Making BioChar for our small farm

BioChar Ovens

BioChar Ovens

We have a weekly tradition of trading projects in the Village, where one family chooses a project and others chip in.  This week, we built biochar ovens (sometimes called kilns or retorts) out of 55-gallon steel barrels.  Using a plasma cutter, it was a breeze cutting and assembling these ovens.   Weather cooperating, we plan our first biochar making session this Saturday.  We invite Villagers and visitors from the local community to join us.

Biochar, also known as Tera Preta, was discovered in the Amazon Jungle a few years back.  Apparently biochar production and use as a soil amendment was practiced by a lost pre-Colombian civilization.  The discoverers noticed that in a patch of cleared jungle land, the rich, black soil was incredibly productive where the surrounding soil was dead.  Upon excavating, they discovered that this black soil was also amazingly deep, having been artificially manufactured over generations.

“The burning and natural decomposition of biomass and in particular agricultural waste adds large amounts of CO2 and CH4 to the atmosphere. Biochar can store large amounts of greenhouse gases in the ground; at the same time its presence in the earth can improve water quality, increase soil fertility, raise agricultural productivity and reduce pressure on old-growth forests.” – Wikipedia

Our soil tends to be acidic, so the addition of a ph raising amendment, like biochar is a big plus.  In addition to sequestration of carbon and other minerals beneficial to food crops, biochar is also noted for its tiny nooks and crannies that provide habitat for beneficial bacteria that enhance soil quality and structure.

The process of producing biochar from wood also releases clean syngas, that can be used as fuel in internal combustion engines.  We make electricity using a generator fueled by wood gas.  So many benefits from one process!

There is still much to be learned about how and why biochar works as a soil amendment.  But, as a community, we decided it’s well worth testing, contributing to the body of knowledge, reaping the benefits in our small farms and creating another source of green revenue by producing it in reasonably large quantities.

Here is a video that explains the system we built.  Have fun with this.  We are.

BTW, if you’re someone who enjoys being self-sufficient, building things, and the company of other creative, industrious folks, you might want to join us permanently.  We’re a community of interesting, accomplished people who care about each other.  Contact us here.

 

Extreme Consolidation in the Solar PV market expected this year

This is a good industry article indicating that solar panel manufacturers will go through a major consolidation this year.

Consolidation is a weeding out of the smaller, less efficient manufacturers in favor of low-cost, high-volume, efficient manufacturers.  The remaining suppliers will benefit from lower supply and less intense pricing pressures.  It remains to be seen whether, in the aftermath of lower supply, prices will increase.  They may continue to decline, despite decreased pressure on prices, as new, more efficient technologies and manufacturing techniques are developed.  Or, it may signal the bottoming out of PV panel prices.  Also, there does seem to be some improvement in the economy, at least in some sectors.  This could release pent-up demand from people who have been waiting to invest in solar out of fear over a potential job loss.  If we have industry consolidation (lower supply) that coincides with higher demand, the remaining suppliers will benefit from even higher economies of scale, resulting in higher profitability and perhaps lower prices as low-cost suppliers further consolidate market-share.

By observing general trends in the high tech sector based on silicone chips, one could conclude that prices will continue to decline.  That is, unless there is some other major disruption in the supply chain (like war, political upheaval, etc.)  If prices begin to increase post-consolidation, this may trigger more government intervention and subsidization, which could also be an offsetting factor, although generally, once consolidation has occurred, fewer companies may use subsidies to simply pad their bottom lines, further strengthening their balance sheets and staying power in the market rather than reduce prices.

Industry consolidation is just one factor to consider in determining when is the right moment to invest in Solar technology that moves us further in the direction of off-grid self-sufficiency while staying fiscally conservative.  My sense is that now is at least a much better time to invest in solar than a few years ago.  I’m glad I waited.  Cost per KWh is still higher than grid-supplied electricity.  But the question remains, should I wait longer?  The economy looks to be improving in the short term.

I consider small-scale home based Solar PV not for its economic efficiencies, but more for its insurance value. Long-term, the world still looks extremely fragile.  With the short-term improvement in the economy, this may be the perfect moment to invest in self-sufficiency, whether it is a modest amount of solar PV or a more secure location on which to place it.

Achieving self-sufficiency and sustainability without bankrupting yourself requires a long-term, plodding approach.  Like Maslow’s heirarchy of needs, (remember that from college psychology or sociology classes?) one does not achieve self-actualization until the more basic needs are covered.  PV solar, is at the top of the pyramid.  First, you cover basics like food, water, shelter, Next is energy in the form of least costly and highest efficiency.  Energy for heat and cooling falls in this category.  Passive solar or bio-mass solutions are a much better alternative.    Never try to provide these using Photo Voltaics.  That would be like trying to survive in a famine on an all-corn-fed-beef diet where it takes 15 pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat.  Inefficient, unsustainable.

