Sunday, November 22, 2009

What if we literally "grew food everywhere?"

Warning, this is a rant inspired by a meeting I attended last week. The following statement was said (name purposefully omitted) and I wrote it down for a future reflection:

Cultivating all land takes away from local farmers… and doesn't this go against sustainability?"

Picture this: what would it look like if we literally, "grew food everywhere?" For one, there wouldn't be as much grass. There also would be much less (or no) world hunger... and the world would be on path toward true sustainability. After imagining that world, shouldn't we all be asking ourselves, "why wouldn't we want to grow food everywhere?"

Economically, it makes sense [more so locally]. We would have to outsource far less food and our money could stay in the local economy. However, our current measure for economic growth [GDP] would be adversely affected. I will explain later why it's not necessarily a bad thing to have very low or near 0% growth (negative is bad, but so is the super growth like we've been having since the industrial revolution.)

Environmentally, local sustainable food production is sound (less transportation = less fossil fuels used, and less heavy machinery needed for large-scale production / distribution. More oxygen produced by plants and more carbon sequestration from trees. Also, more shade on asphault / concrete means less heat reflection and lower ground temperatures… plants will also absorb rainwater and decrease the amount of [polluted] runoff into nearby water sheds.

Socially, it gets people outside and working together toward a common goal: growing food (on the micro scale), and creating a sustainable world (on the macro level). Being outside has been found (in numerous studies) to help people's mental, emotional and physical health. For some, spiritual health as well. Therefore, the quality of life would improve as a whole.

Any community, town, university, city, etc. who implements this would have a sustainable model for the entire world to see... why would anyone not want this?

Richard Heinberg sums it up best when he describes our measurement of economic success (GDP) on a planet that has finite resources. Think about those two ideas and ask yourself can they realistically go hand-in-hand forever? No they can't – the two ideas are mutually exclusive. We cannot continually increase our GDP when our population keeps increasing and our resource levels do not. This system we are all living by is so completely flawed but it's the norm. And Everyone is following it.

It's going to take someone very ballsy and with very deep pockets to stand up against the current measurement of economic success (GDP)… to prove that the world can still function effectively with very little or even 0% economic growth. Or rather (and more realistically) it will take a collective movement among the people (it is happening now, but more support is needed) to really make this change happen.

I hypothesize that by decreasing our GDP (not have a negative GDP, but have a very low or near 0% growth figure) we will create other successes that are much more important to us as a species. These successes I speak of are human happiness, true sustainable living and an overall improved quality of life for all.

I'm not suggesting that everyone begins to grow all of their own food and strive for total self-sufficiency (this is nearly impossible to do, even on a large-scale.) That is completely the wrong goal to have - we are a social species that works much more efficiently together rather than separate. Instead, I'm suggesting that people grow all the food they can and buy/barter for the things they do not produce themselves. There will still be plenty of jobs if everyone grows their own food… however, the farmers who are currently growing food for the masses might have to restructure their approach of making money and begin to focus on other forms of income such as educating the general public on how to grow food responsibly.

No matter what positive actions you take in this world, there will be some unexpected or adverse affects. Farmers will lose part of their income stream if people have access to free food in their own yards and on local public spaces. That is the down side to an otherwise brilliant model. What we must do is help the farmers (not let them "starve", speaking in financial terms), for they have provided us with food that we needed to live for thousands of years. But the system we have in place is not working... and some unsustainable jobs will need to be eliminated in order to continue progressing as a species.

This transition will not be easy, and some people will be unhappy with the changes we must make. A community effort must take place (financial, emotional and loving support) to help the current large-scale farmers become integrated into this new world. We need to help our fellow brothers and sisters make a complete life restructuring if that's what it comes down to. I doubt that with the surplus amount of food being produced that farmers will be able to afford the huge chunks of land they currently have… it may need to be sold to local conservation groups or town/city governments…and then it can be reforested or used in some other responsible way.

