A place where one woman has gathered resources and information to help her family survive in an uncertain future; together with occasional personal musings.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Archdruid Report 12/16/10


Two Lessons in Practical Ecology

These days, the news coming out of America’s political and financial centers evokes the same sort of horrified fascination that draws onlookers to the scene of any other catastrophe. Investors spooked by the Fed’s willingness to pay for deficit spending by printing money are backing away from US debt, and the interest the US government has to pay on its bonds has accordingly gone up, gaining a full percentage point in the last month and putting pressure on other interest rates across the board.

In the teeth of this stinging vote of no confidence from the bond market, the Obama administration and its Republican allies in Congress – chew on that concept for a moment – are pushing through another round of spending increases and tax cuts that the government doesn’t have the money to pay for. The ratings agency Moody’s has warned that if the current spending bill is passed, it will have to consider downgrading the once-sacrosanct AAA rating on US government debt. Exactly how the endgame is going to be played is still anybody’s guess – runaway stagflation, a hyperinflationary currency collapse, and a flat-out default by the US government on its gargantuan public debt are all possible – but there’s no way that it’s going to end well.

All this makes the topic of this week’s post particularly timely. Across the industrial world, people have come to assume that they ought to be able to buy ripe strawberries in December and fresh oysters in May, and more generally food in vast quantity and variety on demand, irrespective of season. That assumption relies on using wildly extravagant amounts of energy to ship and process foodstuffs, and that by itself renders the eating habits of the recent past an arrangement without a future, but these same habits also depend on a baroque global financial system founded on the US dollar. As that comes unraveled, an old necessity most of our grandmothers grew up with – home processing and storage of seasonal foods – will become necessary once again, at least for those who don’t find scurvy and other dietary deficiency diseases to their taste.

Food storage is a subject that calls up strong and often contradictory emotions, and sometimes inspires actions that don’t necessarily make much sense. Rumors are flying just now in some corners of the peak oil community, for example, that the sales freeze-dried food has spiked so sharply in recent months that suppliers are unable to keep up with the demand. This may well be true, but if so, it shows a certain lack of common sense; unless you plan on living out of a backpack during a financial crash – and this is arguably not a good idea – there are many better and cheaper ways to make sure you have some food put by to cope with breaks in the supply chain.

Nor is food storage really about stashing food in a cellar in order to ride out a crisis. A century ago, nearly everybody in America processed food at home for storage if they could possibly do so, for reasons much more down to earth than expectations of catastrophe. They did it primarily because the foods available year round in a temperate climate typically don’t provide a balanced diet, much less an inviting one. Absent the energy and financial systems that make it look reasonable to fly fresh food from around the world to stock supermarkets in the United States throughout the year, good sources of vitamin C are mostly to be had in the summer and fall, meat tends to show up in a lump at slaughtering time in October and November, and so on; if you want these things the rest of the year, and you don’t have a functioning industrial economy to take care of that matter for you, you learn how to prepare foods for storage in season, and keep them safely stored until wanted later on.

The ways that this can be done, interestingly enough, make a very good lesson in practical ecology. To keep food in edible condition, you have to engage in what ecologists call competitive exclusion – that is, you have to prevent other living things from eating it before you do.Your main competitors are bacteria and other microorganisms, and you exclude them by changing the habitat provided by the food until it no longer provides the competition with the resources it needs to survive.

You can do that by changing just about every ecological variable you can think of. You can make food too cold for bacteria to survive; that’s freezing. You can make food too hot, and keep it enclosed in a container that won’t let the bacteria back in when the food cools down; that’s canning. You can make food too dry; that’s drying. You can change the chemical balance of food to make it indigestible to bacteria, but not to you; that’s salting, brining, smoking, corning, and pickling, among other things. You can get sneaky and keep food alive, so that its own immune system will prevent bacteria from getting a foothold; that’s root cellaring, and a variety of other tricks commonly used with cold-hardy vegetables. Alternatively, you can get even sneakier and beat the bacteria to the punch by deliberately infecting food with a microorganism of your choice, which will crowd out other microbes and change the food in ways that will leave it in edible condition for you; that’s fermentation.

