There is more to Being the Change than planting potatoes in sheet mulch.  I want my kids to grow up in a world where property lines are blurred somewhat – where sharing is a community value and joint ventures are more common than sole proprietorships.   Where what is mine is yours if you need it, because I know that what’s yours is mine in a pinch.  We’ve got each other’s back.  Its scary, but its also wicked cool.  I am very grateful of his trust.

This truck will hold 8 cubic yards of mulch or over 2 tons of manure or restaurant waste. It will tow a chipper large enough to eat 4″ willow trunks all the live long day.   It is inexpensive when considering the ROI and is all but fully depreciated given its current price of $3500.  Its engine is a Chevy 350 V-8, one of the more common in existence and its not fancy – you want air you crank the window, buddy.   As we power down this vehicle could be in use for decades to come in a salvage economy.  As a gasoline engine- it can run on syngas, propane, NG, methane, ethanol, or gasoline with little modification.  If the EFI goes, we may consider retrofitting a carb just to ease fuel conversions.  Dang useful.

This blog was founded almost 4 years ago as I worked to heal the land of my .5 acre HOA lot.  I have learned so very much in the past 4 years of reading, writing, and discussing the issues with you all.  I have acquired skills.  I have surrounded myself with an insane network of incredibly skilled, knowledgeable and connected people.  And I have now found myself at a point where I can push a paradigm a bit into a direction in I feel is vital.  Over the past 4 decades we have relearned how to garden organically.  More importantly we have learned how to heal land damaged by 6 decades of industrial abuse.  We also know that the problems are so much bigger than our forefathers in the Back to Land movement could have ever imagined.  No longer is it enough to grow local organic food – now we must literally think about carbon sequestration and energy production in conjunction with food farming.  This century calls for Energy Farms.

Farmers, not tractor drivers, but real hands in the soil farmers know natural systems better than any scientist. They are generalists with keen senses of observation, economy, and a work ethic to get it all done.  And it is these farmers that will play a pivotal role in connecting the dots to a more sustainable future.  That knowledge of natural systems will prove essential as we transition from rigid, linear solutions to fluid, organic solutions to life’s eternal struggles for Food, Shelter, and Energy.  Permaculture gives us many of the tools to help design this methodology, but my grandfather didn’t need a fancy word for what he called common sense.   And Energy Farms make ALOT of common sense.  Essentially I am asking farmers to function stack their parcels – to turn the ethanol debate on its head and produce Food AND Fuel in addition to resources like soil amendments, services like carbon sequestration, and to create skilled jobs.  On farm.

I have talked through my version of positive feedback loops starting with a biomass gasifier providing the heat and power for methane, aquaponics, 4 season harvesting, ethanol production, and carbon sequestration in biochar.  This system partners beautifully with large scale organic waste recycling using hot composting, vermiculture and mushroom beds allowing the produce and coppice fields to be even more productive.   As the tons of produce leave the farm, even more organic matter is back hauled on site to be converted to fuel, food, and resources effeciently with some of the surplus leaving  the farm to continue the healing elsewhere.  Waste begins to refer less to things  like plastic bags and more to a loss of potential or poor design.  Cradle to Grave produce planning is possible.  We are now running an Energy Farm.

There are several Energy Farms being started in some scale or another thanks in large part to work by the Post Carbon Institute over the past several years and now being continued by Michael Bomford, PCI Fellow.  I will be working within my network to do my best to have one going here in Southern WI with in the next year.  This Dump Truck is the first BIG step (its got a 12′ bed for cripes sake!)  in that direction.  3000 sq ft greenhouses, manure spreaders, skid steers, ethanol stills (the dump gets 8mpg) and 20kw generators powered by methane are in my future.

Be the Change!

-Rob

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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!

-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

Being The Change

As something between Thompson’s Fear and Loathing and Sartre’s Nausea seeps into our collective psyche we must consciously pursue a more active approach.  A few days ago I posted -after a long hiatus- about my fears for the future.  I was then presented with comments from three of my respected blogging peers –Bart, FGLB, and Kory.  Again -all are in a similar malaise.  But more interesting is that many of them are similarly struggling with communicating it.  We’re bloggers – all of us are churning out 50k+ words annually regardless of what we have to say is poignant or if anyone reads it or not.  And if we -the verbose- can’t bring ourselves to write, that really is concerning.  

