(Editor’s Note: Living Energy Farm is a community in Louisa, Virginia that I often describe as the ecological research station for the communes. They are investigating ways to live as sustainably as possible and they have been using what they learn to help less privileged folks around the world. Debbie and Alexis are two of the founders of LEF. – Raven)
In May, Debbie’s sister Carrie went to Jamaica to do some work in preparation for expanding our renewable energy projects there. We taught Carrie how to make our solar cookers (see http://conev.org/ISECmanual14.pdf ), and she in turn taught folks in Jamaica how to make them. We received $1000 in funding from the work group at Cal Poly and sent down enough materials to make 10 cookers. The cookers are an adaptation of Insulated Solar Electric Cookers developed at Cal Poly, and we have found them to be the most effective solar cookers on the market. Now that technology has been transplanted, and we are pleased about that! Alexis and ex-intern Onyx will be going down in July to expand that project. We will also be installing our solar powered breadfruit equipment, and helping with the nickel iron battery kits we have been sending down. This is all very exciting for us. (See previous newsletters for more details about the history of our projects in Jamaica. For information about the Cal Poly project, see http://sharedcurriculum.peteschwartz.net/solar-electric-cooking/ )
We have been saying for years that a good DC Microgrid can provide modern services without any reliance on coal, nuclear, natural gas, or industrial renewable energy systems. But that’s a hard sell in the U.S. where consumerism reigns and centralized renewable energy promotion dominates. The grandiose vision is that we get a project started in Jamaica than can provide energy services to working class people, and we spread that model far and wide beyond Jamaica. But it is not all clear at this time how realistic that vision might be, how long it might take, or how much money might be necessary. We hope we are improving the lives of some working class people in Jamaica by providing them with durable solar equipment. If the grandiose vision of making the global electrical grid obsolete does not work out in any timely fashion, then we will at least do some useful things along the way.
While much of the covid-19 pandemic has fortunately left our community relatively untouched (we went on full external lockdown, so there is generally no masking/distancing/etc required while on the farm), it has certainly still brought along its share of stresses and desire for leisure activities to keep our spirits high. As with Settlers of Catan back in the early 2000s, communards sometimes think “hmm…what should I do to relax after a long day of farming, foraging, cooking, crafting, and raising animals? Oh I know: Pretend to do all these things!” Enter: Stardew Valley…
Stardew Valley is a computer game that has been around for a few years now, but recently came out on mobile so it has renewed popularity (also, Oakers tend to get into things a couple years after the rest of the world). It’s an adorable simulation game in which you inherit your grandfather’s farm after he’s passed away and proceed to try to make it into a productive part of the community, while also doing helpful tasks for others and flirting with the single people around town. While my real-life poly family was getting into this game on their own, we recently went on a little vacation at an AirBnB in town and decided to try out “co-op” mode. This got me thinking about all the similarities between the game and real-life communal living. The internet is also full of people just discovering community and wanting to immediately go buy land and invite their friends over, so this could potentially be a useful tool for folks to try it out group decision-making and income-sharing prior to taking the real-life leap.
The first thing to decide when going to co-op mode is whether or not to start a brand new farm or invite people to one you’re already been working on. This can be a test of what we in the communities movement call “Founder’s Syndrome.”
According to Wikipedia, Founder’s Syndrome is “a popular term for the difficulties faced by organizations where founders maintain disproportionate amounts of power and influence following the initial establishment of the project, leading to a wide range of problems for both the organization and those involved in it.” Many communities are founded by one person or a small group of people who have a particular vision of what they want the community to be. While this is all well and good at first, it starts to become increasingly challenging as they try to attract new members who may generally agree but also have some different ideas about what they’d like to happen.
In Stardew Valley, if you invite people to join a farm that you’ve been laboring on for several in-game years, it can be beneficial because there is already an established base of income and less start-up labor, but can also be challenging if the founder is resistant to the suggestions of the other players, takes too much ownership of the land, and has very particular feelings about how things should run. It can be difficult for other players to speak up about the dynamic because they don’t want to disrespect all the work that the founder has put in, leading to building of resentment over time.
Starting a new farm with other people can lead to less of this, even though technically one person is still the “host” and needs to be logged in for others to be able to play. However, there is then a lot of work to do, quests to unlock, and minimal money to work with from the beginning. Just like in real-life!