What it all comes down to is if people are willing to make this change: meaning (1) live a community-based (2) less consumptive and (3) more [not completely] self-sufficient lifestyle - then this system could actually work. If you only take what you need, grow all you can and share in community with others… the world will transform into a better place for us all. And it wouldn't just be the future generations benefiting from our actions... we could actually see the results happening right before our eyes.

So get inspired people... and start small by planting your own garden. If enough of us do this - imagine the impacts... and if you want help, give me a call - I have a feeling this will be my life's work.

Grow food everywhere!


Ryan Harb

Amherst, MA

Saturday, November 21, 2009

"All the world's problems can be solved in a garden"

I'm reading a fellow student's research proposal regarding the impacts humans are having on the Albertine Rift Watersheds in East Africa. It's extremely disturbing and has gotten me very upset. I feel the need to share a video that I watched last night entitled, "Greening the Desert II, Greening the Middle East."

Here is a link to the famous "Greening the Desert" Part 1 video on Youtube (this is what inspired me to become a permaculturalist.) Watch this first:

Here is the link to the movie I watched last night (Part II) :

Here is my rant: We think we are so smart, so much more advanced than the generations before us who lived so "primitively." Yes, it is amazing what we have accomplished as a species over the last few centuries. We have made strides in technology that at one time seemed like science fiction. But where has it led us?

The world is dying. I'm an extremely positive person but there is no question that so much destruction is happening every second of every day on all parts of the planet. We are consuming resources much faster than can be replenished by the earth. We are the most unsustainable species to have ever walked the planet.

It takes in-depth scientific studies for people to even consider that what they are doing is wrong. Destroying nature is wrong. The indigenous people's knew this and most of them lived in accordance with the world. They understood "The web."

It blows my mind how stupid humans can be nowadays. If you deforest the land near a river basin, then yes... the fish in that water body will be affected. But the impacts go further than just that river basin... The indigenous people's knew that that hurting one part of our planet will hurt all other parts of the planet and all forms of life (it may not be noticable, but I believe wholeheartedly that everything is connected.) And they did this without scientific studies and advanced technology. Those who lived with the land believed in the "oneness" of all things.

The solution to many of the world's most severe problems is simple: take care of nature and you'll be taking care of yourself and all other living beings. And one way to do this is for everyone to grow food in their local communities (on land that is already cleared like grass lawns and greenspaces... not deforesting more land for agricultural purposes.)

It seems appropriate to post the first real poem I wrote this past summer.
It is called The Web:

The Web you see
is the key to it all.
For it is strong,
so strong
that even snakes are unable to escape.

But like all things, webs break.
They regenerate, and they vibrate.

The Web,
no matter how large, vast, tall or wide,
what happens on one end
is felt on the other side.
That's how Earth Mother designed.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Building With Whole Trees

This article was sent to the W.MASS permaculture listserv by Dave Jacke. Pretty interesting stuff... this is the kind of thing that really interests me - much less embodied energy when materials don't need to be processed. Roald Gundersen is miles ahead of other architects, in my opinion:

ROALD GUNDERSEN, an architect who may revolutionize the building industry, shinnied up a slender white ash near his house here on a recent afternoon, hoisting himself higher and higher until the limber trunk began to bend slowly toward the forest floor.

“Look at Papa!” his life and business partner, Amelia Baxter, 31, called to their 3-year-old daughter, Estella, who was crouching in the leaves, reaching for a mushroom. Their son, Cameron, 9 months, was nestled in a sling across Ms. Baxter’s chest.

Wild mushrooms and watercress are among the treasures of this 134-acre forest, but its greatest resource is its small-diameter trees — thousands like the one Mr. Gundersen, 49, was hugging like a monkey.

“Whooh!” he said, jumping to the ground and gingerly rubbing his back. “This isn’t as easy as it used to be. But see how the tree holds the memory of the weight?”

The ash, no more than five inches thick, was still bent toward the ground. Mr. Gundersen will continue to work on it, bending and pruning it over the next few years in this forest which lies about 10 miles east of the Mississippi River and 150 miles northwest of Madison.

