News and Blog

A bi-monthly blog on permaculture and sustainability related topics. Posted (circumstances permitting) on a bi-monthly basis.
Posted 11/14/2007 2:08am by Leaf Myczack.

In last week's blog, I discussed ways in which we cut our farm's petroleum consumption while retaining much needed soil moisture for our shade trees. As expected, I stepped on the tail of a sacred cow of tradition-mowing the "American dream lawn." The tradition of the closely cropped, mono-cultured grass lawn as a status symbol will be a hard one to overcome for most people. However, with mandatory water restrictions in effect in a growing number of communities, now is the time to be thinking of more environmentally friendly alternatives to the sterile and largely lifeless grass lawn.

This week I want to discuss the other major source of energy consumption on the farm, utility purchased electricity. We use between 350 and 400 kilowatt hours per month at a cost of 10+ cents per kilowatt hour. Our most recent bill was $36.12. For us that means it costs the farm one gallon of honey or 14.4 dozen eggs per month. This is an acceptable expense for the energy we currently require.

The biggest electrical energy consumption occurrs when we convert electric current into heat such as the hot water heater, the cooking stove, heat furnace, and a clothes dryer. Our response to this normal energy use is to seek alternatives where possible. The easiest is replacing the clothes dryer with a good, roomy clothesline. Free sun and wind dry all types of fabrics wrinkle free and without harm to the washload or the environment. Clotheslines are significantly cheaper than electric dryers and operate virtually maintenance and cost free.

Electric heat furnaces and heat pumps can really spin the meter, but are rather inefficient outside of a narrow temperature operating range. A well insulated and sealed dwelling is a must to hold down living space heating costs. Passive solar heating has no operating costs and is effective over a wide temperature range. We had to do a moderate amount of retrofitting on the south side of the house, adding windows, a full windowed mud room, and a greenhouse / solar heater pod. The effort was well worth it as we can heat the bulk of the house on a sunny day just with sunlight streaming in. On cloudy days and at night, we provide our heating needs with a very efficient and clean wood burning stove.

Cooking our food is done in a variety of ways. Our many options include an outdoor solar oven (currently being rebuilt), a four burner propane gas stove in a protected outside "summer kitchen," on top of the wood burning heating stove, a low wattage electric crock pot, and finally on a conventional electric stove. With all the above options available, we can make significant cuts in electricity usage and still enjoy hot prepared meals.

Heating water has been our biggest challenge due to the existing location of the water hookup to the street main. It comes into the basement on the shadiest portion of the house. We are still mulling over ways to use a rooftop preheater and limit the distance we have to plumb. In the meantime we use a conventional water heater tucked into a well insulated (recycled) concrete block closet-like room. We also have an outdoor solar heated 20 gallon shower that we use during the summer months. We do laundry with cold water, so hot water demand is limited to washing dishes and showering. The under the counter mechanical dishwasher was shipped out to the thrift store long ago and has been replaced by human hands grateful to be soaking in warm water.

Both the refrigerator and clothes washer are energy star* rated efficient models that use half the energy of conventional models. Lighting is provided by a hybrid system of both AC and DC electricity. The AC (from the TVA) circuit is uniformly outfitted with energy saving florescent bulbs, while the DC service is provided from solar modules and a wind generator. The computer work station lighting and the workshop area lighting are both powered by the sun and wind.

Landscaping to provide summertime shade, and wintertime protection from cold winds has been underway for a few years. Evergreens have been planted on the NW and NE corners of the house, while deciduous trees have been planted on the east, south and west sides. One of the first changes we made was to use excavated soil from the basement root cellar to earth berm the two exposed basement ends of the house. The difference was most notable as the inside temperature stabalized between 60 and 75 degrees in spite of the extreme range of 20 to 95 degrees outside.

Additional electric use comes from using power tools in our construction and renovation work. Over time this usage should diminish.

Lastly, the pumping and moving of water on a farm can be a significant user of electricity. We solved that challenge by designing our cistern system to operate by cost free gravity, and by using 12 volt DC pumps that run off of sun charged batteries.

