Growing food on trees is by some measures the most benign form of agriculture. Trees have huge root systems compared to annual plants. Orchards sequester carbon, build soil and have no erosion. And fruits and nuts taste good! Since we started LEF, we
have been trying to build or capacity to grow food on trees, and to figure out what works and what does not. We realized that a lot of the plants we wanted to grow will
not work in the new age of polar vortex oscillation. We have shifted to more cold resilient trees. We have also struggled to do so many things at once. Now we have an
orchard intern, Conner, who brings a most welcome energetic approach to life at LEF. Welcome Conner. We look forward to harvesting fruit this year!
Agricultural Choices at LEF
Now we’re in the final stages of finishing the house, which is an exciting time. We’ve been postponing other projects until basic infrastructure was done. Once the house is done we can hopefully build a few other smaller buildings we need (shop, greenhouse, root cellar). We hope to improve our food self-sufficiency. And we are working to connect with other groups to spread LEF’s ideas to other villages around the world.
Part of our expansion of food production will include bringing in a few farm animals. We’ve had more than a few visitors come out to the farm and ask (not in these exact words), “If you’re a farm, where are the animals?” Diets based around animal foods are so deeply ingrained in American culture that many people see farming as mostly about raising animals, without much thought about the plants that support them. At LEF, we believe that buying industrial GMO grain at the feed store and feeding it to animals isn’t a whole lot better than eating GMO grain ourselves (environmentally, it’s worse). We do like eating eggs, so we have been wanting to get some poultry; but first we needed to grow the grain to feed them. And we did, last year, grow a bumper crop of Florianni flint heirloom corn. We’ve been eating a lot of it, and we’ll use some of it to feed a small flock of ducks that we plan to get this year to supply us with eggs, meat, fertilizer and entertainment.
But what about grass-fed ruminants? We don’t plan to incorporate these animals into our farm any time soon, for two reasons. The first is that we don’t have much grass. Our land is a mixed hardwood and pine forest that was clearcut 6 years ago and is just starting to recover. (We did experiment with feeding goats out in the recovering forest, but the project consumed much more time than it was worth.) Clearing land for pasture and hay fields would be difficult and energy intensive, and we barely have enough cleared for annual crops and orchards, which take much less space than pasture
The second and more important reason is we want to demonstrate farming techniques that canfeed people sustainably with less land. For us this means growing food on trees, annual crops, and small scale poultry. We recognize that agricultural choices are always local, and grazing animals will always be an indispensable part of food production in lands marginal for agriculture, particularly for some indigenous cultures. But in land such as ours where rainfall and fertility are sufficient to support a plant-based diet, we believe it is better to feed people with less land instead of more. And while it is true that a well managed pasture can build fertility, well managed annually cropped farmland and orchards can do this as well with the use of cover crops, fallow periods and minimum tillage, with much more food produced per acre, and without the methane emissions of ruminant animals. Our goal at LEF is to create a model of sustainability that can be applied globally. The reality is that cattle, especially grassfed, can only be produced on a scale to feed the wealthy.
Our daughter, Rosa, is 5 years old and more than anything in the world, she loves wild animals. We have read her stacks of books about conservation and saving endangered species. Over and over the theme comes up of habitat loss. The sad reality is that animal life on earth, once stunning in its diversity, is now almost entirely made up of humans and our domestic animals. Globally today only 2-6% of terrestrial zoomass (weight of land animals) is wild; the rest is humans and our domestic animals, two thirds of which is cattle and other ruminants. The number one reason for loss of wild animals is land being converted to pasture and grainland to feed animals. Ninety percent of rainforest loss is directly attributable to expansions in animal agriculture, beef in particular. The planet Earth is now facing its sixth mass extinction in 4.5 billion years specifically because of our predilection to eat excessive amounts of meat. That is an incomprehensible theft from our children, from all future generations. So even though we eat wild animals sometimes at LEF (particularly the deer and rabbits who like to eat our vegetables and seed crops), when Rosa asks what we can do to help wild animals, we tell her that we eat mostly plants — and encourage others to do the same — so more land can be left wild.
Folks from the DC and Virginia communes were very involved with the protests:
Christian and Paxus of Twin Oaks appreciate PETA’s big fuzzy suits.
Vegans GPaul of Compersia and Christian of Twin Oaks pose with PETA people.
