Picking Beans at Living Energy Farm

Another video by Maximus:

In which Ella, Avni, Telos, and Maximus pick beans at Living Energy Farm.

 

 

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Picking Beans at Living Energy Farm

Living Energy Farm, Where to From Here?

from the Living Energy Farm July/August 2017 Newsletter

Closing all of our building related permits gives us a moment to reflect and consider where we are going next. For the most part, we have done what we set out to do. We have built a small village that is extremely efficient, fairly cheap, and mostly operates without fossil fuel. The integrated solar systems we have connected to our main house and kitchen are working fantastically well. The farm has been developed to a point where it is economically viable, and we are doing good work growing open pollinated seeds. Our work is far from complete. The farm is not fully weaned off of gasoline machines just yet. Our cooking is still too reliant on firewood. But we are making progress on those fronts as well.
We are doing what we said we would do. We have created a model that we think is viable around the world, and we are looking for ways to spread that model. For us, the project has been both rewarding and, at times, fatiguing. Our “to do” list looks rather impossible at times. The reality is that, no matter how talented or dedicated a group of people may be, doing too many things means some projects are well executed and some are not.We are feeling the need to clarify and focus our project better.
rosa and pebbles
Rosa and Pebbles the Duck. Nobody else can catch them!
Given that most of our major construction is done (we may still want to build a greenhouse or other outbuildings), our need for cash flow is reduced. Our thinking currently is that we will, in the future, focus our project more around education, outreach, and technology development. We will be bringing back our weekend intensives, and making them into an in-depth sustainability training program. (Dates to be announced.) We will likely put less of our energy into growing seeds or developing businesses to support the on-site community. We feel like this course is the wisest in terms of maximizing our impact (and our own personal sustainability and happiness in the project). The financial numbers look like they are at least minimally adequate for this new strategy. With the completion of our main house, we are again putting some more work into looking for partnership opportunities with other organizations that might be able to take the LEF model to other locations. We would love to have help with spreading our sustainable model.
LEF’s Nickel-Iron Battery Project
There’s a lot of buzz about batteries these days. Given the intermittent nature of solar and wind energy, effective batteries are critical to providing power if we are going to live without coal and nuclear power. Industrial scale lithium-ion batteries are now coming online. These batteries could, potentially, have a big impact on the round-the-clock viability of renewable energy.
We regularly get people sending us advice about a newer, better battery. The recent article in International Permaculture has prompted some communications about something called LiFePO4 (lithium iron phosphate) batteries. The field of battery research and development is technical, complex, and expensive far beyond LEF’s meager resources. As far as we can tell, all of the lithium variant batteries degrade with each charge cycle (meaning they have a limited productive life) including the aforementioned industrial scale batteries. The LiFePO4 batteries are destroyed if the voltage drops too low, which presents a problem in climates where solar or wind resources are inconsistent. NiFe batteries, by comparison, have low energy density (the batteries are large for the amount of power they can store).  But they do not degrade on the charge cycle, nor are they damaged by full discharge. We have a 100 year old operational NiFe battery. The (now ancient) NiFe batteries made by Edison’s company are regularly cleaned out and used by modern NiFe enthusiasts. The bottom line is that none of the current lithium variant batteries have any hope of making it 100 years.
Even if they did, the rush to make better batteries risks becoming yet another attempt to address environmental problems from a supply-side approach. It is expensive, and ignores the root of the issue.  The root of the issue is our lifestyle, and how it is woven together with the industrial, political, and  military layers of our society. Even if industrial scale renewable energy systems succeed, they are so expensive and complex that the best we could hope for in decades to come is ever increasing class polarization: an elite class that lives supported by this complex infrastructure while the masses huddle around their smoky fires.
Approaching sustainability with social equity foremost in mind leads to other solutions. We stand by the low-density, homemade or village-made, NiFe batteries as the best option we have seen for providing cheap, durable, stationary, electricity storage for village use. Eddie has been continuing with his mason-jar NiFe project. He has increased the voltage and storage capacity of his units. Sometime this fall we will probably set some of these homemade batteries up at LEF and begin service testing them. Wish us luck.
solar tank
First stage of batch water heater construction, stripping and cleaning a water heater tank.

 

Living Energy Farm, Where to From Here?