Please move the deer crossing

People like this are voting . . . for both parties.  That’s why they’re called parties, right?  Because life is a party.  Everybody should vote for a big, popular one.

If this is the product of our school systems, what can we do about it?

Some progressive legislation ideas:

  1. Move the signs to locations where there are fewer deer (as proposed above)
  2. More laws with stiffer penalties on lawbreaking deer.
  3. Increase deer crossing signs in high traffic areas to attract more deer.  Facilitate the early demise of the terminally stupid. Eugenics via natural selection.
  4. Reenact the “trail of Deers”.  Put them all in FEMA camps.  The deer, that is. . .  or not.
    And my favorite for practicality:
  5. Move the remaining smart people out of high traffic cities to the country where there are very few deer crossing signs.  Get beefy bumpers. Road-kill makes good venison.  Proposed relocation center for smart people, the Village on Sewanee Creek.

So many possibilities.  Go ahead.  Add your best suggestions.  It’s a legislator’s dream world.

Low Cost Ownership @ the Village on Sewanee Creek

The jewel of the Village has always been what we called phase II.  Pristine, forested, rolling land, with the most dramatic views, cascading creeks and water falls.  It’s all there, untouched and waiting for this moment and the right people to build a community of caring, sharing and prepared people.

In 2006, when we got started, I expected to quickly sell out on Phase I, then move to the best part.  Then the sub-prime mortgage crisis hit in 2007, followed by a total economic melt-down, led by Real Estate in 2008.  It’s been slow going, but our unique approach to community building creates value that goes far beyond the land.  So, we survived in slow growth mode.  Slow is good when you are striving to build a community with solid roots.  Sort of like nurturing a Japanese bonsai tree.

Fast forward to 2012.  The forests are 6 years older and the wildlife has cycled through several generations, but phase 2 is otherwise unchanged.  Meanwhile, the cost of building paved roads and other infrastructure required by the government, has sky-rocketed to the point that traditional development of Phase II is not feasible.  And, on Phase I, we have grown a community of self-sufficient folks.  Our gardens are maturing, along with our gardening skills and our bees.  We have weathered seasons of drought and plenty with our rainwater catchment systems; we have experimented with various types of low-cost alternative energy, from wood gasification to Lister Diesel generators, to simple wood stoves, solar ovens and micro-hydro-electric generators.  We have built six lovely homes, some traditional construction, log, SIP, cast concrete and experimented with ultra low cost CONEX shipping container construction at the amphitheater, for storage, for workshops and finally, for guest houses.  The learning from all of this and expertise from highly skilled people who have joined us over the years continues to raise the level of self-sufficiency and preparedness of the Village community.

Cost of ownership in difficult economic times has been the primary obstacle for most people who wanted to join us in living a simple, frugal life.  So, here’s the low-cost alternative:

Land on Phase II is to be owned by an LLC with shareholders. Through a shareholder’s agreement, co-owners allocate personal plots within the community.

This method of ownership has several advantages:

  1. Lower cost per acre (In the $4,000 range)
  2. Lower taxes: Blocks of land over 16 acres can remain in “green belt” status, with close to zero tax rates.
  3. As there is one owner, it is not a “development”, hence no need for Government Planning to interfere.
  4. Lower development costs for roads, and other infrastructure.
  5. Full membership in the established Village on Phase 1 with access to commons, hiking trails, community gardens, and other infrastructure.
  6. Shared cost of self-sufficiency infrastructure (well(s), rainwater catchment, alternative energy systems, etc.)
  7. Enhanced sense of community, but still not a commune.

Purchase size would be from 50 to 100 acres.
So, hypothetically, 50 acres, shared equally in 5 acre lots = 10 owners (could be more owners and lower total cost with smaller lots).  Out of that, each contributes an acre for a highly functional 10-acre commons. This is all usable plateau top land. Cost per household would be in the neighborhood of $20,000 plus the shared legal cost of setting up the LLC.  Add a low cost home, like the guest house from Shipping Containers I built for under $10,000 to, say, a 2-acre piece of Phase II and you could have a great life in a gorgeous, sustainable community for about $18,000.

I know there are a lot of you out there who desperately want to own land in the Village, but simply can’t afford it in this economy. And I can’t afford to sell Phase I land for much less and even cover my sunk development costs.  But I have no development costs in Phase II other than the interest I have been paying on it for six years.

If this sounds interesting, please let me know. We can start doing some serious planning and marketing if there is enough interest.

