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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Anyone want to do research on aquaponics?

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) funds research on sustainable agriculture - up to $250,000 for multi-year projects. Most the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant pre-proposals were due 7/14, but the pre-proposals for the Northeast region aren't due for another couple of weeks.

I'd like to conduct a longitudinal study of how much the combination of a rocket mass heater and a subterranean heating/cooling system can extend the growing season, tracking temperatures and yields across numerous variables (USDA Zones, urban/suburban/rural, crops).

The bad thing is I'm a federal employee during the day, so I can only conduct this research (and apply for a grant) as an individual. There are various laws that prevent me from representing another entity in receipt of federal funds. And I don't know if they'd let an individual conduct research on the scale I'm interested in.

The other bad thing is I'm so close to the deadline, and others who might be interested in doing something along these lines are on vacation.

The good thing is a UN-published study showed the underground heat exchange system (UHES) or subterranean heating/cooling system (SHCS) increased yield by 50% compared to an equivalent greenhouse that lacked the subterranean heating/cooling technology. John Cruickshank shares his experience with UHES/SHCS at his SunnyJohn website, saying: can expect to raise the soil temperature to 65-75F by the end of the summer. That is the soil temperature of all the soil in the greenhouse to a depth of 3 feet!! You can expect to keep it cycling in that range for 3 months after the summer season before it begins to discharge seriously. That represents an enormous influence on the zone above it. For a 30' by 20' greenhouse I believe that is in the neighbourhood of 75 tons of soil and represents several million BTU's of heat. How this all pans out for season extension is a guess, but I assure you, it will extend your season!! For Zone 4, we can grow Eliot Coleman style in simple hoop houses for 12 months of the year using just a SHCS. Adding insulated north walls, double skins, propane CO2 generators and tighter building envelope we can grow tropically well for 10 months.

So if we add a rocket mass heater during the winter, to add BTUs to greenhouse soil during the short winter days, I'm thinking it might be possible to enjoy "tropical" conditions year round in inexpensive hoop houses.

Anyway, let me know what questions you think USDA-funded research into integrated energy systems and aquaponics ought to answer!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Yum, Basil Chicken Salad

How to Chiffonade, from Dreamy Dish

The point of growing food in a garden is to eat it.

Tonight we had a wonderful chicken salad, with fresh basil and beet leaves from the garden. I'm lucky enough to have a former chef for a son-in-law, so he was able to just throw everything together. But here's an approximation of the recipe (so I can replicate this myself sometime in the future, if for no other reason!):

1-2 boneless chicken breast(s)
chicken broth
1-2 Granny Smith apple(s)
2 stalks of celery
1/2 cup basil leaves
2-4 beet leaves with red stalks
1 cup mayonnaise
1-2 cloves crushed/diced garlic
1 tsp mustard
salt & pepper to taste
handful of raisins and pine nuts (optional)

Cook the chicken in the broth.
While the chicken is cooking, dice the apple and celery.
Chiffonade the basil and beet leaves.
Remove the cooked chicken from the broth and set the broth aside to use in some future meal.
Cube the chicken.
Mix the apples, celery, chicken, basil, beets, and garlic. Add the raisins and pine nuts if you're using them.
Add the mayonnaise and mustard, and mix well.
Salt and pepper to taste.

I liked it between soft slices of whole grain bread.

And on a slice of mozzarella.

And on toast...


Saturday, July 9, 2011

Oh, Where are my BSFs?

The cryptic saga of my Black Soldier Fly Larvae

I don't have my BSFs yet. I don't know how they'll be doing by Monday - the 7th day since they were shipped.

USPS claims they left notices - I think they're knocking at the wrong door, because I was here at 3:09 today. There was also someone at my house ready to receive the larvae yesterday. And we've seen no written notices.

In the mean time we've got lots of compost waiting for the BSFs when they do get here. Assuming they are still alive by then...

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Local Food Production (another review)

National Geographic image of Earth circa 2210

When I reviewed "A Crude Awakening," CTD suggested I watch three other films:

Fuel - watched that, enjoyed it.

I.O.U.S.A. - haven't watched it yet.

Collapse - I think I watched it today.

There are two "Collapse" movies on Netflix.

The first one I watched was a National Geographic film that was part history lesson, part current events tour, and part apocalyptic sci fi.