Which of these is the best option? Wrong question. Depending on where you are, what foodstuffs and other resources you have to hand, and how long you expect it to take for various parts of the current order of things to come unraveled, almost any mix of options might be a good choice. It will almost certainly have to be a mix, since no one preservation method works best for everything, and in many cases there’s one or another method that’s the best or only option.

It’s also wise to have a mix, because methods of preserving food differ among themselves in another way: some are much more functional in a time of energy shortages than others. If your food storage plans revolve around having a working freezer, you had better hope that the electricity remains on in the area where you live, or you need to make sure you have a backup that will function over the long term – and no, a diesel generator in the basement and a tank of fuel doesn’t count, not after the first few weeks of fuel shortage. That doesn’t mean that blanching and freezing some of your homegrown garden produce is a bad idea; it means you need to have something in place to power the freezer well before the brownouts start to happen, or you need to be prepared to shift to another preservation method in a hurry, or both.

This points to a second good lesson in practical ecology that can be learned from food storage, though this one’s a lesson in practicalhuman ecology. Technologies – all technologies, everywhere – vary in their dependence on larger systems. When comparing two technologies that do the same thing, the impact of their relative dependence on different systems needs to be included in the comparison; if technology A and B both provide a given service, and technology A is cheaper, easier, and more effective than technology B under ordinary conditions, technology B can still be the wiser choice if technology A is wholly dependent on an unstable system while technology B lacks that vulnerability.

This much should be obvious, though all too often it isn’t. It’s embarrassing, in point of fact, to see how often a brittle, complex and vulnerable technology dependent on highly questionable systems is touted as “more efficient” than some simpler, more reliable and more independent equivalent, simply because the former works somewhat better on those occasions when it can be made to work at all. Just as you don’t actually know how to use a tool until you can instantly name three ways to misuse it and three things it can’t do at all, it’s a waste of time and resources to buy into any technology unless you have a pretty good idea in advance of its vulnerabilities and the ways it tends to fail.

This sort of thinking can and should be applied throughout the green wizardry we’ve been discussing in the last five months or so of posts, but food storage is a very good place to start. Let’s say you’ve decided to blanch and freeze some of the vegetables from your backyard garden. That can be a good choice, at least if you can expect your electricity supply to remain stable for the next year or two; still, you owe it to yourself and your freezer bags of Romano beans to take a moment to work out the downside. What are the main sources of electricity in your service area, and how will they be affected by likely changes in fossil fuel prices over the next couple of years? How does electricity get to you from the grid, and is that connection vulnerable?When does your service area tend to suffer blackouts, and how long do they tend to last? Are there ways you can keep a freezer powered for the duration of a longer than average blackout? Does one of those ways seem like a sensible investment, or would it be smarter to shift to a less vulnerable method of storage?

More complexities slip in when you remember that there’s often more than one way to power the same process. You can dry food, for example, in an electric dehydrator, but in any climate that isn’t too humid, you can also dry food in a solar dehydrator. This is basically a black box with small holes in the top and bottom, covered with fine mesh to keep out insects, and trays of screen-door screening stretched on wooden frames inside, with the food spaced on the trays to allow air circulation. The sun heats the box, air flows in through the bottom and carries moisture away through the top, and the food dries with no other source of power. When you’ve got adequate and reliable electricity, an electric dehydrator is more convenient and reliable; when you have reason to think that electricity will be expensive, intermittent, or not available at all, the solar dehydrator is usually the better plan.

In many cases like this last, though, the best option of all is to have and use both – the more convenient and reliable technology while you’re still on the learning curve and the larger system that supports it is still there; the more resilient and independent system in a small way all along, so that you learn its quirks and can shift over to it full time once the more complex technology becomes nonfunctional. In the same way, it can make a good deal of sense to blanch and freeze garden produce while you’re still learning your way around using home-dried foods, or to can your pickles in a hot water bath while you’re still getting the knack of older pickling methods that don’t require airtight containers.