Our long-term goal is to continue to use the sun and wind to even greater advantage as we seek to become more energy sustainable and therefore an economically viable small family farm.


Posted 11/7/2007 10:00am by Leaf Myczack.

As I mulled over the term "common sense" the other day, I realized that the currently in-place cultural consensus belief of wide, spacious, homogenized green lawns has produced an environmentally desensitized populace. In other words, we are culturally committed to a costly and time consuming effort that effectively works against our essential and basic biological needs. Due to peer pressure, most people readily participate without questioning the merits.

Broad lawns make for biological wastelands. Wide tire riding lawn mowers (small tractors in reality), buzz cut large swaths of "open" land while continuously compacting the soil. Week after week, back and forth, covering every square inch of imposed lawn, snipping off any new growth that might emerge. Most residential neighborhoods would have it no other way.

Philanthropist Barbara Tober, as quoted in the Augusta, Georgia, Chronicle said "Traditions are group efforts to keep the unexpected from happening." A native American story describes tradition as the seemingly small and lightweight grandmother being carried across the river on the back of her strong grandson. Each step of the way she becomes heavier until he is staggering under her weight and nearly drowns. A lot of our cultural traditions are now codefied into enforceable laws with real punishment for offenders. This adds to a staggering weight.

When we initially looked at turning this rundown, overused, dried up farm into a model of sustainable agriculture, we had to start with how to manage energy consumption. Because small farms like ours are marginally in the mainstream economy, we have to be extra-aware of the consumption costs of non-farm energy, i.e., electricity and petroleum products. These are two very large items that can be trimmed significantly so that they don't dominate the route of the farm cash flow.

Gasoline and diesel are both expensive and politically volatile. We decided to not buy a tractor, and to think of farming in a less petroleum way. This meant limiting the amount of land we would mow and conventionally cultivate; however if fit in nicely with our plan to manage hives of honey bees.

To mow these fields as many have suggested, would be to stop the soil restoration process, and to kill the very food source the bees depend upon. To mow the so-called grass lawn areas around the house and sheds produces the same result, and deprives the essential pollinators a food source.

Two events occurred together this year that solved the farm lawn-mowing issue. This year's late freeze and exceptional drought has caused us some anxiety about the long term health of the large maple trees around the house. Not only do they provide needed shade from summer sun, but their early spring flowering is a major source of nectar and pollen for our bees who are just emerging from winter hibernation. The other event was the electric utility sent crews that trimmed trees in our area. They were looking for a place to dump truckloads of ground up leaf and wood material cleared from the powerlines. They delivered for free!

By using the woody mulch to cover the ground under the trees, we accomplished many beneficial results. The mulch works to shield the ground from the sun, thus retaining ground moisture for the tree. It also works as a slow release, soil-building, natural source of nutrients for the trees and acts like a sponge to soak up any rainfall. At the same time it is smothering out the grasses that persistently competed with the trees for topsoil moisture and nutrients. Eliminating the grasses created a large non-mowing zone, thus producing a continuous yearly savings of worktime and money, while also conserving fossil fuel use, and preventing harmful air pollution around our dwelling.

By breaking with tradition, we were able to use common sense in a creative and healthy way. This is the easiest way to effect significant change. We hope you'll try to put common sense ideas to work for you and the planet.


next week's blog -cutting the electric bill without cutting comfort

Posted 10/31/2007 12:21am by Leaf Myczack.


Our local area has a current year rain deficit that now measures 14 inches. That translates to 14 inches of rain over the entire ground surface of East Tennessee. Many surrounding communities have mandatory water use restrictions, and Atlanta's 4 million residents are projected to be out of water by December 31st. The situation grows more serious each day.

A region doesn't just biologically collapse without numerous stresses bearing upon it, mostly resulting from human induced activity. Our current contemporary living model based upon excessive resource consumption, egregious waste, and domination over the natural environment is working against our long term self-interest in survival.