The conceit was that scientists circa 2210 would have no idea how "we" lived and why our great cities collapsed. Pretty fun, actually, as a dramatic device. Except how did these clueless future scientists manage to have 2010-era equipment (Ray-Bans and scuba gear, for crying out loud)?

The show talked about how dwindling water, food, energy, and trust destroyed past civilizations (the Anazasi, the Romans, and the Mayans).

What happens when your water runs out

The second "Collapse" film was 90 minutes of listening to Michael Ruppert talk. Michael Ruppert is a Cassandra - one who [accurately] foretells the future, but who is largely ignored.

It isn't fun to watch Ruppert talk. He's mostly angry and bitter, and the future vision he paints is dark and painful. But I did garner a few gems:

Ruppert said, "Local Food production is perhaps the most fundamental key to human survival in the collapse of industrialized civilization. [57:00]" He goes on to talk about what happened when two communist dependencies lost access to oil when the Soviet Union collapsed.

The first state was North Korea. Rigid, hierarchical, and cursed with a harsh climate, the people starved. I remember hearing about how people were trying to survive eating grass.

The second state was Cuba. Castro immediately promoted a return to local food production - every square inch that could be exploited for food production was converted to making food. It didn't hurt that Cuba is a tropical country. Anyway, folks in Cuba now eat better than ever.

I also liked Ruppert's suggestion that "Community will save us."

At the end of the day, denial, anger, bargaining, and depression won't help as we face a challenging future. Acceptance of life's reality, with belief-inspired action will allow us to find the way out.

And when we have discovered the way out, we can learn from the parable of the hundredth monkey.

Ruppert tells of the experiments detonating nuclear bombs on the Bikini Atoll in 1946. And yes, the two-piece swimsuit was introduced around that time.

In the 1950s scientists introduces thousands of monkeys to the island, to study the effects of any lingering radiation. Turned out most things were back to normal. But the coconut husks were still slightly radioactive. If the monkeys continued as they had been going, they would all eventually succumb to radiation poisoning. No one wanted to deal with thousands of dead monkey corpses.

Unable or unwilling to train all the monkeys to wash the coconuts in fresh water to remove the radiation, researchers trained 10 of the monkeys to wash their coconuts. Slowly the ten nut washers converted others to their odd practices. 12 nut washers, 20 nut washers, 50 nut washers.

Then the 100th monkey became a nut washer and overnight the other 9,900 started washing their coconuts.

One assumes the monkeys survived, but I can't find any mention of the state of Bikini Atoll monkeys in our times. At least I didn't find mention of mass extinction of the nut-washing primates.

So, we already knew aquaponics is a great system for producing food in warm, barren deserts, not to mention how awesome it can be in warm, moist climates.

But if we can get "100 monkeys" to demonstrate a robust aquaponics system that works year-round in cold climates, life starts to get sweet, indeed.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Food and Energy in the Cold Northeast

The Cold Northeast Regions of China and the United States
Point A: Shenyang, Jilin, China
Point B: Plymouth, Massachusetts, United States

I found a delightful report the United Nations put together in 1994 on how to produce crops and energy in the cold northeast (42 degrees north of the equator). It's got a wealth of information on topics from methane production to solar homes and greenhouses, and integrated plant/animal ecosystems.

It's also chock full of charts and graphs and experimental results.

The full title is "Integrated energy systems in China - The cold Northeastern region experience."

Happily, the cold northeastern region of China is eerily similar to the cold northeastern region of the United States - same latitude, near an ocean, and populated by millions of folks who like to eat and stay warm.

I particularly liked the documented results from the experiments comparing Subterranean heating/Cooling Systems or Underground Heat Exchange Solar Greenhouses (UHESG) to Conventional Solar Greenhouses (CSG). The 1980s-era researchers document greater than 50% improvement in yields (in both weight and money value) for UHESG over CSG.

The English in the report is a bit awkward and laden with engineer-ese, but there are plenty of great ideas for those of us who have uncomfortably cold winters.

[Post Script - Latitude isn't the only story. The hardiness zone in Shenyang is between 4 and 5, while the hardiness zone of latitudinal twin Plymouth is an ocean-warmed 6. Due to the Gulf Stream, London enjoys a hardiness zone of 9, though it is almost 10 degrees further north than either Shenyang or Plymouth. I'd have to travel south to Florida to get to a hardiness zone of 9!]