But we’re better than that.  FGLB shares a similar situation as me -working in The Real World while walking around like Roddy Piper in They Live -seeing the actual world for what it is.  Like him, I don’t talk about It too much at work – I don’t want to be That Guy either, instead sticking to more practical diatribes on gardening and hybrids and such.  But on our Blogs we can get the release we need to keep going, and much, much more importantly: we generate a ton of ideas & solutions while fostering a critical community of engaged problem solvers.   I write this blog to, in large part, help create the world I want to see for my children.  That world is still possible.  Here are some things that I think are critical to Our Future and areas that I challenge us all to think/write/expirement in as much as we can:

  • Local Food
  • Local Energy
  • Community Building
  • Local Finance
  • Hope, Love, & Laughter

We know the problems -even if they are more daunting and real now than before.  My challenge to myself and all of us is to find more solutions and small victories -and write about them!- for all our sakes.  Being the Change we want to see is the world is critical and becoming much less of a academic exercise by the day.  I’m confident to the point of arrogance in much of my life – and I know that we have the ability to literally change our communities with the skills and ideas at our disposal.   Read more, Think more, DO more.  And tell us about it.  

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

We have much to do, and little time to do it in.  Let’s get to work.

Be The Change.

-Rob

Hearts and Thoughts

I have found it difficult to write of late.  Its not that nothing has happened –  my CSE group has met and maitained its momentum (virtually all of the original members returned for the second meeting), I attended a weekend long strategic planning meeting for Sustain Jefferson, and on top of the typical holiday madness associated with a retail based career I have upped my reading pace.  But neither am I overworked.  I am leaving much time for reflection, something I feel is uterly imperative in these unsettling times.  No, my lack of posting stems not from lack of time or material, but from either a reluctance to post inconclusive thoughts or, perhaps, a reluctance to actually put my fears into a more permanent form than ethereal thoughts.

One risk always associated with upping my time allotted to reading is the commensurate amount of effect it has on my psyche and thought patterns.  The past several winters have found me reading non-fiction/practical gardening/farming/soil science books with some “lighter” anecdotal/philosophical books from the likes of Gene Logsdon, David Holmgren, John Ikerd or Joel Salatin.   These are practical and inherently hopeful books that fill the dark days of winter to overflowing with the potentialities of the coming Spring.  But this year is different.   The Great Unsettling that occurred in August/September shook even the likes of Greensban, so I, being prone to doom and gloom, am by no means immune.  As many of the books that I am ripping through have introductions by Peak Oil pundit Richard Heinberg (of Power Down, and The Party’s Over fame) my mindset is sliding distinctly south of optimism of late.  And that is with me reading rather hopeful books like the Citizen-Powered Energy Handbook and the Transition Handbook.  When I combine the belief in Peak Events (Oil.Water.Soil.etc.) with Climate Change on top of the lack of Global Will to Change and then look into the eyes of my two young children after coming home from a day in Fortune 500 Land fielding questions of when (not if) my team’s hours will be cut… things are getting rather –real.

I’ve been sliding this way for several weeks, months if I am honest.  But it all came rushing into stark clarity while at the Sustain Jefferson retreat this weekend.  The board and “fire souls” of the group gathered that weekend are mature (most are 50% older than I), intelligent (engineers, public officials, educators), and practical people -well read , experienced, and willing to Work For Change.  These are people I look to for advice and have earned my respect.  Late in the afternoon on Day 2 soon after the formal planning had completed, a retired engineer posited the following question -how are we going to help our community weather the coming storm- failing economies with their rising social costs, the end of cheap energy and the strain it will place on non-resilient towns like ours, and the lack of social cohesion that will be necessary to negotiate the The Natural Step Resource Funnelclosing of The Funnel (right).  Hearing someone whom I think of as educated and level headed give public voice to my Dark Thoughts was extremely sobering to me.   So much so that I had to go for a long , cold hike to shake the  existential nausea that had overtaken me.   While the planning meeting accomplished an incredible amount of work in a short amount of time towards setting our organization on a more productive course, one of the real results is that I am personally more concerned than ever about what Change I will see in my lifetime.  

The difference is Tipping Points or Overshoot.  As recent as 6 months ago I felt we had time to work at the grassroots level to educate and inspire so that we could begin the urgent, but gradual change towards a more sustainable future.  CFL’s, hybrids, Victory Gardens – little things done by a growing number of people adding up to Real Change.  Now I am moving beyond that to Life Boats -what skills will we need to survive Overshoot.  Moving from adapting our lifestyles to something akin to survival.   Why?  Climate Change pundits often speak about Tipping Points -the abledo effect being one (when temps melt the arctic ice, which reflected much of the heat from the water, and the oceans begin to heat even faster); methane released from melting permafrost rapidly accelerating the Green House effect and the news of late is that the scientist are in awe at the rapidity of the current change -its making a mockery of their models.  My fear on the Peak Side is in Overshoot: when the we, in our hubris, “cross the streams” of the funnel – when resource use exceeds resource availability (finance, food, water, oil, soil) – we survive blindly for a time, only to come crashing to reality as the bubble bursts and we are forced live within our means not unlike overpopulated deer overbrowsing a habitat in the depth of a bitter winter.  The food riots of last year and the $140/brl  oil spurred Economic meltdown come to mind.

