Friday, June 29, 2007

My new favorite newscaster

Even though I don't actually watch television news, I now have a new favorite newscaster:


Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Bye Jinx

It was just over a year ago that we got a donkey as a livestock guardian. We thought we were making a sensible choice. Some people use a dog, some use a llama, some a donkey, and some people just cross their fingers and secure their fences. Based on a variety of factors, we figured a donkey was the best choice for us.

As it turns out, it wasn't really a great choice after all. He never got over his goat aggression. We couldn't trust him with the most vulnerable ones, which were the ones he was meant to protect. Could we have worked harder with him? Could it have been made to work? Maybe. Was he just the wrong donkey for the job? That's a possibility too.

In the end, we just weren't in a very good position to make it work. Our lack of experience was certainly a factor. He wasn't happy with us, and we weren't happy with him. Our shelters were not really enough for him. Our pastures weren't that well suited to him. He was eating as much as four or five goats, and not able to do the job we got him for, and in fact caused a few injuries rather than preventing them.

So now we find out how good our fences really are, and how big a problem the coyotes really are. And Jinx gets to become part of a large herd of donkeys. And if we ever decide to go down that path again, we know where to go to pick one that will be ready for the job, and ready for our inexperience.

Sometimes when you get in over your head, it's best to just work through it. Other times, it's better to back up and try again. We opted for the latter. I think Jinx will be happier, and we'll be happier. The goats are happier already. They've been running around and locking horns all day.

See you later, Jinx old buddy.


Tuesday, June 26, 2007

One Local Summer - Week of 6/24/2007

Our very first local meal for One Local Summer - prepared by Lori

Sauteed Pork Tenderloin with Cream, Apples, and Sage
(Recipe from The Best Recipe)
Pork tenderloin chops from VanMeter Farm, Latham, Ohio (57 mi.)
Apple and apple cider from Hirsch Fruit Farms, Chillicothe, Ohio (25 mi.)
Sage from our herb garden (0 mi.)
Whole goats' milk (substituted for heavy cream) from our goats (0 mi.)
Nonlocal ingredients: butter, onion, salt and pepper, olive oil

Sauteed Zucchini and Summer Squash
(Recipe from Best American Side Dishes)
Zucchini and summer squash from Ross County (20-30 mi.) (This was purchased from an Amish vendor at the Chillicothe farm market; we didn't get the name or location of the farm but we're assuming it's somewhere around there....)
Lemon balm (substituted for lemon zest) from our flowerbed (0 mi.)
Parsley from our herb garden (0 mi.)
Nonlocal ingredients: salt, olive oil, onion

Wheat bread from The Roll Up Yonder, Adelphi, Ohio (21 mi.); with nonlocal butter. The bread was probably not made with local ingredients, however.

Everything turned out quite delicious, and our first OLS attempt has alerted us to a few gaps in our local eating resources: We need to find local butter (or find a way to separate cream from our goats' milk so we can make our own); we need to find local onions (or grow lots of our own and preserve them for year-round use); and we need to find more sources for local starchy foods like potatoes, pasta and grains (we're currently growing two kinds of potatoes, and hopefully we can harvest enough and preserve them for year-round use; also, we recently became aware of a nearby farm selling locally grown wheat flour and wheat berries, among other things).


Comments from e4: Wow, the pork was really delicious. Actually so was the zucchini and summer squash. The bread was good, but not quite as good as Lori's best loaves. And I'm addicted to the apple cider. I've pretty much replaced soft drinks and other beverages with either our own milk or Hirsch's cider.

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Monday, June 25, 2007

Capitalism at its finest

"You know, I really want to watch TV, but I'm toooo tired! Sitting partially upright is soooo much work!"

"Wait, I know, I'll get a pair of prism glasses! For only $49.95, I'll be able to watch TV without lifting my head at all!"

"You know, I need a perch for my bird, but I just don't know where to find something, like, um... well, like a stick."

"Oh look! Petsmart has these beautiful natural wood perches for only $9.99! And they're so sticklike! Perfect!"

"And while I'm at Petsmart, I'll get this 48 oz bag of timothy hay for my pet. It's only $7.49. A good price for dried grass clippings. After all, it's timothy grass. I'm sure it's 40 times better than a $2.50 bale of hay, since it costs 40 times as much per pound."

"Candles! They're such a hassle! First you have to light them. Then you have to blow them out. Who needs it?!"

"If only there were some kind of electronic candle you could plug and charge so it could be powered by a big, polluting coal plant somewhere and then sent to a landfill when the battery goes bad!"

"Hey look, here's one!"