In a time of faltering energy supplies – not to mention the spectacular self-destruction of national finances – this sort of thinking can be applied very broadly indeed. The strategy of a staged disconnection from failing technologies, made on the basis of local conditions and personal, family, and community needs, offers a pragmatic alternative to the forced choice between total dependence on a crumbling industrial system, on the one hand, or the usually unreachable ideal of complete personal or community independence on the other. The backyard-garden methods discussed in earlier posts are founded on that strategy, and most of the energy conservation and homescale renewable energy production methods that will be central to the first few months’ worth of posts next year rely on it as well.

There’s a reason for this ubiquity: the strategy of staged disconnection is the constructive alternative to catabolic collapse. A society in catabolic collapse, running short of necessary resources, cannibalizes its own productive assets to replace resource flows, and ends up consuming itself. The strategy of staged disconnection is not catabolic but metabolic; it taps into existing resource flows before shortages become severe, and uses them to bridge the gap between existing systems that are likely to fail and enduring systems that have not yet been built. At the same time, if it’s done right, it doesn’t draw heavily enough on existing systems to cause them to fail before they have to.

That’s what could have happened if the industrial world had pursued the promising initiatives of the 1970s, instead of taking a thirty-year vacation from reality that cost us the chance of a smooth transition to a sustainable future. On the collective scale, that’s water under the bridge at this point, but it can still be done on the smaller scale of individuals, families, and communities.


Food preservation and storage are among the few subsets of green wizardry where old information can land you in a world of hurt. If you intend to take up canning, in particular, you need up-to-date information; for example, the relative proportions of sugar and acid in today’s tomato varieties, as compared to those fifty years ago, are so different that recipes that were safe then can land you with botulism poisoning, i.e., quite possibly dead, if you use them today.Your county extension service can point you toward accurate information on safe canning, and so can the current edition of the BallBlue Book.

Not all methods of food preservation are as volatile as canning.Though it’s always wise to check for updated information, some of the classics are still well worth reading. My library includes Mike and Nancy Bubel’s Root Cellaring, Grace Firth’s Stillroom Cookery, Phyllis Hobson’s Making and Using Dried Foods, Carol Hupping’s Stocking Up III, and Stanley Schuler and Elizabeth Meriwether Schuler’s Preserving the Fruits of the Earth.

Friday, November 12, 2010

awesome hand built house

Cash, that most basic element of our economy, can be in abysmally short supply for new young families scraping by on marginal jobs.

Sustainable housebuilding may not be foremost in their minds.

But one young couple in Wales managing on an annual income of just $10,000 went ahead and built their own cheap home anyway, sustainably, mostly out of materials from “a rubbish pile somewhere.”

They had wanted to spend as much time as possible at home while their two children were young. Their nearby woodlands ecological management work would have been impractical if they were paying a mortgage.

So they enlisted some help from family, and sometimes just from people passing by, and from any of their friends who stopped by to visit:

The result was their very low impact homemade house. A hand built unique setting for a charmed life for their two young toddlers. I’ll bet they’ll remember this first home for the rest of their lives.

Four months of hard work and they were all 4 moved in and cozy.

Total expenditure? $5,000. Tools? A chisel, a chainsaw and a hammer. Building expertise? Simon Dale says:

“My experience is only having a go at one similar house 2yrs before and a bit of mucking around in-between. This kind of building is accessible to anyone. My main relevant skills were being able bodied, having self belief and perseverance and a mate or two to give a lift now and again.”

Sustainable design and construction:

  1. Dug into hillside for low visual impact and shelter
  2. Stone and mud from diggings used for retaining walls, foundations etc.
  3. Frame constructed of fallen trees from surrounding woodland
  4. Reciprocal roof rafters are structurally very easy to do
  5. Straw bales in floor, walls and roof for super-insulation and easy building
  6. Plastic sheet and mud/turf roof for low impact and ease
  7. Lime plaster on walls is breathable and low energy to manufacture compared to cement
  8. Reclaimed (scrap) wood for floors and fittings
  9. Other items were reclaimed from “a rubbish pile somewhere”: windows, wiring, plumbing

(Maybe there should be a new LEED rating just for building so inexpensively: Sustainable Financing. This is one mortgage bill that’s not going to be haunting their mum and dad for years.) Inside there’s a wood-burner for heating – waste wood in the old-growth forest is locally plentiful.To get the most of the heat, the flue goes through a big stone/plaster lump to retain and slowly releases the warmth.

