With the onset of farming season, we have been busy at LEF. We expanded our seeds operation by about a third this year. Our seed crops are mostly looking great. The orchards and new berry plantings are also in good shape, though it is an effort to keep them watered. The ducks, the bees, and the humans inhabiting our land all seem to be doing well.
The question of how much food can be grown with organic, sustainable methods is a large one. Each year as we grow bountiful, organic grains and seed crops, we feel more confident that organic farming can feed humanity better than industrial chemical agriculture. Last year we grew Florianni Flint corn. The harvest was fantastic. This year we are growing Kentucky Rainbow, an heirloom dent corn. Industrial agriculture using hybrid GMO seeds is enormously productive under ideal conditions. But under difficult growing conditions, heirloom seeds may actually be better. The old dent corns (like Kentucky Rainbow) are famous for their drought tolerance. Sure enough, we have been having a dry growing season, and we have watched the neighbors’ hybrids shrivel while our Kentucky Rainbow looks like a lush corn jungle. (See photo.) Most of such building energy as we might possess at the end of the farming day has been going into repairing and completing various parts of our main house and surrounding infrastructure in preparation for bringing more visitors onto the land in the coming months. We have had a few leaking pipes and broken solar gizmos that got left behind in the push to make our main house livable. Now we are fixing those issues. If all goes well, we should be ready for doing open-houses and other promotional events in the fall.
We chose woodgas to run our tractors because it seemed like it made the most sense. Woodgas prevented mass starvation in Europe in the 1940s. People have asked us why we don’t use ethanol or biodiesel. The answer is that those are precious fuels that are derived from high-grade feedstock. They compete with humans for food. With woodgas, the fuel is all around us. That being said, both woodgas and turpentine need a warm engine to work well, so a small amount of ethanol would be really useful as a starter fuel. Woodgas is not necessarily easy to work with. Liquid fuels have some big advantages. Now we have a new project. In the next couple years, we will set up a turpentine tractor and see how it works. Kris summed up the situation in a recent email. “I’m thinking what we will need to do for traction in these villages we envision is a variety of fuels, depending on what is available in the particular bioregion. ie, turps [turpentine] in the pine forest, wood gas in hardwood, steam in straw (yes, they made special straw burners for the flat lands), etc. Perhaps combine one or more of these with animal power from time to time.” Couldn’t have said it better myself. (If you are a farmer and you care, the old John Deere models A, B, and D are some of the ones designed to run on “tractor fuel” and are easily hand-started.)
We currently have our wood gasifier on a Power King.
We will build a gasifier for the Tuff-Bilt soon. Our goal is to come up with the simplest, cheapest form of post fossil fuel mechanical power for farmers around the world. We recently discovered Oggun, a new tractor on the market. The primary weakness of small tractors is that they are too light to have much traction. The Oggun puts the engine right over the rear wheels, maximizing traction. The drive train is as simple as it can be, with a hydraulic pump/ motor arrangement as is used on some heavy equipment. (There is a hydraulic motor directly attached to each wheel, which eliminates the need for a heavy mechanical drive train.) The Oggun has a front cultivator attachment point for precise cultivation, as well as an attachment point for rear implements. It’s a great design. Even more amazingly, the intent of the Oggun tractor company is to help other people around the world to make Oggun tractors. Their business plan is quite unique. The intention is to set up distributors who over time become producers, substituting locally (nationally) made parts when possible. Thus the Ethiopian or Brazilian distributors will use steel, engines, and other parts made in Ethiopia and Brazil over time. This, hopefully, will make the cheapest possible (but still functional and effective) tractors for farmers all over the world. See the Business Plan at thinkoggun.com
In the U.S., we have a lot of cheap, used tractors to choose from. In taking LEF around the world, we cannot rely on used equipment. What does the future hold for humanity? Millions of small farmers using Oggun-style tractors running woodgas or turpentine? Walk-behind tractors? Certainly, Kris’s commentsabout diversified motive power sources adapted to local resources are pertinent. The difference at LEF, as compared to the many academic or “demonstration site” ecological research projects is that we rely on our tools to support us — to grow our food, to earn our living. Many ideas that seem fantastic prove impractical in the field. We will do a lot of our farmwork with woodgas this year. In the next couple of years, we will test the practical viability of turpentine and walk-behind tractors powered with woodgas and turpentine. Perhaps we will set up an Oggun with farm-produced fuels. The big question of how we feed ourselves sustainably and equitably on a global scale is a big one. Hopefully we can do our part to answer it. Our work with putting together integrated village energy system using high and low voltage DC power is working really well. We feel like this system is well worth exporting to villages around the world. Hopefully, ongoing improvements to cooking and farm traction will enhance our efforts. Please support us if you can.
Low-Density Nickel Iron Batteries?
We have been continuing our research and work with Nickel-Iron (NiFe) batteries. NiFe batteries are non-toxic, extremely durable, and very tough. Lead-acid batteries are fragile, toxic, and short-lived. Lead-acid batteries dominate the off-grid market, and have largely destroyed it because they die so quickly.