Loggers pass over such trees because they are too small to mill, but this forester-architect, who founded Gundersen Design in 1991 and built his first house here two years later, has made a career of working with them.

“Curves are stronger than straight lines,” he explained. “A single arch supporting a roof can laterally brace the building in all directions.”

The firm, recently renamed Whole Tree Architecture and Construction, is also owned by Ms. Baxter, a onetime urban farmer and community organizer with a knack for administration and fundraising. She also manages a community forest project modeled after a community-supported agriculture project, in which paying members harvest sustainable riches like mushrooms, firewood and watercress from these woods, and those who want to build a house can select from about 1,000 trees, inventoried according to species, size and shape, and located with global positioning system coordinates, a living inventory that was paid for with a $150,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture.

According to research by the Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, run by the USDA, a whole, unmilled tree can support 50 percent more weight than the largest piece of lumber milled from the same tree. So Mr. Gundersen uses small-diameter trees as rafters and framing in his airy structures, and big trees felled by wind, disease or insects as powerful columns and curving beams.

Taking small trees from a crowded stand in the forest is much like thinning carrots in a row: the remaining plants get more light, air and nutrients. Carrots grow longer and straighter; trees get bigger and healthier.

And when the trees are left whole, they sequester carbon. “For every ton of wood, a ton and a half of carbon dioxide is locked up,” he said, whereas producing a ton of steel releases two to five tons of carbon. So the more whole wood is used in place of steel, the less carbon is pumped into the air.

These passive solar structures also need very little or no supplemental heat.

Tom Spaulding, the executive director of Angelic Organics Learning Center, near Rockford, Ill., northwest of Chicago, knows about this because he commissioned Mr. Gundersen to build a 1,600-square-foot training center in 2003. He said: “In the middle of winter, on a 20-below day, we’re in shorts, with the windows and doors open. And we don’t burn a bit of petroleum.”

“It’s eminently more frugal and sustainable than milling trees,” he added. “These are weed trees, so when you take them out, you improve the forest stand and get a building out of it. You haven’t stripped an entire hillside out west to build it, or used a lot of oil to transport the lumber.”

Mr. Gundersen had a rough feeling for all of this 16 years ago, when he started building a simple A-frame house here for his first wife and their son, Ian, now 15. He wanted to encourage local farmers to use materials like wood and straw from their own farms to build low-cost, energy-efficient structures. So he used small aspens that were crowding out young oaks nearby.

“I would just carry them home and peel them,” said Mr. Gundersen, who later realized he could peel them while they were standing, making them “a lot lighter to haul and not so dangerous to fell.”

Mr. Gundersen, who built most of the house singlehandedly, also recognized the beauty of large trees downed by disease or wind, and used the peeled trunks, shorn of their central branches a few feet from the crook, as supporting columns in the house. “I thought they were beautiful, but I didn’t think how strong they were,” he said.

“In architecture, how materials come together and how they are connected is really the god in the details,” he continued. “The connection is where things will fall apart,” he said, adding that the crook of a tree “has been time-tested by environmental conditions for 200 million years.”

He refers to that first house — which cost $15,000 (for plumbing, electrical, septic and other basic amenities, as well as $4,000 in paid labor) and a year of his own labor — as his master’s degree in architecture. Divorced in 1997, he now lives there with Ms. Baxter and their two children.

After finishing the A-frame, Mr. Gundersen built a 100-by-20-foot solar greenhouse next door with thick straw-bale walls on three sides, banked into the north slope. He used small-diameter, rot-resistant black locust trees for the timber framing.

A wall of double-paned glass, positioned to optimize the low-angle winter light, faces south. Growing beds angled slightly toward the sun are planted with rows of mustard greens, kale, chard, arugula, lettuces and herbs. Hanging trays of micro-greens and a fig and bay tree promise fresh food for the fall and winter.