There are just a couple of solar panels – just enough for for lighting, music and computing. It’s a simple life. A skylight in the roof lets in enough natural feeling light, and water is fed by gravity downhill from a nearby spring. There’s a compost toilet. Roof water collects in a pond for gardening

Says Simon: “Our house is unusual but the aesthetic appeals to lots of people and perhaps touches something innate in us that evolved in forests.

Want to try making one too? Simon will show you how or check out othergreen homes for more ideas and inspiration like this post on building a cob house.

Images: www.SimonDale.net

Monday, November 8, 2010

Manure Management for Fun and Profit

I'll get down to it straight away, manure management is pretty important on a farm, whether it is a small holding or a mega farm. Since I know nothing about mega-farms, I’ll just talk about small farms and maybe even urban farms where livestock are kept. From most places I visit either in person or via blogs and websites, I get the impression that manure is, as we’ve long been told, a liability or something to be rid of. It’s probably one of the most wasted resources we have today, but no one pays any attention, either being stuck on free-range as the end-all for keeping animals or that poop is icky.

There’s tons of information out there on how to capture all the nutrients that come your way on the farmstead by the way of manure and urine, even some on this here blog. But one thing I see quite often overlooked in the way of farm planning is that most of the livestock is running willy-nilly together on even “ecological” farms. Most cite that nature has all the animals mixed together. So what’s the big deal? Well, the big deal is that there isn’t too much nature abounding on most small farms or in urban yards – since farmers and fences began confining animals, things are not the same. It’s natural, but it’s not nature… .

There is so much E-I-E-I-O in all of our childhoods that we think nothing of having all our livestock together or free-ranging all over the place. There is an order to things, and all manure is not created equal in terms of who benefits from ingesting it and who doesn’t. For instance, there are many enzymes in cow or ruminant manure that are good for poultry and pigs. But despite modern practices of feeding chicken manure to feedlot cattle, it isn’t good for cows to eat chicken manure even when it has been cooked into a Swanson dinner for them. Yuck! Chickens roosting on hay and in feeders is not good for cows. No manure is actually beneficial for a cow to ingest, even cow manure. It’s easy to getlazy complacent when we have wormers and antibiotics at our disposal to make up for our bad habits. But just a little change of management on our end will allow our animals to be healthy without pharmaceuticals. Imagine that. Livestock that we eat not getting sick before we eat them. It doesn’t get much more nutrient dense than that. Don’t get the wrong idea, pharmaceuticals have their place, but if we use them too much, we take the risk that when we really need drugs, they will not be as effective because we have relied on them too much in our management plans.

Still confused about who follows who and why manure isn’t all the same? Think about your freezer that you have so carefully stocked all season long. Hopefully you read a post I wrote in 2008 about the order of things in your freezer. If you didn’t, here is a brief overview that is a perfect analogy of the order of manure and the order of freezer filling. I freeze berries, vegetables, beef, pork and chicken in my freezers. If the freezer thawed out for some untold reason, I would really be upset if I got berry juice on my steak packages, but I could rinse the purple off and cook the meat without a second thought. However, if my meat packages leaked on my berry packages and blood got mixed in with my berry juice, I would throw away the berries and not eat them. Same with the meat, I don’t mind eating raw beef that I raised, but I would never eat raw pork or chicken that I raised, so if the chicken thawed and blood leaked onto my beef packages, I would be leery of the beef and make sure it always got cooked. I would not be so worried if beef blood got on my chicken or pork. So you see we can’t just lump all manures and all foods together in their own groups, but while they are all manures and foods, they should not be treated the same. Many disorders in cattle are caused by manures (their own or other species) coming in contact with their feedstuffs, or their housing. These conditions, while common these days, are not the way it has to be. If you’re seeing chronic infections, such as scours, mastitis, coccidiosis, e. coli, salmonella or even parasite infections, look to your manure handling or lack of handling practices. Many times illnesses such as these cause people to draw the conclusion that the manure has to “go away” because it is causing the problem, when really it is the management of the manure RESOURCE that is causing the problem.

Deep bedding – cow feeding shed.