Sunday, June 24, 2007

Black Magic

[Note: This is a draft of an article I'm working on. Constructive criticism welcome. Or payment for publication. :) Images will be added later, if I can get permission to use 'em. And yes, I know that all of the footnotes are numbered "1". I'll fix it eventually... Thanks for reading!]

B l a c k | Can a lost civilization teach us to double crop yields
M a g i c | and produce carbon-negative energy at the same time?

In 1542, Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana described large cities, extensive roads, and fertile croplands in the heart of the Amazon Basin. These claims were long thought to be exaggerations at best. Later explorers found no traces of these complex societies. Nor did historians or archaeologists.

However, those notions are beginning to change. Orellana may well have led the first (and last) party of Europeans through a highly advanced civilization that thrived in the Amazon for centuries - a civilization whose existence was thought to be impossible. After all, even with modern farming techniques, crop yields cannot be sustained on the poor native soils. A rainforest soaks up every last drop of rain. Remove the rainforest, and the soil nutrients leach away in no time. The slash-and-burn techniques used by today's farmers in the Amazon produce a layer of ash that may only achieve a few years' worth of crop growth before all usable soil nutrients have eroded away. How could a large pre-Columbian civilization thrive where modern agriculture cannot?

Archaeologists in the Moxos Plains of Bolivia have started to unravel this 500-year old mystery. The Moxos Plains are a flat, savanna-like region on the edge of the Amazon rain forest. The plains are subject to seasonal flooding, and covered with relatively sparse vegetation. However, the landscape is dotted with "forest islands" - thousands of raised areas with highly fertile soil, covered with lush vegetation. The landscape is also criss-crossed with unnaturally straight lines and rectangular patterns, for miles on end.

The forest islands were thought to be the result of some sort of volcanic or other geological activity. But every forest island has thick, rich soil known as terra preta, or "dark earth". And everywhere there's dark earth, there are also pottery shards, human bone fragments, charcoal, and other evidence of human life. Intricately detailed artifacts have been discovered which rival the Incan and Mayan cultures' artistry.

Evidence now suggests that the forest islands themselves were man-made earthworks. The straight lines were an extensive web of causeways connecting the islands, and canals, with fish weirs. The rectangular patterns were agricultural plots, raised to protect them from seasonal flooding. As researchers have started to map the terra preta soil throughout the Amazon basin, they're finding a strong correlation between the rich soil and the places where Orellana reported seeing villages.

Perhaps the most valuable discovery has been the rich soil itself. It appears that this vast and complex culture did not just take advantage of terra preta -- they created it. This lost civilization, apparently destroyed in a matter of decades by smallpox, influenza, and measles, has left us something valuable indeed -- a technique for creating soil with incredible properties.

Incredible - an overused word sometimes. But consider this: The terra preta soil can result in increases in crop yields of double, triple, or in one case, 880 percent1 over the native soil; the technique for creating terra preta soil can extract significant amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, and store it in the soil for millenia; as long as an eight-inch layer of terra preta is left on the surface, it can apparently regenerate itself to a depth of 24 inches over a period of two decades1; and at least one plot of terra preta soil has been continuously cropped for over 40 consecutive years.1

In fact, several companies are trying to take the process even further. One company, Eprida, believes that through a process called pyrolysis, it can produce bio-oil, hydrogen-based gas, and highly fertile soil, from crop residue, on a small scale, in a way that returns micro-nutrients to the soil and removes carbon from the atmosphere.

Their prototype power plant, which is the size of a semi trailer, burns peanut shells. The heat produced is used to create steam, which is mixed with the smoke from the burning process itself. When the steam and smoke combine, a hydrogen-based gas is captured, which can then be used as a fuel, similar to natural gas. Alternately, all or part of the gaseous smoke/steam mix can be distilled into a liquid fuel. And of course, the charred material created becomes a soil amendment.

Eprida will target small farmers, since a farm can easily provide all the inputs and use all the outputs of the process.

The researchers at Eprida actually had no knowledge of terra preta when they began researching sustainable ways to produce energy from crop residue -- but the hints were there. Danny Day, Eprida's CEO, tells the following story:
One of my employees, Nate, was instructed to bring a 55 gallon drum of charcoal from an area where we had produced and piled it up two years earlier. He came back and asked what did I want to do with the plants.

I said, "What plants?"

"The plants growing on the charcoal," he replied.

I said, "Nate, I need clean charcoal with no plants in them. Just move them out of the way and get clean charcoal with no plants or root material in it."

He quickly went away.

The next day I was puzzled and asked Nate what kind of plants were growing in the charcoal.