But it is the Book End — the little house attached to the greenhouse, which is home to the firm’s project manager and his wife — that quietly vibrates with the spirit of the forest.

“We used a lot of standing dead elm here,” Mr. Gundersen said, pointing out the delicate trails, or galleries, left by the beetles that killed the tree. Peeled of their bark and satiny smooth, these trees have a presence that seems to draw one’s arm around their trunks and invite a viewer to lean into them, to soak up strength from these powerful old souls.

In this quiet farming community, where people may not have a lot of money to spend, but do have plenty of wood and straw, word of the beauty and practicality of Mr. Gundersen’s structures has spread. Solar greenhouses made of local materials can extend the growing season through winter, even in a place where temperatures can drop to 30 or 40 below. In the last 18 years, Whole Trees has built 25 of them here.

It’s part of a vision Mr. Gundersen developed after spending three years as a project architect on Biosphere 2, the three-acre glass-enclosed miniature world constructed near Tucson in the 1980s, which tried to replicate the earth’s systems, but foundered on carbon dioxide, acidic seas, failed crops and internal intrigues. After that experience, he wanted to build something more basic to human needs.

Mr. Gundersen grew up in nearby LaCrosse, where his Norwegian great-grandfather, a doctor, founded a local institution, the Gundersen Clinic; he comes from a clan of doctors and tree lovers. “There are 23 doctors in the family,” he said, including his father and uncle and four great-uncles, but he seems to be wired more like his great-grandmother Helga, whose family still owns a tree farm in Norway. He and his grandmother would often picnic on this piece of wild land, where he remembers picking watercress and wildflowers and building tree forts.

Now, to be in his buildings is to be among the trees.

“It almost feels like we’re in a forest, the trees have such a presence,” said Marcia Halligan, a client who is a farmer and Reiki instructor, standing among the birch posts of her airy bedroom.

She and her partner, Steven Adams, who grows seed for organic seed companies, worked with Mr. Gundersen on a design that uses 22 different kinds of wood, most of it from their own land outside Viroqua, southeast of Stoddard.

The economic downturn has put commissions for several large buildings for nonprofits and a 4,600-square-foot residence on hold, Mr. Gundersen and Ms. Baxter say, but the demand for small houses like theirs is up.

“It’s remarkable how many people have called this last year asking for 1,000-square-foot houses,” Ms. Baxter said. “People are downsizing for their retirement homes, and even younger folks are thinking about energy costs, environmental awareness and simplicity.”

Whole Trees can keep construction costs as low as $100 a square foot, not including site preparation, if the client is willing to shop for secondhand fixtures and the like.

As people begin to see forests as a resource, they may begin to take care of them rather than cutting them down to make room for cornfields or pastures. And the forests keep giving back.

“I’ve taken 20 trees per year off one acre, for 12 buildings,” Mr. Gundersen said. “You can never tell that we’ve taken out that much wood.”

You can view the article here: You may need to register but it's free.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Finished sheet mulching!

The very last bed of the season was completed this afternoon. I can make this post longer, but instead I'm just going to post some pictures that my roommate Sean took with his professional camera. Thanks, Sean, for helping document today...and James for helping finish before dark.

I felt like being slightly egotistical tonight

Biochar... a very interesting concept

This article has me thinking of the incredible potential for biochar. This is a must read for gardeners and do-it-yourselfers.

A world movement in your own backyard

By Philippa Stasiuk, The Altamont Enterprise, October 8, 2009

VOORHEESVILLE, NY—How do you bridge the gap between thinking and acting locally?

Sept. 15, David Yarrow, a longtime grassroots activist from Syracuse, spoke to a crowd at Cornell Cooperative Extension about something that may make local gardeners part of an accelerating international movement: biochar

Biochar is a fine-grained porous charcoal made from biological material through pyrolysis—or low-oxygen burning—that is high in organic carbon. Making biochar is basically making charcoal. But the kicker comes when it’s used in the garden.