Like I said – dark.  Thus far I am still able to channel the malaise into energy to keep going.  To learn ways to produce energy from Biomass; to eck out literally tons of produce from suburban backyards; to produce liquid biofuels from waste products from permaculture farms… to build the tools that may (will?) be necessary to soften the landing of Overshoot.  Optimism and Hope are now, if it was ever doubted, very necessary skills to have in your urban homesteading tool box.  

May your hearts and thoughts stay positive and hopeful.

May you continue to Be the Change.

-Rob

Yes We Can.

May reality (FOR ONCE!) meet our dreams…for there is nothing false, about Hope.

Yes.
We.
Can.

Lifeboats, The Id, and Me

In case you hadn’t heard the times, they are a changing.  I just reread a piece I had written a few weeks ago at the beginning of the Economic Turmoil.  Since then I, like all of us, have spent a lot of time talking to my co workers and neighbors about it.  Those groups run the gamut from sound advice (don’t sell now!) to indifference to emotional reactions of rage and frustration.  Very few people are doing anything other than a few tightening up their belts.  I contrast that with what happens when I talk to my sustainability minded friends.  They still have the rage -actually alot more- but dammit many of us are getting busy.  And we really don’t even realize it.  

First clue was last week at my first Community Supported Energy (CSE) meeting.  We’ve talked about this for a year now, and the simple act of calling it can be attributed to recent events, though I didn’t realize it at the time. I had expected 4 people and I got over 15, many of whom I didn’t know until then but had heard about it through friends -and these people are motivated and energetic.  We reach consensus quickly and volunteers for action items are easy to find -very, very different than 3 months ago. The next clue was when I kept bumping into my farmer friend on odd corners of his land -we were tilling under fallow land and sowing cover crop like mad.  Then a day later I started getting calls to hire my tractor to help other friends till more land under.  Granted, my eco-peer group are a bunch of doers; 501C3’s and CSA’s don’t start themselves. But we are doing ALOT these days.  Certainly there is some psychological coping mechanisms going on here -we feel helpless and are trying to just do something.  But I also think it is more than that.

We have spent the last 2 years in educating mode – getting the word out, holding study groups on The Natural Step, going to Village Meetings, and holding talks at conventions and rallies.  Our group has put over 250 people through the study groups, and as we “train the trainers” we have contributed to another 500-750 more going through Natural Step training in SE Wisconsin.  Our little group has seeded much larger areas like the Greater Milwaukee Area with Big Ideas. At MREA we talked to thousands and are still getting call backs, and have held breakouts at several other events.  We have made real progress in Being The Change.  But in the past month, I have heard less of us talking about educating – we have made a steady, inexorable change to spend our time doing.

Without even discussing it, my farming mentor and I had decided to double our tilled land -even if we don’t plant it this year we had both decided to get it under cover crop to start stunting the perennial weeds.  We both have the strong suspicion that we may need those extra acres.  The CSE project went from esoteric musings to talks about business plans and zoning in less than 2 weeks as the DOW tanked and Iceland neared bankruptcy.  Talks of community sized root cellars began to happen as did shared conversations of harvestable stands of timber in our collective’s property.  As Paulson was talking bailout, we had begun thinking in terms of “lifeboats” and directing resources accordingly.  

“Lifeboat” is a great term to describe what we are doing.  Our guts are telling us the “ship” is sinking – we spent the last two years bailing and trying to patch the hull by building grassroots support and spreading skills in Systems Thinking like Permaculture and The Natural Step and the Earth Victory Garden.  Now we are shifting resources to swinging the boats over to the side in case we need ot cut loose when the ship falters.  We are actively building infrastructure to keep us afloat: Roots Cellars, Energy Production Systems, tillable acres of living soils, harvestable timber plots to be managed, partnerships with grain farmers to work in oilseed crops in their rotations.  We put in for our first grant today from Google.  For $2,000,000.  That much would let us build a CSE in every county in Southern WI and run them for 3 years.  Crazy -damn straight!  But ideas that make alot less sense than this have gotten more money.

If the ship stays afloat, even if only to falter to shore, all the time we put into our lifeboats will not be wasted.  Root Cellars for year round eating of locally produced food, producing hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel from local waste products while producing dozens of tons of fish protien make sense no matter what size boat you’re on.  The Funnel is still closing, we are still using resources faster than they can be replenished – even if we stop the Economic Leg of the Sustainability Stool from wobbling, the other two need some serious help.  

I guess psychologically I am still in a twilight phase right now -but am hopeful enough still that it is dawn and not dusk.  Or maybe I am somewhere between Billy Oceans “when the going gets tough, the tough get going” and Margaret Mead’s “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has” with a healthy dose of Emersonian “Self Reliance” thrown in for good measure.   Americans are fantastic about rising to a challenge, we just need help seeing the challenge.  This time I just hope it doesn’t take Pearl Harbor. 

Be the Change.

-Rob

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