All of the research and development of batteries, NiFes included, has focused on power density- storing a lot of energy in a small space. Thomas Edison made and sold NiFe batteries, intending them for use in electric vehicles and other portable uses where high power density is very desirable. For such uses, short recharge times are also desirable. NiFe batteries have lower power density and longer recharge times than lead-acid. Modern research on NiFe technology has continued to focus on these issues. (There is one substantial research project underway at Stanford University.)
From the perspective of how we do things at LEF, power density and recharge time are irrelevant. At LEF, we store energy in various ways that allow us to minimize the need for stored electricity. We store water in pressurized tanks, so we don’t have to run a water pump at night. Our buildings have massive thermal mass, so we don’t have to run a heating system at night. We will pump irrigation water through the house while the sun is shining, getting free air-conditioning in the summer from solar pumped irrigation water. We use high voltage DC motors when the sun is out. We use stored electricity for lighting, nothing else. Our NiFe batteries charge all day long from our solar electric panels. It would not matter if their recharge times were slow or if their power density was abysmally low. Big, cheap batteries would be just fine.
A few people have tried “out in the garage” experiments with homemade NiFe batteries. The basic ingredients — nickel, iron, potassium hydroxide (aka potash) — are easily available. We have been looking over Edison’s original manufacturing processes, as well as the documentation of various homemade NiFe attempts. From his shop in Pittsburgh, Eddie is going to continue the research and try to build low-density NiFes in mason jars. We are not so presumptuous as to imagine that we could outsmart the many well-endowed entities that have worked on high-tech batteries over the years. But it is very possible that low-density NiFes have been ignored simply because there is no immediate profit to be made.
If we can make cheap, low-density NiFes, it would be revolutionary. A very small solar electric panel could be wired straight to the batteries. Small houses in villages all over the world could have light with small LED flashlight bulbs designed to run on low voltage. That could be a cheap, very durable way to provide lighting to millions and millions of the world’s poorest peoples. Wish us luck. If the mason jar NiFes fail, we will continue our overseas efforts using purchased NiFes.
Finding a clean, sustainable way to cook food each and every day has proven to be the most challenging aspect of our project. A defining characteristic of LEF is that everything we do has to be as cheap and simple as possible. That is embedded
in our definition of sustainability. Finding tools and machines that are accessible to most of humanity is not easy. At LEF, we are using a combination of solar cookers (parabolic and ovens), and wood stoves. Our rocket stoves are very efficient, using about one-tenth of the wood of an old-fashioned wood cook stove. There are numerous organizations working to spread rocket stoves around the world. That’s a good thing.
The rocket stoves work, but they are an outdoor technology. They are a fire hazard. They mean that some ash and soot get into the food, and some smoke gets in the face of the cook. We built a biogas system at LEF a few years ago. (Biogas = methane = natural gas.) It worked, but there are limitations. The gasifier needs to be kept warm. In cold climates, sometimes they are buried. It needs to be of considerable size. It needs to be fed biomass each and every day.
Seeing the limitations of biogas, we have built a prototype solar boiler. We designed a tracking collector that followed the sun, but decided to use a simpler trough system that needs no tracking. The collector reflects light onto a pipe which contains water. The water boils and the steam collects in a storage tank. The steam could be then piped into a steam-jacket kettle in the kitchen to cook our food. Cooking would be as simple as opening a valve leading to the kettle.
We have been making solar steam, but so far, not enough to make it an effective heat source for cooking. We have some design modifications under way that should improve performance substantially. At LEF, we live with these technologies. We are currently eating small amounts of ash and soot in our food almost every day. Such is unavoidable when cooking with wood, and unacceptable in the long run, especially for our kids. The fact that we live with the technologies we espouse gives us a very different perspective than just experimenting with them.
Another advantage of developing the solar boiler is that we need the exact same parabolic trough setup for a solar ammonia ice maker, a super low-tech refrigeration system. We have thus given ourselves a head-start on that project. And we decided we are also going to look at biogas again. It could be a good bridge fuel for times when the weather does not support the solar boiler. Can we do it and still keep it simple and economical? Methane is a potent greenhouse gas. Can we control leakage? What is the impact of that on a larger scale? We will be seeking to answer these questions in the coming months.
Lots of New People at LEF
Pictures of most of the communities featured in Commune Life over the last year. (All communes are in US states unless otherwise noted.)
Acorn, Mineral, VA:
Baltimore Free Farm, Baltimore, MD:
Cambia, Louisa, VA:
Compersia, Washington, DC:
East Wind, Tecumseh, MO:
las Indias, Madrid, Spain:
Living Energy Farm, Louisa, VA:
Oran Mór, Squires, MO:
Quercus (disbanded), Richmond, VA:
Rainforest Lab, Forks, WA:
Sandhill Farm, Rutledge, MO:
Sycamore Farm, Arcadia, VA:
The Common Unity Project (TCUP), Gitxsan Territory, Hazelton, BC (Canada):
Twin Oaks, Louisa, VA:
from the Living Energy Farm
Truth is, if you do anything alone, then you can’t do much. If you live in the city and tried to pave the 50 feet of roadway in front of your house, that could be rather difficult and expensive. Societal choices determine the cost of most of the infrastructure we share. LEFers often travel by train. It is shocking how cheap cars seem compared to the train, when obviously the train is much, much more efficient. But automobile travel is largely socialized via the various federal and state Departments of Transportation.
Article about LEF at the Atlantic Online Magazine