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Worms, worms, everywhere

Redworm, one of many things fish love to eat

My mother gave my husband a brilliant gift for Father's Day - composting worms. 1000 Eisenia Foetidae or Red Wrigglers, to be exact. She ordered them from Uncle Jim's Worm Farm at the same time she bought her own worms and composter.

Reading the instructions, I realized for the first time that composting worms are different from your standard earthworm. I'd been popping worms from my yard into my growbeds, assuming that was "good enough." Hasn't hurt, but it seems red wrigglers will work even better.

A few benefits of worms in aquaponics:

1) They turn scraps into rich, fertile compost. The stuff is called "worm castings," but it's worm poop. Manure on a micro scale. [I wonder if worms are considered "animals" for the purposes of granting food safety certification. Since they're cold blooded, they don't harbor e.coli in their guts any more than do fish.]

2) No need to wash your grow media after initial system setup. The worms will clear out left over roots and stuff.

3) Supplemental food for your fish. Worms double their population in short order (90 days, if I remember correctly). They stop reproducing when they reach the maximum sustainable density, so their is no worry that they will start spilling out all over. But this rapid population growth and/or population replacement means you can snag out a few from time to time as a treat for your fish without worrying that you are fundamentally damaging the efficacy of your worm population to process compost.

4) A worm population in your grow beds can keep your system working between batches of fish. In fact, some folks rely entirely on worms for their ammonia source. This is referred to as Vermiponics. Alas, vermiponics appears to be a new movement, to the point where there isn't even a wikipedia article describing vermiponics and its history.

A downside of worms is their need for bedding material and decomposing scraps. On the other hand, I produce more than enough paper and cardboard as a byproduct of modern life to keep my worms happy.

Now that I know regular earthworms aren't as "good" as red wrigglers for composting, I've started taking to tipping found worms into my fish tank, where I used to tip them into my growbeds. It's been gratifying to see the enthusiasm with which fish consume the worms, even dead and slightly dessicated worms.

Next biological enhancement to the system will be black soldier fly larvae - they should be en route right now. Should be fun!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Peak Oil got you depressed? Check out "Fuel"

Fuel, the film, available on Netflix

Josh Tickell has been a bio-diesel advocate for over a decade. In his 2008/9 documentary Fuel, Josh goes way beyond bio-diesel to show how the world can realistically become petroleum independent and go carbon neutral.

This film is a pleasure to watch - it has:

  • Beautiful graphics,
  • A David versus Goliath personal story,
  • Comments from the rich, famous, and learned,
  • A message that not all need go dark when fossil fuel runs out.
Oh, and lovely music, sung by Josh's now-wife, Rebecca Harrell.

The diesel engine was originally designed to run on a vegetable oil-based fuel. Ford originally designed his cars to run on ethanol (derived from corn). But the availability of 'inexpensive' fossil fuel and the distribution might of Standard Oil combined to make fossil-based products the fuel of choice.

Interesting tidbit - Josh Tickell makes a case suggesting Prohibition in the United States may have become law because it made ethanol illegal. Henry Ford continued to offer the ethanol-compatible version for several years, but finally folded to economic necessity in 1932 and gave up offering the ethanol-fueled engine option. Coincidentally, Prohibition was allowed to be repealed the following year.

Josh also lays out the idea that the recent US war in Iraq was motivated by oil. This isn't a new idea, but he does a particularly good job of connecting the dots.

Back to how we move past fossil fuel towards a sustainable future - bio-diesel is a clear winner, requiring only 1 part energy to produce 3 parts diesel (ethanol requires 1 part energy to produce 1 part ethanol, and fossil fuel requires 1 part energy to produce 0.8 part fuel). Solar and wind can work, where conditions are adequate. There's even mention of trees that were designed to remediate contaminated soils that grow to maturity in 3 years and regenerate from a cut stump, making wood-based energy creation a viable green option as well.

My only complaint is the discussion of wind didn't show my favorite wind turbine, the vertical Windspire. Traditional wind turbines kill birds due to the high differential pressures at the blade tips, not even counting the birds killed by being hit by a blade. The Windspire doesn't have this problem.

So, if talk of Peak Oil and/or soaring energy prices get you down, take a breather and watch this film. It won't make the immediate crisis go away, but does offer hope that there is a future, even after cheap fossil fuels go away.