Another feature to think about when starting your co-op farm is whether or not to share income. The default mode is income-sharing, so whenever a player sells a parsnip or buys an upgraded axe, this affects the total amount of money available to all players. This sounds idyllic in theory, but what happens when 3 people want to each get a bigger backpack for 4000g each but you only have 5000g? Do you talk about your purchasing desires all together and approve each transaction? Do you keep a separate ledger and keep track of 1/3 of the income each? Do you allot only a certain amount of personal spending each day or week? Decisions, decisions!
Group Decision-Making and Division of Labor
Along with how to make/spend money, there are several quests in the game that require various items. You’ll need to determine how to make decisions about which quests to prioritize, which items need to be kept as quest items versus being sold, and more.
How are you going to spend your precious time? Are you all going to be all-around balanced communards or is one person going to be in charge of crops while another goes out fishing and a third gathers resources from the mines? Do you alternate? What about a chore chart? All of these things can be discussed to your heart’s content. Sound like a lot of work before you even get to the work? Welcome to community life!
One of the great benefits of Stardew Valley is the plethora of fan-made modifications, aka “mods,” that can alter various aspects of gameplay. You can make your version of Stardew Valley even more realistic to community living by adding on some of these popular mods.
Multiple Spouses: While certainly not everyone in an intentional community is polyamorous, ethical non-monogamy (an approach to relationships wherein people can have more than one romantic and sexual partner at a time, and everybody involved is aware and enthusiastically consents to the dynamic) is generally more accepted and validated in these communities. Income-sharing and egalitarian communities are especially supportive of poly families since people’s romantic relationships can be untethered from issues of housing and economics because everyone in the community has their basic needs met through the efforts of the whole community. While the original version of Stardew Valley allows you to date many people but only marry one, the Multiple Spouses mod allows you to marry multiple people, live with multiple people, have kids with multiple people, and more!
Diverse Stardew Valley: You might notice how white most of the characters are in the original Stardew Valley. This is unfortunately not unlike many intentional communities founded by white folks. While you could leave the original version for a more sadly realistic experience, most people are drawn to community in order to imagine and create more inclusive utopian spaces. So if you’re a BIPOC looking to start a community or a white person wanting to try to get a better idea of what a multiracial community could look like, you can add the Diverse Stardew Valley mod. This mod adds ethnic, cultural, gender identity, and body type diversity to the original characters.
Unlimited Players: The original co-op mode limits the farm to 4 players. However, you might have more people than that in your community start-up group. The Unlimited Players mod will allow the host to add unlimited cabins to the farm. The more the merrier, right?
There are certainly many ways in which Stardew Valley is not anything like real-life community, from dungeon monsters to magic teleportation, but playing in co-op mode does require that folks practice the most central parts of community living: communication and cooperation! It might also reveal things about yourself and others that would be really good to know prior to actually living together. Oh, and don’t forget to also have fun while you’re at it
I often refer to Living Energy Farm as the research arm of the Virginia communes. They have had some difficulty becoming a commune themselves (although they seem to be making some progress lately) but they know more than anyplace else that I know of about alternative technologies and ways to deal with climate realities. They periodically publish a newsletter about all that they are up to and it is almost always worth reading from beginning to end.
A Biogas Digester from the August, September, October 2020 LEF Newsletter
Their most recent newsletter contained a section that I would like to reprint in full:
Living Energy Farm will be deleting our Facebook accounts shortly. Please communicate with us through other means.
I never wanted to be on Facebook. I was persuaded to help out with the Commune Life Facebook page, especially when I realized it was reaching many more folks than this blog. This blog averages around 150 views per day, which doesn’t sound too bad, but the vast majority of them, day after day, are the same three posts: “How to Start a Commune”, “Four Steps to Building a Commune”, and “So You Want to Start a Community”. I get that people are interested in creating communities, but it’s frustrating to write stuff three times a week and see interest in the single digits–if that. (Of course, I had forgotten that this blog has 110 ‘followers’, so there’s 110 people that see new material each day.)
On Facebook it’s different. The statistics can fluctuate wildly, from fifty folks to over five hundred, depending on how the piece is written and how controversial the subject is–and whether there are animals in the pictures or, perhaps, dumpstered food, both of which get a lot of interest.