“When you add charcoal to the soil, it changes the soil dramatically,” said Yarrow. “The soil becomes nutrient dense. The charcoal absorbs water and nutrients, and with this kind of fully fertile soil, you can grow food that has complete nutrition.”

That may sound like another overblown advertisement I the back of a horticulture magazine, but the Internet is rife with websites of not-for-profits, science symposiums, and early published scientific results on biochar’s potential.

The Biochar Fund, in Belgium, published results Sept. 10 of a field test in Cameroon where 1,500 subsistence farmers participated in a study of yearly corn crop. Farmers with biochar soil yielded 40 to 50 percent greater biomass than farmers without it. Other studies around the world have shown that while adding biochar alone doesn’t increase crop yields significantly, adding biochar plus fertilizer increases yields up to 50 percent.

Scientists measure soil improvement with biochar in four ways. First, it increases cation exchange capacity (CEC) in soils, which measures soil fertility and its ability to protect groundwater. Char is also porous, so that microbes in soil attach to it like water to a sponge, and are less easily washed away by rainfall. This ultimately makes the soil nutrient dense.

Char also retains water, which means less water evaporates and less irrigation is needed. Finally, biochar increases the pH of acidic soils, similar to addition of lime to soil.

Local and global activism

Science, politics and not-for-profits see biochar’s potential to address issues like world hunger, erosion, water quality.

But, in addition to improving soil and subsequently food, biochar has another property that is tantalizing scientists: It is carbon-negative. In contrast to fossil fuels, which add carbon to the air, biochar retains a substantial portion of the carbon in the soil, where it stays potentially for thousands of years. The result is less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. With such prospects, science and business racing to find out if biochar can reduce carbon levels on a large scale, and how to go about it.

Again, global applications are many. At the August North American Biochar Conference in Colorado, which Yarrow attended, ideas such as specially plowing biochar into soil to reduce significant earth-warming carbon were discussed. Carbon-producing companies can buy pyrolytic stoves for farmers, who can produce biochar in a carbon exchange,

But sequestering carbon, says Yarrow, is not the way to think about biochar’s potential. “At the national conference, everyone talked about sequestering carbon,” he said. “No one pays attention to the sterilization of soil, which is a fundamental living component of the planet. Done properly, biochar will restore this living tissue that is soil. It needs to be rejuventated and revived to stabilize the atmosphere, to make a future.”

Yarrow explained that it is gratifying to see peoples’ reaction to his talks on biochar. “I get excited because it won’t be governments and corporations that get us out of this mess,” he said. “It will be the power of the people to make choices at the cash register and the voting booth.”

Making biochar

Part of Yarrow’s biochar talk includes a demonstration burn. While there are already pyrolytic stoves being developed and sold around the world, it is also possible to make a burner with refitted barrels of two different sizes, such as 30- and 50-gallon barrels.

Yarrow’s website shows the exact method, which entails filling a smaller barrel with biomass, such as wood or corn stover, cover it with a bigger barrel, and turn them upside down. Space between the two barrels is filled with wood, so the biomass burns with minimal oxygen. In less than two hours, biochar is made.

A photo account of the process can be found on Yarrow’s website: under “burners.”

Joseph Slezak, the Albany County field manager for soil and water conservation, attended Yarrow’s lecture in Voorheesville and spoke about its local applications.

“It’s something anybody that lives outside a suburban area—the Hilltowns, mostly—as long as people can burn outdoors, they can create biochar to put in their gardens,” he said. “They can cooperate with neighbors to do it on large scale, for agricultural fields. There’s potential. Enough people don’t know about it yet.”

Slezak also said composting facilities in the Capital District can benefit if they divert some biomass used for composting to biochar, which is used by local gardeners to improve soil quality.

Yarrow said new ideas generally take 50 years to be adopted by large populations, but the urgency of global warming and biochar’s potential to curb carbon-dioxide is speeding things up.

“It’s a new idea that is skyrocketing,” said Yarrow. “Now science is on our side, maybe things can happen quicker.”