Paxus of Twin Oaks and GPaul of Compersia rest after the disruption protests, while Steve of Compersia (only hand seen in picture) appreciates a good pun.
Residents and guests of the Keep, a cooperative house in Washington, DC, make signs in preparation for the Women’s March on Washington.
Steve of Compersia and Caroline formerly of Twin Oaks march in the Women’s March. Also Bryan Cahall of the http://extraordinaryrenditionband.com band marching to draw attention to Prison Liberation. Compersia hosted 3 from the band and it was delightful!
Residents, guests, and friends of the Keep, a cooperative house in DC, tell stories over food during a bunch following the Women’s March.
Residents, guests, and friends of the Keep join in a large post-protest Sunday brunch.
James of Point A NYC takes in the crowd at the Festival of Resistance Against Trump
A gaggle of Twin Oakers rest and eat dinner at Compersia after the Women’s March
More of Twin Oakers resting and eating dinner at Compersia after the Women’s March
One more photo of Twin Oakers at Compersia
Twin Oakers and Compersians participate in a blockade at the inauguration in solidarity with communities threatened by Trump and his administration.
Compersia and friends let loose after the inspiring Women’s March on Washington.
Kathryn of Compersia protests at Trump’s inauguration in solidarity with communities threatened by his administration.
Around 50 years ago the founder of Twin Oaks decided that they were going to radically depart from conventional decision-making techniques. They disliked voting, consensus had not been secularized by the feminists yet and waiting for everyone to agree seemed time-consuming, so they thought they would develop something new.
Almost everyone in community makes decisions in meetings, but Twin Oaks was founded by writers. They thought a dynamic writing-based decision system could get around some of the big problems associated with running a complicated community. To this end they developed the O&I Board. O&I stands for Opinions and Information. Critics of this system occasionally quip that the name really comes from “Oh am I bored”.
The way it works is pretty straightforward. There are 2 dozen clipboards placed on a wall and anyone can put up a paper with a proposal for something new on one of them. At the end of the proposal you have posted you leave blank pages of paper so that other members can make comments or suggestions.
There are several advantages to this system. The first is that you don’t need to gather everyone in the same place at the same time to discuss something. On our busy, large farm this is significant plus. People can read everything that others have written, or skim it if that is their interest, or skip it completely if the topic doesn’t resonate with them. Readers can comment in whatever length they feel appropriate, from multiple pages, to simply dittoing something someone else has written and signing your name (this is a pretty common practice). Members can make alternative proposals or point out unaddressed problems and hopefully the proposal becomes stronger for all this input. The pressure to agree with someone who is talking to you and who you want to make happy as well as some groupthink problems are decreased.
But there are problems as well. Written communication is much more likely to result in flame wars than face-to-face communication. If you can see how what your saying is upsetting someone, your humanity kicks in and you may tone down your words – the O&I looses this important control. Because you are somewhat more likely to be attacked on the O&I than in a meeting, some members shy away from this format not wishing to be in the center of a controversy. Written communication is difficult for some people. If there are many comments on a proposal, the later ones do not get as much attention as the earlier ones and there is no notice that new important comments have been added, so you have to keep checking on papers with which you are concerned.
The real problem with the O&I board is none of these described above, nor is it a problem with the board itself, but rather with it as an entrance ramp to our decision-making process in general. The real problem is once you have posted on the O&I board, if there are any significant number of comments your next steps are unclear.
Sure, if everyone says “This is a great idea, lets do it!” then it is clear, but this very rarely happens. If your proposal is contentious or has several sets of recommendations on how you should change it, you as the author of the original proposal are at a crossroads. Should you push on with your proposal? Should you do a community survey? Should you call for a community meeting? Should you go talk with the people who seemed most upset about your proposal and see if you can find a compromise? Should you talk to the people who are most supportive of your proposal and ask them to help you advance it unmodified? Should you talk with the planner or the council about it? Should you just give up and drop it completely?
This is, for many members, simply too many options. Especially since, if the proposal is at all controversial, no matter which one you choose some critic is going to call “bad process” on you for not having done it the way they want it done. Perhaps this is why after 50 years no other community has decided to mimic the O&I board as their central decision-making tool.