Bringing in the Harvest

from the Living Energy Farm July/August 2017 Newsletter

We expanded our seed production this year. As is always true, some crops have done better than others. We had a drought for most of the summer. Our DC-powered irrigation system kept the crops well watered, but drought made the wild animals even more hungry than usual.  As a result we suffered significant deer loss even in crops which the deer don’t usually eat, like watermelons. Even with such losses, overall the harvest looks good. In looking at LEF from a food-self sufficiency standpoint, we are making great progress in figuring out how to feed ourselves. Growing wheat has been really easy. We tried oats, and the rabbits devastated them, but we’ll try again. Our corn crop looks fantastic in spite of the drought. Our white potatoes and sweet potatoes are better than any we have ever grown at LEF, and we have a great crop of lima beans and peanuts.  The beans, potatoes, corn, peanuts, and wheat, along with lots of veggies, eggs from our corn-fed ducks and venison from our corn-fed deer, put us very close to feeding ourselves without any industrial food. We are more confident than ever that the question of “can small scale organic agriculture feed us” can be answered “Yes!,” at least given the resources and climate we have at LEF.
sunflowers and corn
Seeds crops, sunflowers and corn.
There are still a few things to figure out. We need to figure out how to harvest small grains and peanuts efficiently. We will continue to grow our orchards, and eventually wean ourselves off of store-bought fruit. We want to put in a nut orchard (mostly pecans and filberts) so we can grow more of our calories on trees, and maybe cooking oil too. We still haven’t found the right biofuel to run our tractors. And most importantly, we need to how it all fits together. Modern environmental notions are so focused on energy production that the critical issue of how energy fits in the bigger picture gets lost. We get lots of advice about biogas, pumped storage for electricity, all manner of energy production ideas. The critical question for us is not how we maximize energy production, but how energy fits in with our village economy. What if biogas is easy (it mostly is), but takes too much time or feedstock? What if woodgas works, but only with really good feedstock and expensive equipment? How large of a woodland would it take to provide biofuel (wood for woodgas or pines for turpentine) to support a food self-sufficient village? What is the cheapest, simplest way to sustain a village — forever?  Hopefully, we can answer some of these questions in the next few years.
winnowing misha
Winnowing homegrown grain with our very powerful direct drive DC fan.
LEF In the News (Again)
The magazine International Permaculture is one of the most detailed and extensive permaculture magazines in print. They recently did an article about LEF with a great photo spread. One either has to sign up for a free trial or buy a subscription to view the magazine. The article is an interview between Alexis and Simon Hursthouse. Simon lives in a traditional village in Hungary, where he is trying to blend modern permaculture ideas with traditional village and agricultural life.  The website is  https://www.permaculture.co.uk/
Now that we have all the permits complete for our main house, we are in a better position to pursue media attention, and thus to promote the LEF idea of wholistic sustainability. Starting around September 18, we will begin sending out press releases. Hopefully, we will have lots to report in the next newsletter.
Bringing in the Harvest

LEF’s Role in Addressing the Environmental Crisis

The motivation for starting LEF is based in the fact that communities have the potential to be powerful models of sustainable living. You don’t have to worry about all the crazy expense and technology that goes into efficient automobiles if you don’t drive to work. Communities can share resources and integrate their systems of energy use and production in a way that radically changes how resources are used. One person can cook for others, making solar cooking viable. A source of energy, such as high voltage DC coming from PV panels, can be tied to numerous machines. At LEF, we are even building an air-conditioning system (not yet complete) that uses the irrigation water headed to the fields. The operational cost of this air-conditioning system is zero. The installation cost involves a few hundred dollars worth of pipe. You can only do things like that on a community level.

In conceiving of LEF, we were very clear that we did NOT want to be a technology development center.  Developing effective new technologies can be very expensive and time consuming. Our intent was to simply put together the proper mix of tools that had been developed elsewhere. Our innovation was supposed to be in the integration of existing technologies in a community setting. We are dependent on these technologies, so we would be daily testing their real-world viability. Our basic residential design is working great. Our heating and integrated DC electrical systems are fantastic, and now we are hoping to support other communities, in the U.S. and abroad, put together similar systems.

Other aspects of our project have proven more challenging. We have learned that we simply cannot buy all of what we need to live without fossil fuel. Our cooking setup relies heavily on rocket stoves. That is not a great solution for Americans, or for people living in crowded cities around the world. We are hopeful that the aforementioned high temperature storage systems, perhaps combined with biogas or a small-scale boiler, represent a more widely applicable and attainable goal.

Other goals appear to be more difficult. Farm traction (tractors, draft animals) is proving to be something of a can of worms. Our woodgas is not working all that well just yet. Even if it does, it is not at all clear if we can make it as cheap, simple, and reliable as it would need to be if it is were to be widely adopted. We are learning more than we thought we would have to about internal combustion engines, and realizing that powering them with farm-grown fuels is a complex question — a question which we may or may not have the resources to answer. Ideally, we could work with other organizations seeking similar goals. We have been trying to do that. Apart from the fact that every organization has a different personality, very few share our goal of keeping things cheap and simple so that the results can be adopted by less advantaged people.