We seem to be nearing (if not already in) a crises situation and yet our dominant political response is to do nothing differently. The end result of this head in the sand approach will be to create regional water wars instead of regional water solutions. Already the state of Georgia has filed suit against the Army Corps of Engineers to prevent them from releasing interstate river water to downstream Alabama and Florida.

Here on the farm, our water resources are carefully managed because we understand that without water-there is nothing! We are currently in the harvest time for this summer's crop. Areas we watered have bumper yields, areas unwatered produced little useable food.

It is my responsibility to manage the water allocation to the poultry and the food growing areas in a prudent manner. It requires a well thought out schedule of water needs, the short and long-term gallon amounts available between infrequent rain showers, and maximizing the benefits of the water used. Without conservation measures such as using non-leaking and non-spilling poultry waterers, specific target watering, and heat deflecting and water retaining ground mulch, our 2,500 gallon containment system would be grossly inadequate. Careful use of every drop is critical during this prolonged and record drought.

It is well beyond time to rethink the way we conduct our daily lives concerning the impacts we are having on the life sustaining environmental envelope that we live within. The era of oversized everything is about to hit the wall. Our national epidemic of obesity is the clearest metaphor for consuming way beyond our needs. To maintain a sustainable existence on the earth, we must learn to return more than we take. In next week's blog, I will discuss how we accomplish this practice of give-take-and give back to the land in order to enhance, rather than degrade our living home.


Posted 10/23/2007 11:23pm by Leaf Myczack.

Last week I talked about pulling the emergency lever as our farm water reserves had dwindled to under 30%. In the water storage world, the storage pool is the top 60%, and then one is in the life maintenance pool. This is the water held back to support all the critters that are now calling our rainwater catchments home. Some we placed there (fish to eat mosquitos), some came on their own (frogs & turtles), and others flew in (dragonflies, kingfisher, and green heron).

We moved our two inch gasoline powered water pump to the back of the nearby river slough and set it up. Water sucked out of the Tennessee River is then pumped slightly uphill through two-hundred feet of 1.5 inch fire hose to a pipe connection that runs under the county lane and onto our farm property. From that feeder pipe, we can direct water to the main pond through a two inch pipe, or to the two feeder ponds through one inch pipes. It's not a fast process, but it is steady and it gives us a tremendous advantage to be able to replenish the ponds during drought conditions.

Tonight as I write this Blog, rainwater is dripping off of the house roof from many gutters, pipes, and spouts into overflowing cisterns and barrels. It is sweet music to our ears and it fills us with new found hope. Over the previous thirty-six hours, we have received two inches of rain. It is the perfect rain for sowing winter greens, and earlier in the day, Hawk and I walked through the rain, broadcasting a mix of kale, turnip and mustard seed over newly moist soil.

All through the summer we have been tweaking our rainwater collection system, constantly improving the delivery path from rooftop to container. To behold it in action is a wonderful validation of our design efforts. Without lifting anything more than the end of a garden-type hose, and opening and closing a couple of valves, we can strategically place hundreds upon hundreds of gallons of captured rainwater where we can most effectively use them to water our poultry flock, our fruit and vegetable crops, and our wind screen landscaping plants.

We all know about Jack & Jill going up the hill to fetch a pail of water. If their parents had utilized good design, then they might have used gravity to deliver the water downhill, unspilt, and right to their doorstep. Good design begets efficiency, and efficiency saves energy. Saving energy is the gateway to sustainability; whether it be human, mechanical, or electrical energy being conserved.

A poorly designed farm or homestead will wear down the occupants by forcing them to endlessly repeat wasted motion. Our teaching farm is a living example that a poorly designed enterprise can be successfully restructured by following perma-culture (permanent agriculture) based guidelines. Our energy-free, gravity powered rainwater collection and transfer / storage system is our best proof.


Although this recent rainfall is nowhere near enough to end the drought, it has given us the needed soil moisture to resume field work and the delayed planting of fall crops.

Posted 10/17/2007 12:50am by Leaf Myczack.

