We Build Community by Building Community

By Thumbs  from Cambia

“Work is love made visible”

                          The Prophet, Khalil Gibran

           This Spring a team of colorful communard builders convened for a secular barn raising.  Even though everyone came for different personal reasons, the shared goal was clear, make an old sheep barn more hospitable for commune members.  One would assume that a simple, tangible goal would lead to a predictable week, but jumping to that conclusion would skip all the flying fish and cornucopia of magic that happened in-between.

           Within the Federation for Egalitarian Communities (F.E.C.) this type of trip is called a LEX, and it’ as culturally far from the norm as East Brook is from any major city.  With each turn down another unmarked country road, you are taking another deviation from the cultural norms around work, leadership, and purpose. Officially a LEX, short for Labor Exchange, is a time based currency used between participating members of the F.E.C. through which community members can help their fellow communities, and expect equitable hourly return of help at their own community   Yet, the culture of LEX goes far beyond any quantifiable market exchange, and unlocks a culture of radical generosity that questions cultural norms most people take for granted.

           While driving down Country Highway 22, the first intersection I had to make a turn at was “Construction projects need clear blueprints in order to be productive.”  It seemed obvious that would be a right turn, but I was wrong. On the first day of the build, the travel weary crew was introduced to a small warehouse of materials and an even smaller dilapidated barn, with the general guiding principle being, “The more of these new building materials that we can refurbish the old dilapidated barn with, the closer we will be housing more communards.” One week later 1,000 square feet of insulated flooring was installed, two new walls were built, two doors were installed, and the ceiling was made watertight with a glistening new roof, and yet I didn’t see a single blueprint drawn.  Not even a back of the envelope sketch was made. This whole project was a streaming interplay of experimentation, action, teaching and rethinking.

EBCF Group Photo in snow
Snowing on the last day of April, normal doesn’t happen at East Brook Farm (from left Nina, Rebecca, Ananda, Rachel, Skylar, Keenan, Becky, Thumbs, Mittens, Denise)

          The next crossing on the road was across the train of thinking that says “successful projects need leaders”, which I expected to be a mandatory stopping point, but instead we rolled right passed it.  While gaining labor credits through LEX was a periphery benefit to some of the builders, the majority of us came with the intention to gain more confidence in our building skills. Keenan and Nina have decades more building experience than the rest of us, but I’d be surprise if an observer would have been able to discern this.  Both of them held space for learning in the egoless way a graceful mentor let’s you flourish in the skills you already have while opening the door for you to lean into your learning edge. It wasn’t that we were leaderless, but more accurately it was that each of us lead ourselves to show up the responsibilities we could fearlessly accomplish.

EBCF Three Gals under the ceiling
Step aside patriarchal norms of men leading construction, this is an egalitarian team of communards (from left Becky, Mittens, and Nina)

            Now that the previous turns had lead me to unfamiliar territory I knew to turn the other direction when I arrived at the assumption that “efficient productivity needs schedules”.  One of the experiences of commune culture that has profoundly changed my life is the experience of abundant food, beauty and friendship without the sweaty palm anxiety of fiscal scarcity putting you a couple paychecks away from being homeless.  This separation of work from pure fiscal survival, to making work a voluntary choice to celebrate ones gifts within their chosen commune family, is rarely more alive than at a LEX build. From 6 a.m. till 7:30 p.m. there was a steady stream of workers gracefully picking up the hammer where the last person left off.  Slipping away for a nap or meandering down to the stream to get lost in the glistening water where so common that announcing you were taking a break felt unnecessarily formal. We all trusted that everyone was giving as much as they felt called to, and our love for each other dwarfed the importance of renovating a barn, so we skipped planning our day in the morning, and instead celebrated our accomplishments in the evening.

EBCF Last Nail Dance Party
Mandatory dance party initiated by Becky after the last screw of the floor was finished! (from left Becky, Thumbs, Nina, and Keenan)

            I knew I was close to my destination when I was faced with the assumption that “hot tubs are expensive indulgences for wealthy people” and I turned the other direction to arrive at East Brook.  Communes tend to be wealthy in “resource yards”, sometimes called junk piles by other Americans, which are often stocked with a variety of metal tubs. These bulky containers are as hard to find a use for as they are to get rid of, so they tend to become vernal pools for mosquitoes.  However a few of us had experience turning these treasures into fire heated hot tubs, lovingly referred to as Hippy Stew pots. With juvenile enthusiasm we tinkered and toiled until the old barn was outfitted with the makings of a hot tub. Granted it took a few kettles of water boiled in the kitchen to nudge the temperature up to the point of indulgence, but the sensation of winning at life was authentic.