He said, "Oh grass, weeds... " He paused. "And turnips."

"Turnips? What kind of turnips"

He smiled as he held up his hands about a foot apart and said, "Big turnips."

I said, "Wow. That’s incredible. Go get me one."

"I can’t," he replied.

"Why not," I asked.

"You told me to move them."

"Where did they go?"

Nate replied, "Charlie, Philip, David and I took them home."

"How much did you get?"

"We each got a big garbage bag full!"

"What did they taste like?"

"They were good!"

Scientists and researchers are just now starting to unlock the mysteries of terra preta. The key ingredient, it seems, is charcoal - or more specifically, activated carbon. A single gram of activated carbon can have a surface area of 500 to 1,500 square meters (or about the equivalent of one to three basketball courts)1. This char material in the soil has several beneficial effects, including about a 20% increase in water retention, increased mineral retention, increased mineral availability to plant roots, and increased microbial activity. It has been shown to be particularly beneficial to arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi, which form a symbiotic relationship with plant root fibers, allowing for greater nutrient uptake by plants. There is speculation that the mycorrhizal fungi may play a part in terra preta's ability to seemingly regenerate itself.

Biochar (sometimes called agrichar) is charcoal made from crop residue, such as corn cobs or spent sugar canes. The research into the benefits and the ultimate potential of biochar as a soil additive are being conducted around the world, in tropical, temperate, humid, and arid climates. It has been studied by such respected institutions as Cornell University, the University of Bayreuth, Germany, and the US Department of Energy. It has been reported on in journals and publications such as Nature, Scientific American, and Discover Magazine.

It's important to remember that biochar doesn't necessarily add nutrients so much as retain nutrients, and make existing nutrients more available. The most significant crop yield increases were found when mineral fertilizers were added to poor soil in conjunction with the biochar. However, it does appear that the more char material added, the bigger the beneficial effects. The effective saturation point is not yet known. It's also important to note that the benefits may be lost when certain modern agricultural techniques are used. Mycorrhizal fungi and other soil organisms are sensitive to many agricultural chemicals, and the yields may not be as dramatic with heavily tilled soil.

More char material in the soil may mean less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The carbon sequestration potential of biochar is enormous. By one estimate, biochar-amended soil can contain at least two-and-a-half times the carbon of typical soil. In the Amazon's poor soil, terra preta soil has eighteen times more carbon.1 Unlike most soil-based carbon (organic matter), the charred matter is essentially permanently sequestered.

How much carbon can be sequestered in this manner? The limits have not yet been determined, but one estimate amounts to 150 metric tons per hectare, or, put another way, over 42,000 tons of carbon per square mile. Bruno Glaser, a researcher with the University of Bayreuth, Germany, believes that by the end of this century, terra preta schemes in combination with biofuels could store up over one billion tons of carbon - more than the total of all carbon emitted by fossil fuels today.1

Of course, the danger of this kind of discovery, if it turns out to hold up well under further scientific scrutiny, is irresponsible implementation. Clearcutting forests to sequester carbon doesn't seem like a practical tradeoff. And creating excessive air pollution through low-tech charring of plant material might create more problems than it solves.

However, there is so much promise, so much potential, and so many global problems that could be helped with this knowledge, that extensive trials are certainly warranted. Terra preta could provide us with:
  • A way to slow, or even halt deforestation of the Amazon basin
  • A way to dramatically increase crop yields, even while moving away from chemically-dependent agriculture
  • A way to mitigate soil depletion problems around the globe
  • A way to retain more moisture in soils, reducing the need for irrigation
  • A way to reduce nutrient leaching into waterways, which in turn can reduce the "dead zone" problems such as the one found near the Mississippi delta
  • A way to create energy sustainably, even on a back yard scale
  • A way to permanently and dramatically reduce carbon concentration in the earth's atmosphere
  • A way to do all of these things, with apparently time-tested, stone-age technologies.
There's even a small chance that particulate from creating char could temporarily re-strengthen the global dimming effect, which might slow global warming.

Too good to be true? It's hard to say. But with all of these potential benefits, it's hard not to be hopeful. Especially since, with a little thought and creativity, it seems like much of this could be done on a homestead scale.

Sure it would be hard for a back yard hobbyist to capture, store, and use hydrogen gas. And anything involving fire and smoke would need to be thought through. The ideal situation might be an "appliance" of some sort that could filter pollutants, or even make use of the gases the way Eprida's prototype apparently does.