The fruit (and vegetables) of Sharing

Several years ago, I built a 2,000 square foot greenhouse on our land so we could grow food for our family all winter long.   We had gardened successfully on the same spot in prior years.  Greenhouse gardening was new to us.  It took a while to figure out what to grow and how to grow it in the winter season, but last winter we determined to fill it with cold tolerant vegetables and not heat it at all other than the free solar daytime heat.  We knew it would have too much capacity for us to use, so we invited other Villagers to share in the work and the produce.   We dined all winter long on fresh cabbage, carrots, kale, spinach, beets, lettuce, radishes, onions, broccoli and cauliflower.   We worked together in the greenhouse and later making sauerkraut from the bumper crop of cabbages.  Delicious.  But the best payoff was in relationships.

I want to share an email that my wife, Becky, just received from Judy (cc to me).
It gladdened my heart to see the fruits of sharing.  Sharing:

  • Transforms relationships.
  • Demonstrates trust and love.
  • Stimulates generosity in return.

The Bible teaches,

“Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.”   Ecclesiastes 11:1

When I was a child, I used to wonder, “so who wants soggy bread?”    🙂

Here’s the answer:

Hi Becky,
 
I finished filling my kraut-bucket with cabbage today, and wanted to say thank you for sharing the produce from your greenhouse.  Although we spent a few hours there planting/thinning/weeding, our reward has been greater than effort expended.  Not to mention that it is your greenhouse, your seed, your water…  
 
I’ve been wondering how you determine what is fair when it comes to sharing the fruits of our labors.  I don’t want you to feel that we are taking too much advantage of a good thing!
 
My concern is that things not go to waste because there isn’t time or energy to harvest what was planted.  I am willing to help you put up the vegetables–as an additional ‘payment’ for what we receive.  For example, I’ll chop your cabbage and bottle it (you provide the jars); the finished product is yours. Maybe I can help get the last of the beets bottled…  I know you have MANY other things that could be occupying your time.
 
Please don’t hesitate to let me know what I–and Tom–can do to best help keep things moving along!
 
-judy.

Thank you Becky and Judy and Tom and George for your example to us all.

A whole different bag of Huevos

We have kept egg laying chickens for a few years now. When we started, I did a little research on preserving eggs. Turns out there are ways to oil your clean, unwashed, whole fresh eggs and store them in a cool spot that will make them last 6 or 8 months. That’s pretty good I guess.

But, with a little practical experience, we learned that there is really no need to go to the bother. Unless you eat a hearty 3-egg country breakfast every morning you can’t possibly eat all the fresh whole eggs even a couple of good hens produce. In effect, your long-term storage IS your chickens.

Now, if you do some baking or enjoy a variety of recipes that need eggs, that’s a whole different bag of huevos.

Many years ago, I trained IHOP Store managers. IHOP uses A LOT of eggs, but fewer fresh ones than you might think compared to bulk scrambled eggs that go into omelets, pancakes, crepes, etc, and IHOP doesn’t even bake anything. They buy frozen scrambled eggs by the 5-gallon bucket.

So, if you’re interested in long-term egg storage, it’s really pretty simple. Keep a few chickens. Whenever you get to the point where there’s no room in the fridge for anything but eggs, and maybe the neighbors are crying “uncle”, just crack ’em all into a big bowl, scramble, and freezer bag ’em in handy portion sizes.

Quick easy to-die-for quicheBecky makes a to-die-for Quiche that takes only a few minutes to prepare from frozen scrambled packets. It’s her go-to recipe when we have guests and little time to prepare. That happens a lot with Village visitors.

The self-sufficient lifestyle doesn’t need to be about living out of covered wagons or the little house on the prairie. With a little experience and common sense, life is pretty sweet, simple and efficient. And that leaves more time for enjoying the other good things in life.

Learn to trap small game

Hunting is alright as a sport and for large game, but for a year-round reliable source of food, the old mountain men were efficient trappers.

A few days ago, when we had lost 4 chickens in as many days to coons, I called Joe, my good friend and old-time mountain man, from down the street for a little help.  He came by, identified the problem, set some traps and very soon, problem solved. Next step, re-populate our chicken coop.

Joe wanted the raccoon to train his dogs, so I called him to come get it.  We ended up spending a couple of hours talking about old time skills and how he had trapped all his life. He shared many nuances I was unaware of. I suggested that you all might be interested in learning to trap and he could make some extra pocket change in the process. He said he would think about it. We might even consider a dinner of locally trapped small game, prepared mountain style. If you haven’t had the pleasure I can tell you, squirrel mulligan is mighty fine stew.

Anyway, I thought it might be a good idea to post this and see how many would be interested for, say $10 per person for a day’s session at the Village on Sewanee Creek, maybe a little extra for the meal. Let me know what you think.  You can get back to me here.

I also posted this on the Nashville meetup group, Provident Living’s site. If there is enough interest, we’ll ask Joe to do it.