One of my goals has been to reach folks that have never heard of income-sharing communities and may not have even realized that it’s something that’s possible, and Facebook is a way to do that. Plus, there are other useful features (our community uses Facebook messenger to communicate with one another and we have to make a special effort to reach the one person that doesn’t use Facebook) and Facebook also owns Instagram which makes it easy to post in both places.
I don’t like Facebook. I don’t like that we use a big corporate entity for our communication. I don’t like their politics or their policies. (I can see why Living Energy Farm would want to leave them.) I don’t like that they own Instagram and WhatsApp (which international visitors have used to communicate with me–and even one of my old communards used it when we discovered that for some reason our phones would often not be able to text each other).
But, right now, I am using Facebook (and I plan to reference this post on Facebook tomorrow) because I do want to reach people that I couldn’t otherwise reach. I hate it but it’s useful and my priority is communication. I want the world to know about communes, so I use Facebook, day after day after day.
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Earlier this month I posted the story of Living Energy Farm’s trip to Arizona to install solar energy systems in Navajo and Hopi homes. Now, LEF is offering kits that will allow you to install these systems in your place. They are pricy, but they work. Here’s what I posted on Facebook:
This is a continuation of yesterday’s post chronicling Living Energy Farm’s adventures as they went out to Arizona to install their solar systems on Navajo and Hopi reservations. Yesterday focused on the trip there–which was trickier than they expected. Today’s post focuses on the actual installations, which went very well.
On the Commune Life Facebook page, I wrote: “LEF finally is able to get to work. Here’s the first report with pictures:”
And here it is:
“In between installations, the LEF crew has time to post a Navajo joke:”
“And on to the second installation:”
“LEF goes on an installation binge–five installations in one day. Here’s some pictures and a story:”
“And here’s the story behind installation number five:”
“And here is the final post in Living Energy Farm’s saga of their road trip to Arizona to bring solar power to native folks there:”
Tomorrow, another question: “Art in Community–Is it a luxury or a necessity?”
Today begins the chronicling of an adventure. Living Energy Farm, a Virginia community that I have called ‘the environmental experimental station for the Louisa communes’, decided to take their solar-panel-and-nickel-iron-battery-system, which makes real off-the-grid living possible to the Navajo and Hopi reservations in Arizona. This was a long planned trip that turned into more of an adventure than even they could have expected.
We reposted their Facebook posts on our site–now I want to post them here with my (Raven’s) comments. The first post was February 28th, where I said: “Living Energy Farm has faced a bunch of challenges in their journey to install solar on Hopi and Navajo reservations, but they are now on the road:”
Here is their first post, right from their Facebook page:
Followed by my post “And here’s the Living Energy Farm crew after a night in Tennesee:”
But “In the next leg of their journey to Arizona and bringing solar to the Hopis and Navajo, the folks from Living Energy Farm run into an unexpected adventure:”
Then, they are almost there. “Meanwhile, the Living Energy Farm road trip adventure continues, with them almost making it to the reservation when a tire blows out with them in the middle of nowhere:”
Then, somehow, I missed this one. From the LEF Facebook page but not ours:
And then, “The LEF crew finally makes it to “the Rez”, but not without a casualty:”
I will end this segment here. Tomorrow, the installations!
We now have significant experience designing ecovillages both in rural and urban settings and this workshop will take stock of what has been learned over the last 30 years. There are sustainability elements, aesthetic aspects and design components connected with high degrees of sharing which all go into making a high functioning ecovillage. In many cases these are not elements which are taught in architecture school. We will explore conversions of existing non-ecovillages as well as designed from scratch solutions. The workshop will start with presentation and then go into question and answer.
Fred Oesch is a licensed architect who designed the seed building at Acorn and lives in Schuyler VA. He has also been involved in several ecovillage projects, both urban and rural as well as new builds and conversions. He serves on the Ecovillage Charlottesville Board and throws a mean quarry party.
Some of what is covered in the workshop is Principles of Regenerative Environmental Design:
1] Design as a Way of Life.
2] Reflection of Evolving Regional Society, Tradition, Culture, and Religion
3] Utilization of Indigenous Technology, Materials, and Labor Skills
4] Direct Response to Microclimate / Seamless Site Integration
5] Minimum Inventory / Maximum Diversity Systems
6] Direct Designer / Builder / Inhabitant Participation
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 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.
First stage of batch water heater construction, stripping and cleaning a water heater tank.
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.
Zero Fossil FuelTransportation?
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.