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

Tractors, Tractors, Tractors at LEF

from the March – April 2017 Newsletter

We Are Running a Woodgas Tractor!
LEF Tractor1
One-row Power King tractor running woodgas and pulling an old mule-drawn Cole planter
A couple of months ago, we finally got a woodgas tractor running. It ran well until we loaded the engine heavily, at which point we learned that our gasifier was too small for the tractor on which it was mounted.  (See our Dec – Jan newsletter.) Since then we have rebuilt the melted woodgas reactor chamber, and mounted the gasifier on a smaller tractor.


The tractor we are running now is an old Power King, which has an engine that is a better match for the gasifier. We have had some frustration in figuring out the best filtration system, but so far the tractor seems to run well. The Power King engine is 1/2 the size of the Ford 661 we tried it on the first time.  There is definitely a learning curve with woodgas. You need very dry fuel. The gasifier needs to be hot.  We will keep you posted as we learn more about this technology. Power performance seems at least adequate, though starting and stabilizing the engine takes some figuring out.


Running a Tractor on Pine Sap?


If you have ever dug a garden by hand, you can appreciate the amount of effort it takes to pull a plow or a cultivator through a field. At LEF, we do as much as we can with organic no till, and growing food on trees. But at the end of the day, being able to move things around or till the soil is hugely helpful on a farm. Our woodgas tractor is operational again. Perhaps it is a good solution for a post fossil fuel world, but the expense, weight and complexity of having a gasifier bolted to a small tractor is noteworthy.


We have been doing research about a different and intriguing option for motive power. A friend of ours who lives out in Missouri by the name of Kris Ward is an unsung hero of LEF. Without him, I am not sure what this project would look like, but it would be different than what it is. Kris is an old-school machinist of the highest caliber. My shorthand description of Kris when I am talking to other people about him is that he knows more about old machines than God. He donated some equipment when we were starting LEF, and introduced us to Nickel Iron batteries. (Which are working miraculously well for us.) He has answered countless questions about things mechanical for us.


Some time ago, I asked Kris to describe to me all the ways people have made machines move in the past.  Steam, draft animals, some of it is obvious. Hot air engines? Some of it is not obvious. The most intriguing answer was turpentine. For those of you not from the south, turpentine is a distillate product of tree resin. You can make it from pine sap, as was quite common on the old south. Turns out turpentine burns very similarly to kerosene. Compared to gasoline, it burns slowly,and does not vaporize easily.


Back before World War II, the process for refining gasoline was less sophisticated, which meant that refineries sold more lower-grade kerosene fuels. These fuels cost one-third as much as gasoline, and some of the tractor companies made tractors (a lot of them) to run on these low-grade fuels. Also, these old tractors were like lawnmowers in the sense that the only electrical system they had was to send a small charge to the spark plug to make a spark. They had no battery and no lights. They were designed to be easily and safely hand-cranked. As much as I dislike lead-acid batteries, it has remained an outstanding question as to how we would start a woodgas tractor without one. These old hand-crank tractors have low-rpm engines (they turn slowly), making them well suited to low-octane fuels that burn slowly (woodgas or turpetine). They are also very, very durable compared to modern engines.


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 are also reducing the size of the tractors we use. We have found an old Tuff-Bilt, a small, one-row tractor that will allow us to plant and cultivate more accurately. We should be able to dramatically reduce the amount of hand weeding without any increase in fuel use, just by using smaller, more precisely controlled equipment. We have acquired a ancient mule-drawn Cole planter to mate with the Tuff-Bilt.  They still make this model of planter as it is ideal for precise seed spacing. Putting together old and new works best for LEF.


Oggun — A Tractor for the Masses?


We currently have our wood gasifier on a Power King.

LEF Tractor2
Oggun Tractor, similar to the classic Chalmers G and the Tuff-Bilt, but made to be locally produced.

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


Industrial agriculture is going to fall apart over time. It is critically important for our survival and well-being that we replace it with sustainable methods of food production under local ownership and control.  In using our one-row tractor with a gasifier on it, it is clear that even this modest level of mechanization is going to be very difficult for the poorest of the world’s farmers. All along we keep asking ourselves, “what is the simplest, cheapest, most effective way to do the work we need to do.” For farm traction, the smallest tractor are walk-behind tractors. David Bradley walk-behind tractors were very popular among small farmers and home gardeners 50 years ago. They are even smaller than our small one-row tractors.  The amount of work they can do per hour is limited. But the amount of work they can do compared to a draft animal is large, and the amount of support they need compared to a draft animals is very, very small. We have not pursued walk-behind tractors because of their very limited pulling power, and because of our understanding at the time that is was not practical to run an engine that small with woodgas. We have since found people making gasifiers for such small engines.


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.

Tractors, Tractors, Tractors at LEF

Ira Wallace: A Seed With A Story

from the Acorn Community Blog  May 1, 2017


Ira Wallace: A Seed With A Story