Deep bedding with the proper carbon to nitrogen ratio does not smell and poses no threat to livestock. During the normal winter feeding period, our bedding may be anywhere from 2′ to 4′ deep. Instead of daily cleaning, we do daily bedding. A lot less work, and it ties down the nutrients. For the record, I am against outside sacrifice areas without a deep bedding system in place. Build a shelter and design it for the ease of cleaning with equipment in mind. If you don’t own heavy equipment, you can rent it by the day and make your life easier.

Deep bedding temperature – cow feeding shed.

Deep bedding – laying hens.

Capturing chicken manure is a little easier than with larger livestock. Lightweight and easy to clean by hand, no equipment needed here except a 5 tine pitchfork, wheelbarrow and faithful companion. Most people only think of eggs when they are contemplating chickens; please consider that they can provide you with enough fertilizer for you garden too, but not if they are free ranging all the time. Garden not lush and productive? Confine those chickens a little. Don’t want to confine them? Then don’t complain about environmental problems when you most likely are bringing in compost or fertilizers for your garden that comes from somewhere else when you have the means at your pitchfork tips to make a difference.

High Density – Short Duration Grazing.

During the grazing season, we make the cows deposit their manure where we want it. In the pasture. Not in the woods, or in the same place all the time.

If you’re just in the planning stages for adding livestock or if you are having mysterious illnesses crop up now and then, maybe some of these tips will help.

♣ Design mangers and feeders for eating, not sleeping. Meaning cattle should have only head access to their feed manger. No calves, goats, sheep, chickens, etc., should be able to sleep or walk on the feed area. It works the other way too – don’t let cattle have access to low sheep or goat feeders either. And if you’re feeding on the ground, pick a clean area each day. Every day you throw hay or grain out in the same old place because it is convenient, you’re risking the chance that your stock may ingest some manure with their feed, and then pretty soon you are relying on medications to pull you back out of the abyss.

♣ Don’t allow poultry to roost in the haystack – while a little bit of chicken or turkey manure may not hurt, clean feed is important; it was clean when you put it in the barn, keep it that way.

♣ Water systems are important too – with animals all confined Old MacDonald-style, you have to have low water troughs for the shorter animals and this makes it much easier for manure from taller animals to make its way into the water trough. Not good. Put your mind to work, and think of clean ways to deliver water to your stock. And as a side note, a hose hooked to a water trough float is a quick way to contaminate your house water supply. Install a backflow device to alleviate that.

♣ Have separate tools for cleaning and feeding. Pitchforks and shovels should be designated for feedingor cleaning, not both. Besides, a manure fork is near impossible to use to pitch much hay and vice versa for a hay fork in the manure pile. Most people would never dream of using the toilet brush to scrub the kitchen sink, it’s the same in the barn. Right tool for the right job.

♣ The most susceptible to parasites and/or illness are the young stock, make sure they have clean places to be born, and clean places to sleep and you can avoid many problems.

Hopefully, this isn’t too confusing. Manure is the asset that is the most overlooked on farms large and small. The more you have, the better, but in the wrong place it can be a liability and it doesn’t need to be.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


cienceDaily (Oct. 19, 2010) — The United States and many other heavily populated countries face a growing threat of severe and prolonged drought in coming decades, according to a new study by National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) scientist Aiguo Dai. The detailed analysis concludes that warming temperatures associated with climate change will likely create increasingly dry conditions across much of the globe in the next 30 years, possibly reaching a scale in some regions by the end of the century that has rarely, if ever, been observed in modern times.

Using an ensemble of 22 computer climate models and a comprehensive index of drought conditions, as well as analyses of previously published studies, the paper finds most of the Western Hemisphere, along with large parts of Eurasia, Africa, and Australia, may be at threat of extreme drought this century.

In contrast, higher-latitude regions from Alaska to Scandinavia are likely to become more moist.

Dai cautioned that the findings are based on the best current projections of greenhouse gas emissions. What actually happens in coming decades will depend on many factors, including actual future emissions of greenhouse gases as well as natural climate cycles such as El NiƱo.

The new findings appear as part of a longer review article inWiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change. The study was supported by the National Science Foundation, NCAR's sponsor.