All of this begs the question, what are we doing? Raising our kids and taking care of our own community is a significant undertaking to which we have to give priority. Beyond that, we have to ask ourselves the question of what are our primary goals? Is our most important role advocating a sustainable lifestyle among our peers in the U.S., and providing a living model of what we are talking about? Or will we have more impact supporting people who are already living in villages outside of the U.S.? This former group is perhaps the most important in terms of their environmental impact, whereas the latter group might be more receptive (?) as they already share a village lifestyle. And how much time and resources should be put into improving technologies?

Our current plan is to keep doing what we are doing. We will be opening our doors more in the coming months for events for people to come and see first hand what living without fossil fuel is like. We will continue our outreach efforts abroad. That project is not moving quickly, but we will keep trying. We will certainly continue improving the technologies that we need that seem reasonably attainable (cooking, clothes washing). It is less clear what will happen with issues like farm traction. We need help with that one.

There are a number of devices and projects hanging about LEF waiting for skilled and motivated people to work on them. Eddie was a huge help to us in his time here. If you have skills and are willing to get involved, we would love to hear from you. It could be in the long run that we split off a technology development project from the LEF farm. In the meantime, we want to make sure our farm continues to prosper. The work we are doing with open pollinated seeds, food self-sufficiency, and growing naturally disease resistant fruits and nuts feels important too. If you feel like some of these various projects excite you, we would love to hear from you.

LEF Bike

Zero Fossil Fuel Transportation?
Sustainable transportation is an issue that a small community like ours cannot address alone. It is a wider societal choice to build good train and bus systems. But for local transport, we do have options. Do you have to have a minivan to carry
kids around? Not if you live at LEF! Check the photo.
LEF’s Role in Addressing the Environmental Crisis

Is there space for me at a commune?

By Paxus Calta-Star

People ask regularly if there are spaces for new members at the income sharing communities.  This is a current update on the space availability of the various communes in the US with ways to contact them and relevant guest/intern/visitor policies linked.  This information changes with time, so it’s best to check with any community you wish to visit before scheduling your trip there.

cambia wodden sign

Cambia (Louisa, VA) Yes, there are spaces.  Cambia is actively promoting its sustainable environmental education program and has space for both interns and new members.  This 2016 intern announcement is also current for 2017 and 2018.

Mimosa (Louisa, VA) This reforming new community (formerly Sapling) is interested in new members but is currently working on completing housing to provide space and thus cannot currently accommodate people for more than short visits.  Feel free to send them an email.

rainbows at LEF
Double Rainbow at LEF

Living Energy Farm  (Louisa, VA) does have space for interns but is not seeking new members at this time.  They have completed their main residence and are working on additional spaces for new members.

in , , on Wednesday, May 11, 2016.   Sarah Rice

Acorn (Mineral, VA) is full.  Acorn is not accepting new visitors interested in membership until spring 2018.  Acorn does have possible internships starting in January 2018.

is it utopia yet
Nope, not yet.

Twin Oaks  (Louisa, VA) is near its population cap, and continues to accept people for membership, currently if you were accepted you could join right away, but there is some chance we will return to a waiting list soon.    Twin Oaks does not currently have intern spots available.

burning man image
Skip Burning Man

Twin Oaks also hosts an annual communities conference.  This year it is Sept 1st thru 4th (labor day weekend).  If you are seeking communities, this is a great place to discover a bunch of them at once.  And here are 7 reasons it is a better place to spend your time than Burning Man.

Compersia (Washington DC) has at least one space available in this new, urban, commune located in the Brentwood district of DC.  Compersia has had one intern and might be open to more.

Aviva1
Ganas houses

Ganas  (Staten Island, NY) is looking for new members.   While technically not an income sharing community over all, Ganas is supportive of the Point A project and the expansion of the communes movement.  There are occasionally job openings at Ganas but right now Ganas is looking for paying members.

three farmers east wind
Working the soil at East Wind

East Wind (Tecumseh, MO) is full and has a waiting list, but is still happy to have folks come and visit and like Twin Oaks you can apply for membership and be put on a waiting list.   Because East Wind has a gender imbalance it actually has two waiting lists, one for males and one for females.  There is currently a male waiting list of about half a dozen men.  A woman who was accepted now would be at the top of that waiting list, and after three women are accepted, one of the men can be offered membership from the male waiting list.

midden-energy-efficiency-poster
Midden protest art

The Midden (Columbus, OH) is in transition away from being a commune and towards being a NASCO group house in Columbus.

Sandhill Farm (Rutledge, MO) has space for interns and folks looking for a short visit.

Is there space for me at a commune?