Even without such complexities, if the pollution question can be addressed, the potential is huge. Could it be that anyone with the motivation could dramatically improve their soil and sequester carbon in their own back yard? After all, char material can be made using little more than a steel drum with some holes in it.

There are plenty of things to do with the heat generated during the charring process. Why not use it to heat your water? Or cook your food? (Ever heard of a pit barbecue?) The heat could be used to warm a greenhouse in winter, or possibly even supplement home heating.

Maybe this was how it all started. Maybe the ancient inhabitants of the Amazon were just trying to cook their dinners or warm their water, only to stumble on one of Mother Nature's best kept secrets. Perhaps the constant rains made open fires impractical. Maybe the lack of abundant stone made pit fires the only logical choice. Or was it just that local fish tasted best when slow-cooked?

Whatever the case, it seems they discovered something akin to magic. Now that we've unearthed this deep, dark secret, are we smart enough to use it responsibly?

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Friday, June 22, 2007

Cool shower

In a rare moment of timely foresight, I spent my lunch hour yesterday setting up a new rainbarrel.


It was a nice light shower that lasted a solid two hours. It only amounted to about a quarter inch on the rain gauge, but I have a feeling it'll still make a nice difference. The slow, steady trickle of rain helped it soak in rather than just running off into the pond or off to the river.

Would I like three more days of that? Absolutely. But I'll take it.

It was doubly nice, because it was cool all day too. We've had the windows wide open. The breeze has been wafting through, bringing with it the giddy and gleeful songs of the local birds, and the happy sound of rain running down the downspouts.

It was very timely too, because our neighbor said his well was drawing sand yesterday. Now I think our well goes about 10-20 feet deeper than theirs, but still. A dry well would Not Be Good... At All...

Not much rain in the forecast, but then, it wasn't supposed to rain today either, so there you go...


Wednesday, June 20, 2007

They can't get me!

Sure, you think my black helicopter comments are all just a b-i-i-i-i-g joke, don't ya?

Yeah, so did our new neighbors. But now they know.

They know.

I was talking over the fence to the man of the house next door. He asked me if I'd ever seen them land. I said, "Yeah, I've seen them on the ground over there at that little airstrip."

He said, "What did the people look like? How were they dressed?"

I said, "I've never seen any people getting in or out."

He paused, and then said, "That's because they're not humans."

Here they are using the standard black helicopters to scope out our goats. Probably for some alien lab research or something. (Click to enlarge.)

As you can see, that was before they cut off our rain supply.

Then, a few days later, they must have airlifted a bunch of aliens out of the area or something. They probably realized I was onto them. I couldn't even fit all six transport helicopters into the frame. (Click to enlarge.)

Not long after that, a single fighter jet went soaring overhead. I didn't have my camera, but it's surprising how distinctive that particular sound is. It was going pretty fast. I think that was just a little sabre-rattling, so I knew that they knew.

And of course, every so often, the big, gray four-engine jets go lumbering over at low altitude. I think they're the ones controlling the weather, to punish us for figuring out their dastardly plans.

But I'm ready for them. Oh, yes. They can't control my mind!

I've got my stylish, passive solar tinfoil hat (which, incidentally, can double as a solar oven):


Tuesday, June 19, 2007


To the North:

To the east:

To the West:
(The "To the South" picture didn't
come out. But it was there too...)

At our house:

The sum total of all our rain:

Our lush, green pastures:

Standing in tall clover:
A shrubbery:

Not much left:
Our willow nursery (formerly known as "our pond")
is the only thing keeping the goats happy.

I learned an important new phrase today: "willow hay."

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Sunday, June 17, 2007

How do you do a rain dance?

Man is it dry. Dry and hot.

At least it's a dry heat.

We topped out around 94F today. Low humidity, and a bit of a breeze, which made it better than most 94 degree days around here, but man...

Since the first of May, we've had about one inch of rain. A few showers that barely registered on my rain gauge in May, and a couple t-storms in early June that brought 3/4 of an inch in a ocuple days.

So far I've lost two redbuds, a sweet bay magnolia, and a beautiful tricolor beech tree, as well as a few shrubs. I've been watering the garden, and all of the new transplants, so a lot of our plants are treading water (so to speak). I've had to carry quite a few buckets out to the farthest baby trees. I may lose a few of them anyway.

I planted a bunch of woody things this year, and so I've spent the last couple months watering bare sticks. Three of my four peach trees leafed out nicely, but the last one steadfastly refused to show signs of life. But the branches were still bendy, and scraping under the bark still showed green, so I kept watering. It finally came out with some leaves just a few days ago. I still have three more stick trees and many more stick raspberries with no vital signs, but I'm keeping the faith. For now.