As of Oct. 16th, 2007 the drought affecting the South shows no signs of easing. The rainfall total for the first half of the month is a mere .03 of an inch. We have reduced our planting to seed maintenance plots, growing just enough to keep our seed fresh for the next planting season. Not only can we not grow enough food to feed ourselves, but also we have little to sell to the public, thus reducing our cash flow to a bare minimum. Our water supply has dwindled to an alarmingly low level, and we have run out of land-based options for reversing the decline. With reluctance, we made the decision to pull the emergency lever and put our backup plan into action.

We bill ourselves as a sustainability teaching farm, promoting the idea that we have a lot of the answers to the sustainability challenges facing small farmers and homesteaders. Just as calm seas never make good sailors, ideal weather conditions never make good farmers. The best tool steel is forged with the greatest heat. And so it is with us. We can only effectively teach what we have experienced and learned from working through the vicissitudes of weather related climate anomalies. This demands a willingness to break from conventional and traditional ways of thinking and doing. It requires a flexibility and a commitment to change not readily found in our society.

For years we have been experimenting with and building rainwater collection systems that would help us amplify rainfall amounts on targeted areas. It involves removing water from the general area and selectively placing it in areas we had prioritized, i.e. fruit trees, garden plots, berry patches, our core reforestation area, etc. We have recycled both black water and gray water; in short, we have not wasted a drop! Up until this summer it has worked quite well, and we have continued to add reserve storage volume to our system. The question we are seeking to answer is how well would this system work under the worst-case scenario? Our answer has come this year, and although it has worked well in the early stages of this exceptional drought, the system is nonetheless inadequate under the current conditions.

The drought has also caused secondary effects, which we are attempting to address. Chief among these is, as the land dries out and the vegetation wilts and shrivels, wildlife is increasing drawn to the moist ground and green plants where we are still cultivating. To protect the soil moisture, we rely heavily on mulch. This oasis-like condition we have created has not gone unnoticed. Survival, ours included, is the foremost priority of all the living creatures using this local bioregion. Skunks, possums, raccoons, rats, and deer raid the gardens nightly. Fences, traps and selective killing are not entirely sufficient to protect the oasis from desperate, hungry animals.

For the second time in my life, drought has shown me how vulnerable even a most resourceful and thoughtful farmer really is to local famine. For now we can still find imported food for sale, and we can renew our water supply with a gasoline driven water pump. This is a very tenuous backup plan we are relying on given that oil prices hit $88 a barrel today, and our economy is on the brink of a recession. War with Iran, which the administration seems intent on initiating, could send the whole economy (including our backup plan) into the tank. Never was it a more appropriate time to heed the advice; Teacher-educate yourself!


.Next blog posting -10/24/'07

Posted 10/10/2007 4:22pm by Leaf Myczack.

A young woodworker whom I’ve taken under my mentoring wing recently asked me, “What positive benefits can you get from a drought?” That was a good question as we stood and gazed out over our drought stricken farm with the brown grasses, yellowed leafed trees, and puddle sized irrigation ponds. Having resisted the tendency of my melancholy personality to feel victimized and overwhelmed by the worst drought since the dustbowl days, I actually had an informed answer for him.

A drought is an insidious beast, slowly, almost imperceptibly squeezing the life out of the land. In its early stages it may go unnoticed by all but the most observant. It isn’t dramatic like a flood, hurricane, tornado, or blizzard, where reporters quickly flock to the scene of devastation, set up their cameras and spew hyperbole at the viewing public. In fact, even the weather reporters are usually behind the curve as they inanely chat about the wonderful, rain free weather in the seven-day forecast. By the time the general public is aware that the natural rain cycle has gone awry, the drought is usually quite advanced.