Advancing Zero Fossil Fuel Technologies at LEF

from the Living Energy Farm newsletter, May -June, 2017

We have continued to bring in new tools and organize our shop. We added a nice, old, heavy duty drill press, powered by direct drive high-voltage DC power as we like to do. We also added a winnowing fan and a heavy duty bench grinder to our collection of direct drive tools. We love our direct-drive! Just run a wire from a set of photovoltaic panels (in series to produce high voltage) straight to the motors, and you can do anything you want during daylight hours. It is a simple and cheap setup.

 

We have continued our research concerning a low-cost high-temperature solar storage system for cooking.  We have discovered a material that we think will make a big difference. In considering high temperature solar storage, we have looked at both tracking collectors and a trough system that needs no tracking. The trough is simpler, but leaves a long collector pipe hanging in the air. As the pipe heats, a lot of heat is lost to the air around the pipe. It would make sense to put some kind of insulating glass around the pipe. But the material would need to be able to withstand very high and fluctuating temperatures well beyond what normal or tempered glass would handle. The high-temperature glass used on woodstove doors is much too expensive. And we would either need a fancy frame to hold the glass around the pipe, or some kind of glass tubing. Finding very high temperature, reasonably priced, large diameter glass tubing just was not  happening. Then we found it. The original Pyrex cookware was made with something called borosilicate.  We have found that we can get borosilicate cheaply in large diameter tubings. This should make a huge difference in our high temperature solar collector.

 

We are also re-assessing whether to use steam or oil as the heat transfer medium. Steam has the advantage of being very cheap as it is just heated water. It has the disadvantage of needing pressurized storage tank(s). Oil has the advantage of being capable, at least in theory, of handling and storing much higher temperatures in non-pressurized vessels. Industry uses various forms of modified mineral oil that they call “heat transfer fluid,” or HTFs. The market for HTFs has been evolving rapidly. In just the last few years, more and cheaper HTFs have become available. In our case, we could use a large heating oil tank, pack it full of small, clean rock, and circulate HTF through it. That’s the design concept at least. Hopefully, after we finish the current round of infrastructure improvement, we can focus on this project.

Low Density Nickel Iron Batteries

LEF May-June3
Nickel and Iron plates for a homemade NiFe battery.
Eddie (our technical intern now resident in Pittsburgh) has been working on low-density nickel iron batteries. He has a working prototype. The electrical storage capacity of his prototype is low, so he is working to add more nickel and iron plates to expand the storage capacity of the batteries. If this technology works, and we can build it cheaply, it could give us a way to provide lighting for a lot of people around the world.
LEF May-June2
Prototype NiFe battery.  Cheap, durable, homemade?  We hope so.

Taking the LEF Model to Other Locations

If we hope to expand the LEF model, we need to know where we are going to take it. We have been working with Kate (see previous 2 newsletters) to find sites where we might use what we have learned at LEF to help people in the non-industrial world. Kate has extensive experience working with development and aid organizations around the world. Kate has been traveling in Latin America, and looking for sites where  LEF can help. This seems to make more sense than locations far away. Kate made some good connections, but we have not yet picked a specific site. As we mentioned in the last newsletter, we will stay in touch with Tom (from New Community in Harrisonburg) as he travels this winter to the Dominican Republic.
Advancing Zero Fossil Fuel Technologies at LEF

More Farming and Building at LEF

from the Living Energy Farm May/June 2017 Newsletter

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.

 Our goal at LEF is to put together a package of tools and techniques that can sustainably support a village, and to do so at a minimum of cost and complexity so our model can be more easily spread. This year we planted wheat and oats to add to our food supply. The intent is not to simply produce a small amount of grain. It is to see how producing food fits into our zero fossil fuel economy. Can we grow and harvest our food running woodgas or turpentine tractors? How complex or expensive is such a proposition? We have not made much progress with the woodgas tractor in the last couple months, owing mostly to a frustrating succession of mechanical breakdowns. Though we are still doing heavy tillage with fossil fuel, we have started harvesting our grains. We cut our wheat field with scythes and threshed the grain with a shredder (like people use for shredding leaves in their yard). Then we ground the grain into flour with our solar-powered grain mill, and Deb baked a most delicious and satisfying bread in our solar oven. Though the whole process is not what one would call efficient, it has been instructive and fun. We learned that we can grow good quality wheat for making bread. We learned that a small shredder (which could easily be powered with direct-drive solar electricity) works for threshing. But we lost a fair amount of the grain in the harvesting and cleaning process, and it was slow. So we have spent quite a bit of time looking into old American combines. In China and India, numerous companies are making combines the size of riding lawnmowers. Perhaps, if all goes well, we can make progress in the next few years in figuring out how to run small tractors and harvesting machines sustainably at the village level.
LEF May-June1
Deanna and Olan in front of our “drought stressed” Kentucky Rainbow Corn.  Photo credit Sunnelin.

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.

Stay tuned.
More Farming and Building at LEF