The Nickel-Iron (NiFe) battery testing has been all but miraculous. The marriage of old technologies (NiFe batteries) and new technologies (modern DC LEDs and photovoltaic electricity) is absolutely amazing. We had used lead-acid batteries until we could get the NiFes hooked up. Output from lead-acid batteries is like a river headed for a waterfall. As long as you are at the top, life is good. When the voltage collapses, you’re done.
The NiFes are very different. The NiFes are expensive, bulky, and heavy. Their nominal output (rated in amp-hours) is poor compared to lead-acid. But actual performance could not be more different. Our goal in testing the NiFes is to see how many houses in a village (or how many rooms in a cooperative house) we could light up with LEDs, and how many cell phones we could charge. We had a set of 500 watt panels charging the lead-acid batteries. We didn’t have a charge controller large enough to handle the output of those panels. So we brought a smaller set of PV panels we had been using for irrigation pumps up to the house and tied them to a smaller charge controller and the NiFe batteries. The problem was that we did all that in the early fall. All of our permanently mounted PV panels are up high so they don’t get shaded. But as the sun has fallen toward the horizon this winter, these “new” panels ended up in the shade. By December, the charge meter said we were only putting about 10 amp-hours into the batteries. Converting that to incandescent light-bulbs, we were collecting enough electricity to light up two 60 watt bulbs for one hour. That’s all. I sighed, expecting the NiFes to discharge, and made plans for what to do next. We have been lighting the house and the kitchen, and charging cell phones and personal devices without restriction. And then the miracle. The Nifes didn’t discharge. They discharge current in a whole different way than lead-acid batteries. We have never seen voltages below 12.2 V coming from the NiFes, even with weak input. The LEDs are good down to 9 volts. The discharge current from the NiFes is steady and strong, each decimal down. No waterfall.
Now we have swapped equipment around again, and are now charging the NiFes from a panel on the roof. We have learned a few things. A very modest (100 amp-hour) NiFe set will power a lot of LED’s. A modest PV panel is all that is needed to keep them charged. We still don’t know the maximum output of a 100 amp-hour NiFe set because we are so far away from actually “maxing out” the current system. It is clear that we can support numerous houses in a village with DC LEDs, a couple hundred watts input, and a modest set of NiFe batteries. Somewhere between “numerous” and dozens. We’ll see.
Our DC Economy Continues To Grow
We have been enormously pleased at our ability to do all manner of work with high-voltage, direct-drive DC power. We added two new DC tools this month, electrifying our grain grinder and setting up a compressor with a DC motor. We run these tools when the sun is out — no inverters, no fancy electronics.
Thanks very much for hosting Tom and me at Compersia! We learned so much from talking with each of you! And you were so friendly and open in how you included us in your community family while we were there!
We feel lucky to have met you, the pioneers of your new thriving income-sharing community. Learning from your experiences makes it far more likely that we’ll be able to participate in making a new income-sharing community in New York.
In gratitude for our time with you, we wanted to share the unexpected lessons we learned about Compersia when we visited you — lessons which might be helpful not only to us but also to others working on starting income-sharing communities:
The founding members of Compersia applied the membership process to themselves. No one was “grandfathered in” (which would have created two classes of family members). Instead, everyone went through the membership process.
The community formation process included intentional work on building trust and affinity, simultaneous with the work on building the structure of the community. The personal connections among Compersia members grew and deepened through clearnesses and transparency tools during the community formation process. All along, the personal connections were growing side-by-side with the community decisions.
Community members bonded around and stuck with a few fundamental principles — such as income-sharing, urban location, and FEC principles — together with additional important shared values whose implementation the members left open to work on together — such as community engagement, ambition, non-violence, feminism, and environmentalism. Additional details of the vision remained open so that prospective members could carve their own niches into the vision.
The pioneer Compersians engaged in a reflective process, consciously returning to basic principles, not a mechanical process about defining procedures in advance. The idea was to work together to implement principles, not to follow other communities cookie-cutter style.
Additional people became interested in Compersia for a variety of reasons. One approach to attracting others: Ignition first by figuring out what’s important to new additional potential members and showing how the commune will achieve that. Then remove individual barriers to joining.
While forming, Compersia enjoyed lots of support from multiple existing groups! The support included a paid worker for a year supplied by the Point A project and Acorn as well as free housing and food provided by The Keep. To start a commune, it takes a lot of material support and time and commitment to shared principles!