As small scale organic, and mostly unmechanized farmers, we are so intimately linked to the land and its plants that we sensed we were in moisture trouble long before it became news. As the drought intensified, we shifted our attention away from other projects and focused on our water collection system. We upgraded and tweaked our system to where a drop of runoff from any roof surface on the farm is captured in a holding tank (barrel, cistern, or clay lined pond) for future use. We had a good system before this drought, and now we have an excellent system. As the irrigation ponds dropped lower and lower, we followed the pond’s waterline drop with pick and shovel. Every new bit of bottom that was exposed was quickly dug out to make more future storage room. Before the drought, our ponds had some shallow areas where rocks had prevented us from further mechanized digging. However, by using hand methods, we not only eliminated the shallows, but added irregular features as we dug around the embedded rocks. This created better habitat structure while eliminating high evaporation and warm water temperature areas that encourage excessive algae growth. We took the soil and muck excavated from the ponds and used it to further berm the basement of our house, thus making it cooler in summer and warmer in winter.

The drought also gave us a great opportunity to destroy noxious weeds and plants that became established after the land was overgrazed and under cared for by the former occupant. Unable to grow vigorously, they were easily dug out and then destroyed by laying them exposed to the intense sunlight.

The title of this blog explains the activity option available to those who go to sea. We hope the body of this blog informs you the reader of the activity options of those that till the land.

NEWS from the Farm

The latest rain event (a cold frontal system) evaporated as it approached East Tennessee. When the frontal system had passed to the east of us, we had a mere .02 inches in our rain gage. (.01 at the official site at the airport) This morning (10/10) we moved our gasoline powered water pump out of the barn and down to the bankside of the Tennessee River slough that ends 185 feet from our property line. We are filling our main pond at the rate of 1.5 inches per hour. We have two feet and many tens of thousands of gallons of water to go to before it will be full. However, already we are seeing an increase in aquatic activity (dragonflies and damselflies) as the water slowly rises.

~ Leaf

Posted 10/3/2007 10:29pm by Leaf Myczack.

At age 62, I have witnessed a lot of dry, rainfree periods, and even a few droughts that were rather severe. However, this year I learned a new term from the National Weather Service for dry weather. It is called exceptional drought, and this catagory is the next step up from extreme drought. Unfortunately for our farm, we are located in the heart of the exceptional drought area. As if this wasn't bad enough, we also got hit hard by the Easter weekend hard freeze that burned the emergent foliage of our shade and fruit trees to a crisp. For weeks, black leafed trees stood death-like around us. It was an unnerving experience, and the first such experience we had ever witnessed.

The dry weather did not catch us by surprise however. For years we have been observing erratic weather patterns that were become more the norm than the exception. Because we believe that extreme climate change is occurring, we have been taking steps to cushion the effects of extreme weather on our farming operations. This involved the construction of a farm-wide rain water collection system that included the digging of three rainwater storage ponds. Two of those ponds were dug this past March. They were all at full pool after a major rain in early May.

While most of the trees recovered from the hard freeze, the rainfall fell far short of normal. To date we are 13 inches below the normal rainfall amount for the year. In Septemebr, we were fortunate to get brushed by the rain remnants of hurricane Humberto. The two and a half inches we received from that storm refilled our irrigation cisterns, but only slightly raised our pond levels. Long, wide cracks in the ground swallowed up any rainfall that might have created runoff to the ponds.

Our plantings this year have been limited to a few staple crops that could be watered from our cisterns and ponds. Throughout the summer, our planted area grew smaller as we would harvested a crop and not replant. As the soil dried out, it would require more water to maintain growth in the remaining plants being tended. We were constantly revising our watering potential and reserves downward, and shrinking the cultivated footprint of our farm. We are now down to a few small plots.

This drought situation could have been the death knell for our fledgling farm, not just because of the financial impact of having few products to sell, but also due to the stress of being swept along by events beyond our ability to alter. As the drought tightened its' death grip this summer, our family made a firm commitment to be consciously kind to one another, and to not let our frustration and feelings of helplessness undermine our strong family vision.

We are constantly being challenged to stay flexible and available to new ideas and information. This in order to shift and adapt tactics and strategies so as to help our farm survive and emerge downstream, biologically intact. It would appear that the days of old school conventional farming techniques yielding predictable and successful results seems to have slipped away.