Unfortunately, my rain barrels ran dry again. Guess I need to add more capacity. I generally try not to use the well water for anything but the garden. It sucks up way too much softener salt as it is, and I don't know that all that salt is great for the plants. But what can you do? (You can get the water pre-softener, if you were smart enough to plumb it that way. It never crossed my mind at the time.)

We may lose our fish if the pond goes much lower, but at least the willows are growing around the edges. I can give the goats an occasional armload of stuff that's actually more green than brown.

It's been a tough year weatherwise. Mild winter = lots of hay consumption. (The animals were more active while the pastures were dormant.) Then we had a frigid March, including an ice storm, which stressed out the plants and made them confused about when to start growing. Then from April until now, it's been pretty nice from a recreational point of view, but from a garden & farm point of view, waaaay too dry. Less water means less growth.

We hear thunder and see lightning from time to time. But it always misses us. Today there was a passing shower that speckled the back windows. But it didn't even get the ground wet.

Tomorrow is scheduled to be hotter, with some chance of rain. Cooler temps arrive on Tuesday, and hopefully that means a front is coming. We'll see...

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Saturday, June 09, 2007

Lazy Scavenger Results

At long last, the results of the Lazy Scavenger Challenge.

In a sec...

First, thanks to everyone who participated. There were a ton of creative ideas, and I wish I could use them all. Many of these led me to do additional research on a variety of interesting topics, which is always fun.

It was very tough selecting a winner. I even thought about awarding second and third prizes, but it was hard enough picking out one, much less three.

My favorite idea was one that will require a few additional materials. But I really like it, and it's my contest, so I'm bending the rules. I think the payback will be worth it.

Thanks to M.I. for sending me (among other things), a link to the diagram below from the Maine Solar Energy Association:
It's a bit hard to see, especially if you don't click to enlarge, but it's essentially a low-tech solar space heater. Or should I say "thermosiphon" space heater. This will make good use of the big black sheet metal. I may even be able to build more than one. I'll need to track down some glass or other glazing material, and some foam insulation board. But apparently on a sunny winter day, this type of design can draw air out of your room, add 20+ degrees to it, and send it back into the room without a single watt of electricity or other fuel being used.

I ran across a variety of similar designs - one even used beer cans painted black. What I like about this particular design though is that it can be placed in an existing window without blocking it or anything. Some thermosiphon designs block the window, and some involve cutting holes in the wall, neither of which are desirable for a project made out of scrap materials by an amateur with no certainty of its actual effectiveness.

M.I. has selected an assortment of heirloom seeds for her winning entry.

So thanks again to all of you for the great ideas. I guess now I have to build it, and then we'll have to wait until winter to see how well it actually works.

And for everybody else, I'll make you a deal: If I get around to using any of the other ideas, I'll send out more prizes.

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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Little Miss Sunshine

For any who don't know this already, our daughter is autistic. Or may be autistic. It at least seems very likely that she has something called sensory integration disorder. At four years old, she responds to her name, certain music, and not much else. She does not understand spoken language. She communicates in a limited way through picture cards, as well as by taking your hand and leading you to what she wants - the windmill cookies, the back door, the chair where she wants you to sit so she can climb on you...

Between her extremely irregular sleep patterns, her lack of communication, her frustrating habit of emptying anything she can get her hands on, whether it's the silverware drawer, the cereal box, the water bottle, the clothespin bin, the asparagus bed... It can be quite challenging at times.

However, as Lori mentioned recently, she has been an absolute joy to spend time with lately. It doesn't matter if I'm feeling sad or grumpy or depressed or frustrated. Ten seconds with my little ray of sunshine is all it takes to put a smile back on my face.

She wakes up happy. When you pick her up, she squirms happily. When you put your face close to hers, she giggles almost uncontrollably. She purposefully runs from room to room, in her distinctive canter, babbling away to herself. She writhes with anticipation when the school bus comes, and wriggles with delight when we get her off the bus at the end of the day. She loves physical contact with her mommy and daddy, she makes great eye contact, and she finds her own way to get her point across.

These days, she also smiles more than any kid I've ever met.

We've long been interested in homeschooling, but I have to give credit where it's due. The progress she's made with her teachers and therapists at school has been remarkable. And this isn't some fancy expensive therapy program - it's a free service through our rural public school system! They have a wonderful team over there, and they know a little magic that we don't.

We've been thrilled with the things they've done to help her make some sense of the world. And even though she can't talk, I think it's clear that she's thrilled too.

I think it's also clear that even without language skills, she knows at least a hundred ways to say "I love you."