We’ve been asked what complaints we heard at Compersia, and we can’t remember hearing even one single complaint! How rare to find a group where no member feels a need to complain! It’s not that all the circumstances are perfect. Instead, the communication and support network is such that everyone seems to feel that their needs and feelings are respected. When issues arise, the community talks about them. At Compersia, we heard conversations about expansion, chores, and the communal house. The community choices were made by consensus and represented the intentions of the community members, upon taking each other’s feelings into account.
Compersia feels like a family. Income-sharing may help, but may not be the only way. The shared love and caring is inspiring. There’s far more than the sum of the parts. Compersians provide each other support to take risks and grow, individually and together. The sense of caring and love seems to increase through working together as a group to pursue shared principles and seems to extend beyond Compersians to genuine caring for those not yet inside the community.
Thanks so much to each of you! We had a wonderful time and learned a lot!
December 12, 2016 was a momentous day at Living Energy Farm. We have been living and earning our living without fossil fuel for a while now, with the exception of the gasoline tractor that is the backbone of our farming operation. On December 12th, we finally started driving around the tractor on woodgas! That was an exciting event for us. I have wanted to set up woodgas since I was a child.
I had dreams about tractors that night. That was fun.
The following days were less fun. An engine under full load uses a lot more energy, and fuel, than a engine just puttering about. We hooked the bush hog to the tractor and took it into the cover crop from last summer. That stuff needs to be mowed before spring, and the bush hog loads the tractor engine down hard, so it seemed like a good time to power test the gasifier. We had done some work early on with homemade gasifiers, and then spent several thousand dollars on a manufactured gasifier. We spoke at length with the supplier, and they were sure their gasifier would handle our 35 horsepower tractor. When we power tested it, the gasifier heated up quite a bit. After cool-down, we checked it over. There’s no pretty way to say it. We melted it. Not the whole thing mind you, but the stainless reactor in the bottom of the gasifier was all but gone.
There is a yahoo woodgas list. Consulting the various opinions, we have come to the conclusion that the gasifier we spent so much time and money on simply cannot handle a 35 hp engine under load. Our plan has been to have two tractors on the farm. The 35 hp tractor to handle the heavy tillage, and a little one-row tractor to do the planting and cultivating. The cultivating tractor is half the horsepower of our “big” 35 hp tractor (which is very small by modern standards). So now we have rebuilt the melted reactor and we are putting the gasifier on the small cultivating tractor. We can, if we have to, run the whole farm with just the small cultivating tractor.
With our simple experiments thus far, it is clear that woodgas has its headaches. Just getting decent sized chips without an industrial chipper is slow. So far it takes us close to an hour to process fuel to run the tractor for an hour. There are numerous designs for homemade “chunkers” to make woodgas chips. We may build one of those. The whole question of what level of technology is actually sustainable is a complex one. The reality is, for all the idealistic banter around various kinds of farming, we all live on industrial grains. We are trying to produce such grains on a modest scale with sustainable technologies. As with all forms of renewable energy, decreasing demand is by far the biggest issue. Given that our tillage needs are modest, even an annoying fuel source is probably worth it so we don’t need fossil fuels. In the coming months, we will see how that comes together, and just how much annoyance is involved….
Enjoying the Warmth of a Solar House
Though our woodgas clearly needs some development, other aspects of the project are going fantastically well. The glory of a solar house is truly fantastic. The hum of the 180 volt solar blowers during the day is such a comforting sound. We know it means we
don’t have to cut firewood, blow a lot of wood smoke into the air, or pay a utility bill! When the sun shines, the house is comfortable even in bitter cold temperatures. We build fires when it is cold and cloudy for days on end. The amount of firewood we burn for heating is very small, so we do not need to invest in expensive wood burning equipment. The house is also not complete. It is clear that most of our heat loss at this point is out the doors and windows. Once we get thermal curtains on them, the thermal performance will likely be much better.
We have been working a bit on the solar boiler as well. Not much to say about it just yet, other than we have set a few pieces of paper on fire in front of our large satellite dish that we set up to use as a collector. We have started experimenting with solar troughs as well (not starting from scratch, mostly using other people’s designs). In thinking about taking LEF’s ideas around the world, we realized that a setup with a trough instead of a dish might be easier and cheaper. Our warm-climate trough design is MUCH simpler than the cold-climate design. No tracking, no pumps (maybe). Stay tuned.