"We are facing the possibility of widespread drought in the coming decades, but this has yet to be fully recognized by both the public and the climate change research community," Dai says. "If the projections in this study come even close to being realized, the consequences for society worldwide will be enormous."

While regional climate projections are less certain than those for the globe as a whole, Dai's study indicates that most of the western two-thirds of the United States will be significantly drier by the 2030s. Large parts of the nation may face an increasing risk of extreme drought during the century.

Other countries and continents that could face significant drying include:

  • Much of Latin America, including large sections of Mexico and Brazil
  • Regions bordering the Mediterranean Sea, which could become especially dry
  • Large parts of Southwest Asia
  • Most of Africa and Australia, with particularly dry conditions in regions of Africa
  • Southeast Asia, including parts of China and neighboring countries

The study also finds that drought risk can be expected to decrease this century across much of Northern Europe, Russia, Canada, and Alaska, as well as some areas in the Southern Hemisphere. However, the globe's land areas should be drier overall.

"The increased wetness over the northern, sparsely populated high latitudes can't match the drying over the more densely populated temperate and tropical areas," Dai says.

A climate change expert not associated with the study, Richard Seager of Columbia University's Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, adds:

"As Dai emphasizes here, vast swaths of the subtropics and the midlatitude continents face a future with drier soils and less surface water as a result of reducing rainfall and increasing evaporation driven by a warming atmosphere. The term 'global warming' does not do justice to the climatic changes the world will experience in coming decades. Some of the worst disruptions we face will involve water, not just temperature."

A portrait of worsening drought

Previous climate studies have indicated that global warming will probably alter precipitation patterns as the subtropics expand. The 2007 assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that subtropical areas will likely have precipitation declines, with high-latitude areas getting more precipitation.

In addition, previous studies by Dai have indicated that climate change may already be having a drying effect on parts of the world. In a much-cited 2004 study, he and colleagues found that the percentage of Earth's land area stricken by serious drought more than doubled from the 1970s to the early 2000s. Last year, he headed up a research team that found that some of the world's major rivers are losing water.

In his new study, Dai turned from rain and snow amounts to drought itself, and posed a basic question: how will climate change affect future droughts? If rainfall runs short by a given amount, it may or may not produce drought conditions, depending on how warm it is, how quickly the moisture evaporates, and other factors.

Droughts are complex events that can be associated with significantly reduced precipitation, dry soils that fail to sustain crops, and reduced levels in reservoirs and other bodies of water that can imperil drinking supplies. A common measure called the Palmer Drought Severity Index classifies the strength of a drought by tracking precipitation and evaporation over time and comparing them to the usual variability one would expect at a given location.

Dai turned to results from the 22 computer models used by the IPCC in its 2007 report to gather projections about temperature, precipitation, humidity, wind speed, and Earth's radiative balance, based on current projections of greenhouse gas emissions. He then fed the information into the Palmer model to calculate the PDSI index. A reading of +0.5 to -0.5 on the index indicates normal conditions, while a reading at or below -4 indicates extreme drought. The most index ranges from +10 to -10 for current climate conditions, although readings below -6 are exceedingly rare, even during short periods of time in small areas.

By the 2030s, the results indicated that some regions in the United States and overseas could experience particularly severe conditions, with average decadal readings potentially dropping to -4 to -6 in much of the central and western United States as well as several regions overseas, and -8 or lower in parts of the Mediterranean. By the end of the century, many populated areas, including parts of the United States, could face readings in the range of -8 to -10, and much of the Mediterranean could fall to -15 to -20. Such readings would be almost unprecedented.

Dai cautions that global climate models remain inconsistent in capturing precipitation changes and other atmospheric factors, especially at the regional scale. However, the 2007 IPCC models were in stronger agreement on high- and low-latitude precipitation than those used in previous reports, says Dai.

There are also uncertainties in how well the Palmer index captures the range of conditions that future climate may produce. The index could be overestimating drought intensity in the more extreme cases, says Dai. On the other hand, the index may be underestimating the loss of soil moisture should rain and snow fall in shorter, heavier bursts and run off more quickly. Such precipitation trends have already been diagnosed in the United States and several other areas over recent years, says Dai.

"The fact that the current drought index may not work for the 21st century climate is itself a troubling sign," Dai says.

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