EBCF Tractor and Hot Tub
Moving the insulated cow trough into position to be the new Hippy Stew pot! (from left Skylar, Keenan, Thumbs, Ananda, and Grant)

          Now that all my assumptions on people’s relationship with work had been inverted, I was hardly surprised when fish began raining from the sky.  We were cautiously enjoying a hot afternoon, after a couple days of snow in late April left us suspicious of the order of the seasons, when an epic toil of prehistoric ferocity began in the sky above us.  An osprey resolutely clutching a fresh fish catch from the adjacent brook was blindsided by an eagle that mistook the osprey for a food delivery service. The two toiled hundreds of feet above the ground, claws and feathers rolling through the sky in defiance of gravity, until the still squirming fish slid out from the talons and came plummeting towards us.  With a crash it landed gasping for water on the metal roof. Maximus and Rachael swiftly collected, gutted and fried it. That night I ate flying fish, and when I tasted it, I realized that to be abundantly wealthy is to be grateful for all that I have already been given.


EBCF Sky Fish Fry
The bounty of East Brook feed our souls in so many ways!


We Build Community by Building Community

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

Late Summer Garden Update

by Sumner, from the East Wind blog,

The moderate summer is coming to an end and the height of the 2017 season is over. Although cooler than last year, this summer’s harvests were large and plentiful. The tomatoes are starting to wind down and the pepper’s are currently peaking. Honeybees buzz among the buckwheat while large carpenter bees dance around the smartweed.

EW LS1Richard and Andrea prepare beds for spinach planting. Rutabaga and lettuce in the foreground.

In the Lower Garden, seven piglets are being rotated through the former potato patch. They are fed anything spoiled in the field (the tomato, melon, and pepper patches are a couple steps away) and act as our kitchen’s garbage disposal, helping to reduce food waste. As the pigs are rotated through cover crops are planted behind them (sunn hemp earlier and rye and vetch later in the season). Sunn hemp is an excellent summer cover crop. Drought resistant, a powerful weed suppressant, and fast growing. It can reach ten feet tall within eight weeks and adds a bounty of organic matter to the soil after it is cut back.

EW LS2Mandar and Jaime have been managing the pigs in the garden. Sunn hemp can be seen in the foreground. In the background you can also see the hoophouse and the dairy cows in the pasture.

Just today we harvested all the dent corn. This corn has been carefully bred for suitability in our climate and soil by Richard for the past five years. Each year he saves seed from all good specimens. More seed is saved from the best specimens and fewer seeds are saved from the merely mediocre ears. Virginia White Gourd seed and Tennessee Red Cob varieties have been bred in at different times to augment desired traits. Richard aims to maintain a wide gene pool and is meticulous about selecting the kernels for saving himself each year. All the corn that is not saved is eaten. Richard, who regularly cooks community dinner once a week, enjoys making delicious corn tortillas from nixtamalized corn. Nixtamalization increases the nutritional value as well as gets rid of mycotoxins, among other benefits.

EW LS3PT holds one of the better dent corn ears.


One great joy of late summer is fresh watermelon on a daily basis. Just about everyday someone brings a watermelon in to the serving counter and cuts themselves a slice. Although many of the melons are massive they are typically all eaten up within the hour. The watermelon varieties grown this year were: Crimson Sweet, Shooting Star, Orangeglo, Ali Baba, Moon and Stars, Quetzoli, and Strawberry. All these different varieties mature and ripen in different ways. Richard has worked with them long enough to know all the small clues to use to only harvest the watermelons at their peak ripeness and is happy to teach anyone curious and willing to help with harvests.


Most of the fall crops are all in. Carrots, lettuce, spinach, kale (Lacinado, Vates, and Red Russian) and rutabaga outside and zucchini, cabbage, and tatsoi in the hoophouse. Carrots have been thinned and there looks to be a bounty for this winter and spring. Thank you to everyone who labors in the garden and a big thanks to Melissa, Anthony, and everyone else who held down the garden while Richard, PT, and Andrea were mountain climbing in Colorado!




Late Summer Garden Update

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 thinkoggun.com


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